Onder Skall reviews some of the Grid's most intriguing games
With the constant threat of fanfic lawsuits and DMCA takedown notices, it's a wonder anybody dares show appreciation for anything anymore. Still, there are those among us who remember one of the best RPGs ever created, Final Fantasy VII (by Square Co Ltd), and dare to dream about it.
In February a group of SL residents opened a sim inspired by the spirit of a great RPG, and in an extremely rare moment of fan appreciation, the original company gave their blessing. At least... that's what everybody seems to think.
This is the story of Midgar.
Creator(s): ... Um... we're not real clear on that. See below.
Estimated Number of Players: Around 300
Gameplay: Find your way around the corporate-owned metropolis, become a Shin-Ra SOLDIER or an AVALANCHE rebel.
Top Qualities: Incredible attention to detail in the build, large explorable areas, interesting animated combat system
Current Shortcomings: Easy to get lost, no HUD, some areas lack detail
Where to Play/Buy: Midgar (direct teleport here)
Getting details on how Midgar was formed, who owns it, and whether Square Enix (or Square Co. Ltd., or Squaresoft) ever gave their blessing was a real challenge. I'll get into that in just a moment, but first I should tell you a bit about what you'll find when you enter the Midgar sim.
The premise behind Midgar is a wealthy city built on gigantic columns over of a series of poor towns and slums. The layout is circular, with the Shin-Ra headquarters at the center. At the top of the city plates the corporate overlords rule Midgar with the help of their huge military, their elite "SOLDIER" program, and the ultra-elite Turks.
Below, the rebel eco-terrorist faction "AVALANCHE" works to bring down the corporate monster and save the planet from being drained of its life force. At the same time hackers from Q.U.A.K.E seek to take the system down from within.
When you first arrive in Midgar you're invited to jump right into gameplay. The combat system is inexpensive and you can puchase "materia" as well, which gives you special powers such as healing or shooting lightning. The class system is very basic (chose between Fighter, Gunner or Caster), and after a few clicks you'll find yourself in the city itself, shopping for weaponry.
The FFCS Health System running here keeps things really simple - you just manage health and stamina, and magic runs through the materia you have attached. We're in the early days of the Midgar sim so there isn't all that much weaponry for sale, but what I did find was a lot of fun.
I found a great set of claws with embedded, easy-to-trigger combat animations, but there are also guns and swords aplenty. Still, there's no HUD. Instead we have text floating over everybody's heads with stats and their "in-game" names. It gets to be a bit distracting.
One night in Midgar I decided to pay a visit to the towering Shin-Ra headquarters and stumbled across an interesting scene:
Twenty hopeful recruits stood in a row in the lobby. They were a bizarre collection of cloak-wearing sword-wielding misfits ready to be molded into the killing machines that SOLDIER is famous for, or possibly to even become an elite Turk. A commander was walking up and down the row, telling them how difficult the application process was going to be, and how they might not survive. One thin recruit plead his case, saying that he was stronger than he looked and would do anything it took to complete a mission.
Meanwhile, underneath the city, the 7th Heaven bar was running a recruitment drive of its own. Members of AVALANCHE and the mysterious Q.U.A.K.E groups were recruiting anti-Shin-Ra freedom fighters.
Among the ruin and destruction of the slums, only the church stood as a reminder of how beautiful the world was before Shin-Ra took over.
Later, I discovered the mako reactor itself, the source of Shin-Ra's power that was draining life from the planet. I wandered down into the depths and stumbled upon an operation underway to recover a creature that was living in the reactor's energy pools. It was soon captured and returned to headquarters.
Everywhere I looked I saw some amazing role-playing action. The Game-Masters are numerous and active in Midgar, constantly planning events and plot twists to keep things moving. Good role-players for non-player-characters are always in demand as a result, temporarily adopting a special set of statistics in order to pose a serious threat to a large group.
As I sought out the game's creator, the confusion began. While I know that there was an original Shin-Ra tower built by Ramsus Wake, he had no intention of expanding it and has left the project since. Darshe Aliev came along and actually found the investors for the sim. Some of those investors became GMs and active game creators, while others are confirmed to be silent partners. Apparently there was a big falling out with a single leader at one point (nobody will really talk about this), and so now everything is run by the GMs as a council.
Nobody's really sure who owns the sim. A financial officer on the GM council pays tier with donations from the players. That's all we know for sure.
As far as Square's sponsorship of the whole thing, we know for sure that they aren't directly involved. Among the GMs I spoke with, almost all of them were 100% convinced that Square had given some kind of blessing to the proceedings, but nobody was positive who exactly got that blessing.
Two people told me that Katsuhito Tal had spoken to Square, so I followed up with him.
"You were the main contact with Square, right?" I began. "Did they say it was OK to create/run Midgar?"
"Never got a word back," Katsuhito Tal tells me.
"Did ANYBODY try to contact Square apart from you?"
"One other," says Tal, "but that was Square-Enix Germany. Not much help there. Waiting two weeks only to get 'it is not our decision to make'."
"You wouldn't believe how many people are under the impression that Square is all cool with it... [who] seem to be under the impression that there was a kind of informal 'we won't sue, you guys rule' from Square."
I will say this, though: operating as if Square gave approval has made them act as if they work for Square. They have rules about never sharing information about pirating Final Fantasy gear, and are the best promotion of any brand in Second Life. If Square were ever to come to Second Life, no PR manager could dream of creating a more dedicated player base than this one.
If we're lucky Midgar will be around long enough to rent out the rest of the apartments in all of those buildings. As a monument to one of the best games ever made, this incredible build can't be beat.
Screenshots of Krauser Cusack, Wanders Nowhere, Xanadeas Cordeaux, and Arashi Baxter by Hamlet. All other images by Onder.