Blocking the Story

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[This blog contains spoilers for the video game Final Fantasy VII.]

Final Fantasy 7 Remake Demo Intro Leaked (gamespot.com)

I didn’t understand the appeal of online “reaction videos” until four and a half years ago, when the long-awaited Final Fantasy VII Remake was finally announced at E3 2015. After waiting nearly half my life for a modern remake of my favourite video game ever, this news was almost too much for me to handle, and I didn’t have many people in my life whom I felt that I could really share the news with, whom I could trust would understand what a huge deal this announcement was to me. By watching other people’s reactions to the announcement, even if I was only observing them via YouTube, it kind of felt like I had more people to share that moment with, and that helped me process all the feelings that I continued to experience even days after the announcement.

At its best, the Internet can be a wonderful tool for sharing the things we like, whether our knowledge and interest is deep or casual. When I started the .org over nineteen years ago, my main animating force was to create a place to share certain aspects of my life, and in particular some of the interests I hadn’t really explored that much online. I’d set up a primitive personal website using the free space I got from my local Internet Service Provider back in 1997, but the .org was designed to take that work and make it more expansive. If this website has done nothing else over the last nineteen years, it has certainly gotten bigger, and I can only hope that the things I’ve shared on here over that time have enlightened and/or entertained a few of you.

I’ve only dabbled in audio and video production on the Internet, but it’s something that’s always held some interest to me, and when I found out that the Playstation 4 I bought last November had built-in streaming capabilities, I wondered if I should try to do anything with them. I know that I’ll never do much with streaming on a personal level (I don’t have the resources to be more than a casual streamer, and I’ve never really been all that great at video games to start with), but as our campus here has been looking at expanding its programming, I figured that I should expand my own knowledge of contemporary video gaming, and get as hands-on as my limited skills will allow me to do.

With that in mind, I started my own Twitch channel last month, and I’m kind of making a point of streaming a little every day while I’m on my winter break. I’m not really expecting much to come out of it, and there’s a good chance that I’ll abandon the channel at the end of the month when the new semester starts, but even if I only attract the eyes and ears of some of my long-time friends, it’s still a good learning experience for me, both professionally and personally, to experiment with streaming. More to the point, as with all the stuff I’ve been doing online for so long, I think that streaming some of my favorite video games gives me a way to share them with people, friends and strangers alike, and I think that’s kind of cool.

I’d already pre-ordered Final Fantasy VII Remake before I even bought my Playstation 4, and after my system got here last November, the first game I bought for it was the port of the 1998 PC adaptation of the original Final Fantasy VII. It had been several years since I’d last played the game — I used to make a point of playing through it every summer, but I haven’t had the time for that in recent years — and especially as I was trying to recover from some serious burnout, I figured that another playthrough might do me some good. (I may also be answering a CFP about the game here, so I could also justify the expenditure of my time on professional grounds.) I’d started this current playthrough of the game weeks before I began streaming, so it was kind of weird to start putting my playthrough online in the middle of the game like I did, but I felt like I was making it work out.

As this past week started, I was dreading the fact that I was rapidly approaching the most iconic scene of the game (if not video game history), the death of the character Aeris at the hands of the game’s central villain, Sephiroth. Many video game players cite that scene as the first time that a video game made them cry, and it’s definitely the scene in the game that affects me the most, but I cry at a lot of scenes in Final Fantasy VII because the game is written so well. I’d already cried a few times on stream, and that hadn’t bothered me (I’m a very emotional person, in case you couldn’t tell), but I knew that going through that scene with people listening to me was going to be something entirely different. Still, I knew that I had to get it out of the way, and I had some spare time between the ball drop on the east coast and when 2020 reached Wisconsin, so I decided to stream the scene in that fleeting last hour of the decade here.

I loaded the game up near the start of that scene, and even before I got to that pivotal moment of the game, I became consumed with dread. Final Fantasy VII first came out in America on 1997.09.07, when I was twenty-one years old, and earlier that summer I’d had to endure the death of a cat under our care, Alexander, for the first time in my life. (We’d had a couple of other cats when I was younger, but my father had made us give them up.) Apart from a great-grandmother whom I’d seen maybe twice before she passed away when I was young, I really hadn’t been touched by the death of someone close to me, and Aeris is written so well (and I share more than a few personality traits with her) that I’ve never to watch her death without bursting into tears. Even all these years later, after losing my parents and grandparents and best friend, just watching the video of her death on YouTube is enough to gut me, and since I’d just relived the entirety of Final Fantasy VII’s story up to that point in the game, I was even more emotionally invested in Aeris’ character, and I knew that I was about to have another huge crying jag.

Just before the game cut to the video clip depicting Aeris’ death, though, a message popped up in the corner of my television screen, informing me that the video feed of my stream was being blocked. That message registered in my head, but I didn’t really think about it that much because I was lost in the moment, feeling my whole body tense up in anticipation of that heart-stopping moment when Sephiroth kills Aeris. The tears came right away, and full-blown sobbing followed soon after, but if you’d been watching my Twitch channel, all you would have seen was a blue screen with some smiley-faces bouncing up and down. The video feed continued to be blocked through the fight that happens after Aeris’ death, and even the makeshift funeral for Aeris after that battle, until finally I got a message on screen stating that I was broadcasting video again, after that whole scene was finally over.

I saved the game as quickly as I could, and then I started talking about what had happened, and I speculated about why my Playstation 4 had seemingly censored the scene on my stream. I didn’t even know my system could do that, and I hadn’t heard about this occurring with any other game, so I just had my own instincts to go on. Although Aeris’ death isn’t bloody, she is impaled with a sword, which made me wonder if Sony considered the scene too violent to be broadcast. When I found out that the last “battle” at the end of the game is also blocked in a similar way — the one video of the game that contains blood — I became even more convinced that this was an issue with violence.

After I did more research, though, I found out that Sony lets game developers block video and/or audio in games for any reason they see fit. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for this, as when a video game plays a piece of music that the developers can’t buy rebroadcast rights for, but in the case of these two scenes from Final Fantasy VII, the game’s develop, Square Enix, was apparently worried about the game being spoiled. Final Fantasy VII is almost twenty-three years old now, and I believe it was seventeen years old when this release on the Playstation 4 came out, and Final Fantasy VII is unquestionably a landmark title in video game history (it pretty much made Japanese-style role playing games mainstream in America), so the idea of blocking scenes in the game to avoid “spoilers” is ludicrous enough on its own.

What’s worse, though, is that Aeris’ death may be the single worst-kept secret in the history of video games. Final Fantasy VII came out in Japan about eight months before it came out in America, and every single video game magazine that was out back then was running long articles about Aeris’ death and the possibility that there was a way to bring her back to life. Even today, long after every single line of code in the game has been looked at like the Zapruder film and we know that there’s no way to bring Aeris back, conspiracy theories about the fabled “Aeris resurrection” still persist online. I’d argue that this is yet more proof of how well-realized of a character Aeris is, but given the broader problems in our culture with conspiracy theories nowadays, maybe it’s just a sign of how people want to believe what they want to believe, regardless of the evidence they’re presented with. Still, the idea of not letting streamers show Aeris’ death because it could “spoil” the story is patently absurd.

For my part, I wound up deleting the video of that part of my playthrough (and did that ever leave a bad taste in my mouth as 2020 came to Wisconsin here), and the next day I went on stream to announce that I would no longer be streaming that playthrough, since I wasn’t able to share Final Fantasy VII in its entirety. I’ve just been playing the game on my own since then (while streaming other games online that don’t get blocked), and I’m nearly finished with it now, but that leaves me wondering what I should do after I see that ending on my lonesome (and cry again, especially when they replay the classic Final Fantasy “Prologue” theme during the end credits, since that kind of nostalgia really messes with my heart).

On the one hand, this isn’t really that big of an issue because this mechanism that Sony put in to block streaming feeds only affects players who use the Playstation 4’s built-in streaming software. If I were to get a hardware device to hook my Playstation 4 up to my laptop, and stream it that way (which is what most streamers do anyway), then none of these blocking issues would ever show up. I’m probably going to be getting that device soon, and then I’ll be able to show any game I want on any system I own, and put all the graphical gizmos on my video feed that all the top streamers have on theirs. When I think about it that way, the problems I had trying to stream Final Fantasy VII last week seem like a minor inconvenience.

At the same time, though, to have this sprung up on me out of nowhere, especially after I’d put so much emotional investment into not just reliving Aeris’ death, but also to broadcast my tear-streaked reaction to that scene to the rest of the world, kind of hurts. As much as I can ever “look forward” to enduring the heartbreak of that scene, I was really looking forward to sharing it with my friends, and Square Enix denied me that moment, even though there are literally thousands of videos of that scene on YouTube right now, and other streamers who don’t use the Playstation 4’s built-in software have shown that scene online for years now. The logic of trying to avoid a “spoiler” that had been spoiled before the game even came out stateside, well over twenty years ago, completely eludes me.

Maybe it’s just another testament to the quality of Final Fantasy VII that I’m bothered this much by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to stream Aeris’ death. Maybe I’m making too big a deal out of something that won’t even be an issue for me after I buy a small piece of hardware here that will keep me from needing to use the Playstation 4’s streaming software forever. Whatever the case, I just hope that those of you who’ve read all the way through this can understand why all this means so much to me. As with everything else I’ve been doing here on the .org, I just hope that sharing these words with you will help you in some way.

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