21 January 2019

Designers, illustrators and (of course) gamers come together for An Oral History Of Final Fantasy VII


21 January 2019


Mention Final Fantasy in conversation and you’ll notice it often creates a sudden pause. A former player will tend to become misty-eyed as they relive joyful hours spent plonked in front of the telly, engulfed in a role-playing game that changed teenage lives and the face of video gaming. The seventh edition of Final Fantasy, released in 1997 ten years after the first iteration, causes this reaction more than any other game of its ilk. Final Fantasy VII was in fact so seminal that at the beginning of 2017 it warranted a 27,000-word essay by Polygon’s features editor Matt Leone titled 500 Years Later: An Oral History of Final Fantasy VII. Just a few days after it was published online, the plans to reimagine Matt’s essay as a book had already begun.

“I remember seeing it and my first reaction was, ‘Oh my god, I wish we could do something like that,’” says Darren Wall, the founder of game-centred book publishers Read Only Memory, and now the publisher of Matt’s detailed essay. “I think within 48 hours of Polygon posting it, Matt wrote to me and said, ‘We’d really like to do a book of this, would you be up for it?’ It probably wasn’t very professional but I instantly replied: ‘Yes, yes! I’d love to do this.’”

A piece such as Matt’s, which dives deep into the history of a video game with design details and several key voices, is Darren’s playground. The writer had spent two years researching, interviewing and writing the initial online piece, which then turned into three years after adapting it for print and conducting further interviews. “That’s the draw of Final Fantasy VII,” explains Matt on 500 Years Later’s Kickstarter bid. “Many wouldn’t consider it Square’s best game, and it doesn’t hold up perfectly today. But in 1997, it was everything. Beautiful. Innovative. Important. Playing it felt like you were playing something that hadn’t existed before.” This love for the game reached a point of action for Matt as a journalist in late 2014. Despite the fact that the game’s success was well covered, discussions around its popularity “usually came from the same handful of people,” Matt continues. “It seemed like there was an opportunity to show how everyone else there saw it.” And while the writer admits that even after those initial two years of journalistic graft on one article: “it can be hard to deny something you love, so here we are.”

Previous Read Only Memory books – each funded via Kickstarter and always easily surpassing provisional monetary targets – present an “academic approach to video game history”. But Read Only Memory pares back the clique aspect of video gaming with a tone of voice which is “accessible and fun and exciting, with really old school graphic design techniques and production”. Darren looks for narrative and design initiative to create books – yes, for the gaming community, but also “for designers, for illustrators and for people interested in pop culture”. In turn his books “straddle the market between these two audiences” and so he was able to see the value in Matt’s essay, despite the fact that he’s never played Final Fantasy VII. Neither has the book’s designer. Actually, neither have I.

“Well, hopefully, that’s the point,” reasons Darren when we both confess to having never played Final Fantasy VII. “I was actually very intimidated by it!” Upon seeing the book edition of Matt’s essay it was its design approach, by the immensely thoughtful Rachel Dalton, that piqued our interest. The care taken in designing 500 Years Later: An Oral History of Final Fantasy VII is the kind only possible when the content is deserving. Darren and Rachel had an attentive approach, working with it more “as packagers” rather than nitpicking editors. The story was already there, all 27,000 words of it were out in the world and being celebrated. It was a unique position to be in and it allowed the pair to “really indulge upon what the book object could be,” says Darren. “We knew that as long as it was breathtakingly beautiful and respectful to the game and the writing, we could do something weird.” The budget was also way over what was imagined – 500 Years Later’s Kickstarter campaign had raised £72,881 – the target was just £38,000. Rachel and Darren could be eccentric, designing the book with the sensibility of the game’s original publishers Square, described by its movie director Motonori Sakakibara as “prioritising quality rather than obsessing over costs”.

The approach from this point was to design a book that built upon the various elements of Final Fantasy VII. The game also built its own world aesthetically, one with a “futuristic gothic quality” that could lend itself to graphic design. This was a starting point for Rachel who began designing by handling different books, “thinking about how their size and feel would fit the brief,” she says. For a book centring around a subject never before written about in such detail, “the format is pretty important as it’s fundamentally a book to be read,” she points out. “It should be small enough to fit snugly in your hands, something that won’t make your wrists ache from holding up and one you can read on the Tube.” Rachel’s typeface choice also keeps the text in mind, choosing KLIM foundry’s Domaine display for its ability to mirror “a dynastic element in most of the Final Fantasy games” but in a stylistically modern design aesthetic with “a slightly regal feel”. 500 Years Later on first viewing is less a coffee table book and more a novel, an “intimate object sharing a narrative about a group of people”.

