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.
From: Kirk Hamilton
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Welcome to Midgar!
I certainly do seem to be in for it, and I am happy to be your guinea pig as we revisit such a widely praised and canonized game as FFVII. I hope to approach the game with fresh eyes and a healthy amount of skepticism, so that we can avoid simply sitting around talking about how y’know, like, totally awesome-o this game was. When I mentioned this conversation to a mutual friend and hardass intellectual, he warned me that we are running the risk of “repeating with new words the same old shit that everyone else has been saying for years.” He could well be right. I believe in us, though, and bet we can dig up some new perspectives on what is now a fourteen year-old game.
You’ve already raised a number of interesting questions, and they dovetail with many of the things I’ve noticed during these first six or so hours in Midgar. To start with, there’s the fact that the game’s own legend is a looming shadow, and I always worry that it is obstructing my critical view. The world, graphics and characters are all compelling to me, and I’m having a hard time sussing out why, exactly, that is. Is it because they are genuinely compelling, or is it because I have seen, heard and read so many things about FFVII that I can’t help but be subscribed to the nostalgia mailing-list of our collective gamer subconscious?
So. At the moment, I have played up through Wall Market (Institutionalized sexual subjugation of women! Cross-dressing! My, how games have changed). I am struck with a peculiar sensation: that of nostalgia for a time that I never actually experienced. I was a PC gamer growing up, and didn’t own a home console until I purchased an Xbox in college. All of my NES and Playstation gaming took place at the houses of my friends, and so most of our time revolved around social multiplayer experiences—Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, and the occasional group playthrough of some sort of platformer or something. Playing Final Fantasy while one’s friend—who doubtless has little to no idea what is currently going on—sits and watches never seemed like that good an option.
So when I’m presented with FFVII’s blocky sprites, crude animations, iconic blue text-boxes and hand-drawn digitized backdrops, I feel nostalgia for what I imagined my friends Andrew and Brian experienced on their no-doubt epic playthroughs of this game. But with that said, there are things about the production that I find supremely winning on their own merits. The look and feel of the Midgar slums take me back to the illustrated backdrops of point-and-click games like Rise of the Dragon and Blade Runner, the sort of grittier fare that lay outside of the classic Sierra and Lucasarts wheelhouses. The backdrop in the AVALANCHE HQ in particular has no small amount of charm. What’s more, all of the backdrops appear to be unique, which is refreshing after going through the constantly recycled 3D assets of today’s games. I can’t interact with the items in the restaurant in Wall Market, but they are unique and inform the world. I can pick up one of a billion identical loaves of bread in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, but who the hell cares?
But before I turn to the style, the music, the design and the gameplay, I’m interested in identifying the fundamental question we’re asking here: why does this game hold sway over us so many years later? I of course have not seen enough of the game to have an answer, but I have noticed a thick innocence about these early hours, a childlike sensibility that easily bypasses my jaded exterior. When Cloud and Tifa flash back to the day Cloud talked about leaving for SOLDIER, they sit and face away from each other and talk haltingly, childishly about the future and their own relationship. Later, as Aeris climbs to the top of a slide in that Midgar playground, I roll my eyes even as my heart starts to ache. This game would appear to be setting the stage for a loss of innocence, teasing players with visions of a simpler past and swelling our hearts before breaking them entirely. That sense of innocence resonates with the perhaps-imagined innocence that I ascribe to my gaming childhood, that time before gaming (and the world) became so complex and overwhelming. With that in mind, it makes more sense that even though I didn’t play it back then, Final Fantasy VII feels emotionally tied to my own childhood.
So, does any of that make sense or jibe with your own experience? Am I missing something? Will my expectations of this story be dashed down the road? Am I alone in thinking that maybe Aeris is a little bit annoying?
Coming up in Part 2: The one-of-a-kind art in FFVII, why the game couldn’t be made today, and that age-old question—who is hotter, Tifa or Aeris?