Monday, May 1, 2017

The True Tragedy of Final Fantasy VII

Death is hard to cope with. It's hard when it's someone you idolize from afar but then that's something we're still somewhat disconnected from. But when it's someone close to you? Someone you love deeply, probably more than you ever realized? Yeah, that's going to leave you in a state that is hard to come out of. It's the state I've found myself in since my aunt passed away, which is honestly why my posting new material has been so sporadic.

"Wasn't this supposed to be about a video game?"

Yeah, I know it seems a weird way to start off a discussion about a video game, but there is a point to all of it. As I sat here in my own filth, feeling listless and lost, I started thinking about the pain and loss other people have suffered as a way of putting my own into perspective. This includes fictional depictions of loss, as I am quite the fan of fiction. Ultimately, it led me to talking about this game because I felt like the biggest loss gets overlooked a lot by others. So, let's talk history a bit. Once upon a time I was a teenager who had actually never even played a single RPG in his life.


Which is probably shocking, because I kinda sorta looked like this.
Then the advertising for the game kicked in and it looked amazing. It was this epic looking thing that seemed to call to me. To my recollection, it was actually the first game I saved up for and bought for myself. And it was hard to understand at first but I figured it out. It was like playing a book. I was controlling a character in an unfolding story and it really ruined me as far as gaming goes, as I found myself more interested than ever in games with stories rather than games that seemed to only exist for gameplay bits. It was my gateway to other games I actually love more, but I would never forget the one that got me started.

It was a slippery slope that I am honestly still siding gleefully down like a hyper child.
As a way of getting myself back on the horse, I figured maybe revisiting a classic game of my youth would be a good idea. I mean, I did promise I'd cover more game related content so it's about time I held up on that. And if it helps me cope with my own grief, then it's all the better. Now, when people think of this game and the subject of tragedy, there is a very particular moment they tend to focus on. You have this big cast of characters and one of them is laid low by the villain in a dramatic moment that has lived on in infamy.

Then her body is left in the water by our PTSD suffering hero, because it was easier than digging a hole.
But her death is not the true tragedy of the game's story. Don't get me wrong, it's sad as hell. You've gotten to know her fairly well by this point and her death follows up what seems to be a moment of hope as she's trying to channel positive energy to help everyone. But I honestly think there was a more tragic thing this entire game gave us. What is this tragedy I'm speaking of? Well, there are no shortage of them in the story of Final Fantasy VII, let me tell you. From Aerith's birth parents ultimate sad fates to the deaths of your friendly rebel buddies, it's a game built very much on sad events.

I still get teary eyed over Jessie's parting words. I am a ball of emotions and you just have to accept that.
The real tragedy is one that has actually gotten some follow-up though, many years later. That being the story of Zack Fair. Yeah, I know what you're thinking, we've already had a whole game about him and isn't that enough? No, it's really not, because the game isn't about the tragedy of this game, which is the fallout of his death. Because when someone dies it's not just tragic for the death but for the chain reaction their death causes. And there is a very clear one within the original game too. First, we're going to start off with the obvious one: his death itself.

Emotional devastation in all its blocky polygonal glory.
Now, for those not aware, Zack was a member of SOLDIER, which were basically the most elite members of the Shinra company's armed forces. He was friendly, upbeat, and tried to remain hopeful no matter the situation. Within the original story of this game, you actually do not get to learn much about him until much later in the story. He was close friends with Sephiroth, another member of SOLDIER, and took a young soldier named Cloud under his wing. Then, during what was supposed to be a routine mission, things went sideways and Sephiroth went a bit...nutty.

Which...yeah, that's pretty tragic too. Seeing a friend lose their mind is never fun.
In the aftermath, Zack took a very out-of-it Cloud and escaped from the company they worked for so they could go off and be mercenaries together. Zack remained hopeful to the very end, talking at length about his girlfriend, his life, and what he wanted to do with his young friend. Then Shinra caught up to them and, after a brutal fight, riddled Zack with bullets and left him to bleed out in the rain next to his nearly catatonic friend. It's a sad scene that was actually made much sadder when it got redone in the game Crisis Core, that told Zack's story in depth.

You're welcome.
Which leads me to the second thing tragic about the story of Zack: you're not really playing as Cloud, you're playing as Cloud's idea of Zack. Cloud was, when Zack died, suffering from both physical trauma and emotional trauma that left him in a very malleable and suggestible state. He was losing his sense of identity because he felt he was a weak person unable to protect the people he cared most about. Thus, his fragile mind latched onto what he saw as more ideal. His mind took many of the things that Zack had been telling him over time and made Cloud believe it was his own life and even took some of Zack's personality cues. This is likely a big part of why Aerith found herself drawn to Cloud, as he was essentially a copy of her now dead boyfriend, because it wasn't already sad enough.

On the bright side, I guess they can have tons of ghost sex now though. So...yay?
When I originally played Final Fantasy VII and the revelation of this set in, I was floored. To realize you weren't who you really were throughout the majority of the story was a massive shock for me. But it didn't come out of nowhere either, as there were always hints throughout the story. The voice in Cloud's head, which was actually that of the real Cloud trying to get out, was one of the creepier elements in the game that left me feeling apprehensive about whether it was real or perhaps something trying to get into his head. But the final thing about all of this that hammers home the tragedy for me is one that a lot of people never talk about. And it was a hint early on that things weren't quite right. A lonely old couple in a place called Gongaga Village.

Because completely optional scenes can actually have huge plot significance.
When passing through the village of Gongaga you can run into this old couple who talk about their son they haven't seen in years. He has eyes like Cloud's, because he was a member of SOLDIER. His name was Zack. He had a girlfriend he wrote them about but he hasn't sent word in years. For me, looking back on all of the tragic events that were caused by Zack's senseless death, this one is what really breaks my heart. They do not know what happened to their son. At this point in the story, none of the characters know either. And you can never tell them either. Zack's parents sit there in their small village waiting and hoping that someday he will send word or maybe come home, but we know that he never will. Until they themselves die, they will remain unaware of his passing.

Some people play video games that are fun and cheerful...me, I like to be left sobbing in the corner.
Now, I would like to believe that in the aftermath of the game's story, Cloud did go and tell them about Zack's death. That he died a hero, standing up for what he believed in. He stood by his friends and kept a smile on his face to the very end. We don't get any actual lip service to this having happened, but I really hope it did. Zack's story, even without Crisis Core fleshing it out, has always made me emotional. He gave everything he had and, as we see in other stories, continues to watch over Cloud as a spirit. Aerith's death was extremely sad, but it's yet another part of the tragic chain reaction of her boyfriend's death. Zack's death lead to her death and the many events that followed as a result of Cloud's trauma making himself believe he essentially was Zack.

All he needed was hair extensions and black hair dye.
Now, sure, you might disagree with me on this. Maybe you think Aerith's death is far more tragic. Or maybe you think Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge dying was easily sadder because of how they selflessly sacrificed their lives to fight for what some might see as a hollow cause because they were essentially eco-terrorists. Maybe the death of the people who weren't evacuated in Sector 7 is true tragedy. But for me personally, Zack is the one that tears me down now just as much as it did back then. But then, I must also acknowledge that his death was the catalyst for the group coming together and eventually saving the world. Regardless, it's stories and moments like these that highlight for me why video games are important. Stories like this can reach a broader audience via games, as not everyone wants to read a book or watch a movie. But I guess all of that's more of a rant for another day. Later days, bleeders.

Wait...didn't they make an animated movie related to this game...?

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