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Computer Games Have Words, Too:

Dialogue Conventions in Final Fantasy VII


Greg M. Smith

Game Studies 2.2 (December 2002)







Since most people think of computer games as a visual medium, the primary faith in the evolution of games resides in improving the technology for their visual presentation. As designers are able to render more and more polygons, they can depict facial details more precisely, making more naturalistic expression and more nuanced characters possible. Assumedly, denser visual information will give the digital spaces explored by the interactive player some of the richness of the cinematic signifier. As long as we consider games to be primarily visual, it makes sense for both designers looking to shape the future and for critics wanting to explain present games to concentrate on the visual expressivity of this young medium.

To do so, however, is to ignore historical precedent. When the young medium of film made the transition from early cinema to the classical Hollywood style, the change was not based solely on the new reliance on the closeup. More realistic sets, the breakdown of scenes through editing and a more nuanced acting style all coordinated to make the change. A different notion of character and, perhaps most importantly, a different kind of story helped create the classical cinema, along with the visual improvements.[1] Increasing the capacity of a medium usually implies reworking several interrelated systems of expression.

While acknowledging the significance of the visual element in gaming, this article argues for the underappreciated importance of words and their narrative function in the present criticism and future design of games. This article begins to investigate that facet of gaming by concentrating on the dialogue of one of the most heralded of computer games, Squaresoft's Final Fantasy VII. Final Fantasy VII is a single player role playing game (RPG) directed by Yoshinori Kitase (with characters designed by Tetsuya Nomura) that is part of a continuing series of popular Final Fantasy games produced by Hinoboru Sakaguchi. This particular game is widely acknowledged as having one of the densest, most complex, most compelling stories of any single player RPG. I examine this high profile example as an important early shaper of developer practice and player expectations concerning what constitutes an intricate game narrative.

A young medium does not solely create its own conventions; it inherits and borrows expressive forms from other media, transforming them along the way. This article examines the way that Final Fantasy VII reshapes the conventions of mainstream Hollywood film dialogue. Dialogue, of course, is not a distinguishing characteristic of film; it is a shared inheritance from television, the cinema, novels, and the theater. Games, however, do not borrow equally from these media because they have need for particular kinds of dialogue. Because players are frequently impatient with character speech in games, sometimes seeing these spoken interludes as obstructions that keep them from more interesting battle scenarios, the dialogue in games needs to be particularly pithy and efficient.[2] This need for terse, effective dialogue makes games rely more on the driven conventions of recent time-pressured media, particularly contemporary film and television. As audiences become more and more savvy at "reading" visual narratives, they are able to handle more and more plot packed into an hour of television. The sheer pace of Seinfeld's or ER's or Run Lola Run's narrative would likely be dizzying to audiences of a couple of decades ago. Although dialogue conventions have been developed in the novel and the theater, those conventions have been compressed in current film and television practices. Whether or not one blames the postmodern condition of interrupted sensibility or the economic pressure to maintain a declining viewership, contemporary media have taught audiences to read the narrative function of dialogue cues very quickly.[3]

This article focuses on the narrative functions served by the crisply cinematic dialogue of Final Fantasy VII.[4] I do not emphasize theme or irony or other literary concepts that one certainly could use in discussing character dialogue. Such more traditional literary approaches tend to look past the dialogue toward larger structures (such as "theme") that exist across the entire text, although they are built out of individual smaller elements. The emphasis in this article is on the individual elements themselves (the lines of dialogue) and on the way that these bits of dialogue work at the local level to give the player narrative information. I enumerate the common functions of dialogue in Final Fantasy VII.[5]

It is not surprising that game studies has not done a functional analysis of dialogue, since the more established body of film studies has only recently attempted a narratological enumeration of the specific functions of dialogue alone.[6] But this examination occurs within the context of a broad tradition of study that extends from the Russian Formalists.[7] The concern for the Formalists was to discover how a reader puts together the plot/story in time. To do so, they gave close examination to the surface of the text instead of its "deep" structure. They categorized various narrative devices according to their functions in helping the reader's understanding.[8] Work of this sort continued in both literary and film studies, resulting in Roland Barthes's S/Z and Kristin Thompson's Breaking the Glass Armor.[9] While I am not proceeding in the same method of step-by-step commentary that Barthes uses on Sarrasine, I do want to break the verbal portion of Final Fantasy VII down into blocks of signification to analyze their functions without restructuring them into larger concepts such as "theme." By finding patterns in local signification of a specific game, I hope to make plain certain key strategies that computer games use to structure the player's experience. Like other computer games, Final Fantasy VII calls upon the dialogue conventions inherited from film and television. My analysis is intended to indicate some of the ways media dialogue patterns are used in computer games as a way to begin a grounded investigation of this important aspect of games.

