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Author Archives: Jimmy Maher

Putting the “J” in the RPG, Part 3: Playing Final Fantasy VII (or, Old Man Yells at Cloud)

Fair warning: this article includes plot spoilers of Final Fantasy VII.

Historians and critics like me usually have to play the know-it-all in order to be effective at our jobs. My work flow begins with me going out and learning everything I can about a topic in the time I have available. Then I decide what I think about it all, find a way to structure my article, and share it with you as if I’ve been carrying all this information around with me all my life. Often I get things wrong, occasionally horribly wrong. But I can always count on you astonishingly knowledgeable folks to set me straight in the end, and in the meantime being direct is preferable in my book to equivocating all over the place. For, with the arguable exception of a wide-eyed undergraduate here or there enrolled in her first class in postmodern studies, absolutely no one wants to read a writer prattling on about the impossibility of achieving Complete Truth or the Inherent Subjectivity of criticism. Of course complete truth is an unattainable ideal and all criticism is subjective! I assume that you all know these things already, so that we can jump past the hand-wringing qualifiers and get right to the good stuff.

Still, I don’t believe that all criticism is of equal value, for all that it may in the end all be “just, like, your opinion man!” The most worthwhile criticism comes from a place of sympathy with the goals and expectations that surround a work and is grounded in an understanding of the culture that produced it. It behooves no one to review a blockbuster action movie as if it was an artsy character study, any more than it makes sense to hold, say, Michael Crichton up to the standards of fine literature. Everything has its place in the media ecosystem, and it’s the critic’s duty to either understand that place or to get out of the way for those that do.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why I start getting nervous when I think about rendering a verdict on Final Fantasy VII. I am, at best, a casual tourist in the milieu that spawned it; I didn’t grow up with Japanese RPGs, didn’t even grow up with videogame consoles after I traded my Atari VCS in for a Commodore 64 at age eleven. Sitting with a game controller in my hand rather than a keyboard and mouse or joystick is still a fairly unfamiliar experience for me, almost 40 years after it became the norm for Generation Nintendo. My experience with non-gaming Japanese culture as well is embarrassingly thin. I’ve never been to Japan, although I did once glimpse it from the Russian island of Sakhalin. Otherwise, my encounters with it are limited to the Star Blazers episodes I used to watch as a grade-school kid on Saturday mornings, the World War II history books I read as an adolescent war monger, that one time in my twenties when I was convinced to watch Ghost in the Shell (I’m afraid it didn’t have much impact on me), a more recent sneaking appreciation for the uniquely unhinged quality of some Japanese music (which can make a walking-blues vamp sound like the apocalypse), and the Haruki Murakami novels sitting on the bookshelf behind me as I write these words, the same ones that I really, really need to get around to reading. In summation, I’m a complete ignoramus when it comes to console-based videogames and Japan alike.

So, the know-it-all approach is right out for this article; even I’m not daring enough to try to fake it until I make it in this situation. I hesitate to even go so far as to call what follows a review of Final Fantasy VII, given my manifest lack of qualifications to write a good one. Call it a set of impressions instead, an “old man yells at cloud” for the JRPG world where the joke is quite probably on the old man.

In a weird sort of way, though, maybe that approach will work out okay, just this once. For, as we learned in the last article, Final Fantasy VII was the first heavily hyped JRPG to be released on computers as well as consoles in the West. When that happened, many computer gamers who were almost as ignorant then as I am now played it. As I share my own experiences below, I can be their voice in this collision between two radically different cultures of gaming. The fallout from these early meetings would make games as a whole better in the long run, regardless of the hardware on which they ran or the country where they were made. It’s this gratifying ultimate outcome that prompted me to write this trilogy of articles in the first place. Perhaps it even makes my personal impressions relevant in this last entry of said trilogy, despite my blundering cluelessness.

Nevertheless, given the intense feelings that JRPGs in general and this JRPG in particular arouse in their most devoted fans, I’m sure some small portion of you will hate me for writing what follows. I ask only that you read to the end before you pounce, and remember that’s it’s just my opinion, man, and a critic’s aesthetic judgments do not reflect his moral character.


The trains in Final Fantasy VII look like steam locomotives. This doesn’t make much sense, given what we know of the technology in use in the city of Midgar, but it’s kind of cool.

I had heard a lot about Final Fantasy VII before I played it, most of it extremely positive, to put it lightly. In fact, I had seen it nominated again and again for the title of Best Game Ever. For all that I have no personal history with JRPGs, I do like to think of myself as a reasonably open-minded guy. I went into Final Fantasy VII wanting to be wowed, wanting to be introduced to an exciting new world of interactive narrative that stood apart from both the set-piece puzzle-solving of Western adventure games and the wide-open emergent diffusion of Western RPGs. But unfortunately, my first couple of hours with Final Fantasy VII were more baffling than bracing. I felt a bit like the caveman at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing with this new bone I had just picked up.

After watching a promisingly understated opening-credits sequence, accompanied by some rather lovely music, I started the game proper. I was greeted with a surreal introductory movie, in which a starry sky morphed into scenes from a gritty, neon-soaked metropolis of trains and heavy industry, with an enigmatic young girl selling flowers amidst it all. Then several people were leaping off the top of a train, and I realized that I was now controlling one of them. “C’mon, newcomer!” shouted one of the others. “Follow me.” I did my best to oblige him, fumbling through my first combat — against some soldierly types who were chasing us for some reason — along the way.

The opening credits are the last part of Final Fantasy VII that can be described as understated. From that point on, even the swords are outsized.

Who the hell was I? What was I supposed to be doing? Naïve child of 1980s computer gaming that I was, I thought maybe all of this was explained in the manual. But when I looked there, all I found were some terse, unhelpful descriptions of the main characters, not a word about the plot or the world I had just been dropped into. I was confused by everything I saw: by the pea soup of bad translation that made the strictly literal meanings of the sentences the other characters said to me impossible for me to divine at times; by the graphics that sometimes made it hard to separate depth from height, much less figure out where the climbable ladders and exit points on the borders of the maps lay; by the way my character lazily sauntered along — “Let’s mosey!”, to quote one of the game’s famously weird translations — while everyone else dashed about with appropriate urgency; by the enemies who kept jumping me every minute or two while I beat my head against the sides of the maps looking for the exits, enemies whom I could dispatch by simply mashing “attack” over and over again; by the fact that I seemed to be a member of a terrorist cell set on blowing up essential civic infrastructure, presumably killing an awful lot of innocent people in the process; by the way the leader of my terrorist group, a black man named Barret, spoke and acted like Mr. T on old A-Team reruns, without a hint of apparent irony.

What can I say? I bounced. Hard. After I made it to the first boss enemy and died several times because, as I would later learn from the Internet, the shoddy English translation was telling me to do the exact opposite of what I needed to do to be successful against it, I threw the game against the metaphorical wall. What did anyone see in this hot mess, I asked my wife — albeit in considerably more colorful language than that. She just laughed  — something that, to be fair, she spends a lot of time doing when I play these crazy old games on the television.

The first hill on which I died. Final Fantasy VII‘s original English translation is not just awful to read but actively wrong in places. When you meet the first boss monster, you’re told to “attack while it’s [sic] tail’s up!” The Japanese version tells you not to attack when its tail’s up. Guess which one is right…


I sulked for several weeks, deeply disappointed that this game that I had wanted to be awesome had turned out to be… less than awesome. But the fact remained that it was an important work, in the history of my usual beat of computer gaming almost as much as that of console gaming. Duty demanded that I go back in at some point.

When that point came, I steeled myself to fight harder for my pleasure. After all, there had to be some reason people loved this game so, right? I read a bit of background on the Internet, enough to understand that it takes place on an unnamed world whose economy is dominated by an all-powerful mega-corporation called the Shinra Electric Power Company, which provides energy and earns enormous profits by siphoning off the planet’s Mako, a sort of spiritual essence. I learned that AVALANCHE, the terrorist cell I was a part of, was trying to break Shinra’s stranglehold, because its activities were, as Barret repeats ad nauseum, “Killin’ the planet.” And I learned that the main character — the closest thing to “me” in the game — was a cynical mercenary named Cloud Strife, a former member of a group called SOLDIER that did Shinra’s dirty work. But Cloud has now switched sides, joining AVALANCHE strictly for the paycheck, as he makes abundantly clear to anyone who asks him about it and most of those who don’t. The action kicks off in the planet’s biggest city of Midgar, with AVALANCHE attempting to blow up the Shinra reactors there one by one.

With that modicum of background information, everything began to make a little more sense to me. I also picked up some vital practical tips on the Internet. For example, I discovered that I could push a button on the controller to clearly mark all ladders and exits from a map, and that I could hold down another button to make Cloud run like everybody else; having to do so basically all the time was a trifle annoying, but better than the alternative of moseying everywhere. I learned as well that I could turn off the incessant random encounters using a fan-made application called 7th Heaven, but I resisted the temptation to do so; I was still trying to be strong at this point, still trying to experience the game as a player would have in the late 1990s.

Things went better for a while. By doing the opposite of what the bad translation was telling me to do, I got past the first boss monster that had been killing me. (Although I didn’t know it at the time, this would prove to be the the only fight that ever really challenged me until I got to the very end of the game). Then I returned with the others to our terrorist hideout, and agreed to help AVALANCHE blow up the next reactor. (All in a day’s work for a mercenary, I suppose.) While the actual writing remained more or less excruciating most of the time, I started to recognize that there was some real sophistication to the narrative’s construction, that my frustration at the in medias res beginning had been more down to my impatience than any shortcoming on the game’s part. I realized I had to trust the game, to let it reveal its story in its way. Likewise, I had to recognize that its environmentalist theme, a trifle heavy-handed though it was, rang downright prescient in light of the sorry state of our own planet a quarter-century after Final Fantasy VII was made.

Which isn’t to say that it was all smooth sailing. After blowing up the second Mako reactor, Cloud was left dangling from a stray girder, hundreds of feet above the vaguely Blade Runner-like city of Midgar. After some speechifying, he tumbled to his presumed doom — only to wake up inside a cathedral, staring into the eyes of the flower girl from the opening movie. “The roof and the flower bed must have broken your fall,” she said. While my wife was all but rolling on the floor laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of this idea, I bravely SOLDIERed onward, learning that the little girl’s name was Aerith and that she was being stalked by Shinra thugs due to some special powers they believed her to possess. “Take me home,” she begged Cloud.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” he grunted in reply. “But it’ll cost you.” (Stay classy, Cloud… stay classy.)

And now I got another shock. “Well, then, let’s see…” Aerith said. “How about if I go out with you once?” Just like that, all of my paradigms had to shift. Little Aerith, it seemed, wasn’t so little after all. Nonetheless, playing Cloud in this situation left me feeling vaguely unclean, like a creepy old guy crashing his tweenage daughter’s slumber party.

Judging from his facepalm, Cloud may have been as shocked by Aerith’s offer of affection for protection as I was.

Ignoramus though I was, I did know that Japanese society is not generally celebrated for its progressive gender politics. (I do think this is the biggest reason that anime and manga have never held much attraction for me: the tendency of the tiny sliver of it which I’ve encountered to simultaneously infantalize and sexualize girls and women turns me right off.) Now, I realized that I — or rather Cloud — was being thrown into a dreaded love triangle, its third point being Cloud’s childhood friend and fellow eco-terrorist Tifa. Going forward, Aerith and Tifa would spend their character beats snipping at one another when not making moon-eyes at Cloud. Must be something about that giant sword he carries around, tucked only God knows where inside his clothing…

I was able to identify Tifa as an adult — or at least an adolescent — from the start, thanks to her giant breasts, which she seems to be trying to thrust right out of the screen at you when you win a fight, using them as her equivalent of Cloud’s victoriously twirling sword. (This was another thing my wife found absolutely hilarious…) The personalities of the women in this game demonstrate as well as anything its complete bifurcation between gameplay and story. When you control Aerith or Tifa in combat, they’re as capable as any of the men, but when they’re playing their roles in the story, they suddenly become fragile flowers utterly dependent on the kindness of Cloud.

Anyway, soon we got to Wall Market. Oh, my. This area is unusual in that it plays more like a puzzle-based adventure game than anything else, featuring no combat at all — what a blessed relief that was! — until the climax. Less positively, the specific adventure game it plays like is Leisure Suit Larry at its most retrograde. Tifa gets abducted and forced to join the harem of a Mafia kingpin-type named Don Corneo, and it’s up to Cloud and Aerith to rescue her. Aerith decides that the only way to get Cloud inside Corneo’s mansion and effect the rescue is to dress him up like… gasp… a girl! This suggestion Cloud greets with appropriate horror, understanding as he does that the merest contact with an article of female clothing not hanging on a female body carries with it the risk of an instant and incurable case of Homosexuality. But he finally comes around with all the good grace of a primary cast member of Bosom Buddies. Many shenanigans ensue, involving a whorehouse, a gay bathhouse, erectile dysfunction, a “love hotel,” cross-dressing bodybuilders, and a pair of panties, all loudly Othered for the benefit of the insecure straight male gaze. What the hell, I wondered for the umpteenth time, had I gotten myself into here?

You can’t make this stuff up…

But I didn’t let any of it stop me; I pushed right on through like the SOLDIER Cloud was. No, readers, what broke me wasn’t Don Corneo chasing Cloud-in-a-dress around his  bedroom, but rather the goddamn train graveyard. Let me repeat that with emphasis… the goddamn train graveyard.

In a way, this area illustrates one of Final Fantasy VII‘s more admirable attributes, its determination to give you a variety of different stuff to do. It’s a combination of a maze and a sort of Sokoban puzzle, as you must climb in and over broken-down train carriages and engines in an abandoned depot, even sometimes putting on your engineer’s cap and driving a locomotive out of the way. This is fine in and of itself. What I found less fine was, as usual, the random combat. I would be working out my route in my pokey middle-aged way, coming up with a plan… and then the screen would go all whooshy and the battle music would start, and I’d have to spend the next 30 seconds mashing the attack button before I could get back to the navigational puzzle, by which time I’d completely lost track of what I had intended to do there. Rinse and repeat. Words cannot express how much I had learned to loath that battle music already, but this took the torture to a whole new level, as combat seemed to come at twice, thrice, five times the rate of before. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I quit. Not willfully… I just stopped playing one evening and didn’t start again the next. Or the next. Or the one after that. You know how it goes.

The second hill on which I died.

So, real life went on. But as it did so, my conscience kept pricking me. This game is important, it said. People love this game. Can you not find some way to make friends with it?

I decided to give it one last shot. This time, however, I would approach it differently. Final Fantasy VII has a passionate, active fan community — have I told you that people love this game? — who have done some rather extraordinary things with it over the years. I already mentioned one of these things in passing: 7th Heaven, an application that makes it effortless to install dozens of different “mod” packages, which can alter the game in ways both trivial and major, allowing you to play Final Fantasy VII exactly the way that you wish.

Now, I normally consider such things off-limits; my aim on this site is to give you the historical perspective, which means playing and reviewing games as their original audience would have known them. Still, I decided that, if it could help me to see the qualities other people saw in Final Fantasy VII that I all too plainly was not currently seeing, it might be okay, just this one time. I installed 7th Heaven and started to tweak away. First and foremost, I turned off the random encounters. Then I set it up so Cloud would run rather than mosey by default. Carried away by my newfound spirit of why the heck not, I even replaced the Windows version’s tinny MIDI soundtrack with the PlayStation version’s lusher music.

And then, having come this far, I really took the plunge. A group of fans who call themselves “Tsunamods” have re-translated all of the text in the game from the original Japanese script. As if that wasn’t enough, they’ve also found a way to add voice acting, covering every single line of dialog in the game. I went for it.

I was amazed at the difference it made — so amazed that I felt motivated to start the game all over from the beginning. The Tsunamods voice acting is way, way better than it has any right to be — far better than the average professional CD-ROM production of the 1990s. Being able to listen to the dialog flowing by naturally instead of tapping through text box after text box was a wonderful improvement in itself. But I was even more stunned by the transformation wrought by the fresh translation. Suddenly the writing was genuinely good in places, and never less than serviceable, displaying all sorts of heretofore unsuspected layers of nuance and irony. Instead of fawning all over Cloud like every teenage boy’s sexual fantasy, Aerith and Tifa took a more bantering, patronizing attitude. The Wall Market sequence especially displayed a new personality, with Aerith now joshing and gently mocking Cloud for his hetero horror at the prospect of donning a dress. Even Barret evinced signs of an inner life, became something more than an inadvertent caricature of Mr. T. when he expressed his love for the little orphan girl to whom he’d become surrogate father. And I could enjoy all of this without having to fight a pointless random battle every three minutes; only the meaningful, plot-dictated fights remained. I was, to coin a phrase, in seventh heaven. I had abandoned all of my principles about fidelity to history, and it felt good.

At the same time, though, I wasn’t really sure whose game I was playing anymore. In his YouTube deconstruction of Final Fantasy VII‘s original English translation, Tim Rogers states that “I believe that no such thing exists as a ‘perfect’ translation of a work of literature from one language to another. All translation requires compromise.” I agree wholeheartedly.

For the act of translation — any act of translation — is a creative act in itself. Even those translations which strive to be as literal as possible — which in my opinion are often the least satisfying of them all — are the product of a multitude of aesthetic choices and of the translator’s own understanding of the source text. In short, a work in translation is always a different work from its source material. This is why Shakespeare buffs like me get so upset when people talk about “modernizing” the plays and poetry by translating them into 21st-century English. If you change the words, you change the works. Whether you think it’s better or worse, what you end up with is no longer Shakespeare. The same is true of the Bible; the King James Bible in English is a different literary work from the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament. (This is what makes the very idea of Biblical Fundamentalism — of the Bible as the incontrovertible Word of God — so silly on its face…)

Needless to say, all of this holds equally true for Final Fantasy VII. When that game was first translated into English, it became a different work from the Japanese original. And when it was translated again by Tsunamods, it became yet another work, one reflecting not only these latest translators’ own personal understandings and aesthetics but also the changed cultural values of its time, more than twenty years after the first translation was done.

Of course, we can attempt to simply enjoy the latest translation for what it is, as I was intermittently able to do when I could shut my historian’s conscience off. Yet that same conscience taunts me even now with questions that I may never be able to answer, given that I don’t expect to find the time and energy in my remaining decades to become fluent in Japanese. Lacking that fluency, all I am left with are suppositions. I strongly suspect that the first English translation of Final Fantasy VII yielded a work that was cruder and more simplistic than its Japanese source material. Yet I also suspect that the latest English translation has softened many of the same source material’s rough edges, sanding away some racism, misogyny, and homophobia to suit the expectations of a 21st-century culture that has thankfully made a modicum of progress in these areas. What I would like to know but don’t is exactly where all of the borders lie in this territory. (Although Tim Rogers’s video essays are worthy in their way, I find them rather frustrating in that they never quite seem to answer the questions I have, whilst spending a lot of time on details of grammar and the like that strike me as fairly trivial in the larger scheme of things.)

