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Final Fantasy 7 was a different kind of blockbuster

Up front: I have never played Final Fantasy 7. I’m one of those unbearable hipsters who has only played 12, and won’t shut up about it. But with the new game out, I’ve discovered that I have fond memories of FF7, this massive game that I have never played. Also: although I didn’t play it, there was a period, around its release, when I was super into the idea of it. And I watched it a lot once it was out. And these memories and how odd they are have made me realise that games have changed a lot over the years, and FF7 marks one of the really big changes.

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I played computer games as a kid and video games quite a bit as a teen, but I checked out somewhere in the 16-bit era because there were other things going on. This meant when I went to university in 1996, I was flung together with games again: people in halls had battered SNESs, and a few had PlayStations. I didn’t get back into games, but as someone interested in film at the time, I found these early 3D games completely fascinating just as artefacts that I watched unfold themselves as other people played.

Listen: this is all distant history to me now, and I’m not going to go back to untangle the chronology, so apologies if I have games and their releases in the wrong order. What follows is how I remember it, and the first PlayStation game I remember making a big impact on me – again, I didn’t play it at the time – was Tomb Raider.

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Final Fantasy 7: Rebirth non-spoilery review

Tomb Raider was a proper cultural phenomenon. People in newspapers wrote op-eds about Lara Croft and knock-off versions appeared on club flyers and all that jazz. Lara Croft, or someone dressed as her, ran for a student union position in my first year of university. The game itself was a shock after all that. It was dark and lonely and complex and fraught. Even now I can remember my friend working his way through an Egypt level, and my feelings were that 3D games were something I would never get used to: Tomb Raider felt more like actual sculpture than a platformer.

After that I bundle FF7 together with Metal Gear Solid. Apologies if they came out at different times. The reason I bundle them together is that they were blockbusters, but nothing like the old video game blockbusters like Mario 3 or Link to the Past. Mario 3 – no bones – was a legit blockbuster. That advert pulling back to see a whole planet of chanting Mario fanatics was pretty much justified. But Metal Gear and particularly FF7 felt very different, largely because I heard about them through different channels.

I heard about them from my film friends rather than my friends who played games. Metal Gear Solid was pitched to me as this brilliant Japanese noir, and when I watched it on someone else’s cheap university telly, I swear it was largely black and white. We loved the camera angles, the cutting, the fact that Snake smoked and you could see the smoke coming out of his mouth. My first glimpses of it suggested something wildly serious and realistic, and only when I ducked my head back in a few weeks later to see someone fighting an invisible ninja did I realise that the brew might be a bit headier than that.

Still, Metal Gear Solid came to me via friends who normally wouldn’t shut up about Hitchcock, and FF7 came to me from the people who loved The Fifth Element and Dark City. I remember being shown a shot of a complex landscape from the game – a city? Part of a processing facility? Some blend of the two? – from a friend who was into special effects. “Oh yeah,” he said, as he slung Arcade magazine or whatever it was my way (I loved Arcade, even as a non-gamer, and I still do – bring it back!), “games look like this now.” He probably leaned forward at this point trying to be enigmatic – or as enigmatic as you can be while eating nothing but tangerine Spangles. Then he said: “Cinema and games are coming together.”

Coming together to form what? Something weird and exciting and slightly incoherent in my mind, at least. I didn’t know Final Fantasy was an RPG or that people had really been waiting for this next installment. I didn’t much know what a modern RPG was at the time. What I knew was what a friend had told me: this game had tons and tons of cutscenes. Tons and tons of special effects. And so he’d play it, and I’d pop my head round the door whenever he had triggered a cut-scene. I watched Final Fantasy 7 thinking it was the weird hybrid future of cinema. It made me think about things that games hadn’t made me think about since Another World.

Looking back, and as someone who now is far too quick to skip cutscenes of any kind, I find this all delightfully weird. But I remember how exciting FF7 was, how far its impact seemed to be felt from the world of pure games. Film students were into it. Again, newspapers were writing about it. You saw clips on TV with news anchors trying to make sense of what that new thing was. At the time I thought: wow, games grew up. A stupid thought. Stupid in so many ways. But Final Fantasy 7 and Metal Gear Solid had certainly attended university, anyway: mine.

There are games you can’t wait to play again and games you know you will never play again because the spell was too perfect the first time around. But there are also games, and I’m fascinated by this particular strain, that remain dear to you, bright and fizzing in the memory, precisely because you didn’t play them. Precisely because you didn’t understand them or the context they operated within. And so they come to me through the years as sheer perceptual radiance. That’s Final Fantasy 7 to me. Never played it, will never forget it.

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