March 03, 2020
In 1997 I was sitting in the back seat of my mom’s station wagon with my eyes closed. We were parked in the lot of an office complex, most likely waiting for my younger brother to finish his appointment with a learning specialist. And I was concentrating. Attempting to induce a dream.
I imagined myself walking down a sunny path, flanked by a handful of trees and surrounded by grass. Ahead was a quaint village and along side me were my companions, each with their own skill, ready to face whatever we were about to find, but also appreciative of the momentary calm we all shared.
This sort of day dreaming wasn’t unique for me (and probably not uncommon for any pre-teen), but it sticks out because it was marked by a certain extreme yearning.
I was attempting to relive the experience of playing the first blockbuster video game, which had come out in January of that year. Before Final Fantasy 7, highly narrative games, the ones that attempted to rival film in their depth, weren’t commonly played in the US. And even in Japan, where they were taken more seriously, the available 2d graphics limited the developers palate and gave them a childish sheen. FF7 was SquareSoft’s first forray into 3d graphics, the first game to be developed by a team of more than 100 people, and the first to have a budget of more than $1 million.
But at 12 years old none of these details were apparent to me. I was simply at the right age to have enjoyed the basic goals and lo-res sprites of NES platformers and then watched video games grow up as I did. Adding complexity here and there, rising in ambition and scope. It felt both natural and magical.
And I was at the right age to be completely engrossed in FF7. For months I wandered through middle school in a daze, doodling images of cyber-punk machinery and desperate to get home and pick up where I’d left off. On the weekends I would spring out of bed at 6am, unconciously skirting the limits my parents had set on playtime.
It was imperative to me to dissect every piece of lore, scour every corner of its map, and tear apart each meticulously crafted pre-rendered background 1. As an adult I frequently question the value of my chosen activities. Is sitting here watching The Good Place the best use of my time? Is writing about a video game I liked once a crass exercise in poptimism?
In 1997 I had no doubts. Every second I spent playing the game was good. And life was the game.
In the following years I played sequels and noticed a similar template. After a period of time, a certain nostalgia would bubble up, and I would go back to convene with the game on my dusty PS1. A decade later, I could still recall it viscerally but kept it hidden they way we do with our childhood stuffed animals, up on the top shelf in the back of a closet.
Occasionally a friend would admit that they’d also played the game during that pivotal time, when our brains are ready to free base drama and fiction like a sustenance. We’d talk about it with a little shame and move on, anticipating the flaws we knew were there but couldn’t see.
And then in my early 30s I felt the certain nostalgia. Maybe it was the glossy trailers I’d been seeing for the remake they kept delaying. I found the game cheaply available for download on my computer and hit “Start”.
A blurry logo faded in, and synthetic symphonic music swelled. I felt the punch of dopamine I was craving.
But the feeling quickly fell to the level of a background hum. I began to notice how clunky and flawed the game was; how primitive the polygons and their accompanying animations were. The gameplay itself, often the saving grace of older games, was a little too straightforward. The dialog had its moments but was mostly dry, and mistakes in the rushed translation that seemed quirky to me as a kid were glaring. It was hard to appreciate how massive the scope of FF7 had been at the time before the universe expanded around it.
I found I had most of it committed to memory. Each puzzle was a simple exercise in recall, and each enemy was like an old friend. I found I mostly enjoyed exploring the nooks and corners – digging into the art and wondering why an overworked environment artist had chosen to put that bookshelf against that wall or why that room without enemies, items, or story progression was accessible at all.
For the uninitiated, FF7 is a role playing game (nearly always referred to as an RPG) that follows a standard template used by games of this type. Role playing video games have their roots in the earliest computers and consoles where designers and developers, very familiar with table-top role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, designed games with similar mechanics and storylines to those found in a D&D campaign.2
Like many of their siblings in other genres, RPGs were just as much products of their constraints as they were their creators’ visions. What often separated them was their sense of progression. Players spent them collecting items and increasing their overall “experience” in order to stand a chance against the ever more powerful enemies.
This progression gelled well with the quest-based storylines of high fantasy rooted in Lord of The Rings and The Hero’s Journey. Players would move characters through a world (often over stylized maps) “leveling up”, meeting new companions, and learning more about the story along the way. Eventually they’d face Sauron (or God).