What I do know, however, is that the Tsunamods re-translation and voice acting, combined with the other tweaks, finally allowed me to unabashedly enjoy Final Fantasy VII. I was worried in the beginning that forgoing random encounters might leave my characters hopelessly under-leveled, but the combat as a whole is so unchallenging that I found having a bit less experience to actually improve the game, by forcing me to employ at least a modicum of real strategy in some of the boss fights. I had a grand old time with my modified version of the game for the first seven or eight hours especially, when my party was still running around Midgar on the terrorist beat. Being no longer forced to gawk at the writing like a slow-motion train wreck, I could better appreciate the storytelling sophistication on display: the willingness of the plot to zig where conventional genre-narrative logic said it ought to zag, the refusal to shy away from the fact that AVALANCHE was, whatever the inherent justice of its cause, a gang of reckless terrorists who could and eventually did get lots and lots of innocent people killed.

After I carried the fight directly to the Shinra headquarters, I was introduced to the real villain of the story, a fellow named Sephiroth who used to be Cloud’s commanding officer in SOLDIER but had since transcended his humanity entirely through a complicated set of circumstances, and was now attempting to become a literal god at the expense of the planet and everyone else on it. Leaving Midgar and its comparatively parochial concerns behind, Cloud and his companions set off on Sephiroth’s trail, a merry chase across continents and oceans.

Wandering the world map.

This chase after Sephiroth fills the largest chunk of the game by far. Occasionally, dramatic revelations continued to leave me admiring its storytelling ambition. While the tragic death of Aerith at the hands of Sephiroth had perhaps been too thoroughly spoiled for me to have the impact it might otherwise have had, the gradual discovery that Cloud was not at all what he seemed to be — that he was in fact a profoundly unreliable narrator, a novelistic storytelling device seldom attempted in games — was shocking and at times even moving. Whenever the main plot kicked into gear for these or other reasons, I sat up and paid attention.

But a goodly portion of this last 80 percent of the game is spent meandering through lots and lots of disparate settings, from “rocket cities” to beach-side resort towns to a sprawling amusement park of all places, that have only a tangential relation to the real story and that I don’t tend to find as intrinsically interesting as Midgar. I often got restless and a bit bored in these places, with that all too familiar, creeping feeling that my time was being wasted. I’ve played and enjoyed plenty of Western RPGs whose watchword is “Go Forth and Explore,” but that approach didn’t work so well for me here. I found the game’s mechanics too simplistic to stand up on their own without the crutch of a compelling story, while the graphics, much-admired though they were by PlayStation gamers back in the day, were too hazy and samey in that early 3D sort of way to make the different areas stand out from one another in terms of atmosphere. Even the apparent non-linearity of the huge world map proved to be less than it seemed; there is actually only one really viable path through it, although there is a fair amount of optional content and Easter eggs for the truly dedicated to find. Being less dedicated, I soon began to wish for a way to further bastardize my version of the game, by turning off the plot-irrelevant bits in the same way I’d turned off the random encounters. Like a lot of RPGs of the Western stripe as well, Final Fantasy VII strikes me as far, far longer than it needs to be, an enjoyable 25-hour experience blown up to 50 hours or more, even without all those random encounters. I was more than ready for it to be over when I got to the end. The last fight was a doozie, what with my under-leveled characters, but it was nice to be pushed to the limit for once. And then it was all over.

What, then, do I think about Final Fantasy VII when all is said and done? For me, it’s a game that contains multitudes, one that resists blithe summation. Some of it is sublime, some of it is ridiculous. Sometimes it’s riveting, sometimes it’s exhausting. It certainly doesn’t achieve everything it aims for. But then again, how could it? It shoots for the moon, the sun, and the stars all at once when it comes to its story. It wants to move you so very badly that it’s perhaps inevitable that some of it just comes off as overwrought. Still, I’ll take its heartfelt earnestness over bro-dudes chortling about gibs and frags any day of the week, and all day on Sunday. “Can a computer make you cry?” asked another pioneering company almost a decade and a half before Final Fantasy VII was released. Square, it seems, was determined to provide a definitive affirmative answer to that question. And I must admit that the final scene, of ugly old Midgar now overrun with the beautiful fruits of the earth, did indeed leave a drop or two of moisture in the eyes of this nature lover, going a long way toward redeeming some of my earlier complaints. Whatever quibbles I may have with this game, its ultimate message that we humans can and must learn to live in harmony with nature rather than at odds with it is one I agree with, heart, mind, and soul.

My biggest problem with Final Fantasy VII — or rather with the version of it that I played to completion, which, as noted above, is not the same as the one Square created in Japanese — is that it tries to wed this story and message to a game, and said game isn’t always all that compelling. It’s not that there are no good ideas here; I do appreciate that Final Fantasy VII tries to give you a lot of different stuff to do, some of which, such as the action-based mini-games, I haven’t even mentioned here. (Suffice to say now that, while the mini-games won’t blow anyone away, they’re generally good enough for a few minutes’ change of pace.)

Still, and especially if you’re playing without mods, most of the gamey bits of this game involve combat, and the balance there is badly broken. Final Fantasy VII‘s equivalent of magic is a mystical substance called “materia,” which can be imbued with different spell-like capabilities and wielded by your characters. Intriguingly, the materia “levels up” with repeated usage, taking on new dimensions. But the balance of power is so absurdly tilted in favor of the player that you never really need to engage with these mechanics at all; there are credible reports of players making it all the way to the final showdown with Sephiroth without ever once even equipping any materia, just mashing that good old attack button. (To put this in terms that my fellow old-timers will understand: this is like playing all the way through, say, Pool of Radiance without ever casting a spell.) Now, you could say that this is such players’ loss and their failure, and perhaps you’d be partially correct. But the reality is that, if you give them the choice, most players will always take the path of least resistance, then complain about how bored they were afterward. It’s up to a game’s designer to force them to engage on a deeper level, thereby forcing them to have fun.

When I examine the history of this game’s development, I feel pretty convinced why it came to be the way it is. Throwing lots and lots of bodies at a project may allow you to churn out reams of cut scenes and dialog in a record time, but additional manpower cannot do much beyond a certain point to help with the delicate, tedious process of testing and balancing. What with a looming release date precluding more methodical balancing and the strong desire to make the game as accessible as possible so as to break the JRPG sub-genre for good and all in the West, a conscious decision was surely made to err on the side of easiness. In a way, I find it odd to be complaining about this here. I’m not generally a “hardcore” player at all; far more vintage games of the 1980s and 1990s are too hard than too easy for my taste. But this particular game’s balance is so absurdly out of whack that, well, here we are. I do detest mindless busywork, in games as in life, and if mashing that attack button over and over while waiting for a combat to end doesn’t qualify for that designation, I don’t know what does. If it couldn’t be balanced properly, I’d have preferred a version of Final Fantasy VII that played as a visual novel, without the RPG trappings at all. But commercial considerations dictated that that could never happen. So, again, here we are.[1]The game’s tireless fan base has gone to great lengths, here as in so many places, to mitigate its failings by upping the difficulty in various ways. I didn’t investigate much in this area, deciding I had already given the game the benefit of enough retro-fitting with the mods I did employ.

As it was, I found my modified version of Final Fantasy VII intermittently gripping, for all that I never quite fell completely in love with it. It’s inherently condescending for any critic to tell a game’s fans why they love it despite its flaws, and I don’t really want to do that here. That said, it does occur to me that a lot of Final Fantasy VII‘s status in gaming culture is what we might call situational. This game was a phenomenon back in 1997, the perfect game coming at the perfect time, sweeping away all reservations on a tide of novelty and excitement. It was a communal event as much as a videogame, a mind-blower for millions of people. If some of what it was and did wasn’t actually as novel as Generation PlayStation believed it to be — and to be fair, some of it was genuinely groundbreaking by any standard — that didn’t really matter then and doesn’t matter now. Final Fantasy VII brought high-concept videogame storytelling into the mainstream. It didn’t do so perfectly, but it did so well enough to create memories and expectations that would last a lifetime.

Even the romance was perfectly attuned to the times, or rather to the ages of many players when they first met this game. The weirdness of Wall Market aside, Cloud and Aerith and Tifa live in that bracket that goes under the name of “Young Adult” on bookstore shelves: that precious time which we used to call the period of “puppy love” and which most parents still wish lasted much longer, when romance is still a matter of “girls and guys” exchanging Valentines and passing notes in class (or perhaps messages on TikTok these days), when sex — or at least sex with other people — is still more of a theoretical future possibility than a lived reality. (Yes, the PlayStation itself was marketed to a slightly older demographic than this one, but, as I noted in my last article, that made it hugely successful with the younger set as well, who always want to be doing what their immediate elders are.) I suspect that I too would have liked this game a lot more if I’d come to it when the girls around me at my school and workplace were still exotic, semi-unknowable creatures, and my teenage heart beat with tender feelings and earthier passions that I’d hardly begun to understand.

In short, the nostalgia factor is unusually strong with this one. Small wonder that so many of its original players continue to cherish it so. If that causes them to overvalue its literary worth a bit, sometimes claiming a gravitas for it not entirely in keeping with what is essentially a work of young-adult fiction… well, such is human nature when it comes to the things we cherish. For its biggest fans, Final Fantasy VII has transcended the bits and bytes on the CDs that Square shipped back in 1997. It doesn’t exist as a single creative artifact so much as an abstract ideal, or perhaps an idealized abstraction. Like the Bible, it has become a palimpsest of memory and translation and interpretation, a story to be told again and again in different ways. To wit: in 2020, Square began publishing a crazily expansive re-imagining of Final Fantasy VII, to be released as a trilogy of games rather than a single one. The first entry in the trilogy — the only one available as of this writing — gets the gang only as far as their departure from Midgar. By all indications, this first part has been a solid commercial success, although not a patch on the phenomenon its inspiration was in a vastly different media ecosystem.

As for me, coming to this game so many years later, bereft of all those personal connections to it: I’m happy I played it, happy to have familiarized myself with one of the most important videogames in history, and happy to have found a way to more or less enjoy it, even if I did have to break my usual rules to do so. I wouldn’t call myself a JRPG lover by any means, but I am JRPG curious. I can see a lot of potential in the game I played, if it was tightened up in the right ways. I look forward to giving Final Fantasy VIII a try; although it’s widely regarded as one of the black sheep of the Final Fantasy family, it seems to me that some of the qualities widely cited as its failings, such as its more realistic, less anime-stylized art, might just strike my aesthetic sensibilities as strengths. And I understand that Square finally got its act together and sprang for proper, professional-quality English translations beginning with this installment, so there’s that.

Now, to do something about those Haruki Murakami novels on my shelf…


Where to Get It: The original version of Final Fantasy VII can still be purchased from Steam as a digital download. If you’re an impatient curmudgeon like me, you may also want to install the 7th Heaven mod manager to tweak the game to your liking. For the record, the mods I wound up using were “OST Music Remastered” (for better music), “Echo-S 7” (for the better translation and voice acting), and “Gameplay Tweaks — Qhimm Catalog” (strictly to make my characters “always run”; I left everything else here turned off). With 7th Heaven alone installed, you can toggle random encounters off and on by pressing CONTROL-B while playing. Note that you need to do this each time you start the game up again.



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Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The game’s tireless fan base has gone to great lengths, here as in so many places, to mitigate its failings by upping the difficulty in various ways. I didn’t investigate much in this area, deciding I had already given the game the benefit of enough retro-fitting with the mods I did employ.
 
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Posted by on December 22, 2023 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: ,

Putting the “J” in the RPG, Part 2: PlayStation for the Win

From the Seven Hills of Rome to the Seven Sages of China’s Bamboo Grove, from the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to the Seven Heavens of Islam, from the Seven Final Sayings of Jesus to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the number seven has always struck us as a special one. Hironobu Sakaguchi and his crew at Square, the people behind the Final Fantasy series, were no exception. In the mid-1990s, when the time came to think about what the seventh entry in the series ought to be, they instinctively felt that this one had to be bigger and better than any that had come before. It had to double down on all of the series’s traditional strengths and tropes to become the ultimate Final Fantasy. Sakaguchi and company would achieve these goals; the seventh Final Fantasy game has remained to this day the best-selling, most iconic of them all. But the road to that seventh heaven was not an entirely smooth one.

The mid-1990s were a transformative period, both for Square as a studio and for the industry of which it was a part. For the former, it was “a perfect storm, when Square still acted like a small company but had the resources of a big one,” as Matt Leone of Polygon writes.  Meanwhile the videogames industry at large was feeling the ground shift under its feet, as the technologies that went into making and playing console-based games were undergoing their most dramatic shift since the Atari VCS had first turned the idea of a machine for playing games on the family television into a popular reality. CD-ROM drives were already available for Sega’s consoles, with a storage capacity two orders of magnitude greater than that of the most capacious cartridges. And 3D graphics hardware was on the horizon as well, promising to replace pixel graphics with embodied, immersive experiences in sprawling virtual worlds. Final Fantasy VII charged headlong into these changes like a starving man at a feast, sending great greasy globs of excitement — and also controversy — flying everywhere.

The controversy came in the form of one of the most shocking platform switches in the history of videogames. To fully appreciate the impact of Square’s announcement on January 12, 1996, that Final Fantasy VII would run on the new Sony PlayStation rather than Nintendo’s next-generation console, we need to look a little closer at the state of the console landscape in the years immediately preceding it.


Through the first half of the 1990s, Nintendo was still the king of console gaming, but it was no longer the unchallenged supreme despot it had been during the 1980s. Nintendo had always been conservative in terms of hardware, placing its faith, like Apple Computer in an adjacent marketplace, in a holistic customer experience rather than raw performance statistics. As part and parcel of this approach, every game that Nintendo agreed to allow into its walled garden was tuned and polished to a fine sheen, having any jagged edges that might cause anyone any sort of offense whatsoever painstakingly sanded away. An upstart known as Sega had learned to live in the gaps this business philosophy opened up, deploying edgier games on more cutting-edge hardware. As early as December of 1991, Sega began offering its Japanese customers a CD-drive add-on for its current console, the Mega Drive (known as the Sega Genesis in North America, which received the CD add-on the following October). Although the three-year-old Mega Drive’s intrinsic limitations made this early experiment in multimedia gaming for the living room a somewhat underwhelming affair — there was only so much you could do with 61 colors at a resolution of 320 X 240 — it perfectly illustrated the differences in the two companies’ approaches. While Sega threw whatever it had to hand at the wall just to see what stuck, Nintendo held back like a Dana Carvey impression of George Herbert Walker Bush: “Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture…”

Sony was all too well-acquainted with Nintendo’s innate caution. As the co-creator of the CD storage format, it had signed an agreement with Nintendo back in 1988 to make a CD drive for the upcoming Super Famicom console (which was to be known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the West) as soon as the technology had matured enough for it to be cost-effective. By the time the Super Famicom was released in 1990, Sony was hard at work on the project. But on May 29, 1991, just three days before a joint Nintendo/Sony “Play Station” was to have been demonstrated to the world at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Nintendo suddenly backed out of the deal, announcing that it would instead be working on CD-ROM technology with the Dutch electronics giant Philips — ironically, Sony’s partner in the creation of the original CD standard.

This prototype of the Sony “Play Station” surfaced in 2015.

Nintendo’s reason for pulling out seems to have come down to the terms of the planned business relationship. Nintendo, whose instinct for micro-management and tough deal-making was legendary, had uncharacteristically promised Sony a veritable free hand, allowing it to publish whatever CD-based software it wanted without asking Nintendo’s permission or paying it any royalty whatsoever. In fact, given that a contract to that effect had already been signed long before the Consumer Electronics Show, Sony was, legally speaking, still free to continue with the Play Station on its own, piggybacking on the success of Nintendo’s console. And initially it seemed inclined to do just that. “Sony will throw open its doors to software makers to produce software using music and movie assets,” it announced at the show, promising games based on its wide range of media properties, from the music catalog of Michael Jackson to the upcoming blockbuster movie Hook. Even worse from Nintendo’s perspective, “in order to promote the Super Disc format, Sony intends to broadly license it to the software industry.” Nintendo’s walled garden, in other words, looked about to be trampled by a horde of unwashed, unvetted, unmonetized intruders charging through the gate Sony was ready and willing to open to them. The prospect must have sent the control freaks inside Nintendo’s executive wing into conniptions.

It was a strange situation any way you looked at it. The Super Famicom might soon become the host of not one but two competing CD-ROM solutions, an authorized one from Philips and an unauthorized one from Sony, each using different file formats for a different library of games and other software. (Want to play Super Mario on CD? Buy the Philips drive! Want Michael Jackson? Buy the Play Station!)

In the end, though, neither of the two came to be. Philips decided it wasn’t worth distracting consumers from its own stand-alone CD-based “multimedia box” for the home, the CD-i.[1]Philips wasn’t, however, above exploiting the letter of its contract with Nintendo to make a Mario game and three substandard Legend of Zelda games available for the CD-i. Sony likewise began to wonder in the aftermath of its defiant trade-show announcement whether it was really in its long-term interest to become an unwanted squatter on Nintendo’s real estate.

Still, the episode had given some at Sony a serious case of videogame jealousy. It was clear by now that this new industry wasn’t a fad. Why shouldn’t Sony be a part of it, just as it was an integral part of the music, movie, and television industries? On June 24, 1992, the company held an unusually long and heated senior-management debate. After much back and forth, CEO Norio Ohga pronounced his conclusion: Sony would turn the Play Station into the PlayStation, a standalone CD-based videogame console of its own, both a weapon with which to bludgeon Nintendo for its breach of trust and — and ultimately more importantly — an entrée to the fastest-growing entertainment sector in the world.

The project was handed to one Ken Kutaragi, who had also been in charge of the aborted Super Famicom CD add-on. He knew precisely what he wanted Sony’s first games console to be: a fusion of CD-ROM with another cutting-edge technology, hardware-enabled 3D graphics. “From the mid-1980s, I dreamed of the day when 3D computer graphics could be enjoyed at home,” he says. “What kind of graphics could we create if we combined a real-time, 3D computer-graphics engine with CD-ROM? Surely this would develop into a new form of entertainment.”

It took him and his engineers a little over two years to complete the PlayStation, which in addition to a CD drive and a 3D-graphics system sported a 32-bit MIPS microprocessor running at 34 MHz, 3 MB of memory (of which 1 MB was dedicated to graphics alone), audiophile-quality sound hardware, and a slot for 128 K memory cards that could be used for saving game state between sessions, ensuring that long-form games like JRPGs would no longer need to rely on tedious manual-entry codes or balky, unreliable cartridge-mounted battery packs for the purpose.

 

In contrast to the consoles of Nintendo, which seemed almost self-consciously crafted to look like toys, and those of Sega, which had a boy-racer quality about them, the Sony PlayStation looked stylish and adult — but not too adult. (The stylishness came through despite the occasionally mooted comparisons to a toilet.)

The first Sony PlayStations went on sale in Tokyo’s famed Akihabara electronics district on December 3, 1994. Thousands camped out in line in front of the shops the night before. “It’s so utterly different from traditional game machines that I didn’t even think about the price,” said one starry-eyed young man to a reporter on the scene. Most of the shops were sold out before noon. Norio Ohga was mobbed by family and friends in the days that followed, all begging him to secure them a PlayStation for their children before Christmas. It was only when that happened, he would later say, that he fully realized what a game changer (pun intended) his company had on its hands. Just like that, the fight between Nintendo and Sega — the latter had a new 32-bit CD-based console of its own, the Saturn, while the former was taking it slowly and cautiously, as usual — became a three-way battle royal.

