To extremely briskly summarize the two-and-a-half hour episode: Yanik doesn’t play games for their stories but their mechanics and atmosphere, and while he was frustrated by the limitations of late-90s Playstation graphics and game-design tropes he found himself surprisingly (and somewhat against his will) curious how the story would play out. Luc-Olivier was less drawn in by the story but was considering playing on to see what “the big spoiler at the end of part one is”.
I recently finished a playthrough of the game on the Playstation Classic (note: do not buy a Playstation Classic unless it’s on sale) and was struck by how much more I enjoyed it today than I did when I first played it back in the early 2000s (I believe my brother and I bought a copy when it was re-released as part of the bestseller collection). I loved it then, but I can’t say that I fully understood the story, other than Sephiroth and Shinra were bad and you had to go stop them while swinging around a giant sword.
Playing through again with Sarah watching (who herself had no idea of any of the plot, and who had never played a JRPG before) reminded me that much of what feels like confusion and strangeness at the start of the game is what I read as a deliberate choice by the writers to mirror for the player what Cloud and the team feel like. They start off myopically focused on Shinra, with Barrett as the leader, and Cloud driven by reasons that he himself is unaware of. Much of part one is filled with the player doing things without fully understanding why they’re doing them, only that they seem important or other characters say they’re the obvious next step, which I feel mirrors Cloud’s state of being. He mirrors what’s expected of him back to the world. It’s only much later, once more of the history of Cloud, Tifa, and Sephiroth is revealed, that the game’s linear structure breaks down a little bit and you have more choices in what you want to do next.
To be fair, the plot never changes — we’re not in a branching path situation in any Final Fantasy game, to my knowledge. These are games that are written to be played through and finished, with defined characters, as opposed to, say, the Mass Effect series, which has two or three main outcomes based on the choices you make as a main character. (Even there, admittedly, the choices you’ve made up until the final game are largely immaterial, save for choosing who lives and dies at the end of each game.) Final Fantasy games are designed for plotters and completionists, who want to wring every last secret out of the game and read every line of flavor text from every nameless NPC. While Final Fantasy VII might ultimately be a game about deciding who you want to be, the player has no meaningful choices to make, other than to just keep playing.
All that said, I do love Final Fantasy VII, as long as you can take it sort of “as it is” — game-design warts and all. Are the controls a bit crap at times? Yes. Is the snowboarding minigame absurd? Yes! Are chocobos a pain in the ass and weirdly superfluous? You bet! And the only real depth you have mechanics-wise is mastering all your materia, which in the end mostly involves grinding out battles with high-AP enemies to try and max out the high-level summons, then looking up the optimum strategy for beating the (entirely optional) Weapons. But there are some killer moments in the game — the eerie blood-filled halls of Shinra tower after you wake up in jail; the moment you first see outside the city walls; the first time you enter Cosmo Canyon, meet Bugenhagen, and see his planetarium; the firing of Sister Ray at the Northern Crater…
And there’s that twist, which even if you know it’s coming is still pretty shocking. Sarah couldn’t believe it. “Just like that?” No other Final Fantasy has pulled off something that clearly stuck with so many players, although the final part of Final Fantasy VI, with its Mad God Kefka, may be high on other people’s lists. But even besides that, the slow opening up of Cloud from a strange, rude collection of tics and memories into a fully-formed human is what’s really touching to me even today. It’s a story about choosing to be a person instead of just going through the motions, about accepting your past and seeing through your own bullshit, and about doing the hard thing, even if the odds seem impossible.
And that’s something I think is valuable.