Trying to understand how games work

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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.


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.


Since writing my last piece about this series, the trailer for Final Fantasy XVI came out. I thought that when I played Final Fantasy VII Remake I was seeing the trajectory of the series going forward, I was expecting more games exactly like it.

The trailer for FF16 surprised me, since I genuinely thought that game didn’t exist yet. I wrongly assumed that all resources for Final Fantasy were being pushed towards FF7 Remake and the subscription MMORPG FF14. 

What also surprised me was that it seems to be going in a dark medieval fantasy direction, not unlike The Witcher or Game of Thrones. Any time someone would try to pitch Final Fantasy Tactics to me they’d mention Game of Thrones, which I assume is shorthand for “fantasy story that’s a bit darker than other ones”. I might as well start talking about that game.

Final Fantasy Tactics

To me this game really doesn’t give off the feeling of an HBO prestige TV show fantasy, or an epic fantasy series of novels. The Game of Thrones comparison didn’t seem to apply to how it looks (though it is apt in other ways considering this is mostly a game about schemes involving royalty). 

Theatre seems to feel like the biggest influence on the presentation and story structure of Final Fantasy Tactics. Each location where story sequences a battles play out looks like a small set that would have been built on for a stage, since the lower-fidelity 3D graphics really give it the impression of something that’s been handbuilt. Large scale events such as battles take place out of view, as the game places more importance on how the characters on those sets react to it.

That last aspect is crucial as not only does it come across as an interesting stylistic choice, but helps convey the distance characters have towards those in the larger conflicts, in more ways than one. I need to provide a little context before really getting into it.

The game mostly follows the story of Ramza Beoulve, a man born to a noble family who ran away from them to become a mercenary. Ramza is a goodhearted person who wants to save people, and by saving a kidnapped princess he gets caught up in the middle of a much bigger problem. The king has recently died and two dukes are working against each other to have a line of succession that allows one of them to become a regent, since the king’s own heirs are apparently too young to rule by themselves. Whether the princess lives or dies favours one duke more than the other. This eventually leads to war, which allows other organisations to take advantage of the situation and increase their own power, such as Ramza’s old friend Delita, the Church, and later on a collective of monsters who were banished to another dimension. Ramza ends fighting to stop the latter two plots, as they really do seem to be much more immediately dangerous.

I’ve had to simplify a lot of that to keep it concise, so many things happen over the course of this game.

So back to the use of distance. It’s easy to see how it’s used for the scheming nobles, since they see themselves as above common folk. A large part of the first chapter is used to convey this through a flashback to Ramza’s past. One noble, Argath, talks at length about how much better the upper class are than those who are from “lower birth”. Delita is derided for it as he was from a lower class family and was only adopted into the noble lifestyle. Most nobles see the poorer classes as pawns to be used in their own schemes and wars. This is shown at the start of the game, where a war had just recently finished. The soldiers who fought in it were cast aside without any aid for their future, and some had to become thieves and bandits in order to make their living.

It also feels as though Ramza and his group of fighters are distant from the war as a whole. A lot of the battles they fight in themselves are smaller skirmishes off to the side of them. However, the direction their story takes eventually grows distant from the themes of the initial chapters. The initial focus on how terrible nobles can be diminishes over time, and it becomes about Ramza and crew fighting off a group of strong monsters who want to use this war to resurrect their leader. It’s a real shame that it takes what could have been a really interesting premise to follow through on and abandon it for a stock fantasy story.

There’s also the problem of Ramza’s friend Delita who, through deceit and murder, rises from being a commonder to becoming the next king. I don’t think I’d have too much of a problem with this if it was an isolated story, but it exists here to contrast with Ramza’s goodhearted nature and noble birth. It feels as though the game wants to say that it doesn’t matter where someone is from, it only matters how they act, which sure… I guess that’s true to some extent. However much more loudly in my head I hear the game saying poor people can be just as troubling and damaging to the world as the rich ones. It makes me think a little about the real world. The real world where the divide between the rich and poor is only growing. The real world where over one-third of all carbon emissions come from 20 companies. Honestly Delita comes across as not so believable in this fantasy game.

The whole game is written like this, it’s a bit much to be honest…

It’s a good thing I really enjoyed the tactics game aspect. It didn’t end up being as ridiculously difficult as I was expecting it to be. That was because I’ve tried and failed to get into this game before a few times, to the point where I almost accepted that I’d never be able to play through this game. I wasn’t used to the idea of unit positioning in a tactical RPG, so I’d move a party member to the wrong place and they’d be killed very quickly. I was not aware that the game’s random encounters would scale with the highest levelled party member, making it much more difficult for my carelessly levelled party, full of characters at different stages of growth.

Being aware of how these things worked this time around was a huge help, but I also did a lot of grinding so I had a fairly powerful team anyway. It’s interesting because I still had to be mindful of the combat during that, since if I wanted to level up a class with lower defensive stats I would need to have them avoid the heavy-hitting enemies that often get thrown into random encounters. By the time I started to lose patience with the grind, the difficulty level of the game dropped off a cliff anyway, since I was given an extremely powerful party member.

The sudden drop in difficulty was partly appreciated as it wasn’t as mentally taxing as some segments of the game were. While I found the game much easier than my prior attempts, it didn’t stop me running into particularly troubling battles at times. However it coinciding with the drop in quality of the storytelling meant that I was just able to get through the rest of the game at a much faster pace.

I suppose I can’t talk about any of these games without mentioning the music, which has a much different tone compared to the rest of the series. Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata put together a soundtrack that ranges from quiet and foreboding themes, to bombastic battle tracks. The latter ended up being much more memorable and effective for their use of staccato rhythms and harsh percussion to really ramp up tension (though admittedly this is a trademark of Sakimoto’s work, also used to great effect in Radiant Silvergun). Even though I did enjoy listening to those tracks, they did start to wear thin eventually. The heightened bombast was often at a high level, to a point where if I listened to the soundtrack by itself I wouldn’t as easily be able to determine what the “important” battle themes were.

Final Thoughts

I don’t really have as much to say about this one, as I did some of the other games. I thought about putting it together with a few more games but that would have meant waiting much longer to get this one out as these games are taking much longer for me to play. I spent over 60 hours on this one. It’s the most time I’ve spent on a game since starting this project, and I expect that some in the future will take me even longer.

That still hasn’t diminished my excitement for moving forward since there’s some very cool games coming up after this. The next couple are Final Fantasy VIII and IX, so I’ll essentially be revisiting some of the first few games in the series I played.

Also to go back to the Final Fantasy XVI trailer, I didn’t find it very exciting. It seems a sort of game I’d probably pay much less attention to if it didn’t have Final Fantasy in the name. There’s something in the back of my mind that thinks they’re holding something back, but I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Until next time!



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