Fixing Final Fantasy: A conversation, part one
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.
Tom Auxier: There’s one quote that sticks in my mind when I think of Final Fantasy. I thought about it when I booted up Final Fantasy Tactics for a quick poke a couple months ago, Final Fantasy XIII for another try more recently, and when I saw the tech demo for Square’s new engine. It’s from a relatively famous Simon Parkin piece, said by Yoshinori Kitase, the producer of most modern Final Fantasies, the director and scenario planner for Final Fantasy VI and VII:
“He says his games aren’t really for people in their thirties. The JRPG is intended for younger players because the journey of the character leaving the village to conquer the world resonates with them. He’s happy to continue serving this audience.”
When I was trying to replay Final Fantasy XIII, that’s all I could think about: this was a game telling a child’s story through adult characters. It’s The Hunger Games, but instead of Jennifer Lawrence and a dude who’s exchanging promise rings with Miley Cyrus we’ve got adults: Lightning, the career soldier; Snow, the revolutionary twenty-something; Sazh, a father whose child turns out to be an ostracized minority (someone could make a good case for a botched coming out slash AIDS metaphor there).
This, to me, is Final Fantasy’s problem in a nutshell. It’s not even on their radar, though. You can tell from Kitase’s quote, and from the survey that accompanied Agni’s Philosophy, the demonstration of Square’s next gen engine, that this isn’t even a priority. Here’s the survey questions:
• Did you enjoy this movie?
• Did you feel that Agni (the heroine) was an attractive or appealing character?
• Were you interested in the vision of the world portrayed in the movie?
• Did you find the movie to be visually attractive?
• Were you impressed by the real-time computer graphics from a next generation perspective?
…all of which boil down to, “Is it pretty enough? Is Agni pretty enough?” I wanted to scream at them: she’s pretty enough, but that’s not the point!
Adam Harshberger: Honestly, I think that’s exactly what I want to hear Kitase say – but he’s selling the appeal of youth short.
Final Fantasy has always been at its best when it’s being youthful, a little silly, and daring. Think about Cloud hauling ass out of Midgar on a motorcycle while waving his massive sword around. That’s just silly – but dammit, that scene was awesome and a lot of fun: nothing if not a youthful shriek of videogame exuberance. Then there’s Squall! I think my depressed, just-barely-pubescent-self identified with Squall more than I’ve identified with a videogame character ever. And obviously he’s not all youthful fun and joy – but isn’t being melodramatic, maladjusted and sad part of youth, too? And wasn’t it daring on Square’s part to make such a bummer of a main character at the time? He’s one of gaming’s first sadsack main characters. Final Fantasy 9, too, is a wonderful romp of an adventure, and goofy as hell.
So seeing Kitase say that makes perfect sense. Although when was the last “young hero leaves home” plot in a FF game? Regardless: the most appealing part of Final Fantasy is youth. You can see it in Final Fantasy 10; the Yuna and Tidus romance is nothing but youthful idealism. Final Fantasy 11 is a back-breakingly difficult game, but it has youthful exuberance in the way it makes you tackle its impossibility recklessly, alongside your own band of adventurers and friends. Final Fantasy 12, and maybe this is a stretch, gets its youth from how blatantly Square breaks from tradition in it. They introduced a new battle system to the FF mainstream like it was no big deal – even though the FF12 battle system is really just the FF11 battle system. However, FF12 is the first Final Fantasy to not be a great videogame, if you ask me.
And Final Fantasy 13 is the first Final Fantasy to be a mediocre game. It’s all style over substance. They thought the magnificent graphics and increased realism would make us automatically like the characters more, and that’s simply not the case. Celes is infinitely more alive than Lightning. And the characters, like you said, Tom, straddle the line between adult and youth. But they’re not either, they’re a weird in-between. As a result, they don’t appeal to my nostalgia or my grown-up sensibility. It’s just awkward as hell.
