Sunday, March 14, 2010

Games That Don't Think You're Stupid (OR, Why I Like Final Fantasy Games)

It's been a while since I've had the pleasure of starting a completely new Final Fantasy game, and FFXIII is making me remember why that sensation is so special. There's something about Final Fantasy games that's kind of amazing, even when it's the exact same formula. It starts with a fly-over of the game world, stunning graphics and amazing, unique details for the player to gorge their eyeballs and curiosity on. Then - something's happening! Then suddenly there you are, in the middle of gameplay, with little to no explanation and, if you're lucky, a bare tutorial. (In FFX there was no tutorial at all for the first combat, mimicking the confusion and unpreparedness of the main character.)

Maybe it's the early hinted depth of the world, maybe it's the continuously unique atmosphere, maybe it's the ease of slipping into the menu-based combat, even though it can change drastically from game to game, or maybe it's just the trust I have in Final Fantasy, but there's something about this state that makes me go, "Alright! Yeah! I have NO IDEA what's going on, but let's do this, Bitches!" And from there on, it's straight into adventure.

One of the things I like the most about the Final Fantasy series is the way it doesn't hold your hand narratively. Characters bandy about unfamiliar terms as though you're supposed to know what they mean (in FFXII we already have Fal'Cie, L'Cie, Cocoon, and Pulse, to name a few, and I'm only a few hours in...), and the game just lets you soak it in and try to keep up. And yet inevitably, by the time I'm fully immersed in an FF game, I feel in total control of the game world, narrative and all. I bandy the terminology about myself, as though I've been using it all my life. Zanarkand and the Aeons? Of course. What would that highly religious land be without its slumbering guardian spirits? Now, who's up for a game of blitzball?

FFXIII is new in that it has a file of reference sheets about the world. I've been reading them, but honestly, I don't think I need to. It's nice to have the extra reference, but I got immediately that the "Focus" was the task that the Fal'Cie order their L'Cie to do. It makes total sense. Or else they turn into those crazy zombie monsters (Cie'eth, I believe, although I haven't been playing that long yet, and it's possible I got that wrong). I get it. Cool. Awesome. I'm totally with you on this one. Let's rock this, FFXIII.

This kind of reminds me of one thing that I really like about the Kingdom Hearts series. Invariably, whenever I saw an ad for a Kingdom Hearts game, I would have two reactions: the first would be a general, overall impression of "That looks AWESOME. I must try it." The second would be a more detail-oriented look at the hints about what they were doing with the thought, "How the hell are they going to make that work? That doesn't make any sense at all. That's gonna be so stupid." And ALWAYS I have been proven wrong. Examples:

Game 1, Kingdom Hearts
Initial Thoughts: A Square game with Disney characters? This is going to be so lame. They're all completely separate universes. You can't just throw Donald Duck into a party and hope it works.
But: It did. They explained the separate universes, they justified the Disney characters as RPG material, and they connected it all in a well-thought out and internally consistent plot.

Game 2, Chain of Memories
Initial Thoughts: A card-based battle system? Are you kidding me?
But: They actually bothered to justify it narratively. And it was a real-time combat system, despite the cards, that actually worked quite well and was incredibly fun to play.

Game 3, Kingdom Hearts II
Initial Thoughts: Really. Two characters that look just like Sora and Kairi? How does that work? And are they really going to try and justify a whole new enemy type just to have some combat variety? And the guy in the hood is obviously Riku. Why are you even bothering to hide his face?
But: The Nobodies were not there for variety, but for the expansion of the world's internal logic. The two characters that looked like Sora and Kairi were integral to the plot and its unfolding. And beneath the hood was Riku, but- OH MY GOD ARE YOU KIDDING?

Game 4, 358/2 Days
Initial Thoughts: Oh. Great. ANOTHER girl who looks like Kairi. How original. They're just doing that to complete the aesthetic set of three. There's no way they're going to be able to justify that.
But: In fact her presence made total internal sense with the game logic so far, and culminated in an actually quite creepy and heart-rending ending.

I haven't played "Birth By Sleep" yet, but I'm already wondering how they're going to justify a character that's identical to Roxas (who never really existed in the first place anyway), but some 10 years in the past. It doesn't seem possible, but they've proved me wrong every other time, so I'm heartily looking forward to them doing it again when the game comes out in English this summer.

I like these games because they don't think the audience is dumb. They don't think we have to be coddled or talked down to, and they acknowledge that we'll notice if they don't have internal consistency. They tell the stories they want to tell, no-holds-barred, and I respect that. Even when using familiar tropes, even bound as Final Fantasy is to Chocobos and Moogles and Cactuars and Cids, they never stop re-imagining themselves, never let the player rest and get so familiar as to become complacent. Every game is an adventure into a new world, even if it's one where, the moment I get there, I already feel at home.

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