In which I try not to title this article ‘More than a Feeling’

In which I try not to title this article More than a Feeling

[This piece was first published exclusively to patrons on 28th February 2015. If you like what you see and wish to support my writing while gaining access to patron-exclusive articles (one per month) and artwork, zoom on over to Patreon and sign up as a patron.]

There are two things I don’t mention very often, you may have noticed, the first of which is how I go about finding games worth discussing. It is an exhausting, scary universe, I don’t deny, and trawling through the starlit cosmos of cold, lifeless duds can be a soul-sapping endeavour if the proper precautions are not taken. Play discriminately. Don’t be afraid to follow a crowd, and then, don’t be afraid to shirk it. Know your own tastes but keep an open mind.

Once I’ve found a game that grabs me, I ask myself what’s valuable about it. A deceptively simple question—it’s worth noting, however, that it’s not prescriptive. I don’t need to talk about what the game does, exactly. I don’t need to talk about my childhood, or what I had for dinner over the Christmas. I can if I want, but it’s not a requisite, is the point.

It was on this basis I found Roguelight. Browsing Gamejolt’s desperately categorized library of Newly Added and/or Featured games, this one stood out impressively on the twofold basis of its title being a pun (like ‘roguelite’, ha ha) and its artwork being glorious.

Game Feel and Roguelight

You play her, and you do what she’s doing, which is nocking arrows and treading darkness. It is, as you can guess, of the genre known as roguelite or roguelike or roguelike-like depending on how pedantic you want to be. I have briefly researched the matter and decided I don’t quite care, so: it is a game where you jump around dungeons and kill baddies.

What distinguishes it from its likes is the mingling of offensive and defensive techniques through its use of lighting. Your arrows are both the main light source in the pitch-black dungeons and your sole means of combat, gliding you into an affectionately streamlined game of resource management of health, arrows, level knowledge and visibility. Eventually you run out of arrows and wander blindly through spike pits and ghoulies, promptly die, shop for upgrades, and respawn at the beginning. It is enjoyable to play and that is that.

Which brings me to the other thing I rarely mention: the amorphous and self-explanatory concept of ‘game-feel’. I say self-explanatory but honestly, this term begs for an explanation-no, a justification for its existence. ‘Game-feel’ has the unfortunate fate of being irredeemably wanky-sounding, leading many writers and designers to empty their pockets in pursuit of a suitable alternative. ‘Kinaesthetics’ is often the agreed-upon result, although how that solves the issue of a) clarifying the idea or b) making anyone look less like a shower of bastards is beyond me. Personally, kinaesthetics in relation to videogames seems to speak of the sensation of pushing a button with one’s thumb, which is decidedly not what most people gun for in using it. Instead, what is meant by both ‘kinaesthetics’ and ‘game-feel’ is this: the feeling of a game. It is about as sensible as using ‘food-taste’ to describe the taste of food. Nothing is lost by shortening it to feel.

So, I seldom talk about the feel of a game, largely because such a thing tends to be difficult to talk about despite how crucial it can be to the play experience. Or at least, while we can use gorgeous flowing prose to suggest the fluid feeling of moving through whatever game’s thingamabob, analytical approaches hit a wall when it comes to adapting the same into more technical, drier formats. How a game feels is cursed to lend itself better to demonstration than description.

This was the tact of Jan Willem Nijman of Vlambeer when asked to deliver a talk on ‘game-feel’ (a word he hates, too, and so substituted in ‘screenshake’). In his illustration, Nijman started with the bones of an action game and added decorative elements until it felt sufficiently bombastic—bigger bullets, deeper sound effects, camera recoil—some of which, but not all, invigorated the basic original mechanical aspects by tweaking them to reflect his aesthetic. Despite how Vlambeer is famous for games that are pleasing to play on a base level, Nijman admits he has difficulty articulating what makes a game feel appealing and instead works on intuition.

Fun fact: my own experience of Vlambeer’s shoot-em-up Luftrausers is as follows. First I gorged, and then it repulsed me. I walked away hollow despite the inarguable swish-ness of flying its war-machines. I thought, and I still think, it loved nothing more than the smooth sensation in the instant of play and its vapidity filled me with an emptiness lasting long after that time had passed. Unlike Roguelight something about it just didn’t stick—they’re not the same type of game, I know, but lookit, if the feel of a game is all it takes to make it pleasant, rausing above the lufts shouldn’t now revolt me.

Linssen’s back-catalogue shows he’s an ear for twists on an old formula. Birdsong is a metroidvania-style dungeon-crawler of exploration and backtracking, but sidesteps the need for level memorization by sticking a fisheye lens on the camera to allow the whole map to be shown at all times. It takes a minute but once the concept clicks and you learn how to interpret and benefit from the perspective, it’s a weird and wonderful feeling.