RPGs today have gotten very good at distilling their most the most enjoyable aspects and keeping their systems just complicated enough as to invite obsession. Most of the ones made in the west are open-world, meaning they allow the player to explore in any direction at their own pace and develop their own path.3 RPGs made in Japan can still feel pretty similar to FF7 – just more compulsively fun and maybe with a little less attention to detail.4
FF7 puts the player in the role of Cloud Strife, an ex-soldier turned mercenary hired by a gang of eco-terrorists to help bring down a hyper-capitalist regime. Cloud has a strange relationship with the main villain, the experimental offspring of a human and an alien, that may have involved them sharing DNA during their time in the military. Players also learn about the “lifestream”, which seems to function much like a qi-health meter for the planet and is drying out due to human industry.
Needless to say, this is all weirdly still relevant and probably informed a lot of adolescent worldviews.
At work I noticed Spotify had just added the soundtrack and started listening. Over the years official and unofficial covers have been made of nearly every track, but I found I enjoyed the mechanical timbre of the originals.
The music composer of FF7, Nobuo Uematsu, is a bit like the John Williams of video games in that he has risen to semi-celebrity among fans. Most gamers probably don’t know the names of any other composers – even the ones behind their favorites.
Like the game itself, Uematsu’s score was more ambitious than anything that came before it. Some of the tracks are instrumentally and melodically unique while others subtly evoke the main theme using different keys and modes. Composing for video games is different than composing for passive media like film and television. Players have to enjoy the same track for minutes to hours before progressing to a new area, and the composer needs to account for randomized spikes in tension. A good track has to evoke the environment and situation of the characters while not being so distracting or repetitive that players get annoyed.
Early games were limited to sound pallets that let composers program them like music boxes or player pianos. FF7 was allowed a much lusher pallet than most games before it and a greater number of “voices” as well. The result is Chopin performed on a Eurorack. Digital notes approximate classical instruments and gregorian chants. A cute ostrich dances to lo-fi Dick Dale.
I personally love this era of digital music. A popular method of sound creation at the time let composers interpolate between multiple samples, leading to foggy strings and uncannily human “oohs” and “ahhs”. Electronic music today lacks the limits that made this reasonable. If you want to sound like an orchestra, you can use an orchestral sample. If you want something computerized, you use a synthesizer (preferrably analog). You don’t combine the two.
But like the graphics at the time, video games music was going through an awkward growth phase. One that we can’t get back nor really want to.
A half decade ago Square released a “tech demo” that showed some of the opening sequences of FF7 recreated using contemporary graphics. It was so well received that a full remake was announced, and after a series of stops and starts, it is set to be released next month. Many of the original developers (some previously retired) have returned to work on it, and after most fans were hoping for a graphical upgrade and a retranslation, it seems they’ve reimagined much of the core gameplay and altered the storyline.
Watching the latest trailer, has me realizing how much my taste has changed. The game looks more like a standard anime – a bit too much like the Akira that it was originally aping. The characters have the perfect faces of K-Pop stars, and their recorded voices aren’t what I imagined as a preteen. I wonder if there was an ever an opportunity for a complete reboot, something that played with the tropes of the original and grounded it all in a smaller and more adult story. Like 2019’s God of War.
As I moved through the original FF7, dreamily, half disappointed, I kept pausing my movement and watching the screen like gif. Blocky characters stood in a gloomy train car, some talking, some looking out the window, one with his head in his hands, while the whole thing jolted up and down. City lights darted by in the distance, and synthetic strings faded in and out to a somber tune, a track called Anxiety.
At this moment I could breath. The game was less a game and more a vignet. A scene from a world I once knew.
Looking back at these background images (or “fields”), it’s surprising how pixelated they are on modern screens, but the detail is still stunning. You get the sense that the artists were fans of Lucas and Terantino, carefully placing a pile of clothes in a hamper or a bottle of pills near a bedside – catnip for a fantasy nut looking for meaning.
Among the fan community (which still thrives), it is understood that the original models used to render these backgrounds have been lost, which is why Square has never included high-res versions in any of its re-releases. Some of them have taken it upon themselves to recreate each one using modern tools. They are about 5% done.↩
Players of role playing video games do not actually play roles the way they do in table-top, which overlap slightly with activities like improv and theater. When playing a video game, even those with a certain amount of “choice”, one often watches a story unfold and never gets the chance to literally speak in the voice of their character.↩
Final Fantasy XIV, Fire Emblem↩