Growing up, I was always a big reader. You could also insert nerd, dork and dweeb following that sentence, and it would sit just as well. While I enjoyed watching shows on TV or even Empire Strikes Back on VHS – which was my favorite movie until Jurassic Park came out – I never got quite the same satisfaction as I did reading a fun adventure on paper. There was something about holding the story in my grubby hands, interacting with it by turning pages, seeing the words as they formed whatever pictures I dictated and really having time to connect with characters. Sure, movies had people that I loved, but spending several weeks with a character in my brain was infinitely more satisfying than just a few hours on a screen.
But I never knew a video game could do the same thing until Final Fantasy 7.
It was the summer of 1998, and my brother and I were tired of playing nothing but Goldeneye (as great as it was) on the Nintendo 64. For those of you that remember, the N64 had an excellent first year or so, and then started to hit a sophomore slump. One day, out of boredom or heat stroke or both, we decided on a whim to go purchase a Sony Playstation. While we didn’t really have any money to buy any games right away (ah, weren’t those the days), we were fortunate enough to have one of Kerry’s friends lend us a copy of a game we never heard of: Final Fantasy 7. Really, when we asked him about it, the only thing he told us was that it had magic and cool graphics. Sold.
From the opening sequence I knew I had never played a game like this before. Any nostalgic FF7 fan knows that familiar shot of the stars, the panning and sweeping camera, the shots of Aeris and the tinkling of those crystal-like musical notes. It’s one of my favorite openings of any game ever, and it swings around to reveal Midgar, that bastion of steam and magepunk industry, pumping Mako from the earth.
Over the next few hours, I was riveted by the tale of AVALANCHE, the terrorist group out to stop Shinra, Inc. from destroying the planet one kilowatt at a time. I loved the somber tone of the slums and the lower plate, the way we saw the trains swirling around the struts that held the upper echelons of the city in place. It was science fiction and magic colliding together like two football players, and hit some special part of my brain that didn’t even know it wanted that.
Looking back at it, I know that Final Fantasy 7 isn’t the best story I’ve ever seen, or even the best video game story I’ve ever seen. It’s far from both of those actually. It wasn’t even about the music or the characters (which are actually kind of flat in some instances, most notably Cloud) or even the nonsensical plot that to my young brain seemed out of this world and perfectly convoluted in a way that I liked. The important thing about Final Fantasy 7 is when I played it.
I’ve never been shy about the fact that nostalgia can easily ruin many new things for me, or build up older things indestructibly. This is one of those games. I played it at just the right point of my life for it to have an impact on me the way it did. Hearing just a few notes of its much-praised music immediately makes me die to play through it again. I’ve beaten it more times than I can recall, and a couple of my playthroughs measured at 90+ hours. It’s a world I absolutely fell in love with like no other before it, and in some ways since. Sure, there had been other magepunk and steampunk worlds created. But I hadn’t seen them. Heck, I didn’t even know such a thing was possible. I had no idea that we could see science fiction, magic and swordplay in a cyclone that lasts for 40 plus hours.
To be honest, I had no clue a game could last that long. True story: we didn’t even have a memory card. Having never played a formal RPG before, we just assumed we would be able to beat it in one long sitting. We got to the end of Midgar and assumed we were about halfway through the game, and our friend told us we were mistaken.
What Final Fantasy 7 did that nothing had done to that point was show me the importance of wonder and story. Like I said, there are other, better stories out there. But to me, it was the first game that scratched that itch in a meaningful way. I loved reading books, but games that meant something were like books that I played. There’s an important distinction there, and it changed the way I looked at video games, and even story. For the first time in my life, I remembered having a vested interest in an ongoing saga, and I got to live it out myself. This was a tale of angels and monsters, love and airships, ancient civilizations and stones that powered society to its own doom.
To this day, I still remember that important example about what a game can do, because there are a lot of people that think otherwise. If I’m being honest, this beloved Squaresoft game is one of the first things that made me want to tell big sprawling stories, because I saw firsthand the effect they could have on people. As I said, this is silly to think about now, considering I’ve seen so many finer and more suitable examples of things that have gone above and beyond this – but for me it was the first, and the one that all others are measured against in terms of its impact.
Have any of you ever had this kind of experience with a story before? What ways have games or other media surprised you?