Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Iron Fisted Mutha: Barret Wallace

   Final Fantasy VII was the first title to be released in the United States by the same name as it was in Japan since the first Final Fantasy.  Final Fantasy II in the US was IV and III in the US was VI.  With such a sudden jump from III to VII, there is a recognizable rift between American and Japanese audiences.  To further cement this, Final Fantasy VII was the first title to be released outside of a Nintendo console for the then new Sony Playstation.  While Nintendo had a history in America, Sony's contributions to American entertainment before the Playstation can pretty much be summed up with the Walkman, transistor radios, and maybe a television or vcr or something else 90s.  The debut of the Playstation would have to appeal to a Western market already dominated by Sega and Nintendo.  To make the game more identifiable among western audiences, Final Fantasy VII would be the first game to introduce more western characters.  And by western characters, I mean by appealing to a more ethnically diverse cast as seen in Western media.  The product of this is Barret.

Quite like Cloud's hair and giant sword, Barret is also quite iconic.

At first glance, it's not terribly difficult to pass Barret off as a horribly stereotypical token black character.  He's burly, he's as foul mouthed as a T for Teen rating will allow until Cid shows up and gives him a run for his money (a lot of what he says is censored with asterisks in the PC version, but context clues allow you to quickly fill in the blanks), he's slightly ill tempered, specifically when more feminine qualities are brought up or when somebody (like Cloud) is being difficult, and he has trouble figuring out how some forms of modern technology work.  His role in the story is that of both herald of the quest and helper to the hero.

By definition, a token character is one that is included in a story so as to appeal to a minority that otherwise wouldn't appear or have much say in a certain world or time period.  They tend to be either completely defined by their race (as commonly seen in Michael Bay action movies) or to be completely ignored for their race (as commonly seen in television ads for fast food).  It should be recognized that many movies break this mold and have very interesting and very remarkable black characters and that Western entertainment isn't always defined by this standard it is associated with.
Strictly speaking the role of Ben in the script only
required a man in his twenties regardless of race
but it worked out really well that Duane Jones
got the part in an era of much needed black heroes.  

For example, Ben from George Romero's Night of the Living Dead is the hero of a story who brought a new face to a largely white dominated world of heroes by way of his determination against impossible odds and resourcefulness in keeping those around him alive.  He doesn't pull punches, and he asserts his own humanity by trying to keep an insane world sane.  Ben resulted in the video game company Telltale Games to make their own hero Lee Everett in the video game adaptation of the series The Walking Dead.  Again, Lee is the hero, but this time with a more troubled background as he tries to be a good man despite his crimes for the sake of a little girl named Clementine in an all around evil and cruel world.  A third example is Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost in Pacific Rim where he leads the resistance against the giant monsters when all other nations have lost faith in his efforts. Pentecost takes care of Mako Mori quite like Lee Everett takes care of Clementine after a crazy world has taken these two girl's parents.  These are three black heroes in stories that don't inherently have to do with race, but are otherwise very well developed and celebrated.  There are a handful of others like these two, but generally the inclusion of black characters in stories is simpler in nature.

In the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot directed by Roland Emmerich, a black character is included among the revolutionaries who talks with Heath Ledger about the future and equality and respect for all men.  While this is a nice gesture (a token of appreciation if you will) it doesn't change the fact that historically the majority of slaves in the Thirteen Colonies who took a side sided with the British since they gave a more firm offering of emancipation for service.  Also, the black character is freed for his service at the beginning of the Battle of Cowpens and suddenly all of his previously racist comrades respect him as an individual.  It is a nice gesture, but anyone who knows the rest of American history knows that it's almost entirely unfounded.

In the film adaptation of Les Miserables starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, Marius' friend who is leading the revolution against the French monarchy is a black character (which has much stronger grounds for accuracy than in the case of The Patriot since there were many freed people of color like Alexander Dumas who were active in political life and society as a whole), but his ethnicity really isn't emphasized.  The thing about Marius' friend is that his role in the plot of the movie (not necessarily in the novel and certainly not in the musical although he's generally not black in either of these places) is very much peripheral.