The PlayStation was an impressive piece of kit for the price, but it was, as always, the games themselves that really sold it. Ken Kutaragi had made the rounds of Japanese and foreign studios, and found to his gratification that many of them were tired of being under the heavy thumb of Nintendo. Sony’s garden was to be walled just like Nintendo’s — you had to pay it a fee to sell games for its console as well — but it made a point of treating those who made games for its system as valued partners rather than pestering supplicants: the financial terms were better, the hardware was better, the development tools were better, the technical support was better, the overall vibe was better. Nintendo had its own home-grown line of games for its consoles to which it always gave priority in every sense of the word, a conflict of interest from which Sony was blessedly free.[2]Sony did purchase the venerable British game developer and publisher Psygnosis well before its console’s launch to help prime the pump with some quality games, but it largely left it to manage its own affairs on the other side of the world. Game cartridges were complicated and expensive to produce, and the factories that made them for Nintendo’s consoles were all controlled by that company. Nintendo was notoriously slow to approve new production runs of any but its own games, leaving many studios convinced that their smashing success had been throttled down to a mere qualified one by a shortage of actual games in stores at the critical instant. CDs, on the other hand, were quick and cheap to churn out from any of dozens of pressing plants all over the world. Citing advantages like these, Kutaragi found it was possible to tempt even as longstanding a Nintendo partner as Namco — the creator of the hallowed arcade classics Galaxian and Pac-Man — into committing itself “100 percent to the PlayStation.” The first fruit of this defection was Ridge Racer, a port of a stand-up arcade game that became the new console’s breakout early hit.

Square was also among the software houses that Ken Kutaragi approached, but he made no initial inroads there. For all the annoyances of dealing with Nintendo, it still owned the biggest player base in the world, one that had treated Final Fantasy very well indeed, to the tune of more than 9 million games sold to date in Japan alone. This was not a partner that one abandoned lightly — especially not with the Nintendo 64, said partner’s own next-generation console, due at last in 1996. It promised to be every bit as audiovisually capable as the Sony PlayStation or Sega Saturn, even as it was based around a 64-bit processor in place of the 32-bit units of the competition.

Indeed, in many ways the relationship between Nintendo and Square seemed closer than ever in the wake of the PlayStation’s launch. When Yoshihiro Maruyama joined Square in September of 1995 to run its North American operations, he was told that “Square will always be with Nintendo. As long as you work for us, it’s basically the same as working for Nintendo.” Which in a sense he literally was, given that Nintendo by now owned a substantial chunk of Square’s stock. In November of 1995, Nintendo’s president Hiroshi Yamauchi cited the Final Fantasy series as one of his consoles’ unsurpassed crown jewels — eat your heart out, Sony! — at Shoshinkai, Nintendo’s annual press shindig and trade show. As its farewell to the Super Famicom, Square had agreed to make Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, dropping Nintendo’s Italian plumber into a style of game completely different from his usual fare. Released in March of 1996, it was a predictably huge hit in Japan, while also, encouragingly, leveraging the little guy’s Stateside popularity to become the most successful JRPG since Final Fantasy I in those harsh foreign climes.

But Super Mario RPG wound up marking the end of an era in more ways than Nintendo had imagined: it was not just Square’s last Super Famicom RPG but its last major RPG for a Nintendo console, full stop. For just as it was in its last stages of development, there came the earthshaking announcement of January 12, 1996, that Final Fantasy was switching platforms to the PlayStation. Et tu, Square? “I was kind of shocked,” Yoshihiro Maruyama admits. As was everyone else.

The Nintendo 64, which looked like a toy — and an anachronistic one at that — next to the PlayStation.

Square’s decision was prompted by what seemed to have become an almost reactionary intransigence on the part of Nintendo when it came to the subject of CD-ROM. After the two abortive attempts to bring CDs to the Super Famicom, everyone had assumed as a matter of course that they would be the storage medium of the Nintendo 64. It was thus nothing short of baffling when the first prototypes of the console were unveiled in November of 1995 with no CD drive built-in and not even any option on the horizon for adding one. Nintendo’s latest and greatest was instead to live or die with old-school cartridges which had a capacity of just 64 MB, one-tenth that of a CD.

Why did Nintendo make such a counterintuitive choice? The one compelling technical argument for sticking with cartridges was the loading time of CDs, a mechanical storage medium rather than a solid-state one. Nintendo’s ethos of user-friendly accessibility had always insisted that a game come up instantly when you turned the console on and play without interruption thereafter. Nintendo believed, with considerable justification, that this quality had been the not-so-secret weapon in its first-generation console’s victorious battle against floppy-disk-based 8-bit American microcomputers that otherwise boasted similar audiovisual and processing capabilities, such as the Commodore 64. The PlayStation CD drive, which could transfer 300 K per second into memory, was many, many times faster than the Commodore 64’s infamously slow disk drive, but it wasn’t instant. A cartridge, on the other hand, for all practical purposes was.

Fair enough, as far as it went. Yet there were other, darker insinuations swirling around the games industry which had their own ring of truth. Nintendo, it was said, was loath to give up its stranglehold on the means of production of cartridges and embrace commodity CD-stamping facilities. Most of all, many sensed, the decision to stay with cartridges was bound up with Nintendo’s congenital need to be different, and to assert its idiosyncratic hegemony by making everyone else dance to its tune while it was at it. The question now was whether it had taken this arrogance too far, was about to dance itself into irrelevance while the makers of third-party games moved on to other, equally viable alternative platforms.

Exhibit Number One of same was the PlayStation, which seemed tailor-made for the kind of big, epic game that every Final Fantasy to date had strained to be. It was far easier to churn out huge quantities of 3D graphics than it was hand-drawn pixel art, while the staggering storage capacity of CD-ROM gave Square someplace to keep it all — with, it should not be forgotten, the possibility of finding even more space by the simple expedient of shipping a game on multiple CDs, another affordance that cartridges did not allow. And then there were those handy little memory cards for saving state. Those benefits were surely worth trading a little bit of loading time for.

But there was something else about the PlayStation as well that made it an ideal match for Hironobu Sakaguchi’s vision of gaming. Especially after the console arrived in North America and Europe in September of 1995, it fomented a sweeping change in the way the gaming hobby was perceived. “The legacy of the original Playstation is that it took gaming from a pastime that was for young people or maybe slightly geeky people,” says longtime Sony executive Jim Ryan, “and it turned it into a highly credible form of mass entertainment, really comparable with the music business and the movie business.” Veteran game designer Cliff Bleszinski concurs: “The PlayStation shifted the console from having an almost toy-like quality into consumer electronics that are just as desired by twelve-year-olds as they are by 35-year-olds.”

Rather than duking it out with Nintendo and Sega for the eight-to-seventeen age demographic, Sony shifted its marketing attention to young adults, positioning PlayStation gaming as something to be done before or after a night out at the clubs — or while actually at the clubs, for that matter: Sony paid to install the console in trendy nightspots all over the world, so that their patrons could enjoy a round or two of WipEout between trips to the dance floor. In effect, Sony told the people who had grown up with Nintendo and Sega that it was okay to keep on gaming, as long as they did it on a PlayStation from now on. Sony’s marketers understood that, if they could conquer this demographic, that success would automatically spill down into the high-school set that had previously been Sega’s bread and butter, since kids of that age are always aspiring to do whatever the university set is up to. Their logic was impeccable; the Sony PlayStation would destroy the Sega Saturn in due course.

For decades now, the hipster stoner gamer, slumped on the couch with controller in one hand and a bong in the other, has been a pop-culture staple. Sony created that stereotype in the space of a year or two in the 1990s. Whatever else you can say about it, it plays better with the masses than the older one of a pencil-necked nerd sitting bolt upright on his neatly made bed. David James, star goalkeeper for the Premier League football team Liverpool F.C., admitted that he had gotten “carried away” playing PlayStation the night before by way of explaining the three goals that he conceded in a match against Newcastle. It was hard to imagine substituting “Nintendo” or “Saturn” for “PlayStation” in that statement. In May of 1998, Sony would be able to announce triumphantly that, according to its latest survey, the average age of a PlayStation gamer was a positively grizzled 22. It had hit the demographic it was aiming for spot-on, with a spillover that reached both younger and older folks. David Ranyard, a member of Generation PlayStation who has had a varied and successful career in games since the millennium:

At the time of its launch, I was a student, and I’d always been into videogames, from the early days of arcades. I would hang around playing Space Invaders and Galaxian, and until the PlayStation came out, that kind of thing made me a geek. But this console changed all that. Suddenly videogames were cool — not just acceptable, but actually club-culture cool. With a soundtrack from the coolest techno and dance DJs, videogames became a part of [that] subculture. And it led to more mainstream acceptance of consoles in general.

The new PlayStation gamer stereotype dovetailed beautifully with the moody, angsty heroes that had been featuring prominently in Final Fantasy for quite some installments by now. Small wonder that Sakaguchi was more and more smitten with Sony.

Still, it was one hell of a bridge to burn; everyone at Square knew that there would be no going back if they signed on with Sony. Well aware of how high the stakes were for all parties, Sony declared its willingness to accept an extremely low per-unit royalty and to foot the bill for a lot of the next Final Fantasy game’s marketing, promising to work like the dickens to break it in the West. In the end, Sakaguchi allowed himself to be convinced. He had long run Final Fantasy as his own fiefdom at Square, and this didn’t change now: upper management rubber-stamped his decision to make Final Fantasy VII for the Sony PlayStation.

The announcement struck Japan’s games industry with all the force of one of Sakaguchi’s trademark Final Fantasy plot twists. For all the waves Sony had been making recently, nobody had seen this one coming. For its part, Nintendo had watched quite a number of studios defect to Sony already, but this one clearly hurt more than any of the others. It sold off all of its shares in Square and refused to take its calls for the next five years.

The raised stakes only gave Sakaguchi that much more motivation to make Final Fantasy VII amazing — so amazing that even the most stalwart Nintendo loyalists among the gaming population would be tempted to jump ship to the PlayStation in order to experience it. There had already been an unusually long delay after Final Fantasy VI, during which Square had made Super Mario RPG and another, earlier high-profile JRPG called Chrono Trigger, the fruit of a partnership between Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yuji Horii of Dragon Quest fame. (This was roughly equivalent in the context of 1990s Western pop culture to Oasis and Blur making an album together.) Now the rush was on to get Final Fantasy VII out the door within a year, while the franchise and its new platform the PlayStation were still smoking hot.

In defiance of the wisdom found in The Mythical Man-Month, Sakaguchi decided to both make the game quickly and make it amazing by throwing lots and lots of personnel at the problem: 150 people in all, three times as many as had worked on Final Fantasy VI. Cost was no object, especially wherever yen could be traded for time. Square spent the equivalent of $40 million on Final Fantasy VII in the course of just one year, blowing up all preconceptions of how much it could cost to make a computer or console game. (The most expensive earlier game that I’m aware of is the 1996 American “interactive movie” Wing Commander IV, which its developer Origin Systems claimed to have cost $12 million.) By one Square executive’s estimate, almost half of Final Fantasy VII‘s budget went for the hundreds of high-end Silicon Graphics workstations that were purchased, tools for the unprecedented number of 3D artists and animators who attacked the game from all directions at once. Their output came to fill not just one PlayStation CD but three of them — almost two gigabytes of raw data in all, or 30 Nintendo 64 cartridges.

Somehow or other, it all came together. Square finished Final Fantasy VII on schedule, shipping it in Japan on January 31, 1997. It went on to sell over 3 million copies there, bettering Final Fantasy VI‘s numbers by about half a million and selling a goodly number of PlayStations in the process. But, as that fairly modest increase indicates, the Japanese domestic market was becoming saturated; there were only so many games you could sell in a country of 125 million people, most of them too old or too young or lacking the means or the willingness to acquire a PlayStation. There was only one condition in which it had ever made sense to spend $40 million on Final Fantasy VII: if it could finally break the Western market wide open. Encouraged by the relative success of Final Fantasy VI and Super Mario RPG in the United States, excited by the aura of hipster cool that clung to the PlayStation, Square — and also Sony, which lived up to its promise to go all-in on the game — were determined to make that happen, once again at almost any cost. After renumbering the earlier games in the series in the United States to conform with its habit of only releasing every other Final Fantasy title there, Square elected to call this game Final Fantasy VII all over the world. For the number seven was an auspicious one, and this was nothing if not an auspicious game.

Final Fantasy VII shipped on a suitably auspicious date in the United States: September 7, 1997. It sold its millionth unit that December.

In November of 1997, it came to Europe, which had never seen any of the previous six mainline Final Fantasy game before and therefore processed the title as even more of a non sequitur. No matter. Wherever the game went, the title and the marketing worked — worked not only for the game itself, but for the PlayStation. Coming hot on the heels of the hip mega-hit Tomb Raider, it sealed the deal for the console, relegating the Sega Saturn to oblivion and the Nintendo 64 to the status of a disappointing also-ran. Paul Davies was the editor-in-chief of Britain’s Computer and Video Games magazine at the time. He was a committed Sega loyalist, he says, but

I came to my senses when Square announced Final Fantasy VII as a PlayStation exclusive. We received sheets of concept artwork and screenshots at our editorial office, sketches and stills from the incredible cut scenes. I was smitten. I tried and failed to rally. This was a runaway train. [The] PlayStation took up residence in all walks of life, moved from bedrooms to front rooms. It gained — by hook or by crook — the kind of social standing that I’d always wanted for games. Sony stomped on my soul and broke my heart, but my God, that console was a phenomenon.

Final Fantasy VII wound up selling well over 10 million units in all, as many as all six previous entries in the series combined, divided this time almost equally between Japan, North America, and Europe. Along the way, it exploded millions of people’s notions of what games could do and be — people who weren’t among the technological elite who invested thousands of dollars into high-end rigs to play the latest computer games, who just wanted to sit down in front of their televisions after a busy day with a plug-it-in-and-go console and be entertained.

Of course, not everyone who bought the game was equally enamored. Retailers reported record numbers of returns to go along with the record sales, as some people found all the walking around and reading to be not at all what they were looking for in a videogame.

In a way, I share their pain. Despite all its exceptional qualities, Final Fantasy VII fell victim rather comprehensively to the standard Achilles heel of the JRPG in the West: the problem of translation. Its English version was completed in just a couple of months at Square’s American branch, reportedly by a single employee working without supervision, then sent out into the world without a second glance. I’m afraid there’s no way to say this kindly: it’s almost unbelievably terrible, full of sentences that literally make no sense punctuated by annoying ellipses that are supposed to represent… I don’t know what. Pauses… for… dramatic… effect, perhaps? To say it’s on the level of a fan translation would be to insult the many fans of Japanese videogames in the West, who more often than not do an extraordinary job when they tackle such a project. That a game so self-consciously pitched as the moment when console-based videogames would come into their own as a storytelling medium and as a form of mass-market entertainment to rival movies could have been allowed out the door with writing like this boggles the mind. It speaks to what a crossroads moment this truly was for games, when the old ways were still in the process of going over to the new. Although the novelty of the rest of the game was enough to keep the poor translation from damaging its commercial prospects overmuch, the backlash did serve as a much-needed wake-up call for Square. Going forward, they would take the details of “localization,” as such matters are called in industry speak, much more seriously.

Oh, my…

Writerly sort that I am, I’ll be unable to keep myself from harping further on the putrid translation in the third and final article in this series, when I’ll dive into the game itself. Right now, though, I’d like to return to the subject of what Final Fantasy VII meant for gaming writ large. In case I haven’t made it clear already, let me state it outright now: its arrival and reception in the West in particular marked one of the watershed moments in the entire history of gaming.

It cemented, first of all, the PlayStation’s status as the overwhelming victor in the late-1990s edition of the eternal Console Wars, as it did the Playstation’s claim to being the third socially revolutionary games console in history, after the Atari VCS and the original Nintendo Famicom. In the process of changing forevermore the way the world viewed videogames and the people who played them, the PlayStation eventually sold more than 100 million units, making it the best-selling games console of the twentieth century, dwarfing the numbers of the Sega Saturn (9 million units) and even the Nintendo 64 (33 million units), the latter of which was relegated to the status of the “kiddie console” on the playgrounds of the world. The underperformance of the Saturn followed by that of its successor the Dreamcast (again, just 9 million units sold) led Sega to abandon the console-hardware business entirely. Even more importantly, the PlayStation shattered the aura of remorseless, monopolistic inevitability that had clung to Nintendo since the mid-1980s; Nintendo would be for long stretches of the decades to come an also-ran in the very industry it had almost single-handedly resurrected. If the PlayStation was conceived partially as revenge for Nintendo’s jilting of Sony back in 1991, it was certainly a dish served cold — in fact, one that Nintendo is to some extent still eating to this day.

Then, too, it almost goes without saying that the JRPG, a sub-genre that had hitherto been a niche occupation of American gamers and virtually unknown to European ones, had its profile raised incalculably by Final Fantasy VII. The JRPG became almost overnight one of the hottest of all styles of game, as millions who had never imagined that a game could offer a compelling long-form narrative experience like this started looking for more of the same to play just as soon as its closing credits had rolled. Suddenly Western gamers were awaiting the latest JRPG releases with just as much impatience as Japanese gamers — releases not only in the Final Fantasy series but in many, many others as well. Their names, which tended to sound strange and awkward to English ears, were nevertheless unspeakably alluring to those who had caught the JRPG fever: Xenogears, Parasite Eve, Suikoden, Lunar, Star Ocean, Thousand Arms, Chrono Cross, Valkyrie Profile, Legend of Mana, Saiyuki. The whole landscape of console gaming changed; nowhere in the West in 1996, these games were everywhere in 1998 and 1999. It required a dedicated PlayStation gamer indeed just to keep up with the glut. At the risk of belaboring a point, I must note here that there were relatively few such games on the Nintendo 64, due to the limited storage capacity of its cartridges. Gamers go where the games they want to play are, and, for gamers in their preteens or older at least, those games were on the PlayStation.

From the computer-centric perspective that is this site’s usual stock in trade, perhaps the most important outcome of Final Fantasy VII was the dawning convergence it heralded between what had prior to this point been two separate worlds of gaming. Shortly before its Western release on the PlayStation, Square’s American subsidiary had asked the parent company for permission to port Final Fantasy VII to Windows-based desktop computers, perchance under the logic that, if American console gamers did still turn out to be nonplussed by the idea of a hundred-hour videogame despite marketing’s best efforts, American computer gamers would surely not be.

Square Japan agreed, but that was only the beginning of the challenge of getting Final Fantasy VII onto computer-software shelves. Square’s American arm called dozens of established computer publishers, including the heavy hitters like Electronic Arts. Rather incredibly, they couldn’t drum up any interest whatsoever in a game that was by now selling millions of copies on the most popular console in the world. At long last, they got a bite from the British developer and publisher Eidos, whose Tomb Raider had been 1996’s PlayStation game of the year whilst also — and unusually for the time — selling in big numbers on computers.

That example of cross-platform convergence notwithstanding, everyone involved remained a bit tentative about the Final Fantasy VII Windows port, regarding it more as a cautious experiment than the blockbuster-in-the-offing that the PlayStation version had always been treated as. Judged purely as a piece of Windows software, the end result left something to be desired, being faithful to the console game to a fault, to the extent of couching its saved states in separate fifteen-slot “files” that stood in for PlayStation memory cards.

The Windows version of Final Fantasy VII came out a year after the PlayStation version. “If you’re open to new experiences and perspectives in role-playing and can put up with idiosyncrasies from console-game design, then take a chance and experience some of the best storytelling ever found in an RPG,” concluded Computer Gaming World in its review, stamping the game “recommended, with caution.” Despite that less than rousing endorsement, it did reasonably well, selling somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million units by most reports.

