Two Minute Game Crit – Drama and Composition

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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.


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’.

Consquentialism begone

Words and artwork by Stephen Beirne. This piece is community funded – if you enjoyed this article or would like the header image for a wallpaper, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

Endgame spoilers for Final Fantasy XIII-2 and The Walking Dead‘s season 1.

A group of friends, one of whom is a consequentialist, have gone out to the pub for the night. Once the first round is bought, the consequentialist sits staring at his pint intently, fully aware that if he gets to drinking he’ll wake up the next morning with a dreadful hangover. So he gets up, turns around and runs head-first into the wall. His mates, knowing the drill, pack him into an ambulance and resume with their craic, eventually retiring for the night each of them in some bloody state.

Anthony Burch posted this playthrough of BioShock where he restricts himself to certain rules as sort of an experiment. The idea is, it’s not much of a difficult decision to pick between killing Little Sisters and saving them, so maybe if we tweak the circumstances to a point where the decision becomes pertinent it will mean something. His rules are:

  1. He can only spend ADAM obtained through killing a Little Sister.
  2. Permadeath, for impetus.

His conclusion is that he found himself well able to get through the game without the need for ADAM and plasmids because the system empowers players to excel with firearms. Well, presumably he could complete the game this way; he eventually died from boredom. The closing sentiment seems to be there was no difference brought about by his self-imposed rules, and although the fact that he admits it was a lot less interesting to play without plasmids seems to contradict this, it’s not addressed. From a critical perspective, the experiment peters off in a really sad, unreflective way.

What does this have to do with consequentialism? Burch is of the opinion that the moral dilemma presented in BioShock goes nowhere because the amount of ADAM you get from killing Little Sisters is pretty much equal to what you get from saving them. All consequences being the same, there is no tangible difference between the two actions, so the dilemma collapses.

This is a pretty common reading of BioShock among some big-name developers and designers. It is horrible. It comes from a place of lud0-fundamentalism[1] where games are ‘about’ their mechanics and so games must show reflection through their mechanics. By this line of thought, a change in the narrative that is not represented by a change in gamestates is existentially deficient. A moral dilemma that does not branch off into two mechanically (or systemically)-differentiated paths is not a dilemma, so therefore cannot speak of morality.

Worse still, this vein of thought is a capitalist consequentialism that can only view states in terms of the rewards and prizes they offer (more or less ADAM), since narrative distinction of an action of consequence is removed from consideration. Which is a pretty evil worldview from my perspective, if I’m being honest. The way to have an impactful, meaningful game is to offer divergent rewards for whatever divergent paths have been presented. This is how meaning is generated through the medium of videogames, it is the only manner through which games can affect players, which is why no-one cried after the first season of The Walking Dead.

Now, as I mentioned Burch’s conclusion is to point to his lack of impetus to harvest Little Sisters as proof of the game’s failure to provide any true dilemma. Frustratingly, he doesn’t plug the result of his experiment back into the text to see how it creates or created narrative. One could posit his lack of impetus to slaughter Little Sisters actually substantiates the Objectivist tones of the game’s cosmology since Burch found self-sufficiency without needing to contradict his personal moral code, and that the game is made more powerful as a text by accounting for this approach/reading/playthrough. Perhaps that is outside the scope of his article, but the fact that he seems to think the experiment bolters Jonathan Blow’s reading of the game suggests it didn’t occur to him.[2]

To get to my point, Burch indicates his playthrough reveals the absence of any real dilemma within the game as a text (i.e. narratively). This in spite of the tautology of the moral dilemma (‘Save the Little Sisters’ versus ‘Harvest the Little Sisters’) as a narrative framing device in the game beyond the mechanical or gamestate effects that might or might not follow. The fact of the dilemma as a (effective[3]) framing device establishes it as meaningful, as impactful on narrative, regardless of consequences. Consider it in terms of this more overtly illusory moment of choice in Final Fantasy XIII-2.

At the arse end of the story, heroes Noel and Sarah finally appear victorious over Caius Ballad, the main antagonist, who has been pissing round with the timestream to try to save a mutual friend, Yuel, from eternal torment. Caius has just realised his own death can put an end to Yuel’s cycle of rebirth and death, so he goads Noel into killing him. Noel is now faced with the crisis of having to decide between ending the tragic villain’s life, thereby fulfilling his mission and letting Yuel rest in peace, or upholding his own respect for the value of human life and sparing his old mentor. As Noel’s sword plunges towards Caius’ heart, the player is given the on-screen prompt: ‘Show mercy’ or ‘Kill him’.