Game Feel and Birdsong

Elsewhere, The Sun and Moon is a traditional platformer—jump; collect the good things; avoid the bad things—whose gimmick is in turning the negative space of terrain into positive space through which players can swim. Javel-ein is an action-platformer restricting you to only one weapon, a javelin to be recovered each time after lobbing it away. Haemo has you painting out the borders of the level by bleeding on them. It’s needlessly frustrating, not one of his strongest games.

For most of the bunch it’s the combination of his little novelties together with the veneer of polish you get from feeling swish to play. His characters move just right, when you press whatever button they flow nicely to where you want them to be. The Sun and Moon is good for this, since moving through terrain feels substantially different to moving through thin air. Each puzzle gives you a twinkle of mastery as you gradually learn to think of it in terms of gravity and buoyancy rather than positive and negative spaces.

And this is why Roguelight is so compelling, why most of Linssen’s games are really enjoyable and clever even for me, who finds jumping to be one of the more stressful modes of videogame transport. Like Vlambeer he taps into some of the more generic types of videogames and morphs their basic mechanics into something enjoyable to play on a surface level. But unlike Vlambeer he carries in his aesthetic the ambition to toy with conventional forms, so welcomes the feel of a game as one of its dramatic components. Lightness and darkness in Roguelight becomes its central tenet rather just a condition of spelunking, distinguishing light and dark as tolerances and affordances. Although we may become blind we’re not necessarily powerless.

Two Minute Game Crit – Drama and Composition

This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.


Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit and I am Stephen Beirne.

Final Fantasy VII was a masterclass in storytelling. We’ve no shortage of dramatic, epic, expensive games these days, so the fact that a game might have Themes isn’t so unusual now as it was in 1997.

But what makes Final Fantasy VII so impressive, even by today’s standards, is how it related the drama through its broader composition, such as: its recurring motifs of a combined heaven and earth; the use of space and geometry to differentiate wealth from poverty; and the precariously attuned relationship of nature and technology.

One of my favourite things about it, though, is how it ties in themes of identity and existentialism.

There’s tons of scenes we could use to sample this but the best is probably this one here, during Cloud’s flashback to the Nibelheim Incident. Sephiroth‘s having a crisis of identity, and he locks himself in the library of the Shinra mansion while he researches his origins.

The way this scene is shot tells us that the farther he goes through the corridor, the deeper he delves into his past, and the more it affects his perception of his identity. Even though he’s kept centred on-screen, his stature diminishes, and he’s obscured by all the books piling after him.

When Cloud returns to check on Sephiroth, his whole demeanour has changed. The shot of the library’s corridor is repeated but now with reversed connotations. He strides right up to the camera, and takes a dominant position in the foreground, making good use of the Futch angle. There’s nothing this time to clutter him from view, and his trajectory brings him out from the diminished place of his existential crisis to this point here, large and emboldened.

The symmetry tells us a lot about his dramatic change in character, so this shot serves as a nice reference for when Sephiroth became a villain.

This is also matched in other structural ways on either side of the scene, like changes in his speech patterns and combat behaviour. Whereas before he used to revive people, after leaving the Shinra mansion…


There’s no doubt he’s a villain at this point.

So the next time you come across a story-focused game, have a think about its composition and how it reflects its drama.

Kanoguti’s Walking Mesmerize

Kanoguti's Walking Mesmerize

Words and artwork by Stephen Beirne. This piece is community funded. If you enjoyed this article, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

Kanoguti’s Walking is the quintessential walking simulator—sorry, phantom ride. The core conceit is you must oblige yourself to move through the length of a straight, linear corridor in search of meaning, granted through a number of less tangible avenues than is usual for a medium predicated on make-believe.

To this end, Walking slightly resembles titles like Sophie Houlden’s stripped-down The Linear RPG. It’s similar in that you walk a line in lieu of a corridor but differs by its message being more conspicuous to a wayward player. The Linear RPG flaunts the language of RPGs, but not their mechanics, to elicit what many read as a critique of the genre’s modern degradation. It stays aloof and above its kin while allowing the presence of structural similarities, seeming enough like an RPG to remind us of its generic subject matter without becoming it intricately.

Both videogames engineer their messages through reductionist sentiments; they have the luxury of drawing on oceans of precedent to form the basis of communally available metatextual foundation. While Sophie Houlden uses this embedded self-reflection to perform genre reference and (potential) satire, Kanoguti chooses instead to make the player the burgeoning subject matter.

Walking uses only two buttons in mutual exclusivity: one to move forward, and one to crane your neck around to look behind you. Releasing the latter button turns the camera back to its default direction, so you’ll never be able to spin on your heel and head off right the way you came. This initially jars against what we might expect from this sort of videogame: strict restrictions on our trajectory confine and repel, denying us the core appeal of wandering in Proteus or exploration in Bernband.

