The Woeful Tower

‘Impure and wretched are the cursed who walk amongst us. Pity not their fate for it has been decreed by Altyr when he spoke to his vanguard Daryan that they bear an unforgivable taint. May the pure and dawning light of the One God wash over them in death for the blight of magick, a wicked conception cast upon us by false gods, dwells deep within them. May He have mercy on them, for we cannot.

Let it be known, now and forever, that they who carry the taint, they who harbour this sin and they who forgive this curse – there is no sanctuary for you. You will be sought, you will be found and you will be Judged.’  – the teachings of Godrik Gatekeeper, Grand Minister of High Kairon.

It is well known throughout the lands of Ayl’gard that to be mageborn in Hammarkand is almost like living with a death sentence. Those born Aeon blessed within the borders of the Altyran Empire are shunned, exiled, hunted and slain not only for what they are but also for what they may become. History tells of countless tales of mages driven mad with grief, vengeance or a lust for power that have gone on to wreak excruciating havoc upon the lives of those afflicted by their will. One particularly dark account involving a uniquely gifted mage tells of the destruction of an ancient city, that of Duskholm, after an unsuccessful attempt to control his shadow magicks failed in the most devastating way. The ruins of that once glorious testament of the prowess of the Mithylfar lie buried deep underneath the city of Amberfall and its legacy is now almost entirely forgotten.

To wield magicks within the borders of the Empire is forbidden. To offer safety and give harbour to a magick user within the borders of the Empire is forbidden. To express any sentiment or pursue any action that doesn’t follow the laws written and passed down by the first Emperor Daryan, the Vanguard of the One God, to the very letter is, without a shadow of a doubt, completely forbidden.

For a mother to look upon her child and see that faint wisp of fire flicker from nothing or to feel the sudden shudder of an unnatural breeze, it can stir incomparable emotions of despair and sorrow. Should they hide away and flee for the safety of another shore so that she can see her child blossom into what they were intended to become? Or does she rid herself of such an unnatural abomination? That of a cursed child born with an unforgivable impurity whose only true fate by law is to be ridden from society. In the eyes of many dutiful citizens of the Empire, it is considered to be a worthy sacrifice in the eyes of the One god to rid the world of magicks in all forms for magick is a curse, the dark blight of a civilisation striving for purity. Even if the end result is the death of an innocent.

But what of those who live? What becomes of one born with the ability to wield magick who has escaped the watchful eyes of a nation led to believe that their mere existence is an affront to their beliefs?

As previously mentioned, some lucky few might escape north across the sea and flee to Sollistar or Ayrlaston. To have the opportunity to study and practice their craft in the gardens of the Aetherian Academy or the halls of the Aeon Citadel, it is a chance to lead a life free of persecution and fearing for simple being alive. A chance to bring some value and distinction to a life once thought damned.

Others, even fewer in number, will attempt to suppress their power in the hopes of living a ‘normal’ life. Though what sense of normality can be gained from constantly looking over their shoulder as they try to have an almost statuesque reaction to all they come into contact with is a debate best left to the unfortunate few who have had to deal with such things. For a hidden magick wielder to give into the whims of potent emotion, it could unintentionally reveal what they have strived to hide their whole life.

There are those however, who have managed to cling to life and yet have not had the chance to keep hold of their free will. They see only dark walls and iron chains and hear only the screams of the damned or the words of their captors. To the east of the city fortress of High Kairon, a hundred hours away by foot and shrouded in the mists of a vast lake at the centre of bleak, empty moorlands stretching for miles is a solitary tower built upon a foundation of blood and stone. It is known as the Woeful Tower to the few who are aware of it. There are no roads that lead to its doors and Imperial law forbids its location to be noted on any map. Even the Minister of its closest town has been heavily bribed with women, wine and gold to be completely ignorant of its existence. It also helps that he is the second cousin to a high seated Council member of the Imperial Circle. A fact he never shuts up about either, to the annoyance of his subjects.

