Finalizing Fantasy

We revisit and reminisce on the games of our past in Tried and True.


palmer_time
See this silly shit? We want this from video games. We want to feel like we’re on the beach as the waves roll in. Don’t worry about why we’re wearing jeans on the beach. We just want to feel like we’re there.

Terrible magazine cover aside, there’s a certain something that draws us to games. We want to be immersed, we want to be in the game. It makes sense, then, that Virtual Reality is steamrolling into the mainstream, and it’s here to stay. Perhaps that unidentifiable secret that has kept us absorbed in the world of video games for many decades is – (get ready, it’s buzzword time!) presence. Let’s see how Google defines this interesting word:


pres·ence
ˈprezəns
noun

the state or fact of existing, occurring, or being present in a place or thing.
“her presence still comforts me”
synonyms: existence, being there
antonyms: absence

With VR, instead of imagining you’re “there” by looking at a TV or monitor, you feel like you’re there, because the image surrounds you from all angles. Your senses take over and the 360 degree, surround image you’re looking at becomes a real space that you exist in. You are not simply playing a video game – you are existing in a space that feels real and tangible to your brain. I realize there’s no good way to describe this with just words, so I’m pretty excited that VR headsets will be widespread and affordable in just a few months. You should try to get your grubby hands on one, even just to try. Buy it. Find a friend with one. Whatever you do, just see it, experience it. This is a true revelation in gaming for those of us who really want to feel like we’re there.

But this is not a post about VR. We are all the Seasoned Gamer. We’ve been around the block, we’ve been playing games for years and we keep coming back for more. We love feeling immersed. We found presence in our game worlds before VR was a reality. But why do we desire this feeling from video games? Why do we feel the need to escape; a need to displace our minds into an alternate reality? Why do we even play video games at all? A few theories:

  • We love technology and all the new ideas and sensations it brings.
  • We appreciate the craftsmanship and artistic skill that goes into making games.
  • We love experiencing a good story.
  • We had a hard day at work, and need to just shut down and unwind.
  • _______________________________

I seek out that special something from my games. I want to feel something while playing. When I was playing Batman: Arkham Asylum, I didn’t just want to play as Batman. I wanted to feel like I was the goddamn Batman, zipping around and kicking the shit out of bad guys. The developers did an admirable job making this happen for me – see my thoughts here.

There is something really special that can happen as you become more absorbed into the world, the story, and the environment. You might spend hours playing a game with a rich, engrossing atmosphere. You become a citizen of the game; you live there. You take ownership over your player character, your avatar, and you really are in the game. You get used to the color palette, the sounds, the NPC’s and the game mechanics, to where playing the game becomes second nature to you. You think about it at work. You long to play it, to jump back into that rich universe. The game becomes a part of your life. You “feel” it when you close your eyes. It feels like home. But you realize, because you’re the perceptive type, that this comfort could be fleeting. Maybe there’s been some foreshadowing in the plot that alludes to a later event, or maybe you just have a feeling.

Then, the rug is pulled away, the trapdoor unlatches. Something drastic happens in the game world. A catastrophic event, a desperate circumstance, a massive switch. Something happens to make things significantly different, and the game you were so familiar with completely throws you for a loop. Either a sudden change of mechanics, or setting, or plot – but having been so in tune with everything up until this point, these events hit you hard. The death of Aeris. Playing as Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2. Finding and dealing with Andrew Ryan in Bioshock. Hell, even “THE PRINCESS IS IN ANOTHER CASTLE”.

But! This is not an article about video game plot twists.

I love it when a game is so damn good, you are well and totally sucked into the whole of it, you latch onto the “feeling” of the game, and then the environment changes and nothing is ever the same.

Here’s my first example.

Final Fantasy VII

I was 14 or 15 when FF7 came out. I couldn’t wait until Tobal No. 1, another Squaresoft joint, was released. Tobal No. 1 was a severely average game with one redeeming quality; it came packed with a Squaresoft demo disc that included Final Fantasy VII. At the time, to me this was like the modern equivalent of the new Dynasty Warriors coming with an exclusive demo of Half-Life 3. You would deal with the throbbing mediocrity of the main game for a taste of that sweet, sweet demo. A glorious, sacred and rare demo that demands to be obtained at all costs. Luckily, for a jobless child, the local video store had Tobal for rent, and it included the demo disc!

