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i play a game sometime c:

if i had to describe how i use star ratings, its primarily informed by how "worth the time i spent" a game was
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Favorite Games

Spark the Electric Jester 2
Spark the Electric Jester 2
Tetris: The Absolute - The Grand Master 2 Plus
Tetris: The Absolute - The Grand Master 2 Plus
Super Mario 64
Super Mario 64
Elden Ring
Elden Ring
Super Hexagon
Super Hexagon

1118

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So many years have passed since so many years had past. Police Truck was already nearly twenty years old when this game came out, Activision had started its transformation into merger homunculus so long ago that the ex-Atari founders hadn't been with the company in over a decade. Were big budget games better when one person could make them, or when the whole dev team could easily fit in a single room? Was music better before everyone sold out, or was it always about the money in the first place? The presence of athletes' likeness, real brands of equipment and video magazines, and licensed tracks skaters were listening to; is it authentic, or is it shameless product placement?

I used to think things like, "people my age grew up with stuff like crunk-core and bro-step, there's no way any of us would end up growing into that boomer mindset where we're scared of the kids' new music". I used to think there was something kind of scary about sound synthesis having effectively allowed us to have potentially already explored so much of timbral possibility that nothing would truly sound new or shocking again. The even scarier thing is that nothing has really changed in half a century. Is it worthwhile to question how authentic your own curry recipe is when there are people afraid of garlic and pepper?

“We are living in a crisis of heroism that reaches into every aspect of our social life… just as there are useless self-sacrifices in unjust wars, so too is there an ignoble heroics of whole societies...”

I first played Final Fantasy VII on the PSP, during the time in my life when games most took up an escapist, asocial place in my life. When I finished Mega Man Battle Network 6: Cybeast Gregar I felt a chill that no other piece of fiction had given me at that age, I realized as their stories came to a close that I was more emotionally invested in the futures of these few dozen representational pixels than I was those of most of the few dozen people that I knew in my real life. I played Half Minute Hero on the sidelines of an ice-skating rink, I played Locoroco and No Heroes Allowed at church events. A friend invited me to hang out with girls in the middle of the night and I spent most of that night playing FFVII, and I didn't even like it. I remember being in the car with my dad one evening, in the Starbucks drive-through, grinding in the Cosmo Canyon caves, and telling him that I wasn't sure if I actually liked playing video games at all, or if I only liked the story, the music, the graphics.

I first played Final Fantasy VII on the PSP, after watching Advent Children and beating Crisis Core. This playthrough of FFVII is the first that I've done in years, the first time I've gotten past Midgar in a about a decade, and the first time I've gotten past disc 1 since my first run. I played it the way that I played FFIX when I was in high school, on a CRT, original hardware, laying down with a blanket, little by little at the end of the day. I curled up with it like a book and treated it like a piece of literature. I played it having waited long enough to have forgotten most of what happens in Compilation, for the first time being more able to see the game in its own light.

The last time I played FFVIII I was disappointed by how much of Squall I still see in myself, the emotional defenses, preemptive social disengagement. In the time I've spend playing FFVII again, I'm disappointed by how much of my old self I still see in my new self. When playing through Ocarina of Time again, needing to confront how foundational it is to my understanding of fantasy tropes and aesthetic made it feel sort of banal. Realizing how fundamental FFVII is to the lens through which I see science-fantasy on the other hand has felt absolutely revelatory.

I first played Final Fantasy VII at a time in my life when I was only just beginning to realize that the state of the world was not unquestioned good. I played FFVII around the time that I first learned about the holocaust, around the time that I first watched Fullmetal Alchemist and the leader of Amestris being a "fuhrer" didn't immediately set off alarm bells. I played FFVII in a time when I couldn't imagine any reasonable number of people having a problem with the President of the United States being black. I played FFVII thinking Sephiroth was a cool guy with a spiffy outfit and a big sword. I played FFVII as a smaller part of experiencing an expanding multimedia universe. I played FFVII, at the time only the second Final Fantasy game that I had managed to see the credits of, and I did not think a single thought regarding what the game could possibly be "about" because it seemed obvious: it's about cool guys who hit each other with swords, and big spells where a dragon puts the bad guy on a rock and then blows up the rock with its laser breath.