They were baby steps to be sure, but Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy VII between them marked the start of a significant shift, albeit one that would take another half-decade or so to come to become obvious to everyone. The storage capacity of console CDs, the power of the latest console hardware, and the consoles’ newfound ability to easily save state from session to session had begun to elide if not yet erase the traditional barriers between “computer games” and “videogames.” Today the distinction is all but eliminated, as cross-platform development tools and the addition of networking capabilities to the consoles make it possible for everyone to play the same sorts of games at least, if not always precisely the same titles. This has been, it seems to me, greatly to the benefit of gaming in general: games on computers have became more friendly and approachable, even as games on consoles have become deeper and more ambitious.

So, that’s another of the trends we’ll need to keep an eye out for as we continue our journey down through the years. Next, though, it will be time to ask a more immediately relevant question: what is it like to actually play Final Fantasy VII, the game that changed so much for so many?



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: the books Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World by Matt Alt, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life by Chris Kohler, Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West by Aidan Moher, Atari to Zelda: Japan’s Videogames in Global Contexts by Mia Consalvo, Revolutionaries at Sony: The Making of the Sony PlayStation by Reiji Asakura, and Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff. Retro Gamer 69, 96, 108, 137, 170, and 188; Computer Gaming World of September 1997, October 1997, May 1998, and November 1998.

Online sources include Polygon‘s authoritative Final Fantasy 7: An Oral History”, “The History of Final Fantasy VII at Nintendojo, “The Weird History of the Super NES CD-ROM, Nintendo’s Most Notorious Vaporware” by Chris Kohler at Kotaku, and “The History of PlayStation was Almost Very Different” by Blake Hester at Polygon.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Philips wasn’t, however, above exploiting the letter of its contract with Nintendo to make a Mario game and three substandard Legend of Zelda games available for the CD-i.
2 Sony did purchase the venerable British game developer and publisher Psygnosis well before its console’s launch to help prime the pump with some quality games, but it largely left it to manage its own affairs on the other side of the world.
 
 

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Putting the “J” in the RPG, Part 1: Dorakue!


Fair warning: this article includes some plot spoilers of Final Fantasy I through VI.

The videogame industry has always run on hype, but the amount of it that surrounded Final Fantasy VII in 1997 was unparalleled in its time. This new game for the Sony PlayStation console was simply inescapable. The American marketing teams of Sony and Square Corporation, the game’s Japanese developer and publisher, had been given $30 million with which to elevate Final Fantasy VII to the same status as the Super Marios of the world. They plastered Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, Sephiroth, and the game’s other soon-to-be-iconic characters onto urban billboards, onto the sides of buses, and into the pages of glossy magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Spin. Commercials for the game aired round the clock on MTV, during NFL games and Saturday Night Live, even on giant cinema screens in lieu of more traditional coming-attractions trailers. “They said it couldn’t be done in a major motion picture,” the stentorian announcer intoned. “They were right!” Even if you didn’t care a whit about videogames, you couldn’t avoid knowing that something pretty big was going down in that space.

And if you did care… oh, boy. The staffs of the videogame magazines, hardly known for their sober-mindedness in normal times, worked themselves up to positively orgasmic heights under Square’s not-so-gentle prodding. GameFan told its readers that Final Fantasy VII would be “unquestionably the greatest entertainment product ever created.”

The game is ridiculously beautiful. Analyze five minutes of gameplay in Final Fantasy VII and witness more artistic prowess than most entire games have. The level of detail is absolutely astounding. These graphics are impossible to describe; no words are great enough. Both map and battle graphics are rendered to a level of detail completely unprecedented in the videogame world. Before Final Fantasy VII, I couldn’t have imagined a game looking like this for many years, and that’s no exaggeration. One look at a cut scene or call spell should handily convince you. Final Fantasy VII looks so consistently great that you’ll quickly become numb to the power. Only upon playing another game will you once again realize just how fantastic it is.

But graphics weren’t all that the game had going for it. In fact, they weren’t even the aspect that would come to most indelibly define it for most of its players. No… that thing was, for the very first time in a mainstream console-based videogame with serious aspirations of becoming the toppermost of the poppermost, the story.

I don’t have any room to go into the details, but rest assured that Final Fantasy VII possesses the deepest, most involved story line ever in an RPG. There’s few games that have literally caused my jaw to drop at plot revelations, and I’m most pleased to say that Final Fantasy VII doles out these shocking, unguessable twists with regularity. You are constantly motivated to solve the latest mystery.

So, the hype rolled downhill, from Square at the top to the mass media, then on to the hardcore gamer magazines to ordinary owners of PlayStations. You would have to have been an iconoclastic PlayStation owner indeed not to be shivering with anticipation as the weeks counted down toward the game’s September 7 release. (Owners of other consoles could eat their hearts out; Final Fantasy VII was a PlayStation exclusive.)

Just last year, a member of an Internet gaming forum still fondly recalled how

the lead-up for the US launch of this game was absolutely insane, and, speaking personally, it is the most excited about a game I think I had ever been in my life, and nothing has come close since then. I was only fifteen at the time, and this game totally overtook all my thoughts and imagination. I had never even played a Final Fantasy game before, and I didn’t even like RPGs, yet I would spend hours reading and rereading all the articles from all the gaming magazines I had, inspecting all the screenshots and being absolutely blown away at the visual fidelity I was witnessing. I spent multiple days/hours with my Sony Discman listening to music and drawing the same artwork that was in all the mags. It was literally a genre- and generation-defining game.

Those who preferred to do their gaming on personal computers rather than consoles might be excused for scoffing at all these breathless commentators who seemed to presume that Final Fantasy VII was doing something that had never been done before. If you spent your days playing Quake, Final Fantasy VII‘s battle graphics probably weren’t going to impress you overmuch; if you knew, say, Toonstruck, even the cut scenes might strike you as pretty crude. And then, too, computer-based adventure games and RPGs had been delivering well-developed long-form interactive narratives for many years by 1997, most recently with a decidedly cinematic bent more often than not, with voice actors in place of Final Fantasy VII‘s endless text boxes. Wasn’t Final Fantasy VII just a case of console gamers belatedly catching on to something computer gamers had known all along, and being forced to do so in a technically inferior fashion at that?

Well, yes and no. It’s abundantly true that much of what struck so many as so revelatory about Final Fantasy VII really wasn’t anywhere near as novel as they thought it was. At the same time, though, the aesthetic and design philosophies which it applied to the abstract idea of the RPG truly were dramatically different from the set of approaches favored by Western studios. They were so different, in fact, that the RPG genre in general would be forever bifurcated in gamers’ minds going forward, as the notion of the “JRPG” — the Japanese RPG — entered the gaming lexicon. In time, the label would be applied to games that didn’t actually come from Japan at all, but that evinced the set of styles and approaches so irrevocably cemented in the Western consciousness under the label of “Japanese” by Final Fantasy VII.

We might draw a parallel with what happened in music in the 1960s. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and all the other Limey bands who mounted the so-called “British Invasion” of their former Colonies in 1964 had all spent their adolescence steeped in American rock and roll. They took those influences, applied their own British twist to them, then sold them back to American teenagers, who screamed and fainted in the concert halls like Final Fantasy VII fans later would in the pages of the gaming magazines, convinced that the rapture they were feeling was brought on by something genuinely new under the sun — which in the aggregate it was, of course. It took the Japanese to teach Americans how thrilling and accessible — even how emotionally moving — the gaming genre they had invented could truly be.



The roots of the JRPG can be traced back not just to the United States but to a very specific place and time there: to the American Midwest in the early 1970s, where and when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, a pair of stolid grognards who would have been utterly nonplussed by the emotional histrionics of a Final Fantasy VII, created a “single-unit wargame” called Dungeons & Dragons. I wrote quite some years ago on this site that their game’s “impact on the culture at large has been, for better or for worse, greater than that of any single novel, film, or piece of music to appear during its lifetime.” I almost want to dismiss those words now as the naïve hyperbole of a younger self. But the thing is, I can’t; I have no choice but to stand by them. Dungeons & Dragons really was that earthshaking, not only in the obvious ways — it’s hard to imagine the post-millennial craze for fantasy in mass media, from the Lord of the Rings films to Game of Thrones, ever taking hold without it — but also in subtler yet ultimately more important ones, in the way it changed the role we play in our entertainments from that of passive spectators to active co-creators, making interactivity the watchword of an entire age of media.

The early popularity of Dungeons & Dragons coincided with the rise of accessible computing, and this proved a potent combination. Fans of the game with access to PLATO, a groundbreaking online community rooted in American universities, moved it as best they could onto computers, yielding the world’s first recognizable CRPGs. Then a couple of PLATO users named Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg made a game of this type for the Apple II personal computer in 1981, calling it Wizardry. Meanwhile Richard Garriott was making Ultima, a different take on the same broad concept of “Dungeons & Dragons on a personal computer.”

By the time Final Fantasy VII stormed the gates of the American market so triumphantly in 1997, the cultures of gaming in the United States and Japan had diverged so markedly that one could almost believe they had never had much of anything to do with one another. Yet in these earliest days of digital gaming — long before the likes of the Nintendo Entertainment System, when Japanese games meant only coin-op arcade hits like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong in the minds of most Americans — there was in fact considerable cross-pollination. For Japan was the second place in the world after North America where reasonably usable, pre-assembled, consumer-grade personal computers could be readily purchased; the Japanese Sharp MZ80K and Hitachi MB-6880 trailed the American Trinity of 1977 — the Radio Shack TRS-80, Apple II, and Commodore PET — by less than a year. If these two formative cultures of computing didn’t talk to one another, whom else could they talk to?

Thus pioneering American games publishers like Sierra On-Line and Brøderbund forged links with counterparts in Japan. A Japanese company known as Starcraft became the world’s first gaming localizer, specializing in porting American games to Japanese computers and translating their text into Japanese for the domestic market. As late as the summer of 1985, Roe R. Adams III could write in Computer Gaming World that Sierra’s sprawling twelve-disk-side adventure game Time Zone, long since written off at home as a misbegotten white elephant, “is still high on the charts after three years” in Japan. Brøderbund’s platformer Lode Runner was even bigger, having swum like a salmon upstream in Japan, being ported from home computers to coin-op arcade machines rather than the usual reverse. It had even spawned the world’s first e-sports league, whose matches were shown on Japanese television.

At that time, the first Wizardry game and the second and third Ultima had only recently been translated and released in Japan. And yet if Adams was to be believed,[1]Adams was not an entirely disinterested observer. He was already working with Robert Woodhead on Wizardry IV, and had in fact accompanied him to Japan in this capacity. both games already

have huge followings. The computer magazines cover Lord British [Richard Garriott’s nom de plume] like our National Inquirer would cover a television star. When Robert Woodhead of Wizardry fame was recently in Japan, he was practically mobbed by autograph seekers. Just introducing himself in a computer store would start a near-stampede as people would run outside to shout that he was inside.

Robert Woodhead with Japanese Wizardry fans.

The Wizardry and Ultima pump had been primed in Japan by a game called The Black Onyx, created the year before in their image for the Japanese market by an American named Henk Rogers.[2]A man with an international perspective if ever there was one, Rogers would later go on to fame and fortune as the man who brought Tetris out of the Soviet Union. But his game was quickly eclipsed by the real deals that came directly out of the United States.

Wizardry in particular became a smashing success in Japan, even as a rather lackadaisical attitude toward formal and audiovisual innovation on the part of its masterminds was already condemning it to also-ran status against Ultima and its ilk in the United States. It undoubtedly helped that Wizardry was published in Japan by ASCII Corporation, that country’s nearest equivalent to Microsoft, with heaps of marketing clout and distributional muscle to bring to bear on any challenge. So, while the Wizardry series that American gamers knew petered out in somewhat anticlimactic fashion in the early 1990s after seven games,[3]It would be briefly revived for one final game, the appropriately named Wizardry 8, in 2001. it spawned close to a dozen Japanese-exclusive titles later in that decade alone, plus many more after the millennium, such that the franchise remains to this day far better known by everyday gamers in Japan than it is in the United States. Robert Woodhead himself spent two years in Japan in the early 1990s working on what would have been a Wizardry MMORPG, if it hadn’t proved to be just too big a mouthful for the hardware and telecommunications infrastructure at his disposal.

Box art helps to demonstrate Wizardry‘s uncanny legacy in Japan. Here we see the original 1981 American release of the first game.

And here we have a Japan-only Wizardry from a decade later, self-consciously echoing a foreboding, austere aesthetic that had become more iconic in Japan than it had ever been in its home country. (American Wizardry boxes from the period look nothing like this, being illustrated in a more conventional, colorful epic-fantasy style.)

Much of the story of such cultural exchanges inevitably becomes a tale of translation. In its original incarnation, the first Wizardry game had had the merest wisp of a plot. In this as in all other respects it was a classic hack-and-slash dungeon crawler: work your way down through ten dungeon levels and kill the evil wizard, finito. What background context there was tended to be tongue-in-cheek, more Piers Anthony than J.R.R. Tolkien; the most desirable sword in the game was called the “Blade of Cuisinart,” for Pete’s sake. Wizardry‘s Japanese translators, however, took it all in with wide-eyed earnestness, missing the winking and nodding entirely. They saw a rather grim, austere milieu a million miles away from the game that Americans knew — a place where a Cuisinart wasn’t a stainless-steel food processor but a portentous ancient warrior clan.

When the Japanese started to make their own Wizardry games, they continued in this direction, to almost hilarious effect if one knew the source material behind their efforts; it rather smacks of the post-apocalyptic monks in A Canticle for Liebowitz making a theology for themselves out of the ephemeral advertising copy of their pre-apocalyptic forebears. A franchise that had in its first several American releases aspired to be about nothing more than killing monsters for loot — and many of them aggressively silly monsters at that — gave birth to audio CDs full of po-faced stories and lore, anime films and manga books, a sprawling line of toys and miniature figures, even a complete tabletop RPG system. But, lest we Westerners begin to feel too smug about all this, know that the same process would eventually come to work in reverse in the JRPG field, with nuanced Japanese writing being flattened out and flat-out misunderstood by clueless American translators.

The history of Wizardry in Japan is fascinating by dint of its sheer unlikeliness, but the game’s importance on the global stage actually stems more from the Japanese games it influenced than from the ones that bore the Wizardry name right there on the box. For Wizardry, along with the early Ultima games, happened to catch the attention of Koichi Nakamura and Yuji Horii, a software-development duo who had already made several games together for a Japanese publisher called Enix. “Horii-san was really into Ultima, and I was really into Wizardry,” remembers Nakamura. This made sense. Nakamura was the programmer of the pair, naturally attracted to Wizardry‘s emphasis on tactics and systems. Horii, on the other hand, was the storytelling type, who wrote for manga magazines in addition to games, and was thus drawn to Ultima‘s quirkier, more sprawling world and its spirit of open-ended exploration. The pair decided to make their own RPG for the Japanese market, combining what they each saw as the best parts of Wizardry and Ultima.

Yuji Horii in the 1980s. Little known outside his home country, he is a celebrity inside its borders. In his book on Japanese videogame culture, Chris Kohler calls him a Steven Spielberg-like figure there, in terms both of name recognition and the style of entertainment he represents.

This was interesting, but not revolutionary in itself; you’ll remember that Henk Rogers had already done essentially the same thing in Japan with The Black Onyx before Wizardry and Ultima ever officially arrived there. Nevertheless, the choices Nakamura and Horii made as they set about their task give them a better claim to the title of revolutionaries on this front than Rogers enjoys. They decided that making a game that combined the best of Wizardry and Ultima really did mean just that: it did not mean, that is to say, throwing together every feature of each which they could pack in and calling it a day, as many a Western developer might have. They decided to make a game that was simpler than either of its inspirations, much less the two of them together.

Their reasons for doing so were artistic, commercial, and technical. In the realm of the first, Horii in particular just didn’t like overly complicated games; he was the kind of player who would prefer never to have to glance at a manual, whose ideal game intuitively communicated to you everything you needed to know in order to play it. In the realm of the second, the pair was sure that the average Japanese person, like the average person in most countries, felt the same as Horii; even in the United States, Ultima and Wizardry were niche products, and Nakamura and Horii had mass-market ambitions. And in the realm of the third, they were sharply limited in how much they could put into their RPG anyway, because they intended it for the Nintendo Famicom console, where their entire game — code, data, graphics, and sound — would have to fit onto a 64 K cartridge in lieu of floppy disks and would have to be steerable using an eight-button controller in lieu of a keyboard. Luckily, Nakamura and Horii already had experience with just this sort of simplification. Their most recent output had been inspired by the adventure games of American companies like Sierra and Infocom, but had replaced those games’ text parsers with controller-friendly multiple-choice menus.

In deciding to put American RPGs through the same wringer, they established one of the core attributes of the JRPG sub-genre: generally speaking, these games were and would remain simpler than their Western counterparts, which sometimes seemed to positively revel in their complexity as a badge of honor. Another attribute emerged fully-formed from the writerly heart of Yuji Horii. He crafted an unusually rich, largely linear plot for the game. Rather than being a disadvantage, he thought linearity would make this new style of console game “more accessible to consumers”: “We really focused on ensuring people would be able to experience the fun of the story.”

He called upon his friends at the manga magazines to help him illustrate his tale with large, colorful figures in that distinctly Japanese style that has become so immediately recognizable all over the world. At this stage, it was perhaps more prevalent on the box than in the game itself, the Famicom’s graphical fidelity being what it was. Nonetheless, another precedent that has held true in JRPGs right down to the present day was set by the overall visual aesthetic of this, the canonical first example of the breed. Ditto its audio aesthetic, which took the form of a memorable, melodic, eminently hummable chip-tune soundtrack. “From the very beginning, we wanted to create a warm, inviting world,” says Horii.

Dragon Quest. Ultima veterans will almost expect to meet Lord British on his throne somewhere. With its overhead view and its large over-world full of towns to be visited, Dragon Quest owed even more to Ultima than it did to Wizardry — unsurprisingly so, given that the former was the American RPG which its chief creative architect Yuji Horii preferred.

Dragon Quest was released on May 27, 1986. Console gamers — not only those in Japan, but anywhere on the globe — had never seen anything like it. Playing this game to the end was a long-form endeavor that could stretch out over weeks or months; you wrote down an alphanumeric code it provided to you on exit, then entered this code when you returned to the game in order to jump back to wherever you had left off.

That said, the fact that the entire game state could be packed into a handful of numbers and letters does serve to illustrate just how simple Dragon Quest really was at bottom. By the standards of only a few years later, much less today, it was pretty boring. Fighting random monsters wasn’t so much a distraction from the rest of the game as the only thing available to do; the grinding was the game. In 2012, critic Nick Simberg wondered at “how willing we were to sit down on the couch and fight the same ten enemies over and over for hours, just building up gold and experience points”; he compared Dragon Quest to “a child’s first crayon drawing, stuck with a magnet to the fridge.”

And yet, as the saying goes, you have to start somewhere. Japanese gamers were amazed and entranced, buying 1 million copies of Dragon Quest in its first six months, over 2 million copies in all. And so a new sub-genre was born, inspired by American games but indelibly Japanese in a way The Black Onyx had not been. Many or most of the people who played and enjoyed Dragon Quest had never even heard of its original wellspring Dungeons & Dragons.

