Trying to understand how games work

Category Archives: Books

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.

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