Monday 10 August 2015

When Did I Return to Nibelheim?

I’m replaying Final Fantasy VII at the moment, partly prompted by the announcement of the remake and partly to see how Tales of the Abyss relates to it[1]. I’m having a very different experience of the game than I did either of my previous forays into it. I don’t have much to say about the first of those, on the original PC version in about 2003, since I didn’t get very far before losing interest, but in light of the upcoming remake, I do want to talk about the second.

The second time I played FFVII, and the first that I completed it, I was sharing a house with a number of other gamers, all keen fans of the franchise. Foremost among them was a guy I’ll call Tom, who was one of Those FFVII Fans.

I don’t want to disparage Tom’s love of the game. It’s a great game, and unlike me he first encountered it completely fresh and had time at the right time in his life to explore it fully and have his mind repeatedly blown. But as what might be called a ludocentric gamer – whose play focussed on the mastering of systems and surpassing of challenges – he engaged with a very different FFVII to the one calling out to me.

It’s not even that Tom didn’t recognise the depth and complexity of FFVII’s story. It just wasn’t what he focussed on. When I wanted to include Aeris in my party, because I felt that that was what Cloud would do (not an opinion I hold anymore, but I did then), Tom told me off for wasting XP and equipment on her – we both knew she was going to die, but for Tom that made her useless to me in a way that I just didn’t care about that much.

I played through the whole game with Tom breathing down my neck, pushing me to play in a certain way, take a certain attitude to the in-game events. I enjoyed the game, overall, and indeed enjoyed most of my conversations and arguments with Tom about it, but I wouldn’t say it made much of an impression on me. It was a good game, but I couldn’t feel its tremendous influence.

This is not a complaint about ludocentric play. I know I’m complaining about ludocentric play, but the problem isn’t how Tom chose to engage with the game, or what it meant or was to him. My complaint is with the way he insisted the game had to be the same thing to me. (Something similar happened with a number of other games over the years we lived together – FFVII is strong enough to stand up, but some of the others are probably spoiled for me forever).

It’s only in playing the game afresh, on my own, that I’m starting to find the FFVII that matters to me, that will leave an impression on me. Now I can pause and appreciate the blocking in the cutscenes, the exquisite care of the camerawork and sound design, the surprising nuance of so much of the writing.

Why talk about this now? Well, sometime in the next couple of years, a whole lot of people are going to get the chance to come to FFVII fresh, in a game that really won’t – can’t, for better or worse – match the memories of people who played it when it was new. That disconnect could do a lot to hurt the actual experiences people have with the remake, maybe on both sides (I imagine it’s hurting some people in conversations within the dev team already).

The thing is, FFVII is actually a great game to have as a new experience. It’s a game about having an image of something – Cloud’s image of the past, his fateful return to Nibelheim – that is slowly revealed to not match reality. FFVII is a landmark of games history and culture, but the memories of those who ‘were there at the time’ are necessarily personal, even a distortion.

Like Tifa, shaking her head and murmuring worries while Cloud grandly recounts fighting alongside Sephiroth, those of us who weren’t there encounter a striking dissonance between the deeply-held beliefs of our friends and the actual experiences in front of us. Having the space to explore that dissonance has definitely enriched the game for me, but in a different context – with Tom’s memories of the game pressing in around with me – it could be stifling.

Whatever FFVII is to you, please try to be aware of the fact that that isn’t neutral; you aren’t right about it. It’s a game that can be many things to many different people. It doesn’t need justifying. It doesn’t even need justifying in its current half-updated incarnations, like the Steam version I’m currently playing, with its hi-res low-poly models and low-res un-updated backgrounds. The game is strong enough that it doesn’t need nursemaiding through encounters with new players.

I’d say also that fussing too much over spoilers is counterproductive. That’s for two reasons; firstly, that spoilers are inevitable given the prominence of the game. Secondly, what makes FFVII’s major twists interesting and powerful has very little to do with surprise. This is true for almost everything that people worry about spoiling, and surprise is rarely interesting in and of itself[2], but, as someone who knew all along that Aeris would die and that Cloud’s memories are actually Zack’s, I can promise you from personal experience that those revelations don’t lose their power to foreknowledge.

It is all well and good to love a game, particularly if that game has been important to your love of the form (and provided it doesn’t blind you to its shortcomings). But nostalgia for your own experience of a game can be a prison that keeps the game away from other players, even other players who play it for seventy hours and see every bit of content it has to offer. If you love FFVII, please be prepared to let it go, at least a little bit.

Of course, I can say all this now. You might want to save a link to this article to throw right back at me if and when Final Fantasy XII gets a HD remaster/remake, because I will be insufferable as hell during that launch week…

[1] This is a topic for another time, but Abyss has a protagonist with a whole bunch of false memories and a metaphysics based on the Kabbalah mythology from which Sephiroth’s name is drawn. I am pretty sure this isn’t a coincidence.

[2] Okay, that may be a little strong, particularly since I personally hate surprise and the unexpected in all its forms. I do, however, believe strongly that very little that can actually be ‘spoiled’ is valuable in and of itself – most plot twists are either interesting whether or not they’re surprising, or actually not interesting at all.

Written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table:

1 comment:

  1. This is great! I'm not as confident in my own approach to Final Fantasy because i'm a lot like your friend Tom - I still look at FF7 with rose-colored glasses, even when I try to fight it. I feel like I might have a hard time letting go of it.


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