Here Marius takes the Center of the frame
Barret Wallace in contrast doesn't really fit into either of these molds of token characters.  He really shouldn't fall into the first mold of being token because the world of Final Fantasy VII is a world entirely separate from our own with a different history and different prejudices (in this world, prejudice falls more heavily on the Asian-like Wutai, but we may or may not talk about that later) As for the second model, while he is basically a supporting character with many others more important than him later on and practically no emphasis on his race, he has a lot to offer to the plot as well as a very detailed backstory of his own. In this manner, he is a lot more like Stacker Pentecost and Lee Everett (even right down to the detail of an adopted daughter).

SPOILERSssss, but not very big ones so you won't spoil the overall plot if you continue.

To understand Barret, one must first understand his backstory.  Barret was a well respected individual in the coal mining town of Corel.  In those days before the rise of the Shinra Power Company, coal was a viable power source, but quite like it is in our world, it isn't very clean and mining it takes its toll on the health of coal miners.  His wife, Myrna, is one such person probably afflicted with black lung.  His best friend, Dyne, also lived in this town with a wife Eleanor and daughter Marlene.  One day a representative of the Shinra Power Company arrived offering to build a Mako Reactor in the town to improve the people of Corel's way of life.  Mako, a new power source that wasn't fully explained at the time, was a much cleaner and much more efficient alternative to coal, so Barret and the rest of the town immediately jumped on board.  Dyne had his doubts, but Barret reassured him it would be alright.

For a while, the Mako reactor proved to be a very profitable power source that made Corel grow wealthy.  Barret and Dyne became representatives of the town to the company and it is while they were in the capital city of Midgar that the reactor exploded.  The higher ups at Shinra assumed the explosion was the result of terrorist activity from the townspeople, so in response they sent in a deathsquad to exterminate the populace.

Barret and Dyne came home to witness the destruction of their town and when the death squad saw them, they started shooting at the two as they fled.  Barret went unscathed for the time, but Dyne slipped while he was running and almost fell of a cliff.  Barret managed to grab Dyne before he could fall, but then the business woman for the Company ordered her soldiers to shoot the two.  The resulting barrage of machine gun fire tore apart Barret and Dyne's arms causing Dyne to fall to his apparent death.

Barret lost his wife, his best friend, his best friend's wife, and his home that day, but managed to rescue Dyne's daughter Marlene.  To honor his friend, Barret adopted Marlene as his own, becoming one of the greatest single parents in video game history.
Marlene pretending to be Barret.  

Since the survivors of Corel blamed Barret for destroying their lives, Barret left in search of answers for his life as it all fell apart around him.  It was in this time that he arrived in Cosmo Canyon and learned about the true nature of Mako energy.  He discovers that Mako is the spirits of all souls passing again and again in different forms between life and death.  In terms of The Lion King, it's the Circle of Life.  The Mako reactors basically serve to extract and condense life itself into a nonrenewable resource that will greatly expedite the death of the planet.  To ensure a brighter future for his daughter, Barret swears he will end Shinra, has his injured arm amputated and replaced with a machine gun, and founds a group of freedom fighters for the planet Gaia called AVALANCHE.

SORTA SPOILERS END HERE FOR NOW, but if you didn't read that stuff above, you still probably should.  I'm just being courteous, because I respect your ability to make your own decisions and I want to streamline this as much as I possibly can.
He was later redesigned to have corn rows so as to look less like Mr. T.
So you see, Barret's anger has a legitimate basis.  He lost basically everything but instead of losing control about that and swearing vengeance, he turns all of his efforts toward the future.  His bold demeanor and the heart he wears on his nonexistent sleeve makes him the ethos and pathos of all the heroes.  His past is dark and full of loss just like pretty much everyone else in this story, but he isn't a murderer, he only hopes to disable the reactors long enough to raise awareness of their harmful effect on the planet.  For this reason, Barret is the original leader of the group, but Barret soon learns that leadership requires great loss in order for anything to happen.

