Misinformation (Final Fantasy VII)
With the Final Fantasy VII Remake on the horizon, it’s got me thinking about the original, one of the greatest video games I have ever played. There are many facets to the game’s success, such as the characters, the worldbuilding, the combat system and the soundtrack, but one of the key factors, in my opinion, is the story. While the story has been accused of being convoluted, true as I will soon elaborate, I believe the story’s complex nature utilized the world and characters to their fullest potential. One factor that helped with this the most was FF7’s use of misinformation in its story. The developers were able to minimize the ludicrously complicated story by drawing out revelations across the course of the entire game. This furthered character arcs, villain motivations and suspense.
How was this accomplished? Let’s take a look: let’s start by examining the main instance of a complex situation slowly elaborated on. The Nibelheim incident. At first, the game shows you via flashback that Cloud and Sephiroth, main hero and villain respectively, went to Nibelheim before things got tense. Both are members of SOLDIER, an elite warrior regiment of the Shinra Company. They’re going to put down a monster attack in a power reactor together, right outside Nibelheim which is Cloud’s hometown. They get a guide from town, Cloud’s childhood friend Tifa, and head to the reactor. Here, Sephiroth discovers he is in fact not human, but the last remaining member of the magical race known as the Cetra. Sephiroth becomes obsessed with understanding his origin and his true race and in the process becomes erratic. After finding research materials in a Shinra mansion in Nibelheim, he gets the information he’s looking for. He goes insane, burning down the town, killing Cloud’s friend Tifa, and discovering the former leader of the Cetra, Jenova. He tries to free Jenova but Cloud faces Sephiroth and kills him by throwing him into the reactor. After that Cloud’s memory goes blank and the first thing he remembers is waking up in the metropolis of Midgar.
Simple, right? Well no. See, half the information you just took in is incorrect, though you’d never know it. In fact, Sephiroth is never informed the information is incorrect so he operates based on it for the remainder of the game.
The first step in misinformation is to provide the misinformation as truth. Step two is to contradict the misinformation later on. Where to start with this one…let’s go with Cloud. Midgar is nearly halfway across the world, so Cloud never quite justifies his leap across space and the absence of time he doesn’t remember. Next is Tifa, who is 100% not dead, being a member of your party for nearly the entire game. The town of Nibelheim itself you can visit and it is most certainly not burned down. No one there remembers Cloud and he knows none of them despite their claiming to live there forever. Jenova, the benevolent leader of the Cetra is revealed to be something horrible and what exterminated the Cetra in the first place. Lastly is Sephiroth, who appears alive to Cloud repeatedly. Therefore, something’s afoot. We have been fed some bogus somewhere along the line. This is the Watergate of PS1 JRPG stories. We need the truth.
So step one: give false info. Step two: contradict the info. Step three: reveal the true info. So here’s how everything really went down, as is revealed towards the game’s end: Sephiroth and Zack Fair, both SOLDIER First Class, visit Nibelheim to put down a monster attack in a power reactor there. Accompanying them are a small escort of regular foot soldiers, one of which is Cloud. Nibelheim happens to be Cloud’s hometown, but he hides his identity for fear of being exposed. He told everyone he was going to become a SOLDIER but he didn’t quite make the cut. His childhood friend Tifa is their guide so the ruse doesn’t hold up long. Tifa guides the group up to the reactor. Here, Sephiroth discovers he is a Cetra and the plot proceeds as normal up until he burns down the town. Zack Fair goes to stop Sephiroth, who has just attacked Tifa. Sephiroth knocks Zack unconscious. Cloud, having had his mother killed and town destroyed, faces Sephiroth alone after abandoning his fellow infantrymen. Cloud manages to throw Sephiroth into the reactor core, straight into the raw Mako energy. Sephiroth and the remains of Jenova fall out of sight. Cloud collapses. This part of the plot is admittedly shaky, as much of the following has to be gleaned from other sources, like spin-offs and such. This is where the plot gets convoluted and you need to piece it together. Tifa’s teacher rescues her and carries her away before she wakes. The Shinra corporation swoops down and captures Cloud, Zack, and any other survivors. They then heal them up and experiment on them for other facets of the plot. This erases the memory of the few survivors, excluding Zack and Cloud. Eventually, Zack helps Cloud escape and Zack dies. Cloud, experimented on with the aforementioned Mako energy, seeing Zack and everyone in Nibelheim die, and traumatized from everything else, pushes his true self away, burying it deep inside him. He adopts many of Zack’s attributes, and due to the Mako experiments, absorbs many of his memories. Cloud, not quite remembering perfectly who he truly is, manages to make it to Midgar as he and Zack made it nearly there together. Tifa discovers him as his crisis of identity is at its peak and she takes him in, afraid if she explains what really happened, Cloud will leave for good. Sephiroth, thrown into the Mako energy, heals and Jenova appears telepathically as Sephiroth to anyone experimented on by Shinra. And later on Jenova is revealed to be an intergalactic parasite that exterminated the Cetra as they sealed her away. Until Shinra dug her up for experiments that is.
