Long before I became a professional nerd, I was an amateur nerd — reading comics, watching anime, playing videogames, etc. I assumed I'd grow out of these "childish" pursuits at some point. But I also assumed I'd never be as moved by a "nerdy" work of art as a "serious" work of art — until I played Final Fantasy VII.
The game was released in 1997 in America, and although I'd just bought a PlayStation, my first videogame console purchased after I was ostensibly an adult, I didn't even really consider myself a gamer. I knew gamers, people who obsessed over games and played them 24/7 — I was strictly bush league. But between the heady freedom of having my first regular amount of disposable income and Sony's incredible marketing push for FFVII, I figured why not?
I'd borrowed a few Final Fantasy games on the SNES from friends, and thought they were all right, but I was by no means a fan. When I placed the first FFVII game disc into my PlayStation, I was impressed by the extremely blocky 3D graphics and the much-ballyhooed full-motion video cutscenes, but my initial enjoyment really didn't go beyond what I'd experienced with any other videogame.
The moment when I realized Final Fantasy VII was something special shouldn't surprise anyone who knows anything about the game. Mid-way through, the main villain Sephiroth kills one of the game's main characters and love interests, Aerith, right as she's trying to save the planet. It's a moment that traumatized many gamers — and even brought them to tears.
I knew it was coming (a friend told me, the bastard), and my eyes still watered. Then, suddenly, I realized I actually felt a sense of loss for this character — a character that was nothing more than a few polygons. A character in a videogame. How was this even possible?!
It slowly dawned on me that there were several reasons why I was so moved by Aerith's death scene. A lot of it is because it was incredibly well-staged and edited. The developers weren't able to give the characters voices — the story and video already took up three discs — but they turned that absence into an advantage, playing the scene like a silent film. But I realized a more significant part of why I cared for Aerith: I had literally cared for Aerith. Over the course of the 20-or-so hours of the game I'd played, I'd spent time leveling her up, healing her, trying to acquire certain powers for her. It may have been caring for the character as one would care for a Pokémon or Tamagotchi, but I had invested a great deal of time in this character's wellbeing.
Which is another reason I held such affection for the character. Aerith was more than the sum of her story scenes in the RPG — the little vignettes that advance the story in between the monster-killing and actual gameplay of the game. I had spent over 20 hours with her character, and if she wasn't talking, the story had still let me know her feeling, thoughts and fears so they echoed in my head as we waded through battle after battle. It was more time than I'd spent with Luke Skywalker over all three Star Wars films.
I realized the game had depended on me, as a player forming that attachment, to make the scene work. And likewise, the fact that the game had killed Aerith's character in the middle of the story meant that I wouldn't just feel her loss for another 30 minutes or hour, but until I finished the game itself. Final Fantasy VII had used the very nature of its medium — the investment of time and interest — to make me feel a character's death more sharply than a book or movie could hope to. It was amazing. It was brilliant. It was, in short, a masterpiece.
And the moment when I realized my life had changed forever? It was some point when I was watching the 30-minute CG movie that constituted Final Fantasy VII's ending — or maybe the hour after that, when I lay in my apartment, stunned, moved, inspired and consumed by the story I had just experience — a story that had touched me as deeply as any book I had ever read or movie I had watched.
Trying to tell you all my thoughts and theories about the meaning of Final Fantasy VII's epic, enigmatic ending would likely kill us all. Suffice it to say that I spent an entire year of my college life trying to do so, as (I've mentioned on a few occasions) I spent my senior year writing a 150-page Honors thesis that served as a literary criticism of the game. Seriously. I don't know if any of my Honors professors even bothered reading it, or just looked at the 80-odd footnotes and said "HELL NO," but I got an A+ either way.
Final Fantasy VII changed my life. It made me realize the "nerdy" books and comics and games I was consuming had the potential to have true artistic merit. It made me want to know everything about how these media could be uniquely utilized to tell stories and engage their audiences. It not only justified my love of all things nerdy; it made me want to devote my career to them.
All because of one game, one character's death, and one single moment.
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