Late to the Party

back to Late to the Party, the lively
and exciting column in which I cast a bemused look over those films that I
really ought to have seen years ago.

ninth column is something special, and by that I mean I promise I won’t do ones
like it often. Rather than taking a look at a much-loved movie and turning my
fresh face upon it, I will be writing about a videogame that has spawned
decades of successors, imitators, and wretched followers; and has attracted
critical masses of both love and hate. This game is…

Final FantasyFinal Fantasy

My first
encounter with the franchise was back in my middle school days. I had a friend
who loved playing classic games on an NES he picked up at a garage sale, so
we’d often stay up well into the night with things like Contra and, well, Duck
. Then came the weeks after he managed to score a copy of the Final
cartridge. I freely admit to having no comprehension of the
weird numbering and naming scheme that the series was inflicted with upon its
translation to English, but I think he was playing the first game. The one
that, upon its release, may well have been the final fantasy game the designer
worked on.

I was
bored out of my skull. I disassembled my friend’s Teddy Ruxpin doll and tried
to put it back together. I brought over my Magic cards and spent hours sorting
them into new configurations while my friend wandered around the overworld with
his Warriors of Light. This went on for weeks. (I didn’t have any other
friends, in case you were wondering.) To make it worse, my friend lived on an
orchard, and tracked in sulfur from the sprays all the time, so in my mind Final
has been associated with the smell of rotten eggs for a decade

games just don’t lend themselves well to observation. I’d like to think that’s
because certain games have such a complex interior process that spectators
can’t possibly follow the progression from the point-of-view of the player. Athletics,
for example, are easy to follow because, while there is a degree of strategy held
only in the mind of the coach and players, the external executions of those
strategies are immediately rewarding. I’d argue that the same goes with chess.
No telling what Kasparov is going to do, but a spectator can watch the board,
examine the possible moves, and then have the reward of a new configuration to
interact with as soon as the competitor makes his play. Final Fantasy, as an
example, has such a delayed gratification that it’s difficult to watch without
asking your friend to give you a running commentary of the purposes for each of
his actions. A decade ago, I learned that insisting on such can needlessly
strain a friendship, especially a friendship already tested by the destruction
of a robot bear.

It’s also
hard for a spectator to invest himself in any game that has so much freedom of
player movement. The overworld, and the game mechanic of level grinding, make
for a game that a viewer can not play by proxy.

I should
have just played the game myself, I realize, but this friend of mine wasn’t
well-practiced in sharing, anyway, and especially not when slackjawed in front
of the bedroom television, his hands glued to the gamepad by stale sweat.

I was a PC man back in the day. If I couldn’t play it with a mouse and
keyboard, I wasn’t interested.

greatest sin, in all of these articles, seems to boil down to my own apathy: I
just never get around to disproving my own assumptions about these arguably
classic pieces of art and entertainment. So, because I, like Benjamin Franklin,
am in a constant pursuit of bettering myself, I went and bought the Final
release on the PSP about a month ago. (Keep your virtues,
Franklin; I want my vidjagames.)

over the line from disenchanted spectator to engaged player has been a weird
experience for me. One of the critical differences between games (of any
stripe) and art is that the experience isn’t uniform; by that I mean that
everyone who watches a movie sees the same images, and has the same
opportunities to interact with what they’re watching, unless they’re epileptic.
While I’ll admit to being hopeful of the potential of videogaming as a strong
narrative/artistic medium, I can’t honestly argue its achievement, yet, thanks
to the reasons above.

means that stepping from observer to active participant feels, in a bad
analogy, like graduating from the audience of a film to being its director.

I could
have chosen a more worthy game to buoy these particular braindead word games,
but partly out of my need for personal redemption, I have to confess that I
think Final Fantasy is a lot of fun. CHUD’s resident FF
apologist Jon Cassady wrote up a great retrospective of the series
which got me thinking about giving the series a chance from behind the
proverbial driver’s wheel.

remained a little leery, because I’m a fiction kind of guy and a bad story will
kill my enjoyment of a game right quick. The Final Fantasy games have
bad stories. I haven’t played any of them through to completion (including the
original, but I’m damn close), but the progression of story quality seems to go
from benign to aggressively awful as the iterations click up. But with Final
, I’m finding that the stock fantasy quest provides just enough
structure for the gameplay without drawing attention to its more underwhelming

There are
two things that have grabbed my attention about this game, particularly: the
gameplay balance between grind and achievement, and the attempt to incorporate roleplaying
into an adventure title. I can’t say I’m fond
of either of those aspects, but they give me enough fodder to think about,
which fosters a kind of affection. You know, like a sick puppy makes you feel
all warm inside.

I used to
play a lot of Diablo, which kind of defined my early concept of “level
grind.” World of Warcraft hasn’t grabbed me, so my personal definition
hasn’t developed much further than that, but it has met a familiar face in the
gameplay of Final Fantasy. In the early part of the game, I found I was
able to progress from story-element to story-element fairly quickly; but in the
end-game, I’m finding that I have to wander the overworld an awful lot in order
to gain experience for my characters. As a result, I loved the first few hours
of playtime, because there was something of a give-and-take with the effort and
reward system. Of course, the rewards here aren’t exactly nuggets of
captivating story, as with Diablo, but what can you do.

interesting to me is the attempt to manhandle roleplaying elements into this
adventure/action gameplay. I don’t want to contribute to a JRPG vs RPG debate,
but the two genres are very different animals. The Japanese tend to take a set
of predefined characters and give you the freedom to determine their name and
equipment, then steer you into a linear adventure; while Western sorts of RPGs
tend to be less focused on story and more focused on freedom. There’s a good
reason for this dichotomy, that being that freedom of play and
designer-controlled story can’t really coexist. The Pacific just serves as a
great and arbitrary division between how designers approach the problem of
players doing their Mary Sue thing.

Now I’m
going to have legions of undead telling me that I have to play Final
Fantasy VI
, or that I really ought to try Tactics, or that Aeris
dies, or some-such. The original Final Fantasy, gussied up as it
currently is in my PSP, is just fine for me, for the time being. It’s got a
formula to it; it’s not a terribly complicated one, but I’ve enjoyed working
through it.