We all know what happens when a game becomes a hit on the scale of Dragon Quest. There were sequels — two within two years of the first game, then three more in the eight years after them, as the demands of higher production values slowed down Enix’s pace a bit. Wizardry was big in Japan, but it was nothing compared to Dragon Quest, which sold 2.4 million copies in its second incarnation, followed by an extraordinary 3.8 million copies in its third. Middle managers and schoolmasters alike learned to dread the release of a new entry in the franchise, as about half the population of Japan under a certain age would invariably call in sick that day. When Enix started bringing out the latest games on non-business days, a widespread urban legend said this had been done in accordance with a decree from the Japanese Diet, which demanded that “henceforth Dragon Quest games are to be released on Sunday or national holidays only”; the urban legend wasn’t true, but the fact that so many people in Japan could so easily believe it says something in itself. Just as the early American game Adventure lent its name to an entire genre that followed it, the Japanese portmanteau word for “Dragon Quest” — Dorakue — became synonymous with the RPG in general there, such that when you told someone you were “playing dorakue” you might really be playing one of the series’s countless imitators.

Giving any remotely complete overview of these dorakue games would require dozens of articles, along with someone to write them who knows far more about them than I do. But one name is inescapable in the field. I refer, of course, to Final Fantasy.


Hironobu Sakaguchi in 1991.

Legend has it that Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy, chose that name because he thought that the first entry in the eventual franchise would be the last videogame he ever made. A former professional musician with numerous and diverse interests, Sakaguchi had been working for the Japanese software developer and publisher Square for a few years already by 1987, designing and programming Famicom action games that he himself found rather banal and that weren’t even selling all that well. He felt ready to do something else with his life, was poised to go back to university to try to figure out what that thing ought to be. But before he did so, he wanted to try something completely different at Square.

Another, less dramatic but probably more accurate version of the origin story has it that Sakaguchi simply liked the way the words “final’ and “fantasy” sounded together. At any rate, he convinced his managers to give him half a dozen assistants and six months to make a dorakue game.[4]In another unexpected link between East and West, one of his most important assistants became Nasir Gebelli, an Iranian who had fled his country’s revolution for the United States in 1979 and become a game-programming rock star on the Apple II. After the heyday of the lone-wolf bedroom auteur began to fade there, Doug Carlston, the head of Brøderbund, brokered a job for him with his friends in Japan. There he maximized the Famicom’s potential in the same way he had that of the Apple II, despite not speaking a word of Japanese when he arrived. (“We’d go to a restaurant and no matter what he’d order — spaghetti or eggs — they’d always bring out steak,” Sakaguchi laughs.) Gebelli would program the first three Final Fantasy games almost all by himself.

 

Final Fantasy I.

The very first Final Fantasy may not have looked all that different from Dragon Quest at first glance — it was still a Famicom game, after all, with all the audiovisual limitations that implies — but it had a story line that was more thematically thorny and logistically twisted than anything Yuji Horii might have come up with. As it began, you found yourself in the midst of a quest to save a princess from an evil knight, which certainly sounded typical enough to anyone who had ever played a dorakue game before. In this case, however, you completed that task within an hour, only to learn that it was just a prologue to the real plot. In his book-length history and study of the aesthetics of Japanese videogames, Chris Kohler detects an implicit message here: “Final Fantasy is about much more than saving the princess. Compared to the adventure that is about to take place, saving a princess is merely child’s play.” In fact, only after the prologue was complete did the opening credits finally roll, thus displaying another consistent quality of Final Fantasy: its love of unabashedly cinematic drama.

Still, for all that it was more narratively ambitious than what had come before, the first Final Fantasy can, like the first Dragon Quest, seem a stunted creation today. Technical limitations meant that you still spent 95 percent of your time just grinding for experience. “Final Fantasy may have helped build the genre, but it didn’t necessarily know exactly how to make it fun,” acknowledges Aidan Moher in his book about JRPGs. And yet when it came to dorakue games in the late 1980s, it seemed that Sakaguchi’s countrymen were happy to reward even the potential for eventual fun. They made Final Fantasy the solid commercial success that had heretofore hovered so frustratingly out of reach of its creator; it sold 400,000 copies. Assured that he would never have to work on a mindless action game again, Sakaguchi agreed to stay on at Square to build upon its template.

Final Fantasy II, which was released exactly one year after the first game in December of 1988 and promptly doubled its sales, added more essential pieces to what would become the franchise’s template. Although labelled and marketed as a sequel, its setting, characters, and plot had no relation to what had come before. Going forward, it would remain a consistent point of pride with Sakaguchi to come up with each new Final Fantasy from whole cloth, even when fans begged him for a reunion with their favorite places and people. In a world afflicted with the sequelitis that ours is, he can only be commended for sticking to his guns.

In another sense, though, Final Fantasy II was notable for abandoning a blank slate rather than embracing it. For the first time, its players were given a pre-made party full of pre-made personalities to guide rather than being allowed to roll their own. Although they could rename the characters if they were absolutely determined to do so — this ability would be retained as a sort of vestigial feature as late as Final Fantasy VII — they were otherwise set in stone, the better to serve the needs of the set-piece story Sakaguchi wanted to tell. This approach, which many players of Western RPGs did and still do regard as a betrayal of one of the core promises of the genre, would become commonplace in JRPGs. Few contrasts illustrate so perfectly the growing divide between these two visions of the RPG: the one open-ended and player-driven, sometimes to a fault; the other tightly scripted and story-driven, again sometimes to a fault. In a Western RPG, you write a story for yourself; in a JRPG, you live a story that someone else has already written for you.

Consider, for example, the two lineage’s handling of mortality. If one of your characters dies in battle in a Western RPG, it might be difficult and expensive, or in some cases impossible, to restore her to life; in this case, you either revert to an earlier saved state or you just accept her death as another part of the story you’re writing and move on to the next chapter with an appropriately heavy heart. In a JRPG, on the other hand, death in battle is never final; it’s almost always easy to bring a character who gets beat down to zero hit points back to life. What are truly fatal, however, are pre-scripted deaths, the ones the writers have deemed necessary for storytelling purposes. Final Fantasy II already contained the first of these; years later, Final Fantasy VII would be host to the most famous of them all, a death so shocking that you just have to call it that scene and everyone who has ever played the game will immediately know what you’re talking about. To steal a phrase from Graham Nelson, the narrative always trumps the crossword in JRPGs; they happily override their gameplay mechanics whenever the story they wish to tell demands it, creating an artistic and systemic discontinuity that’s enough to make Aristotle roll over in his grave. Yet a huge global audience of players are not bothered at all by it — not if the story is good enough.

But we’ve gotten somewhat ahead of ourselves; the evolution of the 1980s JRPG toward the modern-day template came in fits and starts rather than a linear progression. Final Fantasy III, which was released in 1990, actually returned to a player-generated party, and yet the market failed to punish it for its conservatism. Far from it: it sold 1.4 million copies.

Final Fantasy IV, on the other hand, chose to double down on the innovations Final Fantasy II had deployed, and sold in about the same numbers as Final Fantasy III. Released in July of 1991, it provided you with not just a single pre-made party but an array of characters who moved in and out of your control as the needs of the plot dictated, thereby setting yet another longstanding precedent for the series going forward. Ditto the nature of the plot, which leaned into shades of gray as never before. Chris Kohler:

The story deals with mature themes and complex characters. In Final Fantasy II, the squeaky-clean main characters were attacked by purely evil dark knights; here, our main character is a dark knight struggling with his position, paid to kill innocents, trying to reconcile loyalty to his kingdom with his sense of right and wrong. He is involved in a sexual relationship. His final mission for the king turns out to be a mass murder: the “phantom monsters” are really just a town of peaceful humans whose magic the corrupt king has deemed dangerous. (Note the heavy political overtones.)

Among Western RPGs, only the more recent Ultima games had dared to deviate so markedly from the absolute-good-versus-absolute-evil tales of everyday heroic fantasy. (In fact, the plot of Final Fantasy IV bears a lot of similarities to that of Ultima V…)

Ever since Final Fantasy IV, the series has been filled with an inordinate number of moody young James Deans and long-suffering Natalie Woods who love them.

Final Fantasy IV was also notable for introducing an “active-time battle system,” a hybrid between the turn-based systems the series had previously employed and real-time combat, designed to provide some of the excitement of the latter without completely sacrificing the tactical affordances of the former. (In a nutshell, if you spend too long deciding what to do when it’s your turn, the enemies will jump in and take another turn of their own while you dilly-dally.) It too would remain a staple of the franchise for many installments to come.

Final Fantasy V, which was released in December of 1992, was like Final Fantasy III something of a placeholder or even a retrenchment, dialing back on several of the fourth game’s innovations. It sold almost 2.5 million copies.

Both the fourth and fifth games had been made for the Super Famicom, Nintendo’s 16-bit successor to its first console, and sported correspondingly improved production values. But most JRPG fans agree that it was with the sixth game — the last for the Super Famicom — that all the pieces finally came together into a truly friction-less whole. Indeed, a substantial and vocal minority will tell you that Final Fantasy VI rather than its immediate successor is the best Final Fantasy ever, balanced perfectly between where the series had been and where it was going.

Final Fantasy VI abandoned conventional epic-fantasy settings for a steampunk milieu out of Jules Verne. As we’ll see in a later article, Final Fantasy VII‘s setting would deviate even more from the norm. This creative restlessness is one of the series’s best traits, standing it in good stead in comparison to the glut of nearly indistinguishably Tolkienesque Western RPGs of the 1980s and 1990s.

From its ominous opening-credits sequence on, Final Fantasy VI strained for a gravitas that no previous JRPG had approached, and arguably succeeded in achieving it at least intermittently. It played out on a scale that had never been seen before; by the end of the game, more than a dozen separate characters had moved in and out of your party. Chris Kohler identifies the game’s main theme as “love in all its forms — romantic love, parental love, sibling love, and platonic love. Sakaguchi asks the player, what is love and where can we find it?”

Before that scene in Final Fantasy VII, Hironobu Sakaguchi served up a shocker of equal magnitude in Final Fantasy VI. Halfway through the game, the bad guys win despite your best efforts and the world effectively ends, leaving your party wandering through a post-apocalyptic World of Ruin like the characters in a Harlan Ellison story. The effect this had on some players’ emotions could verge on traumatizing — heady stuff for a videogame on a console still best known worldwide as the cuddly home of Super Mario. For many of its young players, Final Fantasy VI was their first close encounter on their own recognizance — i.e., outside of compulsory school assignments — with the sort of literature that attempts to move beyond tropes to truly, thoughtfully engage with the human condition.

It’s easy for an old, reasonably well-read guy like me to mock Final Fantasy VI‘s highfalutin aspirations, given that they’re stuffed into a game that still resolves at the granular level into bobble-headed figures fighting cartoon monsters. And it’s equally easy to scoff at the heavy-handed emotional manipulation that has always been part and parcel of the JRPG; subtle the sub-genre most definitely is not. Nonetheless, meaningful literature is where you find it, and the empathy it engenders can only be welcomed in a world in desperate need of it. Whatever else you can say about Final Fantasy and most of its JRPG cousins, the messages these games convey are generally noble ones, about friendship, loyalty, and the necessity of trying to do the right thing in hard situations, even when it isn’t so easy to even figure out what the right thing is. While these messages are accompanied by plenty of violence in the abstract, it is indeed abstracted — highly stylized and, what with the bifurcation between game and story that is so prevalent in the sub-genre, often oddly divorced from the games’ core themes.

Released in April of 1994, Final Fantasy VI sold 2.6 million copies in Japan. By this point the domestic popularity of the Final Fantasy franchise as a whole was rivaled only by that of Super Mario and Dragon Quest; two of the three biggest gaming franchises in Japan, that is to say, were dorakue games. In the Western world, however, the picture was quite different.

In the United States, the first-generation Nintendo Famicom was known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, the juggernaut of a console that rescued videogames in the eyes of the wider culture from the status of a brief-lived fad to that of a long-lived entertainment staple, on par with movies in terms of economics if not cachet. Yet JRPGs weren’t a part of that initial success story. The first example of the breed didn’t even reach American shores until 1989. It was, appropriately enough, the original Dragon Quest, the game that had started it all in Japan; it was renamed Dragon Warrior for the American market, due to a conflict with an old American tabletop RPG by the name of Dragonquest whose trademarks had been acquired by the notoriously litigious TSR of Dungeons & Dragons fame. Enix did make some efforts to modernize the game, such as replacing the password-based saving system with a battery that let you save your state to the cartridge itself. (This same method had been adopted by Final Fantasy and most other post-Dragon Quest JRPGs on the Japanese market as well.) But American console gamers had no real frame of reference for Dragon Warrior, and even the marketing geniuses of Nintendo, which published the game itself in North America, struggled to provide them one. With cartridges piling up in Stateside warehouses, they were reduced to giving away hundreds of thousands of copies of Dragon Warrior to the subscribers of Nintendo Power magazine. For some of these, the game came as a revelation seven years before Final Fantasy VII; for most, it was an inscrutable curiosity that was quickly tossed aside.

Final Fantasy I, on the other hand, received a more encouraging reception in the United States when it reached there in 1990: it sold 700,000 copies, 300,000 more than it had managed in Japan. Nevertheless, with the 8-bit Nintendo console reaching the end of its lifespan, Square didn’t bother to export the next two games in the series. It did export Final Fantasy IV for the Super Famicom — or rather the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, as it was known in the West. The results were disappointing in light of the previous game’s reception, so much so that Square didn’t export Final Fantasy V.[5]Square did release a few spinoff games under the Final Fantasy label in the United States and Europe as another way of testing the Western market: Final Fantasy Legend and Final Fantasy Adventure for the Nintendo Game Boy handheld console, and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest for the Super Nintendo. Although none of them were huge sellers, the Game Boy titles in particular have their fans even today. This habit of skipping over parts of the series led to a confusing state of affairs whereby the American Final Fantasy II was the Japanese Final Fantasy IV and the American Final Fantasy III was the Japanese Final Fantasy VI. The latter game shifted barely one-fourth as many copies in the three-times larger American marketplace as it had in Japan — not disastrous numbers, but still less than the first Final Fantasy had managed.

The heart of the problem was translation, in both the literal sense of the words on the screen and a broader cultural sense. Believing with some justification that the early American consoles from Atari and others had been undone by a glut of substandard product, Nintendo had long made a science out of the polishing of gameplay, demanding that every prospective release survive an unrelenting testing gauntlet before it was granted the “Nintendo Seal of Quality” and approved for sale. But the company had no experience or expertise in polishing text to a similar degree. In most cases, this didn’t matter; most Nintendo games contained very little text anyway. But RPGs were the exception. The increasingly intricate story lines which JRPGs were embracing by the early 1990s demanded good translations by native speakers. What many of them actually got was something very different, leaving even those American gamers who wanted to fall in love baffled by the Japanese-English-dictionary-derived word salads they saw before them. And then, too, many of the games’ cultural concerns and references were distinctly Japanese, such that even a perfect translation might have left Americans confused. It was, one might say, the Blade of Cuisinart problem in reverse.

To be sure, there were Americans who found all of the barriers to entry into these deeply foreign worlds to be more bracing than intimidating, who took on the challenge of meeting the games on their own terms, often emerging with a lifelong passion for all things Japanese. At this stage, though, they were the distinct minority. In Japan and the United States alike, the conventional wisdom through the mid-1990s was that JRPGs didn’t and couldn’t sell well overseas; this was regarded as a fact of life as fundamental as the vagaries of climate. (Thanks to this belief, none of the mainline Final Fantasy games to date had been released in Europe at all.) It would take Final Fantasy VII and a dramatic, controversial switch of platforms on the part of Square to change that. But once those things happened… look out. The JRPG would conquer the world yet.


Where to Get It: Remastered and newly translated versions of the Japanese Final Fantasy I, II, III, IV, V, and VI are available on Steam. The Dragon Quest series has been converted to iOS and Android apps, just a search away on the Apple and Google stores.



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: the books Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World by Matt Alt, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life by Chris Kohler, Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West by Aidan Moher, and Atari to Zelda: Japan’s Videogames in Global Contexts by Mia Consalvo. GameFan of September 1997; Retro Gamer 69, 108, and 170; Computer Gaming World of September 1985 and December 1992.

Online sources include Polygon‘s authoritative Final Fantasy 7: An Oral History”; “The Long Life of the Original Wizardry by guest poster Alex on The CRPG Addict blog; Wizardry: Japanese Franchise Outlook” by Sam Derboo at Hardcore Gaming 101, plus an interview Robert Woodhead, conducted by Jared Petty at the same site; Wizardry‘s Wild Ride from West to East” at VentureBeat; “The Secret History of AnimEigo” at that company’s homepage; Robert Woodhead’s slides from a presentation at the 2022 KansasFest Apple II convention; a post on tabletop Wizardry at the Japanese Tabletop RPG blog; and Dragon Warrior: Aging Disgracefully” by Nick Simberg at (the now-defunct) DamnLag.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Adams was not an entirely disinterested observer. He was already working with Robert Woodhead on Wizardry IV, and had in fact accompanied him to Japan in this capacity.
2 A man with an international perspective if ever there was one, Rogers would later go on to fame and fortune as the man who brought Tetris out of the Soviet Union.
3 It would be briefly revived for one final game, the appropriately named Wizardry 8, in 2001.
4 In another unexpected link between East and West, one of his most important assistants became Nasir Gebelli, an Iranian who had fled his country’s revolution for the United States in 1979 and become a game-programming rock star on the Apple II. After the heyday of the lone-wolf bedroom auteur began to fade there, Doug Carlston, the head of Brøderbund, brokered a job for him with his friends in Japan. There he maximized the Famicom’s potential in the same way he had that of the Apple II, despite not speaking a word of Japanese when he arrived. (“We’d go to a restaurant and no matter what he’d order — spaghetti or eggs — they’d always bring out steak,” Sakaguchi laughs.) Gebelli would program the first three Final Fantasy games almost all by himself.
5 Square did release a few spinoff games under the Final Fantasy label in the United States and Europe as another way of testing the Western market: Final Fantasy Legend and Final Fantasy Adventure for the Nintendo Game Boy handheld console, and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest for the Super Nintendo. Although none of them were huge sellers, the Game Boy titles in particular have their fans even today.
 
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Posted by on November 17, 2023 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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A Digital Pornutopia, Part 2: The Internet is for Porn


Fair warning: although there’s no nudity in the pictures below, the text of this article does contain frank descriptions of the human anatomy and sexual acts.

When you want to know where the zeitgeist is heading, just look to what the punters are lining up to see on Broadway. To wit: the unexpected breakout hit of the 2003 to 2004 season was Avenue Q, a low-budget send-up of Sesame Street where the puppets cursed, drank, and had sex with one another. They were rude, crude, and weirdly relatable — even lovable, what with their habit of breaking into song at the drop of a hat. The most enduring of their songs was a timeless show tune called “The Internet is for Porn.” (Eat your hearts out, Rodgers and Hammerstein!) It became, inevitably, an Internet meme of its own, reflecting an unnerving feeling that the ground was shifting beneath society’s feet, that the most important practical affordance of the World Wide Web, that noble experiment in the unfettered exchange of information, might indeed be to put porn at the fingertips of every human being with a computer on his desk.

