Fixing Final Fantasy: A conversation, part two
Think Final Fantasy is a little bit broken? So do Nightmare Mode editors Tom Auxier and Adam Harshberger. The difference between you and they is that they had the time and inclination to have a minutiae-obsessed conversation about how to make it better.
Part one is located here, if you need to catch up.
Adam Harshberger: So how do we fix it? What’s the solution?
I worry that we’re speculating a little bit too much about these developers – that we’re putting words in their mouths. We don’t really have a ton of evidence that they’re grasping at straws, trying to force themselves to tell a Final Fantasy story that isn’t quite in their reach anymore. But we do know that Sazh and son story is by far the best of FFXIII , so I’m running with it.
I don’t think it’s fair to say we that the whole team needs to go, that Final Fantasy should start a again with an entire new team behind. I think the fact that every game has a some continuity, staff-wise, between them is what makes all the games feel like part of a whole, no matter how different they are. When I’m playing another non-FF game, it’s not uncommon for me to think something like, “That was a really ‘Final Fantasy‘ moment,” or “This is conjuring up memories of Final Fantasy.”
Why is that? I think it’s because all the games feature a volatile mix of raw creativity, a thirst for progression, and a little bit of the development team’s soul. Maybe youth isn’t exactly what we should have called it before – maybe it’s more like humanity. As a whole, videogames are painfully impersonal affairs. How much of someone’s heart do you see in Halo? Are there little snippets of someone’s existence buried in Diablo 3? No, not really, I don’t think so. But there are parts in every Final Fantasy game that feel real and sincere; parts where it feels like more than the obligatory plot between killin’ shit. Locke watching Rachael die. Cloud and Tifa on the water tower before Cloud leaves town. Squall’s transition from a total ass to a good person. The way Garnet punches Zidane in the chest at the end of FFIX. Looking back at these scenes, I don’t remember the music or the graphics or how much damage I was inflicting – I remember how they made me feel.
But now we’re left with this aging team. Any Squalls that were around have turned into normal human beings; any Zidanes have already been punched, their water tower conversations are over, their Rachaels long dead. These are stories already told, inspirations expired. I don’t want them to tell youthful stories of revolting against the man anymore. Young love from the perspective of a 50 year old man isn’t sexy or compelling – it’s awkward. And really, at 23 and enslaved to a cubicle, those stories don’t resonate with me that much anymore, either. Squall, at a certain point in my life, was basically me. At one point Edgar was the most badass dude on the planet, Tifa was sexy as hell, and Aerith was the most perfect creature to ever exist. Not anymore, though.
The Final Fantasy games these folks should make is the same kind that would speak to me. It’s what they know now. That the world is ugly and bitter, that if you leave the village and go to save the planet you’re probably gonna die. Couldn’t you see a Final Fantasy game that’s about office life? About grinding away, day after day, the same thing? And how it would feel if, one day, you were thrust into a position where the entire fate of everything came down to you? The doubt? That’s a story the current FF team would know, that they could relate to. Like you said, Tom, these are company men. Cubicle sitters. There’s a myriad of ways that being a father could become the central part of a Final Fantasy game, too, and Sazh proved they can pull it off already.
Picture a Final Fantasy game where the protagonist is, I don’t know, a prison guard. He’s worked at the same prison for 20 years, he’s bored, sad, alone. He hates everything. One day, he gets caught up in a daring escape plot, somehow swept along in a typical Final Fantasy plot. Just that might be enough – just having the main character being someone the developers can empathize with and understand. If the bored prison guard is the lens through which we see the world, then at least our viewpoint will feel sincere, like it was written by an actual human and not the glorified focus group that is the Agni demo.
That’s how to fix the series. When we started this, I thought my answer would be to get back to the roots. To simplify the formula down to the simplest thing: banding together to save the world. But after this, that’s not what it needs. It’s just like you said: they have to write what they know. They used to know youth, but now it’s something else. Something older and more cynical. And it doesn’t matter if it isn’t youth, it just has to come from the heart.
And yes, I realize I just seriously advocated for the “mid-life crisis” Final Fantasy. Because I would play the shit out of that game.
