Feature: “The Nepalese Grind” – A real life Final Fantasy

By Neil Merrett

Final Fantasy VII on Playstation – released 1997, Square

There’s nothing quite like getting out and seeing a world.  

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The careful packing and panicked preparation before setting off into the unknown, travelling along uncertain footpaths in search of hidden kingdoms, natural beauty and interesting new condiments.

The notion of the quest, getting from A to B and all the resulting travails, friendships and confrontations that occur in between, is practically a universal language among humans since our earliest existence.

It is not surprising then that a gaming series like Final Fantasy has more or less survived on trying to refine this formula for 29 years, adding in the occasional science fiction or fantasy flourish or the ability to ride around large maps on giant chicken-like creatures.

There is also the opportunity for engaging in robot battles, crossdressing, operatic murder and over elaborate weaponry – those classic human traits.

Even the upcoming and long delayed 15th installment in the main series – not unsurprisingly titled Final Fantasy 15 – is built around the motif of a group of friends on a road trip. Trekking and travel remain at the very core of the series it seems.

With each experience and adventure, we hope to get more knowledgeable, stronger and better equipped for what is ahead of us, though we are sometimes just happy for a touch of camaraderie, a sense of adventure and topping up one’s strength with a communal bag of Bombay Mix.

This process of building your own character, levelling up, improving and learning new skills and lessons through each encounter – sometimes without end or noticeable benefit – is so common in games that for good or bad it has become known as grinding.  

Yet for the large number of gamers capable of existing outside in the real world, they may recognize the very same process as simply being called living.

Of course, there are some important distinctions between putting a disk into a console compared pushing out into unknown areas of the planet to seek out new cultures, experiences and exotic things to do over a glass of wine.

For one, there is the physical exhaustion and the desperation to keep going a little longer before stopping for some much needed rest, driven largely by what may lie around the corner or the distant horizon in the search for rest, food and comfort.

There are also very real people carrying on with their lives in circumstances we are fortunate enough not to have to imagine.

Yet at their heart, video game quests – keenly in the case of RPGs like Final Fantasy – reflect a very human need for adventure and exploration, as well as highlighting the importance of packing appropriately and having an emergency cagoule spare.

This realisation came in the hills and mountains of Nepal ,amidst the excitement and weary acceptance of going through a very real Final Fantasy adventure -albeit one interspersed with unparalleled natural beauty and a random cornish-man residing enigmatically in a small tin hut.

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There are the potions and lotions needed to survive, replacing the game world’s enigmatically named tonics called Phoenix Downs, in real life with Scotch and Soltan factor 50 children’s sunblock.

While barely even half way towards reaching the peaks of the country’s tallest and most formidable mountains, Nepal was awash with vastly different terrains and climates from Mediterranean groves, to dense, brightly lit forests, arid dust trails and endless prairies perched in the clouds.

Walking through the highlands of the Helambu region, barely seven or eight hours drive, yet world’s away from Kathmandu, each day bought new sites like different levels of a video game. We had congested cities, brightly coloured floral forests, rocky mountains reshaped from recent landslides and breathtaking vistas of the snow peaks that seem to line the heavens.

Even for the semi-adventurous trekker demonstrating, within barely twenty square miles, the country revealed not only an endless variety of natural beauty, but the sometimes harsh nature of its terrain and the scars underneath.

If gaming teaches us anything worthwhile, and that is debatable, then the best experiences can often be from the small moments.

Barely a year after the April 2015 earthquakes, the sometimes striking images were things not there, lopsided temples and buildings, entire villages reduced to rubble that now only exist in pictures and outdated guidebooks.

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Yet through it all, and with well intentioned, if sometimes obnoxious holiday makers trudging around in the search for water, rest and a good lentil curry, local people persevere with their lives against the elements, fate and requests for an occasional bottled lager literally miles into the sky.

That people can continue with their lives with such grace after wide scale tragedy, softens the heart to those small signs of kindness and hardens you to taking for granted being able to find solace and escape for days on end in the form of ridiculous adventure simulation games.

Whether warmth or rest from the cold nights outside, copious amounts of green chilli sauce or the most unlikely and rejuvenating hot shower revealing itself a dark cavernous room on a cold dusty evening, it was the little things that were the most welcoming.

Ultimate, it was not a quest requiring great demons or monsters to be slain, other than some misjudged Kathmandu cocktails. Each day, the ultimate thrill was simply to get to each unknown new destination, ideally before the sun goes down and requiring the creative use of sleeping bags to survive.

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In between wrestling seemingly endless dusty, lung clogging, switchback roads, or considering whether Miley Cyrus may be an underrated chronicler of the human experience, our objective each day was simply to find shelter, with little idea of what we might find and where shelter may come from other than the name of a town.

The pattern continued until several days until ultimately reaching the underwhelming sounding Thadepati Pass some 3.6 kilometres up in the sky.

After days of looking through the mist and haze at the horizons beyond, the pass – the highest point during the trek – eventually revealed itself behind another peak as with the cold night air began to set in.

A sprawling cliff top-like prairie looking into all directions towards hazy worlds no longer visible below us.  Surrounded by total silence, the only sign of life were the smoking chimneys of two guesthouses that lay just a short walk further, the most isolated, yet comforting looking of homes. 

It thrillingly appeared to be the ends of the earth.

Yet beyond this enigmatic path in the clouds, were further outlines of actual snow capped mountains, looking down on where we stood, with the faint outline of even bigger mountains beyond them. Like Russian dolls, each new peaked seemed to dwarf the other, with the promise of further adventures, challenge and kingdoms beyond in the distance. Yet our quest, had come to effectively an end.

Describing a previous adventure to the base of Mount Everest, a great friend and wise man once told me that the experience had haunted his dreams ever since.  

In response to such a sickeningly earnest response I could only scoff. Yet from the comfort of a log fire warmed sanctuary atop the Thadepati Pass and possibly mild reactions to high altitude green chilli sauce, it was perhaps possible to understand.

Despite having many similar adventures, but would never stop looking to seek and recreate the thrill of the snow capped peaks he had once reached and the thrill of the trek,

Looking weeks later at our trusty battered map of of the country, there is a palpable sense to dust of the cagoule and plan which peak to drag the trust hip-flask and children’s sun tan lotion to see what else lies out there.

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We can spend our lives trying to go over those adventures that shaped us earlier in life, even if we are likely to never again replicate the experience.  But sometimes that si how great love affairs are born.

Almost twenty years on from when many girls and boys played through Final Fantasy VII, awaiting endless sequels and quests across harsh, beautiful, sometimes tragic and often nonsensical worlds.

While the subsequent quests may not always live up to that initial introduction, perhaps they too were a little haunted by that foray into a new and exciting world.  

Not bad for a couple of compact disks.

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