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

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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

IT’S A DRAGON.

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’.

Final Fantasy VII: Camera and Composition – Part 1

Final Fantasy VII: Camera and Composition

This piece was originally published exclusively to patrons on the 29th of November 2014 before being made available to all readers one week later. I intend for this to be the custom for one of my articles every month. To gain access to such patron rewards and to help make sure more articles like this exist in the future, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

A few weeks ago I gave a compositional walkthrough of a single room in Project Zero 2 – the projector room of the Tachibana House – illustrating how the game’s use of camerawork depicted an environment which is subversive of safe spaces.[i] Since Project Zero 2 is a horror title this meant highlighting the strengths of its use of perspective within the context of the game as a whole, which is to say how visualized or represented space translates to perceived dangers and securities.

Another game that uses a second-person perspective[ii] to wonderful compositional effect is Final Fantasy VII, with a ‘cinematic’ reputation that’s lasted the nearly twenty years since its release. This longevity is justified—even as children most of us wordlessly understood how its stellar use of cinematography contributed to the experienced narrative.

What I’d like to do today is revisit FFVII with this particular mechanism in mind, to glance composition off against storytelling for perhaps previously unnoticed nuances (at least, unnoticed from my own perspective). It’s worth stressing that it is a mechanism: the use of camera to frame and juxtapose characters, actions and scenery relates conscious decisions on behalf of its creators. Simply the very nature of modelling its pre-rendered backgrounds[iii] establishes how fused they are with intention—our visual relationship to the world is so fixed to narrative design that camera and scenery nearly become one thing.

Since it’s best not to assume everyone has played the game, a little bit of exposition is warranted. The story of Final Fantasy VII focuses on Cloud, an ex-military mercenary who at the game’s beginning is working for the eco terrorist group AVALANCHE in Midgar city. Nearly the entire world is under the rule of the Shinra Electric Power Company, owing to its monopoly on Mako energy, an oil analogue. The corporation/world-government’s highly industrial and capitalistic structuring has lead to widespread social oppression, together with its mining of Mako, the planet’s lifeblood, informing AVALANCHE’s resistance. Initially Cloud is only in it for the paycheck but before long the fight against Shinra connects back to an old personal adversary and war buddy, Sephiroth, whose own designs for humanity spell catastrophe.

Final Fantasy VII: Camera and Composition

Figure 1

So two fairly clear-cut examples of FFVII’s deliberate camerawork occur quite early on. The first is not ten minutes into the game: Cloud and co. are infiltrating the Sector 1 Reactor on a sabotage mission, and after Barrett tells the player-through-Cloud what’s what [fig. 1.1], the resistance group continues toward the reactor while Cloud remains immobile [fig. 1.2]. The camera descends towards him from its isometric position before swooping around his back and tilting upwards, showing us AVALANCHE’s looming destination [fig. 1.4]. Cloud then hurries on to catch up with his crew.

This simple camera movement does a couple of things for us quite effectively. The most obvious is that it shows us the reactor we intend to send sky high, the enormity of which conveys magnitude and severity onto AVALANCHE’s terrorist action, while conversely characterising the group as rather minuscule.

A second effect is to approximate the player to Cloud’s position in relation to both AVALANCHE and the reactor (and implicitly Shinra): the motion of the camera towards Cloud offers intimacy and insight into his perspective. Bearing in mind this occurs right at the start of the game when we know nothing about anything, this slight connection with our character, however briefly, has a lingering effect on our perspective into the narrative. Continue reading

Folklorists

Folklorists Chell Portal 2 Stephen Beirne

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In the middle of one of those conversations where we natter about whatever bits of media we arbitrarily liked, my brother contradicted my reading of Portal 2’s protagonist. “Chell is a clone,” he told me, reasoning that otherwise the continuity between the first game’s ending and the second’s beginning makes no sense. I had second-hand knowledge that Chell’s parents were Aperture Science employees who donated her for the cause, and I told him this.

“Oh, well.” For the benefit of this story, he stroked his Green Arrow moustache. “That still fits. Maybe she was born in a lab, or maybe you’re a clone of the original daughter.” This was before I came to learn it’s a popular enough theory to have made it onto The Internet. There it gathered so much attention and prominence, in fact, that Portal 2’s writers made a point of denying it outright, and so died the theory of Chell the clone.

Or did it.

It so happens there are these ghosts who’ve been pissing around my head recently. “What are you even doing?” they ask me. “What makes your perspective so valuable? WoooOOoooOO.” They’re the Ghosts of Game Criticism, granting voice to that little doubt at the back of my mind, “what am I writing for?”

