Trying to understand how games work

It Must End – Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

This article contains spoilers.

For me there are two moments when I am most excited about a good game: when I start it and when I finish it. I get the appeal of a game I can go back to and keep playing continuously, but in my experience that usually fizzles out after a while. When I had recently played Final Fantasy XI, I found it overwhelming that the game seemed to go on forever (though that game does have “endings” to its own story arcs and ironically I wasn’t even able to reach the first one). The protagonist’s primary objective in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance isn’t to defeat a villain or save the world, it’s to end the videogame.

In this game Marche, his brother Doned, and a few of his friends from school end up being transported by a magic book into the world of “Final Fantasy”. It’s not the setting from any particular game in the series, even though the world does share the name Ivalice with Final Fantasy Tactics. The main characters are people who’ve played a game called “Final Fantasy” that is very similar to the place they’ve ended up. Within this new world the kids find that things they have wished for have been granted, and they have much more freedom here. But Marche knows that it’s just a game, and because of this he makes it his mission to end it and return home.

A tactical RPG is an excellent sort of game to tell this story. The structure of turn-based combat, the blocky terrain found in all environments, the fact that all situations have to be resolved through fighting. All of these things highlight the artificiality of the world. The job system this game has also feels more appropriate than it ever has since Marche has more freedom in this world, so he’s able to easily change his role in combat. That this game makes it much easier to unlock more jobs for everyone to change into highlights that even more. These are all systems that have seen use in many other games in the genre, but here they feel like they were purpose built for what Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is doing (it’s also similar to how Final Fantasy X used this to great effect).

However, those freedoms contrast harshly against certain restrictions which is the nature of living in a systems-driven videogame. The most blatant way in which it demonstrates this is through the use of “laws”. Most combat encounters will feature a seemingly arbitrary set of laws that will prevent certain skills or weapons from being used. They also reward other actions, encouraging a player to work those into combat as well. Marche’s school friend Mewt has some control over this world, so these regulations do fit in with a child’s idea of changing a game’s rules to suit themself. As this is a videogame, these laws work like a fundamental rule of the world and cannot be broken without making use of another system to do so. Choosing to ignore the laws will only result in progressively harsher punishments that eventually lead to losing the fight. The judges that enforce them also prevent people from being killed in combat, further emphasizing how much this is simply a game.

Fights are what make up most of this game. Any location where a fight doesn’t take place exists to either facilitate missions that lead to combat, or provide items for sale which are used in combat. After a while, no matter how fun these fights can be (which they are, I’ve had a great time playing this game) it can’t go on forever otherwise it would be fatiguing. Even children have a limit to their energy. There are also other people around from the world of Ivalice who aren’t there to fight, who often end up as victims as a result of bandit or monster attacks. The world being in a state of constant conflict for the sake of a child’s wish fulfilment is causing harm to the people that live there.

I also can’t help but view this game as somewhat reflective of the state of Squaresoft at the time. This is speculative since I haven’t come across any first-hand accounts of this game’s development. Producer Yasumi Matsuno has gone on record saying that Final Fantasy Tactics, a previous game he directed, was inspired by his own experience at the company. The company was also working on Final Fantasy XI around the same time, a game with odd and at times punishing systems that still looks like it will go on forever. Having played both games so closely together and knowing they released fairly close to each other, I can’t help but think about this comparison.

In many other contexts I could see the ending of this game as being a little weak. It moves much too fast towards its conclusion and feels a little sudden when it gets there. Within Final Fantasy Tactics Advance it makes perfect sense. This is a game about children playing and after a child spends enough time playing an adult often comes to tell them to finish. It doesn’t take a pessimistic view on the whole subject either. The game begins and ends with a snowball fight, showing that even though playtime has to end eventually, that doesn’t mean it can’t begin again.

Knowing when to stop has been a key part of my own project to play through a lot of Final Fantasy for this blog. If I simply wanted to play through all of them I could have been much further along through the games, but I took breaks when I felt as though I needed to. I’m only roughly halfway through this series, and I haven’t felt too tired from it all yet. Square Enix hasn’t stopped making Final Fantasy, and I can’t picture them stopping any time soon. I could still be playing these games for a very long time, but if I allow myself time to rest it will be easier.

Drift de Chocobo – Chocobo Racing

Covering Final Fantasy games on this blog has been great because of how different each one is. Even with the games I don’t like as much there’s a lot for me to think about. The hardest part about writing those other pieces was cutting them down into something readable, as I could personally ramble on about all of those games for quite some time. I have hundreds of pages of notes relating to the series so far.

Now I’ve come to a game where I barely managed to muster half a page of notes. There’s just not many interesting things to say about Chocobo Racing. It’s a derivative game lacking in its own identity, which makes it hard for me to not constantly compare it to other games.

This is a kart racing game, where items litter each track which racers can use to gain advantages or hinder competitors. It’s like Mario Kart, you probably know what Mario Kart is like and if you don’t, you know someone who does. Nintendo has a cultural near-monopoly on kart racing videogames, which means that no matter how good it is, every other game in the genre has to be compared to Mario Kart, even if it’s better but especially if it’s worse. While it’s unfair on many games (Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a great game in its own right) the copycat nature of Chocobo Racing actively invites comparison. Pre-rendered sprites in 3D environments, the particular theming of the stages, and even the fonts used just scream Mario Kart 64.

It’s not a good version of that either. The characters control well enough on the race tracks, but the items are constant interruptions. Items in Mario Kart are varied and act as boosts or hazards which also help give racers behind the leader a chance to catch up. Most of the items in Chocobo Racing just stop other players from moving temporarily and can easily be used to increase the gap between the leader and everyone else.

There’s also a “Story Mode” to play here that has some amusing writing, but it’s brief and mostly acts as a tutorial for the items. Unlike in Mario Kart it’s very difficult to tell what a lot of them do by simply playing the game and seeing them in action, you have to be told. A manual that came with the game probably would have done the same thing. 