Picking up on the story again here, so SPOilller, you know what, i'll just save the legitimate spoiler bar for the actually really big spoilers.  It's a big and excellent story, so I'm not going to diddle on such trivial exclusions.

Barret's leadership of AVALANCHE starts off pretty well.  Based out of a bar in the slums of Midgar run by Tifa, Barret leads his three original members Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge (Biggs and Wedge are part of a running gag throughout the series in that they are named after Luke Skywalker's two wingmen at the Battle of Yavin in Star Wars) in an effort to disable the reactors surrounding the city.  The city of Midgar is surrounded by seven different reactors, and a large amount of the world's population, so it's as good a place as any for a group of rebels.  However, in response to the trouble caused by AVALANCHE, the President of Shinra decides the best course of action in eradicating the rebels is to blow up a support column that holds part of the city above the slums, crushing all of the people in this part of the city, and then blaming it on AVALANCHE.

This occurrence results in Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie getting killed, but Aeris whom Cloud had met earlier manages to rescue Marlene.  After an attack on the Shinra headquarters to mixed results, Barret follows Cloud on his quest to find Sephiroth (who will also be getting a post all to himself, so just wait for that) since staying in Midgar will only mean more danger for Marlene.  Marlene stays at Aeris' mother's house since Aeris travels with Cloud and Barret.

Barret's troubles reach their pinnacle when Cloud and the gang return to Corel, which remains an encampment of squatters despite an amusement park being moved in right next door.  Everybody in Corel hates Barret just as much then as they did after the attack on the town, and this proves to be very upsetting for him.  While the group splits up at the amusement park, a news report comes up regarding a man with a gun for a hand going on a wild rampage and killing Shinra military personnel.  Since everybody assumes it is Barret, and since Cloud and the group are associates of Barret, they are all imprisoned in an internment camp at the base of the amusement park.  This is where they meet Dyne, who has apparently survived and also has a machine gun for an arm.

It turns out Dyne killed all those people and is on a quest to kill everybody and everything to fill the void in his life.  When Barret tells Dyne that Marlene is still alive, Dyne suggests interest in killing her too and then himself so that they can all be together again in death.  Barret immediately recognizes this to be crazy talk and apprehends his once friend, but Dyne turns his gun against himself and commits suicide instead of facing the future.  It is at this point Barret realizes he isn't cut out to lead since everything generally gets worse before they get better.

So anyway, this adoptive father who is also a widower who is also a former business man who is also an ecoterrorist who is also a bit of a mentor is far from a simple character inserted to nod to a certain minority found in western audiences.  But the question still remains as to why he's black (he's really the only one in pretty much the entire world) when virtually everyone else in the story is either Caucasian or Asian in appearance (of course these terms aren't exactly accurate given Asia and the Caucasus aren't geographic locations in the world of Gaia).  Well, art reflects reality especially when the art is fantasy, and really the purpose of it all is to suggest that a global effort to save the world really isn't in the hands of one people group alone.  In the same vein as 90s cartoons (this came out in 97) like Captain Planet or the Magic Schoolbus or any other one for that matter, everybody has a part to play in the betterment of mankind.  No one person is locked into any stereotype as all the characters have many similarities, but not everybody is the exact same and everyone has something they can do for the future.

If Barret represents anything more than looking like Mr. T with a gun for a fist, it's that mistakes aren't the measure of a person and that being a part of a rough journey even if he didn't have what it took to bear all of the responsibilities for the entirety of the quest ultimately results in some reward.  Despite everything he lost, it all stayed with him as part of the planet, and though he cannot give Marlene her parents back, he can at least give her the planet in which they live on as a part of the whole of the universe.  In truth, I'd say that's what Barret gives all of us in his story.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Cloud Strife: The Man from SOLDIER

Note:  Since the Final Fantasy games are plot heavy, and there exists some major spoilers, I will put in a spoiler bar when the time comes for spoilers.