Earlier this week, Craig Stern wrote an article that restored this nagging feeling. It was Stern rebutting a fairly common saying in some circles of games criticism, the one along the lines of “there is no wrong way to interpret a game“, before going on to suggest some criteria by which we can judge any given interpretation’s validity. Stern believes that, insofar as interpretations serve as descriptive filters of media texts, they ought to account for all relevant parts of the text and so describe a coherent narrative. Accuracy, truth and validity closely intertwine: an inaccurate reading is invalid by virtue of its misrepresentations or omissions.

“An interpretation of a work must arise from study of the work itself, and not merely from personal predilections. […] Games are finite. They have contours: defined aesthetics, narrative, characters, words, boundaries to the play space. Any interpretation which fails to accurately account for these elements of the game will necessarily fail to divine the meaning or meanings that arise from the interaction of those elements.”

He doesn’t exactly say interpretations “ought to be” this or that, by which I mean it’s not explicitly a normative creed for the descriptive process, but I think it’s clearly implied as preferable to an alternative where anything can go.

It’s a grand piece. Other than the ghosts, I quite like it.

But while I’m wholly on board for calling out the “there is no wrong way to interpret a game” mantra as nonsense, there’s a boatload of problems with the solution Stern suggests for establishing which narratives should be deemed credible. Not the least of which is the fact that it hedges impossible demands of us given how virtually no-one is, as it happens, omniscient. On this point, a more discerning mind might come along and press him on exactly what components should be considered sufficiently relevant to credit an interpretation as appropriately whole. Or one could question the barriers imposed on the field of criticism by standards which deny validity to all but the most diversely knowledgeable. For example, must I have played Resident Evil 2 in order for my impression of Resident Evil 6 to carry weight given how mired it is in its own delirious lore? Do I need to polish up on the hermeneutics of zombies in contemporary media to be able to properly contextualize it within the canon of popular culture? And what if, as it turns out, RE6’s narrative is banjaxed all to hell and just doesn’t support a coherent, continuous interpretation unless you start making very generous omissions?

And then the overarching question: is Stern making his recommendation into a basis for an explanation of interpretation as a normal element of everyday life? Does his concept of interpretation invalidate itself?

These problems are bog standard when it comes to assertions about interpretation, especially on what kind of interpretations are preferable. This kind of creed or methodology needs to be able to hold up when turned on itself in scrutiny, since it’s an interpretation of the concept of interpretation. If the method doesn’t hold water at its core (when talking about the nature of interpretation) it won’t do us much good when talking about the nature or ‘the facts’ of a videogame, whatever that means.

To that end, Stern approaches interpretation from the perspective that we experience a game or a text or an object, interpret it, and subsequently relay this interpretation to whoever is around to hear it. The middle step is pivotal—that’s what needs to accurately relate to the game in question if it hopes to be a valid impression or description of the object. This step encompasses the interpretative process proper, sifting an object for meaning and divining a narrative from the remnants.

But here’s where I run into difficulty. It’s all well and good if you’re only really concerned with finding out about the object as an objectively existing bundle of ideas and narratives—I think this is the basis on which Stern narrows the claim that interpretations are descriptions to the matter of the object in question—since you can stop here without a bother in your head. Under this structure, what you interpret is an object, so what you describe in relaying your interpretation is, naturally, that object, to a greater or lesser degree depending on your faithfulness to it.

However, if the act of communicating is itself considered a process of interpretation, namely the filtering of ideas into language, what you go on to describe is your idea of the object as it exists in your mind and not the object itself. Desiring to break away from this chain and communicate the actual object requires a refiltering of one’s perceptions, and again, and again, until it finally resembles a narrative honed to the source material, stripped of the fluff of your intentionality. But the metric by which you determine that final interpretation to be satisfactory is itself a product of interpretation (of facts, of cultural context, of semiotics, etc), so disassembly requires a sorting through of all these ambient contributing factors in order to ascertain their relevance. Attempting to dissolve away the difference between interpretation and the object itself ultimately leads us to a homunculus regression.

Still, a refutation of the idea that all interpretations are valid appeals to me something fiercely, so this is something I’ve needed to reconcile within my own criticism in recent years. I’ve gone to great lengths in the past when writing about intentionality and interactivity to stress the importance of the player to the game as co-author to its narratives. By definition, you are who makes this game narrative—this exact one you are experiencing right in front of you—intelligible. You actualize the process as meaning-making. And the meaning that results, and the narrative that forms, holds incredible value insofar as it is the product of a melding together of your soul and the game as an object.

Within this framework, the value here is self-discovery through communication with the object, and then self-affirmation in prizing the narrative as born wonderfully, hopelessly, from a part of you.