After finishing the story I was given some points which could be spent to increase statistics on a racer. Once I improved the speed, grip, and acceleration on a chocobo I attempted some races with it but I was getting so far ahead of everyone else I lost interest in playing. There was no challenge. No item could stop me (well actually they could literally stop me, that’s what they do, but they didn’t prevent me from winning).

I hate that I’m comparing everything to Mario Kart here, but it’s difficult to take this game on its own terms when they’re liberally borrowed. When I say all this I don’t mean that games shouldn’t copy from others; they should be doing it with good reasons. The strengths of games like Final Fantasy X come from building on existing RPG ideas, many of which Squaresoft didn’t invent themselves. I also don’t want to paint it as though Mario Kart is the “right way” to do things, I’m just certain Chocobo Racing has found the wrong one. All this game has done is made me think of kart racing games where I’ll have more fun. Does anybody fancy playing some Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed?

Playing the Long Game – Final Fantasy XI

It feels weird to start playing Final Fantasy XI in 2021. There’s a 20-year history to this game that’s immediately apparent from the title screen. A version number of “30210327_1” is in the corner. Pictures representing the game’s expansions are also listed here to show off the sheer amount of stuff that’s been added in since it first came out. It’s not even over as Square Enix are still adding more. I got a distinct feeling that they will never truly be finished with this.

When I started playing it was overwhelming. There were a lot of things I didn’t fully understand, so I had to do research. It’s not as easy to just pick up and play this one, which is what I’ve managed for several other Final Fantasy games. This one is more of a commitment (a commitment I abandoned after a few weeks but I’ll get to that). Even just getting this game ready to play required more effort than usual, as I had to set up an account and also change some settings to make sure the game actually ran on my PC.

It’s not surprising why many longtime Final Fantasy fans I’ve spoken to choose to write off this game entirely. The immense scope of it gives completionists plenty of anxiety, and it still continuing to require a subscription fee is off-putting. I’ve gone through this as part of a larger project to play through Final Fantasy from the start and it’s always seemed like the one that would be too much work.

So what was it actually like for me to play this? Surprisingly lonely. One thing added into the game at some point was something called “Trusts”, which are simply AI-controlled party members which you can summon to assist in battle. This gives an impression that the game can be played alone, as trusts of many different classes can be summoned to accommodate what the playable character can’t do. They were somewhat limited in how they could help, so they weren’t a full replacement for real players. Even with that caveat they helped me make a fair amount of progress.

The game’s cutscenes also emphasize a solo nature to the game. They position every player as a lone hero, which is normal for most RPGs, but strange in a game purpose built for grouping people together. I do understand that writing a videogame where you’re told that millions of people are also doing the same things to save the world is potentially difficult, but sticking to conventions here doesn’t feel quite right.

Because the main character is also a player-created silent protagonist, it brings a much different style of storytelling compared to what I was used to with the series. The protagonist of Final Fantasy XI is effectively an extension of the player. A blank slate for anyone to project their own feelings on or roleplay with. With main characters from prior games, such as Cloud, Squall, and Tidus, I was able to see how they grew over time because I spent most of the game with them. Although some of those characters started off emotionally isolated, they weren’t always lonely because the characters that followed them gave support, both emotionally and in combat. Those games were big open doors into pivotal points in their lives. To contrast, my created character would almost never speak, and the party of trusts that accompanied me didn’t say much either.

Defined characters that develop over time exist here as the NPCs but those are still limited by comparison. I only had small amounts of time with them before having to spend many hours on an adventure before I could see them again. It felt as though I was only peering in small windows into their lives. The moments I had to find out more about people were often when they were giving me missions. Short functional scenes with a bit of character flavour.

I also didn’t find many other players when I was adventuring. There were crowds of them in towns and cities, but forests, fields, and dungeons had significantly lower amounts of players hanging around.

On the day I began playing I found another player in a starting dungeon. They were killing all of the enemies before I even had a chance to, meaning that I had to wait like I was in a queue for a theme park ride. They did apologise for this, but I didn’t know the right buttons for sending messages at that moment so I just left an awkward silence. It gave a bad first impression of the game, but it turned out this would not be a common occurrence for me. 

I also encountered another player who seemed very proud that they were controlling two characters at once. It was very bold of them to tell me through the in-game chat function. They were having the second character follow them, but I wonder if they ever tried having them in two different places at the same time. 

While it might have been more convenient for me to not come across many players, as my initial anecdote suggested, these moments highlighted how much time I was spending entirely alone.

It’s an odd feeling as many of the systems seem intended to encourage cooperation. There isn’t much in the way of tutorials and the game doesn’t always pinpoint on a map where you need to go (and the version I bought on Steam doesn’t seem to come with a manual either). I would assume that this would have encouraged players to work together in order to figure some things out back in the day. 

These days it’s become more common to share information through indirect methods such as fan wikis and Reddit. These are also a small window into the communities that still exist, and the history of the game too. Sometimes I would read a comment thread complaining about something that led to people joining forces. There were also plenty of “back in my day” posts which often brought up how comparably convenient the game has become.

I looked through a fair amount of these so that I could know what I was doing and where I needed to go. This would lead to me having the game display in a smaller on-screen window so that I could have pages up on the screen while I was playing. It could have created more distance from the game but I actually felt a little more connected to it, as it meshed well with the in-game systems.

This is more of an involved game than any of the other Final Fantasies I’ve played so far. Having to do research in order to understand the game feels like preparing for an adventure. The game itself features a few systems to make it feel that way too. Maps have to be bought from vendors, many areas have to be reached on foot (or by mount), enemies can be sized up to see if they’re safe to fight, and quest items have to be handed in using the same systems used to trade with players. What’s interesting is that they are all simply options in a menu. It evokes enough to spark my imagination without the need to recreate a physical gesture within the game to seem “immersive”.

