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Critic Fantasy VII


“Critic Fantasy VII” is one of those self-indulgent things you end up doing when you have a lot of professional buddies on Twitter and too much vodka in your screwdriver. Everyone has gone through their favorite RPG naming party members after their friends, or at least a game of Oregon Trail or something, but as I didn’t have any friends as a child this seems to be literally the first time I’ve gotten to do this. So let’s charge right on in.

The whole thing started as a bit of misbegotten promise over Twitter in response to Kirk Hamilton and Leigh Alexander’s FF7 Letters Series. This was a pretty popular feature in 2011 which, though not the first of its kind, has sparked plenty of imitators since as a kind of combination retro review and series of public love letters. So it was that Kirk and Leigh became a games journalist power couple and all of Twitter was shipping Team Hamilxander for a while, and I joked that in my next playthrough of FF7 I’d rename Cloud and Tifa after the letter-exchanging duo.

This led to some pretty tragic aborted experiments trying to screencap the game (or, indeed, anything) from my PS1, PS3, PSP or a pirated version of the old buggy PC version. Then many months later after everyone had forgotten I’d mentioned anything about it, Square Enix rereleased the game for PC, and lo, but I could now load it into Steam and F12 to my heart’s delight. Thus #CriticFantasyVII was born.

Dramatis Personae:

Cloud Strife – Kirk Hamilton
Tifa Lockhart – Leigh Alexander
Barret Wallace – Ian Bogost
Aerith Gainsborough – Maggie Greene
Red XIII – Gus Mastrapa
Cait Sith – Denis Farr
Cid Highwind – Michael Abbott
Vincent Valentine – Ben Abraham
Yuffie Kisaragi – Patricia Hernandez

Some of these matches worked better than others. Unsurprisingly, Barret Wallace’s whole black caricature would be hi-larious(ly racist) no matter whom you named him after, but there was something in particular about naming him for the opinionated, funny yet always cerebral Ian Bogost which took that shit just right over the top. Observe:





Actually, pretty much everyone had a few gems in the ensuing dialogue.












Most Twitter buddies who didn’t get character parts wound up as chocobo. Lots and lots of chocobo. And mostly golds, you’ll notice. I kind of went a bit overkill on the whole chocobo husbandry thing.

Heck, even game critics I didn’t go out of my way to include somehow wound up in this game!


In all it turned out to be a pretty lopsided experiment, as at the end of the day a character like Barret (I have to remind myself his name isn’t actually Bogost now–that’s what 50 hours of gameplay does to you) will always be quotable and neglected characters like Cait Sith will have mostly serviceable lines that are only funny when they’re full of typos (not that this game is wanting for those).

Plus, as I might have anticipated, people have Certain Opinions about which characters receive their names when the character in question is part of some densely storied, cryptically translated thing and not just a plucky nondescript crewmember in FTL or your wife in Oregon Trail. For instance, Maggie Greene really seemed to not enjoy being killed off by the end of Disc 1, just before a snowboarding minigame, of all things. I tried to point out that being turned into this game’s version of Jesus was a pretty decent consolation prize, but I don’t think I quite convinced her.



…I’m pretty sure that’s working its way into my vocabulary from here on.

As for my original objective, which was to create as much shipping fuel for Team Hamilxander as possible, that fell by the wayside a bit. (Damn game journalists and their real lives not conforming to my fantasies.) It’s a shame because Leigh and Kirk are almost as romantic in this game as they were in their letter series.



Visions of sugar plums

I’ve been having trouble sleeping.

There are a number of reasons for this. Chiefly: I still struggle at sticking to a mostly regular sleep schedule, so that one day I might turn in as soon as the sun tilts toward the horizon, and another I’ll stay up long enough to see the sunrise. Both such tendencies have their own motivators –depression and all-night FF7 binges, respectively– and a certain kitten-shaped constant who ensures that whenever I do decide to sleep, that is the time she’s most active.

There is another reason, in that whenever I do stretch out in bed I start thinking about setting again. Very particular settings: fortresses built into mountainsides with five compounds representing the five traditional elements; and the territory that fortress would oversee, and the taxes it would collect in exchange for protection from its militia. What is the attitude of the servant class within the fortress; are they from the region, or transplanted from the empire capital? How many are more loyal to the emperor than his son who manages this territory?

In other words, I’m writing again.

Or more precisely, preparing to write. I had another project in the pipelines for a while about war and aliens –you know, all-new literary territory– but after spending months neck deep in The Journey to the West and other Chinese and East Asian half historical/half mythological texts I decided the chances were slim of being able to suddenly change gears into some inverted Starship Troopers story. So, I gave in and went with the flow of my current interests.