Additionally, it should be noted that although each game is numbered, each game follows a completely different story in generally a completely different world with completely different characters.  Final Fantasy VII does not pick up where Final Fantasy VI left off nor do the events of Final Fantasy VIII come after Final Fantasy VII.

Each numbered entry follows a different narrative which can sometimes go into multiple installments.  To name a few high points in the overarching Final Fantasy VII universe, there is a prequel, a feature length film sequel, and another sequel that more closely follows a supporting character.  To keep the story as simple as possible for everyone, I will limit the narrative to the game entitled Final Fantasy VII.  

Without further ado, we will begin our discussion of Cloud Strife. 

The Opening to Final Fantasy VII is probably one of the most memorable scenes in the game.  In it, a mysterious girl is seen walking out of an alley with a basket of flowers under her arm while various automobiles rumble down the street.  The camera zooms out and provides a crane shot of the city of Midgar (in which I should note all perceived references and allusions to Norse mythology are totally intentional), which is depicted as heavily postindustrial in sharp contrast to most fantasy settings as well as dark, sketchy, and circular.  At the center of the city is a large futuristic office building for the dystopian corporation Shinra Power.  Something that's important to note about this intro is that it suggests the series is taking a new direction artistically as seen in the transition from a Medieval and Steampunk setting to a very much more modern setting.

Full Motion Video opening of FFVII as seen at the end of the prequel.

As the camera zooms back down toward the city, shots of a train roaring by are interspersed.  These images of the train sync up with the city as the train pulls into station.  From atop the train jumps down a spiky blonde character as several fellow passengers jump out and attack the guards at the train station.  It is shortly after this point the blonde character is named Cloud Strife.

Cloud Strife's spiky hair and anime eyes mark yet another change in direction for the series.  This is the style of Tetsuya Nomura, the new lead character designer for the game, as Cloud marks the first of Nomura's protagonists.  As the series goes on, the heroes look more and more androgynous.  The wild haircuts never really go away.

Cloud begins as something of an antihero.  He's rude, he's self centered, and he's all around kinda unpleasant.  He is fighting alongside the eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE against his former employers at the Shinra Power Company where he served in the elite security division SOLDIER. His reasons for fighting are completely based on business with no regard for the mission of AVALANCHE.  Despite his cocky nature and general disregard for everyone around him, he has one friend who convinced him to help AVALANCHE.  This friend, Tifa Lockheart, grew up with Cloud in the small village of Nibelheim.  I'll discuss more about Tifa later.

Scene from game in all its low polygon count splendor.
It was impressive in '97.

What's important is that despite how unlikable Cloud is, his motives aren't completely farfetched.  He make look ridiculous with his spiky hair and sword the size of a small person, but even people who look ridiculous have to pay the bills and he is simply using his skills as a mercenary to make ends meet.  Of course, if people are really going to care about this character for an extended period of time, there has to be some appealing quality that makes the character more than a cold and static vessel into a world of fantasy.  This is found in his friendship with Tifa.

Tifa reminds Cloud of the day before he left for the military shortly after he makes an ass of himself.  Cloud told Tifa before he left that he would join SOLDIER to become a hero, to which she replies if he really wants to be a hero, he'll have to come back and help her one day.  Heroes help people, and Cloud has apparently forgotten this. On this basis Cloud continues to help AVALANCHE for Tifa's sake as she basically protects Cloud from himself.  This becomes quite literal much later on.

Cloud begins to change as a character fairly early on following a botched attack on a power plant when he falls from a really high distance through the roof of an abandoned church.  It is in this church he meets Aeris Gainsborough.  Aeris is the same woman from earlier with the basket of flowers.  She has found that the church and land around her house can sustain flowers while the rest of the city's soil has been blighted.  As such, she's made a business selling flowers.  During their brief exchange, Aeris suggests Cloud looks familiar to her, but this is interrupted by Shinra soldiers looking to capture Aeris for reasons unknown.  Cloud fends them off and Aeris decides it would be safer for Cloud to stay with her to protect her from the Company's soldiers.

