Saturday, January 31, 2009

Video Games and Myth: Final Fantasy VII

Perhaps one of the more overlooked forms of entertainment, video games have been clamoring for artistic attention. Many video game designers seek to employ compelling story lines centered around enriched, three-dimensional characters and have moved past simply creating immersive, interactive environments. In the course of composing these enthralling stories, video game designers follow the tradition from other mediums by looking to the past for tales that have stood the test of time: Myth. Evidence can be found from a multitude of sources (including Blizzard's online juggernaut World of Warcraft), but for me, a prime example comes from a personal favorite - SquareEnix's (formerly Squaresoft) role-playing epic Final Fantasy VII.
As a turn-based RPG, Final Fantasy VII's roots rest firmly in the Dungeons and Dragon's tradition of building scenarios, heroes, and enemies out of popular myth. Although many cultures are given the equivocal "tip-of-the-fedora" through an enemy or item name, Icelandic myth seems to have a strong influence over the overall plot. FFVII is an apocalypse story - one in which the protagonists are desperately trying to prevent a seemingly inevitable cataclysm. Much like Odin and the other Icelandic Gods, each character persists on a journey for knowledge and self-discovery in hopes that their travels will provide a way to defeat the near-impossible odds stacked against them. FFVII does nothing to hide this from the consumer: naming the starting city "Midgar" (derived from "Midgard", the Earth realm where humans live which is domed over by the skull of the giant Ymir), that much of the game's back story centers around the town "Nibleheim" (derived from "Nifflehel" meaning "North Hell") which is torched to the ground, and that many of the game's big reveals, as well as the game's conclusion, take place in the northern, icy portion of the world near the town "Ragnarok" (a direct reference to the Icelandic "Day of Reckoning" of which cannot be stopped and will result in the end of the Gods' rule).  The strongest example perhaps comes from the most shocking and emotional scene in the game - The Death of Aerith.

(property of SquareEnix)

For players, this scene came as a surprise. Aerith, one of the favorite female protagonists, is brutally murdered in front of your character half-way through the game with nothing you can do to prevent it and nothing you can do to bring her back. Not only do you invest a significant amount of time and energy into her battle statistics prior to this, but the game does a fairly good job of allowing you to feel sympathetic towards her (as well as most of the other characters). For those unaware, these games used to function almost like video books where the characters acted out stage direction on the screen and provided dialogue in the text boxes. You progress through the game with the express interest in finding out what happens next and Aerith remained a significant part of the plot up until this point (the programmers even provided items assumedly for her use at the game's end, the bastards). The best textual equivalent would probably be the "Death of Dumbledore" from JK Rollings' Harry Potter series which, from what I understand, was also shocking and devastating among die-hard fans. But, the most interesting thing about the scene extends beyond the emotionality and into a comparison with the Icelandic story "The Lay of Skirnir"

"The Lay of Skirnir" is the Icelandic version of what's called "The Sacred Marriage": the tale which depicts how the "miraculous child" is conceived or how the land is engendered with prosperity and life. According to Snorri Sturluson's Edda, Freyr (meaning "fruitful one") sits on Odin's seat at the top of the world and sees something he shouldn't, the Ice-giant Jotun's daughter Gerd (meaning "Earth"), and he falls head-over-heels in love. Fearing rejection, Freyr sends Skirnir (the shining sky-god) down wingman style to "warm up" the Ice-giant's daughter for him. Skirnir takes and keeps Freyr's magical sword, which he uses to "convince" her to marry Freyr (depending on your interpretation, Gerd either consents or is coerced by Skirnir; see the Poetic Edda by Hollander). Hence, the sky-god (representing the sun) gets the Earthen woman to marry into fruitfulness thereby making the Earth fertile. In comparison with the above scene, we see a twisting of the myth into something darker. As opposed to engendering fruitfulness, Sephiroth (the primary antagonist) comes down from the sky with his "magic" sword and seeks to eliminate it. 

Within the game's mythos, Aerith was the last of a race of people able to communicate with the planet and use its energies for beneficial purposes. In an early portion of the game, Aerith is introduced when your character falls through the ceiling of an abandoned church and onto a hearty flower bed, tended to by her, and growing in soil that shouldn't be able to grow anything at all. Aerith then, in a sense, similarly represents a fertile, Earth-element and is slaughtered for it. It's notable that her death comes while she is "Praying for the Planet", a process that would summon the power to protect the planet and stop the impending doom. Also of note, her death, in effect, could even have been beneficial, since it is commonly interpreted that her conscious will or spirit lived on within the planet and was able to give the planet the second boost of power that effectively stopped the apocalypse - an interesting perspective further twisting the myth.
(Property of Nicolien Beerens)

Evidence of myth in games is far from a foreign concept and extends way beyond a game which came out over 10 years ago. As I have said, these stories  withstood the test of time and will continue to influence nearly all artistic mediums regardless of whether those cultures still exist or not. Depending on the success of this particular post, I may make future posts encroaching on this topic in other works. Either way, Gentle Readers, I hope you enjoyed this post and found it interesting. I know I did. And as always, post below.

Updated 2/4/2008: Now with pictures!


ali d said...

Sigh... JohnOzkirbas. It's J.K. ROWLING. Not Rollins. Very interesting though - I didn't know the end of FFVII takes place near Ragnarok, and I think that is awesome. Is there an Iggdrasil or a Ratatosk? You don't see Norse myth as often as Roman or Greek, which I think is a shame, because it's all fascinating.

Ozkirbas said...

Actually, yeah if memory serves correctly. They weren't major references, but I think they were both featured as either enemies you had to fight, or places you had to visit. I'm banking on enemies.

David Pratt said...

One of the more infamous FFVII mini-bosses is Midgarsormr (I think in the game it was called the Midgar Zolom or something); or, roughly, the Midgard Serpent. Odin is also a summon.

Ozkirbas said...

True... ah... I remember now. The Midgar Serpent is a giant snake that you have to outrun early on (if your level is timed "properly" with the game, that is). Heh, I remember the Odin summon looking really cool, but being exceedingly cheap.

Daniel said...

thanks for stealing my "things I love" topic for this week. dick.

AZWiner said...

Dumbledore dies?!?!

Miasma said...

;) your understanding of the game may perhaps be Too good, but kudos nonetheless for putting it in such a coherent format.
And no one can have Too good a grasp of myth, so.... yea, nicely configured.

coco GREEN said...

Nice post. It is specific and comprehensive.