Editor's Note: Even among the most rarefied videogames of the last twenty years, Square Enix's 1997 masterpiece Final Fantasy VII stands apart. Widely held to be one of the greatest JRPGs of all time, the lovely and melodramatic saga of Cloud, Tifa, Aeris and Sephiroth has inspired more accolades, retrospectives, musical remixes, remake rumors and frothing fan fiction than perhaps any game ever made.
And yet I had never played it. I revealed this fact while chatting with Leigh Alexander (Gamasutra writer, Thought Catalog and Kotaku columnist, Sexy Videogameland blogger and longtime Paste contributor), whose recent replay of the game had reminded me how much I still wanted to give it a go. Leigh suggested that it might be fun for us to do a letter series as I played, combining her nuanced understanding with my fresh eyes to explore just what it is that makes FFVII the game it is. I agreed, and we started to write.
That was a little while ago; we are several letters in at this point, so we'll run them on tuesdays and thursdays for a bit before switching to weekly posts every tuesday. An automatically updated index of all letters can be found here. Hope you enjoy!
From: Leigh Alexander
To: Kirk Hamilton
Subject: Welcome to Midgar!
I was thinking today you might not know what you're in for. I'm well-known for being just about the staunchest Metal Gear Solid fan possible, but on reflection, I've got this love for Final Fantasy VII, its world and the people in it that is so much broader, deeper and more personal.
Somewhere in between holiday nostalgia and the childish fragility I felt when I had the flu, I've been especially dedicated to this PSP re-play of FFVII I've been on, and along the way I had two thoughts: First, the game is still so worthy of adoration to me, more than I expected I thought that revisiting the game would show the naivete of old Japanese RPG fandom, embarrass me about my angsty teens, and show me how far we've come, and in fact none of that's true. I'm still impressed with it.
Second, I wondered just how much of that positive association is about me and my youth, my relationship to the era in which that game was popular, and what an uninitiated person would think of it. Lucky I found you to be my guinea pig, eh? Yeah, you're in for it. No backing out now! Although I wonder... how much of a "clean slate" can you really go in with, after having heard so much about it?
So, welcome to Midgar. You can expect the world of FFVII and the places in it to spread out significantly from here -- moreso, maybe, than is even done in RPGs these days because of a shift in tech priorities. But I really think that the initial setting of Midgar, that neo-industrial city on a plate and the hard-scrabble slums underneath it, plays an incredibly big role in why people were drawn into the game so quickly and so fully. It was very different for its time, agree? I don't think, by that point in my life, I'd ever seen a place in a video game that felt so lifelike. It was so plausible, it almost breathed for me. It's still that way, to me. What do you think?
The character sprites and their animations, I think, were crude even for their time, but it was a compromise we players were willing to make back then in exchange for the relatively rich backgrounds of the world, and for the fact that we had richer versions of the characters within battle sequences and within the FMV. Remember when "lots of FMV cutscenes" was a reason to buy a game? "Skippable cutscenes" weren't a thing, because who in the world would want to skip, like, the best parts?
In a way, I was fonder of the sprites and never thought to engage my disbelief because I understood they were shorthand, abstractions for bigger and more important things. It encouraged my imagination. Maybe that's why the characters started to feel so vivid. Are the old-school graphics a barrier to immersion for you? Is the idea of being part of a group of anti-corporate environmental guerillas as interesting to you as it was to me back then?
What stands out to you? And I can't help but wonder if you're not much captivated at all, and are instead skeptically muttering, "this better be good." Way too excited to hear your initial impressions -- fill me in whenever you can.