Sooner or later, Aeris recruits herself to the cause of Cloud's employers at AVALANCHE, and then following several kidnappings of various invidiuals and their rescue, Cloud encounters Sephiroth, an old enemy with whom Cloud must settle a score.

And so Cloud leaves the city of Midgar to pursue Sephiroth as it is revealed Sephiroth destroyed Cloud and Tifa's home at Nibelheim.  Sephiroth's motives will be explored further in a later post, but what happens to Cloud next is life shattering.

SPOIIIIIIIIILLLEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRS, SCROLL DOWN AS FAST AS YOU CAN TO THE LAST TWO PARAGRAPHS TO AVOID SAID SPOOOIIILLLLLLERRRS(this is a very well crafted game that can be found on Steam for a reasonable price, so if you haven't played the game before I highly recommend you see it for yourself, but if video games aren't for you or you don't have the time to play such a lengthy game or if you already have played this game, feel free to continue)

Cloud is about to stop Sephiroth's genocidal campaign against humanity (again, explained later), but he is stopped when Sephiroth seizes control of Cloud's mind and almost manages to force him to kill Aeris.  He fails to completely control Cloud, but then Sephiroth dives out of the sky and kills Aeris himself.  Cloud is disturbed by Aeris' death as Sephiroth had claimed such a vibrant life, but then Sephiroth reveals to Cloud that Cloud's entire life is a lie, just about all of his memories are fabricated, and because of the genetic experiments that went into making Cloud, he is more or less a puppet of Sephiroth who could turn on his companions at any moment.

They say that good conflict is often consistent and severe conflict.  Kurt Vonnegut said the test of a good character is based on the author's ability to craft someone that audiences will warm up to and then sadistically ruin said character at every turn.   The Final Fantasy series has had a fair share of stunning plot twists that completely knocks the heroes of their feet, but this is one of the first that proved to be so personal for the protagonist.  The combined stress of the revelation alongside the poisoning of his body from the experiments that gave Cloud is heightened strength and speed.

It is within this coma Cloud discovers which memories are real and which are fabricated.  He was friends with Tifa and he did live in Nibelheim, but he never was a member of SOLDIER but rather was a simple infantryman. On a mission to Nibelheim, he befriended a kind member of SOLDIER who also grew up in a small town named Zack Fair.  When Sephiroth destroyed Nibelheim, Zack and Cloud fought side by side against Sephiroth and seemingly defeated him.  It was shortly after this Cloud was captured and subjected to medical experimentation, but Zack escaped with Cloud as fugitives from the law.  Zack was killed in the escape, but not before making Cloud promise to carry on as his living legacy.  It was at this point that Cloud confused Zack's experiences as part of his own under his stress from recovering from the experiments and witnessing the death of his one friend in the military.  Having all of these memories sorted out, Cloud returns from his coma with newfound resolve to defeat Sephiroth and save the planet from the genocide.


In this sense, it's safe to say Cloud could best be described as an emotional glass cannon.  When fighting an enemy he can get shot and impaled multiple times and shake it off, but the moment one of his loved ones is threatened he begins to break at the risk of losing them.  At the same time, Cloud grows stronger by acknowledging his reliance on others whereas at the beginning he was reliant upon his own abilities and his lack of motivation renders his potential severely limited from all he is capable of achieving.  This is best captured in a scene from the feature length sequel Advent Children where Cloud fights Sephiroth a third time two years later. Sephiroth proceeds to severely beat Cloud and offers to find the thing Cloud loves most and to have the honor of taking it from him before he kills Cloud.  Cloud responds that there is not one thing he doesn't cherish and that Sephiroth will never understand this.

I feel like this is the most fundamental and important element of Cloud's character in that he found value and strength not from himself but from everyone who stood by him.  It makes for a remarkable progression from how the hero presented himself in the beginning.

