Final Fantasy VII and Opening Scene
StoryScan: Critical hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering the original Playstation version of Final Fantasy VII (Square-Enix, 1997), the universally acclaimed role-playing game that spawned multiple remakes and a Compilation series. This essay will cover content up through the end of the game. Players who have not completed the original game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
In 1997, Squaresoft (now known as Square-Enix) released the seventh numbered entry in its flagship role-playing series, Final Fantasy, for the Sony Playstation. With its darker tone and industrial aesthetic, Final Fantasy VII took a gamble by defying the traditional pseudo-medieval setting that defined the genre at the time. The gamble paid off: Final Fantasy VII found overwhelming commercial and critical success,1 redefining what role-playing games could be. Almost twenty-five years later, its legacy continues through a series of spin-off titles, movies, and merchandise, as well as a modern remake for Sony’s current consoles. Its enduring popularity supports the validity of its initial reception, cementing its position as one of the greatest games of all time2.
Final Fantasy VII’s narrative is a complex beast. Thanks in part to a questionable localization,3 FFVII’s plot was difficult to parse, full of intricate twists that fans spent years untangling online. Despite those issues, the story is well-regarded due to its memorable characters, unique setting, and compelling themes. These positive qualities are all on display right from the start of the game in what has become one of the most iconic openings in video game history. While the visual and sound design were top-notch, much of the opening’s success hinges on its successful integration of four key story concepts: character, conflict, setting, and theme.
The Components of a Successful Opening
Stories, in their most basic form, are a series of events driven by characters. As a result, most openings focus on the characters that will drive the events of the plot. While introducing the protagonist(s) isn’t strictly necessary, the more time audiences spend with the character, the more time they have to understand them. Screenwriter Blake Snyder elaborates on the value of introducing the protagonist in the opening, saying: “The [opening] is also where we start to plant every character tic, exhibit every behavior that needs to be addressed later on, and show how and why the hero will need to change in order to win.4” In other words, the introduction is the best time to show the protagonist’s flaws because addressing those flaws should be a significant part of the character’s arc. As an added bonus, introducing the protagonist in the opening shows the audience what the protagonist’s ‘ordinary world’ is like. “Events can only be understood within the context of the character’s situation at the time the event occurs,” says author James Frey, “therefore it’s important to the reader to know the status quo situation, which is the state of things at a particular time.“5 By introducing the protagonist in the opening, writers can develop their status quo, which will make the events that follow all the more meaningful.
Final Fantasy VII introduces its protagonist, the mercenary Cloud Strife, alongside his first party member, Barrett Wallace. When the story begins, Cloud is established as a brusque, indifferent character who only cares about getting paid. His current employer, Barrett, is set up to be his exact opposite. Barret is outspoken, passionate, and cares deeply about protecting the environment. Cloud’s indifference sits in stark contrast to Barrett’s passion, and the clash of egos that results from their different outlooks adds depth to both of their characters. Players quickly learn that even though Cloud claims not to care about the planet, he has a fractious relationship with Shinra, the industrial conglomerate that presents the biggest threat to the ecosystem. Meanwhile, Barrett’s seemingly benevolent goals have a darker side, as he’s willing to use violence to achieve them. These early signs of inner conflict establish an emotional status quo for both characters, which makes it more meaningful to the player when the status quo changes.
Characters are not the only elements of story that have a status quo. A story’s setting—its time and place—can change just as much as its characters, which is why it’s imperative to establish the setting’s ‘normal’ state. Screenwriter Blake Snyder expands on this concept, saying: “The [opening] and the rest of Act One is the movie’s thesis; it’s where we see the world as it is before the adventure starts. It is a full-fledged documentation of the hero’s world labeled “before.6” While every story’s world is different, they all share common features that audiences can use to understand them. Components like geography, government, technology, culture, and climate all play a part in enriching the fictional world, along with the audience’s understanding of it. However, introducing every element at once is ill-advised as the audience can only absorb so much information at once. Writers who want to integrate components of setting in their openings should figure out which components are essential and feature them upfront, knowing there will be time for more development down the line.