As a mechanic ‘looking back’ is a novelty, and as we adjust our mental model to fit these unexpected parameters, a curiosity. Why do I have the ability to look around if my path can’t be altered? Why would I want to re-examine the length of the corridor I’ve only just trod? What is ‘looking back’ for? It seems a thing-in-itself, the option to look back the way we came. Juxtaposed against the conventional ability to look around freely in games far and wide it’s ambiguously suggested as a statement, perhaps on all we take for granted, perhaps on the inexorable march of time.

There are a few motifs shared among Kanoguti’s videogames and software, many of which I can’t link directly but you can find here, that illustrate an interest in patterned structures. Sokoe Nobotte and Repeating Stories cycle us upward in space and forward in time before reversing to their origins in tumultuous climax. Evird3D speeds us down an eternal road to rack up a score; Watching fixes us in place while spying on a man creeping away and crashing towards us. Paradise MV hypnotises us with loops of geometry and music, while Re-SMP invites us to make our own loops.

Some of these thread what could be described as elements of horror to affect a sense of disruption inside their composition. Like Walking, Mortuary recalls more common systems of first-person perspective games while withholding the archetype as a whole: we can look freely at the boxed enclosure of a doll’s face but are unable to move, forcing us to writhe in witness as it melts to nothing. Although our powerlessness is important here, we are not stricken as passive due to all that we lack; rather, the act of looking, and our role as witness, is heightened to superluminal through our own raised self-consciousness.

While this runs counter to much conventional thought on the relationship between player and videogame, I should note that it works for Kanoguti because they swing us between the two states of sublime and superluminal by keying into the therapeutic nature of repetitious behaviour.

In allowing our minds to wander during a routine task, we grow self-suggestive and lull into a daze. Jolting us back into alert with a shock (a jump scare or unexpected twist) provokes us to become hyper self-aware[1]. We blush in realisation at our self-involvement—perception of ourselves as filtered through how we are seen by others. Trapped under another’s gaze, we’re reminded of being fundamentally perceptible creatures.

This is what Walking does extravagantly.

You play, anyway, and soon you grow accustomed to the hallway’s unpredictable and frightening nature. As your feet rhythmically beat out the steady crunch of a gravel path, the two-button layout maybe endears itself. Autonomy falls away behind you. You relinquish the old desire to turn and change directions, slowly mesmerized by the disturbing flow of music and imagery.

Dead in front of you, the flash of a white face stops your tracks. Trick of the mind? The walls themselves flutter through a ménage of now-familiar wallpaper—wisping clouds, human outlines—such that you’d drifted beneath the lip of consciousness. That brief white flick could have been the brow of a cloud, could have been a disappearing texture, could have been, could have been…

You resume on your path, now recalling the other thing allowed of you. A good hard look behind confirms nothing to be seen. Uncertainty in your vision seeds paranoia, turning back to glance across your shoulder every few feet now. The repeated stopping and starting achieves little except to impede progress, so you peter out that behaviour to make good your travel down the corridor. But the seed sits heavy in the pit of your gut, and every couple of minutes you remember to look back the way you came.

A monster is facing you. Impossibly tall, its head brushes the ceiling; its arms gradually end in long, curved claws stretching down below its waist; a small face cracked by a playful smile. It stands still, dormant, patiently watching.

You’re afraid to blink, afraid to move, until you decide, it seems, the monster is content just to survey for now. But still you can’t move because you’re facing the wrong way. As you unfreeze the muscles in your neck, you calm yourself into a course of action. It plays with you; do you play back and test the waters? See how you can affect its presence. See if you can exert some control.

You release the button and slam it again to catch the monster in an act. It’s gone. Nothing there now but the empty space of the corridor and the impenetrable curtain of shadow beyond. But it was there, you know with absolute certainty. You didn’t imagine this one. And it’s still there, inside the gloom. Haunting you. Stalking you. The daydream is shredded. Under its gaze you’re irrevocably changed.



[1] In the language of phenomenology, ‘pre-reflective self-consciousness.’ Calling it by this name is akin to using a ouiji board to summon the ghost of Wank Academia, so I’ve relegated this trivia to a footnote.

Final Fantasy VII: Camera and Composition – Part 3

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition Part 3

[This piece was first published exclusively to patrons at Final Fantasy VII: Camera and Composition – Part 3. What was originally an excerpt of the piece here has been edited to contain the whole text as of 11th February 2015. If you like what you see and wish to support my writing while gaining access to patron-exclusive articles (one per month) and artwork, zoom on over to Patreon and sign up as a patron.]