But a community cannot run on existentialism alone. Tensions mount between finding value in yourself and overcoming yourself for the benefit of those around you—your family, friends, neighbours, complete strangers, all of whom depend on your contribution to the social sphere in a way that is, optimally, not entirely self-involved. If everyone insists to live within their own little solipsistic, self-satisfied bubble, community and empathy become unreachable. As Mattie Brice writes in Death of the Player, our self-involvement proves destructive when practised as ethos:

“My journey with this concept started when I played anna anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuck Me and the Case of the Vanishing Entree. I remember it took me an entire day to play it, mostly because it felt so hostile to me at first. The game was set in its ways, knew what it wanted, and I felt incidental. I could play along, or leave. So I left. Its content disturbed me, to be completely honest. Within the hours that I spent away from it, I reflected on my inability to play, and decided it was a rigidity in myself, feeling a lack of control and agency within someone else’s world. Going back to it, it became clear that the designer was clearly present and wanted me to experience feelings I’m not used to. Eventually, I noticed I was being trained, trained to exist in this play space.”

Whereas the ideal existential being is pure carelessness, in your day-to-day life people depend on you for civility and comradeship, as you do on them. In the field of games, this involves offering ground for mutual understanding of videogames and collaborating with other people to explore our experiences together.

Everybody has their own idea on how to do this. Everyone has their own preference of methodology on how to think and talk about the medium. This, again, blossoms into conflict, such as the formalists versus zinesters cold war that I think might be getting revised out of history. Or more generally, the old guard versus the fresh young upstarts, with their dangerous ideas and irreverence for the old ways, the greying tomes on how to discuss videogames. These methods are themselves representative of their practitioner’s inner being—their predilections and education, their culture and heritage, their identity and hopes and dreams—which corroborate in the interpretation of media and fly off into the world to butt heads with the being of another person as expressed by a different critical lense. Little battles over methodology can be hurtful and shocking depending on how much of ourselves we put into communicating our perspectives. Through these conflicts each practitioner of a methodology is left to lick their wounds and ponder on what makes their method important—or more appropriately, what makes their perspective, their interpretation, valuable? This has inspired my ghost.

Stern takes great care not to comment on the value of interpretations on a whole, other than to recommend pursuing a body of valid (read: accurate) reference work. He does not say whether an invalid interpretation lacks value, for example, other than for seeking a description of the game in question. I might be putting words in his mouth but the implication seems to be that the product of games criticism (or journalism, or just standard discussion) is the establishment of communal, agreeable knowledge on an objective reality (or on objects in that reality).

That being said, if you reject the pursuit of a body of valid reference work as a goal, you can sidestep this value paradigm and instead quest for value by re-envisioning truth-statements of validity and the meaning-making that comes from interpretations. The question, so, is where do you seek value in your enjoyment and interpretation of games? Put another way, does it actually matter if Portal 2’s writers deny that Chell is a clone? My moustachioed brother is not put out in the slightest by the official canon so long as his own reading improves on it.

For me, as I’m sure it is with many others, the purpose of games criticism is not so directed towards the establishment of reference materials. My work, my criticism, doesn’t trade in information as objectively existing knowledge about objectively existing media texts, since it isn’t fuelled by a desire for increased quantities of communally available data.

Now there is criticism existing out there in some form or another that does harbour these interests, and grand for them. In the mainstream, though, it’s largely been turned into a bogeyman for the punchline of surrealist jokes, much to the irritation of, it must be said, a fairly vocal scattering of game enthusiasts. For them, the value of criticism is solely in meticulously describing objects as facts.

This is Chris Wagar’s contention with games journalism, using Jonathan Holmes as a catspaw. Wagar attributes Holmes’ disinterest in describing games on a minute mechanical scale to his inability to understand them, also extrapolated into a communal failing. In his own way, Wagar is more interested in the life of the game than the life of the author, so his preferences show up as a somewhat dry systemic analysis of, in this case, competitive fighting games. In contrast, Holmes’ preference for chaos comes across as more laidback and accommodating.

The whole exchange led Jed Pressgrove to respond that expertise is not a pre-requisite for criticism. Says Pressgrove to Wagar:

“Gamers have very different views about games, so it’s no surprise that game critics are not authorities on everything. In fact, game critics are not authorities on anything — I don’t care how knowledgeable or skilled they are. Critics are only there to be read, considered, and questioned.

“So we should not be surprised when reviews and other criticism don’t reflect what we think. We should demand that they challenge the way we think!”