Basically anything between Sephiroth disappearing and Tifa taking Cloud in is not explained in FF7, but in other supplementary materials like the spin-off FF7 Crisis Core. So points off there. It would be way better to actually explain it all in game. FF7 gives satisfactory explanations, while FF7CC gives more complicated explanations. So all in all, it works really well.
Minus Zack Fair and Nibelheim, basically everything is clear in FF7’s plot. I think one of the biggest reasons the game is considered convoluted is that Sephiroth is never made clear he is in the wrong. If someone told him Jenova is actually the one who exterminated the Cetra, chances are he wouldn’t have been so dead set on following her.
Side note: I am aware I’m leaving out key pieces of the Jenova Reunion Theory of Professor Hojo along with the character Angeal, but that really isn’t relevant here so I’m choosing to ignore it.
Back to business. If the characters merely revealed the true series of events, the plot would have happened very differently. Another great example is the later half of the game, where Cloud and his friends, and Shinra are both trying to kill Sephiroth but since neither group knows what the other is doing they just screw each other over. Cloud and his crew sabotage Shinra’s plan to send a rocket into Sephiroth’s greatest weapon even though not doing so would be in their best interest. And Shinra tries to kill Cloud despite Cloud trying to kill Sephiroth. This and the Nibelheim incident are both examples of misinformation. What FF7 lacks is the final reveal of this information. There is no Sherlock Holmes flourish when he reveals all, FF7 is instead chill about it and everyone keeps their information close to their chest. That is why FF7 is convoluted. The information is botched in the reveal. Despite this, I consider it to be a prime example of misinformation in storytelling. Why? Because it is what drives the entire plot forward. Like I said, it’s so cool to see Shinra, Cloud’s party, and Sephiroth all clashing over minute things, all being manipulated by Jenova who only wants all life to end. It creates a sense of tension knowing the info could come out at any moment and flip the whole plot and characters on their heads. However, all this potential is a bit wasted. I still think having a moment of revelation of “Oh, we should work together to face Sephiroth,” or “What do you mean the thing I’m working for is the thing that exterminated the race I’m mistakenly thinking I belong to?” would have done wonders to clear things up. FF7 requires you to pay attention and then pore over countless Wiki entries to fully comprehend everything you’ve just seen. But I still think the sheer potential and how much it drives the plot forward is astounding. If everyone operated off correct info, the three groups would have anihilated Jenova together, then Sephiroth and Cloud would have turned on Shinra, cause Shinra legitimately does suck. But that’s not what happened unfortunately. To get back on track one last time, you’ve now seen the misinformation and how it impacts the plot of FF7 I’d like to show you the specific benefits it gave the plot.
Let’s start by looking at Cloud. The first benefit is the misinformation creates Cloud’s character arc of understanding his past and throwing off Zack’s persona so he can grow into his own. Second is it creates depth for his character. He doubts his own memories and relationships and you see him struggle through it in a way most characters wouldn’t. At the end of the day his relationships with the characters are stronger because of it. The third benefit is that Sephiroth knows the truth of what happened at Nibelheim and he holds it over Cloud’s head. Sephiroth doesn’t know the full story but he knows enough to incentivise Cloud.
While on the subject of the One-Winged Angel himself, let’s look at how it affects him. Firstly, his motive is 100% incorrect but seems valid. He believes he is a Cetra, Jenova led the Cetra, and the humans eradicated the Cetra so he wants to eradicate humans. Except he’s not Cetra, he’s human. Jenova killed all the Cetra and the humans helped the Cetra face her. His motive is the complete opposite of what it should be. Second, his misinformation allows multiple factions to be villains. Shinra wouldn’t antagonize Cloud as much if Sephiroth gave Cloud all the info. And due to Sephiroth being misinformed, he’s against everyone. Extra conflict equals extra tension which makes any story better. Sephiroth being misinformed drives the entire plot and deepens every aspect of the characters and their stories.
So to be a little bit less context heavy, for those amongst us who haven’t seen Advent Children and know about Dirge of Cerberus, how can misinformation help out any story? I’m glad you asked. Firstly: it allows complex scenarios to be explained simplistically then elaborated on over multiple sittings. This minimizes boring exposition and makes the audience interested in hearing details they otherwise wouldn’t care about. Second, it creates mystery and suspense the story would lack if the audience knew all the details. This can also be accomplished by not telling the audience anything but that’s for another day. Holding information just out of reach stresses the characters and engages the audience. Thirdly, it allows for unconventional motives for your characters. When was the last time you saw a character wrongly proclaim their race, fight for the one who committed genocide against the same race, and try to kill everyone of his actual race? Never, that’s when. Only though a complex web of info can such a motive be achieved. It is unconventional, memorable, and thoroughly exciting. And finally, it can make information a mcguffin of sorts. You can make information something needed by the characters, a necessary object to attain like cash or power. You can write chase scenes where the character just needs the truth as opposed to a magical cure-all or an unbreakable material. It truly does open up a wealth of possibilities for any writer.
So in conclusion, misinformation is a writing tool that allows you to craft an interweaving story that being straightforward wouldn’t allow. It heightens suspense and conflict, deepens characters, and drives the plot forward so the audience is constantly engaged, desperate to uncover the truth.