Sailing a Sinking Ship
Next year, Square Enix will release a veritable fleet of Final Fantasy games, with Final Fantasy XIII towering above the rest as the flagship title. We pretty much know what we’ll be getting: linear story, static character models, cut scenes galore, in-game goodies that demand grinding masochism to acquire and, of course, some new twist on the active-time battle system. There is little doubt that Final Fantasy XIII will be the largest, the most complex, the most powerful Final Fantasy of all time. It will also be obsolete. Final Fantasy XIII will be the Battleship Final Fantasy.
Let me explain the metaphor. In 1941, the Empire of Japan commissioned the Yamato, the most powerful battleship ever to sail the sea. The Yamato‘s main batteries could hit with accuracy at ranges up to 25 miles. Her guns fired shells six feet tall, weighing a ton and a half each. Throughout World War II, the Yamato split flagship duties with her sister ship, the Musashi, and to this day she remains a potent symbol of nationalist, industrial and military accomplishment. This afternoon, I worked on a 1/350th scale model of the Yamato, an excellent and very popular plastic kit from the Tamiya corporation. As I write this, I’m wearing a Star Blazers shirt, a 1970s anime series known in Japan as Space Battleship Yamato.
The irony is that the Yamato enjoys enduring fame despite the fact that she was already obsolete while undergoing construction in Kure shipyard. Both the Yamato and the Musashi went down in combat with aircraft carrier groups. Thus, battleships reached their crowning heights at the very moment that they lost relevance in naval combat.
The problem with the Final Fantasy series is that it uses ever bigger guns to deliver the same small pleasures. There is satisfaction in, say, outfitting your party with the game’s ultimate weapons, or catching a sly reference to a film, or polishing off the game’s last side quest. But each of these little joys comes at great cost to both the developers and the player. Final Fantasy today offers the exact same rewards as Final Fantasy yesterday, only it takes more effort to get them.
Fun Built to Scale
But there remains a way to enjoy Final Fantasy in the modern world. It’s the same way that we indulge our nostalgia for the Yamato: by experiencing it in miniature, as a model, rather than as itself.
Nintendo’s DS handheld system offers today’s best Final Fantasy experience – its remake of Final Fantasy IV. It’s a pocket-sized Final Fantasy, a re-tooling of one of the series’ most acclaimed titles. Even better, because the DS reads Game Boy Advance cartridges and a port of the original Final Fantasy IV appeared on the GBA, you can switch between the two versions as you progress through them, much as I inspect images of the real Yamato as I glue together my model of it.
Thinking of these games as tiny replicas actually makes it easier to suffer the flaws endemic to Final Fantasy. Sure, you’re still pixel-bitching every corner of every town in order to find those potions you’ll never use, but because the game plays out in the palm of your hand, it seems like a lark. You can chortle to yourself: “Ha! This is how Grandpa used to play!” You’re not enduring the real Final Fantasy, which sucks now; you’re comparing models of that ancient game.
Final Fantasy in a Bottle
Final Fantasy IV on the DS embodies two models in one. The original FFIV‘s plot has served as a model for all the games that have followed it in the series, and the expansion of the new FFIV‘s gameplay is modeled on the vast possibilities available in the newer Final Fantasy games.
In fact, ship models go both ways, too. The plastic Yamato that I’m building represents a real vessel, but the shipwright who built that vessel himself relied on hand-made design models to guide his work. What’s surprising is that what happened with the Yamato happened with Final Fantasy: The models proved better than the ship itself.
Consider the plot of Final Fantasy IV, which is praised, correctly, as the best of the series. You play as Cecil, a Dark Knight serving the kingdom of Baron. As the game begins, Cecil massacres a number of innocents and steals their magic crystal for his king. Cecil comes to regret this crime and so sets himself on a path to redemption, saving the world along the way.
Much of the acclaim for FFIV‘s plot focuses on its complexity. At least six major betrayals occur. Four playable characters suffer amnesia or mind control. Five playable characters commit suicide for noble ends. Four of them recover. Cecil’s best friend, Kain, supports him, betrays him, supports him again, betrays him again, then, finally, supports him once more. Three playable characters turn out to be related. Seven turn out to be nobility.
What both fans and the developers of Final Fantasy have misunderstood is that no one enjoys this plot for itself. In its own right, the plot of FFIV is idiotic. It just seems good because we mistake the fun of playing a varied game for delight in a winding narrative. FFIV has such risible convolutions because these betrayals and deaths and family ties justify the constant rotation of the party roster. They vary gameplay. It’s one thing to face down challenges with a Dark Knight and a Dragoon; it’s something quite different with a Paladin, two kid magicians and an old wizard. The plot serves merely to explain why the player has one set of options rather than another.
