Comment & Analysis
Apr 9, 2024

Side Quests and Nostalgia

"I knew this game was creating a buzz, but I didn’t realise that it would end up changing my life," writes Dr Becky Long

Dr Becky LongColumnist

When I sat down to write this column – last one of the academic year, we made it! – I really thought it was going to be about gaming culture. Well, specifically, Final Fantasy VII. It took me a while to realise that I was thinking about something else, too. But first, Final Fantasy VII. 

Xtravision, 1997. Fianna Fail were in power with the Progressive Democrats (no, they don’t exist anymore) and Ireland had its second female President in Mary McAleese. My hometown of Wexford was in an almighty hoop because a small film called Saving Private Ryan was being filmed in Curracloe and everyone’s nana seemed to be having the chats with Tom Hanks in the local pub. I was 9 years old – why do I constantly end up revealing my age in these columns? – and I had 20 whole Irish punts in my pocket. Myself and Daniel O’Connell were on a mission because I knew exactly what I wanted to buy. Square’s Final Fantasy VII was released that year on the PlayStation, and it quickly went Platinum, hence why I had enough pocket money to buy it. Back then, a game had to sell over 400,000 units in the first six months of its release to qualify for Platinum status. Even I knew this game was creating a buzz, but I didn’t realise that it would end up changing my life, and the way I thought about the world and our relationship with it. 

If you don’t know (and if you really don’t, I am so envious that you have the potential to play this game for the first time ever, you do not know how lucky you are), Final Fantasy VII is a standalone title in the Final Fantasy series, the first to be released on the PlayStation, and the first Japanese role-playing game to really penetrate the North American and European markets. It tells the story of Cloud Strife – is that or is that not the BEST name for a protagonist?! – a mercenary with a bit of a past (d’uh) who joins an eco-terrorist organisation battling against a mega-corporation that’s literally sucking the life out of the planet in its quest for energy. Timely, eh? Still terrifyingly relevant, eh? And who says video games can’t be educational?


That summer started on the streets of Midgar, and really only ended on a Monday morning in September when my mam woke me up to tell me that Princess Diana had died in a car accident. Eco-terrorism and the death of a princess. It’s funny what you remember. I devoted hours to Cloud and Tifa and the others, hours only a child can spend in the pursuit of something so singular, when you have no other responsibilities except to yourself. 

Now, almost 30 years (a little part of my soul just sighed and expired) later, watching my younger cousin play the remake as though it’s the original, I’m reminded of the essential nature of childhood. And of course, that life itself is almost exactly like a roleplaying game. You need to level up sometimes. Random side quests prove to be the most satisfying endeavour you’ve ever undertaken. Random battles, as inane as they are, really are essential for growth. Key items actually do matter, and even if you find yourself staring at the “Game Over” screen over and over again, what counts is the vehemence with which you hit the “Restart” button. 

But this is where the other thing I was thinking about comes in. Nostalgia. The curse and the comfort of civilisation. A magic that can be dangerous in the hands of the wrong spellcaster. 

You know the story. Things used to be better in this country. Don’t you remember? Before X changed and Y arrived. Things should go back to the way they used to be. Listen to me and I’ll give you someone to blame for the way things are right now. But really, that’s not nostalgia. That’s manipulation. That’s malice. And it’s important to know the difference. In Final Fantasy VII, Cloud and the others are battling against more than an environmental catastrophe that might end their world. They’re pushing back against a system that exploits the people it purports to represent. A system that only serves the ends of society’s most powerful, at the expense of its most vulnerable. We live, as the old curse puts it, in interesting times. It’s up to us to pay attention to the details, to work for our opinions, to treat each other with respect and decency, even when, especially when, we disagree with each other. It’s up to us to save the world, because everything we do counts. The summer I was 9, Final Fantasy VII taught me that. It showed me, by introducing me to characters who cared about their world and about each other, that nine people who show up and keep showing up really can make a difference. 

Gaming is a far more communal experience now than it was when I was a teenager, and that comes with its own pluses and minuses. But, games are important. Because fun is important! And let’s not forget about empathy. Every now and again, someone somewhere gets on a high horse that just so happens to be standing next to them and starts expounding on the notion that video games dehumanise us, that video games drive us towards antipathy, that they encourage us to view others as NPCs, as nothing but pixelated models with no feelings, and certainly no backstory worth caring about. But I’d like to argue against that. I cried when Aeris died (and do not come at me with your Aerith nonsense, I know what I read on the screen of my sitting room telly in 1997 and no one will convince me otherwise). I cried because I cared. Because she was a character in a story and stories teach us how to care. Games are stories. And you know how I feel about stories at this stage. Games are a valid and meaningful form, not just of culture, but of art. Storytelling is and always has been, an art. And the best games are powered at their core by stories that make us care, stories that compel us to keep playing. 

So, basically, the goal of this rambling verbal side quest was actually to point out that nostalgia isn’t always a bad thing. That you’re allowed to remember your childhood as one long, endless summer where the sun always shone and you always had friends to play with. It’s ok to be in love with an idea of the past that isn’t always 100% accurate. It’s ok to be sentimental. It’s human to be homesick for a home that maybe doesn’t exist anymore. So long as you put your heart and soul into making the present even a little bit better for the people around you. So long as you’re honest with yourself about the dangers of rose-tinted glasses. Mostly because it’s really hard to see anything clearly when you have them on. 

When you’re a child, if you’re lucky, your summers are yours to spend how you choose. So, this summer, I hope you get to be a child again, if only for a few days here and there. Do the things you loved when you were a child, and that, hopefully, you still love now. Realise that really, growing up is something that someone who’s no craic invented, and that actually, we’re all still children, if we can just figure out a way to believe it. And if you’re a Final Fantasy fan, I hope that all your side quests are rewarding, and that  you always have enough gil in your pocket to get by. 

Embrace your hobbies. Lean into your nerdhood. Be the weirdness you want to see in the world. The less boring we make that world, the better. And be kind to the NPCs you meet on your travels. You never know what random battles they’re facing. 

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