/ Leigh Alexander / 12 pm Fri, Jul 10 2015
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  • Why Final Fantasy VII matters

    Why Final Fantasy VII matters

    Logos flicker on failing monitors, propped up in a quilt of urban junk. Light glitters on seawater beneath jutting pylons. Flowers swell up from the broken floorboards of an abandoned church…

    Final Fantasy VII, the wildly (and weirdly) beloved Japanese roleplaying game from 1997, is getting a high-tech remake. How do you explain why even the most cynical video game fans have a genuine emotional response to the news?

    Offworld, I’m proud to say, exists to dismantle conventions of “fandom”: the insular vocabulary, the obsession with advancing hardware, the masculine hypercapitalist power fantasies, the constant grasping of our adult fingers toward favorite brands of childhood.

    Read that last paragraph out loud. Then have a little laugh at my expense! I am the most cynical of video game fans. People on Twitter are asking me all the time: if you hate video games so much, why don’t you quit? The real answer is that I love games. I love them so much that I keep on championing games I love no matter how hard the usual suspects—marketers, advertisers, rutted internet hordes, the sea of plaid and Zelda T-shirts, the complicated and heartbreaking circuitry of the development business—would like them to disappear. And I want more people to love them, even if it costs me.

    But here’s another answer. Imagine it’s 2 a.m., because I’m in London and I stayed up to watch Sony PlayStation’s E3 press conference, because this is my work. And they begin to show this… this video-thing, a kind of trailer, and they’re not really showing us anything at all.

    Yet I immediately recognize certain things about it. A slow pan over the abstract suggestion of a wheel-like, gunmetal dystopia, washed in pale green. People line up to mount an inter-city train.

    “No,” I bleat, pathetically.

    I’m that person, watching an E3 press conference and hoping for “Final Fantasy VII remake”, like every other old easily-bought, backward-facing onanistic f-f-fan.

    We glimpse a node-based transit system, then a tiny little slumland park, bug-eyed plastic animals with lolling tongues for kids’ slides…

    “No. No,” I plead. I’m about to cry in front of a marketing video.

    Then it gets bad. They do that horrible thing where they pipe in just a little bit of a familiar tune, and you can recognize classic heroes from the camera angle over their shoulder. Distinctive, iconic weaponry falls into view. A sword with two deep rivet slots, slung across the character’s back like on the front of an old, inch-thick jewel case…

    “Oh, noooo,” I am crying on my partner, my hands in despicable infant fists.

    “Sweetheart,” he laughs a little, placating but gentle, and this is the thing that makes me lose it.

    How do I explain this? Do I go right to describing myself at 17 years old, standing at a train station in the winter, freezing in a summer dress, the only dress that looked good on me, hoping to meet my first boyfriend in person, a guy I’d met making up our own Final Fantasy VII characters on America Online? Something something quest for identity and the self, et cetera, safe place, blah blah?

    This is a little bit too treacly, I think, for this early in the piece. Instead, let’s come out swinging against all the people who don’t think FFVII was a “good game”.

    It’s real good.

    Look, if you don’t think it was a “good game,” you either hate Japanese roleplaying games or you weren’t there when it came out, because it was perfectly assembled. It rewarded the adventurous player but modulated itself gently against the less systems-oriented one. The land makes itself available to you slowly and with a sense of wonder and design logic that only early Zelda games truly match.

    You can fiddle constantly with equipment and feel amazing for what that experimentation yields—or you can march along the game’s learning curve not much more the wiser. You can do the side quests or not. The world is full of mysteries that make every new encounter feel like a potential rarity. As a child, I reset my first game nearly two thirds of the way through upon learning, through the grapevine, that I had missed out on meeting two entire party members with story arcs of their own.

    FFVII's battles unfolded well, timed meters unspooling gently but readably at the corner of your eye 'til you learn an orderly reflex that feels like patient puppetry—all paced by perfectly-tuned audio cues. Unlike other games broadly in its genre, it rarely screws you in the natural course of play. It’s balanced in a way that deeply embarrasses later Final Fantasy games.

    midgar

    Some twenty years later, the game world remains gorgeous. Invented logos flicker on failing monitors, propped up among shopfronts and lodgings quilted together from urban junk. Light glitters on seawater where it hugs coastlines of jutting pylons. A patchwork of little flowers swell up from the broken floorboards of an abandoned church. The backgrounds are always gently lit with dusty sunbeams, sulfurous haloes, or the weird light of the decaying planet's breath—the light of someplace that really exists, someplace that you’ve absolutely just got to escape to.

    But it doesn’t matter whether FFVII was “good” or not.

    Chrono Trigger is a “great RPG”, perhaps the greatest, but I don’t feel much towards it. In 1997, I was in high school, and it absolutely did not matter whether FFVII was “good” or not. It was the place I had been waiting forever to escape to.

    aerith1

    FFVII had a television commercial, and I can’t recall having seen such a thing for a video game before, a sweeping trailer that teased at an intriguing idea: the tiny, child-like character sprites we always played in games of that sort would be rendered, at least sometimes, as long-limbed adults. It was going to be a dark, grown-up game.