Unfortunately, misdirected praise for Final Fantasy IV resulted in the misapplication of its formula. Today’s Final Fantasy offers the biggest, most wildly convoluted plots possible, depicting them in endless overproduced cut scenes, without tying them to gameplay. Final Fantasy has never produced a good or even coherent plot, a compelling character, a line of believable dialogue or a scene worthy of anything but a Saturday morning cartoon. All of which is perfectly fine if the meanderings of the storyline actually match up with how you play the game. Without this correlation, a Final Fantasy plot becomes mere chaos. The action of Final Fantasy XII is huge, elaborate and entirely without purpose – a battleship if I ever saw one.
A Model Completionist
All games that cater to completionists share something with the art of building model ships. They’re both concerned with monomaniacal attention to detail. In putting together my model Yamato, I make use of extensive instructions, numerous specialized tools, photos, books and notes made by other people who have assembled the same kit. Playing Final Fantasy IV on DS, I followed S.B. Allen’s excellent FAQ – a 200-plus-page beast that directs the player on the multiple playthroughs necessary to collect all possible abilities and items.
The remake ramps up the gameplay of FFIV, which had already accreted more and more options as it passed through various ports. It’s a real treat to get everything just right in the game, to assign the Dualcast Augment to Rosa the White Mage, to hook up Kain with the Holy Lance, to max out everyone’s stats. Accomplishing such things in a Final Fantasy game, rather than, say, a twitchy shooter, requires patience and endurance. Go slowly about things and, in the end, you’ll have constructed a perfect game, suitable for display.
Yet the optional elements that demand so much effort to achieve on the DS represent only a bite-size version of the gaming Gargantua Final Fantasy has become. Mini-games, bestiaries, accessories, rare monsters, rare weapons – Christ! The humongousness of it all defies belief, defies completion. Sure, people have achieved all that can be achieved in a game like Final Fantasy XII – one of its FAQs, not even the largest, is spread across more than 770 pages. But people built the actual Battleship Yamato, too, which now lies in two pieces on the floor of the ocean off Okinawa.
Just as has happened with the main plot, the sidequests of Final Fantasy have become ends in themselves, separated from any notion of the fun they were supposed to provide. Final Fantasy has the most compelling profile of any videogame. It bristles with guns – but what can actually be done with all of that firepower?
Ultimately, the troubles of Final Fantasy lie with its charm. From the first game to FFXII, the series has maintained a consistent tone in its plot, dialogue and gameplay. Final Fantasy has the feel of third-rate fantasy literature – imitative dreck suitable for children, but not without a certain charm.
The problem is that this tone doesn’t sit well with the current scale of the game. There’s genuine artistry in the presentation of Final Fantasy, but the art of the game is put in service of scripts that can only be enjoyed ironically. Listen to the dying words of the Sage, Tellah, in the FFIV remake: “I brought this on … myself. Letting hate consume me so … Please … Avenge … Anna.” After consuming his own life-force by casting the Meteor spell in an attempt to get revenge on his daughter’s killer, Tellah regrets his quest for vengeance and then asks his friends to finish this quest for him. What a jerk! You can laugh at Final Fantasy characters; you can’t feel sorry for them.
Similarly, the over-developed gameplay has only the tiniest satisfactions as its goal. It’s pretty cool to get the most badass weapon in a game, but Final Fantasy seems to have forgotten that the only thing you can do with such a weapon is kill shit with it. The lengths you have to go to in order to acquire the best equipment in Final Fantasy outstrip by far anything you get to do with that equipment. The scale of the challenge doesn’t fit the reward.
Final Fantasy needs to return to a size befitting the fun it delivers. This is precisely what has been done with the FFIV remake. The chibi look of the characters is commensurate with their childish dialogue. When Cecil and Rosa discuss the massacre he’s just carried out, they look as stupid as the words they speak, and the scene passes briefly. The game doesn’t ask me to take it seriously.
FFIV is merciful in the sidequest department, too. Gathering all of the game’s goodies doesn’t take forever, and, through replays, I get to use the best weapons to beat the crap out of everybody who kicked my ass the first time through.
The age of Final Fantasy has passed. The toy-like pleasures of the series belong in hand-held gaming, not on full-fledged consoles, just as battleships belong on our mantles, above our hearths, not on the wide-open sea.
Ray Huling is a freelance journalist living in Boston, where he waits for the aircraft carrier of RPGs to sail into the harbor.