[9 May 2008]
Fan fiction occupies a zone of taboo somewhere below cosplay and slightly above really aggressive S&M. In fact, I think the average lonely heart crafting Zelda in Ganon’s Clutches: Alone and Afraid closes his laptop a little faster than the guys leering at Tramps in Clamps upon parental incursion into A Room of One’s Pwn. It’s just hard to imagine a non-convention social setting where anyone would cop to Expanded Universe prolificacy. I don’t think the language necessary to frame the act of fan fic writing in terms that don’t sound crazy even exists. Maybe I just don’t know the right people, or words.
I do know quite a few people, on the other hand, who in social settings are probably too comfortable bringing up another murderously dorky ‘FF’—Final Fantasy VII. For a cohort of gamers who were tweens and teens in 1997, when that game dropped, admitting one’s affection for FFVII is more than permissible; it’s a way to bond. I’ve had the “did you cry when Aeris died” conversation with roommates, friends, and strangers of at least three nationalities; with dorks, stoners, frat guys and hipsters; with a hairstylist; and with an overjoyed graduate teaching assistant who was supposed to help me parse Gilbert Sorrentino. Debate over the game’s many, many virtues aside, it remains a cultural and imaginative touchstone for a lot of people. Given the fact that every single one of these people has spent at least a minute a day for the last ten years hoping for more FFVII, is it really so bizarre that a massive fan fic community has sprung up around the game? That some people got a little carried away?
To be sure, Square Enix knows about this legion of not-so-secretly emotional FFVII obsessives, who, by dint of social propriety, won’t stoop to fleshing out the universe themselves.
It seems they’ve made a game for us.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is a multi-million dollar, audio/visual fan fiction. The game’s premise honestly sounds like it was hatched in an asbestos-smelling suburban basement rec room by two best friends with a ‘We Beat Ruby Weapon’ bumper sticker on their jointly-owned ‘94 Previa…which I mean in the most generous possible way.
To make an abstruse plot marginally less abstruse: the game tells the story of Zack Fair, an aspiring and then certified hero who dies heroically and has his heroic identity co-opted by Cloud, a peon and the leading man in FFVII. This identity confusion drives the psychodrama of the original game; the point of Crisis Core is to reveal how such a massive entanglement went down.
The two narrative impulses working here are frequently at loggerheads. The first, to tell an original and unhurried story about Zack’s maturation, is often noisily interrupted by the second, to parade out enough references to FFVII to keep the target audience in a state of tantric nostalgia. Square introduces the new plotline and characters with their customary competence, but they are both disposable, and the emotional resonance of the old game frequently overwhelms. Six hours into Crisis Core, Zack falls through the roof of a slum church and meets the puckish flower girl Aeris(th). It’s a shameless repetition of an iconic moment from FFVII and a throbbing narrative contrivance. It also made my throat tighten up and my lower lip quiver.
The scene works so well because the developers translated a lovely prerendered environment from the 1997 game into 3D with a lot of care. Not all the returning locales survive the switch with their personalities intact. Wall Market, a garish and teeming sprawl on PS1, is now a sleepy gunmetal roundabout. Junon loses most of its high-stepping, banner-rippling, Triumph of the Will grandeur. I want to blame this visual dulling on the technical constraints of the PSP, except Square managed to update FFVII‘s character models—super deformed amoebae—with nuance and detail. Tall, still, and silver, Sephiroth looks like an evil daguerreotype. Tifa manages to stay on the tasteful side of hentai, unless puberty in Nibelheim happens at 20 and involves growing six cup sizes.
So Sephiroth is unsettling and Tifa is still awfully well-endowed; the game lacks surprises. But for all its mining in the bottomless quarry of gamer sentiment, Crisis Core doesn’t feel like a money grab. This is its greatest virtue. The combat system recycles terms—materia, limit breaks—but not structures; it’s fast and perfect for the PSP. The voice acting sounds like the actors might actually have performed their lines in the same studio. Zack’s death is a genuinely sad event. The score employs old melodies with discretion and skill. The translation rarely reads like Babel Fish output. No one tried to make this game exceptional, but they did try very hard to make it good, and that’s nearly enough.
Yes, nearly enough. Crisis Core‘s developers—who did not do FFVII—are ultimately content to play reverent chess with someone else’s pieces. While the game is brimming with safe pleasures and happy reminders, it never rearranges or enriches our understanding of FFVII in any permanent way. This is understandable: the people who made this game are clearly massive devotees of the original, just like the rest of us, charged with summarizing and punctuating a decade of imagination, speculation, debate and longing. Not everyone wants to recast a holy text; some people just want to cast Holy.
So I’m not damning Crisis Core with faint praise by calling it the best fan fiction I’ve ever played. How could I? Halfway through the game, as the camera first adoringly panned over Cloud’s face, a baritone entered my brain and started speaking in adjective-heavy narration: The sweaty Shinra grunt removed his helmet to reveal cobalt blue, Mako-infused eyes, porcelain skin, and a shock of windswept, white-blond hair; the sensitive but strong good looks that neither busty Tifa nor lithe Aerith would one day be able to resist. These are true fans. We have bonded over the fact that Final Fantasy VII was great.
I wonder if Square Enix has hired a writer for the novelization. I know a few people.