Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked My World – #10: Final Fantasy VII

In PC, PlayStation, PSN on November 21, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Title: Final Fantasy VII

Format: PlayStation, PC, PSN

Release Date: 17th November, 1997

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In my System Shock 2 article, I mentioned a list: The Ones That Got Away. Games I started playing but, for one reason or another, never finished. Their plots and characters remain in my head still; spectral figures tugging at my brain strings for resolution, desperately begging to be taken out of the box, and levelled up just one more time. I’ll get around to them all someday. But bang at the top of the list, stands Final Fantasy VII.

It came out the day before I turned 12, but was a PlayStation exclusive. As regular subscribers to this blog will know, at the tender age of 12, I was that most bereft of youths: console-less. Seminal titles like Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid passed through the hands of many excitable players, but not mine.

I have a friend called Stefan. We met on the first day at prep school, when we were both 7. We were in the same class, and, more fortuitously, in the same house. Indeed, our very first conversation read something like: “Hi, what house are you in?” “Hereford.” “Me too! Let’s be friends.” And there wasn’t much more to it than that. We shared a number of interests: drawing stupid pictures, making personalised sets of top trumps, being shit at football and, later, videogames.

Battle_image

I used to spend hours round Stefan’s house as a kid, making up stories together, playing about on the climbing frame in his garden and, as we got older and I discovered them: playing videogames. He had a fabulous programme on his PC called 3D Movie Maker: a very simplistic animation tool with which you could make short films. The character and background base was limited, but a microphone function meant vocal contributions were limitless. We made up silly voices, Stefan wrote a song on the guitar called “Chubb On The Run”, about a fat guy running away from a skeleton (the character bases were limited) and we spent hours in his stuffy loft animating stories and growing weak with laughter at the scenarios we came up with.

3d_movie_maker_image

He was one of those friends who taught you stuff. Many of the films I grew to love were first watched around Stefan’s house; he had two older brothers who exposed him to all sorts of cool movies, and I still remember the first time I watched Indiana Jones and The Temple Of Doom in his living room, being thrilled at the action, the set pieces. The music. Always stories. He also had a great taste in comedy, and this irrepressible ability to make me laugh until I couldn’t move. Afternoons at his place were always a treat, always locked away in our tiny little worlds, oblivious to the changing seasons.

I suppose it was when he moved to a different senior school that we drifted apart, though I don’t remember how quickly it started. Being in the same place forges strong bonds, but it’s also surprising how quickly they weaken when put under strain. But even though we were to wander apart though our teenage years, there were plenty of times where we saw a lot of each other. Summer afternoons, the PlayStation years and Crash Bandicoot, Abe’s Odysee, Resident Evil 2 and many more. But the presiding memory, towering head and shoulders above the rest, is Final Fantasy VII.

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Midgar. The grungy, Blade Runner­-esque industrial cityscape where the game begins. I can’t tell you how much I love this place. Every time I look up at the London skyline of a dark evening, all I see in place of The Gherkin is Shinra HQ, and I can’t help but imagine I’m Cloud (the game’s protagonist), staring up at it, deciding how best to infiltrate its many rooms and uncover its dark secrets.

Shinra_image

The plot of Final Fantasy VII is rather good. Characters are given room to breathe, and convincing relationships are built over time. Sephiroth, the main antagonist, is genuinely interesting, and given motivations far beyond your standard moustache-twirling, zeppelin-pinching science villain. But no matter how it developed over the course of the game, the claustrophobic early hours spent escaping Midgar, and the deep rot within it, rest snugly in the Final Fantasy VII­-shaped place in my heart.

You see, I’ve never finished FFVII. Never even come close. I’ve made leaps and bounds, many a time, both with Stefan, and on my own. But never more than 20 hours in. It’s odd; I must have put about 80 hours into it over the course of my life, but for numerous reasons, have never made it past the first disc.

We used to play it, you see, once the game was out and Stefan had got a pirate copy from Greece. I put aside my moralising (I was a very pious and sermonising child, who generally wanted nothing to do with software that wasn’t purchased legitimately. Though I made exceptions. Usually if it was a game I really wanted to play) and by the time we started hanging out after prep school, for a good few months, every time I came round, we’d start up FFVII.

And I do mean start. The PlayStation, for those who have never played one, only allows you to save your position in a game via a memory card, which is a portable storage unit you plugged into your console, so you could remove it and take it to a friend if there was something particularly cool you wanted to show them. Really it was a way for Sony to make money on consoles that cost vastly more to make than they were selling them for, but regardless, one saved one’s game on a memory card. And they were perilously small, in terms of memory and actual size.

