During the late winter and early spring of 2013, I spent some 70 hours playing Final Fantasy VII in the smoking room of Kchung, a small community radio station broadcasting out of Chinatown Los Angeles. I had invited friends to come play with me as I had set up three TVs with three different copies of more or less the same game running on each. The inaugural session of play was 24 hours long, and was followed by seven sessions which started at 7 pm and lasted around seven hours.
Before I explain why I did this, I think it’s important to explain what Final Fantasy VII is. Final Fantasy VII is a japanese role playing game (JRPG) released in 1997 by Squaresoft for the Sony Playstation. Although FFVII is technically the seventh Final Fantasy, there are few actual plot elements that connect it to other titles in the series.
In the world of Final Fantasy VII, the government is controlled by a corrupt power company called Shinra. There is a huge class divide and most people live in extreme poverty and destitution. You control Avalanche, a group of eco-terrorists who oppose Shinra’s environmentally destructive actions. Eventually, Avalanche discovers that Shinra has been doing experiments with fossilized alien DNA… The story sort of snowballs from there. As the plot carries on, it becomes clear that the protagonist and some of the main characters have presented their pasts in an incorrect manner, leading players to question their character’s honesty and integrity. Final Fantasy VII, like many other games in it’s genre and it’s series, is incredibly story heavy with an immense amount of dialogue and lengthy plot driving cut scenes. What sets the game apart for me is the fact that it’s plot is driven by these economic and environmental themes.
Final Fantasy VII is considered a landmark video game, an unqualified success both financially and critically that brought attention to JRPGs and perhaps the possibility of video games in general. Particular praise was given to the soundtrack, the atmospheric backgrounds, the complex characters, and the engrossing plot. Simultaneously, backlash due to the popularity of the game was inevitable, and many gamers now claim it to be the most over-rated game of all time.
Some have also claimed that FFVII was the first time that video games and film were able to meet each other successfully in the middle. I disagree with that statement, for me it was more of a co-habitation between video games and literature. Not only is there an immense amount of reading in the game, but there are many details and aspects of the game that must be imagined to a certain degree due to the graphical limitations of the Playstation. While navigating the world of final fantasy characters take on the traditional “chibi” appearance prevalent in manga and anime, but during battle sequences and cg cut scenes characters become more fully rendered and realistic looking. To me it seems like all these different renderings allow the viewer to construct their own idea of what the FFVII world might look like using their own imagination.
Ultimately, it’s these graphical limitations of Final Fantasy that intrigue me the most. The way in which the game manages to tell such an expansive epic with fairly limited means has been a huge inspiration to me as an artist who has always had difficulty with some of the technical aspects of art. I like the idea that you can say something big with limited technical means and I also think that work is often made stronger when it has limitations placed on it.
When I was approached to curate an art show in the Kchung station lounge, I immediately connected to the alternate space of the Kchung smoking room which was adjacent to the lounge. The Kchung smoking room, or rebel hideout as I like to call, has a gravel floor littered with cigarette butts and other debris, and is lit with red construction zone clip lamps. The furniture consists of benches that seemed to have been ripped from a restaurant booth as well as a beat up beige couch with no legs. A blue tarp hangs from the roof to catch leaks. The dystopian apocalyptic aesthetic featured in Final Fantasy VII perfectly matched the appearance of the rebel hideout. I had played Final Fantasy VII as a young boy, and I was interested in the way that these sort of rebel hideout aesthetics had re-occured throughout the seasons of my life. Around this time I had watched an interview with Bruce Springsteen where he claimed that all songwriters write from the experiences that they had before they were twelve. Although I don’t know if I agree with Bruce’s statement, I felt that the reason I was drawn to the alternative space of Kchung and the rebel hideout was potentially because kchung possessed similar aesthetics to FFVII.
A lot of things besides the kchung smoking room remind me of Final Fantasy VII. Certain parts of Los Angeles- downtown, skid row, and Chinatown specifically, remind me of environments in Final Fantasy VII.Films like Dark City, (which was released just a year after the game) and albums like Death Grips’ “Ex-Military” and DJ Shadow’s sampling masterpiece “Endtroducing” also seem to carry something of the game’s spirit. Strangely, the musicals West Side Story and Carousel also seem to invoke similar feelings for me- Like Final Fantasy VII, they are both working class tragedies made grandiose by fantastical elements.
Conversely, music also seems to have been an influence on the game’s developers. Posters for the My Bloody Valentine album “Loveless” can be found within the game. A large cannon used by the navy for shooting giant monsters is named “Sister Ray,” most likely after the 17 minute long Velvet Underground song of the same name. The song’s lyrics describe a group of drag queens and sailors having a heroine induced orgy. Nobuo Uematsu, who composed the music for the game, cites King Crimson as an influence on his Final Fantasy compositions and the instrumentals often fit into the prog-rock genre.