And yet the world hadn’t seen anything yet in 2003; the statistics surrounding Internet porn would become truly gob-smacking after streaming video and smartphones became everyday commodities. By 2016, Pornhub, the biggest smut aggregator on the Internet, would be attracting four visits per year for every man, woman, and child on the planet. There was enough material on that site alone to keep a porn hound glued to his screen for five times as long as Homo sapiens have existed, with more fresh porn being uploaded to the site every few months than the entirety of the twentieth century had managed to produce. Needless to say, the pace of neither porn consumption nor production has cooled off a jot in the years since.

On one level, the sheer size of porn’s digital footprint is kind of hilarious. How many images do we really need of an activity which has only a limited number of possible permutations and combinations in the end, despite the fevered efforts of the imaginations behind it to discover… well, not quite virgin territory, but you know what I mean. I’ve long since come to realize that I am, for better or for worse, a member of the last generation of Western humanity to have grown up thinking of images of naked bodies and sexual activity as a scarce commodity. Cue the anecdotes about the lengths boys like I was used to have to go to in order to get a glimpse of an actual naked or even partially unclothed woman: sneaking into Dad’s Playboy stash, circumventing the child lockout on the family television’s cable box, perusing Big Sister’s Victoria’s Secret catalog, even resorting when worst came to worst to the sturdy maidens in equally sturdy brassieres that used to be found in the lingerie section of the Sears catalog. Such tales read as quaintly as the courtship rituals of Jane Austen novels to the generation after ours, who just have to pull their phones out of their pockets to see sights that would have shocked the young me to my pubescent core.

Yet lurking behind the farcical absurdity of porn’s present-day popularity are serious questions for which none of us have any concrete answers. What does it do to young people to grow up with virtual if not physical sex at their literal fingertips? For that matter, what does it do to those of us who aren’t so young anymore? Some point hopefully to statistics which seem to show that accessible porn leads to dramatically decreased rates of real-world sexual violence. But even those of us who try our darnedest to be open-minded and sex-positive can’t always suppress the uneasy feeling that turning an act as intimate as making love into a commodity as ubiquitous as toilet paper may come at a cost to our humanity.

Of course, we won’t be able to resolve these dilemmas here. What we will do today, however, is learn how the song “The Internet is for Porn” may have been more truthy than even its writers were aware of. For if you look at the technologies and practices that make the modern Web go — not the idealistic building blocks provided by J.C.R. Licklider and Tim Berners-Lee and their many storied colleagues, but the ones behind the commercial Web of today — you find that a crazy amount of them came straight out of porn: online payment systems, ad trackers, affiliated marketing, streaming video, video conferencing… all of them and more were made for porn.



It was fully eight years before Avenue Q opened that the mainstream media’s attention was captured for the first time by porn on the Internet. On June 14, 1995, Jim Exon, a 74-year-old Democratic senator from Nebraska, stood up inside the United States Capitol Building to lead his colleagues in a prayer.

Almighty God, lord of all life, we praise you for the advancements in computerized communications that we enjoy in our time. Sadly, however, there are those who are littering this information superhighway with obscene, indecent, and destructive pornography. Now, guide the senators when they consider ways of controlling the pollution of computer communications and how to preserve one of our greatest resources: the minds of our children and the future moral strength of our nation. Amen.

As Exon spoke, he waved a blue binder in front of his face, filled, so he said, with filthy pictures his staff had found online. “I cannot and would not show these pictures to the Senate,” he thundered. “I would not want our cameras to pick them up. If nothing is done now, the pornographers may become the primary beneficiary of the information revolution.”

Most of his audience had no idea what he was on about. An exception was Dan Coats, a Republican senator from Indiana, who had in fact been the one to light a fire under Exon in the first place. “With old Internet technology, retrieving and viewing any graphic image on a PC at home could be laborious,” Coats explained in slightly more grounded diction after Exon had finished his righteous call to arms. “New Internet technology, like browsers for the Web, makes all of this easier.” He cited a study that was about to be published in The Georgetown Law Review, claiming that 450,000 pornographic images could already be found online, and that these had already been downloaded 6.4 million times. What on earth would happen once the Internet became truly ubiquitous, something everyone expected to happen over the next few years? “Think of the children!”

Luckily for that most precious of all social resources, Coats and Exon had legislation ready to go. Their bill would make it a federal crime to “use any interactive computer service to display in a manner available to a person under eighteen years of age, any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs.” Nonplussed though they largely were by it all, “few senators wanted to cast a nationally televised vote that might later be characterized as pro-pornography,” as Time magazine put it. The bill passed by a vote of 86 to 14.

On February 8, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the final version of the Communications Decency Act into law. “Today,” he said, “with the stroke of a pen, our laws will catch up to the future.” Or perhaps not quite today: just as countless legal experts had warned would happen, the new law was immediately tied up in litigation, challenged as an unacceptable infringement on the right to free speech.

Looking back, the most remarkable thing about this first furor over online porn is just how early it came, before the World Wide Web was more than a vague aspirational notion, if that, in the minds of the large majority of Americans. The Georgetown Law study which had prompted it — a seriously flawed if not outright fraudulent study, written originally as an undergraduate research paper — didn’t focus on the Web at all but rather on Usenet, a worldwide textual discussion forum which had been hacked long ago to foster the exchange of binary files as well, among them dirty pictures.

Nevertheless, by the time the Communications Decency Act became one of the shakier laws of the land the locus of digital porn was migrating quickly from CD-ROM and Usenet to the Web. Like so much else there, porn on the Web began more in a spirit of amateur experimentation than hard-eyed business acumen. During the early days of Mosaic and Netscape and Web 1.0, hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks who could sense a communications revolution in the offing rushed to learn HTML and set up their own little pages on the Web, dedicated to whatever topic they found most interesting. For some of them, that topic was sex. There are far too many stories here for me to tell you today, but we can make space for one of them at least. It involves Jen Peterson and Dave Miller, a young couple just out of high school who were trying to make ends meet in their cramped Baltimore apartment.

In the spring of 1995, Jen got approved for a Sears credit card, whereupon Dave convinced her that they should buy a computer with their windfall, to find out what this Internet thing that they were seeing in the news was really all about. So, they spent $4000 on a state-of-the-art 75Mhz Packard Bell system, complete with monitor and modem, and lugged it back home on the bus.

Dave’s first destinations on the Internet were Simpsons websites. But one day he asked himself, “I wonder if there’s any nudity on this thing?” Whereupon he discovered that there was an active trade in dirty pictures going on on Usenet. Now, it just so happened that Dave was something of a photographer himself, and his favorite subject was the unclothed Jen: “We would look at [the pictures] afterwards, and that would lead to even better sex. I wanted to share them. I wanted people to see Jen’s body.” Jen was game, so the couple started uploading their own pictures to Usenet.

But Usenet was just so baroque and unfriendly. Dave’s particular sexual kink — not an unusual one, on the spectrum of same — made him want to show Jen to as many people as possible, which meant finding a more accessible medium for the purpose. In or around October of 1995, the couple opened “JENnDAVE’s HOME PAGE!” (“I called us Jen and Dave rather than Dave and Jen,” says Dave, “because I knew nobody was there to see me. I wasn’t being sweet; I was being practical.”) At that time, Internet service providers gave you a home page with which to plant your flag on the Web as part of your subscription, so the pair’s initial financial investment in the site was literally zero. This same figure was, not coincidentally, what they charged their visitors.

Jen and Dave’s home page, from a simpler time when 800 X 600 was a high resolution.

But within five months, the site was attracting 25,000 visitors every day, and their service provider was growing restless under the traffic load; in fact, the amount of bandwidth Jen and Dave’s dirty pictures were absorbing was single-handedly responsible for the provider deleting the promise of “unlimited traffic” from its contracts. Meanwhile the Communications Decency Act had become law — a law which their site was all too plainly violating, placing them at risk of significant fines or even prison terms if the courts should finally decide that it was constitutional.

Yet just how was one to ensure that one’s porn wasn’t “available to a person under eighteen years of age,” as the law demanded, on the wide-open Web? Some folks, Jen and Dave among them, put up entrance pages which asked the visitor to click a button certifying that, “Yep, I’m eighteen, alright!” It was doubtful, however, whether a judge would construe such an honor system to mean that their sites were no longer “available” to youngsters. Out of this dilemma, almost as much as the pure profit motive, arose the need and desire to accept credit cards in return for dirty pictures over the Internet. For in the United States at least, a credit card, which by law could not be issued to anyone under the age of eighteen, was about as trustworthy a signifier of maturity as you were likely to find.

We’ll return to Jen and Dave momentarily. Right now, though, we must shift our focus to a wheeler and dealer named Richard Gordon, a fellow aptly described by journalist Samantha Cole as “a smooth serial entrepreneur with a grifter’s lean.” Certainly he had a sketchy background by almost anyone’s terms. In the late 1970s, he’d worked in New York in insurance and financial planning, and had gotten into the habit of dipping into his customers’ accounts to fund his own lavish lifestyle. He attempted to flee the country after being tipped off that he was under investigation by the feds, only to be dragged out of the closet of a friend’s apartment with a Concorde ticket to Paris in his hand. He served just two years of his seven-year prison sentence, emerging on parole in 1982 to continue the hustle.

Two years later, President Ronald Reagan’s administration effected a long-in-the-offing final breakup of AT&T, the corporate giant that had for well over half a century held an all but ironclad monopoly over telegraphy, telephony, and computer telecommunications in the United States. Overnight, one ginormous company became 23 smaller ones. There followed just the explosion of innovation that the Reagan administration had predicted, as those companies and other, new players all jockeyed for competitive advantage. Among other things, this led to a dramatic expansion in the leasing of “1-900” numbers: commercial telephone numbers which billed the people who called them by the minute. When it had first rolled them out in the 1970s, AT&T had imagined that they would be used for time and temperature updates, sports scores, movie listings, perhaps for dial-a-joke services, polls, and horoscopes. And indeed, they were used for all of these things and more. But if you’ve read this far, you can probably guess where this is going: they were used most of all for phone sex. The go-go 1980s in the telecom sector turned personalized auditory masturbation aids into a thriving cottage industry.

Still, there was a problem that many of those who wanted to get in on the action found well-nigh intractable: the problem of actually collecting money from their customers. The obvious way of doing so was through a credit card, which was quick and convenient and thus highly conducive to impulse buying, and which could serve as an age guarantee to boot. But the credit-card companies were huge corporations with convoluted application processes for merchants, difficult entities for the average shoestring phone-sex provider teetering on the ragged edge of business-world legitimacy to deal with.

Richard Gordon saw opportunity in this state of affairs. He set up an intermediate credit-card-billing service for the phone-sex folks. They just had to sign up with him, and he would take care of all the rest — for a small cut of the transactions he processed, naturally. His system came with an additional advantage which phone-sex customers greatly appreciated: instead of, say, “1-900-HOT-SEXX” appearing on their credit-card statements, there appeared only the innocuously generic name of “Electronic Card Systems,” which was much easier to explain away to a suspicious spouse. Gordon made a lot of money off phone sex, learning along the way an important lesson: that there was far more money to be made in facilitating the exchange of porn than in making the stuff yourself and selling it directly. The venture even came with a welcome veneer of plausible deniability; there was nothing preventing Gordon from signing up other sorts of 1-900 numbers to his billing service as well. These could be the customers he talked about at polite cocktail parties, even as he made the bulk of his money from telephonic masturbation.

The Web came to his attention in the mid-1990s. “What is the Net?” he asked himself. “It’s just a phone call with pictures.” So, Gordon extended his thriving phone-sex billing service to the purveyors of Internet pornography. In so doing, he would “play a significant role in the birth of electronic commerce,” as The New York Times would diffidently put it twelve years later, “laying the groundwork for electronic transactions conducted with credit cards, opening the doors to the first generation of e-commerce startups.”

In truth, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of this step to the evolution of the Web. Somewhat contrary to The New York Times‘s statement, Richard Gordon did not invent e-commerce from whole cloth; it had been going on on closed commercial services like CompuServe since the mid-1980s. Because those services were run from the top down and, indeed, were billing their customers’ credit cards every month already, they were equipped out of the box to handle online transactions in a way that the open, anarchic Web was not. Netscape provided the necessary core technology for this purpose when they added support for encrypted traffic to their Navigator browser. But it was Gordon and a handful of others like him who actually made commerce on the Web a practical reality, blazing trails that would soon be followed by more respectable institutions; without Gordon’s Electronic Card Services to show the way, there would never have been a PayPal.

In the meantime, Gordon happily accepted babes in the woods like Jen Peterson and Dave Miller, who wouldn’t have had a clue how to set up a merchant’s account with any one of the credit-card companies, much less all of them for maximum customer convenience. “He was the house for Internet porn in those days,” says one Steven Peisner, who worked for him. “At that time, if you had anything to do with Internet porn, you called Electronic Card Systems.”

Thanks to Gordon, Jen and Dave were able to sign up with a real hosting company and start charging $5 for six months of full access to their site in early 1996. By the turn of the millennium, the price was $15 for one month.

Dave in booby clover.

The site lost some of its innocence in another sense as well over the course of time. What had begun with cheesecake nudie pics turned into real hardcore porn, as others came to join in on the fun. “I would be with other girls and Jen would be with other dudes and most of the time, that was in the context of picture taking,” says Dave. “People said, ‘Oh Jen and Dave, you’ve gone away from your roots, you’re no longer the sweet innocent couple that you were. Now, you’ll screw anybody.'”

Their unlikely careers in porn largely ended after they had twins in 2005, by which time their quaint little site was already an anachronism in a sea of cutthroat porn aggregators. Today Dave works in medical administration and runs pub quizzes on the weekends, while Jen maintains their sexy archive and runs a home. They have no regrets about their former lives. “We were just looking to have a good time and spread the ideals of body-positivity and sex-positivity,” says Jen. “Even if we didn’t yet have the words for those things.”

Jen and Dave today, in wholesome middle age.

A Pennsylvanian college student named Jennifer Ringley was a trailblazer of a different stripe, billing herself as a “lifecaster.” In 1996, she saw an early webcam, capable of capturing still images only, for sale in the Dickinson College bookstore and just had to have it. “You could become the human version of FishCam,” joked one of her friends, referring to a camera that had been set up in an aquarium in Mountain View, California, to deliver a live feed, refreshed every three to four seconds, to anyone who visited its website. Having been raised in a nudist family, Ringley was no shrinking violet; she found the idea extremely appealing.

The result was JenniCam, which showed what was going on in her dorm room around the clock — albeit, this being the 1990s, in the form of a linear series of still photographs only, snapped at the rather bleary-eyed resolution of 320 X 240. “Whatever you’re seeing isn’t staged or faked,” she said, “and while I don’t claim to be the most interesting person in the world, there’s something compelling about real life that staging it wouldn’t bring to the medium.” She was at pains to point out that JenniCam was a social experiment, one of many that were making the news on the early Web at the time. Whatever else it was, it wasn’t porn; if you happened to catch her changing clothes or making out with a boy she’d brought back to the room or even pleasuring herself alone, that was just another aspect of the life being documented.

One cannot help but feel that she protested a bit too much. After all, her original domain name was boudoir.org, and she wasn’t above performing the occasional striptease for the camera. Even if she hadn’t played for the camera so obviously at times, we would have reason to doubt whether the scenes it captured were the same as they would have been had the camera not been present. For, as documentary-film theory teaches us, the “fly on the wall” is a myth; the camera always changes the scene it captures by the very fact of its presence.

Jenny Ringley

Jenny Ringley not performing at all for the camera.

Like Jen and Dave, Ringley first put her pictures online for free, but later she began charging for access. At its peak, her site was getting millions of hits every day. “The peep-show nature of the medium was enough to get viewers turned on,” writes Patchen Barss in The Erotic Engine, a study of pornography. “Just having a window into a real person’s life was plenty — people would pay for the occasional chance to observe Ringley’s non-porn-star-like sex life, or to just catch her walking naked to the shower.”

Ringley inspired countless imitators, some likewise insisting that they were engaged in a social experiment or art project, others leaning more frankly into titillation. Some of the shine went off the experiment for her personally in 2000, when she was captured enjoying a tryst with the fiancé of another “cam girl.” (Ah, what a strange world it was already becoming…) The same mainstream media that had been burning with high-minded questions to ask her a few years earlier now labeled her a “redheaded little minx” and “amoral man-trapper.” Still, she kept her site going until December 31, 2003, making a decent living from a 95-percent male clientele who wanted the thrill of being a Peeping Tom without the dangers.

Sites like Jen and Dave’s and to some extent Jennifer Ringley’s existed on the hazy border between amateur exhibitionism and porn as a business. Much of their charm, if that is a word that applies in your opinion, stems from their ramshackle quality. But other keen minds realized early on that online porn was going to be huge, and set out far more methodically to capitalize on it.

One of the most interesting and unique of them was the stripper and model who called herself Danni Ashe, who marketed herself as a living, breathing fantasy of nerdy males, a “geek with big breasts,” as she put it. Well before becoming an online star, she was a headline attraction at strip clubs all over the country, thanks to skin-magazine “profiles” and soft-core videos. “I ventured onto the Internet and quickly got into the Usenet newsgroups, where I was hearing that my pictures were being posted, and started talking to people,” she said later. “I spent several really intense months in the newsgroups, and it was out of those conversations that the idea for Danni’s Hard Drive was born.” According to her official lore, she learned HTML during a vacation to the Bahamas and coded up her site all by herself from scratch.

In contrast to the sites we’ve already met, Danni’s Hard Drive was designed to make money from the start. It went live with a subscription price of $20 per month, which provided access to hundreds of nude and semi-nude photographs of the proprietor and, soon enough, many other women as well. Ashe dealt only in pictorials not much more explicit than those seen in Playboy, both in the case of her own pictures and those of others. As Samantha Cole writes, “Danni never shot any content with men and never posted images of herself with anything — even a sex toy — inside her.” Despite its defiantly soft-core nature in a field where extremism usually reigns supreme, some accounts claim that Danni’s Hard Drive was the busiest single site on the Internet for a couple of years, consuming more bandwidth each day than the entirety of Central America. It was as innovative as it was profitable, setting into place more building blocks of the post-millennial Web. Most notably, it pioneered online video streaming via a proprietary technology called DanniVision more than half a decade before YouTube came to be.

Danni’s Hard Drive had 25,000 subscribers by the time DanniVision was added to its portfolio of temptations in 1999. It weathered the dot.com crash of the year 2000 with nary a scratch. In 2001, the business employed 45 people behind the cameras — almost all of them women — and turned an $8 million annual profit. Savvy businesswoman that she was, Ashe sold out at the perfect moment, walking away with millions in her pocket in 2004.

Equally savvy was one Beth Mansfield, who realized, like Richard Gordon before her, that the easiest and safest way to earn money from porn was as a facilitator rather than a maker. She was a 36-year-old unemployed accountant and single mother living with her children in a trailer in Alabama when she heard the buzz about the Web and resolved to find a way to make a living online. She decided that porn was the easiest content area in which to do so, even though she had no personal interest in it whatsoever. It was just smart business; she saw a hole in an existing market and figured out how to fill it.

Said hole was the lack of a good way to find the porn you found most exciting. With automated site-indexing Web crawlers still in their infancy, most people’s on-ramp to the Web at the time was the Yahoo! home page, an exhaustive list of hand-curated links, a sort of Internet Yellow Pages. But Yahoo! wasn’t about to risk offending the investors who had just rewarded it with the splashiest IPO this side of Netscape’s by getting into porn curation.