Now, thinking about that Agni demo, and the questions they asked, I think I get it. They want to simulate that youthfulness. They want infectious, irrestible characters like Locke or Aerith or Zidane. They want a world that sucks you into it, with places like Midgar or the Garden or Lindblum. They’re struggling blindly to recapture that magic, and they want fans to point them in the right direction. Somehow, they’ve forgotten how to be the reckless, eccentric, and daring developers they were.
With that quote, I think that Kitase is forgetting the little spark of youth, that lingering desire for adventure that lives inside all of us. That’s what Final Fantasy has always spoken to for me. Final Fantasy 13 is the first one that didn’t speak to me, though. It didn’t speak to a lot of people! Why do you think that is? It has to be more than just the hellish linearity – is it because Square Enix has forgotten what Kitase is talking about? How important youth and being young and remembering being young is to Final Fantasy?”
Tom: I identified with Squall, too. If you asked me what the critical game blogosphere needed most, it needs someone to write a five thousand word sendup of how great Squall was. He’s wonderful. He has an arc: he goes from mopey, snarky, self-obsessed teen to someone who can lead the defense of a floating battleship. Incredibly fucked up shit happens to him, and he gets sad, but he deals with it.
It seemed like they were going for the same beats with Lightning. Awful things happen to her, and the entire cast, but the game misses the crucial moments of self-doubt that Squall hit so well. The moments where I gave up on the game was when Lightning, in the sewers beneath some city or another, resolved, out of the blue, that she was a horrible person. All of her scenes with Hope were just cringe worthy, because they were old people pontificating about how young people have problems with an air of contempt.
It’s company men, men who have forty year old problems, telling a fifteen year old story.The only moments in the game that really rang with truth—with “write what you know”—were the ones about Sazh and his son. Someone in the writing team really knew that: they knew a man dealing with a son becoming something he was brought up to hate. How long he keeps it hidden, his awkwardness, they hit those beats. They hit the Serah-Snow-Lightning triangle, because that’s a pretty adult plot, and someone knows that. They hit Hope and his father.They miss the youthful moments, though: Snow and Serah, falling in love; Lightning teaching Hope how to be strong; Vanille and Sazh, running away together. They miss the youthful moments of irresponsibility, of fantasy, of rebellion.
They miss them because they’re comfortable men employed by a massive company. The people who wrote this game worked on Final Fantasy’s before. They’re older guys, getting into the company once Square Enix went from games company to multimillion dollar business. They write the beats they know.
Some of them worked on Final Fantasy VII, though. Final Fantasy VII was video games’ punk rock record. I remember reading that Kotaku piece months ago about how Jade Raymond of Ubisoft thought that video games weren’t speaking to the Occupy generation; Final Fantasy VII was a game about ecoterrorist kids! It’s a dystopian take on a world where the head of a large corporation can be killed by a genetically engineered monster, then his son can give a speech on the balcony, his father rotting inside, about how he wants to rule with fear. Real Dick Cheney shit. Rinoa was a terrorist, too, a Galbadian Katniss a decade early. These games speak to me, not in a nostalgic way, but in a fresh, immediate way: these are the things we’re going through right now.
Final Fantasy XIII tries for this feeling. People are being deported at the beginning of the game, after all, by a fascist government. But it never quite hits the same beats, because Square Enix isn’t comfortable with this anymore. The writers here came onboard after VII, when the series hit the big time. They’ve gone from small clubs to stadiums, and the names on the stadium don’t want them to write songs about terrorist-heroes. They want love triangles, toothless dystopias, and ultraviolence instead of youth.
So I think it’s a little bit of both: I think Final Fantasy XIII’s developers aren’t in touch with youth, and I think they’re discouraged from being in touch with youth. It’s a bit like a classic rock band, twenty years on, releasing new albums: everyone’s telling them to play the hits, but the hits are these songs that don’t work in stadiums, that are out there. And they’re not in the same place any more: it’s why Pearl Jam’s most successful song of the last decade sounds nothing like their classic output. They’re not in the same place anymore, and I don’t think Final Fantasy‘s developers are, either.
Follow us along for part two, now available where quality games blogging is sold!