Its original name, along with its purpose, has been long forgotten. There are some who say that it predates the arrival of Daryan and his followers onto the shores of Valleden and the complex stonework, that no mason of the Empire can replicate, certainly seems to indicate such a perspective. An Emperor who lived over a century ago, known as Uthor the Boastful, once proclaimed it to be the stronghold of the First Mage, a wicked and corrupt man who conjured the very demons from the Hollow Plane to reap his will upon the ancient inhabitants of a civilisation long dead. Though he also once tried to have the wine imported from Solharbour decreed as ‘red piss water tainted by the hands of the unfaithful’ so there are many who have dismissed this claim, amongst others, as the fiction of a thoughtless leader.

Whatever the original intent of the tower though, now it has a darker purpose. It has, over the ages, held countless individuals condemned as cursed by the Ministers of Altyr and the Imperial Circle where only those considered to have very little magickal aptitude are permitted to reside. The Judges of the Sworn Order are sent to scour the Empire in search of any impurity, those deemed unworthy in the eyes of the One god, such as mages in particular. Most who are encountered and are then actually powerful enough to have put up a fight are put to death right there and then. Some however are considered so inept and pitiful as to be considered worthy of redemption. They are sent to the Woeful Tower to live out their days in darkness and silence, to be cleansed of their corruption until the day they are deemed fit to re-join their fellow man in the service of Altyr.

For the outside observer, to be cleansed in this place is thought to be a cruel and unjust fate. A mage who dwells here is starved, beaten, tortured and their skin is routinely burnt until it resembles the ashen grey colour of a Dothylfar. Once the Wardens have decreed someone to have been salvaged, which is a rare circumstance as most who suffer the misfortune of dwelling in this place have a high chance of succumbing to their cleansing, they have their tongues cut out and their fingers removed. Once the prospect of their magicks returning has been utterly eliminated, they are sent to serve in one of the many Cathedrals dotted around Hammarkand where they shall live out the remainder of their days to live and to serve the Empire and their god, Altyr.

If they are finally able to leave such a torrid existence, they are given a name befitting the status of what remains of their life. They become known as one of the Cleansed. To see someone such as this serving in the midst of a sermon to the people, it rarely elicits any sentiment of pity or remorse to the countless followers of Altyr. They see it as an example of the power of an Empire driven to rid their lands of the scourge of magick and also a testament to the will of their god. A deity who has seen fit to bestow upon his chosen the responsibility of such acts to ensure a pure and just society, all according the will and the words set down by the Emperor and the Imperial Circle leading all the way back to the foundations of the Altyran Empire under the rule of Daryan.

So, you may be wondering, what becomes of those who do not survive the ordeal? What happens if, after years of suffering at the hands of the Woeful Wardens, the only way to escape such a life is to simply give up and perish? Underneath the tower is a vast network of caverns and tunnels where the remains of thousands who have died here have been discarded over the centuries. Nigh countless broken bodies and the decrepit remnants of lives extinguished remain scattered and piled in what is considered to be the largest mass grave ever formed in the history of Ayl’gard. So few are those who know of it yet so many are they who lie dead and buried, entombed in darkness and forgotten by history. All to rid an Empire of magick.

Final Fantasy VII: Where It All Began – Part 2

If you wish to read the first part then hop aboard the train to Sector 7, last stop – the Train Graveyard.

Final Fantasy VII: Where It All Began – Part 1

As mentioned previously, there will be some minor spoilers relating to the story.

Final Fantasy VII showed me for the first time the concept of an untrustworthy narrative due to the unreliable memories of its primary protagonist, Cloud. This changed my perception of the story when relating to his counterpart, a lost legend risen from the shadows whose background is coated in a great degree of sorrow and twisted circumstance that is Sephiroth, whose past was heavily manipulated by other forces to forge him into the destructive being he finally became. Every character was distinct with their own unique perspectives and personality. You’ll have the chance to explore their own histories, their reasons and motives for carrying on despite the overwhelming pressure of forces working against them. The overprotective and headstrong Barrett, the sombre yet powerful Tifa, thoughtful and wise Red XIII, enigmatic Vincent, playful Aeris, deceptive Yuffie, upbeat Cait Sith, excitable Cid. All of them were created in a manner that made me realise that my companions weren’t just there to make up the numbers. They were important, they had a purpose, all were meaningful in the grand scheme of things if you take the time to speak to them, listen to them and help them when the time comes.

