I've been a gamer since I was old enough to hold a controller. Growing up with a brother 13 years my senior who loved video games, I’d argue that it was my destiny. I worshiped my brother, and while he didn't often share, I was almost always present when he was having one of his marathon gaming sessions. No matter how much he pleaded with my parents to make me stop bugging him, I was ever the proverbial fly on the wall. I vividly remember watching him play through fantastic games like Civilization, Wing Commander, and the original Final Fantasy; and while I was too young to fully understand the nuances of what I was watching, I knew that it was for me. Those lifelong synapses were starting to strengthen. Endorphin receptors were firing. I was hooked.
When my brother left for college in the early 90’s, I inherited his plethora of video games. The ball was finally in my court, and I could game to my heart’s content. Unfortunately, I was still very young at the time, so I tended to gravitate towards games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Oregon Trail, simple games that my juvenile mind could easily grasp. I didn't dare to challenge myself with more complex games; I had nobody there to guide me down that more difficult yet more rewarding path. Unsurprisingly, the status quo started to take over. Years passed. Then Christmas of ’97 came, and the benevolent ignorance of my mother changed everything.
Believe it or not, I still remember opening my gift from her that year. By this time, I was 12 years old and had a PS1 to my name, so I was acutely aware of each of the wrapped packages under the tree that had the telltale boxy shape of a PS1 game. One in particular looked much thicker than normal. My interest was piqued at the prospect of a multi-disc game. By the time Christmas morning finally came, I was practically bouncing off the walls in anticipation. I immediately pounced to claim my prize, like some sort of predatory beast. “I went to Best Buy and asked the guy what the most popular game was,” my mom explained as I tore off the wrapping. “I hope you like it!”
Quite a few questions flooded into my head the moment I finally saw the cover. ‘Why are there holes in that huge sword?’ ‘Is that a building or some kind of massive robot?’ ‘Is that some kind of Japanese writing?’ It was immediately clear to me that this wasn't the type of game that I had grown accustomed to-- these were most definitely not the droids that I was looking for. Because of this, overwhelming all of the minutiae running through my head was one main thought: ‘Well this is disappointing.’
Being 12 at the time, I couldn't quite put into words why that first playthrough was such a landmark event for me. Even now at 27, it’s a herculean task to articulate the feelings I had about Final Fantasy 7, especially in 1,500 words or less. Only very recently have I realized that one of the main reasons I was so blown away by FF7 is because it was my first experience with a video game as art.
This discovery stems from a conversation I recently had with a friend about what, exactly, constitutes art. The conversation was so stimulating that I felt compelled afterwards to sit down and codify my exact criteria for defining art. I came up with four criteria that must be met:
1. Art must be visually or aurally striking.
2. Art must be a physical thing that someone created. (i.e. nature cannot be art)
3. Art must evoke strong emotions.
4. These emotions have to stem from something beyond the superficial. (e.g. the work leads you to a deeper truth or it tells a story in subtext)
Visually, of course, I had never seen a game like Final Fantasy 7 before. From the jump, the art direction of Yusuke Naora was utterly breathtaking. Be it the incredible level of detail in the different environments or the perfectly rendered full-motion video segments, the visual elements of the game consistently left me in complete awe. I remember after first playing through the Junon Harbor event, I had to reload my old save and call my dad in to make him watch the FMV of Sapphire Weapon attacking the Mako Cannon. I distinctly remember thinking “I can’t believe video games have come this far.” In perfect balance with the graphics was the amazing soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu. From the delicate melody of Aerith’s theme, to the tumult and soaring crescendo of Cloud’s theme, to the campy beat of Costa del Sol, the music always managed to frame and magnify the adventure. But, while the visuals and audio may have been striking, that wasn't the reason we all grew to love the game.
The real jewel of Final Fantasy 7, the thing that truly makes it memorable – truly makes it a piece of art - is the story. This story had everything you could possibly want: self-discovery, friendship, romance, sacrifice, revenge, Moogles, psychotic villains, redemption, saving the world, and even a little bit of cross-dressing. Over the course of 40+ hours, I got to really know and care about the characters. I grew to legitimately care about their well-being. When Sephiroth plunged his Masamune through Aerith’s chest, I felt like I had been stabbed in the back as well. I was shocked: How could this video game let me grow to care about this character and then in an instant take her away from me? This had never happened to me before; I had gotten far too used to controlling expendable characters. I never really cared much what happened to Sonic or random X-Wing/TIE Fighter pilot or Earthworm Jim or Jacques Cartier. In other video games I had played, the story was always an afterthought for me – nothing more than a technicality that allowed the game to exist. I cared about the objectives and parameters of my mission, not why I was on it.
Final Fantasy 7 changed that paradigm for me. Coated in honey by the soundtrack and visuals, the story was no longer the bitter pill I had to swallow to get to the good stuff. It became the good stuff. There were elements of the characters that I could actually relate to for the first time in a video game. Of course I wasn't having materia stolen from me in my day-to-day life, but the 12 year old me could relate to the characters on some levels. Deep down, Cloud was just a guy struggling to form his identity; Tifa cared deeply about someone, but was unsure if they would ever love her back; Barrett was someone who had to learn how to funnel his desire for vengeance into something positive; Cait Sith felt crushed between what was expected of him and what he knew was right; Red XIII deeply resented his father, only to learn later that parents are motivated by sacrifice and love whether we can see it or not. As a young child just breaching into puberty, these were all very relevant concepts to my day-to-day life. To some degree, all of these concepts are still very relevant to my life today.
And that’s really what art is all about, isn't it? It’s about looking deep into what somebody else put their heart and soul into and seeing a reflection of your own life. It’s about a medium transcending into more than its base parts. Even though I didn't know it at the time, that’s what made FF7 so special to me: it taught me that, instead of just being simple and amusing diversions, video games could be so much more. They could be epic adventures that would take you not only to distant corners of alien worlds, but also to corners of your own mind that you didn't know existed. They could be a lens that allows you to focus on and learn about yourself. They could be a great forum where the different parts of your psyche could be heard. They could be art.
Andrew Sands is a part-time gamer from Madison, WI. When not saving digital worlds, he can be found playing sand volleyball, attending Renaissance Faires, and rolling d20s.