There became a point where I started to feel comfortable with Final Fantasy XI. I was gaining levels at a fast rate. Travelling around the world was much easier to do once I was able to connect more fast-travel points. With the help of the trusts I was able to get through many encounters quite easily. Until they failed me.

I was almost finished with the base game. All that was left to do was a fight with the big bad, the Shadow Lord. A boss fight that ended up becoming a brick wall. After a certain amount of time in the encounter, he becomes immune to physical attacks. My trusts had foolishly used up all of their magic points before that moment, so they just kept trying to hit him with attacks that did no damage at all. The Shadow Lord then proceeded to slowly defeat each party member one by one until the fight was over. I tried the fight multiple times with all sorts of different trusts and it just didn’t work out. There were things I could have done to become stronger, but it was so much of a grind that I decided to give up on the game.

If anything I don’t necessarily feel that this is a fault with the game. I made assumptions that I could power through a game built for multiplayer on my own. I could have taken the opportunity to engage with the community of Final Fantasy XI but it seemed unfair for me to do so, as I was only planning on being a tourist on a short stay in Vana’diel.

It really feels as though I can’t give a fair assessment on this game as a whole because I wasn’t able to break past that wall. Things I disliked could have gotten better, things I liked could have gotten worse. So much could have been different or even the same after it, but at this point I won’t know.

Maybe if I had roped some other people in before starting, I might have been able to see more of it. For now I’m going to move on to something else.

Don’t Stay Out Too Long – Dragon Quest

Last year I decided to commit to playing as much of Final Fantasy as I could. It’s been a very fun journey so far but I thought it would be useful to look back at Dragon Quest, a game Final Fantasy owes a lot to. Final Fantasy wouldn’t exist without this game (though Japanese RPGs might still exist since efforts like The Black Onyx, Dragon Slayer and Hydlide predate it).

I was surprised to find that the original Dragon Quest is a fairly relaxing game. That’s partly true with some of the other games in the series I have played, but those other ones also had tense moments. Fighting Psaro the Manslayer in Dragon Quest IV was not calming in any sense. If you want something to wind down with at the end of the day, the first Dragon Quest works well.

The simplicity of the game allows for that. While it is about saving the world from some evil wizard, there’s never any tension. Because it’s a turn-based RPG the pace of the game is extremely player-dictated. While there’s artifacts to be found and a princess to be saved, there’s no pressing need to do all of that immediately. Dragon Quest’s world is a place without difficulty and deadlines.

As this game was made for older hardware, there was a need to condense the experience in a way that was easy for the system to display but still understandable for a player. This is why battles play out simply with a picture of the enemy, some stats numbers on the left and a menu at the bottom. The removal of all of this context means I can’t help but not think of it as a tense battle, but instead a contest to see who can get a number down faster. A contest heavily weighted in my favour, and increasingly so as the main character’s level goes up. Losing isn’t much of a setback either. It reduces the in-game money earned to half, but that can easily be regained.

Many older RPGs are similar, Phantasy Star is one example. But Dragon Quest is a little different. It centres on one specific location: a castle. It’s where the game begins. It’s the home of the main character. It’s where you go to save the game. It’s where you go when you lose a battle. It’s where the game ends.

Having a specific home that needs to be returned to combined with the game’s simplicity makes it play like a game a child would think up. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. If anything I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic. I suppose this may be one of the reasons that Dragon Quest has lasting appeal.

It’s less like a hero embarking on a dangerous adventure and more like a child going out to play. The hero can only venture out so far, but as he grows he can go a little further. If the hero gets defeated in battle, the king tells him off like a concerned parent. When it’s time to finish playing, the hero must go home.

If you do decide to give Dragon Quest a go, just know that the more easily available ports on mobile phones and the Switch look terrible. A lot of the art in the game feels very mismatched. The environments, characters, and monsters all feel like they are drawn for separate games. It’s strange for a foundational game in a series that continues to sell large numbers gets something that looks this bad.

However you go about playing it, I think it’s worth going back onto Dragon Quest especially if you’ve been playing a lot of RPGs like myself. I’m surprised how long it’s taken me to get to it myself. 

I can easily see how this works as a foundation for many games after it, but it’s also interesting in its own way. It’s a shame that a lot of discussion of this game in particular seems to stop at how “old-fashioned” it is. This game didn’t always exist as being a predecessor to something else.

You could probably finish the whole thing on a lazy afternoon anyway, so it’s worth a shot to find out what you make of it for yourself.

A Tale From 22XX AD – Mega Man X Command Mission

I have a bit of an odd relationship with Mega Man. I’m generally fascinated by the series but I haven’t enjoyed a lot of the games. In the past I’ve made attempts to get into the classic platformers like Mega Man 2 and found that they aren’t for me. The 90s-anime look of the Mega Man X series appeals to me more, but even then the only ones of those I’ve actually put time into are X4 and X7.

Eleven-year-old me adored Mega Man X7. I don’t think I could think of a game as being bad back then, only that some just seemed very difficult. I just didn’t have big expectations for what a game should be like in three dimensions, as I only had a console capable of playing 3D games for a few months at that time. The only way I could manage to get through the game as a child was by using a cheat device.

That led to me getting Mega Man X Command Mission later that year, which I played, didn’t finish and my copy has sat on various shelves for about 16 years. There was a lot more novelty about an RPG being made out of a platformer back in the mid-00s. Nowadays it’s more of a surprise when a game doesn’t feature some kind of RPG growth system.

This is a full-on turn-based RPG that doesn’t carry over many mechanics from the platformers it relates to. Instead it’s more concerned with moving the characters and aesthetics into a new genre. More thought was put into how X and Zero work as RPG party members, rather than how something like jumping and shooting would work.