After completing the first successive 27 hours of play, I continued to play the game several days later at my boyfriend’s house for around five hours. Outside of the performative moment at Kchung I was more easily able to digest and consider some of the meaning within FFVII’s plot. I saw a lot of myself in the game’s primary protagonist, Cloud. Cloud is a guy whose friend’s continue to stand by him through a lot of darkness even though Cloud feels very distant from his friends… He feels that he treats them all horribly. He doesn’t believe himself to be the hero that his friends think he is. Cloud also thinks he doesn’t understand himself at all, but his friends provide an endless source of encouragement, stating that many people don’t understand themselves but that doesn’t stop them from carrying on. Of course, in my game the main character is named Sol, after Solomon Bothwell, a founder of the radio station.
One feature of many Final Fantasy games is that you’re able to name all of the characters. While in high school I had played through Final Fantasy 6 and named the characters after my friends at the time. There were strange correlations between the characters in the game and the way their real life counterparts would behave. If a character in the games family died, his real life counterpart would be going through his parent’s divorce. Characters who fell in love in the game were in love in real life. At the end of high school I made an eight foot long six foot tall painting depicting amalgamations of my friends and their Final Fantasy VI characters. In many ways this performance was a sequel to that painting. During this playthrough I named the characters after people who volunteered and DJed at the station. My idea was that it would be a way to see our lives as valuable and heroic.
So how did the performance go? There were many things that I was amazed by. The number of people who came out and participated by playing with me really took me by surprise, and I was shocked and even a little troubled by how I was not feeling a bit tired after playing for a consecutive 24 hours. I also really enjoyed teaching people how to play the game and watching them discover it’s language. I enjoyed perhaps most the earliest and latest hours of play. During the early hours myself and another player were playing almost perfectly in sync, often seeing various moments happening in our respective games simultaneously. Also, a lot of people came out to see me beat the game and acted as voice actors for the climactic ending dialogue.
But to be honest, there are many things that I wanted to tweak about this performance after it was over. For starters, I think the initial 24 hour time frame pushed myself and other players to try to get as far as possible in the amount of time allotted. But the value in Final Fantasy VII is often experiencing it’s journey and a sense of urgency was not what this performance needed.This performance enforced my belief that the time one takes to complete a story, whether that story be in a video game or in a literary work, has a huge effect on the way a narrative is consumed and interpreted. In the comic book industry, for example, new issues of comic books are usually released once a month. Although a single issue of a comic is usually rather short, around fifteen pages and five to ten minutes of reading, the temporal distance between the release of each issue can really ramp up the importance of events within the plot and gives the reader time to consider the meaning of those events. Conversely, no one under normal circumstances would play this game for 24 hours straight, and so sometimes the story seemed a little pushed together as players didn’t have the opportunity to digest the events of the plot over a period of time. It is important to note that 24 hours is really not enough time to complete this game even if you are speeding through it as quickly as possible. The average playtime is around forty hours.
I realized during the course of this first performance that the ideal format for the Midgar room would be if seven players played Final Fantasy VII from noon to seven for a week. However, finding seven people who would want to play Final Fantasy that long and who would be able to take that much time out of their normal lives seems nearly impossible. Sadly, I feel that in order for this to happen the performance would need to occur at some major art institution.
Other problems that arose during the 24 hour performance stemmed from my own insecurities as a fan of the game. I I think I could have been more firm about people who were hanging out in the space actually trying to play with me. If I hadn’t been so insecure perhaps I could have done a better job of illustrating my intent to visitors. I resolved that I would be more confident as a gaymer during the sequel to this first performance. In the underground world and the art world, I often sense that video games are considered by many to be a destructive and shallow form of media… And they often are!
Which sort of brings me to the other reasons I guess I did all of this. The first is that I was trying to find a way to carry some of final fantasy’s fictional epic fire into the real world. The second reason is that I don’t think this work gets the respect it deserves in artistic and academic circles.
Final Fantasy still raises a lot of questions for me. In creating such a rich world with such interesting conflicts, it has the potential to rob meaning from actual life. At the same time, Final Fantasy VII addresses very real issues- economic issues, environmental issues, but ultimately it’s addressing psychological issues. If you can find a way to relate to the experiences of Final Fantasy VII’s fictional world then perhaps you can manage to carry over those feelings of meaning into your own life. I guess this paradox can be applied to any work of fiction, but the format of the video game in particular seems to lend itself to escapism.
Sometimes I feel like the main thing I do as an artist and maybe as a person is be a fan. I’m a fan of animals, I’m a fan of men, and I’m a fan of Final Fantasy VII. Now, We all know of work, work that we didn’t make, that we think didn’t quite get recognized by the right people. Final Fantasy VII is that work for me. In fact, I don’t think there’s any other creative work that has had a greater influence on me as an artist. Final Fantasy taught me that You don’t need amazing graphics to tell an epic story with a strong message and that’s a philosophy I bring into play with my own artwork. I think if artists and all people were more open to different types of work making then the creative world could become an even more expansive place. Of course, I don’t have any money so I choose instead to push this work with my bare hands. I feel like the main purpose of this writing is also the main reason I played Final Fantasy for so long- because I really like it! I think that’s a pretty bad thesis for an essay, but that’s the truth.