Each time I went to Stefan’s house, we played through the opening of FFVII. It’s a thrilling few hours, with twists, turns, battles, betrayals, and beautiful FMVs (full motion videos). But when the pale morning light shone through the glazed windows and I had to put my head to rest on his uncomfortable blue camping mattress, knowing I was being picked up in the morning, we would save our game, vowing we would pick up where we left off next time. Yet when the next time came, the save was always gone. I mean always. Now the memory card was lost, now the saved file wasn’t on it. I don’t know what happened – maybe they were deleted by his sister Christina in an act of petty revenge for how much we teased her, maybe he saved over it with another file, but we lost more half-completed stories than I care to remember.

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But I didn’t really mind. The game slowly started to acquire the texture of a classic film, as scenes we knew like the backs of our hands played out week in week out, and we navigated our way through, laughing at the silly dialogue, or at the fact that we’d named our chubby support character “Thin”, “Tubbs”, or something equally witty. Train-top escapes. Hiding out in the slums. Motorbike chases. All thrilling set-pieces, oddly undimmed despite our repeated exposure to them.

There’s a moment early on when a botched attempt at environmental terrorism lands you recuperating in an abandoned church, helped by a wandering flower girl, whom we usually called “Bagrin”, for no particular reason other than it was, and still is, a funny word. Bagrin would wake Cloud up, and they share a tender moment of connection. At the time I was listening to The New Radicals one and only album, (Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too) which I was utterly in love with, and still am to this day. Track 11 was always the track that blew my mind with its simplicity and indecipherable, somehow honest lyrics. It was called Flowers.

Somewhere in my brain these two ideas have fused into an almost perfect memory. Every time I play the game, or – more likely – listen to the song, I’m transported over a decade down the wires of history to those weeks in Stefan’s house, playing through the early days of a great adventure. It’s hard to explain, but some endorphine explosion happened in my brain which was a mixture of camaraderie, excitement, potential and god-knows-what-else, all tied up with that game, and by some synaptic miracle, that song. And also flowers.

All the memories of hanging out with my friend at that young age mesh together into one pleasant whole, and FFVII is somehow at the core. I think it was the first time I’d really played a game with that kind of depth, not to mention one of my early forays into the exciting world of consoles, and over the years we watched so many films and played so many games and made up so many stories that that whole house is this kind of shrine to nostalgia and delight.

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I remember looking out of a window in his bedroom at who-knows-what-hour in the morning, looking up at this tall steeple of a church that sat next to Stefan’s house. At the time I was reading the Subtle Knife, the Phillip Pullman novel where a boy escapes his pursuers by cutting into another world, and I very keenly felt like out that window lay indescribable lands and adventures. It’s hard to truly convey the strength of that feeling, but I’m certain it’s all tangled up with escape and stories and videogames and the whole crazy mess of it.

Final Fantasy VII was one of the great exponents of this, and provided a window through which I could see strange lands, and become a hero, like the ones I’d read about. It was going exploring with my friend, seeing strange, yet familiar lands, escaping a little bit further each time, but never getting to where we needed to go.

Cloud_image

So the game is one of the great unfinished loops in my head. I even borrowed it off my friend Angus years later when I had my own PlayStation, and got all the way to the end of disc I (20-odd hours of play), to reach a huge plot twist in the narrative. “Insert Disc II”, the game said. I scrabbled to the box, and hastily swung it open, reaching for the CD. I picked it gingerly out of the box, careful not to get sweaty prints on the underside…and the disc pulled apart. It had a crack so huge down it, it was practically a letter “C”.

And so I never got further than that. Maybe it was meant to be. Except that’s bollocks. I recently downloaded Final Fantasy VII on the PSN (PlayStation Network) and played through the first 15 hours. It’s aged surprisingly well. Perhaps I’ll get around to finishing it someday. Part of me wants to leave it untouched, this closed box of memory and nostalgia which, if opened, is unlikely to live up to the rose-tinted lens through which it’s viewed.

But ultimately, I will finish it. It’ll be good to know what lies at the end of the road, even if it means closing that avenue off, to start on another.

Ffxii_image

You always want to be pushing forwards. After all, you never know; an even more beautiful world might be waiting right around the corner. Let’s go see.

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