A Head in the Clouds: Memories of Final Fantasy VII
I have something of a confession to make.
I’m a big Final Fantasy fan. It’s one of the series that got me into videogames back in the SNES days. Throughout high school, during the “PlayStation era,” those games were the grand ludic escape in my life. Back then, instead of D&D (which was forbidden in our home) or its children (the “western,” Computer RPG), I got my roleplaying fix through Final Fantasy. (And yeah, if anybody’s that curious it DID involve naming characters after people I knew. le cringe.) Throughout all those years, it's become part of my sense of identity, I suppose, coming out of all those memories and time spent with the characters, settings, motifs. My tastes moved away from the series’ more recent titles a little while ago now, but I would still, if anyone ever put it to me this way, call myself something of an expert on a certain sect of titles from the series.
But not long ago, I finally got around to playing the remake of FF7 (which btw is absolutely amazing I think it’s my favorite videogame ever maybe). Seriously, it’s so good. And as I was taking in all of its uncannily “enhanced” nostalgia, I realized suddenly that I couldn’t quite picture where all these threads wound up; what happened to everybody? I remember what happens to… well, you know, the big spoiler. The one the game is known for, paradoxically. It feels a bit silly to even refrain from just speaking openly about it here, now, but well I digress. That bit of information is about all the finality I could remember of the narrative – and, as I was surprised to discover (again?) during my recent playthrough of the original, that scene happens maybe halfway through the story! There’s much to do in the fallout of that shock, and reader, I didn’t remember any of it.
So, about that confession? Well, here it is: I’ve never beaten FF7 before. At least, I’m seriously beginning to doubt I ever have. I’ve certainly told people I had. Hell, I would have told myself I had! Like I said, I certainly remember it well enough; Shinra, mako, Cloud, Aerith. Seph-i-roth! I’ve long considered it checked-off the ol’ “To Finish” list.
But the last half of the game? Not a lot of bells rung, we'll put it like that. I mean, sure, it’s been nearly 25 years at this point since I last played the game. Even now, I’m not sure I could give you an entirely accurate rundown of each goal at that point of the game, and I just finished it a week ago as of this writing. But there are definitely resolutions to those narrative threads that, I have to be honest, felt pretty novel to me. Like most of everything about Cloud, for instance. So did I just not retain much of the 3rd act of this game or am I a big phony who never even finished it, only patching together knowledge of it through cultural osmosis? OR am I really just an experimental clone of a scientologist’s earth-spirit baby with false memories? At this point, do I really even want to know?
Even way back then, back in my high school days, I remember feeling that something didn’t seem quite right about the way my brain worked. Often, I felt my thoughts raced faster than my hands could type or even my mouth could speak. I have terrible working memory, as well. I’m never going to remember that phone number or that password or your name. Not without a lot of effort and concentration. And for god's sake: don't spell at me, please. Remember that scene in Memento when Carrie-Ann Moss is telling Guy Pierce that she’s about to manipulate him and he desperately tries to find a pen and paper to jot down a note, but can’t find anything and completely forgets as soon as she reenters the room? I can relate, obviously not so dramatic in my case, but the general gist is completely accurate. So maybe it’s no big surprise that I forget details of a 25-year-old videogame. But unfortunately, it’s so much more than that: I don’t have many memories of my life either. I mean, of course I have memories, but they’re scattered and jumbled. I feel like I don’t have a good sense of temporality in my memories – I remember doing a thing, but how old was I? What else was going on in my life? And then there are the things I have no memory of, which I assume happens to us all sometimes: a friend or relative asks if you remember going to a place or enjoying a particular activity and it feels like listening to a story that doesn’t involve you. That happens a lot to me.
The semester after my comp exams, I finally took the action I’ve wanted to take for literal decades: I “got tested” for ADHD and, what do you know, I was diagnosed. At 38 years-old, I was finally told that I wasn’t just imagining things, that I wasn’t lazy or stupid or “addicted to screens” (I mean, maybe, but it’s at least beside the point here). It’s a relief to be able to say definitely that my brain works in a different way than most, and to know that I’m not just making excuses for myself. I’m not self-diagnosing anymore, and that makes it more real.
Since being diagnosed, I’ve started working with my doctor to find a medication that works for me, too. I began this process believing (in spite of myself) that meds would be a quick and life-changing step. That I’d be a new person in a few weeks, devastatingly productive and attentive. Eh, things didn’t go that way. Of course, they didn’t! But I have seen bits of improvement even at the low dose I’m on now. I still find my thoughts straying, but I’m more likely to recognize that I’ve strayed now much sooner than I would have previously. Used to, I’d find myself on some random website when I meant to be working and think, “Wait, what the fuck am I doing here? What was I supposed to be doing?” Or I’d walk into a room and have to stand and think, “What did I come in here for?” I think all this becomes the most obvious during moves when I’m packing up and whatnot. My partner deserves medals for putting up with me aimlessly walking around with knickknack in my hands while she does the bulk of the work.
