The Final Fantasy games are irreducibly a combination of gaming and story telling and each one has a different emphasis. My favorite FF title that balances good gaming with good storytelling is VI. My favorite for gameplay without attention paid to the story would either be XV or XIII-2. And my favorite for story, regardless of gameplay, is VII.
Nearly every Final Fantasy game has an identical plot, themes and story structuring. Since Final Fantasy uses a balance between gaming and story, the story often does not need to carry all the weight. I believe, though, that Final Fantasy VII is either the most successful version of the classic Final Fantasy story or the most ambitious.
No small part of this is the carefully consistent thematic language that discusses death. Two of the main characters are dead: one of them passes into the holistic network of souls (Lifestream) to preserve its interconnected vitality. the other dead person holds his identity separate and wants to absorb the interconnected whole into himself. And these two dead people are the main characters– as in, they move all of the plot pieces.
There is also the somewhat understated use of historical and mythic references. Final Fantasy VII is a post World War II legend. The upper plates of Midgar look a hell of a lot like romantic, 1940’s, detective movie New York. You start the game blowing up energy “reactors”, massive power sources that can provide indefinitely or destroy all life. The nuke parallels only get stronger from there: the WEAPONs are kaijus. The first kaiju-like movies in the sixties, Godzilla and stuff, were about mutants created by radiation that destroy entire cities.
Then there’s the not-so-understated WWII references: Heidegger is named after Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher that collaborated with the Nazis and had a few of his students sent to concentration camps. Professor Hojo is also clearly modeled after Josef Mengele and the Cetra have an ancestral legend of a place called The Promised Land. The first Cetra victim of Hojo that we see is Aerith, who is one of our two dead main characters.
The first allegorical Jew of the game lays down her life to preserve the dignity and familial (one might say “brotherly”) harmony between all souls.
To whit: the Lifestream borrows from ideas common in Hinduism that also appear in Buddhism. The soul of the individual needs to merge with all other souls and share the totality of its experience for its own good. And then there’s this big fat Jesus thing going on with Aerith. Which is interesting because the Final Fantasy games are usually very critical of both religion and also just power in general. So I don’t think it’s a pro-religion thing, maybe pro-spirituality.
If not pro-spirituality it is at least spiritual-friendly. What clinches the whole spiritual “reading” is the importance of Cloud’s subjectivity in the main plot. When we first meet Cloud, he doesn’t even give his name until he’s asked frankly- he’s just Ex-SOLDIER. Later, Cloud falls into the Lifestream while being locked in his own mind. He is both in the afterlife and trapped inside of his own pain. Another human being, Tifa, bodily enters his mind with him.
Later, the party goes directly into the planet’s core. Given that the Lifestream is every transmigrating soul crisscrossing through the core on their way to their next lives, this is familiar territory for Cloud. The final confrontation with Sephiroth even takes place in Cloud’s mind, after the last boss fight.
Basically, I’ve never played a game that gets plot, mythic themes and characters to work so well together. It sucks you into a discussion of big ideas in a way that’s poetic and exciting…and without getting preachy or taking sides. Or if it is, the side is that nukes and fascism are bad, which I happen to be okay with anyway 😉