Final Fantasy VII and replaying games

I re-watch films frequently, I re-read books occasionally, and I re-play games almost never unless it’s a three-to-five hour indie game like Journey that’s over after one or two sessions. When a game demands a minimum investment of 40 hours from start to finish, excluding side-quests, it’s tricky to favour that over playing something new. Re-playing a game of that length is like re-watching two whole seasons of a TV show without the ability to skip the weaker episodes, or, I don’t know, watching a whole game of football again instead of just the two goals that happened at the end. People might do that, actually, I have no idea.

Anyway, it’s a shame I’m deterred from re-playing games because re-watching, re-reading or re-playing something can give greater insights, can help you spot things you missed on the first time around, and can help you enjoy the same piece from different perspectives and different places in your own life. Games are frequently just too long for this, with no way of sampling the game’s own greatest hits even if you do still have the hardware needed; I’d love to play through a five hour digest version of Red Dead Redemption but no such thing exists, and I know I’m not going to slog my way through the full 40 hours of carnage just to re-play those two José González moments.

Despite all this, there are rare games of length that do get re-played, every four or five years, all games with worlds in which I can lose myself for a time: a couple of Zeldas, a Paper Mario, a Mass Effect, and now, for the third time, Final Fantasy VII.

I can’t remember why I played Final Fantasy VII for the first time; a vague, half-remembered, possibly-fake memory of a friend showing me the PlayStation version flitters around the back of my head, but never mind. I had it for unknown reasons, and I couldn’t play it for a very specific reason. My first PC ostensibly met the requirements on the back of the giant cardboard mausoleum that games used to come in but was hamstrung by a cheap Celeron CPU that lied about its abilities. Taking the game back to Electronics Boutique, a helpful sales person explained my inadequacies and told me where I could download a patch to get things up and running, though during the more intensive boss fights I was obliged to pause the game for a while to let my computer cool down, as, like me, it had a tendency to overheat when exerting itself.

PC gaming: Just Say No.

I played it and completed it with some difficulty; I’d never played anything like it before, had no online or physical guides to help me, and as I play it through again for the third time I look back and wonder how I managed it a first time at all: it isn’t a game that spells anything out for you, throwing you into battle about 60 seconds in and assuming you’ll figure it all out from the dodgy translated text. I love it, though: it’s a great opening, and a far cry from the extended tutorials of contemporary games that make you spend your first 40 minutes learning how to move forwards.

My second play through came a few years later during the downtime between an essentially-useless history degree and a to-be-failed computer science degree. That time around I consulted an online guide after a friend had marvelled that I’d completed the game without even knowing about ‘paired Materia’, and found about twice as much game as I’d previously played, and elements that — surely — nobody could have worked out by themselves. Chocobo breeding and racing, for example, a tedious, time-consuming, failure-prone slog but with a decent reward at the end of it. I only had the patience to sit through it because I had a step-by-step list to work though and I had nothing better to do.

I won’t be doing that on my third play through, because I’m not going to make it to the end of the game; I’ve barely scratched the surface, in fact. After a solid 12 hours of play, I’ve arrived at Gold Saucer where the game grinds to a halt, forcing the player to dick around with awful in-game arcade games and race giant chickens. It’s the first point in the game that really insists you spend a lot of real time and effort with very little reward and it’s difficult to save your game while you’re in the middle of it. I’ve played the game through twice, and I have plenty of other games to play instead; I don’t need to force my way through this.

12 hours spent in Final Fantasy VII gets you from the great in medias res opening through to the fall of, and escape from, the ‘90s cyberpunk city of Midgar with plenty to see and do along the way, including a cross-dressing raid on a brothel and an attack on a corporate skyscraper complete with escape by motorbike. The pace of the game during those hours ebbs and flows but it’s always perfectly balanced with a sense of forward momentum.

But, I’m not going to play through Gold Saucer and I can’t skip it, which means I’ll miss out on the death of Aeris. Like everyone else at the time, I was surprised when Aeris was offed, though the event itself has been somewhat oversold as the canonical “games can make you cry” moment. It’s a shock, sure, but I never had the extended blubathon that others claimed to have had, as if there was a competition as to who could be the most traumatised by games-as-art.

When I replay the game now I’m more aware of how the game pushes you into forming a close relationship with Aeris instead of, say, your childhood sweetheart Tifa, and this is obviously so you’ll feel her loss all the more when it happens. Knowing what’s to come, though, I callously treat Aeris like clingy dead weight. I know she’s going to die, there’s nothing I can do to stop it, and I’m a busy man: any time I spend interacting with her is therefore time wasted. Occasionally you’re obliged to include her in your team and every time I grit my teeth and wish that valuable XP was going to someone who could use it.

The re-playing of Final Fantasy VII gave me a different perspective on its most memorable moment. There are still subsequent parts of the game I’d like to play again, particularly the ending, but, I can’t skip ahead, and don’t want to spend hours of my valuable spare time grinding through tedious, unfulfilling activities. That’s what work is for. I’d rather play something new.