When this time of imposed social isolation began, I had a theory: In the absence of real human connection, some people would find themselves growing more attached than usual to video game characters. Well, dear reader, It Happened To Me.
For the past handful of weeks, I – like a great many members of the zeitgeist-chasing gamer herd – have been playing Final Fantasy VII Remake. I have also been stuck inside with only the presence of my partner to keep me from completely losing touch with the rest of humanity and sinking into outright degeneracy. I’ve found social outlets in Animal Crossing, Final Fantasy XIV, and virtual karaoke that’s far more functional than you’d expect, but I am, by nature, a pretty introverted person. The other day, I saw a meme that was like “Me: I miss my friends, My friends: Let’s video call, Me: No,” and I felt like I was looking in the world’s least-flattering mirror.
I learned long ago that I like to ambiently socialise, being in the general vicinity of other people but not necessarily feeling pressured to respond or bear the brunt of a conversation. Story-driven single-player video games are perfect for that, especially ones with high levels of “hangoutitude,” as Kotaku’s dearly departed (but still “hanging out” on Patreon) videosman Tim Rogers once put it. Final Fantasy VII Remake is one such game. Its 40-ish-hour runtime is pretty svelte as far as JRPGs go, but it still contains a fair amount of perfunctory sidequest fluff. This fluff serves a purpose: It lets you spend more time chilling with Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, Barrett, and the rest of the crew. While adventuring around, characters frequently banter back and forth, and their relationships blossom over time in a myriad of subtly unexpected directions.
I’m about 34 hours into the game, and I find myself at a crossroads. I’ve completed all the sidequests. Characters incessantly warn me that once I do certain things, there’s no turning back. “The end is nigh,” the game keeps proclaiming. But I don’t want it to be. I’m not ready to leave these characters behind. This is not a new feeling for me: To an extent, I experience this every time I’m on the verge of completing a lengthy single-player game that scores at least a 7.469999 on the hangoutitude scale.
Final Fantasy VII Remake has done an especially powerful number on me for a couple reasons. Thanks to self-isolation and the intrinsic terror of waking to experience a fresh new horror each day, it feels – more than in many other games – like these characters and I have been Through It. That’s not to say that I’ve struggled more than other people in real life (I, thankfully, remain healthy so far and am in a fortunate position work-wise), but it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed when a virus is running rampant and a death cult government is whipping people into a frenzy about how much they love going to the hairdresser/hate minorities/are willing to sacrifice their grandparents.
Thanks to self-isolation and the intrinsic terror of waking to experience a fresh new horror each day, it feels – more than in many other games – like these characters and I have been Through It.
Nostalgia has also played an unexpected role. Growing up, Final Fantasy VII wasn’t my Final Fantasy – I played it on PS1 but didn’t finish it, dropping out midway through disc two after the power went out in my house and I lost hours of progress. The series didn’t really click with me until Final Fantasy X, which I was all about because I was an angsty teenager who really identified with Tidus and Yuna. The essential Final Fantasy-ness of all these games means that Final Fantasy VII Remake is making me nostalgic for Final Fantasy X, not Final Fantasy VII. The musical style, the ill-fated romance, and the character archetypes – those central pillars, present in both VII and X, still appeal to me on a very foundational level.
But I also have a specific connection to Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, and Barrett because I’ve spent so much of my life in a culture where everybody else is nostalgic for Final Fantasy VII. I’ve read countless essays, watched god-knows-how-many videos. I’ve seen fan art, read fan fics. I’ve played Kingdom Hearts and Crisis Core, both of which feature Final Fantasy VII characters. I even watched Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, and I regret it a lot! I know these characters, even though they never felt like they were “mine” until now.
I think the particular sort of hangoutitude present in Final Fantasy VII Remake is what really turned me into a convert. Remake stretches what was once just a tiny fraction of a larger experience into a full game, and it needs something to justify that newfound bloat. It employs some classic game-elongating tricks like fetch quests and backtracking, but it breathes character-driven life into them. Even story quests include a few too many plain hallways and drawn-out boss battles, but characters regularly converse, so you don’t notice it quite as much. This allows for growth over time and moments that feel earned, that make characters come alive.
Nowhere is this embodied better than The Staircase. In the original FFVII, it was an admirably elaborate gag during an iconic part of the game that set the plot in motion. In Remake, it feels like a culmination, like a 59-floor measuring stick of how far these characters have come in the first leg of their journey. Many of the more comedic beats are the same, but in light of everything Cloud, Tifa, and Barrett have gone through over the course of 30 or so hours, the camaraderie feels more authentic. Cloud isn’t just an immature prick this time; he’s an immature prick who’s learned to give a shit, even if he only rarely shows it. Tifa, who didn’t know Cloud as well when they were kids, sees and appreciates his growth. Cloud and Barrett, who once despised each other, now respect each others’ strengths, even if their personalities clash. They all, in turn, have real, individual reasons to want to rescue Aerith, especially – surprisingly enough – Tifa, who formed a fast but believable bond with her during their time together.
I love being able to look back and see each step that brought these characters to this point. It’s one of the most rewarding parts of a game like this. But it means the game is almost over, and that’s a downer – doubly so because spending time with these characters has felt almost like hanging out with real pals during a time when opportunities to do so are few and much farther between than they used to be. Still, at least I’ll get to hang out with them again when Final Fantasy VII Remake Part II comes out in, uh, three or four years? If we’re lucky?