From: Kirk Hamilton
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Train, Stops, No, Etc.
When I was a kid, I had a chronic inability to finish boxes of cereal. We weren’t a big sugar-cereal family, so for the most part my breakfast cuisine choices were limited to “heathy” options like Chex, Crispix, Rice Crispies, and Total Raisin Bran. But oh man, how I loved cereal. If I’d had my way, I probably would have eaten cereal for every meal of every day until I got scurvy or something.
For whatever reason I could never quite finish a box—I’d get to the very bottom, maybe a quarter of a bowlful left, and then leave the box on the shelf and move on to a new one. My meticulously organized father would often point out that my mom did the same thing, and would shake his head at our increasingly cluttered breakfast shelf. No doubt he was wondering which of his other genes would turn out to be recessive.
Just as I have a hard time finishing boxes of cereal, I can have a hard time finishing games. I sense from your letter that you feel similarly. I just don’t always make it through a videogame’s final act, and not entirely because most games have yet to master three-act structure and don’t always provide satisfying conclusions to their stories. And it isn’t quite that I “don’t want the game to end,” either. It’s something more fundamental than that, it’s just… the way it is. I have a hard time finishing games.
Final Fantasy VII certainly does offer a huge number of ways to put its ending off, though. Between the Chocobo breeding, limit-break farming, unique items, character sidequests, Weapon battles, materia leveling, and the hidden caves and shipwrecks that dot The Planet, I can see how a player could have no trouble sinking another thirty hours in before finally entering the Great Crater of Endgame. And my own procrastination is greatly helped along by a vague awareness that FFVII, like most JRPGs before it, has a massive, ridiculous, multi-stage boss battle in store. The tail-end of this cereal box contains not a handful of dried grains, but a three-pound baked potato.
I spent the better part of Saturday on Chocobo breeding, racing and farming my way from two yellow Chocobos to a blue and green Chocobo, then to a black Chocobo and a wonderful Chocobo, all the way to the Gold Chocobo that now rests in my stable aboard the Highwind. I remain flabbergasted at the amount of busywork I was forced to undertake to get here—I was expecting some grind, but I was not expecting to reset my PlayStation so often, to have to steal Carob and Zeio nuts, to put a weight on the “O” button while I farmed Sandworms to be able to afford 100,000 gil’s worth of Sylkis Greens. And this was while following some fairly specific instructions that I had culled from a variety of message boards and websites—who, exactly, were the madmen who first figured this stuff out back in 1997?
Mind you, none of that busywork did anything to curb my elation once I finally earned my Gold. We’ve already talked about the lack of achievements or trophies in FFVII, but when that shining golden bird danced onto my screen, I felt their absence more than ever. How was I to prove that I really did it, if not with a trophy or a badge? In this case, it meant photographing my television screen and posting the pictures anywhere that someone would see it. In ten years, I’ll tell people “I raised a Gold Chocobo in FFVII” and I will have the pictures to prove it, dammit.
And yes, I spent a while pondering what to name her and could only come up with one that felt appropriate.
But as for the rest of the tasks you mention—the remaining sidequests, the extra items, the level after level of remaining limit breaks—those, I’m going to have to leave for another time. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m simply not much of a diehard completist—or at least, I don’t really assume that role on my first playthrough. Invariably, I go into a game planning to take my time and see everything, but I usually wind up getting sucked in by the story and, despite a pause before the final act to hit any side-activities that seem vital, I happily complete the game far below 100% completion.
I did this in Morrowind, in Oblivion and in Fallout 3; I did it in every BioWare RPG I’ve ever played. I’m curious as to whether most people pursue 100% completion their first time through FFVII, or whether many of them waited to do that until they replayed it, much like you’re doing. I can already tell that if (and really, when) I play this game again, I’ll be able to relax, secure in my knowledge of how the battle and materia systems work, how to develop my characters and team most effectively. That’s most likely when I’ll do the completist thing, and I bet it’ll be really nice.
Your talk of character growth in RPGs ties in with that—when I play an RPG, I get hooked on leveling my character and party, on making the game easier to play so that when it comes time to do sidequests, I don’t wind up with an unbalanced, too-difficult challenge on my hands. “I’ll wait until I’m higher level,” I think. And since most games offer the best rewards for completing story missions, I end up charging through the main storyline almost by accident.
Cloud’s own progression does seem to be an interesting paradox—mechanically, he progresses just as countless RPG heroes before and after him have, growing his stats, increasing his combat capability, getting new gear and learning new abilities. He’s a scrappy kid who becomes a master soldier. But in terms of the story, he does indeed follow an opposite trajectory; he’s a master SOLDIER who through a series of flashbacks and revelations eventually transforms back into a scrappy kid.