So, Mansfield decided to make her own Yahoo! for porn. She called it Persian Kitty, after the family cat. Anyone could submit a porn site to her to be listed, after which she would do her due diligence by ensuring it was what they said it was and add it to one or more of her many fussily specific categories. She compared her relationship with the sex organs she spent hours per day staring at to that of a gynecologist: “I’m probably the strangest adult cruiser there is. I go and look at the structure [of the site, not the sex organs!], look at what they offer, count the images, and I’m out.” While a simple listing on Persian Kitty was free, she made money — quite a lot of money — by getting the owners of porn sites to pay for banner advertisements and priority placement within the categories, long before such online advertising went mainstream. Like Danni Ashe, she eventually sold her business for a small fortune and walked away.

We’ve met an unexpected number of female entrepreneurs thus far. And indeed, if you’re looking for positives to take away from the earliest days of online porn, one of them must surely be the number of women who took advantage of the low barriers to entry in online media to make or facilitate porn on their own terms — a welcome contrast to the notoriously exploitive old-school porn industry, a morally reprehensible place regardless of your views on sexual mores. “People have an idea of who runs a sexually oriented site on the Web,” said Danni Ashe during a chance encounter with the film critic Roger Ebert at Cannes. “They think of a dirty old man with a cigar. A Mafia type.” However you judged her, she certainly didn’t fit that stereotype.

Sadly, though, the stereotype became more and more the rule as time went on and the money waiting to be made from sex on the Web continued to escalate almost exponentially. By the turn of the millennium, the online porn industry was mostly controlled by men, just like the offline one. In the end, that is to say, Richard Gordon rather than Danni Ashe or Beth Mansfield became the archetypal porn entrepreneur online as well.

Another of the new bosses who were the same as the old was Ron “Fantasy Man” Levi, an imposing amalgamation of muscles, tattoos, and hair tonic who looked and lived like a character out of a mob movie. Having made his first fortune as the owner of a network of phone-sex providers, Levi, like Gordon before him, turned to the Web as the logical next frontier. His programmers developed the technology behind what we now refer to as “online affiliate marketing,” yet another of the mainstays of modern e-commerce, in a package he called the “XXX Counter.”

In a sense, it was just a super-powered version of what Beth Mansfield was already doing on Persian Kitty. By taking advantage of cookies — small chunks of persistent information that a Web browser can be asked to store on a user’s hard drive, that can then be used to track that user’s progress from site to site — the XXX Counter was able to see exactly what links had turned a sex-curious surfer into a paying customer of one or more porn sites.

This technology is almost as important to the commercial Web of today as the ability to accept credit cards. It’s employed by countless online stores from Amazon on down, being among other things the reason that a profession with the title of “online influencer” exists today. (Oh, what a strange world we live in…) Patchen Barss:

The esoteric computer technology which originally merely allowed EuroNubiles.com to know when PantyhosePlanet.com had sent some customers their way is today a key part of how Amazon, iTunes, eBay, and thousands of other online retailers work. Each offers a commission system for referring sites that send paying traffic their way. They rarely acknowledge that this key part of their business model was developed and refined by the adult industry.

All of the stories and players we’ve met thus far, along with many, many more, added up to a thriving industry, long before respectable e-commerce was much more than a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’s eye. Wired magazine reported in its December 1997 issue that an extraordinary 28,000 adult sites now existed on the World Wide Web, and that one or more of them were visited by 30 percent of all Internet-connected computers every single month. Estimates of the annual revenues they were bringing in ranged from $100 million to $1.2 billion. The joke in Silicon Valley and Wall Street alike was that porn was the only thing yet making real money on the Web (as opposed to the funny money of IPOs and venture capitalists, a product of aspirations rather than operations). Porn was the only form of online content that people had as yet definitively shown themselves to be willing — eager, in fact — to pay for. From the same Wired article:

Within the information-and-entertainment category — sales of online content, as opposed to consumer goods and financial services — commercial sex sites are almost the only ones in the black. Other content providers, operating in an environment that puts any offering that doesn’t promise an orgasm at a competitive disadvantage, are still trying to come up with a viable business model. ESPN SportsZone may be one of the most popular content sites on the Web, but most of what it offers is free. Online game developers can’t figure out whether to impose a flat fee or charge by the hour or rely on ad sales. USA Today had to cut the monthly subscription fee on its website from $15 to $13 and finally to nothing. Among major print publications, only The Wall Street Journal has managed to impose a blanket subscription fee.

“Sex and money,” observes Mike Wheeler, president of MSNBC Desktop Video, a Web-based video news service for the corporate market. “Those are the two areas you can charge for.”

The San Francisco Chronicle put it more succinctly at about the same time: “There’s a two-word mantra for people who want to make money on the Internet — sex sells.”

Ironically, the Communications Decency Act — the law that had first prompted so many online porn operators to lock their content behind paywalls — was already history by the time the publications wrote these words. The Supreme Court had struck it down once and for all in June of 1997, calling it a gross violation of the right to free speech. Nevertheless, the paywalled porn sites remained. Too many people were making too much money for it to be otherwise. In attempting to stamp out online porn, Senators Coats and Exon had helped to create a monster beyond their wildest nightmares.

In addition to blazing the trails that the Jeff Bezos of the world would soon follow in terms of online payments and affiliate marketing, porn sites were embracing new technologies like JavaScript before just about anyone else. As Wired magazine wrote, “No matter how you feel about their content, sex sites are among the most visually dazzling around.” “We’re on the cutting edge of everything,” said one porn-site designer. “If there’s a new technology out there and we want to add it to the site, it’s not hard to convince management.”

I could keep on going, through online technology after online technology. For example, take the video-conferencing systems that have become such a mainstay of business life around the world since the pandemic. Porn was their first killer app, after some enterprising entrepreneurs figured out that the only thing better than phone sex was phone sex with video. The porn mavens even anticipated — ominously, some might say — the business models of modern-day social-media sites. “The consumers are the content!” crowed one of them in the midst of setting up a site for amateur porn stars to let it all hang out. The vast majority of that deluge of new porn that now gets uploaded every day comes from amateurs who expect little or nothing in payment beyond the thrill of knowing that others are getting off on watching them. The people hosting this material understand what Richard Gordon, Beth Mansfield and Ron Levi knew before them. Allow me to repeat it one more time, just for good measure: the real money is in porn facilitation, not in porn production.

In light of all this, it’s small wonder that nobody talked much about porn on CD-ROM after 1996, that AdultDex became all about online sex, showcasing products like a “$100,000 turnkey cyberporn system” — a porn site in a box, perfect for those looking to break into the Web’s hottest sector in a hurry. “The whole Internet is being driven by the adult industry,” said one AdultDex exhibitor who asked not to be named. “If all this were made illegal tomorrow, the Internet would go back to being a bunch of scientists discussing geek stuff in email.” That might have been overstating the case just a bit, but there was no denying that virtual sex was at the vanguard of the most revolutionary development in mass communications since the printing press. The World Wide Web had fulfilled the promise of the seedy ROM.



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Sources: The books How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex by Samantha Cole, Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age by Frederick S. Lane III, The Players Ball: A Genius, a Con Man, and the Secret History of the Internet’s Rise by David Kushner, The Erotic Engine by Patchen Barss, and The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession by Kelsy Burke. Wired of February 1997 and December 1997; Time of July 1995; San Francisco Chronicle of November 19 1997; San Diego Tribune of May 8 2017; New York Times of August 1 2003 and May 1 2004; Wall Street Journal of May 20 1997. Online sources include “Sex Sells, Doesn’t It?” Mark Gimein on Salon, Jen and Dave’s current (porn-free) home page, and “‘I Started Really Getting Into It’: Seven Pioneers of Amateur Porn Look Back” by Alexa Tsoulis-Reay at The Cut.

You can find the 1990s-vintage Jen and Dave, JenniCam, Danni’s Hard Drive, and Persian Kitty at archive.org. Needless to say, you should understand what you are getting into before you visit.

Finally, for a highly fictionalized and sensationalized but entertaining and truthy tale about the early days of online porn, see the 2009 movie Middle Men.

 
 

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A Digital Pornutopia, Part 1: The Seedy-ROM Revolution

Fair warning: although there’s no nudity in the pictures below, the text of this article does contain frank descriptions of the human anatomy and sexual acts.

If I’m showing people what a CD-ROM can do, and I try to show them the Kennedy assassination, their eyes glaze over. But if I show them an adult title, they perk right up.

— John Williams of Sierra On-Line, 1995

As long as humans have had technology, they’ve been using it for titillation. A quarter of a million years ago, they were carving female figurines with exaggerated breasts, buttocks, and vulvae out of stone. Well before they started using fired clay to make pottery for the storage of food, they were using the same material to make better versions of these “Venus figurines,” some of them so explicit that the archaeology textbooks of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries didn’t dare to reproduce or even describe them. And then as soon as humans had pigments and dyes to hand, they used them to paint dirty pictures on the walls of their caves.

Immediately after the world’s first known system of writing came to be in Mesopotamia, the people of that region began using it for naughty stories. (In one of them, a new wife tells her husband to place his hand in her “goodly place,” promising to compensate him in kind thereafter: “Let me caress you. My precious caress is more savory than honey.”) The ancient Greeks covered their household and decorative items with sexual imagery. And the Romans too were enthusiastic and uninhibited pornographers, as evidenced by the famous erotic wall frescoes inside Pompeii’s brothel.

Things changed somewhat in Europe with the rise of Christianity, a religion which, unlike the pagan belief systems that preceded it, framed the questions surrounding sex — whether you did it, with whom you did it, how you did it, even how and how much you thought about doing it — as issues of intense spiritual significance. “To be carnally minded is death,” wrote Saint Paul.

Yet the vicarious desires of the flesh couldn’t be quelled even by the prospect of an afterlife of eternal torment. Porn simply went underground, where it has remained to a large extent to this day. The Decameron of Boccaccio and The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, two of the most celebrated examples of Medieval literature, preserve some of the bawdy tales of promiscuous priests and nubile nuns that the largely illiterate peasantry told one another when they gathered in taverns out of earshot of their social betters.

The Gutenberg Bible of the fifteenth century was followed closely by less rarefied printed books, with titles like The Errant Prostitute. In the seventeenth century, the renowned English diarist Samuel Pepys wrote ashamedly of how he had found a copy of a book called The Girls’ School in a second-hand store, and spent so much time perusing its pages whilst, er, indulging himself that he finally felt compelled to burn “that idle, roguish book.” The book generally considered the first true English novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, appeared in 1740; John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the first English erotic novel, was published just eight years later. It spawned a lively market for written erotica, the consumption of which, followed perhaps by a visit to a brothel or two, became the Victorian Age’s version of sex education for gentlemen.

And then along came photography. Some of the first photographs ever taken were of nude women and cavorting couples; traveling circuses sold them from under the table to furtive men while their wives and children were off buying sweetmeats. Improved photographic techniques, combined with cheap “pulp” paper and cheaper printing technologies led to the first mass-market “skin” magazine in 1931: The Nudist, a publication of the American Sunbathing Association, who knew perfectly well that most of their audience wasn’t buying the magazine for tips on how best to soak up the rays. Throughout modern times, pornographers have often couched titillation under just such a veneer of “educational value.” And another, even more enduring truth of modern porn was also on display in The Nudist‘s pages: the camera lens focused most lovingly on the women. The producers and consumers of visual pornography have always been mostly men, although the reasons why this has been the case are matters for debate among psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists. (The opposite is largely the case for textual erotica in the post-photographic age, for whatever that’s worth.)

By the time The Nudist made the scene, still images of nakedness already had serious competition. Back in 1896, Thomas Edison had released a movie called The Kiss to widespread outrage. “They get ready to kiss, begin to kiss, and kiss and kiss and kiss in a way that brings down the house every time,” ran the description in Edison’s catalog, rather overselling the thrill of an 18-second movie that ends with little more than a chaste series of henpecks. But never fear, matters quickly escalated from there. The first known full-fledged porn film appeared in 1908. A synopsis of the action shows that, when it comes to porn as so many other things, those wise words from the Book of Ecclesiastes (“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun”) ring true: “A woman was seen pleasuring herself with a dildo, then another man and woman joined her for a threesome, involving lots of oral sex before intercourse.” By the 1920s, a full-fledged “blue” film industry was thriving in Hollywood alongside the more respectable one, using many of the same sets and in some cases even the same performers. The arrival of the Hays Code in 1933 put a damper on some of the fun, but the blue movies never went away, just slunk further underground. During the Second World War, the American military turned a blind eye to the “stag films” that infiltrated its ranks at every level; those who made them said it was their patriotic duty to help the boys in uniform through all those lonely nights in the barracks.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s brought big changes to movies, both above- and below-ground. Suddenly things that hadn’t been seen in respectable fare since 1933 — bare female breasts and sex scenes prominent among them — became commonplace in even the most conservative Middle American movie houses. At the same time, the arrival of cheap Super 8 cameras and projectors combined with the general loosening of social mores to yield what some connoisseurs still call the “golden age” of porn. To distinguish themselves from a less prudish mainstream-film industry, the purveyors of porn pushed boundaries of their own, into every imaginable combination of people and occasionally animals, with ever tighter shots of the actual equipment in action, as it were.

By 1970, there were more than 750 porn-only movie theaters in the United States alone. In 1973, a pornographic comedy called Deep Throat, a timeless tale of a woman born with her clitoris on the wrong end of her torso, became an international sensation, shown even by many “legitimate” theaters. Made for $25,000, it eventually grossed $100 million, enough to make it far and away the most successful film of all time when measured in terms of return on investment.

At the time, Deep Throat was widely heralded as the future of porn, but the era of mainstream “porno chic” which it ushered in proved short-lived. Instead of yielding more blockbusters in the style of respectable Hollywood, the porn industry that came after was distinguished by the sheer quantity of material it rolled out for every taste and kink. This explosion was enabled by the arrival of videotape in 1975; shooting direct to video was cheaper by almost an order of magnitude than even Super 8 film. But even more importantly, videotape players for the home gave the porn hounds and would-be porn hounds of the world a way to consume movies in privacy, thereby giving the porn industry access to millions upon millions of upstanding pillars of their communities who would never have frequented sticky-seated cinemas. Every porno kingpin in the world redoubled his production efforts in response, even as they all rushed en masse to move their libraries of “classics” onto videotape as well. The gold rush that followed made Deep Throat look like the flash in the pan it was. In 1978 and 1979, three quarters of all home movies sold in the United States were porn. That percentage inevitably dropped as the technology went more mainstream in the 1980s, but the raw numbers remained huge. Even in the late 1990s, Americans were still renting $4.2 billion worth of porn on videotape each year.

Advances in voice communication as well were co-opted by porn. The party lines of the 1960s and the pay-per-call services that sprang up in the 1980s were quickly taken over by it: respectively, by people wanting to talk dirty to one another and by people willing to pay a professional to talk dirty to them.

Just why is porn so perpetually on the technological cutting edge, both driving and being driven by each new invention that comes around? Perhaps it’s down to its fundamentally aspirational nature. While voyeurism for the sake of it certainly has a place on the list of human fetishes, for most of its consumers porn is a substitute — by definition a less than ideal one — for something they’re not getting, whether just in that precise moment or in their current life in general. So, they’re always looking for ways to get closer to the real thing, as Walter Kendrick, the author of a book-length history of porn, told The New York Times back in 1994.

Pornography is always unsatisfied. It’s always a substitute for the contact between two bodies, so there’s a drive behind it that doesn’t exist in other genres. Pornographers have been the most inventive and resourceful users of whatever medium comes along because they and their audience have always wanted innovations. Pornographers are excluded from the mainstream channels, so they look around for something new, and the audience has a desire to try any innovation that gives them greater realism or immediacy.

If you look at the history of pornography and new technologies, the track record has been pretty good. Usually everyone has come out ahead. The pornography people have gotten what they want, which is a more vivid way to portray sex. And the technology has benefited from their experimentation. The need for innovation in pornography is so great that it usually gets to a medium first and finds out what can be done and what can’t.

If early computers are not as strong an example of this phenomenon as photography, film, and videotape, that perhaps speaks more to the nature and limitations of that particular technology than it does to any lack of abstract interest in using computers for getting off. Yet sex definitely wasn’t absent from the picture even here. I’ve written elsewhere on this site of how the men who worked at Bell Labs in the 1960s contrived ways to put naked women on their monitor screens using grids of alphanumeric characters in lieu of a proper bitmap, of how Scott Adams sold games of Strip Dice alongside his iconic early adventure games, and of how Sierra On-Line once made a mint with the naughty text adventure Softporn, about a loser who wishes he was a swinger trying to navigate the dating scene of the late disco era.

Softporn may have had a name that no big publisher like Sierra would have dared use much after its 1981 release date, but in other ways it became the template for the mainstream games industry’s handling of sex. The rule was that a little bit of sexiness was okay if it was presented in the context of comedy. Infocom’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos went this way to significant success in 1986, helping to convince Sierra to revisit the basic premise of Softporn in the graphical adventure Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards the following year. Larry starred in a whole series of games after his first one proved a huge hit, becoming the poster child for risqué computer gaming. His success in turn brought more games of a similar style from other publishers, from Accolade’s Les Manley (yes, really) series to Legend’s Spellcasting series. The players of such games walked a fine line between being vicariously titillated alongside their protagonists and laughing at them for being the losers they were.

Still, even the Church Lady would have blanched at calling such games porn; they were in fact no more explicit than the typical PG-13-rated frat-boy movie. To find pictures of actual naked women on computers, you would have to download them — slowly! — from a BBS, or buy a still less respectable game like Artwox’s Strip Poker via mail order.[1]A few years ago, I went to a retro-gaming exhibition here in Denmark with a friend of mine. We got to talking with a woman who worked at the museum hosting it, who told us of her own memories from those times. It seems her brother had managed to acquire a copy of Strip Poker for his Commodore Amiga. Being a lover of card games, she tried to play it, but all the stupid pictures kept getting in the way. “I just wanted to play poker!” she lamented. I suspect this story may have something to tell us about the differences between the genders, but I have no idea what it is. Few distributors or retailers would risk handling such titles, what with the mainstream culture’s general impression that any and all forms of digital entertainment were inherently kids’ stuff.

But by 1993 or so, that impression was at last beginning to change. The arrival of mouse-driven user interfaces, decent graphics and sound, and CD-ROM had made “multimedia” one of the buzzwords of the zeitgeist. Part and parcel of the multimedia boom was a new generation of “interactive movies,” which featured real human actors playing their roles according to your instructions. Computer games, went the conventional wisdom, were growing up to become sophisticated adult entertainment — potentially in all senses of the word “adult.” Just like the makers of conventional movies during the 1960s, the makers of these interactive movies were eager to push the boundaries, to explore previously taboo subjects and see how much they could get away with. They had to be careful; 1993 was also the year of an overheated Senate hearing on videogame content, partially prompted by an early interactive movie for the Sega Genesis console called Night Trap. But be that as it may, many of the people behind interactive movies believed strongly in the principle that they should be allowed to show anything that a non-porn traditional film might, as long as, like such a film, they played with an open hand, disclosing the nature of the content to possible buyers upfront.

The pioneer of the risqué — but not pornographic — interactive movie was a game called Voyeur, released in 1993 for the Philips CD-i, a multimedia set-top box for the living room — don’t call it a games console! — that was marketed primarily to adults. The following year, Voyeur made it to ordinary computers as well.