In this business of analysing games, there is something of a mystery as to who exactly is an authority on anything. ‘The death of the author’ is thrown around to justify reader-response criticism, as is the maxim Stern objects to, that every interpretation is correct or valid. ‘The death of the player’ shows the fault in willing ourselves into leading shuttered intellectual and emotional lives. The critic can claim expertise on but a sliver of possible critical lenses as interpretation, each valid in their own way just as they are deficient in innumerable more. If by this shortcoming no critic is an authority on anything, not even on their own experiences, reader-response suddenly looks more like a leaky boat. But if we take the text as the final authority on itself, as Stern does, above all its author’s intentions and all its audience’s fancies, we’re left back at our homunculus problem that nobody even knows what the text ‘actually’ is prior to looking for it.

The life of a critic is the same tragedy of existentialism: how do you live an existentially fulfilling life at the same time as living conscientiously. We can either point to something or tell you what it is but never both, since in the telling it becomes something different.

But what we can do to reconcile these two forces of text and meaning is to produce with our criticism, not data or reference work, but folklore. Communally existing knowledge that is inseparable from consciousness on a social plane, as extelligence, inverse to intelligence, consciousness on an individual plane. Much like geist suggests the mindfulness of ideas, extelligence sees ideas and consciousness embodied in cultural artefacts. Portal 2 is one such artefact. This article is another. Taken as an account or a description, it deals in facts, but taken instead as folklore, it deals in meaning.

The value of this comes as I accept the existence of the social world and my place in it, and contribute to it my consciousness as given in the experiences and perspectives representative of a game’s narrative through me. I accept my fallibility and fragility as a condition of this. And in admitting myself as a participant in your world, rather than maintaining we each live in distinct bubbles, I accept responsibility for my message appropriate to my failings in the context of it as a socialized text and me as a socialized person, rather than appropriate to everybody’s individual imaginations. The text gains substance through the contexts by which it exists—historical factors, as well as linguistic, cultural, critical, economic, philosophical, and so on—granting it weight and relevance as a token of values and experiences communal to my peers and neighbours. By this it’s then opened up to be read by people of different backgrounds as a proverb, flexible, but obliging and yielding no more than its own consciousness allows.

The power of folklore isn’t in its accuracy as a factual account of social or personal narratives, nor in its offer of expertise on a moral or historic subject matter, nor even in its clarity of communication. As extelligence, interpretations can be as invalid and ludicrous as you wouldn’t believe and still carry such insight as to make them invaluable.

And you with it, speck of dust

And you with it speck of dust

[Endgame spoilers for Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 to follow.]

As I prepared to sit down and finally write this piece, I did a quick Google search for the key words “Dark Souls” and “nihilism”. I thought I might get one or two hits with the game loosely orbiting the themes of existentialism, since that’s what usually happens when you go looking for specific matches of a game to a theme. But this time was different. The first, I don’t know, ten results wore their investment to the subject matter on their titles: Dark Souls through Sartre and Camus, Kierkegaard and Dark Souls 2, Dark Souls as a nihilistic manifesto.

Well. These are writers who clearly take their jobs seriously, who know what they’re talking about. Just that in itself can be quite daunting—you need a certain level of emotional investment to live up to the standards they’re setting for you as a reader. Maybe you don’t need to know any Camus or Kierkegaard before going in, they’ll explain everything as you’ll need it, but you still have to retain everything they’re throwing at you if you want to satisfy your end of the bargain. And it’s heavy stuff, trying to collapse decades-worth of a fellow’s life work down to a few summary paragraphs, trying to make sense of such a big thing as existentialism at the same time as relating as messy a videogame as Dark Souls.

But sure, it’s not just Dark Souls—every videogame is messy. They’re enormously complicated machines of narrative and function. That they’re often made by so many people, they’re the product of so many different societal factors that smudge and obfuscate and interrelate and form entirely new spheres of interaction. At one of their basest levels they speak languages we’re still puzzling out ways to decode. In a cultural space where half of us are yet figuring our arse from our elbows, officially speaking, as to what, in actuality, a videogame is.

It’s tiring stuff. And true to form, after reading a bunch of these articles, I was wrecked. I felt exhausted even keeping up with the gist of what they were saying. In that, they’re children of the medium, at least. I think there might be a vein in games criticism that values this capacity to affect exhaustion, if only to pay homage to the source. As I typed that out it was a joke, but the longer I stare at it…

You’ve already gathered that I overcame my exhaustion and took to writing my piece. I could say that this was all an allegory for themes of existentialism in Dark Souls, insofar as I stumbled face first into paralysis and dread at the sight of my physical, intellectual and spiritual limitations, but eventually climbed these obstacles and exerted this aspect of myself triumphantly. I could say that, and thematically it would be very nice if it was true. If there are any themes of existentialism in the preceding story, it is only through the accident that I am a person who exists. Which might be enough to prove the point, but since we’re getting into the realm of telling a story about my story, let’s not. Continue reading