The focus in this article is on key lines of dialogue that advance the player's understanding of plot information. Not all lines of dialogue are created equal in their centrality to the narrative. Seymour Chatman calls these pivotal events "kernels" and Eugene Dorfman calls them "narremes."[10] I will avoid the seemingly irresistible temptation of narrative scholars to give these functional bits of dialogue a new term. Instead I will concentrate on finding patterns in the way key dialogue lines in Final Fantasy VII boost our understanding of the overall plot.

As David Bordwell has noted, classical film is goal-oriented. It defines a central objective for the protagonist to achieve, and it makes the protagonist's progress difficult by setting up a series of obstacles to overcome. Overcoming the most currently pressing obstacle (finding a missing clue, battling the villain's henchmen) gives us a minor payoff on the way to the denouement's final payoff.[11] The structure of most computer games fits this paradigm quite precisely. There is a major overall goal (in the case of Final Fantasy VII, saving the planet from being destroyed by a greedy corporation) and a series of intermediate goals leading up to the climax (for instance, Cloud, the game's protagonist, must collect the items needed to impersonate a woman before he can infiltrate Don Corneo's harem and question the powerful man). But the different structures of the two media affect the way dialogue points us toward the goal. In a RPG like Final Fantasy VII we do not need so many intermediate plot goals because of the frequent combat. Fighting battles with vicious creatures provides local payoffs that keep us interested in continuing to interact with the game. The pleasure of piling up points is not available to the film viewer. Games, therefore, do not need to remind us continually of the moment's plot goal because they can depend on the moment's battle to keep us involved. Much of film dialogue must keep us focused on the protagonist's goals, pushing us forward to give us a sense of urgency. The dialogue in Final Fantasy VII does not have this same forward-moving emphasis. Once the overall goal of the plot is set, the game does set up a series of subgoals along the way, but the dialogue does not focus the player on these tasks in the way that film dialogue tends to do. The interactive combat sequences scattered throughout the game's narrative serve a narrative function that in film is often entrusted to dialogue: keeping us moving forward urgently. Because computer games like Final Fantasy VII have another mechanism for propelling the player through the game, Final Fantasy VII's dialogue is freed to focus on other purposes.

Many of the key lines in Final Fantasy VII are there to fill us in on events in the past, not to point us toward the future. Almost every narrative in any medium has to present exposition, to establish character qualities, to show us the relationships among the characters before we met them, to show us the history of this particular diegetic world. Most film and television narratives try to get as much of this exposition done early as possible to give the viewer enough information to become immersed in the forward-moving story. This is particularly true of the action-adventure film, the genre most commonly linked with computer games. Action-adventure narration establishes the character's qualities by rooting them in past history, thus providing a motivation for present action. The dialogue in Final Fantasy VII proceeds more like that of a mystery film, slowly exposing the past bit by bit. While the game pushes us forward to higher and higher point levels, the dialogue gives us an increasing sense of what occurred before we arrived on this world.

Final Fantasy VII follows Cloud, a highly trained soldier for hire, as he joins Avalanche, a team of rebels who make terrorist raids against Shinra, a massive global-controlling corporation. Shinra aims to exploit the planet's stores of Mako energy to create its own new city, even though it means the devastation of the rest of the planet and its population. The overall question driving the game is whether or not Cloud and his band of renegades can stop the corporate rape of the planet and overturn Shinra's power, setting loose the natural planetary forces and establishing the Promised Land foretold by the Ancients.

The player must learn much of the history of the planet and of these characters in particular. This emphasis on the backstory is one of the significant ways that the game conveys a feeling of depth approaching that of film. It does so by appropriating several narrative and dialogue strategies from mainstream film. One of the most time honored of these strategies is using an outsider's ignorance to educate the audience about past events. Anyone new to a town (a passing gunfighter, a visiting relative) must be verbally informed about who the primary players in the town are, what their interrelationships are and the rules by which this particular society works. People helpfully volunteer this context to the stranger, and the stranger is allowed to question people about things he does not (and, by implication, we do not) understand. Initially, Cloud serves this function in Final Fantasy VII. As Cloud joins the Avalanche band of terrorists, he inquires about the purposes of the job he's been hired for, and he interrogates how things work for the team. When disabling a reactor with Avalanche, newcomer Cloud asks useful questions about how to operate the controls, guiding us in an environment that is as new to us as it is to him. Final Fantasy VII sometimes switches insiders and outsiders as the context changes. When Avalanche penetrates into Shinra's territory, Cloud (a former Shinra employee) becomes the person who is asked questions about the evil corporation. Final Fantasy VII extends this typical cinematic strategy of providing a naturalistic way for audiences to get exposition by eavesdropping on an outsider's question-and-answer sessions.

