The Final Fantasy VII Letters, Part 4

"Oh, Cloud, What Are You Doing?"

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From: Kirk Hamilton

To: Leigh Alexander

Subject: Re: “Oh, Cloud, what are you doing?”


Leigh,


Rest assured that I would not dream of trying to escape this experiment of ours. My time with this game so far has been delightful, not merely as an exercise in digital archeology but as a wholly self-supported collection of graceful aesthetic moments. There is a uniqueness to almost every occurrence in FFVII’s world—the dancing frogs in the swamps outside of Gongaga, the Shinra employees on the beach in Costa del Sol, the tears that fall from Seto’s stone eyes as he stands watch atop the bluff at Cosmo Canyon… Final Fantasy VII is revealing itself to be a sprawling patchwork of ideas, each one constructed with little apparent concern for how it would fit into a broader narrative. At times the resultant hodgepodge feels like an uncommonly sweeping children’s story; at others a boxed set of science fiction novels. Still other times, FFVII evokes the epic RPG equivalent of a particularly daffy sketch comedy show.


I hesitate to use the word “unique,” as it has been so bent and broken by common usage that I fear many people have lost sight of what it actually means. But so many events in Final Fantasy VII are truly unique—they occur once, and never again. As a result, they are imbued with weight and momentum; each digression feels purposeful if not meaningful, and each background detail has been placed exactly where it is meant to be. You ask about FFVII’s “camp” moments—I believe that the world’s intentionality lends it a sturdiness that is missing from many current generation games, the strength of character required to support the kind of free-associating, campy shenanigans in which FFVII so frequently indulges.ff7emushot175.jpeg

As I’ve discussed before, I’m realizing that the recycled assets and animations of many current RPGs like Oblivion or Dragon Age 2 set my brain to a kind of mid-level conceptual auto-pilot. Yes, here is a knight; yes, he is speaking in Knight-Voice #3; yes, he has a quest for me. Perhaps by necessity he looks the same as the other knights I’ve spoken with, has the same voice, and assigns quests in much the same way. Call it the “Downloadable Content Problem.” (No, god, actually let’s not call it that.) If the people and objects in a world feel as though they have been designed to be easily reprogrammed and reassigned, everything they do feels fundamentally empty; nothing carries as much weight as it could.


Suffice to say, Final Fantasy VII does not have this problem. To be sure, there is a good deal of rote repetition in the game, and a huge number of reused assets. But all the same, the sheer number of singular moments boggles my mind. Their vivacious weirdness demands celebration, but their overwhelming numbers bedevil my attempts at cataloguing. How odd that the vast scope and scale of a fourteen year-old game can feel like a revelation! As you point out, one minute I am joining the army and learning a parade routine and the next, I am engaging in a full-on chocobo race in order to break… my…  (checks notes) friends out of prison? Wait, did that actually happen?


Indeed, it did. The humor of Final Fantasy VII strikes me as a very particular sort of deadpan absurdity, the sort of straight-faced wonkiness that disguises its winks as vacant blinking. Many of today’s games rely on ironic, referential humor, and they have varying levels of success in doing so. But it’s nice to play a game where an out-loud recap of the events of a given hour is, as you point out, usually bizarre enough to be funny on its own.

You will be glad to know that I now have in my party a tall and mysterious gunslinging emo vampire. Yes, your boy Vincent has arrived. He seems like a nice enough fellow, in a typically broody, Angel-from-Buffy-via-Dante-from-DMC sort of way. Though I’ll point out that Vincent, too, suffers from that hilarious FFVII condition where he looks like a munchkin vampire in the main game before stretching into a cool dude for battle scenes.ff7emushot440.jpeg

I think it’s interesting that you spent so much energy haranguing me to get him into my party (e.g. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING KIRK HURRY UP AND GET VINCENT GOD”). Certainly, I would guess that much of that stems from the specific love you harbor for the character, but it also highlights an aspect of FFVII that we’ve yet to address: the sense of community the game engenders, how it inspires people to share, compare, and advise one another.


Whenever you and I and the rest of the peanut gallery discuss FFVII on Twitter, there arises this familiar, almost palpable sense of playground chatter. It is as if we aren’t at our computer screens at all, but instead are sitting on the picnic tables outside school, the ones where kids would go in between classes to talk about videogames. Someone overhears me asking you about Materia configurations and joins in; soon some other kids wander over, sharing their own stories about where to obtain various enemy powers, how best to use the Odin Materia, their thoughts on the Tifa/Aeris Question…


I am thankful for the community that has sprung up around me as I play this game.You ask if I have been indulging in sidequests or exploring the world linearly; I have indeed been taking the time to explore and track down equipment and enemy skills, but I probably wouldn’t have were it not for the encouragement I’m receiving from outside parties. FFVII has a daunting opacity to it; there is a depth to its systems, world, and sidequests that feels somewhat unknowable, and certainly larger than any one person could hope to handle alone. And while I could very easily turn to any number of exhaustively detailed online FAQs for aid, I have found it far more rewarding to turn to my friends for help. (A shining example of this occurred last weekend when a friend advised me to use an X-Potion to defeat the otherwise insanely difficult Gi Nittak.) Everyone has something new to offer, and each question I ask leads to a different conversation. In essence, this playthrough of Final Fantasy VII has been a true online social gaming experience, and one that I have thoroughly enjoyed.


So, why do you think this game engenders (and engendered) such a communal response? Is it due to the simple fact that by now a high enough percentage of people have played the game that almost everyone has something to say about it? Or is it that back when most folks played, online FAQs had not achieved their current level of ubiquitousness? Or is there something more, something specific to JRPGs in general and FFVII specifically?


And that brings me to another thing I have been wondering about. Our letters and conversations have made it clear to me that you are a dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore FFVII player (as if there was ever any doubt). You have logged countless hours wandering Gaia, finished every sidequest, maximized every possible party combination, and defeated Sephiroth multiple times. You never miss a unique enemy skill, and upon this playthrough you immediately and proudly changed Red XIII’s name to “Nanaki.”  But once upon a time, you, too, played Final Fantasy VII for the first time.


I find myself growing ever-more curious about that, and so I’ll turn the tables a bit and ask: what do you recall of your first time through FFVII?


~K



Coming up next week in Part 5, our authors catch up to real time and transition to single weekly posts. Kirk deals with a tragic loss.

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