I loved progressing these characters through combat, to watch them slowly become more powerful as the game continued. Cloud, Barrett and Red XIII were my chosen three for my first playthrough, though through subsequent runs I began to use each of them at different times where I thought it most appropriate for them to shine. I treasured every orb of materia that I collected and salivated at the unknowable prospect and tactical battle variations that lay at the heart of each possible piece. I trembled in amazement as the planet shook to unleash its terrible wrath as its monstrous Weapons were let loose upon a world that abused it. Damn you Ruby Weapon and your incessant need to murder my people at every possible opportunity because I lacked the necessary preparation skills as a mere child filled with an impatient desire for victory! (I experienced this defeat many times) And the loot, oh did I come to love the loot! This game offered me my first taste of what would become a lifelong desire, the never-ending quest to keep tracking down all of that in game, in any game, loot. Nothing could beat equipping each party member with their ultimate weapons and watching as I cleaved my way through the late game Behemoths and Marlboros with satisfying ease. I even began to appreciate the prospect of chocobo racing and breeding, which at first seemed to be little more than a confusing and frustrating distraction. Even this, a completely optional mechanic, can yield great rewards (Knights of the Round summon materia – hell yes!) for those who travel far to seek and abide by the knowledge of the Chocobo Sage in the quest for that hard earned, elusive golden chocobo.

‘The knowledge and wisdom of the Ancients is held in the materia. Anyone with this knowledge can freely use the powers of the land and the Planet. That knowledge interacts between ourselves and the Planet, calling up magic.’ – Sephiroth’s explanation of Materia, FFVII’s magic

One of my most fundamental experiences with Final Fantasy VII came around the ten or so hour mark for me. Up until this point, I had assumed that the entire game would be taking place in the malevolent metropolis of Midgar. After escaping the Shinra building on a motorbike, an unexpected minigame added to the mix to keep things interesting, with my comrades following alongside in a truck that I had to defend, the next phase of the game kicks in to reveal a depth and scope that had my jaw wide open as my eyes temporarily lost the ability to blink. The world quite literally opened up for me. It gave players an opportunity to roam the landscape, battling a variety of fiends and monsters with every attempt to continue along this wonderful journey. I’ll never forget my first encounter with the monstrous Midgar Zolom, a thirty-foot cobra with a vicious bite, and being almost wiped out with just a single move.

I’ll also admit to it getting a little weird at times, such as certain parts of Wall Market for example, which is not entirely unexpected considering the cultural differences between western audiences and Japan. There were some obvious translation difficulties as well. Some of the scenes were, let’s say, I didn’t fully understand them until I returned to the game as an older, more experienced person. If you’ve ever watched a film recently that was a childhood favourite and then had that ‘Oh yeah!’ moment when returning to it as an adult, you’ll understand what I mean. This just makes the game that much richer in context though. It is large enough in scope that there is something to be gained every time you decide to restart it and have another go.

If the legacy of FFVII could be summed up in one, offering but a single example of the profound effect it has had and still continues to have to this day, I would have to mention the moment, THAT moment when something and someone is taken from you in a solemn instant of utter devastation. A moment of heartbreak without equal. A bitter calm at the end of a blade. Every fan of fantasy can relate to a fictitious tragedy that just took their breath away and left them empty and aghast for what seemed like an age. If you talk to readers of A Song of Ice and Fire about the Red Wedding, you can see spark in their eyes dim into a sullen shadow as they recollect the instance. For fans of Final Fantasy VII, we will always remember the moment we lost a treasured companion to the merciless whims of a warrior lost to madness and sorrow. Two decades later, this is still remembered as a quintessential example of just how powerful the story of a game can be.

