Part two in our ongoing retrospective letter series. An index of all letters can be found here.
From: Leigh Alexander
To: Kirk Hamilton
Subject: "You were selling flowers"
It's with the sort of self-effacing, graceful humility for which I'm well-known that I recommend our friend evaluate the extent to which I am reputed for repeating words that have been done by others!! Pffft, as if.
So you're compelled by the images of the world you've seen so far, yes? I imagined that the macro-ideas of FFVII's landscape -- the mechanized dystopia lit with green luminance, the gravity-defying coifs and ill-advised shoulder-guards of all kinds -- would be registered someplace in your conscious and given you an idea what to expect, but I'm really happy to see that the details have resonated with you.
Happy, and alleviated, too. Because as I went about my own re-play, I found myself at times thinking, "holy shit, this is beautiful": The haphazard bed of flowers erupting from the floor of a church. The flickering, artificial monitor display of a pastoral mountain scene in the middle of a slum bar. The fragile lace of a train graveyard laid out over rusted tracks; the bizarre pastiche of fake Chinoiserie and Vegas neon in the desperate, gaudy corners of the slum market. And it just gets worse, and I wondered if I was just poisoned by that irreconcilable nostalgia and the memory of discovering all these things as new.
Because how can FFVII be "beautiful" in an age where we have Red Dead Redemption's sunsets, how can Wall Market feel lifelike when we have New Vegas? And why the hell have you and I both offered up flowerbaskets full of excuses as to why the world should be impossible to find so compelling? Are we afraid of colleagues standing up to tar us with the "been there, done that, fanboys" brush?
I have a theory. The world is more compelling because it's created for art's sake; there's this weird smash-up of crude, abstract objects (the block-handed sprites, the lazily-literal translation, the slow chug of the animations, enemies spewing pixel-clouds of nebulous poisons) with this at-times startlingly vivid detail in the background. You're looking at a few rays of light coming through the cracks in a wall somewhere, glittering as if with dust-motes; you're looking at a poster for LOVELESS, widely-advertised within FFVII's canon but never actually viewed nor detailed, and you're thinking none of this is actually necessary.
It's there to be looked at; it's there to make the world feel considered and real -- no, wait, even more than that, it's there because the world is considered and real. Maybe it's naive of me to assert that "they don't make them like that" anymore, but it really does feel that way. "Realism" means something else -- the dozens of recycled assets you mentioned, each blade of grass perfectly replicated to feel "real", hundreds and thousands of booze bottles to be picked up for no reason just so you understand you're in the home of an alcoholic. Maybe an imaginary world is more interesting after all, maybe we've mis-equated "real" with literal.
Will it enrage a zillion readers if I say I don't think FFVII could have ever, then or now, been made in the West?
I have a lot more to say about how the "abstraction" concept, the contrast between image-shorthand and image-detail makes the world of FFVII more immersive: Keep in mind RPG characters had, basically, been only sprites til then, how it was our first time getting to see their "faces" rendered in such dimension, how that might have led us to attach to them more.
Meanwhile, though -- and maybe I'm going way overboard here -- but even the way you approach the game is sort of telling of our modern times. You wrote at first of spacing out our messages around waypoints in the game as if it would even be possible for you to identify them. You have no idea how long this game is, and that's even if you don't indulge in the completionist joy of its sidequests (arguably some of the most obscure and the most fun ever, the high point of sidequests in history!!)
And you are already extrapolating a logical beginning-middle-end sort of narrative about Tifa and Aeris and the loss of innocence, aiming to predict what you are being "set up" for. You will either be very excited or very confused at the extent to which FFVII's story sort of unravels itself sloppily, organically, all over the place without much thought to the "rules". So with that in mind, we have way more important questions to consider:
Who do you think is hotter, Tifa or Aeris? What do you think of the Turks, aren't they DREAMY? And what do you think of Cloud as a person, as a hero?