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

All throughout the story of Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth taunts our hero Cloud over deep-seated uncertainty of his identity. Cloud is a puppet, a military goon, a freelance nobody. He is a lost child, a second-hand personality, a repressed psyche. Although Cloud tries to overcome it, he eventually crumbles under the truth of it all. And then he builds himself back up, by acknowledging these factors of his existence as a part of reality he simply must accept.

But Sephiroth is above this. He considers himself a transcendent being, the only one on the planet of true significance, the only one real. Sephiroth’s bliss is his folly.

In previous articles on Final Fantasy VII’s composition, we examined how its form is dedicated to the task of communicating its many interlocking themes. We saw how visual symmetry can signify the spiritual harmony of a scene’s key inhabitants, and how the past looms large on our heroes’ trials to come. We noticed the subtle ways Cloud’s identity becomes a subject of doubt and distance for us as players. And we met a great big dragon.

Now we’re knee-deep in the Nibelheim Incident. Cloud, Sephiroth, Tifa et al are ready to hike up to the Reactor on the nearby mountaintop, where they hope to discover what has been causing a sudden boom in monster attacks. We’ll find out soon how all these threads are drawn together in beautiful compositional affect. Continue reading

Final Fantasy VII: Camera and Composition – Part 2

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

[This piece was first published exclusively to patrons at Final Fantasy VII: Camera and Composition – Part 2. What was originally an excerpt of the piece here has been edited to contain the whole text as of 5th January 2015. If you like what you see here and wish to support my writing while gaining access to patron-exclusive articles (one per month) and artwork, zoom on over to Patreon and sign up as a patron.]

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

In Part 1 we went over some of the basic ways Final Fantasy VII uses camerawork and scene composition to thread its themes by relying on almost invisible narrative techniques. We talked about how the ramshackle slums are represented compared to Shinra-designated areas to illustrate a gap between the classes of Midgar’s capitalism. In this, we saw how positive, navigable space differs from one to the other in how they ask the player to relate to these areas in the intersection of mechanics and visual composition.

And we touched upon a theory about the use of symmetry as a signifier of existential contentment. We rounded off the piece by suggesting Shinra is commonly represented as existentially harmonious, fitting into its role as an oppressive capitalist organization which currently organizes the whole world according to capitalism and oppressing its people. Its existence suits its essence. Likewise, a clear early location of Aeris’ existential centre is the Sector 5 church, Midgar’s sanctuary for the lifeforce of the planet and the one area that best encapsulates her narrative arc.

Now, we could spend a million words viciously dissecting every single camera angle to enjoy their juicy semantic innards, and all without leaving Midgar. But it’s time to move on just a little bit to look at a particularly exquisite narrative sequence that I’m sure is fondly remembered by all fans everywhere: the flashback to Nibelheim.

And where better to begin this analysis than… back in Midgar.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

Okay, we’re actually on the very outskirts of Midgar. Cloud and company have just escaped the clutches of Shinra and rescued Aeris from her gruesome fate as a lab specimen, during which President Shinra met an untimely end at the hands of one ‘Sephiroth’. Along the way we picked up fan-favourite character Red XIII, so that’s good. We’ve ridden our crazy motorcycle and beaten the armoured tank boss, and now stand on the cusp of the great wide world beyond Midgar’s literal walls.

I quite enjoy this shot because it deviates slightly from what would become a tradition in Final Fantasy games: the beginning of an adventure into unknown territory. Typically you expect such a shot to occur on the brow of a cliff overlooking a beautiful expansive landscape, giving you a glimpse of the journey to come.

But here the party rests with their backs to the city of Midgar and we’re looking towards their faces (well, all except Cloud in this screenshot—he’s player controlled right now). While we can’t see the big open world they’re looking out towards from this angle, we can see them very clearly, which makes it an ideal angle for situating the characters as the focus of the scene and highlighting their past, here represented by an increasingly distant Midgar. Their future is unseen and unknown, whereas the past is accounted for as overcome (or at least escaped) ground. A bit of dramatic irony for returning players, here.

So in the fore- to mid-ground we have an abundance of positive space, for perhaps the first time in a non-Shinra-designated area, breaking off in the distance at Midgar’s looming, unassailable form. Even the colour palette suggests the future as brighter than that capitalist fortress.

As it happens, we actually do get a shot on the brow of a cliff (well, a highway) overlooking a beautiful expansive landscape just after the boss battle.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

It’s actually a wonderful environmental shot in spite of a few odd characteristics: it doesn’t really show us what’s beyond Midgar specifically, since the horizon is obscured by the trio of Midgar scenery, far-off hills and an as-yet young sunrise. Instead we get a general idea of what’s next in the journey, which is to say, not-Midgar. And secondly, although this is the bit where Cloud and Aeris state their intentions for the adventure, they come across on-screen as insignificant.