That said, this game is full of missed opportunities. A lot of it feels underdeveloped, from repetitive combat to paper-thin characters. I didn’t have particularly high expectations for Mega Man X Command Mission, but I was surprised by how disappointing it was.

Narratively it’s very strange. X and friends have to fight against a group called the Rebellion Army. Why are they rebelling? I don’t actually know. Their leader Epsilon talks about pursuing nebulous goals like some sort of sentient motivational video. To fight them X joins a group called the Resistance, which may have been their second choice for a name as Rebellion was already taken.

The game also doesn’t take advantage of the fact that there’s a party with seven characters in it. Outside of their introductory stages, most of them seem to barely appear outside of combat.

It’s all told with an exceptionally Canadian-sounding dub of low quality, which strangely enough I actually liked. It’s a specific sort of bad game voice-acting which you just don’t hear anymore. The professional quality of acting in games seems to have gone up a lot in the last couple decades, which sadly means that a bad performance is often a dull one rather than a weird one.

Even with that to keep me mildly fascinated, I ended up bored because of how the game played. Combat is extremely repetitive, which wouldn’t be too much of an issue if it wasn’t exceptionally button-mashy at times. One of the healing moves requires such an excessive amount of analogue stick-twirling that it was hurting my wrists. It was unavoidable due to how limited other means of healing were.

There isn’t much excitement to the exploration either, as most places consist of futuristic warehouse corridors. It all blends together so that no area can stick out in my mind.

However, the movement is really fun. The one major thing that this game takes from Mega Man X is the ability to dash. I never stopped dashing to move around as it has a good amount of control and covers a good amount of distance without losing momentum. It’s a nice thing to keep fidgeting with over the course of the game.

Some of the complaints I have could be thrown at other RPGs that I like, but the difference here is that there isn’t much to tie it all together. The aspects I like work in isolation. The dash is fun and the voice-acting is silly but those don’t build on anything else. It’s also much more difficult to ignore the things I don’t like surrounding that.

Playing this game has actually been worthwhile. It’s made me think more about what I like about videogames, and how I’m able to express that. I would be more annoyed if I only played this to pass time. Even though I had some issues with Mega Man X Command Mission, it was nice to find some joy in it.

Around the World Again and Again – Final Fantasy X-2

This article contains spoilers for both Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2.

At the end of Final Fantasy X the world has dramatically changed. Sin is no longer a constant threat and major organisations have fallen apart. The game doesn’t actually do much to show you the results of that. A big speech is given and the game ends.

So Final Fantasy X-2 shows very quickly how the world has changed. For a start this isn’t the mostly linear journey like the preceding game. Almost every area is open to be explored from the beginning, which felt a little overwhelming to me.

Yuna, the summoner from FFX, is now a “sphere hunter”, one of many in search of ball-shaped recorded videos showing Spira’s history. Most sphere hunters seem to be doing it for the sense of adventure found in hunting for these items. Yuna started because she received a sphere showing someone who looked like Tidus, who died at the end of the last game.

But how has the world of Spira changed materially? This game has a reputation for being seen as the “fun and frivolous one”, but I was surprised by how bleak it actually seemed from the start. Things have gotten better in some ways (less people are dying from random monster attacks), but it doesn’t feel as though much work is being done to improve the world in other ways.

The Mi’ihen Highroad, a place many summoners walked down, no longer has anyone travelling on foot. When Yuna and the party walk through it, people remark how strange that is. Most travel across it is now done by hovercraft, which costs money. The place is now also patrolled by sentry machines which are supposed to take care of monsters, but haven’t had the best history of safety, and at one point start attacking people.

The former final stop on a summoner’s journey, Zanarkand, is now a tourist hotspot. People travel from all over the world to feel like they’re going on an adventure. There are even treasure chests for sale. The Zanarkand of the old Spira was a very traumatic place. It was the place where many summoners would go to die in order to maintain the lies of Yevon. Now it has been transformed into a theme park.

These are only a few examples. Industry and commerce have moved into places previously dominated by religious dogma, and haven’t proven to be a good replacement either. Factions have been set up with the intention of taking places for themselves. The villain of the game is a victim of a war that took place 1,000 years ago who feels unhappy that the world just hasn’t changed enough.

But it isn’t beyond saving. Final Fantasy X-2 actually has a much more positive and optimistic outlook on all of this, it just makes one thing very clear: it takes a lot of work to fix everything. Yuna looks around at the world and sees that not many people are doing anything to save it, so she feels she has to.

Yuna can stop the dangerous machines at the Mi’ihen Highroad by dismantling them. Yuna can reduce the level of tourism in Zanarkand by encouraging wildlife to breed. Yuna can resolve conflicts between others. It genuinely takes a lot of work for a player to do this and most of it is optional and can be easily missed.

I ended up burning out on it and only resolved a fraction of the problems. Partly because in some cases I couldn’t because of something I missed at an earlier stage. This is all tracked in-game by a completion percentage. I’ve been told by many that to achieve 100% on the first go, a guide needs to be checked considerably often.

Areas have to be visited several times over and over. After a while they get boring to travel through, as most of them retain the same structure as seen in Final Fantasy X, so very few of them have something new. The straight-line structure many of these places have doesn’t suit repeat visits well, and the music that plays in them is annoying and repetitive.

Battles got tiring too. They initially seemed interesting, as they brought back the Active Time Battle system from older games, and also included mechanics that built off of it being in real time. For one example, if party member attacks happen around the same time, they can become a combo which increases the amount of damage done. Eventually my party became powerful enough that I didn’t need to think about that, and I spent most combat encounters on auto-pilot.