The game begins with a quality, pre-rendered cutscene. Up until this point, my history with cutscenes was shrug-worthy at best. Sega CD video cutscenes were nigh un-watchable on account of  looking alarmingly shitty. Remember Sewer Shark? It’s hard not to. In any case, this FF7 intro cutscene was gorgeous. It really set the mood: Dark, but not horror-dark, or dark in a “lack of light” sense. Dark, like walking down a damp alley at midnight, the misty glow of streetlamps casting a slight amber glow on the glistening, mossy cobblestone roads. There was history here; decades or centuries lived-in, the grime of years emanating from the corners of structures. A single person cutting through the thick atmosphere: A solitary girl, daydreaming as she walks. The camera slowly pans out, revealing similar overtones on a much larger scale, as the city is revealed. A post-industrial shithole wallowing in its own soot, yet still an air of civility, and mystery. Welcome to Midgar.

You are Cloud Strife, mercenary and rebel-for-hire. An evil corporation, Shinra Electric Power Company, is based in Midgar. Shinra Co. essentially plunders the very life-force from the planet and harvests it into energy. The downside to this, aside from decimating and sucking the planet dry, is that it really makes Midgar and the surrounding landscape dreary as hell. The resistance group Avalanche is not having this at all, and Cloud joins their cause at the promise of a nice payout.

final-fantasy-vii-cloud-midgarSome very cool and unexpected shenanigans happen to Cloud and his entourage in the first few hours of the game. I played a select few JRPG’s at this point in my life, and I had already experienced awesome stories in games like Chrono Trigger, EarthBound, and A Link to the Past, but nothing like this. It was dark and serious. It was *gasp* adult-themed. Political and inter-corporate power struggles. Environmental issues. Religion and mental conditions. Death and heartbreak.

The game came on 3 discs, so you knew it was going to be serious as fuck, and your time in Midgar takes up all of disc one. So by the time you escape from the prison cells in the Shinra science lab (on the 67th floor of Shinra headquarters), and by the time you finish the epic battle with top-dog Shinra personnel, disc one is almost over. The thought of getting to the end of a disc in a multi-disc game was always special. I really looked forward to those progress and story milestones, as often, these games would end a disc on a cliffhanger. Final Fantasy VII one-upped that idea by having Cloud and his team escape from Midgar on motorcycles, in a high-speed highway chase sequence in full 3D.

Up until this point in the game, Midgar was all I’d known. All of the pre-release screenshots I’d seen had been of Midgar. And, crucially, I had never played a Final Fantasy game before. For 13 hours of game time, the dankness of Midgar had become familiar to me. It was a city divided, literally, by a giant metal plate. Below the plate lived the impoverished and less-fortunate. Above the plate lived the rich and powerful. The color tones for each section were the same: Deep, olive greens, metallic hues everywhere, brown and black and grey, and a dirty neon haze. Above the plate, there wouldn’t be much rubble and trash spewed about, but there would still be a clear overtone of dystopia and decay. Below the plate, a mood of sadness and dread amidst the failing infrastructure and cracked concrete. This place sucked, but it was all I knew. The perpetual, industrial smog of Midgar forever obfuscated the sun. All this, and then the notion of escaping the city in the most epic way, and to close out disc one! One of the best games of all time, indeed.

As Cloud, I emerge into the countryside with my crew, having lost our enemies along the way. The perspective of the game is changed, and suddenly I am in the overworld map. There is a world outside of Midgar, and I am in it. A very large, vast world. I pause the game and try to approximate from the limited information I have, how big this game actually might be. Walking just a few steps outside of Midgar, the smog clears and the sun begins to blare down, detailing a vast expanse of landscape for me to freely roam. There are other towns out there, maybe other cities! There must be a million things to do. After 13 hours of a thick, oppressing atmosphere, freedom at last. The possibilities are vast – time to get to work.

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