‘What I have shown you is reality. What you remember… that is the illusion.’ – Sephiroth

I’ve prattled on for quite a bit now about this much-loved darling of the industry but honestly, it is no more than it deserves. I could probably write another several thousand words on the subject and how even after all these years, from my first time playing the game one dreary weekend, it still has such a profound grip on what a quality story of fiction and fantasy should be like. It set a huge standard for me going forward in the years to follow.

My friends at school eventually began to tire of my incessant desire to regale them of my adventures because I just wouldn’t shut up about it. Sorry lads!

Without Final Fantasy VII, I doubt I would be quite the same man I am today. My eyes were opened to new possibilities and I fell for the genre of fantasy in all of its glorious forms because of this game and what it showed me. From the very moment Cloud jumps down into the streets of Midgar, wielding his Buster sword and battle ready, to fight alongside Avalanche in a war to decide the fate of a dying planet, the flickering fire of my curiosity was set alight and by the games end. With one brutal Omnislash against the hero’s arch nemesis, the flames were fanned even further into a blazing inferno of passionate appreciation. The sheer range of emotions I felt, the awe, the joy, the dread and the sorrow, they would keep me coming back. I craved more. I needed to see and do everything this game had to offer.

From here I moved onto other stories, other books, other films, other games, all giving me new concepts and perspectives to consider. It was, and always will be, an absolute inspiration to me and was one the first stones laid in what would become the foundation of everything that I create to this day.

I wonder how things would have turned out for me had I not asked my grandmother for this game? Perhaps I’d be writing spy thrillers if I’d discovered Goldeneye on the N64 instead. Oh, who cares! I’m off to play Final Fantasy VII again.

*Begins to hum the boss battle music to get psyched up*

I’m coming for you Sephiroth!

Forged From Reverie.

Final Fantasy VII: Where It All Began – Part 1

As those of you who read these pages may have come to know, I have a bit of a ‘thing’ for fantasy. A lifelong love affair with a genre that has rooted itself deep into the very core of my being. An appreciation that reaches deeper than a darkspawn dallying with the dwarves in the Deep Roads of Thedas – here’s to thematically appropriate references folks!

From reading about it, gaming it, watching it and weaving my own world of fantasy as I write about it, this broad genre has opened my eyes to a lifetime of memorable stories, characters, concepts, ideas and worlds. So far, I’ve enjoyed almost every bit of it that I have encountered, with few exceptions. I’ve cited many examples here of what a great fantasy experience entails and I have enjoyed a great many of them in my life thus far, but before I became captivated with the likes of Game of Thrones, Dragon Age, Skyrim and even well before I discovered Lord of the Rings for the first time, there was a 12-year-old boy sitting in his room with a brand-new Sony Playstation and a copy of Final Fantasy VII.

Up until this point I hadn’t bothered with the genre, at least not that I can remember. I have no poignant, childhood defining memories about anything fantasy related until a chance happening upon a market game store with my grandmother. Amongst the potential selection, I happened to notice a game that I knew nothing about but I was drawn to anyway. Not because of fate, destiny or any of that superficial bollocks. I had read countless gaming publications during my youth, usually Playstation and gaming magazines, and they all told me the same thing. That this plastic little case I held in my hands was one of gaming’s all time era defining titles. Every one of them rated it incredibly well and so, despite my lack of solid research bar a few reviews and scores, I asked my dear old nan if I could have this one. And by the mighty machinations of all things bright and beautiful, my life changed that Saturday afternoon.

There will be mild spoilers regarding the game from this point on.

