The streets of Midgar are dirty. Grimy metal pipes jut out of equally dirty brick walls, and the concrete alleys are home to little more than more dirt, discarded papers, and occasional rats.
The city is mired in urban decay. The edges are unkempt and murky, bathed in dirt and litter. People dash across the city, hurried but directionless. Trains rumble across the tracks, thunderously loud, piercing through the reactor mist.
For as much movement and sound there is, the city is utterly lifeless. There are no birds, the only visible animals are starved rodents and dogs skirting along the margins of the city’s thoroughfares. Husk-like bodies padding down sewers in search of any kind of meal, the briefest respite in an equally restless and sleepless city. Trains thunder along skylofted lines, long strings of cars with few passengers. Mist from the reactors clouds the sky, drowning out even the ghosts of daylight. The only light in the sky comes from the central Mako reactor, bathing the sky a luminous green.
A bustling pedestrian steps on a flower.
It is 2 AM, and I am in a dark bedroom, in a home that is not mine. The walls are unfamiliar, as is the PlayStation controller in my hand. And for the first time in my life, I am experiencing a videogame.
I’m not certain if it’s a feature of who I was when I was younger, or if being the younger sibling made most of my earliest game experiences happen in second-person, but despite having tens to hundreds of in-game hours in games, I didn’t really experience them. I engaged with them the same way that a toddler might interact with an old Simon Says. Hammer the buttons largely indiscriminately, and as long as there were occasional flashing lights and beeps, whether they were the right ones or not, then I must have been getting my money’s worth.
Or perhaps I was more aware than I remember, but utterly uninterested. Perhaps I let story beats wash over me like so much water off of a raincoat, content to experience play for the sheer mechanical sake of play, without really engaging with the story in any meaningful way. After all, many cartoons that circulated when I was young were of the episodic, slapstick variety. The way I had consumed media, up to that point, mostly had to do with lights, sounds, colors, and relatively little critical engagement. It doesn’t take much mental bandwidth to find being hit with a comically oversized hammer funny, so why wouldn’t I have carried those same expectations forward to games?
Dirty boots scrape the gravel as Cloud, a man too small for his weapon, deflects a hammer blow from a robotic arm. It drives into his shoulder all the same, tipping his balance and sending him staggering backward. Tifa slips around him, lithe and graceful, pressing the opening and driving her metal-plated gauntlets into the robot’s legs. Her fists drum her defiance with a rhythmic pair of percussive strikes. Metallic crunches join the whine of the robot’s servos, and the battle rages on.
It wasn’t until I was staying the night at a friend’s house, having my first experience with the Sony PlayStation and a copy of Final Fantasy VII, that I think I ever truly have an videogame experience as I view them today. Where I felt the weight of the city of Midgar. The endless sea of gray and grime, bustling, busy, grandiose, but skeletal. A city of impersonal bodies surging down brutalist streets, disquieting for all of its noise.
I don’t think I understood Mako, or how the Shin-Ra corporation was literally bleeding the planet dry in search of energy and the power that such control gave them. I didn’t understand the history of SOLDIER programs or the familiar melancholy of seeing a childhood friend again with unnatural, glowing eyes. Metal catwalks reaching across pneumatic labyrinths. Explosives, hushed subway conversations about the intersection of morality and legality, all bookended by fights with military police. All of it was a little beyond me still, but for all that I don’t remember registering, I felt Midgar in a way I don’t think I’d ever understood a setting before. Mako energy bled into the sky, as if dripping from a wound that would never heal, while I walked amidst the polluted bones, feeling the heart pulse with every step but never registering even the faintest echo of life.
The people who had made their homes out of the impoverished districts filled their patches of dirt with whatever vibrancy they could, but blown-out speakers from cheap radios and the eternal buzz of neon signs could only inject so much life into the dying titan. Yet still, every day, they woke up, pumped adrenaline into the beast, powered their lights and casinos and shops with the ebbing blood, and struggled through their days as best they could.
The bar that masks the underground base of the ecological rebel group, AVALANCHE, is cramped. It’s lit primarily by the too-warm glow of what look to be gas lamps. Compared to the caked over metal and brick outside, the interior of the bar is all wooden and off-puttingly organic. Bathed in the flickering lamp light, the entire room looks like it would feel feverishly warm. A symptom of a body fighting to stave off infection.
Cloud sits alone at the bar, holding a drink in a pristine glass, amber liquor painting abstract shapes from the lights on the counter and walls, leaning on the countertop while the rebels below strategize over the impending death of the next reactor.
That night, in the dark hours of the morning, was the last I ever played of that particular save file. I don’t know whatever became of that Cloud, that Tifa, that Barret. Perhaps they sit to this day in a kind of uncertain stasis, stuck on the precipice of a conflict bigger than even they realized, only a few steps ahead of a hounding quasi-governmental mega corporation teeming with arms, armies, and anger. Or the world was dashed to magnetic dust, the save file deleted and scattered into whatever passes for a digital ether, becoming the digital cousin to the Mako itself. Or perhaps it faded into the night, on a memory card that no longer reads, writers, or stores, merely an artifact of storage memory long left behind.
I have since played through Final Fantasy VII numerous times. It is a game that, while revolutionary for its age, has aged fairly gracelessly. The systems hold up, the game still alright to play, but the things that were so remarkable about it then are, even generously, fairly pedestrian now. The game’s story was serviceable but unengaging. The setting, wealthy in aesthetically evocative imagery, was still flat. The scale, the sense of being mired in this brutalpunk buildingscape of urban decay, was far more implied than illustrated. The subjects addressed were serious, but rarely carried or earned their weight. It was a game that was a technological marvel, and without the shine of technology, has little else really setting it apart.
I would say what the fondness I have for it is largely unearned.
But I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. Not really. For as much as the game relied on me to proactively provide the theater of the mind, failing to deliver the visuals I instead had to create for myself, I will never forget the way I felt in those ethereal hours of the exhausted night. An eternal memory of sitting in the dark, hearing the soundtrack spill its melancholy through a small television’s speakers, bathing the otherwise lightless room in cathode-ray blue, and watching Cloud look over the lifeless dust that surrounded Midgar.
A chasm of dust, devoid of even weeds, spread out to the horizon in all visible directions. The city behind, cruel and metal and large, dug scars into the ground below and bathed the night sky in an alien aurora borealis.
Games were, after years of playing them, something I was experiencing.