The next hurdle that Rachel and Darren had to jump was how to design a book that would set it apart from the original digital article. Polygon had considerately designed Matt’s essay online to enhance the reader experience. It split the article up into chapters such as the origins, the game and the aftermath, and it also gave readers the option to save their place as they read. The designer didn’t dismiss these qualities, but instead translated them. Online readers loved the way they could pause the article when it suited them best – Rachel designed a bookmark that categorised the chapters by page. She also created a code-breaker bookmark with a piece of treasure to be discovered as readers finish the book, inspired by “the physical anti-piracy devices developed in the late 80s and 90s in the gaming industry called feelies,” Rachel says. “They were sometimes pretty elaborate pieces of print inside the game disc box which you had to use to unlock a password to play the game. A bit like a much more fun version of the ‘I am not a robot’ pop up we’re used to seeing online.”

Where Rachel and Darren could be overly playful, however, was in “exploring everything you can’t have in web editorials”, creating “a lavishly produced piece of print that people would want to keep”. Rather than mirror Final Fantasy VII’s colour palettes and illustration style, Darren encouraged Rachel to think of the backstory to avoid any visual pastiche, leading the designer to realise that this is a “book about the people who made the game more than the game itself”.

As a result the book’s design sets the scene in which Final Fantasy VII was made: “There was a time period in the development of the game where a selection of developers were working secretly in a small room on a prototype,” says Rachel. “The text conjures up images of late night crunching in darkened Tokyo offices, faces in deep concentration illuminated by the light of an old computer monitor,” an atmospheric description the designer interpreted with paper stocks. The majority of 500 Years Later is printed on black, with peppered pages of white and pink which Rachel describes as “deep, dark textures and flints of electronic screen light, hence the use of glowing colour changing foils, black on black foils and the gemstone quality of the bookmark papers”.

This approach mirrors the mystery surrounding Final Fantasy VII’s making, but also embeds a certain energy into the book to evoke the “excitement in the Square offices at the time”, the designer points out. “They all knew this game was a big deal. Even when its creators are being interviewed years later you can really feel that.” To evoke the feeling of absolute thrill the game instils in its makers and players, Rachel added a “maximalist approach to the design” too. Due to it largely being text, the reader winds their way around the narrative through type sizes which jump “from slightly uncomfortably large type to more delicate details in an attempt to capture some of the dynamism the team felt”. The designer’s approach is also juxtaposed by Japanese artist Sparrows’ illustrations who Darren commissioned to work alongside the text. “He’s really good at finding complementary people to work on projects together,” says Rachel. With a Ghibli-esque tendency to her work, Sparrows’ illustrations interpret Matt’s own story in the book, rather than the storyline of the game itself.

Rachel’s design knowledge, one that balances attentiveness and a certain amount of flamboyance, particularly widens the potential audience for 500 Years Later. Darren’s approach to editing does too, always keeping accessibility front of mind. He likens the journey of Final Fantasy VII’s making to providing the same narrative hooks as any entrepreneurial tale. “[The film] The Social Network is a case in point,” he says. “Some people making a social network on the face of it isn’t interesting at all. But actually it’s about egos, creativity and pushing the envelope by working late nights and doing something that has never been done before. I really want to read this story.” And publish it, it turns out, whether he’s played the game or not.

With this in mind, 500 Years Later as a whole is an approachable book despite its relatively niche root of content. It displays technical language that only regular video game players may recognise, but as Darren argues, “When you’re reading a history book you get to passages for the knowledgeable reader but I don’t think you throw the book on the floor at that point. You know where to mentally engage with it.” In turn, Read Only Memory as a publisher and 500 Years Later as a prime example, encourages readers not to be intimidated by any subject. In including moments of interest for illustration and design fanatics or anyone interested in entrepreneurial adventures, the book casts its audience net wide. It also paves the path for a future of fascinating books which sit snugly at the intersection of design in the digital age and wider contemporary culture.

Consequently, there are countless reasons a wide pool of individuals could pick up a copy of 500 Years Later for themselves. Considering Rachel’s design temperament was to represent Matt’s work almost as a novel, one might pick it up for a good read. A designer might notice its use of foiling and paper stocks and purchase it for research purposes. A gamer might be looking to reminisce nostalgically over an older game they loved. But for whatever reason, thanks to Matt’s dedication to telling a well-rounded story, Darren’s sharp editing and Rachel’s design, this is a book you actually can judge by its cover.

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.

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