In 2012, David Curry, a thirty-four-year-old cashier from Southern California, came across a post on an online forum by someone who went by the handle Dick Tree. It contained a herculean proposal: Tree planned to play the 1997 video game Final Fantasy VII for as many hours as it took to raise the characters to their maximum potential, without ever leaving the opening scene, which unfolds in a nuclear reactor. Final Fantasy VII is a role-playing game, a form popularized in the nineteen-seventies by Dungeons & Dragons, in which players’ feats—beasts felled, maidens wooed—are quantified with “experience points.” Accrue enough of these points, and your character ascends a level, at which point it confronts stronger opponents worth more points. Curry estimated that, even playing for a few hours every day, Tree’s attempt to raise a character to Level 99 by fighting only the game’s weakest enemies would take more than a year to complete.
Nevertheless, Tree attracted a following of forum users, including Curry, who cheered the project on and watched it unfold in sporadic posts. Over time, Curry told me recently, Tree’s updates became more infrequent. After two years, Tree stopped altogether. “I got fed up with Dick Tree,” he said. “So I declared that I would do it myself.”
Curry had first played Final Fantasy VII several years after its début, but had set the game down after a few hours, underwhelmed. Although he had participated in a few Web endurance projects—he once provided commentary on twenty-three seasons’ worth of “The Simpsons”—he had never undertaken a video-game marathon before. “I don’t consider myself anything more than a casual gamer,” Curry said. But then, on January 18, 2015, he switched on his PlayStation and loaded the game disk. “After that first session, I felt confident that I could complete the challenge,” he told me. “I was also confident that I would teach Dick Tree a lesson about finishing what you start.”
Sometimes Curry played every day, and sometimes he went weeks without picking up the controller. Sessions might last one hour or twenty-four. As time passed, the forum users rallied behind him. At one point, Tree reappeared, claiming to have, in fact, completed the challenge already, without telling the group. “He couldn’t back up his claim with any sort of evidence, so we went on in spite of him,” Curry said.
A few months into his endeavor, Curry bought some hardware that allowed him to record his activity. He started uploading the footage to YouTube, then broadcasting it live on the streaming service Twitch. In April, a full two years after he had embarked on the project, his characters reached Level 98. “When the final session first started, mostly what I felt was pain,” Curry recalled. He had recently undergone surgery on his arm, which was still heavily bandaged and resting in a sling. Using his free hand, Curry began the fifty-six-minute session that would take him past the finish line. “It didn’t take very long for the Twitch chat to fill up with far more people than usual,” he said. “Before the finale, I would struggle to keep five viewers, but that day I had around fifty. Just keeping up with reading and responding to comments took most of my attention.” When the moment came, Curry met it with an appropriate sense of ceremony. “I’m going to hit the button and we’re going to get that glorious half a second where it says ‘Level up,’ ” he says in the video, his voice quivering. “I want us to savor that level-up, because it is the last one . . . Brace yourselves.”
The human predilection for combining tenacity and tedium goes back a long way; in the early twentieth century, for instance, there was a fad for pole-sitting, in which practitioners would sit atop flagpoles, often for days at a time, winking at crowds. Video games offer a new avenue for the old impulse. Indeed, Curry is one of many players to engage in arcane endurance challenges. Every year for the past decade, an Internet sketch-comedy troupe called LoadingReadyRun has driven a virtual bus from Tucson, Arizona, to Las Vegas, Nevada, in Desert Bus, an unreleased video game from 1995 conceived by the American entertainers Penn Jillette and Teller. Tens of thousands of people tune in to watch the troupe’s progress through the mind-numbing, unpausable game, and their donations have, to date, raised more than $3.8 million for a children’s charity. Another man, Kurt J. Mac, is several years into a two-decade-long quest to walk to the edge of the Minecraft universe. Efforts like this redefine the traditional parameters of success in video games, which typically reward quickness and dexterity. “Not everyone can set the world record in Donkey Kong,” Curry said. “But all it takes to walk to the edge of the Minecraft map or reach Level 99 in the first reactor in Final Fantasy VII is time.”
Many have poured scorn on Curry’s venture, particularly since it doesn’t have a charitable component. “This is the most pathetic waste of man hours that could have been used for good that I’ve seen in a long time,” one typical YouTube comment says. On the forum where he first heard about Dick Tree’s idea, Curry posted a spirited, if nihilistic, rebuttal. “To say that our lives are pointless and our achievements meaningless is to state the obvious,” he wrote. “No matter how grand our achievements or how broad their scope, time turns all to dust and death destroys all memory. But that does not mean we cannot ascribe our own meaning to what we do.” For Curry, the Final Fantasy VII challenge proved not only comforting but also instructive. “It taught me perseverance, of course,” he said. “But more important than the ability to finish what you start is what I now see as the moral goodness of finishing what you start.”
Curry has already moved on to another endurance challenge, set in the preceding game in the series, Final Fantasy VI. But he may not be done with VII’s opening scene just yet; the game is currently being remade in Japan, at vast expense, and the new version is expected to come out in the next few years. “I’m already thinking about doing it again,” he told me.