I’m reminded of a really interesting idea put forth by Ben Croshaw on his blog, detailing a made-up game in which the main character levels backwards. Would this not present a compelling experience? I was certainly intrigued by the idea. As Croshaw describes it, the protagonist would begin the game as an all-powerful badass, and over the course of the story he would compromise and sacrifice his powers until he possessed a mere fraction of his original strength. The final boss battle would therefore be the most difficult in the game, and overcoming it would be a real triumph.
I bring that up in part because with the addition of Knights of the Round, Bahamut ZERO, Big Guard, White Wind, Mime, and the Quadra Materia, my party has become more than a little overpowered. With the press of a button, I can have Tifa call down now one but four space-dragons to rain extraordinarily harmful blue plasma onto my enemies. And if that doesn’t do them in, Knights of the Round most certainly will. What does that summon do, like, 50,000 damage?
At any rate, after finally earning my gold Chocobo and tracking down all those game-breaking abilities, I returned to Rocket Town, then on to the Forgotten City (love that synthy music) and through to Midgar, where I handily defeated Diamond Weapon, the Turks, Proud Clod and Hojo. But if the gameplay balance has gotten a little bit wonky, I’m willing to forgive it because I’m still very involved in the story.
And again, it’s not so much the story on the screen as the one I’ve constructed in my head. Cloud’s big “Are you in or out?” speech on the deck of the Highwind really worked for me, mainly because it gave each character a chance to remind me what they were all about, usually in a single line. Even stupid, terrible Cait Sith got off a good one:
“I know I have a stuffed animal body, but I’ll work really hard!”
And of course, it probably goes without saying that I loved Cloud and Tifa’s moment beneath the Highwind. Two old friends, thrown together by fate, kept alive by his strength and her love for him… that scene was great, even though it was the kind of thing that a person walking through the room would have probably mocked or ignored completely. Tifa’s rudimentary animations—smiling, nodding her head, staring into the middle distance—they communicated a surprising amount of emotional nuance. (Probably just me projecting.) That her relationship with Cloud remained ambiguous (I mean, did they do it or what?) seems appropriate in its old-fashioned, romantic tone and in its consistency with the way that many important events in FFVII have taken place offscreen, in our imaginations.
So now we really do come to The End. I am floating above the crater, set to enter the final dungeon before going up against Sephiroth and, no doubt, eventually emerging victorious. But it really has been about the journey, hasn’t it? I mean, I basically know what will happen—see how casually you describe the final blow at the end of the last battle!—but in truth I could never be spoiled, for the hours spent getting to this point have been the true adventure.
I may be way off here, but I detected a bit of frustration in your letter, as though you were taking stock of our correspondence, of all the time we’ve spent and words we’ve spilled on this game and saying, “Is that it?” And indeed, that’s pretty much it. But then, it’s really only the beginning, isn’t it?
I feel as though I’m coming to the end of a great journey, both Cloud’s and my own. And yet I also feel like I’m just starting out—according to many of the people who have been reading these letters, I also need to make time for Crisis Core, Dirge of Cerberus and Advent Children, not to mention FFVI and even Chrono Cross. While the idea of ingesting all of that media makes me break out in hives, I do feel as though I’ve read but the first chapter in a grand, already published adventure. It’s more or less like being the kid who finishes “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and realizes that hey, there are still six more books.
Next week’s will be our final letter, and I wonder, how has this been for you? When you enlisted me to undertake this series with you, it was in the hopes that my fresh eyes might provide a new perspective on a game for which nostalgia had impacted your critical view. All these thousands of words later, has your view of the game changed at all? What do you think of Final Fantasy VII, and of the Final Fantasy series in general?
And let’s get a bit predictive here, as well: will there ever be another JRPG as good as this one, or as the other classics of its era? Will Square Enix learn from the mistakes of FFXIII and let that game’s sequel breathe a bit? Or perhaps more likely, will an independent developer take to heart some of FFVII’s lessons about abstraction, romance, and storytelling and make an entirely new game that borrows many of FFVII’s strengths?
And what next for you? When this game ends, you’ve mentioned in our side conversations that you’ll move on to FF8. Where does your love for the Final Fantasy series run out, or do you see yourself playing through all of them, even up through X and beyond?
Wow, that’s a lot of questions. I guess I really shouldn’t divert our focus too much; by the time you read this, I will be heading into my final showdown with Sephiroth, mere hours from “One Winged Angel” and all the rest. And I sense that somewhere in Brooklyn, you’ll be on your PSP undertaking a similar venture.
I feel like we’ve come so far, and still I’m ready to go a little bit farther. It’s time to finish this particular box of Cheerios. Let’s do it.
Tune in next week for Part 10 as it all comes to an end.
To weigh in on the conversation, feel free to leave a comment or catch up with Leigh and Kirk on Twitter.