Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Final Fantasies and Emotional Realities

Many gamers develop feelings for the games they play. Love, hate, and everything in between can be elicited by the characters, genres, and fictitious worlds we cherish so much. As a young gamer, my emotions were mainly kept to a minimum in gaming, usually surfacing in little bits and snippets, like when I’d complete a certain level that seemed cheap and impossible to beat. It made me proud, and I’m sure everyone can relate to these feelings to a certain degree, but for me it took some time until one game actually made me feel, and the impact was so great that to this day it causes me to stop and reflect on the time I spent playing it in the spring of 2001.

I’m referring to the classic Final Fantasy IX from Square (don’t tell me to put the Enix there because I won’t do it). The gaming world was still experiencing a rejuvenation and new-found respect of JRPG titles, thanks to the worldwide hit Final Fantasy VII, and I was definitely one of those gamers who fell hard for the dark and angsty world of Cloud and Co. However, the seventh installment of Square’s flagship series failed to move me on any level further than an outburst of “WOOHOO! I just beat Sephiroth!” Perhaps I was a bit too young to fully connect with the characters on an emotional level. Or perhaps I just didn't care that much about the story as an 11 year old. Whatever the reason, little did I know my experience with Square’s medieval-esque fantasy world would change me as a gamer and a person.

Sad? No. I was PISSED because I leveled Aeris.

While my last statement may’ve seemed a bit extreme, I think it’s time to express my outlook on the importance and validity of video games as more than just a way to pass time. For hundreds of years before television and video entertainment, humans looked to other forms of media to inspire and shape them. Authors wove brilliant tales of faraway lands and dashing heroes while splicing in themes and motifs that morphed the minds of the young and old (and continue to do so today). Thespians would perform for kings, aristocrats, and common folk alike to not only give them an escape from their troubles, but to also teach them about important issues in their society and the world at large.

Whereas literature, theater, and art have prevailed for centuries, people in the modern society still look at media, like video games, as just an escape, something that people do for nothing more than simple pleasure. And many still believe they hold no real connection or significance in today’s world like those aforementioned activities did in the past. However, I (as I’m sure most of you reading this do as well) believe that video games are increasing in importance, not only as artistic mediums, but as tools to help the general public progress into a new era.

Now that that’s out of the way, back to Final Fantasy IX. By the time I opened up my copy of the game, I had spent over 200 hours in the world of Final Fantasy VII. I had also attempted to play Final Fantasy VIII, but alas, a faulty disc caused the game to crash about halfway through completion, and I've never had the heart to pick it back up since. Regardless, I had a basic understanding of what to expect for FFIX; however, I had no idea the kind of impact this game would have on me.

Around the same time I was going through a personal transition from boyhood to manhood. And before you stop reading, I’m not going to go into any weird biology here. What I mean is, I was moving on to a new realm of my life, one where I’d start attending high school, driving, dating, having more freedom, etc., and in the midst of this process I was attempting to find out more about who I was as a person. I know now that many people experience these events multiple times throughout their lives, especially during college years (been there, done that, graduated with more questions than answers…), but this was my first foray into the makeup of what made me, me. And compounding this complicated stage in my life was the loss of an aunt, the first death in my family I’d experienced, and the exploration into questions of religion and an afterlife. So as you can see, 2000/01 was a very intriguing time for me.

Still, you can’t keep a good gamer down enough to separate him from his habits, and while I was busy soul-searching, I began my quest to kidnap a princess, fall in love, and eventually save the world. But throughout my journey I started to relate to the themes and characters in Final Fantasy IX in a way I’d never done before. Particularly those of mortality and purpose expressed through my all-time favorite FF character, Vivi Ornitier. Vivi’s past is initially shrouded in mystery, and it takes the loss of a loved one to inspire him to explore the world and discover more about himself. And through his journey with the main protagonist, Vivi grapples with serious issues of his own transience, why he exists in the world, and if he was inherently good, or destined to be evil. (Some of these themes are also expressed through the lead character Zidane, but I identified more with Vivi, possibly because I love black mages more than thieves.)

Not sure if philosophical or emo...

Throughout the game, I became entranced by many of the cut scenes, especially those that involved Vivi’s storyline (and there were quite a few). His struggle to take his questionable existence and place it within the reality around him struck a chord within me, because of my desire to know where I, myself, fit in the world. When Vivi learned of death and how he too may quite possibly die one day, it played with my emotions particularly because of the recent passing of my aunt. And when Vivi questioned whether he had any control over his destiny in life, and if he controlled the ability to be good or evil, well, I think that’s something many people in this world can relate to at one point or another.

Once I attached myself to Vivi and his band of misfits, I stopped being just a player and observer – I began to feel for them, and at many times laughed and cried alongside them. But it wasn't until after all the battles had been won and peace was restored to the world that I truly realized how much this game had affected me. As the credits began to roll, the song “Melodies of Life” began to play, and I just lost it. All the hours spent relating to these characters was really a part of my own self-discovery, and when it was all over I didn't know what else to do but sit and cry as the text scrolled and the FMVs from my 70+ hour adventure played. Call it whatever you want, but I truly believe that my adventures spent with Vivi & Co. helped me back then and now, years later, to grow as a person.

But as time passed, the emotional connection to Final Fantasy IX somewhat faded. Don’t get me wrong, it still remains my favorite FF game of all time (and my favorite video game OST of all time, period), but I no longer cry or tear up at the sound of “Melodies of Life.” I don’t need the experiences from this game to carry me through life anymore, even if I’m going through another personal exploration. Still, I can’t deny the emotions that game invoked inside me and the hold it had on me over 10 years ago. And while many other games have come along since then and affected me emotionally on many different levels, I’ll never forget the first game to cause me both joy and sorrow in such a meaningful way.

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