To be honest I’ve a more lasting memory of the alternative ‘Leaving Midgar’ shot so maybe it’s a personal whim of mine to find more to recommend it.

Anyway, moving on, the player organizes their party and exits through the foreground. If you make a party full of boys, Tifa and Aeris will both comment on your unusual choice before they set off together. Hopefully they’ll find something in common to talk about.

The next area is the world map but it’s compositionally dull so let’s go straight to Kalm.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

Kalm is a nice enough town. It adds a lovely shade of indigo to our encountered palette which is nice on the eyes. The architecture is rather distinctive but since this is a composition analysis I’ll leave it be. It’s somewhat of a well-to-do satellite town of Midgar, having profited off trade from the Mithril Mine further to the south-east as evidenced by through the shops’ inventories and various rare-ish items you can find about the place. And although the people here will never be the sort to join AVALANCHE they’re a hospitable enough bunch.

Anyway, this is the first place outside of Midgar we visit but we can see right away that it’s a townspace by the layout and the distancing and angling of the camera on the scene. The player can enjoy some downtime before meeting up with your party on the second floor of the inn to continue the story.

Aside from the reception area the inn only has one big room, which can’t be convenient if another party of adventurers were to show up. As luck would have it they never do. There are also only three beds but five party members. The game leaves their sleeping arrangement up to our imaginations.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

This is the room where Cloud recounts what canonically will come to be known as the Nibelheim Incident, which he has decided is the best way to tell everyone about his relationship with Sephiroth.

You’ll notice the room is bisected by an awkward tangle of pipes running along the ceiling. It’s a common feature for indoor areas in Kalm, although this room might be especially bad for how they intrude into the scene. The pipes separate the room into two rough portions: the right side, where everyone has gathered to hear Cloud’s story, and the left side, from where Cloud enters the scene. It’s possible that the pipes are a total accident but this could be an attempt to discretely division Cloud from the rest of the cast, perhaps in apprehension for their present expectations of him. What’s a bit of trauma between friends.

I mentioned this in the last post but I’ll repeat it here because it’s a nice bit of choreography: when Cloud begins talking to the group he’s situated centrally on-screen, but as he sets the scene for the flashback he turns around and paces away from the group, stopping here:

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

Now the pipes somewhat obstruct him on-screen, so the distance he has placed between himself and the party is mirrored in our own relationship with him through our diminished visual contact.

We have been given reason to suspect Cloud’s mental state at previous occasions where he has spoken confusedly with an unknown other, usually in times when unconscious or asleep, but this nugget of composition goes quite a way to specifically colour Cloud as an unreliable narrator in the tale to follow and foreshadow the twists in his arc much later.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

The flashback opens in the back of a truck. Cloud, Sephiroth and a couple of Shinra MPs are on a mission to Nibelheim to investigate a series of monster attacks originating from the malfunctioning Mako reactor nearby.

When the scene opens Cloud is right up in our face in the foreground, giving a strong impression of his presence in the scene. One of the first things he does, after talking about the weather, is to turn to the guard on the left to inquire into his health. The nuance here is it turns out later that, in the events as they actually unfolded, the motion sick guard is actually Cloud and the person in Cloud’s shoes is actually someone named Zack. For simplicity’s sake I’m going to call the spiky-haired fellow in the screenshots ‘Cloud-as-Zack’ and the Shinra MP ‘Actual Cloud’ when I need to distinguish between the two.

From the way this scene is shot and choreographed, Cloud-as-Zach carries himself as a midpoint between Actual Cloud and Sephiroth, Cloud’s mentor-cum-nemesis. We generally learn through this flashback that Sephiroth had a huge impact on Cloud growing up, informing his career direction as well as the way Cloud chooses to model his behaviour, lasting even to the present. The Nibelheim Incident will show an overall trend towards distancing between Cloud and Sephiroth, which we would expect given what is to transpire. It’s telling, however, that in recollecting the events Cloud exaggerates his closeness to the villain.

Almost as if the ghost of Sephiroth still has some hold over him, hint hint.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

Anyway, Cloud says he’s never had motion sickness but eagle-eyed players might notice he gets an upset tummy if you play the Speed Square at the Gold Saucer too many times. At various stages Cloud will also sympathise with Yuffie and give her advice on how to handle her motion sickness. What’s interesting to note is how Cloud has removed his susceptibility to motion sickness from his life by believing wholeheartedly the lies he tells himself about his identity. In essence, this scene—and therefore the entire flashback—commences by centring Cloud-as-Zack as the focus of identity, which is facilitated by immediately acknowledging and passing off the discrepancy of Actual Cloud’s motion sickness on a prominent yet ancillary third party. With the contradiction paved over, Cloud’s mind sails on.