    Yes, that was what mattered. That it felt adult, setting us not in a whimsical kingdom full of magical dimensions as was the norm, but in a desperate, light-starved urban slum, under the thumb of a corporation that was heedlessly sucking magical-nuclear energy from the veins of a dying planet. The villains were corporate fat cats and cool, occasionally-nuanced enforcers. The villain was a rogue hero, hungry to become a god, which is usual. But he was once your beloved idol, which for the time was not so usual.

    FFVII's hero was not your normal phenotype, either: Cloud, who wore a coif of sculpted hair spikes right when enthusiasm for anime imports to the USA was beginning to get properly feverish, was neither a spirited local boy with a brave heart, nor a wisecracking action whiz, but an opaque and sullen weirdo on the run from his own history, mistrusting his own memories.

    It’s common for Japanese roleplaying games to have warning narratives about the environment, or even about corrupt systems of power, but teens hadn’t had it presented to them in such relatively-mature, almost-salacious terms before in video games.

    tifaaa

    You could choose one of three of your party members to go on a date with! You could have a tragic love story with a doomed priestess or a nurturing and inspiring one with your robust childhood friend (Psst: Looking at it as an adult now, Tifa is the only real choice)! You could even date another man, a Mr. T clone with a gun arm, although of course that was a “comedy” option.

    FFVII also had an occasionally tone-deaf cross-dressing mini-game, a section where you have to jump with a dolphin, an enormously tedious archaelogy mini-game, a barely-functional submarine mini-game, a barely-functional RTS about protecting a phoenix, a section where you are dragged up to star in a play at a holiday resort, a minor villain obsessed with eating lard (because he’s fat, get it?!), an absurd mechanical foe called the “Proud Clod”, and very significant item rewards to be won by breeding and racing giant long-legged birds, among others.

    Do you remember the stairs of the ShinRa building, the ones that went on forever? Do you remember being a man in a dress, swarmed by zombie-like, slavering gangsters with outstretched arms? Do you remember resetting again and again and again until you got the correct gender of Blue Chocobo? Do you remember mashing the “O” button in a “bitchslap” fight between two women, one of whom is actually a competent martial artist, on the barrel of a giant cannon?

    Remember Nibelheim Mansion? Oh, remember, remember the chilly green, briny undersea when you were piloting the submarine, and how you’d see the terrifying marine trails of Emerald Weapon drifting in the slick, dark distance? Remember when you’d come out of the sunken Gelnika and he’d be, like, right there?

    Do you remember when Aeris died?

    Of course you do. It was sudden. You had followed her through a primeval forest to an old village of bone and stone, its architecture reminiscent of seashells and the spines of fish, preserved amberlight and old memories flickering through. In the center of a temple Aeris prayed, and from a high place Sephiroth plummeted down—

    This jointed sprite comes flying out of nowhere with a long, stupid toothpick sword which he inserts bloodlessly into Aeris, who just sort of goes limp, and we’re supposed to care. Then, like, a piece of Materia we did not previously know she was keeping in her hair bow (Aeris, why was it in your hair?), a radiant-lit orb, pings musically down the steps of the temple, a slow, sad knell, before its light is swallowed by the lake—

    And then we lay Aeris herself upon the water. It’s not until you see her body float down with gentleness, surrounded by graceful beams of light filtering through the impossible deep, that you begin to grasp that she really has died and will not come back. In three musical notes ascending, three descending—hum along, you know them—you understand that sometimes faith is not rewarded in obvious ways.

    You were a lonely kid in a small town running around inside a video game world, hoping to know what adulthood and purpose is really like, and you understand, then, that sometimes you can pray and pray and no one will answer. That all kinds of things are going to be taken from you.

    And then were like, well, shit, why did I spend so much time leveling her up?

    Guess we’d better sell her equipment now.

    Then you go on the internet and make SPOILER ALERT jokes for the next fifteen years, about Aeris dying, because it’s easier than admitting that you were at all affected.

    Then now, suddenly, concern about spoilers is new and real again, because there will be children playing this game who were not even born yet when you were a teenager waiting in the cold to meet your very first boyfriend whom you got to know by pretending about FFVII on the primordial internet.

    How do you explain what this game is about, two decades on? You can't, because if you recall the particulars of Cloud’s story, you will remember the most important thing: Final Fantasy VII is fundamentally a game about how you cannot trust your memories. That’s what it’s about. The glory of your younger days might only be in your imagination.

    This is perfect. I can’t wait for this goddamn cash-in fanservice remake of a completely outmoded and likely wildly-overrated Japanese RPG from 1997. I honestly, seriously can’t wait. I get emotional just thinking about it.

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