I first played FFVII between the release of the final Harry Potter book and the final Harry Potter movie. I never read past book 5 and I never watched past the penultimate film, but I've heard enough about how it ends and how people feel about the author to know what's up. Harry Potter, frankly, like a great deal of western fiction feels incapable of questioning things as they are, the conditions which exist in the world and which lead to the conflicts which seem to form their central narratives. I went to a charter school that went on field trips to the local RNC headquarters to watch videos about Osama Bin Laden, I went to a public high school that required me to do volunteer work for a church run by that charter school's principal. I once told my science teacher at that charter school that I thought FFVII's Midgar seemed to me to be an ideal structure for a city, and they were mortified. I've been using the same username online since I was in middle school, it's a lyric from a song I wrote at that age, a song about 9/11 not dissimilar in tone to 3 Doors Down's Citizen/Soldier.

I didn't understand at the time, so utterly entrenched in the small town American Christian echo chamber, that the reason I found stories like Final Fantasy VII and Fullmetal Alchemist so interesting was that they were capable of critique of society in ways that most of the fiction I had been exposed to were not. Obviously there are pieces of western fiction which do make meaningful statements but you often have to dig for something that has a clear enough message that it can't be willfully misshapen by someone who wants it to fit within mainstream thought. To paraphrase a paraphrasing of who knows who said what, "Japan is a post-apocalyptic society". Obviously, in a real way, America is too, though the context of who created and benefitted from that apocalypse is sort of important to each country's culture. In less than 15 years between the release of Mega Man and Mega Man: NT Warrior, nuclear weapons went from being symbolized by Albert Wily as an obviously evil implementation of technology, to being portrayed literally, as a neutral implementation of technology which could only be misused by outside evildoers. Imagine what more than 200 years of more or less continuous order does to a motherfucker.

“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Some have a tendency to reflexively assume that anyone at any age is personally failing society if they managed to exit the womb without a fully formed coherent notion of political reality, or at the very least managed to reach adulthood without someone having passed this knowledge onto them. Of course the truth is that a great deal of people pass through their formative years deliberately having been insulated from this by anyone with authority over them. The illusion broke for me in 2014 when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri and nobody around me seemed to think there was anything wrong, nobody around me thought for a second that the protests could possibly be justified. The heroes in our society aren't those that fight against injustice or oppression, the heroes in our society are the brave men and women who travel the world to kill in the name of oil, the heroes are the ones dispersing gas to clear mobs of the people they supposedly protect. In 2014 the Christian rock band Family Force 5 released a song called Let It Be Love, it contains the lyric "I've never seen a hurt get healed in a protest". If you check out the band's Billboard charts you can find that despite completely unremarkable sales figures, the song received more radio play than any of the band's actually popular material, and that this radio play is concentrated not around the song's release in May, but the latter half of the year. If you do a little more digging, you would find that the incident which inspired the song was actually Christians protesting a concert. The Genius annotation for this lyric currently contains a stock photo from either an Egyptian or Moroccan police crackdown.

A few weeks ago I went on a trip to St. Louis, Missouri to see a concert with some friends. It was the longest trip I’ve been on as an adult, the furthest I’ve ever been from home without a family member. It was the first concert I’d been to since the pandemic, it was the first concert I’ve been to that was without restriction or compromise an artist I’d actually wanted to see, rather than just “the coolest thing my parents would let me go to”.

Six hours either way is a long drive, long enough to have a lot of conversations, long enough to run out of things to talk about and spend a lot of time looking out the window in silence. It’s a long enough drive that you’ll need to make some stops to refuel both the vehicle and your own bodies. The friend who drove the car commented that they were glad the trip was more or less a straight shot. You don’t remember the miles on a trip like that, you remember the stops you made along the way, you remember the traffic, the situations that impeded your progress, you remember the turns you had to take once you reached the city. You remember rummaging through your friend’s purse to find her vape pen, you remember awkwardly not knowing where to wait for your order at an unfamiliar restaurant, or how nice or rude the strangers you briefly interacted with were.