Tom Auxier: A midlife crisis Final Fantasy would be great, I agree with you. I feel like that’s what the last two titles were going for before they got muddled with/overwhelmed by their own excesses. XII represents its ideas with a clear delineation: the narrative was about a middle aged man dealing with his father, an old soldier dealing with betrayal, until Square Enix decided no one cares about that and threw in a call to adventure for a prissy young kid. XIII did the same thing: truthful middle aged plot beats, inauthentic youthful moments like the fireworks ride. It’s the real thing wrapped in trappings desperate to prove that yes, this is a Final Fantasy.
It felt a little bit like (and I’m going to alienate half our readership now, but they’ve come this far with us) the newest Smashing Pumpkins’ record, Oceania. Billy Corgan’s still there. He’s still feeling something, and he’s still writing authentic songs. But he’s playing with dudes (and ladies) who are approximating the band who made Siamese Dream with him; some of them were barely alive when Siamese Dream came out. There’s nothing inauthentic about the songs, but just this feeling you can’t shake, that they’re trying to prove something they don’t have to.
That’s what I loved about Final Fantasy XII: it wasn’t obsessed with proving its credibility. It was the first major title without Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobou Uematsu, and it didn’t give half a fuck. It doesn’t let you stop and think, “Hey, those two highly paid gentlemen aren’t present.” It doesn’t because you’re playing a video game that’s fairly comfortable with itself. Final Fantasy XIII, meanwhile, you know those two guys aren’t there, and their absence is conspicuous because it’s following the trends of the Sakaguchi decade. It wants to prove its a Final Fantasy game in all the traditional ways—bombastic score, ethereal art style, beautiful cutscenes, cinematic excess—but misses the parts you emphasize: the youthful vigor, the honesty.
That’s what I like about the “prison guard” variant: there’s an honesty there. A reluctance that reminds me of Terra, of Cloud, of Squall, a reluctance that always rings true with the call to adventure. I might be unhappy where I am, but do I want to risk everything on adventure? Hell no. What I see in those characters (especially Terra) is a fear of the unknown that speaks to me so well. Or Cloud and Tifa on the water tower, sitting on the precipise of adventure.
And these characters, reluctantly but finally, embrace the unknown. Eventually Cloud falls off the water tower into the Lifestream (metaphorically, at least). Squall accepts he’s going to become a military leader, he’s going to love this girl, so he might as well do a proper job of it. Either that or he dies and has a fever dream. But they have character arcs, and they earn the changes they go through. There isn’t a moment in the sewers where Squall screams at Zell about how he’s fucked everything up: instead, there’s that moment in the clock tower, Irvine folding, where Squall realizes he’s going to have to do it himself. We’re shown growth, not told it.
That’s where I miss Hironobu Sakaguchi the most. For all the reasons I didn’t like his post Square Enix opus Lost Odyssey, it had that cohesive feeling Final Fantasy has always thrived on. It felt honest, and it felt whole. That’s what I feel like XII and XIII missed most: they missed having one guy who could say, “Okay, this is my game. I’m in the mechanics, I’m in the narrative. Everything is following my vision.” It’s missing its auteur. Motomu Toriyama tried to do that with XIII, I think, but ultimately failed: the mechanics looked cool, and the fireworks scene was very pretty, but neither mattered to the other. VII’s water tower scene mattered to the materia system.
What I want from the obligatory Final Fantasy XV is for one guy to step up and say, “I am making this game.” He could be young, he could be old, but he has to be committed to making an honest, crucial video game. Someone needs to step up and say, “Final Fantasy is mine.” And then he needs to make it a game that isn’t just a nostalgiathon, but a game that asserts that this is now his game.
I’m not really sure this can, or will, happen. I’m pretty sure it won’t, because that’s what Square Enix did away with in Final Fantasy XII: instead of a smaller vision, it tried to make love to the world.
But the prison guard. Man. I like the prison guard. Miserable, trapped (maybe he’s working to support his parents), given an impossible choice in the face of a breakout (do you die, or do you join the rebels, which is what you want to do anyway), thrown into an adventure with implications beyond his understanding. Radical, reluctant, and probably pretty honest, judging from what we know about Japanese game development. Adam, if I was Square Enix, I would give you a six figure paycheck and tell you to make a Final Fantasy game. Probably a fifth or sixth spinoff, but you know. Your prison guard could be looking for crystals, and you could play some variation of the theme over the title screen.
And so, we wrap up a conversation on the video game series with perhaps the most games, having touched on maybe five of them. Have your own opinions? Leave them in the comments! Don’t leave them in your pockets!