First, a list of the games in no particular order, games that all have something ephemeral in common for me:
Final Fantasy VII
Thief II: The Metal Age
Ecco the Dolphin
Brave Fencer Musashi
Final Fantasy Tactics
Final Fantasy Legend
Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon
The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time
Silent Hill 2
Honestly. That list of games all do something, for me at least, that no other games have managed thus far. While some of my favorite games can craft worlds of stunning depth to lose oneself in, the games listed above elicited a specific emotional response that I find unique to the medium. These are the games that created an ambiance that felt alien, often unwelcoming and always intoxicating.
It's only possible to describe this feeling by example, and it's probably best to start with one many people have played. Today, I discuss what I loved enough about Final Fantasy VII to override the myriad things I hated about it.
I first played Final Fantasy VII when I was 9 years old. A friend of mine at the time, I'll call him J, had a technophile father who got a kick out of new technology, and they had every console and home theater gadget of the day. It was J who introduced me to the system by showing me this game "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night" and later "Final Fantasy VII". I had developed as a gamer via the Sega Channel for the Sega Genesis, so what this new system had to offer was fascinating to me. At the time, Blockbuster was renting out consoles, and I begged my dad to let me rent a Playstation and the first Final Fantasy for the system.
Final Fantasy VII is a deeply conflicted game, composed of many chunks of gameplay and narrative that clash with and undermine one another. The first portion of the game bears no resemblance whatsoever to the rest. Being a rebels vs. evil empire tale, with the slight twist of the evil empire being a coorporation, the story follows an arc from an act of terrorism to a jaunt through slums meant to contextualize and justify the player's actions, ending with an arcade game of a chase sequence with robots, motorcycles, helicopters and explosions. Then sudddenly, there is an open expanse of green to be explored, for no other reason than that there's nothing left to do in the city of Midgar.
This portion of the game is not in any way consistent, however, any more than the game is as a whole. After arriving in the slums, one can "catch up" with a buxom lass named Tifa over drinks, which is so far consistent with the feel of the game. Just across the dirt path, however, lies a building full of cartoonish toughs challenging the player to open chests and explain game mechanics, one group flexing in unison to express their awe at the main character's expertise. Throughout all of this, characters are disappearing into one another, flailing the drumsticks that represent their arms as they do. Attempts at slapstick look more like alien performance art as a crude character model is flung across the room, hovers and spins for a bit, then sulks near a machine with a mysterious purpose. Plans are drawn to blow up yet another power plant, and then it really gets weird.
A train ride requires fake IDs, and our terrorists are found out. A chase ensues, but... Oddly most of the passengers don't seem that bothered. The player can stop and have strangely detached small talk with a couple of passengers eager to grant gifts on the way to disembarking prematurely. Through contrived circumstances, the main character falls, literally, from one story strusture into a sappy story of puppy love and cross dressing. In the course of the quest to cross dress, the main character can choose to enter one of the most surreal and unwelcoming settings in the history of fiction: a brothel called the Honeybee inn. This is where I fell in love with the game.
The first person to greet our intrepid gender bender is a woman dressed as a bee whose dialogue consists mostly of expressing contempt for the main character. For those of you who don't know, his name is Cloud, and he explicitly, as a plot point, does not have a personality. Not one of his own, anyway. It is at this point that Cloud can peep through keyholes to witness scenes so cryptic they seem to be plays put on by a troupe of psychopaths. The bee girl waits until Cloud has had his fill to comment and remind him to hurry the hell up. This oppressive mood truly comes out of nowhere, and it gets a lot worse. Cloud can choose to enter a room for loners or for those interested in group activities, and both options are openly considered deviant by the bee lady. In one, burly men in thongs pressure Cloud into doing... Something, something very ambiguous. In the other room, well, the game becomes sinister.
You think they go away by asking women dressed as bees to put makeup on you? Huh? Is that what you think?!
In the other room, another Cloud shows up to berate Cloud for even being there and for running away from his problems, and this causes Cloud to collapse. The game just went from silly to hostile in no time at all, and I felt like I was witnessing something not of this Earth. The sudden jumps in tone and content are a theme in the game, and to disorienting, to bewildering, but most of all to engrossing effect. A trip in a boat in which Cloud and his merry men and women fight a grotesque mutant to the death ends in a beach resort for no apparent reason. This gives way to a jaunt to a former mining town in which one of the characters lost many of the people he loved to a fire, and immediately afterward the party arrives at an amusment park. Not a broken down amusement park, a proper one with arcade games and deadly combat with monsters and roller coasters and fireworks. Then to a labor camp. Then to a Native American inspired tribal village cum astronomy institute. Then... Well then to Nibelheim.
Come to scenic Nibelheim, where your life is a lie.
Nibelheim is where Final Fantasy VII shows what it could have been, where the sudden hostility in a brothel in Midgar manifests in a town that Cloud insists he was born in, but which sees him as a stranger. Cloud is an unwelcome and weird guest, the populace seem to think, and this sense of displacement is the very vibe that made this game so engrossing. I was somewhere I didn't belong, where I wasn't welcome, but that only made it more enticing. The world of FFVII operated on a different, otherworldly logic; attempting to comprehend and operate within this madness produced a form of escapism with drug like properties for me.
A lot of this comes from the slapdash way in which the game is constructed (though without the stunning score by one mister Uematsu, it would have been much less impactful, the original Playstation era really represent his golden years). There is a plethora of ideas from very different design philosophies, even from different plots and gameplay mecahnics, that are crudely shoved into the same package. The development team went nuts, throwing any old idea into the mix until it became the bizarre dreamscape that is the final product. They may have intended to tell a coherent and compelling story, but the elements of the game go in so many different directions that it just seems schizophrenic, and this is what made the world of FFVII such a fascinating place to be. Countless times I and most anyone else playing the game found ourselves saying "what the hell is going on?" constantly. Why am I snowboarding all of the sudden? Why did the dude in the trenchcoat rip that statue thing in half, also why is it bleeding and why is he calling it mother? Why the hell is Red XIII's grandfather a floating humanoid with no legs?
Final Fantasy VII is and was a mess. It's riddled with plot holes and abandoned plot threads, the ending is a deus ex machina and most of the characters are poorly fleshed out archetypes. The gameplay is as repetitive as any classic JRPG and the art direction only seemed to exist for the prerendered backgrounds and cutscenes. As literature, it wouldn't pass muster, but as an experience to be had by a person exploring the insane contrivances of its world, it was dissociative in its potency. Not all of the games I'll be discussing in this series accomplish this for the same reasons, but they all share this in common: they all are crafted in ways that, at the very least, transported me to a mental space entirely removed from everyday life.
Dark Souls was engrossing, but not in the same way. Civilization IV is intoxicating, but for very different reasons. Shadow of the Collosus is awe-inspiring, but so very coherent and familiar at the same time. The experiences the games I listed in the first part of this post have given me are entirely unique to gaming, not even Vonnegut nor Palahniuk nor Kafka nor Dostoyevsky have managed to bring this experience to me, nor has any film or song or poem. For this, I treasure the video games I've been lucky enough to play, and I pity those who won't give the medium ample opportunity to draw them in as it has me. Hopefully, your experience has been as profound.