Living Through Crisis with the Final Fantasy VII Remake
I never thought I’d want to revisit my teenage self’s emotions — I was wrong. These times call for passion.
I’ve never been a huge gamer. But I’ve always been a nerd. Growing up, I was a shy, smart girl, quiet in most things but loud in what I loved. Playing Ocarina of Time (1998) and seeing Princess Mononoke (1999) changed my life — they made me eager for as many stories from Japan as I could get.
In those days, the world of Japanese anime and game culture was remote.
I would have my mom drive me to the mall to buy new episodes of Trigun on VHS at Suncoast Video — these tapes had three or four episodes apiece, and there would be months between releases. I was obsessed with anime and game soundtracks, but whenever I managed to find a CD at the Virgin Records, it cost like $40 because it was imported. So I saved my money and spent it during the yearly local convention. I went to the first AnimeNEXT in New Jersey; it was so small there was no line to the exhibitors’ hall.
Of course, those days are gone. The local Suncoast closed and Virgin Records is dead. You can stream Trigun on Hulu, download practically any music online, and AnimeNEXT now draws 15,000 attendees every year. Anime and video game culture has exploded, and thanks to social media and memes and marketing, the stories and characters created for one medium can permeate them all. There’s a Funko Pop! toy of everyone.
It’s incredible how in those relatively early Internet days, and without friends who were into this stuff, I was able to catch on to how important the 1997 game Final Fantasy VII was to the community — I loved the game before I ever played it. In middle school, I was drawing Cloud Strife fanart. My friend and I made her a super basic Yuffie cosplay. I played game music composer Nobuo Uematsu’s work alongside Beethoven at my piano recital.
To a newbie, I might compare FFVII’s landmark status to how Moby Dick reigns supreme in the literary canon — you don’t have to have read it to be able to recognize (a) its key characters and conflicts and (b) that you should probably go read it.
(The major difference is it’s way more accessible.)
I was in high school in 2005 when the technical demo for the PlayStation 3 was released — a then-gorgeous rendition of the opening sequence to FFVII. At my high school anime club, which I co-founded (yes, I was that nerd), we screened the game’s sequel movie Advent Children, also released that year. And then I couldn’t wait any longer — I needed to play that game. I bought the original for PS1 but didn’t finish before I went off to college. I left the game systems with my parents and younger brother (they were technically his anyway). I figured I’d wait to play until the remake came out.
Fifteen years passed. It’s 2020.
We are in the midst of the second greatest disaster of my lifetime. The first was 9/11. Back then, I could see the smoke from the World Trade Center from my hometown.
I am officially in my 30s, married, with a dog. I finally went to the grocery store today, after two weeks of making do with what we had. I pushed my cart through the store’s “one-way only” aisles, looking in vain for cold brew and chickpeas and flour, and waited behind the blue tape for my turn at the cash register. I was a little depressed behind my cloth mask. I grew up middle-class. This has been my first time glimpsing dearth — it saps my strength. I feel powerless and wary of everything.
I drove home below the speed limit, as if the coronavirus might somehow manifest as a deer and leap into my windshield. I listened to NPR with a choking panic in my throat, and texted with my friends who are doctors, and debated what to make for dinner. I’ve set the bar for my home cooking so much higher now that we can’t eat out — because in all this tragedy, I need a silver lining somewhere and it might as well be good food. I worry about my husband working at the hospital, my family that lives states away, and my future as a writer.
Those emotions — sullenness, anxiety, despair — filled my days until April 10. That day, my hand-me-down PlayStation 4 downloaded my purchase of FFVII Remake.
My husband is a PC gamer and will spend much of his non-work hours going through his Steam games. He knows I enjoy gaming but has rarely seen me play — I just have too much else to do, I tell him. So he was shocked when, ten hours into the game and now trying to piece dinner together, I spontaneously screamed, “I can’t stop thinking about this game!”
He turned to me, “Why?”
My first reaction? I waited fifteen freaking years for this — I deserve to obsess a bit!
But actually, this is a better reason: the story.
Here is the game’s premise: You play as Cloud Strife, a mercenary with a chilly attitude. He gets hired by Avalanche, a group of “eco-terrorists” who are trying to take down Shinra, the corporation whose greed is destroying the planet; you actually used to work for them. As your commitment to Avalanche grows greater and more personal, you meet two women (at least two, anyway) who might win your heart. And then — you start to question the veracity of your own memories. Are you actually who you say you are?
The game has high stakes at all levels. Remember English class? Here are some examples of narrative conflict and how FFVII flexes them:
- Character v. Society: As the game opens, you are fighting to change the fundamental hierarchy of Midgar, a city where the richest (among them, Shinra’s employees) live thousands of feet above the slums, where your friends live.
- Character v. Technology: Technology is literally sucking the earth dry. A flower in bloom is a rarity.
- Character v. Character: Cloud is matched up against Sephiroth, the big baddie from his past.
- Character v. Self: Who do you truly love? This sweet-faced, spunky flower girl or the fighter who pours stiff drinks at the local bar? And, also, who the hell are you, really?
It’s a story that inspires admiration, conviction, and excitement. Even before I picked up a PS1 controller, I was thrilled to access this world. Of course it’s a classic.
I spent my 20s learning how to be jaded. I learned that I, as an individual, could do very little to change the institutions that affect my life. And I don’t mean the big institutions that we all hate, like the health insurance system and Congress. I mean even things like my workplace — even my small team — just wouldn’t budge without my constant, applied pressure, and even then, only a microscopic bit. You usually can’t change people, I realized; and if you can’t change people, you can’t change the world. So I learned to be satisfied with other things — like, a decent salary, a clean bathroom, or a day without getting cat-called. I was taught in grad school that you can (and probably should) make art from the mundane, and you also ought to accept that you’ll never make much money at it. I learned to temper my expectations and analyze my emotions to quiet them. I accepted that I would need to work a lot and expect little back.
Playing the FFVII Remake now, I feel like I’ve been cracked open and inside, hiding all these years, is my teenage self. Once more, I’m encountering the excess of feelings I had back then — the heightened sense of justice, deep love and passion, and of course that thrilling “squee!” of excitement. I’m also deeply impressed, again, by the story, the characters, the beautiful music. I feel like a nerd again — like my imagination is awake again.
Now seems the appropriate time to feel so intensely.
The global crisis is here — the pandemic, and also climate change. Corporate behemoths are shaping our planet. There are villains living above us — those who don’t see farmhands and garment workers and warehouse workers as worthy of humane treatment, and who will spend billions to craft a society that lets them pump oil, overprice medication, and sell weaponry to civilians. And in the face of all this, I feel profoundly proud of and in love with my husband, family, and friends, some of whom are literally risking their lives to care for strangers, all of whom are trying to work together to fight through this.
The nature of social distancing means that we can’t “help” by running toward the disaster. We can only help — during this temporary time — by doing nothing.
But, my teenage self would argue, no adventure ever started with the hero staying home.
So I’m spending my evenings in Midgar, remembering how a story (and beautiful design and music) can move me, even change me. I hope I can bottle up these feelings and tuck them into my inventory, because after social distancing ends, I’m going to need them. I need hope, love, passion, determination — I need to believe again that we can change things for the better. Our world’s “new normal” can’t be the same as the “old normal.” The “new me” who will enter 2021 cannot be the “old me” of 2019 who gave up on the future.
I’m excited to conclude the Midgar chapter of Remake, and I don’t know how I’m going to bear waiting for the next part of the story to be released. Maybe I’ll ask my parents ship me the old PS1 in the meantime.