“500 years later…”
For years, this was basically all we had to go on for the ending to Final Fantasy VII. It frustrated and captivated my 11-year-old self in ways I can barely describe. What happened? Did they relocate? Did the Planet wipe out humanity in self-preservation, like Bugenhagen suggested?
That is still my personal interpretation of that ending, Square Enix’s subsequent milking of the FF7 cash cow be damned. It is short, sweet, and seems to tell us everything and nothing all at once. I haven’t seen an RPG pull off quite that same trick ever since. At least, not until Bioware’s latest title came bolting out the stable a few weeks ago.
Which is why, I suppose, I’m greeting this current air of entitled frustration and negativity from these generalized “ME3 players” (contented ones obviously don’t count!) with exasperation more than anything else. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt (and the action figures and keychains and wallscrolls). The only real difference between player reaction to this game here, and the ones of yesteryear is that now a lot more people have Internet access. Which is neither a good nor bad thing, just noisier.
Right now I am thanking the cold unfeeling heavens that FFVII was released back when our understanding of “social media” consisted of AOL chatrooms. We didn’t have to deal with page after page of this. (Note: ME3 spoilers.) It was a simpler, more innocent time, that era before Tumblr and VeryDemotivational.com. Fans were still the vitriolic hellspawn they are now, of course, but trashtalking a developer to a dozen people on Usenet has a different register to it than threatening to drag the FTC into this or convincing Amazon to offer full refunds because you didn’t like a game’s ending.
Most of the narratives I’ve known people to decry as “stupid” or “incomplete” are ones which don’t compromise. I can recall vividly watching A River Runs Through It in a high school film class and watching a classmate burst straight out of her seat in front of the projector and start yelling at the film, so infuriating was the idea that Brad Pitt’s character could die, and off screen, of all things! (Oops, I just spoiled it.) We are programmed through mass media to expect certain archetypes to be treated in certain fashions, and of course the game hero is among the more sacred of these.
“But our choices didn’t matter!” you shriek.
Yes, and I hated when ME2 pulled that stunt on me. But for reasons of scale alone, Mass Effect 3 cannot even be compared. You are fucked, in this game. You are so fucked, even in a best case scenario. Why should your decisions have so much more weight than the rest of the universe? I hate to break it to you, but in real life, your decisions really don’t matter all that much.
“But it was a game about our choices mattering!”
Was it? Was it really? One (or more) of your squadmates will always die on Virmire. You will always have that final battle even if you convince Saren not to fight you. You will always end up working for Cerberus. The Collectors will always abduct your crew. And in the third game, there are events which will happen regardless of your actions every single time, because the writers apparently finally realized that you are one person trying to stop a hurricane.
Where is Final Fantasy VII‘s resolution that much materially different than Mass Effect 3‘s? You spend all that time leveling characters and assets, sorting through the cast’s melodrama and deep psychological problems, and fighting a rival human outfit which is doing its level best to hasten the apocalypse, and all you get at the end is a picturesque verdant landscape and a small glimmer of hope that intelligent life will continue. No mention of the fate of your companions. Little to no indication that your actions did anything beyond averting total annihilation of your homeworld. After all those cinematics, all that “emotional engagement,” you get a brief picture of life entered into a different epoch and then finis.
So, again, I wonder if all this furor about “agency” isn’t just the players misinterpreting the rhetoric of the developers, as usual. Mass Effect has never been about actual choice and real, graspable effects of those choices. It’s been about stemming an unrelenting tide, clutching onto compromises like a consolation prize. It’s also no different than business as usual for the roleplaying genre. Final Fantasy VII just had the luxury of releasing in a time before Twitter.
Final thought on the two games: there is some making-of VHS my brother got with his copy of FFVII where Hironobu Sakaguchi says in an interview that the concept for the game emerged in response to his mother’s death. Japanese aesthetic has always been strongly fixated on mortality, the inevitability and even “rightness” of dying as part of the natural cycle. I feel like Western games have gotten into the habit of denying the existence of death, but it wasn’t always so. Old tabletop RPGs assumed player characters would die a lot and were, thus, expendable, not worthy of emotional investment.
I’d like to believe there is a middle ground we can achieve here, closer to the Japanese way of looking at things. We can invest in our characters, and also accept getting our hearts broken when the narrative denies us that oh-so-implausible happily ever after.
Because really, shouldn’t a game about space remind us how tiny and pointless we are?