During a recent episode of Kotaku Splitscreen, the concept of gaming origin stories was discussed, the general idea being that every gamer can point to a singular gaming experience that convinced them that video games were a worthy use of their time. Co-host Maddy Myers made the important distinction that this experience doesn’t have to be tied to the first game that you play or the game that you’ve played the most; the idea is that, as with any superhero origin story, the game in question should be one that fundamentally changed your outlook on the role that video games would play in your life.
My first video game console, if my aging memory serves correctly, was a Sega Game Gear. A few scant memories remain of that system: that NHL 95 and candy advertisement Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimension were the only games I had, that it burned through a fresh set of AA batteries in little more than an hour and that it weighed so much that it only barely felt portable. I quickly traded it in at my nearest FuncoLand for a GameBoy Pocket which I then traded in for a GameBoy Color. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was the defining game of that console’s experience for me, though I also remember playing Wario Land, Qix, Tetris and Gex: Enter the Gecko. (Somehow, to my surprise as much as yours: No Pokémon.) Around this time I was also playing a serious amount of GoldenEye 007 and Mario Kart 64 at a friend’s house, and yet for all the joy that I derived from those games and their personal and social contexts, none of them were transformative for me.
Late in the summer of 1998 I finally convinced my parents, who had been of the mind that video games will rot your brain, to allow me to have a PlayStation. If my admittedly unreliable memory serves, they even bought me one for my birthday that year. However I came into possession of the console, NHL Faceoff 98 was the only game I had for the system for some time. (In fairness, I grew up in Michigan; hockey’s kind of a big deal there.) After playing the recently released Metal Gear Solid at a friend’s house—that same friend who had the aforementioned Nintendo 64 and who has been alluded to more than once on this site—getting a copy of that game became my primary gaming goal. As fortune would have it, I was given a copy by my grandmother for Christmas of that year. Given my age and the 400 preceding words, that seems a likely and qualified candidate for being my gaming origin story. But it’s not. Though I’d purchase and beat the game later, I never played that gifted copy of Metal Gear Solid.
My parents, still skeptical of the corrupting power of video games, saw the M – Mature 17+ rating on the packaging and insisted, within moments of my receiving it, that the game be returned. And so, in the week between Christmas and New Years Day, I found myself in a Best Buy with my grandmother, exchanging Metal Gear Solid for a game more suitable to my parents’ tastes. Or, you know, one without the M rating. (My poor grandmother felt horrible about every aspect of this, by the way—both for failing my parents’ trust and for letting me down. Bless her generous, well-meaning heart.) In the end, I settled on Final Fantasy VII, a game that I had briefly seen played by my friend’s brother and which seemed interesting enough. Plus, because that game had been out for a year while Metal Gear Solid was still brand new, it cost less than Metal Gear Solid so that I could afford both the game and the strategy guide with my exchange—for my younger readers, I should point out that strategy guides were awesome in those pre-internet days.
After that retail excursion, I spent a few days staying at my grandmother’s house, unable to play FFVII. Instead, I spent hours poring over the game’s manual—remember those?—and reading every page of the strategy guide that didn’t include narrative spoilers. To this day, I’ve never been more prepared to start a game than I was to start FFVII. And that preparation paid off. I loved the game. Or at least I did for a while. I loved it through the grimy drama of Midgar, past the serene calm of Kalm and the exotic wonder of Junon and Cosmo Canyon. But on my way out of Nibelheim, having learned some serious shit about my boy Cloud who is maybe not who he thinks he is, I got stuck at a boss fight. The Materia Keeper, a big insectoid thing, kept kicking my ass. I couldn’t beat it. So I gave up and didn’t play FFVII for months.
New Year’s Eve rolled around, almost a year to the day after I had first started FFVII. My best friend and his brother, the owners of the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation that had lured me into the world of gaming, were hanging out in my room as our parents lounged downstairs. With little else to do over the long hours of that endless night, we fired up FFVII and my friend’s brother, who I had watched play the game all those months ago, showed me how to better outfit my party so that the Materia Keeper wouldn’t kick my ass anymore. I was unstuck. I didn’t have to grind or waste away hours on starting over, I just needed to play smarter.
Over the next few months—and later, years—I played FFVII obsessively. I raised Gold Chocobos and mastered Knights of the Round and maxed my characters’ levels, grinding joyously away for hours but also sinking deeper and deeper into a story that has proved to be generational. When I finally beat the game in the spring, the emotional satisfaction I felt from the story’s conclusion and the attendant feeling of victory was so great that I called that friend whose brother had helped me get past the Materia Keeper just to share the news. (He humored me by listening but clearly didn’t care.)
Considering all of the toxic, hateful and misogynistic connotations that go with it, I certainly don’t consider myself a gamer. Plus, you know, I’m old and these days I’m lucky if I can spare a few hours for video games each week. But FFVII was the game that convinced me that video games had true artistic merit, both in their ability to entertain and in their capacity to provide compelling narratives. In the years since I first fell in love with FFVII, there have been better games and games I’ve played more, but FFVII will always be the game for me. It, and my experience with it, is indisputably my gaming origin story.