With the exception of an occasional foray down the halls of the Free Games Club, my gaming divertissment this summer has consisted entirely of Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core. Not an ignoble game to be sure, though in the interest of full disclosure and at the risk of inciting a riot I will say that VII has never been at the top of my Final Fantasy games list. Still, the game has its intrinsic appeal inspired in no small part by its numerable side quests. In fact it might not be too much of a stretch for me to say that what has kept me coming back to the game are the easily accessible but largely irrelevant side quests. Given that my entire reason for spending so much time in this neck of the Compilation was for the momentary escapism being denied to me by the PSP's big(ger) brother I was a bit concerned as it became largely apparent that a game's side quest had become my life's side quest.
Side quests, like onions, have layers. In this instance I'm talking about the meta-side quests of our lives - those things which we do for fun but which lack any deep and meaningful impact on the narrative of who we are as an individual. Games, like any other media, can be used as a narrative on their own or as a distraction from life's narrative. Think of the difference between sitting down for a few hours of Metal Gear Solid and playing a couple of holes of Hot Shots Golf while waiting for the bus. Besides the thrill associated with exposing one's PSP in public (not as dirty as it sounds, I swear!), the latter gaming experience is used to fill a void, a dead spot in our lives when the real narrative isn't happening; the time when we're just - waiting. But when we're using games to fill a narrative void in our lives, shouldn't the game itself have some sort of narrative structure and continuity? Shouldn't a narrative void be filled with another narrative? If we're filling that void, that which is really a side quest to the story of who we, as a person, really are, with something just as meaningless and tangential, what does that say about us?
I'll tell you what it says about me. It says that while I may have held in my hands a deep and complex interactive narrative experience all I really cared about was what I could get out of it ten minutes at a time. My PSP was perpetually in sleep mode at a save point so I could quickly switch it on and head to the mission menu for a quick fix. What I find utterly maddening is that I should have been excited about the story, but I wasn't! This is a Final Fantasy game after all, and one which should convolute the already cleared up relationship between Cloud and Zack. Strike that; reverse it. Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for the narrative is the direct result of my being on the road and away from all that was familiar to me. I have no doubt that all of the critics and fans who have lauded the game's story are correct, and if I had been enjoying the game in the leisure of my home or local security-controlled coffee shop (be very careful with that PSP public exhibitionism fanboys and fangirls) I would have most likely found myself more involved in the story. Sometimes, though, a complex story can get in the way of simple, five-minutes-at-a-time entertainment. What kept me going was the prospect of leveling up and acquiring better materia and items. You'd think I was playing an MMORPG rather than a JRPG!
This all may sound a bit odd given my previous column about the lack of narratives in games. There's been a great deal of chatter in the gaming blogosphere lately about the need (or lack thereof) for narrative in games. From a certain perspective, though, the narrative for Crisis Core was always already present. This game is a prequel, we know what's coming. Even though Zack was an ancillary character to my previous Final Fantasy VII experiences, he was still a character in those stories and though I may be doing little more than killing Xeroxed Soldiers and being annoyed by thieving little girls, I'm doing it in a way that reminds me of a larger world. This is why Vader works in SCIV better than the Apprentice, and why the Apprentice in turn works better than the five original manga characters. They have no story that we can relate to, personally or culturally, while the Apprentice at least will soon have his own story and Vader, well, we all know Vader.
I have a difficult time coming back to any sort of narrative, be it book, movie, or game, after a long absence. I found myself having a similarly difficult time returning to the actual story of Crisis Core despite having played it nearly every day for the past couple of months because in all that playing I advanced the story only a few times. Perhaps this is part of the game's genius. A player can experience, at least in part, the games' depth despite not engaging with the narrative because it makes for a brilliant portable game. It's easy to pick up and play in spurts for the sake of filling in narrative gaps in your own life, yet it does so in a way that highlights the larger narrative without requiring a long term investment. If only all of life's side quests were so involved.