From: Kirk Hamilton
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: The Promised Land
On the television screen of my mind, there is a starfield. White comets zoom peacefully by, pulling back from the void and before leaping forward again, riding the line between the sad finality of completion and the artifice of digital infinity. As this endless scene plays out, it is accompanied by a rising and falling pentatonic scale, a four-note theme drawing me back, back, back to the beginning, to when I first booted up this game and gave myself over to nostalgia for a time that I had never experienced.
Final Fantasy VII is over. And it seems so fitting that it ends not by returning me to a title screen or giving me a New Game+ but by gently tossing me into an beautifully unending star-filled wormhole. I saw that this practice has become a bit of a Final Fantasy tradition, and I can’t think of a better comedown from the fraught, incredibly arduous task of actually defeating a JRPG’s final boss.
“And Sephiroth! To the settling of everything!“
I thoroughly identify with your stories of the lonesome solace of the mid-90’s latchkey kid. I recall coming home while my sister was still at sports practice. I’d enter through the garage, and on a good day, it was empty—my parents weren’t home yet, and I had the place to myself. I’d immediately head to the cupboard and grab a Rice Crispy Treat (the kind that came packaged in a blue foil wrapper) before bounding down the stairs to my room. I remember so many details of that short journey—the number of stairs before and after the landing, the exact maneuver I would undertake to grab the bannister-pole and swing around the corner, landing on my feet. In short order I’d be safe in my room, booting up X-Com or Warcraft II or Grim Fandango.
And yet for whatever reason those games didn’t have the same kind of community FFVII did. As a result, my love of videogames was never reinforced by an online community like the one that you describe (or indeed, like the one that we have been been graced with as we write these letters). I didn’t know about fanfic, about canon roleplaying, about chat rooms. And while I, too, wonder why it is that FFVII engendered the deep love and fan loyalty that it did, in the end I find that I agree with you: who really cares?
It’s enough. It’s enough to understand that it’s great, enough to have seen with my own eyes (and thumbs) the compulsive gameplay, the hilariously weird story, and the sweeping mystery of it all… enough to have looked objectively at the abstraction on my screen and simply understood that for a huge number of people, it was more real than the most high-polygon, perfectly antialiased image.
I am hopeful that the industry can begin to make a more concerted effort to properly archive and preserve the great games of the 80’s and 90’s. Console games are mostly playable; even if they haven’t been given the FFVII treatment, it is still possible to track down an old Nintendo 64 or Dreamcast to give a great classic a replay. But some PC games are getting lost in the shuffle; the constantly shifting landscape of drivers and operating systems often renders them unplayable, and publishing issues complicate matters even further. It is all but impossible to find a copy of Grim Fandango anywhere save some incredibly expensive discs on ebay, and even those aren’t guaranteed to work. That is a shame.
For if those games could be readily available, they would be open to this sort of analysis! As excited as I am for LA Noire and Skyrim and the rest, truth be told I’d be just as happy going back and playing something much older. (I’m looking at you, Good Old Games.) And at at the same time I’m heartened to see new developers taking some of FFVII’s lessons to heart—from the wild imagination and beautifully lush abstraction of Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP to the self-aware playfulness of 3D Dot Game Heroes, many new games riff on the same qualities that made Final Fantasy VII so grand. I haven’t seen one hit it out of the park just yet, but it feels like it’s only a matter of time.
I am so happy to finally be a part of the shared experience of FFVII. Gaming can be so exclusive; as you and I and many others have discussed this very week, even within the ranks of the videogame faithful there are so many divides. As much as we want to share our passion with others, some types of games simply bring out our more parochial natures: “You can’t combine Quarda with Knights of the Round, GOD.” “That’s not where you get Ultima, guess you’ll have to go back, NOOB.” But then again, that’s actually part of it, isn’t it? It’s like a fraternity. You pay your dues, you get hazed, and eventually the tables turn and you’re in the club.
I’ve spoken with a good number of people since I defeated Sephiroth, and several have admitted that although they made it all the way up to the end of the game, they never actually finished. I’ll admit to feeling a slight bit of satisfaction at that—sure it took me two tries, but in the end I unleashed my omnislash on that asshole and pounded him into the ground. Teach him to destroy the entire solar system three times!
Sigh. I find that I would like to draw this letter out. Hmm… Perhaps I could ask you a few more questions, or maybe propose an additional letter talking about fanfic or Advent Children or something. I don’t want our letters to end, for it has been a joy accompanying you on this magical mystery criticism tour.
You’ve written quite eloquently in the past about how at its heart, video gaming is a solitary experience, and yet still one that becomes beautiful when shared with other people. Although we are on opposite sides of the country, I like to think that you were there as I played. I never would have finished this game without some encouragement; FFVII would have been just another handful of grains at the bottom of an unfinished cereal box. Thanks for that.
And thanks too, to everyone who read this series and sent kind notes and comments our way. Your words of advice and encouragement hugely helped me as I pushed my way through this monster of a game. I hope that we’re still making jokes about Cid and Sexy Huge Materia and stupid Cait Sith in a year’s time.
And what of the other friends we’ve made? What of Vincent? What of Aeris and The Planet? For God’s sake, what of Cloud and Tifa? I do not yet know, and for that I am actually thankful. The future is uncertain, so for the time being I can simply relax and enjoy the fact that I still have Advent Children to watch and, should I be able to track down a PSP, Crisis Core to play as well.
But for now, it is time to say goodbye to Final Fantasy VII. Though of course, I will return every time I chat with someone about hidden enemy abilities, chocobo breeding war-stories, and the Tifa/Aeris question; every time I see someone in Aeris cosplay or hear Uematsu’s music floating through the air.
The world of FFVII will always be there for me. The rolling plains, the rushing rivers; the sea and the sky and high above it all, the stars. Those infinite stars, turning in an endless celestial spiral, firing comets and tracers into the back of my brain. Calling me back to Midgar, and to the grand adventure that awaits.
Do you think the stars can hear us?
Kirk Hamilton is a writer, composer and jazz educator in San Francisco. He is Paste’s Games Editor, and he writes about games, music and culture for a variety of outlets including Joystiq, Kill Screen Magazine, Kotaku and Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He counts raising a gold chocobo as one of his proudest accomplishments. Find him online at Kirkhamilton.com; and on Twitter @kirkhamilton; .
Leigh Alexander covers the art and business of video games at Gamasutra, and writes a monthly column on the culture surrounding games and gamers at Kotaku. She is editor of the games section at NYLON Guys magazine, maintains her Sexy Videogameland weblog and is a contributor to Thought Catalog, where she often focuses on the social media and internet culture landscape. Her work has appeared in Slate, Variety, the Los Angeles Times, Paste and a host of other publications, and she frequently speaks at events on the business and design of social media and the intersection of interactive design with the real world.