Mourning My Friend Through Final Fantasy 7

I know the title of this article is ridiculous, but stick with me here. When I heard from someone that my friend Sara died, I did what everyone does in this stupid sci-fi future world: I texted her and, when that failed, I checked on social media. After seeing a few posts here or there, I finally found an obituary and confirmation from a family member. She had died a few days before I even heard.

In fact, on the day she died, I had sent her a Wario meme and she had never responded.

Since the message had gone blue in iMessage, I thought it was because she was busy or, more likely, it wasn’t a very good meme. We had sent each other video game memes over the years, but responding to them was never a big priority. We lived across the country and she had been going through a rough health crisis while the rest of the Earth was going through an entirely different rough health crisis.

I had known for a while that she hadn’t been doing well, but as her health got worse and she was forced to move back in with her parents, our friendship lightly fizzled. There was no falling out. We’d still text and talk about Nier and Final Fantasy news, but she wasn’t really capable of having very long conversations. I tried buying her Dragon Quest 11 to cheer her up, but she found the positivity of the game depressing. What I wasn’t thinking was that a good friend wasn’t going to exist in less than two years.

Which, I know, is normal.

We all lose friends and family and co-workers and colleagues and mentors and idols without expecting it.

But that doesn’t make those deaths any easier. It doesn’t fill in the deep hole of sadness left behind. And it doesn’t cut the years of connections you make between a person and the specific experiences you had and the art you enjoyed together.

Sara may not have been my only video game friend, even if that pool is oddly small these days. The fact is, we only met because we both did stand up – although she was much better than me. But we connected on our love of video games and she was the friend who I spent the most time talking about two of our favorite series: Nier and Final Fantasy. Or, rather, our mutual love of emo-y JRPGs about sadness and loss. Which ironically are now filled with even more sadness and loss because of a sad loss.

Neither of us played these games together. We had both fallen in love with Final Fantasy 7 as kids and, meeting twenty something years later, discovered we both had the same interest in depressing games. She liked Death Stranding because it was Kojima’s saddest game. I liked Fallout: New Vegas because even choices made from good intentions could fuck everything up. We argued over whether Silent Hill was a good series or just two good games.

It was a regular video game friendship, although I can’t remember one time we actually played a game together. In fact, the only time we finished anything remotely video game-related together, it was jokes for the 2020 DICE Awards.

The closest we actually came to any form of actual in-game multiplayer was simply talking to each other as we separately made our way through Final Fantasy 7 Remake at the beginning of the pandemic. I remember excitedly texting her, ‘Oh my God, it’s not a remake – it’s a sequel!’ and her going, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about. Please let me finish the game first.’ We went at different speeds and I’m not afraid to sugarcoat it.

Of course, we knew we’d eventually play something.

We had plans in 2020 to start Final Fantasy 14 together – and we even both bought copies and subscriptions. I even started a character and told her where to join me. It never happened. As her health had begun failing and she lost her independence, her priorities were forced to shift. Unfortunately, she never told me just how bad her condition was until far later and the days of the early pandemic broke everyone’s brains into a thousand pieces. The plans to play FF14 were put off until a more convenient time.

I’ve still got an ongoing subscription for the game and a character that’s been played for about three hours total.

I can’t bring myself to play more, even though I know for a fact I’d enjoy it.

I can’t bring myself to cancel the subscription, even though I know for a fact I like money.

While Sara had been alive, it felt weird to start a run on a game we had planned to play together (‘When we have time!’, they both said with worried smiles as the world burned down). Now that she’s not alive, it feels even weirder. But it also feels sad to abandon something I know she would’ve loved doing. Final Fantasy 14 has become Schrodinger's Game: I feel like both a good and bad friend whether I do or don’t play it.

When I found out what happened, I spent the rest of the day literally not knowing what to do. I walked around my apartment. I walked around my neighborhood. I walked around my city. At a random point hours later, I felt my face and realized that somehow, somewhere my glasses had disappeared. Did I lose them after taking them off to cry? Maybe when I was putting on a mask to go into CVS as just something – anything – to do? I don’t know. They were gone, man.

As I walked, I listened to the soundtracks of the Nier and Final Fantasy games. I played Aerith’s Theme on loop. Which, Aerith’s Theme isn’t easy on the best of days. It’s a song that hits hard at the saddest moment of one of the most important games of its generation. But it was one of my favorites and, as I later learned, one of hers too. You’ve heard it. I don’t need to describe it. It would’ve been easier if Sara preferred the Golden Saucer song, but it seems we can’t have it all.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. And while I very much appreciated friends and loved ones checking in to see if I was okay and if I was safe with the tragic news, it only reminded me that – ultimately – I was okay and I was safe. I was lucky and, as had happened very, very, very often in Sara’s life, she was not. I had once told Sara she felt like somebody who spent their life falling down an infinite flight of stairs, and that’s not entirely far off.

There was also some guilt in it. I know that our texts becoming rarer and rarer was two-sided: One would text the other and not respond for days. But there’s guilt in not trying harder. In not sending more Wario memes more often. In not pushing her to play Final Fantasy 14 with me through a mixture of jokes and what can be called supportive insults. In not asking more questions when I could sense there was more going on than she was saying. In not being a better friend.

So I’m playing Final Fantasy 7, Sara’s favorite game.

I’ve played Final Fantasy 7 at least a dozen times across at least four different platforms. I’ve played it trying to figure it out on my own. I’ve played it with a full walkthrough in my hands. I’ve played it with the modern console cheats on. I’ve played it on a phone. I’ve Green Eggs & Ham-ed Final Fantasy 7 more times than I’d like to fucking count.

But playing Final Fantasy 7 this time is like playing it for the first time. I’m watching everything the way I did when I experienced it as a child. I’m seeing Cloud flip over the side of the train with awe, imagining the way she first saw it. Laughing at Avalanche’s buddy-cop dynamic. Feeling the presence of Sephiroth as something truly frightening. Reliving something that had influenced both of our lives.

I’m still in Midgar because the news about my friend only hit recently and, mostly, because there’s no reason to rush. I’m going to take my time around the old floating disc city. I’m trying to see it the way Sara told me she did. I’m trying to capture the magic that helped fill a person with that same magic. Maybe that sounds a little ridiculous, just like the title of the article. Maybe it’s a good way to mourn someone who loved the same things you love. Maybe I still don’t balance Materia right.

And, to be honest, I don’t know if I will finish this game. While Sara looked and acted nothing like Aerith (Aerith looked and acted like my 7th grade English teacher Ms. Edgington, and that’s the way she’ll always be), that song meant a lot to her. I’m not sure powerlessly watching Aerith get struck down by Sephiroth is what I need right now, especially when the music kicks in.

But then again, maybe it is.

As silly as it may sound – even to myself writing this – I might need to finish this game for Sara. In the game, Aerith’s death meant something. Yes, their deaths were entirely different. I’m not saying they were even in the same parking lot of the same ballpark. That’s not the point.

I don’t want to be thinking of Sara when I see Aerith die. I don’t know if I’ll be able to watch that scene the same ever again, if I’m telling the truth. But I do know that I do want to be thinking about her when I see Lifestream healing the planet at the end of everything. I want to remember that her presence helped people and made lives better, including my own.

It’s corny, sure, but it’s something. It’s something to hang onto.

Then again, it’s also something Sara would’ve ceaselessly mocked me for doing if it was for anyone else, which only makes me miss my friend more.

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