It took a couple of hours for me to get to grips with it, the concept of a role-playing game of any sort, especially that of a JRPG, was completely new to me but once I started to understand what I was doing – I was enraptured. The style, the sounds, the detail, all of it. It was a veritable cornucopia of quality storytelling and atmospheric music combined with satisfying gameplay set in a massive and magnificent world that combined elements of steampunk, science fiction, science fantasy and dark fantasy. I loved it so much that I didn’t even let the fact that I couldn’t save my progress stop me from playing the opening few hours over and over. I would eventually acquire a memory card shortly thereafter, thankfully. There was no way I was ever going to be able to complete an 80 hour playthrough in one sitting. Not that I wouldn’t have given it a damned good go if given half a chance. Bloody childhood and the need for food, sleep and schooling!

‘Look always to the eternal flow of time which is far greater than the span of a human life.’ – Bugenhagen

Some folks may scoff at this turn of events. As a writer of fantasy, there may be those who question how and why I should be able to cite any game as a contributing factor to my intent to craft my own stories.

‘How can a mere game inspire anyone to write anything?’ they may ask derisively.

Wait folks, don’t throw your plush moogles at them yet! To an extent, I can understand the question. It’s only recently that the games industry is finally starting to get the respect and recognition it deserves as a medium that provides some excellent storytelling experiences. Some still consider games to be nothing more than children’s play things that should be the sole domain of dark room dwelling, anti-social miscreants with too much free time. It is an ignorant perspective, to be honest. It shows those folks to have an inherent lack of understanding toward something they have little interest in knowing anything about and yet feel comfortable enough to judge our beloved pastime as an immature and unworthy newcomer to the spectrum of all entertainment. I pity whoever feels this way. To choose to be blind toward the potential of a great story just because you don’t like the way that it is portrayed, well such a stance is sheer idiocy in my opinion.

Would you fall out of love with your favourite story if you one day learned that it existed in another format, especially one that you do not approve of, first? Would you shun what the majority may consider a great fantasy experience just because it is happens to be a game rather than a film, a play or a novel? To play a game is to interact and to interact is to become a part of something in such a manner that you, the player, have the chance to craft your own personal experience for yourself. One that speaks only to you.

Gaming has long been an avenue for writers to showcase their literary talents. This was the case two decades ago when this behemoth of a game was released and it is still a prominent aspect of many games released today. Before voice acting became so widespread and a more realistic proposition in the industry, the only way to absorb the dialogue in any game was to do exactly what people have been doing in books and novels for centuries – to read it. Final Fantasy VII contains more than 600,000 words in its entirety, from start to finish. To give you a rough comparison in literary terms, this is more than War and Peace, Gone with the Wind and Moby Dick. It even surpasses all three parts of the Lord of the Rings in sheer word count. Yes, there is no guarantee that you will discover every possible line in the game but this is still more than many books, and so this was an experience that I not only played and watched, I had to read it too.

It wasn’t until I fully dove into Final Fantasy VII that I began to appreciate certain aspects of setting and storytelling. The story-line is complex, very complex for what started out as something so traditionally black and white. It wasn’t simply a journey to defeat the ‘big bad’ of Shinra and Sephiroth.

‘These days, all it takes for your dreams to come true is money and power.’ – President Shinra

This adventure became infused with so much ‘grey’ that I started to doubt whether I could even trust some of those I was travelling with. My suspicions were confirmed when the traitor amongst allies finally revealed themselves. Even the supposed villains of the game had moments that led me to think beyond the facades they were portraying. After countless journeys through the lands of FFVII, there are only two entities in the game that I am convinced were absolutely selfish and completely malicious in their intent. Character depth was something I began to truly comprehend for the first time after I had finished this game.

The history of the world came to the fore from the backstories and circumstances surrounding Aeris, Last of the Ancients, and Jenova, the Calamity from the Sky. Each new location that I visited was riddled with detail, lovingly crafted to showcase different cultures and creeds. From bleak Midgar to industrial Junon, spiritual Cosmo Canyon to unsettling Nibelheim, traditional Wutai to the long-lost and tragic City of the Ancients. No two places were alike and I began to understand how a world could be crafted to be connected by common themes and yet so diverse and varied in its implementation of culture. Much like our own world.

Forged From Reverie.