Once the introduction and briefing is done, the truck comes to an abrupt stop. The driver spins in his seat to report they’ve rammed into something.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

People don’t normally spin on the spot or stand on the car seat so there’s an unavoidable bit of slapstick humour when he flicks right around like that. Oh Final Fantasy!

Notice the driver’s hesitation in acknowledging his supervisors in the plural. Cloud acts the bigshot veteran when he’s a mercenary in Midgar but this scene reveals how much of a rookie he really was.

Now then. We have ‘something strange’ to deal with.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition


The camera descends from an aerial viewpoint and twirls behind our two party members to frame them against the huge beast. It’s such a splendid shot because it conveys the severity of the foe you’re about to face while both uniting Sephiroth and Cloud as teammates and dividing them in terms of strength. The right side of the screen is weakness and death; the left side is power and life.

The fight lasts less than a minute but it’s packed full with exquisite ludological storytelling so I’ll give a quick summary. It’s all related to composition anyway because I say it is and what I say goes.

  1. The dragon attacks Cloud with low-level magic, but it’s so strong anyway it kills him five times over.
  2. Sephiroth uses high-level magic to completely revive Cloud. You’ve never even seen the materia he’s mastered.
  3. The dragon uses the same low-level magic on Sephiroth. It does zilch.
  4. Sephiroth attacks the dragon normally, dealing damage far beyond anything you’ve yet encountered.
  5. Cloud has the opportunity to attack. He deals a pathetic amount of damage.
  6. The dragon attacks again, either burning Cloud to a cinder or warming Sephiroth gently.
  7. Sephiroth immediately returns the attack and slays it.

I like how Sephiroth goes out of his way to revive Cloud to full health when he really doesn’t need to. It reinforces the idea that, even though Cloud was far outmatched by his mentor, they were still kind of a team and they co-operated within their abilities. It’s also a nice way to humanize Sephiroth a little, since we only have a short space of time when he’s not characterised as the mad monstrous destructive villain. He used to give life.

Once the battle ends, we cut to a Kalm-based Cloud reiterating how wonderful Sephiroth-senpai was. We’re going to see a few of these interruptions to remind the player this is Cloud’s telling of events and everything we see might not be everything that happened. Sometimes the interruptions extend inward into the flashback scenes themselves, with the onscreen character of Cloud physically or verbally[1] reacting to something said by Barrett or Tifa in Kalm. We can gather from this that the reality of Cloud’s story is especially fluid.

You remember what the inn looks like so we’ll scoot along to Nibelheim.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

It’s a grand introductory shot for the town. You can see where the dust and mud becomes paving which gives a sense of the borders between Nibelheim and not-Nibelheim. There’s a crappy looking truck over there, a few barrels and that. White picket fences to suggest homeliness despite the grub.

Although it’s expected to be a Cloud-designated area, Sephiroth is first on scene. He walks into a central position in the mid-ground and turns to look just off the camera. From here he’s framed between the burgeoning pavement and the town’s entrance posts as if standing on the edge of one’s porch. He asks Cloud what it feels like to come home, with the subtext being Sephiroth has never had anywhere to call home and seeks to understand this seemingly basic facet of humanity. What he doesn’t know is he stands in the doorway of his own hometown.

Normally in Final Fantasy VII, a character in dialogue facing towards the camera is staged for dramatic effect, the camera lens representing somewhere inside of themselves to which they speak, similar to a soliloquy in theatre albeit with their musings heard and acknowledged by other characters. So when a character turns to the camera to say something, Something’s Going On.

In this case, Sephiroth is speaking to an off-camera Cloud-as-Zack about his past, foreshadowing the villain’s upcoming identity crisis. It serves to deliver important exposition—this much is clear.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

A funny thing happens next. Sephiroth declares it time to continue and advances into the background, now facing away from the camera. His body language has shifted from open to stand-offish.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

Cloud and company enter into the space behind Sephiroth. Now each character frames Cloud as if to box him in. When a player goes to speak to each character the sensible thing is to take the nearest route, so the player’s accustomed movement naturally limits Cloud to this human enclosure, our behaviour precluding a lot of the positive space in the foreground’s flanks. Although I doubt it came across strongly in anyone’s actual experience of the scene, looking at it now Cloud’s homecoming has a bit of an initially claustrophobic vibe.

Curiously, Cloud-as-Zach doesn’t enter from the right-hand side of the foreground, which is where Sephiroth was directing his enquiries, but from just left of centre. Maybe it means nothing, just a goof. Maybe Sephiroth was addressing the Shinra MP on the right, who might be Actual Cloud.

