Save Point: Final Fantasy VII

I haven’t played a video game in close to two months, and it’s time to unpack why. Part of it is logistical. The holidays hit. I traveled a lot. I wasn’t home with the consoles. Part of it is oversaturation. In a rush to finish Final Fantasy VII before finals week of fall semester, I played too much several days in a row, crouching in a blanket with a claw-like grip on the controller like a caffeinated gargoyle. I kept pushing on when I wanted to stop, something that rarely happens with games. Usually, I have to stop before I’m ready. In December, the drive to be done—before the papers came, before the new year turned—completely overtook the immersion and pleasure. I let something that was supposed to recharge me become a chore. But part of it is also a strange, lingering guilt I can’t quite shake—an uneasiness.

I hadn’t played FFVII since middle school. And even then, as I’ve written about in this column before, my dad did most of the playing and I mainly watched. I remembered the plot fairly well but thought, in light of the forthcoming remake, it would be wise to play it again as an adult. I’m in the minority that didn’t love the game. Setting and tone are big for me, and both were too bleak for my taste. I didn’t dislike it then or now; I just don’t adore it either. Still, I enjoyed working my way through the bizarre mini-games (I’m looking at you, submarine battle), unlocking the hidden characters, and growing the multicolored Materia. Despite having a basic recollection of the plot, twists surprised me here and there. Cloud was more sympathetic than I’d remembered him, Cait Sith less so. Tifa was way cooler than I’d given her credit for since, at age 12, I saw her only as competition against Aeris, whom I liked better, in a love triangle. The blackouts and blips in Cloud’s narration of stories made more sense to me, too, as an adult. Fear and wishful thinking can do this to us, make us gloss certain events and even sometimes delude ourselves. At least, temporarily.

So what continues to haunt me? I made a run at the sidequests, but it’s not like I tried to take on Emerald Weapon, an optional boss with a million HP, or Ruby Weapon, who has even more. I didn’t punish myself that much at the end of fall semester, sinking hours into quests that even with investment are legendarily difficult. I went beyond the minimum, but just a bit, just enough to tackle the final dungeon with ease. I didn’t raise a gold chocobo, an ostrich-sized bird that can take you to uncharted territories; I didn’t even try. Therefore, I didn’t get Knights of the Round, the game’s best Summon Materia that’s cloistered away on an obscure island. But so what? These were things my dad did, things I saw as a kid and said, “Nope, that’s too much for me.” I just wanted to finish a game and have fun before the term ended. I just wanted to replay the plot.

Only that’s not entirely true. Like Cloud, I’m remixing memory here, avoiding an unpleasant question. I did make a run at completionism—sort of. I did want to tangle with Emerald—sort of. I wanted to get that Knights of the Round, but without the endless tedium of breeding large birds. The only other way to do it is to defeat Ruby. To do that, you have to first defeat Ultima.

Ultima Weapon is an enormous dragon-like creature that flies through the sky near the end of the game. If you bump into it (Him? Her? Why does wondering make this sadder to tell?) with your airship, it will fly away and not bug you. If you really want to, you can follow it. Eventually it will stop and fight you. You have to do this several times. You have to be persistent.

Again, for some reason, the game won’t let you fight Ruby until you fight and vanquish Ultima. So I chased it around the planet like a hunter, like a villain. These monsters appear in the game as a sort of planetary immune system. They emerge in the air and sea and earth as a way to tell humans to relent, to back off. To reconsider their destructive ways. They do cause some damage. But more or less, they don’t bug you if you don’t bug them. However, if you bug them, you get good rewards.

I hesitated before bumping into it when it stopped over what I knew, from reading cheat notes online, was its final destination. I hesitated but then I bumped it and we fought and it died. And when it died there was a short graphic of it twisting in pain, like a spider sprayed with Raid, and roaring terribly, and then there was a blackout. And when the scene faded back in, there was a smear, a charcoal afterimage like what a firework imprints when it skids across concrete in a back alley. And a grassy mountain that blocked your forward march to plunder spoils is leveled. And so you march on. And you feel like absolute shit.

This decision has haunted me for months. I remember being cranky for the rest of the game. Maybe this is why I wanted so urgently to finish. I was cranky in the leveled-mountain dungeon. Cranky as I picked up spoils. Cranky as I wound my way down the vast crater that leads your party to the Big Bad. I wasn’t having fun anymore because I had killed something unnecessarily, something that was acting as the planet’s bodyguard, something that hadn’t attacked me, and I’d done it just out of greed. And yes, it’s a game. And yes, it was months ago. But that coil and scream still make me cringe. Because the impulse is something I don’t like. That greed—that devouring, marching-on greed. Something that wants it all.

Around the time of the election, I saw a lot of bumper stickers that said something like, “Giant Meteor 2016: Just end it already.” I saw enough of them that I thought, This is more than a joke. We’re afraid we’re a failed experiment. There are days when part of me—part of a lot of people, I think—would welcome a deluge of giant monsters to help keep humans in check. Maybe not attack our towns, but scare us, remind us we are part of an ecosystem. That this isn’t our party to trash. But if such things existed, we would certainly attack them. I wonder which side would win.

In this case, though I beat Ultima, Ruby kicked my ass again and again. So I let it lie. I said to the fictional planet, “I’m sorry. I respect you. I’ll go on my way.” I ventured down the huge crater, slaying, of course, scores of beasts that at least attacked me first (A glossing of memory? Wishful thinking? Do we tell ourselves these stories to patch up our shame?). I ventured down with my shiny new Materia and weaponry gained from Ultima’s death. I didn’t enjoy it. But I didn’t boot up the file pre-Ultima-defeat either. I tell myself I still can, I still might. I can undo what I did and end the game with its wings still flashing in the sky.

The thing is, I might not. I probably won’t. But at least, with games, there is the option.