How a burglary introduced a young Black kid to Midgar
An evening in Camden, New Jersey. 1997.
We noticed the mud footprints immediately. My dad motioned for us to stay by the front door while he investigated. As a father of young children myself, I am now realizing how scared he truly was. It wasn't an unrealistic scenario to find yourself in as a father raising kids in the hood. What's a burglary in a world of murder? We were lucky.
Dad returned with his report. The kitchen window was broken and nothing was stolen, aside from my Nintendo console and games. I don't remember being upset about anything other than the fact that an intruder had been in our house.
Mom and Dad put bars on the windows after that. Dad promised profusely that he would make it up to me by replacing everything. The day came a couple of weeks later when he picked me up from school and drove straight to the toy store.
"What are we doing here, Dad?" I asked.
Going to Toys R Us was a ritual reserved for birthdays and good grades. The anomalous nature of this visit made it feel like the first time. The aisles felt more cavernous; the selection more paralyzing than usual. Dad led me to the video game section where he presented an offer: Do you want another Nintendo or a PlayStation? What a mystifying choice. I played Nintendo consoles for my whole childhood. The PlayStation was a hit, but was largely unproven. Still, I couldn't resist the urge of trying this strange new console that played CDs. I chose the PlayStation.
"You can pick two games," my dad said.
I squinted through my glasses at the bright, cartoonish figures on the game sleeves. I chose X-Men vs. Street Fighter first because Ryu and Wolverine were in it. Duh! The second was a harder choice. I was in a whole new world outside of the warm confines of Mario and Donkey Kong. There were no familiar faces here. Or were there?
The large sword stood out amidst the cacophony. Where have I seen this before? Oh yea! The billboard. In Camden of all places there was a large advertisement for a new role-playing game: Final Fantasy 7. I have no idea why it was there. I like to think that a clueless person in California or Japan simply tried to stay as close to Philadelphia as possible without going over their already-massive marketing budget.
I don't remember X-Men vs Street Fighter that much. After twenty-three years I have no lingering nostalgia for either Wolverine or Ryu. For me it will forever be known as the game that I bought with Final Fantasy 7.
Final Fantasy 7 immediately struck a chord. Midgar, with its roving drunks and debauchery, reminded me of my own city. One of the main characters is Barrett, a Black man. Was he a blatant stereotype? Sure, but he was my stereotype. Black protagonists were few and far between in the 90's, so I latched on to whatever I could. This is sad, in hindsight, but at least my kids have "Black Panther" today.
Like Camden, Midgar had many folks who were down on their luck, but even more people who lived with a rugged optimism that belied their circumstances. The fact that Camden frequently ranked among the poorest, most dangerous cities in the nation didn't stop residents from sweeping their sidewalks or wearing beautiful big hats to churches located just a few blocks from their stoops. Fire hydrants anointed gleeful children in the summer. Ice cream trucks rolled up and down the streets in defiance after dark. Violence was prevalent, but people never cowered inside their homes. Suspicious glances designed for criminals were often trained on passing patrol cars.
I became enamored with how the developers took care to portray the different personalities in Midgar. I imagine that rich kids just a couple of towns over from mine were having their perceptions changed. I bet a few jokingly remarked "this looks like Camden" when they first entered Midgar. As the hours went on, those same kids forgot they were in the slums, and began to fall in love with the characters. I can hear the desperate clicking as they ascend the support pillar for the Sector 7 plate and the heavy silence that follows when they realize that it was all an exercise in futility. The pillar collapses, and thousands of people die. Before Final Fantasy 7, they and their parents watched in disgust while Camden burned during "Mischief Night." They turned their nose up at the murder rate and drug use that was a symptom of the system. I imagine that helplessly watching the destruction of a hood they learned to love awakened a sympathy in them that their parents could never imagine.
The destruction of the Sector 7 slums marked a turning point in the game that city kids were hoping to avoid. Shinra, the evil megacorporation that serves as an antagonist, was the system, and the system always wins. It was traumatic to realize that the escape was a mirage. The developers didn't make Midgar a hood sanctuary to reside in indefinitely. They built it up to tear it down in front of you. Slum suffering, hood suffering, was inevitable.
There was a deeper realization to be had, however. Why did Shinra inflict so much pain on the slums? Why is the system stacked against the heroes? Because Shinra knows that the heroes can win. As a kid, I snapped out of my malaise and realized that the game continues in spite of death and despair. I still had the controller in my hand. I had the power to strike back at the system. This resonated with my nine-year old mind in a way that Psalms 23:4, frequently quoted by ladies with big hats, did not. This wasn't faith, it was certainty. Power indescribable.