(I’m making the SF project sound more banal than it is. It’s a narrative I believe in, or I wouldn’t have spent almost two years to date developing it. But SF is about politics and extrapolating from the present world’s circumstances, and right now I’d like some escapism.)

And since it’s that kind of fantasy novel, the sort about beds and the folks occupying them, the mind wanders to those before-and-after conversations that sound most authentic when you’re half-asleep when you come up with them. Except I then don’t sleep, largely because other things seep in: do I have time to think of frivolous things like novels when I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford rent next month? how will I ever find a way to sell off enough of this stuff to fund a move? how many of my books will I need to part with?

And then come the anxiety attacks, because my serotonin levels are low, and my new health insurance plan is very good at being expensive and little else, and then there’s the crippling debt I now face, and all the glib responses from well-meaning colleagues how it should be so easy to just pick up and go, change everything, choose life, get out of this country before the GOP turn it into a wasteland, did you hear Clint Eastwood got into an argument with an empty chair and lost?

So yes, fantasy novel, I choose thee. Of all the things giving me insomnia, you are the least unpleasant at the moment.

The other is Final Fantasy VII, which I mentioned I was replaying. That’s going well, except the problem with videogames for me at a time like this is their machine logic is precisely the opposite of what I need. Simon Parkin once wrote (and it’s still one of my favorite essays of his to date) that games (and especially JRPGs) “function how we want the real world to function”:

“Because, while the battles may be random, the war’s outcome is always predestined,” I continue. “You’re predestined to succeed. Just so long as you keep going. And jeez, that may be escapism or a gross oversimplification of the reality we live in, but isn’t that sense of… of justice the yearning of every human being? Are not JRPGs maps of perfect worlds where everything behaves how you expect it to.”


“Because, when your life turns to shit and people let you down, or when you study hard but still flunk your exams regardless, or when you work your ass off and your boss doesn’t notice…. Or, or even if he does but is too preoccupied with his own quests to congratulate you… I mean, that’s sort of a broken system. It certainly feels that way. That’s just not how things should be. JRPGs counter all that disappointment and unfairness with dependable justice. They reward you for your efforts with empirical, unflinching fairness. Work hard and you level up. Take the path that’s opened to you and persevere with it and you can save the world. You can fix the things that break…”


“No, wait. They give you that power, sure. But more than that, they give you consistency. This world, and the people in it, do not. JRPGs are, well, er, I guess they’re sort of like heaven in that regard. Except with, like, improbably large swords and nuclear-grade hair gel.”

It’s one of my favorite heartbreaking little rambles in any piece of New Games Journalism to date, and 99% of the time, I agree with it.

Right now I just want all the numbers to go to hang themselves. I toil at leveling up these little masses of polygons, meeting all the necessary quotas to advance stats and limit breaks and fill out all the necessary check boxes on every unnecessary sidequest and the only persistent impression I get is that I’m fumbling to connect, that the virtual world on the other side of the screen isn’t ever going to come alive because of numbers or command combos. Its story is a dead thing unless you let the machinic part of it go. Otherwise it’s just… hell, it’s just Confucianism.

Because I really don’t want the world to be fair, just now. I want it to be extremely unfair in my favor. Not for very long; just to make it through the next month or two. That would be nice. FF7’s new PC version even accommodates that very kind of cheating, which throws Parkins’s “heaven” for a hell of a loop. Not that I could bring myself to partake in it if I did have the funds to spend juicing characters in a game I’d already beaten a half-dozen times. But I wouldn’t mind a Character Booster for my own life. Or even just something to let me sleep.

In which Squaresoft wrote a Bioware game. (Spoilers.)

“500 years later…”

For years, this was basically all we had to go on for the ending to Final Fantasy VII. It frustrated and captivated my 11-year-old self in ways I can barely describe. What happened? Did they relocate? Did the Planet wipe out humanity in self-preservation, like Bugenhagen suggested?

That is still my personal interpretation of that ending, Square Enix’s subsequent milking of the FF7 cash cow be damned. It is short, sweet, and seems to tell us everything and nothing all at once. I haven’t seen an RPG pull off quite that same trick ever since. At least, not until Bioware’s latest title came bolting out the stable a few weeks ago.

Which is why, I suppose, I’m greeting this current air of entitled frustration and negativity from these generalized “ME3 players” (contented ones obviously don’t count!) with exasperation more than anything else. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt (and the action figures and keychains and wallscrolls). The only real difference between player reaction to this game here, and the ones of yesteryear is that now a lot more people have Internet access. Which is neither a good nor bad thing, just noisier.

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