Another way that computer game dialogue reveals the past is through simple terms of address. When Tifa asks Cloud, "You're going to walk out ignoring your childhood friend?" we discover that Cloud's and Tifa's relationship dates back further than we realized. Cloud's "Long time, no see," spoken to President Shinra reveals their previous connection.

As a more subtle extension of this strategy, dialogue can reveal to us the previous history of attitudes among characters. For instance, when Tifa tells Cloud to "straighten up things with everyone for me," she reveals a depth of obligation between the characters that we had not expected, particularly from the devil-may-care Cloud. Much of what we know about the characters comes from reading the attitudes and assumptions characters have about each other. They can note patterns of lifetime behavior when we can only see individual instances. Tifa notes that Barrett is always pushing people around and Cloud has always been in fights ever since he was little, helping to explain the tension between the two warriors. Dialogue can help us spot violations in behavior patterns, as characters who are familiar with each other can see irregularities that we cannot. When rough-and-ready Cloud comments that the city environment is "pretty unsettling," Barrett says he "never expected to hear that [language] outta someone like you. You're just full of surprises." In an environment that is new to us, character reactions expressed through dialogue help underline the ordinariness of what is ordinary and the distinctiveness of what is distinct.

Fairly frequently in Final Fantasy VII characters are placed in the awkward position of telling each other what they already know so that we the audience may overhear this new information.[12] Sometimes a spoonful of attitude can help the exposition go down (as when Cloud retorts, "I did work for Shinra, you know"). Sometimes there may be a degree of uncertainty expressed about whether or not a character really knows the information in question ("Don't you know? The Ancients called themselves the Cetra and lived thousands of years ago"). Final Fantasy VII seems to have particular difficulty in overcoming this subproblem of naturalistic exposition. The requirement of using very terse dialogue lines to reveal complicated backstory pushes Final Fantasy VII toward some awkwardly bare attempts at communicating information to the player.

One of the major tasks of a film or a computer game narrative after the initial exposition is the parceling out of new plot information. The timing of this process is extraordinarily sensitive. If too much time passes before a film reveals significant new plot information, the audience may become bored. If a film packs in too much information too quickly, it can overwhelm its audience. One of the most polished achievements of Final Fantasy VII is the way it handles this gradual parceling out of plot information about key concepts such as the Promised Land. We first hear the Promised Land described as a myth, then we see Shinra trying to make this legend a reality through their machinations. Slowly we hear more and more about the Promised Land: the Ancients' prophecies, Aeris's mother's instructions to her about bringing about the Promised Land and so on. This gradual ladling out of information is one of the things that is most "cinematic" about the dialogue in Final Fantasy VII.

The game also uses several classic cinematic situations to uncover particularly dense information about the past: meetings, informants and news reports are key. The best way to explain details about how Shinra hopes to siphon off the planet's resources is for us to witness a meeting of corporate executives discussing the plan. The informant is a useful narrative device as well. When Tifa and Cloud corner Don Corneo in his bedroom, they threaten him until he cracks, telling them about how Shinra plans to destroy the city supports and crush the slums. Frequently we listen to TV screens at several locations broadcasting corporate propaganda through official news reports. Each of the situations enables the game to provide us with tightly packed summaries of plot information.

To sum up so far: Final Fantasy VII devotes much of its dialogue not in pointing us toward the game's climactic goal (a task aided by the intermittent payoffs provided by combat) but to informing us about the past. Meetings, informants, news reports, discussing information already known by the characters, terms of address, embedding history in character attitudes and using outsiders to prompt questions: all these strategies uncover the backstory through more or less naturalistic dialogue. All of these take advantage of the terse conventions of cinematic dialogue. The forward moving, goal oriented structure of the action is counterbalanced by the backward driven, past oriented structures of dialogue.

