[This blog contains spoilers for the video game Final Fantasy VII.]
The phrase “video game logic” doesn’t get used as often as it used to, and I have to wonder if that’s necessarily a good thing. I don’t long for the days when older people would smugly assert that there was no rational way Mario should be jumping several times his own height to stomp down on a goomba, but as video games matured in the nineties, the value of realism in (some) games became clearly evident. I know that it’s not the best example I could give, but whenever I think about realism in early video games, I always flash back to when I played Out Of This World on my Super Nintendo, and how despite its otherworldly ray guns and aliens and all of that, the animation style, combined with the fact that the protagonist could only jump about a foot or so up in the air, made me rethink just what I believed a video game could be.
In the quarter-century that has passed since then, of course, the deep variety of video games that are out there only goes to show the exponential development of this art form that we’ve seen since then. I still tend to prefer more fantastical elements in my video games, probably because gaming is one of my main avenues of escapism (keeping in mind that I’ve never been one for movies, and haven’t been into many fiction-based television shows since my earliest years), but I can still appreciate when there are elements in video games, whether in their storylines or mechanics or what have you, that could at least plausibly happen in this world. More to the point, game developers mostly understand this distinction as well, which is why Mario still jumps super-high in the sky while other human characters only have a fourteen-inch vertical.
As role-playing games (especially in the Final Fantasy series) matured in the nineties, their stories were one of the things that kept me hooked to them. (If stories weren’t the main reason why I played them so religiously, then they were a close second to the music.) The bare-bones stories of the eighties had already given way to narratives more akin to folk tales with titles like Final Fantasy IV and the Lunar series, and the Final Fantasy titles for the original Playstation were so close to novels that I still describe them using the same terms I used when I was writing papers for my literature degree. I’ll still argue that Final Fantasy VII has a much better story than nearly all of the “classic” literature I’ve read, even if some of that story gets lost in the haphazard translation from the original Japanese.
Having said that, there are some story conventions from the early days of console RPGs that persisted into those first 3-D Final Fantasy titles, and still poke their heads in some modern titles coming out today. One of those conventions is the idea that even when a country or planet is on the verge of destruction — in the case of Final Fantasy VII, a giant meteor clearly visible in the sky, aimed right at the planet’s biggest metropolis — the people with the items necessary for the game’s heroes to avert this catastrophe will still insist on being recompensed for these items, or put the heroes through some unnecessary trial, before the items get handed over. Beyond just the shopkeepers in all these games insisting on selling weapons and other items to the heroes, there is one person in Final Fantasy VII (in the town of Kalm) who forces the heroes to fight two of the nastiest monsters in video game history up to that point (exponentially harder to defeat than the main villain at the end of the game) before he’ll agree to hand over items that make that final battle for the planet’s survival much easier to deal with. (By the time you finally work up the strength to win those optional battles, you’re likely to have already gotten copies of those same items anyway, so the treasure gained from fighting those optional battles is almost an afterthought.)
Using video game logic, of course, these kinds of “tests” against difficult monsters are used to show that the heroes are worthy of being granted access to these items. Just as the stories of early role-playing games were deeply inspired by the folk tales of centuries past, the idea of heroes being tested in this way is also nothing new in video games. Because the exaggeration of characteristics in video games (like Mario’s jumping ability) foreground the potentialities of hyperbole so strongly, though — to say nothing of the immediate effect of video game graphics on the brain, as opposed to needing to “paint pictures” in your head after reading or listening to a description — the absurdity of some random person going, “Yeah, you could save the world, but I want to put you through this unnecessary trial before I hand over this booty you want, even though I’ll die anyway if you don’t gain access to it” just becomes all the clearer. Even if it’s a storytelling convention that long predates the first video game, it still seems ridiculous in the context of a video game’s larger conflict.
The thing is, all those console role-playing games I’m talking about here came out in the nineties, in that period between the end of the Cold War and the aftermath of the 09.11 attacks, where the United States didn’t have that tangible “evil” for politicians and the media to cudgel us into compliance with. Our perspectives were kind of skewed, and it was easy for us to think that if our own, real planet was ever in that kind of danger, then the people who had the power to make things better would make sure that things got better, even if it meant that they might not make as much money as they might otherwise be able to, simply because, you know, they would die if they didn’t do otherwise.
As the threats to human life (to say nothing of the lives of all the other critters on this planet) from global climate crisis become more and more evident and widespread, though, it’s obvious that just the opposite is going to happen. Even as our present situation becomes ever more dire, and even as the scientific evidence of how much worse things will likely get continues to pile up, the responses from those with the power to avert catastrophe range from dire at best to giddiness at worst, especially among those politicians whose unrestrained and gleeful acts of cruelty would have been considered too cartoonish for even the bottom-of-the-barrel “entertainment” of the eighties. If Final Fantasy VII got anything wrong about how people would react to the imminent death of the planet, it was that those with the power to avert that fate would at least give the heroes a chance to get the items necessary to take action. Instead, we’re all derided and laughed at for having basic human compassion by those in power, or else we’re told by those trying to get wrest that power back for themselves that ensuring the possibility that the human race will have a fighting chance to avoid a mass extinction event are “unrealistic,” which is just their code word for unprofitable for them.
One of the reasons why we were able to focus so much on environmentalism in the nineties was because the absence of a large war gave many people the mental space they needed to understand and appreciate the need to, if I can use a phrase that too often gets incorrectly labeled as hyperbolic, save the planet. Between the warmongering of the last twenty years, and the domestic hatred being cultivated at the same time as all this war, too many people are solely concerned with how they will profit from all this destruction. The original Final Fantasy VII has a lot to teach about how people should respond when their planet and civilization are threatened by destruction, and I can only hope that the remake coming out in March will inspire more people to speak out now about climate destruction. There might not be a literal meteor over our heads on this planet, but the damage our planet could suffer if we don’t take immediate action to stop the global climate crisis could be just as devastating.