Slow though it may be, however, I do recognize a change in my ability to focus for longer periods of time. I think this is most evident when it comes to things I enjoy doing, like watching movies or playing games. For instance, over the winter break, I spent a day doing nothing but playing FF7. I wasn’t really even aware of the time passing, and before I knew it, I had played a solid 6-7 hours. Which might not sound like that big of a deal, but that’s not something I would ordinarily do so effortlessly. I also paid a lot more attention to the narrative this time around, picking up inferences and connections that I suppose I missed as teen, and engaged a lot more in the game’s systems.
I suppose you can’t really write about FF7 and not mention the “materia” system – the mechanism in the game that lets you customize your characters by way of slotting magic rocks into their armor and weapons for the ability to cast Fire Magic, for instance, or Cure Spells. Some give characters abilities, like Steal, while still others are used for Summons, powerful magic spells that are a staple of the series. As players earn EXP, they also earn AP that levels up their equipped materia, and this grants access to more powerful forms of the spells/abilities/what-have-you.
I remember not loving the materia system during my first experiences with the game. I much preferred the way this game’s predecessor handled its very similar (yet admittedly simplified) version, FF6’s “Espers”. Just like materia, you’d equip an Esper to a party member, allowing even non-magic users to cast whatever spells were associated with it. The main difference between the two systems, to my mind, is that in FF6, when a character had attained a high enough level with an Esper, they would learn the skill, meaning they could perform it without having the Esper equipped. Which was good, because there were only so many Espers and a lot of characters!
But the materia system doesn’t have this ability to “learn.” The game is a constant shuffling of materia between a cast of 8-9 characters, while only 3 of them are active at a time. The result of this is that it’s a buttload of trouble to switch members in and out so I’m sure I used several characters less often than I would have liked. They’re all pretty interesting and fun to include, even Cait Sith. (I think the remake’s materia system is much more refined but, again, simpler.)
This said, though, I found the arranging of materia to be quite engaging and, dare I say it, fun this time around. I’d be interested/horrified to know just how much of my 60~hr playthrough was spent looking at that screen: using the materia to build a well-rounded team based on the innate stats and abilities of the characters; experimenting with newly uncovered materia; and exploring the various combinations that “linked” slots allow, letting you to play with adding various elemental damage to your sword or resistance to your armor and so much more. It’s the tweaking here that I found much more enjoyable to the shuffling above. The near-constant trial and error as you try to manage your party! It’s the kind of process a mind can get lost in, you know? I played the shit out of this game this time around, following a guide through most of it to make sure I didn’t miss anything cool like Yuffie and Vincent or any of the dozen or so sidequests of interest. But I did nearly all of this at 3x speed and with liberal use of the Switch port’s no-random-battle button which speaks to just how much time I spent in the materia menu, playing with the nearly endless combos in the one gamespace that’s never affected by the port’s fast-forward feature.
During one such extended interlude, not long after it had occurred to me how long I was spending simply on the menus, I thought about how much my previous, less-than-exuberant (read: would rather ignore) evaluation of the game no doubt stemmed from my lack of ability to focus on these intricate matrices of stats and abilities for any longer than equipping some basic, familiar magic spells, and just generally “sticking with the classics.” I thought about how much more I was enjoying this game with my (what feels like) new brain, and I felt a tinge of resentment for not being treated as a minor. Is this what doing things feels like for everyone else? You can just decide this-is-the-thing-that-I-shall-focus-on? Neat!
To end this already overlong post, let me formally take back all of the times I’ve ever said that FF7 is overrated. Well, maybe it is, but it’s also worthy of so, so much of that praise; if for not only the general story and specific mechanics/systems, then surely for the thought-provoking reflections on environmental catastrophe, corporate greed and waste, and even terrorism (this was pre-9/11, after all). Don't get me wrong: the game has plenty of less-than-successful elements (the sheer amount of gimmicky "mechanics" isn't a good look, but unfortunately most of these aren't fun either); and its aesthetics have aged faster than any of the other titles in the series, to my eye at least (and this has been true since almost immediately upon its release). I’m looking even more forward to the second part of the remake where I’m hoping they flesh out the rest of this interesting world as they do with Midgar in the first without the extra challenge of being the first polygonal, 3D game in the series. Not to say that living up to expectations isn't maybe even harder.