Masterminded by David Riordan, whose earlier attempt at an interactive movie It Came from the Desert has aged much better, Voyeur casts you as a private dick surveilling a potential candidate for the American presidency, a fellow who makes Gary Hart and Bill Clinton look like choirboys. Everything from infidelity to incest, from sado-masochism to an eventual murder is going on in his house. But, like so many productions of this ilk, the game is caught between the urge to titillate and the fear of going too far and getting itself blacklisted. The end result is a weird mixture of the provocative and the prudish, as inimitably described by Charles Ardai, the most entertaining reviewer ever to write for Computer Gaming World magazine.

For those connoisseurs of striptease who prefer the tease to the strip, Voyeur should be a source of endless delight. Women are forever unfastening their bra straps in this game, or opening their towels while conveniently facing away from the camera, or walking around in unbuttoned vests that don’t quite reveal what you think they’re going to, or leaning toward each other for lesbian kisses that somehow never get completed. Men have it worse in some ways: they get led around in bondage collars, handcuffed to bedposts, and violently groped by their sisters. No one actually manages to have sex, though; all they do is go around interrupting each other. No wonder that after several hours of this someone ends up murdered.

Voyeur.

Coming a year after a panties-less Sharon Stone had shocked movie-goers in that scene in Basic Instinct, in a time when even network television shows like NYPD Blue were beginning to flirt with nudity, Voyeur was pretty tame stuff, notable only for existing on a computer. There was very little actual game to Voyeur, even by comparison to most interactive movies; as the player, your choices were limited to deciding which window to peep into at any given time. Yet it attracted a storm of press coverage and sold very well by the standards of the time — enough to prompt a belated 1996 sequel that was if anything even more problematic as a game and that didn’t sell anywhere near as well.

In fact, only one other game of this stripe can be called an outright commercial success. That game was Sierra’s 1995 release Phantasmagoria, designed against type by Roberta Williams, best known as the creator of the family-friendly King’s Quest series. Having written about it at some length in another article, I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say that Phantasmagoria became Sierra’s best-selling game to date, despite or because of content that was not quite as transgressive as the game’s advertising made it appear. In his memoir, Sierra’s co-founder (and Roberta’s husband) Ken Williams speaks of the curious dance — two steps forward, one step back — that interactive movies like this one were constantly engaged in.

There was a scene in Phantasmagoria which was shot with Victoria Morsell, the heroine of the story, topless. Roberta wrote the scene and helped direct it. If it were a horror film no one would have thought anything about it, other than giving the film an “R” rating. But this was a videogame, and the market hadn’t fully realized yet that interactive stories weren’t always just for kids. When it came time to release the game, we edited [it] to only show some side-boob. Even with only a hint of nudity, Phantasmagoria was not a game we felt was appropriate for children. [We] voluntarily self-rated the product with a large “M” for Mature.

But Ken Williams must have believed the market was evolving quickly, because just a year after the first Phantasmagoria Sierra released a sequel in name only — it had nothing to do with the characters or story of the first — called Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh, which proudly strutted all of the stuff that its predecessor had only hinted at. Designed by Lorelei Shannon rather than Roberta Williams, A Puzzle of Flesh was as sexually explicit as any mainstream game would get during the 1990s, an interactive exploitation flick steeped in sado-masochism, bondage, and the bare boobies that had been so conspicuously lacking from Roberta’s game. Like too many Sierra adventure games, its writing and design both left something to be desired. And yet it was an important experiment in its way, demonstrating to everyone who might have been contemplating making a game like it that there really were boundaries which they would be well advised not to cross. In contrast to many organs of game journalism, Computer Gaming World did deign to give A Puzzle of Flesh a review, but said review oozes disgust: “Playing this game, if one can grace this morally reprehensible product with such happy terms as ‘play’ and ‘game,’ is extremely unpleasant; to do so ‘for fun’ requires a fascination with hardcore schlock or a hardened attitude toward horror and exploitive erotica. You have been duly warned.”

Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh.

It speaks to one of the peculiarities of American culture that the magazine could work itself into such a lather of moral outrage over this game whilst praising the booby-less ultra-violence of HyperBlade (“The 3D Battlesport of the Future!”) in the very same issue. (“Fractured skull. Severed bronchial artery. Shattered tibia. This will eventually come as music to your ears. Want to cut an opponent’s head off and throw it in the goal? Pretty brazen, but that’s okay too.”) But such were the conditions on the ground, and publishers had to learn to live with them. Sierra never made another full-fledged interactive movie after A Puzzle of Flesh. The genre as a whole slowly died as the limitations of games made from spliced-together pieces of canned video became clear to even the most casual players. The dream of a games industry that regularly delivered R-rated content in terms of sex as well as violence blew away like so much chaff on the breeze alongside the rest of the interactive-movie fad. Mind you, games would continue to be full of big-breasted, scantily-clad women to feed the male gaze, but gamers wouldn’t get to see them in action in the bedroom.

Yet this isn’t to say that there was no sex whatsoever to be had on CD-ROM. Far from it. Even as the above-ground industry’s fad for interactive movies was swelling up and then petering out, there was plenty of explicit sex available for consumption on “seedy ROM,” the name a wag writing for The New York Times coined for the underground genre. A cottage industry sprang up around the technology of CD-ROM when it was still in its infancy — an industry which it would be disarmingly easy for a historian like me, trolling through my old issues of Computer Gaming World and the like, to never realize ever existed. This has always been the way with porn; despite its eternal popularity, it lives in the shadows, segregated from other forms of media whose consumers are less ashamed of their habit. It is forced to exist in its own parallel universe of distribution and sales — and yet people who are determined to see it always find a way to meet it where it lives. This was as true of porn during the multimedia-computing boom as it has been in every other technological era and context.

The pioneer of the seedy-ROM field, coming already in 1990 — fully three years before Voyeur, at a time when the standards around CD-ROM had barely been set and most people had not yet even heard of it — was a product of a tiny company called Reactor, Incorporated. It called itself Virtual Valerie. Implemented using Apple’s HyperCard authoring system, it plays a bit like The Manhole with sex; you can explore your girlfriend Valerie’s apartment, discovering a surprising number of secret paths and Easter eggs therein, or you can spend your time exploring Valerie herself. Relying on hand-drawn pixel graphics rather than digitized photographs or video, it’s whimsical in personality — almost innocent by contrast with what would come later — but it nevertheless demonstrated that there was an eager market for this sort of thing. “A left-handed mouse designed for use by right-handed people will be a hot seller,” wrote Anne Gregor only partly jokingly in CD-ROM Today, one of the few glossy magazines that dared to cover this space at all.

Virtual Valerie.

Virtual Valerie was the canary in the coal mine. In her wake, dozens of companies plunged into making and selling porn on CD-ROM, smelling an opportunity akin to the porn-on-videotape boom of the recent past. They sold disks full of murky images downloaded from Usenet, where a lively trade in porn went on alongside lively discussions. They sold old porn movies on CDs, the better for gentlemen to view on the computer in the home office, away from the prying eyes of the wife and kids. (The Voyager Company’s version of the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night was promoted in 1993 as the very first full-length movie on CD-ROM, but it actually wasn’t this at all: it was rather the first non-pornographic movie on CD-ROM.) And then there were the more ambitious, genuinely interactive efforts that followed in the footsteps of Virtual Valerie. “Virtual girlfriends” became a veritable sub-genre unto itself for a while. Girlfriend Teri, for example, claimed a vocabulary of 3000 words. Journalist Nancie S. Martin called her perfect for men who preferred “a woman you can talk to, who, unlike most real women, has no opinions of her own. While she can’t discuss Proust, she can say, ‘It’s so big!’ on demand.”

It was proof of a longstanding axiom in media: no matter how daunting the obstacles to distribution, porn will out. When American CD-duplication houses refused their business, the purveyors of seedy ROMs found alternatives in Canada. When no existing software distributor or retailer was willing to touch their products, when the big computer and gaming magazines too rejected them or allowed them only small advertisements sequestered in their back pages, they advertised in the skin magazines and urban newspapers instead, and sealed the deal through mail order and through porn-rental shops that stocked their CDs alongside the usual videotapes. Those who joined this latest porn gold rush were a variegated lot, ranging from the likes of Playboy and Penthouse, whose libraries of photographs stretched back decades, to hardcore pornography pimpers like Vivid Media with catalogs of their own that were equally ripe for re-purposing, to fresh faces who were excited about the overall potential of multimedia, and saw porn as a way to make money from it or to nudge it along as a consumer-facing technology, or both.

One of these newcomers to porn was New Machine Publishing, founded by one Larry Miller and two other 25-year-old men in 1992. “At first, we thought we’d do a CD-ROM on the rain forest,” Miller told The Los Angeles Times three years later. “It was gonna be interactive, have bird calls, native music, all that stuff. Then we discovered we were not thinking in real-world terms. No one would have bought it.” Instead they acquired a bunch of footage from a local porno-production company and stuck it on a CD alongside a frame story not that far away in spirit from Voyeur: you were a guest at a hotel where all the rooms were wired for video and sound, and you were in the catbird seat in the control room. The difference, of course, was that their “interactive porn movie,” which they called Nightwatch, didn’t shirk from the money shots. They took 500 Nightwatch discs to a Macworld show in San Francisco and sold every single one of them, at $70 a pop. Attendees “would cruise by,” remembered Miller. “Then they would get to the end of the aisle and do a U-turn.”

It turned out that porn was immune to the infelicities of this early era of digital video that caused customers to turn away from more upstanding multimedia productions. While few could convince themselves to overlook the fact that Voyager’s A Hard Day’s Night played in a resolution more suited to a postage stamp than a computer monitor, they were happy to peer at Nightwatch‘s even blearier clips, jittering before them enigmatically at all of five frames per second. New Machine plowed their Nightwatch profits into The Interactive Adventures of Seymore Butts (yes, really), which did for Leisure Suit Larry what their previous seedy ROM had done for Voyeur. Everyone knew the drill of this sort of scenario by now: another loser protagonist out on the town trying to score. Except that Seymore would get lucky in a way that Larry or Les and their players could hardly have begun to imagine.

Seymore Butts, ladies man, on the prowl.

Indeed, New Machine was now able to pay for their own film shoots. Robert A. Jones of The Los Angeles Times was permitted to visit the set one day, and returned to bear witness to the ultimate hollowness of mechanistic sex without emotion or context: “Watching it unfold, it’s hard to believe anything of redeeming value could be salvaged from this scene of bored sordidness.” There has always been money to be made in some people’s compulsion to keep watching porn long after the novelty is gone. Why should seedy ROMs be any different?

But, you might be asking, how much money are we talking about here? Alas, that’s a tough question to answer with any degree of certainty. Because porn lives underground, both abhorring the light of mainstream attention and being likewise abhorred, it has always been notoriously difficult to figure out how much money people are actually making from the stuff. Porn on CD-ROM is no exception. That said, the sheer quantity of it that was out there by the middle of the 1990s indicates that real money was being made by at least some of its providers. To be sure, no one was selling discs in the quantities of Voyeur or Phantasmagoria. But then again, they didn’t have to, thanks to vastly cheaper production budgets and the ability to charge a premium price. This latter has always been one of the advantages of peddling smut: most people just want to take their porn and disappear back into blessed anonymity, not haggle and bargain hunt.

We do have some data points. The founders of New Machine Publishing alluded vaguely to selling “tens of thousands” of copies of Seymore Butts, more than many a more wholesome point-and-click adventure game of the era. The first Penthouse Virtual Photo Shoot disc — “Be the photographer!” — reportedly sold 30,000 copies in its first three months. (In another testament to its popularity, no fewer than five additional volumes, featuring different sets of girls for the camera’s roving eye to capture, were later released.) Vivid Entertainment’s interactive division reported having four 10,000-plus sellers on CD-ROM already in the spring of 1994, barely six months after its founding. Fay Sharp, who acted as a distributor and liaison between seedy-ROM makers and mom-and-pop porn shops all over the country, claimed that $260 million worth of porn on disc was sold in that same year. Pixis Interactive claimed multiple titles with sales of 50,000 to 100,000 units a couple of years after that. For all that such numbers may still have been a drop in the bucket compared to porn on videotape, they could mean serious money for the people involved, with the tantalizing prospect of a lot more where that had come from in the future, once multimedia personal computers had become as ubiquitous in American homes as videocassette players. In short, and despite the fact that seedy ROMs would never blow up quite as spectacularly as many of the folks involved in them expected — we’ll get to the reasons for that shortly — all signs are that some people in this market did very well for themselves for a while, thanks to sales that in many cases seem to have dwarfed the numbers racked up by, say, The Voyager Company’s lineup of high-brow explorations of history and science.

Perhaps the best testimony to the real if brief-lived success of porn on CD-ROM is a brouhaha that erupted at COMDEX, the buttoned-down computer industry’s biggest trade show, taking place in November of each year in Las Vegas. In 1993, The New York Times reported with considerable surprise that porn had become one of the highlights of the show in the opinion of businessmen who were ostensibly there to investigate decidedly unsexy server racks and backup systems and the like.

“CD-ROM brings unimaginable quantities of knowledge to those for whom information is their most valuable asset,” said Bill Kelly, president of PC Compo Net of La Habra, California, who sells such knowledge bases as L.A. Strippers: Bikes & Babes & Rock ‘n’ Roll. PC Compo Net was among a half dozen companies selling CD-ROM titles that depict graphic sex with video, sound, and still images. The displays caused traffic jams in the aisles as the predominantly male computer crowd stopped to gawk. Many customers waved fists of cash. One harried booth clerk noted that CD-ROM is ideal for circumventing Japanese laws restricting pornographic films and magazines, because the mirror-like disks give no clue as to their contents and can easily be slipped through customs in an audio-CD case.

Some COMDEX exhibitors complained about their X-rated neighbors on moral grounds; others said they were pleased by the crowds. One Japanese computer dealer, who asked that his name not be used, said it appears that pornography may be the long-awaited “killer” application that will spur the sale of CD-ROM drives. “People who develop CD-ROM software should be overjoyed that we’re here, because we’re helping sell CD-ROM drives,” said Lawrence Miller, one of three partners in New Machine Publishing of Santa Monica, California, which makes games with explicit sexual content.

Concerned about their show’s image, the COMDEX organizers moved the seedy-ROM exhibits into a dank corner of the basement the following year — an apt metaphor for pornography’s place in polite society, yes, but one the exhibitors themselves considered less than gracious, given that they were by now contributing about half a million dollars to the show’s bottom line. In return, COMDEX couldn’t even be bothered to keep the power on for them all the time down there in the cellar. Its organizers were deaf to their complaints: “COMDEX is a place where people show creative new products for the benefit of the industry. This is not appropriate.”

So, Fay Sharp, a rare woman in porn in a role other than that of performer, set up her own show in 1995 just a few blocks away from that year’s COMDEX. Called AdultDex, its admission charge was just $20 if you could show a COMDEX ticket. “COMDEX is the classroom and AdultDex is recess,” said William Margold of the Free Speech Coalition, one of the new show’s sponsors. About 7500 people came by that first year, while the bigger show’s organizers huffed and hawed and threatened this unwelcome parasite. In the end, though, there was nothing they could do about it.

AdultDex became a regular event thereafter, drawing upwards of 20,000 attendees some years. The scene there was much the same as that in the countless Vegas strip clubs that catered to the same clientele of business road warriors enjoying a taste of freedom from the strictures of family life. (“COMDEX attendees don’t gamble, but they line up in those gentlemen’s clubs,” said the chairwoman of the tourism and convention department at the University of Nevada. “I’ve been on flights coming into Las Vegas sitting next to hookers who fly in just for that week.”) Journalist Samantha Cole describes AdultDex as “men in polo shirts and cheap brown suits standing too close to tanned women in bikinis and leather, or leaning their five-o’clock shadows on their breasts. One thing that’s never changed through decades of Las Vegas porn conferences: in this gin-scented setting, men and women do seem like separate species.”

In 1997, the police raided AdultDex — at the instigation, many suspected, of the COMDEX organizers — and handed out citations for “lewd and dissolute conduct” and “performing a live sex act.” But, as always, the porn show must go on. “We were on CNN, the local TV; we have even had an editorial in the newspaper that was favorable,” said Fay Sharp to Billboard magazine. “It’s giving us the kind of publicity we could never buy. It’s showing [that] adult interactivity is very much in the mainstream.” AdultDex wouldn’t pass into history until 2003, when it expired, like any good parasite, alongside its host, COMDEX itself.

The scene at AdultDex.

Yet even as Fay Sharp was saying those words in 1997, the nature of the products being peddled at AdultDex was changing markedly. The fact was that the seedy-ROM boom was already past its peak, already starting onto the down slope toward what all those dirty discs have become today: the kitschy detritus of a quaint past, media artifacts which manifestly failed to reach the world-changing heights once predicted for them. Pixis Interactive reported that year that its latest sales figures looked suddenly “ghastly.” The smart folks in the cottage industry were now plotting exit strategies from CD-ROM, which in some cases involved going legit — or at least more legit — in one way or another. The boys behind New Machine, for example, reinvested their Seymore Butts profits into casino games on CD-ROM, then took that concept online. At the turn of the millennium, their virtualvegas.com was one of the most popular online-gaming sites on the Internet.

Meanwhile those digital impresarios who intended to stay in porn were trying to figure out how to execute a dramatic shift in terms of delivery medium. For, just as video had once killed the radio star, the World Wide Web was now all too clearly killing the multimedia CD-ROM, regardless of whether it concerned itself with kinky sex or with the fate of the rain forests. Seedy ROMs wouldn’t disappear because of any shortage of horny boys and men — perish the thought! They would disappear because anything they could do, the Web could do better — cheaper and easier and, best of all, even more anonymously. The fact was that the Web was about to change humanity’s relationship to sex in general to an extent that few of even the most enthusiastic proponents of sex on CD-ROM would have ventured to predict. And, almost equally interestingly, sex was about to change the Web — change not only the sites people surfed to and what they did there, but make the whole place safe for commerce and its filthy lucre in a way that a million wide-eyed idealists like its original inventor Tim Berners-Lee could never have managed.



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Sources: the books How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex by Samantha Cole, Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age by Frederick S. Lane III, The Players Ball: A Genius, a Con Man, and the Secret History of the Internet’s Rise by David Kushner, The Erotic Engine by Patchen Barss, The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession by Kelsy Burke, and Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings by Ken Williams; The New York Times of November 21 1993, January 9 1994, and October 4 1995; CD-ROM Today of June/July 1994; Electronic Entertainment of August 1994 and August 1995; Wired of July 1995; Computer Gaming World of March 1995, July 1996, and March 1997; Wired of July 1995 and February 1997; The Los Angeles Times of March 19 1995; The San Francisco Chronicle of November 19 1997; frieze of March/April 1996; The Las Vegas Sun of November 19 1996; American Heritage of September/October 2000. Online sources include “Inside AdultDex” by Adi Robertson at The Verge, “COMDEX Trade Show Leaves Vegas” by Chris Jones at Casino City Times, and “History of Sex in Cinema” at filmsite.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 A few years ago, I went to a retro-gaming exhibition here in Denmark with a friend of mine. We got to talking with a woman who worked at the museum hosting it, who told us of her own memories from those times. It seems her brother had managed to acquire a copy of Strip Poker for his Commodore Amiga. Being a lover of card games, she tried to play it, but all the stupid pictures kept getting in the way. “I just wanted to play poker!” she lamented. I suspect this story may have something to tell us about the differences between the genders, but I have no idea what it is.
 
 

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