Maybe the conversation never really existed and what we witnessed was a bit of theatrics on Cloud’s part. We never really know how much of Sephiroth as represented here is accurate to his ‘real’ character and how much is Cloud’s embellishment, and the oddity of Cloud speaking from off-camera could signal him speaking in the first-person, from the inn in Kalm.

To me, because of how Sephiroth is represented on-screen and how Cloud isn’t, and given how it segues from Cloud’s awe at his mentor, the first half of this scene feels like a conversation between the two characters presently unfolding inside the head of our storyteller. As the plot unfolds we learn there actually is a little bit of Sephiroth lurking in Cloud’s consciousness courtesy of Jenova cells, so this is a possibility.

If we adopt this interpretation, that it’s a conversation between Cloud and Sephiroth taking place in our hero’s mind, it shifts the nature of the camera from the second-person of the game as acting narrator to the first-person of Cloud as storyteller. Well, we know the Nibelheim Incident as related here is really just the imaginings of Cloud and that this narrative here told obeys his confused, disjointed recollection, so it’s not a big leap to nudge the camera along this reference. What it means, though, is that as a player we are repeatedly transitioning between first- and second-person perspectives throughout the entire sequence without displacing our sense of identity. Or put another way, the flux of perspective further marries us to Cloud as a character in our identity and worldview.

The beauty of all this is, however this exchange actually went down it remains consistent within the perspective of the game on a whole. Cloud is convinced the events as he tells them were the events that occurred. The distinction between what’s ‘real’, what’s only ‘real to Cloud’ and what’s full blown ‘delusion’ is, right now, immaterial to the player. From our perspective of identifying as Cloud, it all happened as Cloud says it happened: we experience these scenes as Cloud believes it to have gone down. We may suspect Cloud to be an unreliable narrator and to be a bit off in the head, and we may cop to Tifa’s repeated, pointed silence as indicating something amiss with Cloud’s story, but still we are bound to the perspective granted us.

There is a whole big thing here about identity and perspective that we could go even further into but it’s another day’s work.[2] We’ll shelve the topic for now and continue with Nibelheim.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

I don’t know if that’s a translation error or if Cloud is supposed to slip into the present tense. It’s not exactly composition though so…

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

Nibelheim is recognizably A Town. It is shot like most other towns we’ve come across; it’s at a jaunty angle and the buildings and positive space are all knees and elbows so it resembles the poorer slums of Midgar rather than the clean horizontal and vertical lines of Shinra.

Sephiroth says we may visit our family so let’s do that.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

Cloud tries to avoid the topic but Barrett and Aeris are having none of it, so we do get a glimpse into his family life. He describes his mother as “a vibrant woman” but notes…

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

Which is an odd way of saying she burned to death in a horrible fire that engulfed everything he had ever loved.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

As you’ve guessed, Cloud is not very good at dealing with his mother, lovely as she is. The camera here is tonally consistent with that vibe—distant and removed rather than emotionally involved in the landmark homecoming event. Compare that to the first time we enter Aeris’ home and the scene with her mother.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

The camera is closer and the angle is softer. Here the family are placed centrally in the shot, rather than focusing on the distance between them as in Nibelheim.

As it happens, when Cloud stayed the night at Aeris’ house he had a little flashback to Ma Strife clucking over his relationship status. The scene repeats in the Nibelheim Incident sequence but the context is drastically different: whereas before they were private recollections of the comforts of home, now they’re being publicized for a hungry audience while couched within the trauma of the events to follow. So the telling of Cloud’s and his mam’s conversations are here broken into fragments transitioned by a flash of white and the roar of static or wind, upsetting any warmth the event might convey and distorting the memory. A certain amount of that is to disrupt Cloud’s realization of true events—hiding his reveal that he isn’t really in SOLDIER when she comments on his uniform, for example—which is a transition effect repeated elsewhere when irregularities in Cloud’s story risk acknowledgment.

Transition effects are good at establishing a story’s demeanour so it’s good to note them once in a while.

So Cloud regales us with fragments of his short stay at home, and there’s a nice few touches of horror embedded in the choreography. While Cloud remains stationary in each clip, his mother hovers around him and moves about the house between shots. The effect of her movement is first to deposition her in relation to Cloud with each transition—there is something frightening about opening into a scene and seeing a figure imminently approaching you. As the transitions come quicker and quicker, Cloud’s position in the house remains fixed to one point while his mam’s becomes more erratic and animated, coinciding with her ‘barrage’ of questions into her son’s life.[3] Her constant displacement gives the impression that Cloud is being surrounded and cornered, rising our anxiety so that we share Cloud’s apprehension for the scene. When he breaks it off, it’s a relief.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

You can also visit Tifa’s house. There are three short things to note here—Tifa’s presence, Tifa’s letters and Tifa’s piano.

