Season's Gaming

Season's Gaming
A Fine Fantasy

Patrick Dugan | 20 Dec 2005 11:01
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Videogame Christmases gave me childhood obesity, and they were worth it. Every year on December 25, while my family celebrated togetherness, giving and the birth of Jesus, I celebrated only gaming. Looking back on the history of gifts received, my Christmas mornings line up like a gallery of classic plays: Metroid Prime, Ico, Metal Gear Solid 2, Half-Life, Fallout 2, Castlevania: Symphony of The Night, Resident Evil, Donkey Kong Country, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario Bros. 3. The eagerness for the holiday intersected the anticipation of the games, annually spinning into a mad typhoon of awe and dopamine. Birthdays and Christmas were the major temporal landmarks of the calendar year, weighted with raw ludic ore. This was the form and ritual of growing up geek.

The one Christmas morning that mattered most, leaving the greatest impression on my memory and appreciation of game design - was dated 12-25-1994, the year Squaresoft released Final Fantasy III in the U.S.

The earlier fantasies were analogous to medieval literature in both setting and structure, their lineated sagas seemed brave and unique back when a few plot twists, an evil wizard, a major character's sudden, permanent death and some crystals were all you needed to whip up a storyline. These narratives seem contrived in retrospect, largely because their conflicts between ancient demons and magical heroes lacked much indication of human feeling. This emotional indifference might be attributed to the limitations of graphics technology, or the fact that the real meat of playing a Final Fantasy involves picking off blue menus and watching numbers bounce over screen. Yet Final Fantasy III was both graphically limited in terms of emotive representation and based on a gameplay foundation of numerical dynamics, but somehow, for the first time in the series (the sixth installment in Japan), the narrative transcended the hero's journey model centered on a young male protagonist and his friends.

Final Fantasy III marked the videogame analogy of baroque symphony, featuring a steam-punk setting laced with intoxicating, almost impressionistic, sprite-based visuals and impressive MIDI orchestral tracks. The game opens on the plight and manipulation of a woman at the hands of power-hungry men, and expands to examine a large and varied cast inhabiting all walks in life. In sheer technical terms, these characters were nothing but bins for learned spells and optimized equipments, but interspersed moments of drama, the majority written as vaguely interactive cut-scenes, provide a subtext for the character's motivations, hopes and weaknesses, providing a glow of meaning beneath the random battles.

The prime example of this interweave between game mechanic and story aesthetic is the opera sequence found early in the storyline's second act, now almost famous in the canon of classic game moments. Celes, a major female character lamenting her past misdeeds as a military leader, receives the lead role of an opera production for her resemblance to the star actress. Digitized voice tones sing out the story within the story while the player attempts to select the correct lines. Meanwhile, the rest of the team hurries to stop a sabotage of the production, racing against a five-minute clock while being slowed by battles. A sense of passive appreciation clashes with the active rush to save the day, building to a rupture of the in-game opera within the flow of the greater narrative.

Final Fantasy III is also notable for its treatment of female subjects. Most games, over a decade later, are entirely bound into a male avatar consumed with goals of conquest and exploration. But Final Fantasy III's most prominent heroes are its women, and its primary goal is returning balance and peace to a world diseased with conflict. Terra, the initial playable character, and later Celes, offer examples of strong women who are not overly sexualized, and the platonic relationships with male characters never become romantic. While the player manipulates them, the aim of that manipulation is to combat the greater malfeasance of a society that encouraged their abilities and then attempted to impose monstrosity on their otherness. Terra and Celes are in a way emblematic of patriarchal society's attempt to control strength in women: They begin as weapons of war, but in fighting back and leading the team in its rebellion against the evil empire they become radical agents, ultimately equalizing the injustices that produced them and providing hope for survival and freedom.

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