That’s something that games have lost now, even before the doors were blown wide open world. The increased physicality and “realness” of virtual spaces, the fact that a place can simply be built means that space no longer has to be created. In my FFVIII review I touched on how the tricks these games can play with scale allow them to create a great implied space. By boiling down an entire planet’s worth of roads into nothing but turns, the people who made these games were able to make worlds that felt complete and total in a way that modern games, or even most of the last 4 generations of games at this point, cannot actually compete with. Removing the punctuation, removing the seams, has only resulted in new games largely having absolutely terrible pacing and hours of wasted time, a completely backwards signal-to-noise ratio.

“The automobile not only seals its occupants in a metal and glass cocoon, cutting them off from the outside world, but it has a way of actually decreasing the sense of movement through space. Loss of the sense of movement comes not only from insulation from road surfaces and noise but is visual as well. The driver on the freeway moves in a stream of traffic while visual detail at close distances is blurred by speed.”

When we first drove into St. Louis on the night of the concert, there was a terrible thunderstorm. The shape and scale of the city were completely obscured by dense fog, any fascination I might have had for the tangle of interchanges unlike anything I’d ever seen in person was overruled by the stress of the situation.

We arrived at the venue and I immediately recognized that they were playing Spiritualized over the PA system. Just before the main act took the stage, they played, back to back, a Slowdive song, and a My Bloody Valentine song (see, it all relates back to FFVII, this isn’t just an excuse to put a travel blog somewhere people might read it, I swear). As an artist I was sort of disgusted. Could you imagine being in that position? You’re about to take the stage and whoever is running the show has just invited comparison to the best to ever do it? As an audience member I felt like I was having keys dangled in my face.

The first act to play that night was a shoegaze group I hadn’t heard of until my friends invited me to the concert. This was the first time I had heard live shoegaze, despite making multiple albums in the genre myself, despite owning plenty of guitars, pedals, and rack mountable effects processors, I’ve never actually plugged any of them into an amplifier. The air in the room was strange, something was off. I felt like my feet had left the ground, the entire time they played I had that odd sensation you get when you walk out of the theater after a long movie. I got the sense that most of the crowd wasn’t as into it as I was. When the band stopped playing, one of my friends leaned in to snarkily ask if they had ever really started.

When the main act took the stage the energy shifted, and I realized just how out of my element I was. Whatever you wanna call this guy’s stuff, shoegaze, dream pop, hypnagogic pop, vaporwave, trip hop, whatever, I realized I had a completely different relationship to it from everyone else in this room. Yeah, maybe this is just me being stupid, or out of touch and getting older, or whatever. I stood there almost motionless, slowly feeling the proxemic field of the crowd push me further away from the stage. This music, which I had seriously contemplated, which I viewed as best experienced almost as a form of sensory deprivation, which I pored over to try and find how a particular sound was accomplished, which at one point had been described as some sort of critique of capitalist pop art’s stagnation and regurgitation of the same ideas, of false promised futures, music which had been compared to that Calvin and Hobbes strip where he plays easy-listening real quiet as a form of protest, had been party music the whole time. I found myself on the edge of a mosh pit feeling like a sleeper agent undercover cop, watching people disregard the clearly posted signs telling them not to smoke or vape, wondering how long my ears would hiss when this was over, wondering how my knees would feel in the morning. I looked at the Dragonball and Mobile Suit Gundam clips playing on the stacks of CRT televisions at either end of the stage and wondered about the logistics of this blatant copyright infringement, or how, as the meme goes, this serious story of human compassion in the face of the horrors of war was being robbed of it context and reduced to an image of a cool robot.

I didn’t think so much of the mecha genre when I first watched Gundam, mostly viewing it through the distorted lens of someone who still thinks Evangelion is a deconstruction of the genre rather than merely being a good show. But a lot of the symbols and themes which make Evangelion so powerful are already, implicitly if not explicitly, present in all mecha by the simple virtue of the idea of a large man, a machine with immense power, a tool of war, an immense full body mask. The robots do look cool, and they do fight, but that’s not the meat of what’s going on. In the same sense, watching the pseudo-realistic CGI anime heroes in the Compilation and Remake versions of the FFVII universe jump and fly and flail around like they’re in a shonen battle anime is just impossible to take at face value. In turn based combat, with low poly graphics, I can accept that the battle which takes place on screen is mere representation. It is not possible to take the Dyne fight seriously in real time HD combat. People got upset that a doorknob had too few triangles in Remake. I refuse to see the complaints of anyone who wanted a remake of this game as legitimate at all. If there is any single aspect of FFVII’s form that is absolutely essential to what the game is, it’s that the game is abstract by necessity, and if you take that away there is nothing left. It’s like the remake of Resident Evil 2, Rebirth might be a good game, but it is by no means at all the same game.

