Trying to understand how games work

Monthly Archives: February 2021

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!



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