It doesn’t feel like these sorts of annoyances are in conflict with the game itself. It’s all things that make it feel as though Spira is very resistant to change. Yuna’s personality also seems to provide context for the game structure too, as she seems to have taken on Tidus’ desires to actively provide help to people, even if it requires a detour.

Putting in all of this effort pays off too. Do enough work and Tidus will be brought back to life. The only way to unlock the game’s perfect ending is by achieving 100% completion (of course that’s not the only way to actually see it, thanks Youtube). This adds on an extra scene which is a conversation where Tidus tells Yuna that there’s a possibility he could still disappear again. This also underscores that they have to actively work to keep things how they want them, much like how Yuna did for the rest of the world.

Playing through Final Fantasy X-2 was a strange experience for me. I wasn’t really enjoying it so much in the second half. When I finished it, I began to put everything together and really appreciated what it was doing. In writing this piece I actually grew fonder for the game. Maybe I’ll like it more on a second go with all of this in mind.

The Future is a Foreign Country – Final Fantasy X

This article contains major spoilers.

The first playable moment of Final Fantasy X put into perspective a lot of what this game does for me. Main character Tidus has to make his way to the big blitzball stadium, he’s the star player for the Zanarkand Abes so he needs to be there on time, especially since it’s a home game. When he almost reaches the stadium he has to push through a crowd to get to it. When this game came out it was a very impressive moment, the crowd reacted to the player’s movement like a real one would react to a celebrity athlete. It’s nearly a 20-year-old game now so the graphical spectacle didn’t hit the same way but I still found something surprising.

I had actually put my controller down when I got to that part. I can’t remember why exactly but because I hadn’t pressed any buttons for a short amount of time Tidus pushed through all by himself. It makes sense of course, there’s no reason for him to be stuck in there being mobbed by fans. It could have been something they put in because people testing the game were spending too long playing with the crowd or couldn’t see where to go on smaller TVs, but it doesn’t just feel like a functional moment. It feels like the character is doing something he reasonably would.

If you take a reductive look at Final Fantasy X, it’s a role-playing game like many others. You control a party of characters  as they explore many locations with random bouts of turn-based combat and light puzzle solving serving as interruptions. Every so often there’s a boss or a cutscene too. That could just be a description of several other videogames. What sets this apart from others is how thoughtfully put together many of its aspects are. The game’s systems and structure are closely intertwined with its character writing and worldbuilding.

So what’s that world like? After that opening moment, Tidus only gets to play in his big blitzball for a short amount of time before it’s attacked by a giant monster that sends him 1,000 years into the future. Completely lost in this new world called Spira, he eventually meets a party of adventurers led by a woman named Yuna. She is a summoner, one of many on a pilgrimage to destroy Sin, the monster that attacked Zanarkand earlier. Tidus joins them as one of Yuna’s guardians.

The party’s journey is one that’s constantly moving forward. It’s one many other summoners and their guardians have taken. Most have failed and some have succeeded, but Sin always comes back. It’s a very linear journey, moving from one place to the next without going back. There’s no reason to backtrack as the path to defeating Sin is always forward. Save points also fully heal the party on approach, meaning that there’s very little reason to return to a town. All of that helps the game to move forward at a good pace. It also gives a real sense of adventure because every step forward takes the party further from where they started and into somewhere new.

Summoners also have another job, which is to send the souls of the dead to the afterlife. If this isn’t done and they remain for too long, they will turn into fiends, which are the monsters often encountered in random battles. It gives good reasoning for why the strength of monsters increases as the party gets further through the game, as in later areas summoners and their guardians are more likely to have died, and the ones that made it further are likely to be more powerful.

But what about the biggest monster of them all? Sin is an embodiment of grief; a source of mass destruction and constant reminder of all that has been lost. Even Sin’s origin itself is a way of dealing with loss as it exists to preserve a society which is long dead. Grief and loss is something all of the characters experience. It’s what gives the party motivation to move ahead.

Almost all members of the party have a different experience with loss and a different way of dealing with it. Yuna lost her father at a young age and wants to honour him. Tidus also lost his father at the same age but wants to forget him. Wakka lost his brother Chappu and uses his religious beliefs to help guide himself through mourning. Lulu was also close to Chappu and was previously guardian to summoners who died on their pilgrimage, but she chooses to hide her feelings. Auron saw his friends die trying to defeat Sin and wants that to never happen again. Because of this and the time they spend together, the party gets closer to each other.

Those relationships come through in the game’s cinematic direction too, though a more appropriate phrase would be televisual direction. During cutscenes the camera feels closer than it often did in prior Final Fantasies and its movements don’t seem very intricate. It does give more of a TV drama vibe, but that only serves to further highlight how friendships develop. It’s noticeable when looking at the blocking throughout the game too. The party members seem to initially have scenes in pairs: Tidus and Yuna, Wakka and Lulu, Auron and Tidus. There’s also an early section of the game that takes place on a boat, and to find everyone you have to go through different rooms. As the game progresses further more scenes happen with bigger groups. When the party eventually reaches the ruins of Zanarkand towards the end of the game, they all sit together at a campfire.

Another means in which it demonstrates growing friendships is through its character growth system, the Sphere Grid. It looks like a board game map where many of the spaces provide stat upgrades and abilities. It’s an abstract system to show how characters learn to fight and how they learn from each other. Each character starts off in their own section of the grid upgrading stats and learning abilities that seem tailored for them, before eventually having to move into other sections and gaining skills from the others.

The placement of characters even correlates to how they feel about each other. Tidus and Yuna hit things off very quickly when they first meet and later fall in love with each other. If you follow Tidus’ standard path on the grid, it links up with Yuna’s multiple times. Wakka and Lulu have known each other for a long time too, which is why their paths are close together too. Auron watched Tidus grow up, so they’re next to each other. Kimahri is able to go onto other characters’ sections faster than any other, mostly down to his skill at mimicking others’ abilities. Interestingly the quickest one for him to get into is Tidus’, likely because Kimahri keeps a close eye on him around the start, as he doesn’t know him as well as the others.

