A Gamer's Fondest Fantasy

Video Games

Most nerds—and plenty of closet nerds—have some book, some movie, or some series that they obsessed over as a kid. Lots of kids become Tolkienites, poring over not only the original trilogy but also “The Silmarillion,” “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,” assorted notes discovered while digging through the Tolkien estate’s garbage cans, and so on. There are Star Wars nerds, there are Trekkies—even anthropomorphic rats somehow continue to fascinate hordes of Redwall fans.

As for me, I was a “Final Fantasy” fiend. I grew up watching my brother play through the classic Japanese video game series; I was immediately drawn in by the breathtaking graphics (well, breathtaking back in the mid-’90s anyway). I found myself humming along with the music, often yelling at my brother to slow down so I could read all the characters’ dialogue. I was too much of a wuss to actually play the games for a long time, mind you—they had lots of numbers and menus and words that terrified seven-year-old me—but I read and reread the strategy guide until the pages were falling out and I was coaching my brother on how to play his own game.

So a few weeks ago, when I picked up “Final Fantasy VII” (FFVII) again, I was expecting to relive one of the best gaming experiences I’d ever had. FFVII, after all, has been consistently hailed by game critics and FinalFantaholics alike as one of the greatest games of all time. It’s inspired everything from rap albums to fan-written novellas to heated debates on online message boards. (Case in point: a Google search led me to a 32,000-word analysis of the game’s plot, symbolism, and narrative ambiguities, written by a fan during her spare time. Thesis writers, eat your hearts out.)

My experience replaying FFVII, however, was not so inspiring.

I found myself cringing at some of the heavy-handed dialogue—the game’s antihero, a cold-hearted mercenary named Cloud, has to repeatedly remind the audience just how much he doesn’t care about anyone, evidently because he’s afraid we might not have believed him the first dozen times. And sure, keeping evil corporations from draining all of the planet’s precious Lifestream felt very heroic to preteen me; but the whole setup struck 20-year-old me as a bit hokey and Captain Planet-y. And the graphics—well, what seemed like revolutionary 3D action in 1997 looks more like a first grader’s Play-Doh claymation project today.

I guess some people would tell me, “duh, that’s what you should expect from a 14-year-old game.” After all, it’s just a game, one of hundreds of games that come out each year.

But for me, FFVII hadn’t felt like ‘just’ a game when I played it as a kid. It was far more involved than any mere game of chess or tennis or Tetris. Even though the Play-Doh graphics and synthesizer-heavy soundtrack seem simplistic by today’s standards, at the time everything felt fresh, and the plot was more expansive than any I’d seen in a game before. It truly pushed the boundaries of the medium. While playing, I felt wholly immersed: embarking on a quest, discovering characters’ backstories, unraveling the plot—experiences that ‘just a game’ could never provide.

As I played on, even at age 20 I felt myself being gradually sucked into that experience once more. Even though the game is hindered by the technical limitations of its time, stilted dialogue, and occasionally repetitive gameplay, underneath it all there’s still a cast of characters I’ll never forget and a world I’ll never tire of exploring.

So, no, your average adrenaline-junky trigger-fingered “Call of Duty” gamer would probably not appreciate FFVII—but what does it matter? There’s still someone who made a rap album devoted to the game, for crying out loud. Outdated or not, FFVII’s legacy survives today. Maybe it is just a game—but “Lord of the Rings” is just a book, and “Star Wars” is just a movie. That doesn’t make any of them less magical to the millions of fans who experienced those fantastic worlds, worlds those fans still think, dream, and even obsess about decades after their original releases. Not all fantasies age well, but some—”Final Fantasy” among them—don’t die.

—Columnist Julia E. Hansbrough can be reached at jhansbrough@college.harvard.edu.

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