Final Fantasy VII is just one of those games I’ll never be done with. You know the type: the kind that sit undisturbed in some forgotten corner of a shelf for years, but that you’d nonetheless never consider selling or giving away. For me, it’s a simple comfort that it’s there, because every couple years, some distant memory stirs, and there’s nothing to be done but dust it off, pop it in and give ‘er another go. This will be great, I always think. I am always wrong. If I had wanted to save myself some time, I could have just given myself a few swift punches to the face instead. Because getting into Final Fantasy VII means getting out of Midgar.

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For all my happy memories of the game, there is nothing joyous or pleasant about its starting area. Midgar is awful – a grey disc of urban blight, where great factories belch pseudomagical soot into the air and everything is overcast by the sickly green glow of the Mako reactors. It’s telling that the game begins by panning down to the city from an overhead shot of space; it is a place as alien and inhospitable as the dark side of the moon. It may have been beautiful once, a city of tomorrow. But in Midgar, “tomorrow” was a long time ago. As people bustle numbly through the streets, you catch a glimpse of a theater marquee announcing a new play: Loveless. The word stands out, as if an indictment. To live in Midgar is to loathe it.

Suddenly, there is a shower of sparks. A train comes screaming into the station, and the main character emerges, along with a party of resistance fighters. But we’re not out to save the city. We’re out to tear it down. The reactors that sustain Midgar do so by draining a deep and primordial reserve, the very lifeblood of the planet. Thus the very first act in Final Fantasy VII is to infiltrate an energy plant, fighting through guards and security checkpoints to plant a bomb at the heart of the reactor. The mission is a success – there is a terrific explosion, sending the entire building up in flames. It should feel triumphant … but then, there is that news report, describing the dozens of bystanders killed in the blast. Hell of a way to save the world.

These injuries stretch far beyond the unlucky few caught in the crossfire. Everybody in Midgar bears the scars of this conflict, some more visibly than others. Slum dwellers move through their paces with a slow weariness, exhausted by the listless drudgery of city life. There is heaviness to Midgar, a slow ache – the kind that overcomes you after standing for hours in line. Most citizens are too bored or apathetic to care about the plight of their overtaxed planet – how could they, having seen nothing their whole lives but the rotted-out guts of the city? Everybody knows the war is over. Everybody knows the good guys lost.

It gets to me, gets under my skin. I’m tasked with saving the planet, but I see nothing in it worth saving. Worst of all, I can’t leave. Midgar is immense, enclosing me in all directions. Like Alex Proyas’ Dark City, there is no end to it in sight – only the labyrinthine windings of a city inverted upon itself. In consulting an old subway map, a comrade shows me that Midgar is built like a wheel, with a central headquarters as the hub and energy coursing inward toward the center through a series of spokes. The result is a colossal circle, with each of society’s tasks sectioned away so that the city may chug along. For all its squalor, it is brutally efficient – but then, so was Dante’s vision of hell.

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I didn’t sign up for this. I want to be somewhere, anywhere else. I want to be playing games at the gold saucer or out on a date with Tifa. I want to cast Knights of the Round, then go make a sandwich – the fancy kind, topped with an olive on a toothpick on the top. I want to ride chocobos. Hell, I want to breed chocobos.

Of course, in Midgar, you don’t ride chocobos. You ride the subway, crammed elbow to elbow with soldiers, punks, drunks and derelicts. At one point, the main character waxes philosophical about the fatalism of life in the slums: “It’s like this train – it can’t run anywhere except where its rails take it.” So, too, do the rails of the game run through the heart of the city, dragging me through every inch of Midgar. I slog through the city’s grime, beset by challenges high and low: I crawl through cavernous subway tunnels, putrid sewers and vacant shanty towns. Later, my party plans to infiltrate a 70-story building, and somebody suggests taking the stairs. Not with a stair-climbing cut scene. Oh no. I get to climb them one by one by one. It figures. The city is a pinnacle of man’s triumph over nature, and nobody got around to inventing the escalator?

During these trials, I am scattered and beaten down. The city comes to loom with an allegorical presence, imposing its oppressive will at every turn. To stamp out my growing resistance group, city officials conspire to topple the pillar that supports the weight of an entire sector. It comes crashing down, obliterating the slums below – though I struggle to save them, my allies are literally crushed to death by the city itself. To avenge them and rescue a kidnapped comrade, we must claw our way out of the wreckage, clambering up frayed wires, rusted vehicles, and abandoned stretches of railway track. It is at this point that the nihilism of Midgar becomes most clear – the city is a garbage heap, a wasting repository of broken machinery and broken people. From its senseless oppression to its corrupt bureaucracy, the message is the same: “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.”

And inevitably, I do. After suffering hours of Midgar’s invisible, malingering wound, I want to throw down my controller and play something else – something less masochistic and soul-deadening, a game that doesn’t resemble a boot stamping a human face, forever. But while I always want to give up, I never do. It’s partly that I know something that the glum residents of the city do not: that there are better times ahead. But there is something else that keeps me going. Even at its darkest, there are tiny glimpses of light – hints that there may be a world out there untouched by the terrible reign of the city.

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After a mission gone wrong, I take refuge in an old, decaying church. Though almost all of Midgar is too toxic to support life beyond rats and cockroaches, the sanctuary is filled with flowers. The girl who tends them describes it as a holy place. Perhaps they grow there because it is sacred, or maybe it is sacred because anything can grow there at all. In either case, I’m reminded of a few words of George Carlin’s: “I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so effin’ heroic.” In such a dire place, even to survive requires a sort of heroism. Yes, the city consumes everything and heaps itself atop the rubble. Yes, my friends and allies are dead. But even at its harshest, even against all odds, life persists. It comes down to two choices: I can quit, turn off the game, and become one more casualty of the city. Or I can get the hell out of Dodge.

And somehow – impossibly, miraculously – I always do. A daring rescue and escape becomes a roadside firefight, which ends when I literally run out of road. Midgar’s border ends in a sheer cliff, like the end of the world. And in its way, it is: I climb down, exiting one world and entering another – one with sunlight, with ground beneath your feet and without crumbling walls. Once I’m out, the game’s perspective changes. Standing in the overworld map, Midgar is dwarfed, becoming a city in miniature beside my enormous sprite. It’s at this point that I wouldn’t trade those lousy first few hours for anything. Liberated from that miserable place, my trials suddenly have purpose. Here is that world worth saving, and here is that game I love. All that doubt and despair give way to something new entirely: the possibility of hope, and the wondrous sensation of freedom. After all, if I can survive the city, I can survive anything. In the meantime, the world theme has never sounded so sweet.

Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where the closest thing we have to a crumbling, dystopian metropolis is Toronto. When not climbing the C.N. Tower one flight of stairs at a time, he blogs at www.kingandrook.com.

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