Plenty of RPGs have relationship mechanics in them these days because of the popularity of games like Persona (which isn’t an originator itself, but certainly a trendsetter). The thing that tends to irk me with Persona’s friendship systems is that they feel very transactional. You put enough points into a relationship and eventually they will give you something that will make progressing through the game easier. The difference with the Sphere Grid is that it’s not a relationship mechanic, it’s one that happens as a result of relationships.

It’s really cool to see this all play out in battle too. At the start of the game most of the characters are best suited to fight specific enemy types. Once they get more powerful through the Sphere Grid they can start filling in for others. By the end of the game I was only making use of three out of the seven available party members, which I could only do because of what they learned from the other four.

So now I want to focus on one character in particular: Tidus. They made the right sort of protagonist for this kind of RPG. He’s got a very energetic curiosity for the new world that he recently came to and a tendency to get easily distracted. His good nature also results in him taking the party with him to help others off the beaten path. When they all reach the Mi’ihen highroad they hear about a monster called the “Chocobo Eater” which is causing trouble in the area. Tidus says that they should help get rid of the monster because it’s “the right thing to do”. The Chocobo Eater isn’t an optional boss but this is a character moment that justifies the tendency to get sidetracked from the journey like many RPG players do.

It’s also shown through blitzball as well, which is a minigame that plays out very similarly to rugby or football. It’s something that’s likely on Tidus’ mind a lot, as every save point comes with an option to “Play Blitzball”. During portions of the game where playing blitzball isn’t possible, the option still shows at a save point, just greyed out. Even when he can’t play he still thinks of it. 

But the reason he starts playing it is because he is helping out a struggling team, the Besaid Aurochs. The first playable match is very difficult, it’s set up so that it’s almost impossible to win. I lost but I couldn’t leave it at that. While there is a whole system of recruiting players to build a better team, I chose not to engage with that and stick with the original team. It made sense to do this, as this game is all about sticking together. Turns out the game supported this too as I ended up winning multiple leagues.

However blitzball is a distraction, both in the fiction and in the game design. It is popular in Spira simply because it allows people to take their minds off of Sin. I was having a lot of fun with it myself, but there was a journey I had to continue with.

One thing I was wondering about while playing the game was why none of the party really gave much resistance to the many distractions they were dragged along to. It’s because they didn’t want to accept the end result of the journey, something which Tidus didn’t know from the start. Going along with the pilgrimage through to the end and defeating Sin results in the summoner dying. None of them want Yuna to die as every single one of the party members has a close relationship with her. 

Yuna has a quiet determination to do what she wants, but even she doesn’t want to rush to the end right away. I think about the often misunderstood laughing scene where Tidus and her make fools of themselves. It’s a sweet moment of them stopping to have fun with each other. At the end of that she says she wants her journey to be “full of laughter”. She wants plenty of time in her journey to stop and appreciate the friends she has around her. All of this recontextualizes the standard pacing of an RPG, as it just feels right to have these people stay with each other a bit longer. I’d feel guilty if I chose to rush to that conclusion. It’s no accident that the Calm Lands, an area where more side content begins to crop up, comes soon after a scene where Tidus and Yuna’s romance deepens.

But they find a way to defeat Sin forever where Yuna doesn’t die, but Tidus and Auron go instead. Because of what they’ve gone through with Yuna they don’t tell anyone until it’s too late. Things would just slow down and Sin can’t be left alive. Of course the player is told long before they all are, so you could choose to continue at a slower pace if you wanted.

The importance of slowing down even extends to the music. The Hymn of the Fayth is a motif that recurs throughout the game. It plays at important moments such as when Yuna gains more summons to fight with, when important characters are introduced and when big decisions are made. There’s also a track that sounds very similar to it called The Travel Agency, which plays during visits to certain inns where the party decides to stop and rest. It doesn’t have the exact melody, but it’s very close, almost like a reharmonized version with some of the timing changed. During some parts of the song I could hum the Hymn over it, and it sounded like it belonged. It helps to highlight that moments where the party stops are just as vital.

Of course so much of the music is excellent, though I near enough say this about most Final Fantasy games anyway. It’s all music that fits together perfectly, but surprisingly from three composers who manage to keep their tracks distinct from each other. Nobuo Uematsu keeps true to the dad-prog sensibilities that he is best at. Masashi Hamauzu bolsters beautiful melodies with sustained harmonies that give great depth to his tracks. Junya Nakano layers many melodies to create more atmospheric pieces that sound wonderful. Of course three people working together with their own strengths is true to this game (sorry that is a bit cheesy).

All of these aspects would serve to strengthen a standard JRPG story about friendship and coming together to fight a big bad guy, but there’s a bit more to it than that here. So much of the themes of the game centre around death and grief, so by having a lot of details that put the character relationships to the front it makes all of it hit much harder. They’re only able to make progress in the game by confronting their own fears of death and of losing friends. The Sphere Grid shows that the impressions these characters leave on each other are long lasting. When Tidus disappears at the end after giving Yuna one last embrace, it’s a powerful moment because I saw those characters grow in multiple ways. I know he won’t be forgotten.

Final Fantasy X is such a holistically designed game. Each element of it has me thinking about how it interlinks with others. It’s not as though the sum is greater than its parts because those parts are fantastic. The characters are great, it still looks very nice, and the battle system is so much fun. There are some exceptions to this (I would never like to see the chocobo minigames again), but still so much of these things come together to build an excellent game.

There are so many things about this game I could talk about, but I feel as though that would bloat out the article and it would be less focused. It’s just like how there are so many things to get distracted with travelling across Spira, but at some point this has to end.

If you liked reading this, why not check out other pieces I’ve written on Final Fantasy here!