Winning in video games is inevitable, but you need to work at it. Maybe, I thought, you can take on the system in the real world as well. The burglary was my Sector 7 plate collapse. Until then, I saw my home as a sanctuary free of crime. That was naivete, a childlike denial that even nine-year old me could have psychoanalyzed. The plate collapsed with every gun shot, wretched screech, and discovered body. For city kids one source of PTSD replaces another time and time again.
Squaresoft reminded me that I had the controller in my hand.
Like millions of others, I was in awe when I left Midgar. A vast world of magic and wonder revealed itself to me. The stakes were higher. Midgar was a tutorial meant to prepare the player for the greater evils that lie ahead. Still, I couldn't help but see Midgar as home.
Initially many people complained about the episodic nature of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, myself included. The Final Fantasy series has a mixed record in the HD era, and splitting up a classic hearkened back to what Peter Jackson did with the Hobbit. "What could possibly go wrong?" people joked.
The world sighed a breath of relief when Final Fantasy 7 Remake released to widespread acclaim.
I am a very different person than I was 23 years ago. I have a family and a home of my own. Like most 90's kids I have been running in the corporate rat-race for the better part of a decade. I have to admit that the quarantined, grizzled, tired person holding the controller is very different from that bright-eyed boy from Camden. That is, until the music from the prologue began to play.
Aerith stared back into my eyes like an old friend. The Midgar cityscape was just as gritty as I remembered it as a child. The meteor logo seared into my heart once again. Then there is that train.
I have taken many trains since my childhood, mostly during a commute. My children are in awe of every train they see, while I simply cringe at the thought of foul smells and general discomfort. After taking thousands of train rides, you simply see a train as a utility that sometimes lets you down when you need it most. By adulthood, you likely forget your first train ride.
But that train. I would be lying to you if I said my eyes were dry when I saw that train hustling along the tracks with all of its might. I have never felt more solidarity with my children. I wanted to point at my screen and yell "Look, it's the train!" It was then that I remembered that my first train ride was into Midgar.
Nothing punctuated my journey through the last 23 years more than the first glimpse of that train. The frustrations of waiting at railroad crossings or delays on the train platform melted away, because I was now looking at a train from a different perspective. I was once again that kid in Camden gleefully watching the freight train rolling along the highway.
When Cloud and Barret locked eyes in high definition for the first time, I remembered the goals and aspirations of that nine year-old boy surrounded by the struggles of inner city living. I saw through the pillar collapses of middle school humiliation, friends lost during the transition from childhood to adulthood, and the desperation of job loss. Once again I remembered that this life is what you make it.
I don't live in Camden today. We moved out shortly after the burglary. Leaving Camden was very much like leaving Midgar. A world of green grass and trees revealed itself to me. Grills didn't need to be cemented to the ground and bikes were free to lie in driveways overnight. Driveways existed! I became ensconced in this strange world--only mentioning my hometown to those who asked where I came from.
Camden became more distant as the years went by. I returned for college, but felt like a visitor, a "student" who avoided the crackheads as if they and I weren't the same people separated by only one or two unfortunate experiences. Maybe I was afraid to slow down and speak to them because acknowledging their humanity could reveal that we shared relatives.
While I was still in college, I started a non-profit to address the ills of Camden. Back then, I thought I was performing a duty, doing the right thing. But it was an exercise that merely fed the sanctimonious tendencies of non-residents to "give back" to the city of my birth. I frequently judged those who popped into the city for work, concerts, or drugs before fleeing at sunset. Ironically I was following the same script, thinking that, because of my origins, I was different. The organization accomplished a lot of good, but it felt like a half measure. People would use the organization to highlight me as "one of the good ones." The university relished in the story and shared it on their main page. I look back on those years with a new set of eyes. I was trying to separate myself from something that would always be a part of me.
Returning to Midgar as a man with children of my own put my relationship with Camden back in perspective. I didn't raid the Shinra building in response to the pillar collapse--I fled Midgar. In this alternate reality President Shinra and Heidegger are doubled over in laughter as the heroes leave their comrades reeling amidst the rubble. Final Fantasy 7 Remake has reminded me of that nine-year old boy and his aspirations for his city. The ending--just like in Final Fantasy 7 Remake--will be different this time.