We went to downtown St. Louis the next day. The weather had cleared up and the skyline was revealed. We passed disused industrial structures, motionless trains, the smallest hotel on the edge of the city was bigger than the largest building in our hometown. There is no better shorthand for what this city looks like than “the opening movie of Final Fantasy VII: Remake”, that dustier daytime portrayal of Midgar is a near exact match. We seemingly happened to visit St. Louis the weekend of their city marathon, and an absurd number of roads were closed to keep people on (and cars off of) the route. We walked around this cordoned off area of the city, nearly every block occupied by a single massive building with some recognizable corporations name on it, any walkways lined with neatly trimmed grass and shimmering sculpture, each attended by uniformed maintenance men, groundskeepers, or workers of some kind walking around.

I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Hooters so I wound up exploring the city on my own for a while. I asked my phone to point me towards the nearest convenience store. Despite it being only two blocks away I needed to take a pretzel shaped path to avoid all the road and sidewalk closures. I walked under a concrete path attached to one of the buildings, past emergency exits covered in graffiti, wads of shit, towels and tupperware tucked into corners. I crossed such a thin line, a single block closer to Ferguson, and I felt like I had stepped decades into the past, into a completely different place altogether from the slick corporate image of the city. I saw more traffic cones and barricades and I gave up and started walking back to the car. A bird landed right by my feet and made no attempt to flee, my presence didn’t startle it at all, its feathers an almost lime green, a creature I had never seen before, behaving in a way I had never seen before. I started to lean down towards it, only to see in the corner of my eye a pack of marathoners heading my way. An old man asked me if I knew which way the finish line was, and I had to admit I wasn’t from here, I had no idea this event was even happening.

I got the sense that I had peered backstage, that I had wandered off the “race track” in a retail store and wound up in a stockroom by mistake. St. Louis was not the largest city I had ever visited, but I now realized that entering Chicago by train had probably allowed me to dodge the underbelly of the city completely, that I may as well have spent that entire trip inside of a shopping mall. So much of our society is built on keeping some pretense of appearances. Today’s not the day I spill all my guts, but I’ve been in the belly of the beast for a while. When the first Christmas passed I was still only a temporary employee, I was called to the office and told that because I got them out of the hole I was getting a bonus anyway. Part of my bonus was a generous number of video games and paraphernalia thereof. I have still not played the copy of The Last Guardian that I received that day, but how many people can say that they were given a free Team Ico video game by their employer? I realize now that I had basically been given an opportunity to rummage through a warehouse’s trash, and I had merely by some twist of fate happened to be the person for whom this resembled treasure. I realize now that my coworker wouldn’t wear a For Honor or Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands t-shirt out of pride or fandom, it was just a shirt they could wear to work and not worry about dirtying up. I realize now that the God of War and FIFA posters were just too high up to be worth the effort of taking them down.

Midgar is only the most obviously stratified physical structure in FFVII, though far from the only one. Kalm seems at first like a departure, a safe haven, something outside of the world of Midgar, a normal JRPG town, but consider the subtle detail that the shops tower above the rest of the buildings and can only be reached by stairs. Junon lies beneath a cannon, symbolizing Shinra’s military might. The Golden Saucer flies above a prison work camp. Mako reactors, functional or otherwise, pepper the world and loom over the land they sap from. Cosmo Canyon looks to the stars for a higher power. People live in the shadow of the Shinra 26 rocket, a future that failed to take off. Jenova’s crater sits at the top of the world.