The NES Trilogy, a Novel – Final Fantasy I II III: Memory of Heroes

When I had played through the initial three Final Fantasy games, I found that the playable characters didn’t have a lot going for them. Especially in the first one as they were deliberately blank slates. This gave these videogames more world-driven stories rather than character-focused ones which the series eventually became more known for. It’s not a fully black-and-white comparison as those NES games had moments about how characters felt, but there weren’t a lot of them. It favoured particular methods of story delivery over others.

There would be some things that were entirely visual and didn’t require text, but most of the games’ exposition would come from monologues delivered from quest-givers and villains. Usually to fill in blanks resulting from the technical limitations or the inherent aspects of the format. However more details about the world could also be teased from one-sided conversations from various villagers and townspeople.

Knowing all that had me extremely curious to look at Final Fantasy I II III: Memory of Heroes, a novelisation of those games written by Takashi Umemura and translated by Jennifer Ward. I thought it would be interesting to see what carried over into a different medium, so I read the book and sadly I don’t have good news. I had thought about writing about each game’s section individually, but I would be repeating myself as the same problems show up throughout.

Most issues stem from the fact that it’s a short book, containing all three stories in less than 200 pages. Clunky steps are taken in order to do this and it’s hard for me to know whether it’s the fault of the original Japanese text or the translation so I’m not going to blame either of those. All I know for sure is that the end result is bad.

While most of the major events happen within the books, everything else is removed entirely. The first game has the worst of this. There will be a moment where someone tells them where to go, after which it just goes straight to a major fight, which gives the feeling of reading a videogame boss rush summary. I don’t necessarily expect this book to contain chapters about journeys across fields where random monsters show up, or making their way through the many rooms of a large dungeon, but something in between would have helped. 

The time between major events in the games gave it space to breathe, and allowed for them to be more than a collection of fights and exposition. A lot of my memories associated with playing those games is how I explored those worlds. The stories of the NES Final Fantasies (and many other similar games) are more than the written text on the screen. When I tell someone about a game I’ve been playing, I often mention what I’ve actually done in the game. This has been removed from this book and nothing is there to replace it.

Another method of storytelling used here that got on my nerves was a habit of skipping over a sequence that was in the game, and then characters would speak with each other to recap it, because it included some necessary details. It gives it more of the feeling of a bad stream-of-consciousness recounting where someone has to interrupt themselves because they forgot to mention something important.

There’s also very little time put into making the party members into actual characters. People in the books speak about what others are like, but there are very few moments where that’s actually demonstrated. What it ultimately spends more time on is the action sequences, which are mostly fights against boss monsters. 

Reading that also felt a little strange because I only ever think of those fights as the abstract battle mechanics whenever I remember the games. I think about battling the four fiends as selecting options from menus, not the violent clashes described in these books. I’m not incapable of imagining fights between fictional characters, and I know turn-based combat is an abstraction of conflict to make it a game to play. It’s like my mind thinks of those menus as part of those worlds

I don’t think stories belong to particular mediums, but these ones haven’t made a comfortable fit. It’s short and it took me less time than it did to play the original Final Fantasy, but I got much less out of it. The book comes across more like a bad summary as a result of its restructuring. It’s a shame because the written form can be used to expand on a story and add detail that the games did not or could not show, but that potential has been wasted here.

Christmas Evil – Parasite Eve

If you read about Squaresoft’s videogames from the 1990s, they are often framed as the trendsetters. Final Fantasy is still the lens many assess the entire Japanese role-playing game genre through, but that’s just what happens when it’s the most popular example. That didn’t stop them with looking to other games for inspiration with Parasite Eve. In this case, survival horror.

I’ve made multiple attempts to play Resident Evil games of that era, and I’ve found them very difficult and stressful to get through. It’s not because of the tank controls, since I’ve enjoyed games that feature those. It’s because of the specific tensions those games created, usually through limiting resources. Fighting every enemy was discouraged because it could have resulted in taking more damage or wasted ammo. Even saving was a limited consumable resource. Limiting an in-game item activates my tendency to hoard them, meaning that it extended the time I took between saves, which resulted in heightened anxiety because if I lost the game I would lose a lot more progress.

Parasite Eve doesn’t have that tension, because it approaches things from an RPG-first perspective. To really highlight that difference, fighting as many enemies as you can is encouraged here, because doing so will actually increase resources. Both genres are about seeing how far your resources can take you, it’s just that a lot of RPGs give more opportunities to farm for them.

What Parasite Eve does retain from horror games is tone, atmosphere and the level of violence they have. It’s not a scary game, but there’s a lot of body horror present. An organism known as Eve has managed to gain control over the mitochondria found in human cells, causing people to spontaneously combust or melt, and turning animals into grotesque mutations (which mostly act as the game’s stock of enemies to fight). NYPD officer Aya Brea, the playable protagonist, is immune to all of that. 

This means she can go into places where others can’t, so most locations she visits appear mostly empty until a random battle starts, and you can’t talk to the monsters. Tight spaces and close up camera angles serve to heighten the sense of loneliness this all brings. Setting the game in New York during Christmas also contributes to this, as it’s typically a time when people get together. Seeing the game’s imitations of real places with small amounts of festive decorations and zero people around conveys a real sense of isolation. Sometimes the transitions between camera angles doesn’t quite match up with the direction of travel, meaning that at times Aya will possibly turn back and go back to the previous screen by accident. While it is a minor practical nuisance when moving around, these small stops manage to suggest a little anxiety about pushing forward.

The one thing that the makers of this game seemed to also have some fear over is guns. Seemingly because she’s part of the NYPD, Aya comes across many firearms she can use to face off against all enemies. While guns are used to solve many of the problems found in the game, there are characters there to specifically lament the increasing militarization of the police force. But that’s all it really amounts to, a few characters that are sad about it. It would have resulted in an entirely different sort of game if it fully decided to commit to that as an overall theme, but that may have been interesting.