Whichever one you chose Noel will decide to spare Caius’ life (and Caius will go ahead and kill himself anyway) but the moment the choice of input is presented to the player facilitates reflection and inquiry into the circumstances. The dilemma inspires meaning regardless of the single possible consequence.



[1] The text here originally read “ludic fundamentalism” which is a term I made up to explain the ideas outlines here. About a month after this article was published, there was quite a bit of discussion in critical spheres along the lines of this and surrounding concepts. I participated in that conversation, but I used the neologism “ludo-fundamentalism” (again, I made up on the fly) in all my natterings instead of “ludic fundamentalism.” As it happened, “ludo-fundamentalism” began to catch on. So even though they mean the same thing, I’ve edited the term here to remain consistent with my own writings elsewhere.

[2] Why Jonathan Blow is made an authority on moral narratives is beyond me.

[3] Very important to note that narrative and meaning are self-identifying. An effective plot point conveys meaning and affects the player’s experience, whereas an ineffective plot point fails to achieve anything. I can only rely on my own experiences in this regard, but as an example of an ineffective, on-the-face meaningless dichotomy/choice moment in a game I would personally suggest choosing heads or tails in BioShock Infinite, or deciding between the cage or the bird in the same game, as moments that were intended to frame narrative but at the time felt utterly empty. Of course, we can then feed this back into the text hermeneutically to get something else out of it and have it produce meaning that way, chasing our tails until the end of time.

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

This Week We Read: 26/10/14

Each week I ask a group of peers, colleagues and strangers to share with you some articles they read over the previous seven day as described in their own words. The articles they contribute might be a day old or a year old, they can be highly academic or light as a feather, they can be noteworthy for their originality of perspective or they can be utterly, delightfully derivative – the only criteria is for their pick to be at least faintly relevant to people who might be interested in videogames.

My guest contributors this week are Sara Byrella, John M. Osborne and Carli Velocci. If you’d like to volunteer as a contributor for next week’s post, you can contact me on twitter @stbeirne. Now, for articles on ASML Let’s Plays, Alien: Isolation, and bad Final Fantasy fashion, on with the latest This Week We Read.

Sara Byrella, USA – Writer/Layabout; @umbyrella;

One of my most enjoyable, moving experiences this year has been Ice Water Games’ Eidolon. Apple Cider Mage explores the escapism she found in its sense of isolation and minimal investment in the player character’s physical being. Meanwhile, Jack de Quidt reflects on the process of coming to grips with its world and the many stories hidden within it, as well the narrative that emerged from his bewildered note-taking.

Emily Short briefly discusses Elegy for a Dead World, which expands upon the richness of de Quidt’s journal-scribbling trek through post-people Washington by asking players to write their own stories with minimal prompting and gorgeous, barren landscapes as their guide. She makes note of Elegy‘s potential limitations as well as the possibilities afforded by Dejobaan’s experimentation with narrative.

Lilith talks about the grimy, beautiful settings of her games, among them Crypt Worlds (referred to lovingly as “the piss game”), and how they came to be. Spurred on by anxieties not unlike those brought up in Apple Cider’s piece, she’s made a home for herself and her creations amid the dirty, unloved margins confining her throughout her life.

Janine Hawkins provides a primer on ASMR Let’s Plays and the ASMR phenomenon in general by engaging some of the scene’s participants. They share their thoughts on the stress-alleviating nature of these videos as well as the negative or confused responses some viewers have to their unorthodox contributions. Also remarked upon is the unprecedented array of video game media options now available.

John M. Osborne, American Expat living in Germany – freelance video editor and writer; @jmarquiso; co-creator of “Late to the Game”; Creator of reddit subreddits /r/cahiersduludica and /r/pocgaming, mod of /r/truegaming

Marshall Sandoval’s Cynicism, Recession, and the Resurgence of Cyberpunk on PopMatters take a look at the return of Cyberpunk as a popular setting in video games, especially indie titles, and makes the case that the current political and economic climate is responsible. Quotes from game devs like Brendon Chung (Quadrilateral Cowboy, Thirty Flights of Loving), and writers like Austin Walker tell the story why the poor, bottom rung hero against the evil corporate conspiracy is so popular.

Cameron Kunzelman takes a critical look at Destiny on The Cage is Worms, arguing that Destiny’s Raid is Interesting Because it’s a Game (whereas Destiny itself is more akin to a slot machine). This grabbed me personally as someone with a gambling compulsion – most ARPGs and Borderlands style shooters are off limits for me as a result. I’m more compelled to play than enjoying the play. Separating the Raid from the rest of Destiny highlights this issue.

On Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Graham Smith recalled his rewarding and exasperating experience bringing a loose guild together in It Takes a Village: Wurm Online and the Value of Tedium. He writes a great ode to teamwork, and how the game inspired it in the loose collection of players in the free server they played on. A server with its own society, history, and even mythology (a large statue of a legendary player character can be found on the island).

Patrick Keplick ponders the player’s role versus the artistic intent of the designer by looking at The Very, Very Large Black Bars of The Evil Within. Aspect ratio may appear to be a small technical detail, but the size of the frame is something in film that a cinematographer would tightly control. So the focus on the black bars themselves brought to my mind how VHS pan and scan would compromise artistic vision for filmmakers – why not game designers? Especially in an age where players ask for multiple display options.

On Eurogamer, Jeffrey Matulef argues that Walking is the New Shooting. He looks at Alien: Isolation not as just survival horror, but also a bold statement about exploration as storytelling in games.

On The Game Critique, Eric Swain tries to Define Gaming’s Arthouse in his Non Play Criticism series. Using Kyle Kallgren’s “Brows Held High” – a film criticism video channel – as a jumping off point, Swain argues that what gaming needs isn’t better criticism, but a better understanding of basic criticism.

Carli Velocci, USA – freelance writer; founder of;; @revierypone

The horror genre is one of the best at conveying the subtle characteristics of mental illness and Daniel Link’s article at Topless Robot on Alien: Isolation captures that in a very straight-forward way. Not only does he talk about his anxiety disorder (and as a sufferer myself, I like to support those who, in a way, “come out” about their experiences), but it also talks about symptoms in terms of that horror and wraps them all together.

Gita Jackson once again does a great job being one of the few people to talk about fashion and games in the same article. Her latest at Paste Magazine does a close reading of Yuna in Final Fantasy X-2 and how her outfit transition from one game to the next might be problematic (as if Square Enix’s outfit choices have never been questionable before). Jackson uses humor and her knowledge of the fashion industry to craft a truly unique piece that raises questions about artist intent and short skirts.

One of the most infuriating complaints coming from the movement that must not be named is the idea of keeping politics out of games. To answer those who agree, it’s impossible to keep politics and personal experience out of games. You can either listen to me or read this piece by Krish Raghav over at the Arcade Review. Not only does it provide an extensive history into Singapore’s political sphere, but it also seeks to raise an important point about politics in games: even the smallest artistic additions can in themselves be political statements.

Stephen Beirne, Ireland – game critic;;

I was gently struck by Charles Beckett’s short and sweet post about the importance of a piece of art to comment on the relationship between the audience (/reader/player/etc.) and the world around them. Beckett’s angle is since we live highly digitized lives the art we currently make and enjoy ought to reflect the impact technology continues to have on our… well, he doesn’t get into specifics, but I imagine he might mean our self-perceptions, our ability to communicate and form interpersonal connections, our adjusted concept of being and reality and time, and on and on…. and that art that fails to approach these crucial subject matters risks death.

On Shut Up and Sit Down, Brendan Caldwell’s review of Dog Eat Dog is a fantastic read for anyone interested in ludonarrative directed towards social critique, in this case to showcase how colonialism ingrains insidious power dynamics in the social sphere to degrade and reinstitute the very soul of a community. It’s probably obvious that I had a strong reaction to Caldwell’s write-up on a game about colonialism; he grew up in the North of Ireland and I in the south, so although his is a far more severe and present experience of British imperialism, much of what he relates about lost Irish heritage still applies in large parts of the Republic.

And lastly, Mattie Brice rebuked the community at large for paying attention to women only when they are victims of personal harassment or systemic prejudice, and seldom if ever demonstrating an interest in engaging with their art outside of capitalizing on it. Brice remarks on the reality TV aspect of heeding women in games as idols soon to become martyrs for the benefit of public entertainment (or, the bloodsport of seeing women used as frontline infantry while our community ‘progresses’ towards a feminist future). Certainly there is a deeply ingrained capitalistic current that sees women as little more than solutions to fulfil the market niche of ‘diversity’ in our community, an exploitative packaging and assimilation of their art and identities which marks the prevalent disregard for the work of women outside of activism. Brice recommends some ways we can cease to keep women and their work at arm’s length, and thereby fulfil our claims to welcome them into the fold as people, rather than as political pawns.