Final Fantasy VII integrates several setting components into its opening, including geography, technology, and climate. The opening cinematic, in which the camera pans out to reveal the entire city of Midgar, gives players a bird’s-eye view of the dark, circular hub where the characters live and work. This high angle also provides a glimpse of the rail system, which offers insight into how people get from place to place while simultaneously showing the current level of technology. The city’s technological advances tie into the city’s climate, as well, as the same corporation that controls the city is in the process of stripping away the planet’s natural resources. Although these resources power the city’s electrical grid, they are both dangerous and finite, and continued acquisition could spell disaster for Midgar and beyond. These setting details form the groundwork for the characters’ actions, along with the themes that grow from them.
Themes are the questions that a story asks of its audience, as well as the questions characters ask of themselves. To integrate themes effectively, writers should find a way to work them into their openings. According to author K.M. Weiland, “The beginning and the ending are two halves of the same whole…The beginning asks a question, and the ending answers it.”7 Regardless of the questions the story asks, asking them at the start gives the audience time to draw their own conclusions, so they’ll be invested when the characters are forced to ask those questions of themselves. When they finally arrive at their answers, the audience will be right there with them because they’ve gone through their own version of the process, even if it’s on a subconscious level.
Final Fantasy VII has several recurring themes in its thirty-hour story,8 but the theme of man’s role in protecting the environment takes center stage in the opening. If the question is ‘what role should man take in defend the planet?’ then Cloud and Barret’s separate viewpoints are different answers to the question. While Cloud believes he has no duty to protect the environment, Barrett believes environmental protection is paramount, to the point that the planet takes priority over the lives of those who would threaten it. As the story continues, both beliefs are challenged, and both characters must evolve to achieve their goals. If those key questions had not appeared in the opening, the developers would have had less time to show how the character’s answers change, and their emotional arcs would have carried less weight.
The intersection of character, setting, and theme creates the perfect breeding ground for conflict. In the words of K.M. Weiland, “Action (aka conflict) and suspense are the heart of any story and are essential factors in a successful beginning.”9 There are multiple types of conflict, however, and a single story may integrate several, so it’s important to know which to implement at the start. While the main plot conflict is the obvious choice, introducing it too soon limits how much the audience learns about the status quo, also known as the ordinary word. To keep audiences engaged while developing the ordinary world, writers often choose to introduce either the protagonist’s inner conflict (their want vs. their need) or a minor conflict that ties into the larger plot or the themes. Interpersonal conflicts are a great option here, as they create narrative tension while developing character. Conflicts tied to the setting are also useful tools, as they help develop the world. Whatever type of conflicts writers introduce upfront, they’re most effective when they teach the audience valuable information about the other elements of the story. If these elements are missing, audiences will wonder why the conflict was there at all, and they’ll feel their time has been wasted.
Final Fantasy VII’s opening contains small-scale conflicts that integrate character, setting, and theme, while also hinting at the central conflict. The primary character conflict is between Cloud and Barrett, whose conflicting ideals cause them to butt heads as they work together to blow up a Shinra facility. Not only does the tension between them keep things interesting, but it also creates an opportunity to pull in the setting and theme. Since Shinra is a threat to the environment, it’s only natural to show how the company has impacted the surrounding city. Likewise, the plan to blow up the facility integrates the thematic question of how far people should be willing to go to protect the planet. While the bombing mission may be simple for Cloud—get in, get out, get paid—it’s a complex, conflict-rich scene that integrates all the essential elements of an unforgettable opening.
By combining character, setting, theme, and conflict, Squaresoft created a game opening that fans still recall fondly after decades. Writers who wish to create engaging, dynamic introductions should consider the role each of those components plays in their own stories and then introduce each of the most critical elements in the opening scenes. When woven together, those elements can create a compelling opening that audiences will remember long after they’ve finished the story.
1 “Final Fantasy VII: Reception.” Wikipedia, 2021.
3 Fenlon, Wesley. “The Rise of Squaresoft Localization: How Richard Honeywood helped the house of Final Fantasy go from incoherent to incomparable.” 1UP, 2011.
4 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 75). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
5 Frey, James N.. How to Write a Damn Good Novel . St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
6 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 76). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
7 Weiland, K.M.. Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 3) (p. 30). PenForASword Publishing. Kindle Edition.
8 “Final Fantasy VII.” How Long to Beat, 2021.
9Weiland, K.M.. Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 3) (p. 24). PenForASword Publishing. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage: Lacry. Final Fantasy 7 Full Walkthrough Gameplay – No Commentary. YouTube, 2021.