First is Tifa’s speech bubble, which gates our entry to her house, then her room, then to ‘interact’ with some of her things. Tifa is never visually represented in this room so it’s a good way of denoting the space as fundamentally, privately hers. Cloud and the player must explicitly admit to her to invading her privacy for us to be able to look around the place, forcing us to recognise the interpersonal impact of our wandering curiosity and consider ourself through her eyes for a change. Even the affirmative answer to “Did you read it? My letter?” admits this as a violation. If you’re the sort to respect people’s spaces, you’re likely to lose a bit of yourself in the compulsive quest for secrets.

Unfortunately, Cloud kind of laughs at the severity of his transgression by making out she had orthopaedic underwear. Dick move, Cloud.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

Second is the letter on Tifa’s desk. There’s three letters in Tifa’s room throughout the course of the game—you can pick up the others when the party passes through Nibelheim later on. The first letter you can read now, though, and it’s one of Tifa’s childhood friends describing how he’s adjusting to life in Midgar and murmuring about his feelings for her. The second letter details Shinra’s appropriation of Nibelheim following the Incident with Sephiroth and speaks of how all the ‘townsfolk’ now are actors employed by Shinra as a cover story. I read elsewhere that Nibelheim used to have its own special dialect that was essentially lost due to Shinra’s overtaking of the town. Such is the soul of colonization.

Final Fantasy VII doesn’t have an internal database or collectible textlogs to allow us to scry into the world beyond Cloud’s adventure. The closest we come is this second letter which is marked as a normal point of interest without becoming trite and cliché from overuse. Collectible-structured curios carry with them a formalized narrative of indulgence and accumulation so that their value as objects is distributed as value as playthings. Personally I find this often corrupts their worth as vessels for knowledge and meaning[4]; I’d much rather see Tifa’s letters become the model for distributing worldbuilding than what is currently the case in audio- and textlogs.

The third letter is from Tifa’s mentor, Zangan, and speaks of how he found and rescued her immediately after the events told in this flashback. To get this letter you need to access Thing Three: the piano.

If Cloud plays the piano in Tifa’s room in the flashback, he’ll recite a tune. Later on in the present, the player has to play the tune on Tifa’s piano in order to get Tifa’s best limit break and the last letter. I’m looking at this now and it’s funny that back then we all accepted as normal how contrived this is—“oh yeah just memorize the random-ass tune Cloud plays for no reason so you can recite it ten hours later in order to get an item you would have had no way to anticipate.” Were we really such expert sleuths? Were we super patient? Or did we just natively depend on strategy guides as the done thing? It’s almost endearing how expressly Tifa’s piano is a relic of the past.

Anyway, eventually you return to the inn.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

More foreshadowing from Sephiroth-senpai.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

The next day the group assembles to head up the mountain towards the reactor. Time to meet your guide: much to Cloud’s surprise, it’s Tifa! However, she plays it cool on being reunited with her childhood friend. Actually she doesn’t even remark on Cloud at all. Strange.

They’re ready to embark but a local wants to take a quick picture of the legendary SOLDIER, Sephiroth.

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

That’s every one of them saying “Cheeeeese!” including the soon-to-be murderous villain. Haha, good times.

This photo will show up later in the game as proof that Cloud-as-Zach is not actually Cloud, which is a fantastic bit of supra-diagetic textual metaplay. I love it when a media text uses in-text media to reference and fold back the fictional reality. When successful, it can add weight to the world and its sense of contiguity through in-world use of tools and items in appropriate ways to their real-life functions. Even though it’s counter-intuitive that an in-game photograph which reveals the player’s camera to be a sheer and utter lie should further substantiate the gameworld rather than crumble it, here it works, and to wonderful effect.

But that’s an area of media studies that’s best left to its own specialized analysis. This might be a good point to take a break and wrap up part 2 of this series. Part 3 will take us up Mount Nibel and into the birthplace of Sephiroth’s villainy, whereupon we’ll discuss the connecting themes of nature and technology, foreshadowing through Norse mythology, and, of course, Sephiroth’s existential folly.

Bonus Senpai Picture

Final Fantasy VII Camera and Composition

[1] That being said, the rules that inform us whose speech bubble belongs to whom doesn’t really establish a line to separate Cloud’s Kalm-based speech bubbles from Cloud’s flashback-based speech bubbles. For all we know, every piece of dialogue in the flashback is extra-diagetic to the setting of Nibelheim and is actually Cloud sitting at the inn in Kalm pulling funny voices to impersonate the speaker.

[2] I wrote on the subject in ‘Framing Identity – or: How Can I Be Both Lee and Clementine?

[3] Questions that are by no means out of the ordinary for a mother to be asking or scary to find asked of oneself.

[4] More on this in ‘Exploring A Dark Room’.