Consider that in 1997 virtually everyone played FFVII on the same machine, sending the same type of video signal to the same type of television. People looked at the cutscenes and asked why the whole game couldn’t look like that. From the minute that Remake released on PS4 the experience was fractured by the existence of the PS4 Pro. If FFVII made people wish for a “real” or “definitive” version, Remake fails to provide it with the compromises that must be made when choosing between performance and quality, it fails to provide it with the promise of inevitable PC ports of each part, it fails to provide it with the sheer disparity in what different people’s hardware will be capable of.

In my Ocarina of Time review I described it as an “all ages power fantasy”, a commentary on escapism where child players are able to immediately grow up and solve all the worlds problems, where adult players are able to re-enter that childish mindset, but everyone ultimately has to come back to reality when Ganon is defeated. While Ocarina of Time deals primarily with issues which affect a person in an immediate sense, natural disasters, political turmoil, racial tensions, and offers a world where these problems have simple solutions, FFVII cuts to the worm at the core. Final Fantasy VII deals directly with heroic simulation itself.

Sephiroth, the man, is dead. You are fighting against Sephiroth, the concept. You are fighting his immortal cult of personality, against the people who aspire to become him. You are fighting against the idea that Shinra, that capitalism, can produce a “hero”. Your enemy is a contradiction, a contradiction which exists within Cloud. The rocket standing erect and the pumping cannon are nothing in the face of extraterrestrial demise. The children of Hojo and Lucrecia, Gast and Ifalna, wage spiritual conflicts having already been devoured by Kronos. Sephiroth and Aerith are already dead, meteor and holy have already been cast. The planet will decide for itself what happens now. It doesn’t matter if you found Yuffie, went to Wutai, and learned more about the world before Shinra. It doesn’t matter if you found Vincent or the logs in the snow village and learned more about the origins of Sephiroth. It doesn’t matter if you defeat all the Weapons or unlock everyone’s highest level limit breaks. In this Final Fantasy game it doesn’t even matter if you found the crystals, in fact the wide variety of gameplay sequences related to obtaining them come across as if the developers wanted you to fail, even teasing you if you enter the rocket’s passcode correctly on the first try. Multiple times in the game, progress is blocked by the game just sort of vaguely telling you “go find something”. You could view this as a deliberate waste of time to pad out the game’s length, you could view this as “Nintendo Power” style guide-mongering, but I think the game is trying to encourage the player to go off the beaten path, explore, find your own fun. Go out into the world and figure out what you want to do, what you’re fighting for. If you don’t come back to fight Sephiroth, what are you actually missing, what are you actually changing? I said in my Ocarina of Time review that a game like this not saving game completion, not even returning to the menu after the credits without a reset, turns beating the game, even if it is ostensibly the end goal, into a sort of mechanical side quest, and I think defeating Sephiroth in this game fits this description even more closely. Whatever you do, do it because it’s what you want, not because you think it will save the world.

For the past month or so I have felt more like a fake, a failure, and an outsider than I have in a long while. Working a job where I have the misfortune of caring, of being overeducated on the subject at hand, being more than skilled enough to do what’s expected of me but having no worthwhile credentials or experience with which to barter for something better, working exclusively with people who don’t give a shit, don’t want to learn, and don’t want to try any harder. Stumbling into family gatherings to temporarily pose as middle class while in reality I resemble more and more my impoverished coworkers every day. Trying to find the time to spend with friends, the energy to spend on hobbies. Spending time in strange places with strange people where I really don’t belong. Making music or games or writing or a website thinking that this could possibly be considered a worthwhile skill, but I don’t know how to play guitar or piano, I know how to play my songs. I don’t know how to produce audio or video, I know how to make specific things the way that I want them. I don’t know computer programming beyond what I need to know to make the specific games I’m able to make right now, I don’t know web design beyond what my website can do right now. Being able to make a singular work has zero value, being able to do anything, every day is the minimum requirement. Being able to make a meal for yourself and being able to make a meal for every customer who walks through the door just aren’t the same thing. It’s not enough for Square to make another game like Final Fantasy VII, you need to just give people FFVII again, but bigger and better this time. It needs to periodically come back, like the McRib.

It basically feels like a tech demo where the team was asked to recreate the Splatoon paint effect, but I got a little whale that sprayed blue paint automatically, so it's okay.