The place where the classical narrative blends past with present is in character motivation, and motivation is highly scrutinized in the dialogue of Final Fantasy VII. The interchanges between characters in the game establish a network of motivations, and it is the player's job to parse this information, to weigh the moral consequences of those motivations. After establishing the past, the dialogue trains us to monitor the continuing importance of that past in determining the characters' future course of action. The overall character arc of the game is a familiar one from the action film: Cloud the itinerant soldier-for-hire must progress from his initial state of caring for nothing but himself and his own financial gain to embracing the rebel cause, even when it means sacrificing for the other members of the team. The dialogue is largely responsible for tracking the gradual change in Cloud's motivation.

In the opening sections of the game, motivations tend to be baldly stated. "The only thing I care about is finishing the job," Cloud says. These overt declarations give us an initial tag to hang on the character, and an explicit rejection of motivation can be just as crucial in defining character. "I don't care about Avalanche or the Planet for that matter," Cloud declares. Inheriting expectation from the action film, we know to monitor the solipsistic soldier to see when his personal defenses begin to break down.

The player's task is to morally evaluate the characters' reasons for action. In Murray Smith's terms,[13] we have little choice about which character we are "aligned" with (alignment meaning which character we follow, which ones we have access to their feelings, actions, and thoughts). Because of the structure of the game, we must necessarily align ourselves with Cloud and follow him into battle. But we must also make a decision about the morality of the characters, and this moral evaluation is what Smith calls "allegiance." In order to ally ourselves with characters, we must make a determination about the rightness or wrongness of their actions and thoughts. When President Shinra says that "all it takes to make your dreams come true these days is money and power," our moral judgment rankles at such a thought. When fellow Shinra executive Rufus says "A little fear will control the minds of the common people. No reason to waste good money on them," we are expected to condemn Shinra's callous attitude and their resulting plans.

This moral evaluation often requires a careful weighing of the evidence, not just a simple acceptance of the characters' overt statements of motivation. In this process, we are guided by the ways characters evaluate each other. Barrett initially summarizes Cloud's motivation in no uncertain terms: "You don't give a damn about no one but yourself." Based on these initial assumptions, characters do what we are supposed to do: predict the characters' future actions based on an understanding of their motivation. Characters then express surprise when their expectations are not confirmed, alerting us that the motivation may be changing and the character may be growing.

The characters therefore model the process that the player is expected to perform. We are supposed to look beyond the characters' words to the internal states behind them. The running discussion about whether Tifa or Aeris is romantically engaged with Cloud provides a good example of dialogue that must be read for hidden intent. Aeris asks Cloud if Tifa is a girlfriend, and if the player chooses the vehement reply "No way!" then Aeris responds, "You don't have to get upset," indicating that Cloud may be protesting too much. The player is similarly dubious when we hear Aeris and Tifa both telling each other that Cloud is nothing to them. Noël Carroll[14] has discussed how characters in horror films help signal to the audience what the appropriate reaction to the monster is, and in Final Fantasy VII the characters perform a similar function. By showing us that we should look through the conversations for hints of hidden motivation, the game teaches us how to interpret the dialogue.

One significant way that this moral evaluation differs between games and film is that we occasionally have options to choose conversational responses in Final Fantasy VII. By choosing to deny vehemently a romantic attraction to Tifa (the "no way" response), we take a different kind of ownership of the character's moral stance. If we are allied with a film character who then does an action we morally disapprove of, we can more easily detach ourselves from this allegiance. After all, the character has made the choice, not us. But when we choose for Cloud to behave gallantly or badly, we are complicit in a more complicated involvement. Final Fantasy VII does not allow totally free choice in these "interactive" dialogue situations. Often it offers two separate possible responses, only one of which is truly enticing or plausible. When given the choice of making sweet feminine Aeris a flower seller or the town drunk, only one choice maintains any kind of narrative consistency. Frequently we are given a choice between doing something that advances the plot or doing nothing ("No thanks," "I don't care"), providing the appearance of choice while allowing the game to continue its story arc. To make such a "non-choice" is to drop outside the game. Final Fantasy VII loads the dice to induce us to make the right choice. We inhabit the characters' behavior more fully partly because we choose that behavior, even when that choice is rigged. One of the many ideas implicit in the concept of "interactivity" is this more complex notion of moral judgment that is no longer as externalizable as it is in film.

Because the dialogue in Final Fantasy VII must do its work tersely and effectively, the game relies on the fairly ordinary practices of cinema and television that I have elaborated here. The player's impatience with interchanges necessitates that the dialogue be restricted in scope at this moment in the evolution of the game. And yet this article demonstrates how quickly even these simple devices may be repurposed once place in the context of a game. The forward driven dialogue of classical film becomes the backward oriented lines of Final Fantasy VII, giving the player morally complex choices in judging the motives of the game's characters. While shedding light on the cinematic heritage of Final Fantasy VII's dialogue, this article also hopes to open up a critical dialogue about the way games alter the very conventions they borrow.