Monday, March 17, 2014

One Last Tale Before the Night, One Last Dream Before the Morn: Final Fantasy

   There are many stories to be told and many ways to tell these stories.  The stories we tell are what we value and emphasize and pass on to the next generation as a reminder of what we believed in, and lived for, and dreamed of.  I dedicated this blog to the notion that video games are a medium of entertainment on both the level of both an interactive experience and sometimes a narrative journey.  It is one of the few media where the story can be optional or excluded, but it possesses stories worthy of praise and scrutiny.  I started by discussing what Majora's Mask meant to me as well as a bit about Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater and A Link Between Worlds.  Today it is my hope to tackle one installment in one of the most celebrated franchises of all time.

If you can't tell who in this picture is a man and who is a woman,
you're on the same page as everyone else.  

   The first installment of the ironically named Final Fantasy series was creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's last attempt at fulfilling his dream of being a video game designer.  At the risk of going back to college to pursue a more stable career, he put all of his company's capital to work on an experience unlike any seen in the world of the 1980s video game scene.  Creating an experience alongside the artistic talents of traditional Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano and rising star composer Nobuo Uematsu, Sakaguchi's final fantasy became a reality in 1987.  The result in those days can only be compared to the depth and immersion of games like Skyrim in the present.

   And so after the success of that first entry, the fantasy continued.  By the next entry, a more in depth story was added and the most advanced technology available was used from entry to entry to represent the worlds created for this experience.

   In 1991, the series introduced the story of the antihero Cecil, a dark knight cursed to be a pawn in darker schemes as he embarks on a quest for redemption to redeem his soul.  As it were, Cecil's adventure was the first Final Fantasy I had the opportunity to play.  Cecil's story was greatly improved by his relationships with his companions.

There was Kain, a knight torn to between the dark powers that control him and his love for his friends.

Rosa, the wizard who reminds Kain and Cecil that their misdeeds are not the measures of their hearts.

Rydia, a young girl who must forgive Cecil for unknowingly destroying her home and family.

and a host of others.

Yoshitaka Amano's cover art for FF VI, a steampunk cityscape

  In 1994, the series reached new heights with Final Fantasy VI.  Set in a steampunk universe where the source of all magic is threatened by a powerful emperor and a maniacal harlequin planning from the shadows, it follows an enduring party in their rebellion against the dark forces of their world.  Over the course of the adventure, all hope is frequently lost as evil triumphs again and again leading to the final confrontation that reaches such epic proportions I would not dare share them to anyone who has not experienced the scene.  I will however provide the musical masterpiece that completes this climax from the musical mind of Nobuo Uematsu.

   The phenomenal success of the sixth entry was celebrated as Sakaguchi's dream became an unbelievable legend.  However, 1997 brought a time of great changes.  The video game industry moved into the third dimension with the widespread success of Super Mario 64 the previous year.  Having moved away from Nintendo in favor of Sony, the makers of Final Fantasy would have to show their legendary brand could survive in this new era.  Sakaguchi and Uematsu returned while series art director Yoshitaka Amano took a back seat to new lead artist Tetsuya Nomura.  And in the midst of production, Sakaguchi's mother died tragically.

   The result of this arduous production became the most famous entry that would define the series as a whole in the gritty magically cyberpunk world of Final Fantasy VII.

Cityscape of Midgar from FFVII

Replacing evil empires with monopolizing power companies and the wooden ships and wagons with trains, planes, and motorcycles, the world of Final Fantasy VII holds depth and  significance seldom seen in a video game.

To successfully approach the story and world of Final Fantasy VII, I will not be going through the story from beginning to end as I did or attempted with previous series.  Instead, I will explore several major characters as well as themes of legacy, ambition, abuse and stewardship, life, death, and renewal among other elements across the series.

And starting with the next article, we begin with the spiky haired face of the series that showed us Tetsuya Nomura's artful vision for the first time.