16 August 2012

Finally! The Seventh Fantasy (III)

It was fairly late yesterday by the time I installed Final Fantasy VII, set up an account to start playing, and wrote nonsense about it on the Internet. I stopped playing before I even reached the first save point, so I had to start again from the beginning today.

I think the enjoyment in a game like this is in the progression. Tetris never changes, and yet I'll keep playing that game until I drop. I don't have to reach the end of Super Mario Bros. to feel like my playing time has been well-spent - I will gladly run through World 1-1 a thousand times, because the sheer act of running and jumping is its own reward. Moving through the world - seeing surprising new sights and overcoming ever-more-difficult challenges - enhances the game immensely, but it you can still have a great time while dying over and over on the first stage.

In a story-driven role-playing game, progression is essential. Even when you're running around in a field fighting the same slimes and rats for hours on end, you're progressing. Your actions as a player may be the same in every fight, but the in-game character is gaining experience points, levels, gold, and items. Something is changing. There's an arc from where you were when you started playing to where you are when you finish, and that's why players tolerate and even crave repetitive RPGs.

Likewise, most RPGs I've played - okay, most video games in general - have had cringe-inducing-ly bad stories, and yet players really latch onto this tripe. I've heard several game developers claim that games are superior to movies because once a movie starts playing, it will continue to the end, even if no one is present to watch it, but a game requires a player to push it forward, and this means the game/player bond is closer than that of the movie/audience. While I personally find this viewpoint absurd, the fact that some people do buy into it goes a long way toward explaining why video game fans hail certain video game stories as brilliant, while they would never tolerate the same story if it were presented in a movie. The written narrative of a Final Fantasy game does not take the player's choices and actions into account, but it also wouldn't be told without somebody being present to hit the "Continue" button every few seconds. There is a connection to the storytelling process, even if that connection is largely an illusion.

More important than the content of the story is its presence. That is, it doesn't matter so much if the plot or characters are worthwhile, as long as the story is present enough to create a sense of progression. Cutting to a cinematic sequence conveys the idea that something, anything, has happened. Has the state of the game changed between when I started playing and when I ended? Good enough.

Over the years, I've probably gone through the opening scenes of Final Fantasy VII half-a-dozen times. If I play Sonic the Hedgehog's Green Hill Zone two days in a row, I'm going to have a blast both times. If I play the intro to Final Fantasy VII two days in a row, on the other hand, my characters will have lost all their gained experience, and I will already clearly know exactly what awaits me in the story. That isn't to say this is a bad or invalid way of designing a game. The blame is on me for not pressing on to the next save point. Still, I expect my excitement levels for this game will remain pretty tepid until I finally reach a point I haven't played before.

Finally! The Seventh Fantasty (II)

Ordinarily, I appreciate both privacy and cookies; often at the same time. However, a glance at the fine print here indicates that this agreement has less to do with me eating sugary junk food alone in my bedroom, and more to do with me paying for the right to let some company spy on me in exchange for the chance to play an old computer game. Yes, I have purchased, downloaded, and installed Final Fantasy VII, but I will not be granted permission to play until I have created a Square Enix account and agreed to the terms above, or signed in with a Facebook account, which can't be any better.

Why? Why is this a requirement?

--- A few minutes later ---

I'm in the game now. I've played the intro before, many years ago, so there shouldn't be any real surprises for me at this point, and yet there are. I shouldn't be surprised by the over-indulgent, heavily compressed cinematic scenes, and yet I can't believe how much time I'm asked to spend looking at CG stars. Like, a minute of erratic camera swoops showing nothing. Pixelated white blobs on a black background. Then there's some girl, then some city, then, okay, fight!

I guess I like getting thrown straight into a battle more than I would like heavy-handed tutorials teaching me how to walk, but the jump in pacing these first moments provide is startling. I fight a few policemen (Is that right? Policemen?), then learn that my spiky-haired little name is a guerrilla/terrorist guy named Cloud. Or he would be named Cloud if the game didn't give me the option to rechristen him "I am dumb," because that's totally funny, and there's no way I'll think my little joke is stale when I'm still reading it 100 hours into my adventure.

It was at this point that I tried to take a screenshot to show off my enviable wit ("What's your name?" "I am dumb." "I am dumb, eh? Hmmm..."), and it was at this point I learned that you can't take screenshots of this game with the Print Screen button. It just saves a blank black image. I'm sure I can find a way around this limitation, but come on. What harm am I going to do by taking a picture of a game that came out fifteen years ago?

Oh, right, I'll probably take pictures of the ridiculous bugs. Within two or three minutes of starting, I'd already discovered a simple method for making I am dumb appear upside-down at 200 times his regular size. Whoops.

I kept going and met a character who was happy to provide a bit of exposition. "You were in SOLDIER," and I guess we don't like SOLDIER, because he followed it up by telling I am dumb, "I don't trust you." Well, gosh, what a way to hurt a guy's feelings. Sorry, "Barret," from now on, your name is "Meanie."

Finally! The Seventh Fantasy (I)

I identify with this wild-haired youth.
As mentioned on this very site just last month, I have never played Final Fantasy VII in its entirety, and I consider it a shamefully significant gap in my personal video game history. The game has engendered such frightening adoration and torrid debate that basing my impressions on popular opinion and the scattered segments I witnessed at friends' houses in the late nineties seems horribly inadequate. Quite simply, it is a game that I, arrogant video game snob that I am, must play. It's too important to the medium to ignore.

Fortunately, Square Enix released a slightly updated version yesterday. This edition looks like it should make the game a bit more functional on modern computers than the original, without any changes to how the game plays. The story and characters which are still inspiring embarrassing fan-fiction and anime convention costumes to this day should be completely intact, and I am ready to judge them with my modern, jaded perspective.

Here's the plan: I'm going to play this whole game, and I'm going to record my thoughts from start to finish. Recaps, criticism, video with commentary, drawings - anything is fair game. Each time I play, I will also, in some way, document my experience, until I discover that I was on Earth all along, or whatever happens at the end of Final Fantasy VII.