Endnotes

[1] Tom Gunning, D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991).

[2] Early Adventure-type games consisted solely of text, but the majority of the text in such games was descriptive ("You are standing next to a white house. There is a mailbox."). Now that increased graphics capacity has taken on the function of establishing place in computer games, language is free to take on other dramatic functions, such as character dialogue.

[3] The international art cinema and American independent filmmaking are obviously important cultural forces, and I do not deny their possible influences on particular computer games. (I have argued for the influence of art cinema on Myst in "Navigating Myst-y Landscapes: Utopian Discourses and Hybrid Media," in Hop on Pop: The Pleasures and Politics of Popular Culture, edited by Henry Jenkins, Jane Shattuc, and Tara McPherson (Duke University Press, forthcoming)) However, Final Fantasy VII's dialogue (like that of many computer games) owes much more to the goal-conventions of the mainstream Hollywood film than to the ambiguous narrative of the art cinema.

[4] One other obvious point of comparison (considering the Japanese origins of the game) would be to look at dialogue conventions in another visual medium: Japanese animé. While the influence of Japanese animation on the visual style of Final Fantasy VII seems clear, I am hesitant to make claims about its influence on the games dialogue because I am not a Japanese speaker. Translations provided by video subtitling or dubbing may be satisfactory for certain kinds of analysis, but in a close consideration of the functions of dialogue, they would be suspect sources. The same is true of Japanese manga comics, since translators often redraw and reshape the word balloons when going from the vertical writing of Japanese language to the horizontal lines of English.

[5] Dialogue in Final Fantasy VII is read, not spoken. During game play, the player hits a key, and a character's lines appear on the screen (with the speaker's name). Dialogue lines usually appear when two characters are physically close to each other, and a conversation occurs with multiple key presses, each bringing up a character's single utterance. Occasionally the player is given the opportunity to choose between two possible verbal responses, but usually key presses are simply used to make sure the dialogue appears as quickly or slowly as the player desires.

[6] Obviously there are many screenwriting manuals, and academic narrative scholars do not entirely neglect verbal cues, but the only book length consideration of the specific narrative functions of film dialogue is Sarah Kozloff, Overhearing Film Dialogue (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

[7] See Herbert Eagle, ed. and trans, Russian Formalist Film Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981) for key writings and a useful overview.

[8] Under Viktor Sklovskij's influence, Russian Formalism asserted that their primary focus was to study a medium's "devices" (its conventional structures) and how they are used. Filmmakers provide a succession of devices, laying out the plot that the viewer mentally reassembles through a process of "internal speech" into a chronological story. The critic, by articulating these conventions, could help filmmakers to gain command over the cinematic "language," making richer expression possible. For more on the film viewer's process of "internal speech," see Boris Ejxenbaum, "Problems of Cinema Stylistics," in Russian Formalist Film Theory, p. 55-80. For more on the application of Sklovskij's notion of plot/story onto the cinema, see Jurij Tynjanov, "On the Foundations of Cinema," in Russian Formalist Film Theory, p. 81-100.

[9] Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974); Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

[10] Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978) 53-56; Eugene Dorfman, The Narreme in the Medieval Romance Epic: An Introduction to Narrative Structures (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969). Chatman distinguishes between kernels (major plot points) and satellites (minor plot occurrences), while Dorfman calls this a distinction between narremes and marginal incidents. I am not looking at the full range of what either theorist would call kernels/narremes, since I am not exploring plot events that are shown visually. Since my analysis deals with verbal signification alone, it is related to Barthes's use of the term "lexias," (13-14) though Barthes uses that term to mean a block of verbal signification that can vary in length from a few words to several paragraphs. I am looking at lines of dialogue in a computer game, and so the lexia is both smaller and larger than the unit of analysis I deal with here.

[11] David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985) 156-166. Bordwell also argues for the importance of the spectator's active engagement in the process of story comprehension. (33-40) Spectators (in our case, players) bring a variety of schemata to the story, and these schemata guide their assumptions and hypotheses about what will happen and how. The text's goal-obstacle structure does not stand alone; it works in congress with spectator/player processes.

[12] Science fiction writers call this an "infodump."

[13] Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[14] Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990).