Ultimately Parasite Eve is a game that’s made to be fun to play. It’s a stripped down RPG without any towns, shops or places to rest up. There are some interesting quirks to its real-time turn based combat. Aya can freely move around the combat arenas to dodge enemy attacks, and once her turn meter has filled up the player can choose to take the turn at any point. This is because committing to an attack can leave Aya vulnerable to be hurt by the enemy, so it’s best to learn the enemy patterns and find the right opportunity to strike without taking too much damage. That’s something that could have brought more tension but she can take quite a lot of hits, which isn’t what people usually mean when they say playing horror games of this era feels like controlling a tank. Aya’s special mitochondria immunity powers seem to give her the standard suite of RPG magic spells like Heal, Haste and Barrier. I also really love the music in the game, but it often goes for dance house more than haunted house.

There’s nothing quite as bizarre as playing a game like this, where a city is made empty because of a deadly biological threat, during a real pandemic. While the danger is considerably heightened in Parasite Eve (nobody’s bursting into flames from the virus as far as I know but people are still dying), just seeing media where an immediate effort is made to remove citizens from danger can’t stop me thinking about the real world. It makes me wish more effort was taken in the reality.

They made two sequels to this game, and I don’t know much about them except that a small fraction of games media people that I followed were not happy about the most recent one, The 3rd Birthday. I’m eager to find out for myself soon enough.

Beyond Final Fantasy – Vagrant Story

I’m currently putting together a series of articles chronicling my time throughout Final Fantasy. Sometimes I’m going to stray from that and play something that isn’t really part of that series, but there’s still some connection to be found to it and I want to write about it. These connections form more of a scenic route on my journey, and while I hope to look at these without making too much comparison to those other games, I’m still carrying the thoughts and feelings I picked up along the way.

How strong the connection Vagrant Story has is somewhat arguable. It’s made by the same team as Final Fantasy Tactics, and is supposedly set in the same world, but outside of similar aesthetics and articles mentioning such, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell. There’s also the fact that this game isn’t called “Final Fantasy: Vagrant Story”. For larger corporations like Squaresoft names are often chosen in relation to marketing, so it’s clear with that messaging that they wanted to distance this game from that branding.

I can see why they did this, as it ended up being a very difficult game for me to parse from a play perspective. I actually gave up on this one after around ten hours because I hit a brick wall. What was initially fascination with such peculiar role-playing systems eventually became frustration with something that I lacked the patience to have it work for me.

Before I really get into that I just want to set up what Vagrant Story is for those unaware. This is a medieval-fantasy action RPG with only a single playable character, where most of the game is set in dark dingy dungeons broken up with combat and the occasional platforming puzzle. That protagonist is Ashley Riot, an agent in pursuit of a cult leader in order to resolve a hostage situation. 

In terms of how the mechanics of this game play out, it’s like they really thought about how something like Metal Gear Solid would map to an RPG. This isn’t a stealth game, but a lot of work is done to emphasize Ashley’s lone-wolf nature, it really sells the feeling of being an agent in enemy territory where nobody is there to help and all resources have to be found on-site. The circle button is also used to confirm menu decisions in both of those games, but that’s a rather frivolous comparison. It’s funny because some older games press articles covering this game would call it “Medieval Gear Solid” and I used to think that was a rather simplistic comparison, but now it seems somewhat appropriate to me.

There’s no levelling up and very small amounts of stat growth throughout the game, so character growth is heavily weighted towards equipment that has to be found. This was the source of my struggle with Vagrant Story, as especially with weapons there were just too many things for me to mentally juggle. It wasn’t simple enough to just have big strong weapons, certain enemies are only weak to specific kinds of weapons, and even with that it also has to be trained on that particular type of enemy as well. I thought I was understanding the way things worked, but then I’d go into a boss fight and it felt like trying to demolish a house with a teaspoon. If I had the time and willpower for it, I would have probably gone back to reassess my equipment loadout, but I don’t as doing so seemed like it just wouldn’t be interesting. It’s a real shame too because I like everything else about the game. 

The presentation is dripping with atmosphere. Everything is dark and cramped, really contributing to the feeling of a hostile environment. This is one of the few games Squaresoft made entirely in 3D graphics for the Playstation, and the jittery nature of polygons on this platform really emphasizes how fragile the spaces are, like they’re ready to collapse in an earthquake at any moment. It’s something that screenshots can’t give a good impression on as it looks better in motion.

There’s also incredible direction on the game’s cutscenes, with a real kinetic energy that would eventually be used to strong effect in Square’s Playstation 2 efforts like Kingdom Hearts. Characters speak in an old-English-style dialect, which is not as insufferably overbearing as it was in Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, as it still maintains clarity and good pacing. I was so invested that even after giving up on the game I took to Youtube to watch the remaining cutscenes.

Some of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s best composition work is in Vagrant Story. The music can really sell the foreboding atmosphere, but it gets to its best during the bosses where it brings in the oppressively percussive sound that he excels at. Some of it might not work as well as tracks to listen to on their own, but taken in with the rest of the game’s atmosphere they really shine. Sometimes there isn’t even music playing, and all that’s left is the quiet creepy sounds of the dungeon, bringing the real loneliness of the game to focus.

I know that comparisons to Dark Souls are tired at the best of times, as it’s overused to just mean “game that is difficult”, but I think there’s a case to be made here. This is a game where quiet spaces are punctuated by bombastic boss battles. When I first tried to get into Dark Souls, I bounced off after about ten or so hours on the first few attempts since I didn’t really understand how it all worked. Eventually everything just clicked for me and I ended up playing through to the end and loving it. Maybe some other time Vagrant Story will click for me.


%d bloggers like this: