The Accidental Foreigner

Gaming Like My Life Depended On It

It is no secret that one of the biggest winners during COVID is the video game industry, so much so that there is a Wikipedia page dedicated to this one niche topic. I never thought I’d see the day that the New York Times reviews a video game, but Animal Crossing managed it in April 2020. We now have members of Congress live streaming themselves playing Among Us. What better way to pass a boring day than to feel productive working through a virtual character’s to-do list?

I, too, retreated into virtual worlds to pass those terribly boring days, though I am not a first-time gamer. I was never a serious gamer “B.C.” (before COVID) and didn’t own a console, but as I kept reading increasingly depressing news about shelter-in-place, growing infection numbers across the world, and long online delivery delays, I realized I needed to quickly find something that would keep me occupied for hours on end, which led me to dig up very old memories of sitting in front of a PC computer traipsing across Gaia…

It’s 1997, and I’m in the middle of my awkward high school years. I vaguely remember my younger brother bringing home a slick and slim video game console, the Sony PlayStation, and a game called Final Fantasy VII, which he bought because he had some “free time” and it looked “relatively inexpensive.”

Since my parents didn’t believe in spending money on cable television, I had nothing better to do than to watch my brother play FFVII on our lone television set in the living room. I recalled the graphics were indeed cutting edge for the time. I thought it was weird that enemies stood on one side, and your party members on the other, and both sides patiently took turns beating each other up, but the mechanics of it looked straightforward enough for me to play. It was when my brother made it to the Wall Market scavenger hunt for Cloud’s ultimate dress that I decided this was the game for me. Not only are the battles simple, but there are fun side games, too?

I don’t recall why my brother bought a PC version of the game, but because it was there, and because I could play in secret with the PC computer in my bedroom, I started my own FFVII journey. I had no idea I could feel so immersed in a video game world and feel so emotionally attached to its characters. I felt like I played through an excellent 60-hour long movie, and I wanted to do it all over again in a heartbeat. I’m an avid player of Japanese role playing games (JRPGs) and loyal to the Final Fantasy franchise for this reason. I played both FFVIII and FFIX upon their launches to explore other worlds and love on other characters.

I don’t remember feeling especially drawn to the FFVII protagonist, Cloud Strife (other than I thought he was anime hot), but I can see why Subconscious Julia would resonate with him. Where Cloud was an imposter hotshot in the beginning of the game, I also felt like I had to hide a lot of my real self in high school (playing video games, for one). The goal wasn’t to be cool, but rather to not be on the bullying radar of the cool people. I never felt like I particularly belonged in one group or another — my friend groups changed each year — and I constantly felt uncomfortable in my own skin. Watching Cloud wallow through deep confusion while confronting uncomfortable questions about his past, making peace with it, and becoming a true leader was deeply satisfying (and comforting) to a slightly lost teenager.

After not playing JRPGs for quite a while (FFIX was my last game before my long hiatus), I revisited FFVII after quitting my cushy day job as a lawyer. My days were shapeless at the time, and there was nothing immediate or concrete to work towards. Reliving Cloud’s melodramatic character arc and working through his “to do” list of saving the world felt like comfort food, but discovering new dungeons, picking up dialogue I didn’t notice before, and finding myself becoming more strategic and thoughtful in my exploration of the game environs felt life-affirming. It reminded me that I have the ability to learn new things at any age, and it showed me how much I’ve changed interacting with people and spaces. I can’t say that finishing the game led to immediate career changes, but it did lessen my depression and encouraged me to try new things again.

The whole party together in Final Fantasy VII Remake | Credit: Square Enix

I must have some sort of soul-tie to Square Enix because right as COVID reared its ugly head, FFVII Remake graced the world with its presence, an old friend now all grown up. There were so many moments when I thought I would burst into tears in the middle of the game — nostalgia is one hell of a mood. I loved listening to the rearranged soundtrack and hearing how grand and modern the original tunes have become. The Midgar slums feel grittier and dirtier, making the class struggle commentary more pronounced. I marveled over how all of the characters now look like supermodels, with Cloud becoming infinitely hotter. The new battle system is exciting and surprisingly therapeutic (it turns out hacking-and-slashing people/monsters to death brings me inner peace), and there were times I plain forgot I was in the middle of a battle because the animations are so sparklingly stunning. Though the story doesn’t track as faithfully to the Original as I hoped it would, the new spin feels fresh, modern, and very on brand with the confusion I felt with the Original story. I expect to Wikipedia every character, every location, and every fan-made theory after playing a Final Fantasy game, and the Remake did not disappoint.

After FFVII Remake, I finally tried the other modern mainline Final Fantasy games and found a new game to love — FFXV. Yes, the game is polarizing; you either love it or hate it. I am firmly on Team Love as the game now sits as my second favorite Final Fantasy title, after the Original FFVII, because it gets so many things right for me. I recreate travel by going on long car rides with Noctis and company. I hear warm and playful banter between the boys throughout the game. I love reviewing photos at the “end of the day” and cooking at camp. The soundtrack is a masterpiece (and on constant rotation on my Spotify). But what really makes FFXV stand out is that it features the best protagonist of the franchise — Noctis Lucis Caelum. Here is a privileged prince setting off to marry the love of his life, hanging out with his best buddies before the wedding, when everything goes upside down for him. We watch him wrestle with his grief and the weight of his responsibilities while his friends support and challenge him. He grows from a bratty teenager to a wise king who fully accepts his fate, as painful and unfair as it is. Yes, the story seems simple because not every story has to be complicated for it to be good.

Noctis Lucis Caelum — ugh, cue the waterworks | Credit: Square Enix

FFXV was perfect for 2020. It’s a game for when you miss your friends, miss road trips, and miss wandering in wide, open spaces. It’s a game that encourages you to get into your kitchen to try and recreate any one of Ignis’ gorgeous dishes. Ultimately, it’s a game that helps you acknowledge the crappy hand you’ve been dealt with (in this case, all of 2020) and helps you get through it with flourish and grace.

I wasn’t expecting to draw profound conclusions from gaming during shelter-in-place — I simply needed to escape — but inspiration can come from unusual places. There are times we can rewrite fate, as FFVII Remake champions, and there are times we must submit, as FFXV demonstrates.