How do video games keep their towns from getting repetitive? The same formula always plays out: arrive, side quests, boss battle, leave.
To keep things from getting boring, some make dramatic location changes. For example, a switch from a sandy sea side to a green valley. Others alter the nature of side quests — You could go from protecting families from monsters to getting swindled by crafty gamblers.
Final Fantasy VII Remake takes inspiration from the above, but it also does something more satisfying. The towns aren’t just stages for the plot to move forward or filler before the next boss fight. Each of the environments intentionally makes the player feel something. Not basic emotions like “fear” in a horror game’s spooky abandoned house. Deeper feelings: longing, rapport, and embarrassment mixed with delight.
Not counting pass-through areas like the Shinra employee-housing area, let’s look at the three towns of FF7 Remake.
Environment as Contrast
At the beginning of the game, Cloud is established as a mercenary doing a job with Avalanche, a group of eco-terrorists. Every time someone tries to share their mission to save the planet or make a personal connection with Cloud, he replies with lines like: “Not interested,” “[I] Should have asked for more money,” and “This is a one-time gig. When it’s done, we’re done.” Here’s a compilation video.
The self-sufficient, loner attitude is part of what makes Cloud so cool. It also exposes his greatest weakness: He has no friends.
Well, except Tifa. But Tifa seems to be friends with everyone, and that’s part of the point of the Sector 7 Slums.
When we get off the train and arrive in the slums, we’re greeted by people chatting in open plazas, watching TV together, and dozens of other indicators of a close-knit community. Two sequences force the player to slow down to walking speed and follow Tifa down the street. The way other residents call out to her make it clear she’s friendly with everyone.
This is a stark contrast to Cloud’s connection-less lifestyle. It plants a genuine desire in the player: I want someone to care about me. The desire peaks in the Seventh Heaven bar, when Tifa and her Avalanche friends are planning another mission. They meet in a secret room, excluding Cloud who’s left to drink at the counter. The group comes back and settles at tables to celebrate their last mission’s success. One of them gently lets Cloud know he won’t be included in the next job.
The game makes you slowly get up and leave the bar. It only lasts twenty seconds, but the player feels completely rejected. Walking away from that scene of warmth and celebration is viscerally painful.
The citizens of the Sector 7 Slums may individually be weaker than Cloud, but they have something he doesn’t: community. Whether the player knows it or not, they spend the rest of the game fighting to be part of a community.
The first town emphasizes the main character’s unspoken desire and makes it yours.
Environment as Character Development
The player randomly drops in on Aerith after falling through the roof a church. Somehow, Cloud becomes willing to risk his life for this florist after a few days. The reason doesn’t lay in character but environment.
When we arrive in the Sector 5 Slums, a man calls out to Aerith and asks her for help running his restaurant. She explains to Cloud that she helps the local business sometimes. They keep walking, and children approach her. She explains that she helps out at the local orphanage. Then a doctor thanks Aerith. She explains that she collects herbs to help him make medicine. And so on . . .
This pattern continues over the Sector 5 Slum’s cutscenes and side quests. It seems like the whole point of the town is to develop Aerith as a character. Without realizing it, the player starts to feel as much rapport with Aerith as they do with Barrett and Tifa, who they’ve known for the first half of the game.
If you want to quickly develop a character or go deep into their history, take your story to their hometown.
Environment as Entertainment
Wall Market is the most memorable town in FF7 Remake. Even the massive reveal that Shinra is going to destroy an entire sector feels like it’s in the background of this town’s antics. The quests, from delivering medication to drunkards to auditioning for a pimp, make you forget your original goal. Suddenly, you’re immersed in Las Vegas-style fun: outrage, glamour, and a hint of shame.
Wall Market feels like you’ve put a different disc in your PS4. The gameplay switches to squatting competitions and dancing. The bosses include an evil house. The music picks up.
Normally, such a massive break from a story’s general direction is confusing and unhelpful. But there would be gamer riots if Square Enix tried to get rid of Wall Market.
My theory is that Wall Market started as world-building. The writers decided they couldn’t have the player go through a series of slums without a major encounter with a criminal enterprise. Then the writers decided that it would be a fun Vegas-type environment to give the player a break from scenes of poverty. They sprinkled in some things to advance the main plot, so the player wouldn’t feel like they were wasting time in the location. But the main focus was coming up with the most entertaining NPCs and side-quests possible. And it worked.
The right time to insert “a Wall Market” in your own writing has three qualities:
- The atmosphere is becoming monotonous. In FF7, the monotony was that the player was repeatedly travelling through rubbish heaps. This can also be non-physical monotony. For example, maybe characters have been acting somber and intense for a long time
- It’s somewhere in the middle of the story. Beginning or ending in a Wall Market would derail the plot.
- You have a few story developments to cover before a certain event takes place. The writers of FF7 needed Aeirth to meet Tifa and the player to learn about Shinra’s evil plans to set up later conflicts.
Still, do you need to write a whole town just to cover a few plot points? No, the developments could have easily been written on the road. There’s a small gang you face in the tunnel on the way to Wall Market. The encounter could have easily featured a boss battle, where the boss spills the necessary info.
A Wall Market is for writers who want to highlight the fun side of their world. If they’re successful, it will leave the player feeling satisfied in a way the main plot can’t.
The three towns of Final Fantasy VII Remake each accomplish something different. The Sector 7 Slums uses contrast to establish desire. The Sector 5 Slums makes us feel close to a new character. And Wall Market entertains the heck out of everyone.
Yes, they follow the general formula: arrive, side-quests, boss battle, leave. But they also work on a deeper level to enrich the game. A town shouldn’t be a place where things happen. It should be a place that makes things happen.