Final Fantasy 7. Cloud, Tifa, and Barret have to save Aeris from Shinra. To do so, they have to make their way from the lower level of two-tiered Midgar to the top of “the plate.” The plate hangs over the lower part of the city. It blots out the sun, casting the slums into eternal night.
The first three or four hours of the game, depending on your speed, take place down underneath. Then, in a moment of dire need, you have to climb a up a pipe and then enter into the most confusing and poorly-designed moment in video game history.
Watch the video. You don’t need sound.
So what happens here?
You climb up a ladder that takes too long to climb up. You have to wander around in a Z-level confused screen that gives you multiple paths that lead nowhere. You can tell that the plane propeller animates, but it doesn’t respond to anything. In a very real way, and not as a metaphor, you lose the plot.
If you watched enough of the video, you know that you have to go back down the pipe. You have to go into the town, Wall Market, and methodically talk to everyone. Eventually you see a character who does not even appear to be interactive because he is behind a screen; the player cannot reach him. This character sells you a battery.
You need that battery to make the propeller move.
Honestly, I think it gets more complicated from there. A jump-timing puzzle follows. Then you have the option of picking up an item, but taking that option means that you have to do the timed jump again. Everything suffers the same Z-level problem. It is visually confusing, and it feels like a waste of time.
You’ll notice that the title of this post mentions that I want to praise something. I’m getting there.
So what does this long, terrible sequence do? Why is it in the game?
Remember the context of the sequence. The characters are having to make their way from the slums of Midgar up onto the wealthy top layer. The journey is difficult, confusing, and requires knowledge outside anything the player is ever told. It literally is a process of trial and error; alternately, you can be “in the know.” You can have a friend who knows the information. You can read a walkthrough.
The puzzle-that-is-not-a-puzzle is a metaphor.
One of the ways that poverty is entrenched structurally is through information control. There are forms to be filled out. There are tax documents to wade through. There are services that are never communicated to the people who need them because realistically servicing an entire population is prohibitively expensive. Poverty exists in loops–you never see a way out because you’re too busy making ends meet, or no one shows you, or no one tells you that you need to apply for scholarships by a deadline. To not be homeless, you need a job; to get a job, you need a permanent address. Infinite loop.
I’m not going to say how many of these I have personally experienced, but it is more than a couple.
So this section of Final Fantasy 7 is a translation of that real-world issue into the mechanics of the game. Instead of navigating structural or informational architecture, the player is literally forced to navigate a space that is mysterious and unclear. This gets achieved in a couple ways, all of which are really interesting. The game chooses this moment to begin navigation vertically rather than horizontally–so far, the player has been navigating horizontal planes and entering them from the left and the right. The move to pure verticality is a subtle way to suggest the difficulty of the actual movement (we’re climbing up a tiny pipe) and the difficulty of the mission at hand (invading the heart of power in the world; going into the lion’s den). Additionally, the player moves in and out of different z-planes. It is literally impossible to navigate in a purely visual manner. Instead, the player has to exhaust all of her potential spatial movement to even get the barest hint of the pathway that she is supposed to take.
Finally, and I think this might be the most important, this section of the game makes sure that the frustration comes only from the architectural difficulties. The battle system, which would generally interrupt the player every thirty steps or so, is suspended. That means that the game, in totality, becomes less challenging here. It is beautiful design; you aren’t stressed out or distracted by the battle system, or by ephemeral enemies. Instead, you a locked in a meditation between the self and the system; the act of navigation becomes all consuming. The movement from abject poverty, where the living being is literally reduced to that-which-can-be-killed, to the middle class is the all-consuming goal of the player.
It is in this environment that finding the battery takes on some real meaning. It becomes a silver bullet. The moment you can associate the small yellow box with progress, you can make your way through the section with minor annoyances instead of brain-busting frustration.
So what does it mean? It means that there are ways out of poverty, but that those ways are obscured from those who need them, and that they can only be discovered through massive polling, data accumulation, and time. In a video game, those are always-already present; you have access to infinite Final Fantasy time. Cloud doesn’t grow old and die, and he doesn’t have to get up at 6am to get on a bus to get on a train to get to work.
That’s the disconnect, the short circuit, and maybe the moment we need to focus on. The method of solvency, the way to get up and out of the bottom plate with its infinite night, isn’t accessible to the people who need it most. After all, Cloud, Tifa, and Barret get out, but there are still a lot of people living down there.
So this terrible design needs to be praised, but I find it lacking. Silver bullets don’t always work.