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On the Death of Fantasy

by Zen

Posted on Friday, January 6, 2017
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Back when Final Fantasy VIII came out it was difficult to know what to make of it.  It was definitely a new direction for the series, and coming after a game like Final Fantasy VII was a legacy that's difficult to live up to.  At first I remember forcing myself to love everything about the game, die-hard series fan and idiot child that I was, but a second playthrough only highlighted its flaws.

In the end I think it's only fair to respect the game's audacity.  It did away with almost every vestige of the original Dungeons & Dragons influence and tried every new idea it could to replace them.  Magic, treasure, equipment, character levels, even the underlying expectations of the setting were twisted into new and creative messes.  The fact that the story was a fever dream of unlikeable characters dashing haphazardly from combat setpiece to romance setpiece with no attention paid to theme or cohesion made these messes hard to appreciate in a series known for doing a lot narratively with even rudimentary tools.  The fact that the best way to help the story make sense is to assume the last two thirds of it are just the random firings of the protagonist's synapses as he dies indicates how rickety the game's creative direction was.

But for all its failures Final Fantasy VIII still manages to impress in hindsight.  This is why I decided to give the latest main-numbered installment, Final Fantasy XV, a fair chance.  At first glance it appeared to be similarly pushing the envelope for the genre in bizarre ways with a focus on open-world exploration (new to the series if hardly to the medium) and automotive and camping mechanics that dwell extensively on the camaraderie and personal tensions facing the protagonists.  A trailer built around these mechanics with a cover of Stand By Me seemed to indicate a new scale for Final Fantasy storytelling that would let the quiet moments do the heaviest lifting.

Nice hood ornament
Despite the interesting first impression I can say without hesitation that they did not succeed.  It's hard to even know where to begin when enumerating its failures; each flows into the others in an endless sewer of bad ideas, shoddy implementation, and the dizzying contortions of ten years of development being shoved just barely tightly enough into the box that they were able to get the lid on at all.  Given that it was the core failure of Final Fantasy VIII, then, it seems appropriate to start by talking about Final Fantasy XV's story.  The nicest thing I can say about it is that the game doesn't force you to sit through very much of it before playing, since the backstory to the game's opening is in the form of a 2-hour CG feature film that costs an extra twenty bucks.  This movie has bad characters, poor pacing, no clear direction or meaning, and some of the most spectacularly beautiful combat sequences I've seen in a film.  Characters teleport, fly, stab, flame, and crash through a gorgeously-rendered city that's like if a kingdom from Final Fantasy IV had turned into near-future London.  Diamond Weapon makes an appearance, as do Ultros and Knights of the Round, so there are even fun throwbacks for longtime fans.  It's the most exquisitely gilded turd since the Star Wars prequels, and for all that it's the only backstory you get I'm afraid it's little help in the end.  None of the actual game's protagonists appear meaningfully in it, and the anti-charismatic lead who is supposed to be a man of massive importance to the game world doesn't seem to even understand a sliver of the two or three things the movie tells you about it.

I wondered why this character was so hideous but it turned out my TV was turned off
The actual game narrative's first steps are demonstrating how privileged and ignorant the heroes are (one of them actually has to ask what money is) before asking you to love them for their selfish antics.  A world plagued by demons and imperial oppression is burning to the ground around them and they spend their time cooking gourmet meals at their impossibly luxurious campground, taking selfies in front of poor people, and lusting after the shameful construct of male gaze that is the game's auto mechanic.  You then spend ten hours driving around in a posh limousine killing monsters for the hoi polloi with your magic royalty powers.

A world full of things you'd think you could climb
By "magic royalty powers", I of course mean literally what those words say.  The royal line to which the hero (I think his name is Noctis) belongs has the ability to summon weapons from thin air, and if he throws a weapon then he can teleport to it at will.  In the film this is one of the flashier effects, with characters using it to board enemy airships and escape flaming wreckage.  The game lets you use it in combat to "warp-strike" enemies or "point-warp" to safe vantage points to catch your breath.  It lets you use this for exactly nothing else outside of some heavily scripted scenes.  When I was in a dungeon and an important bridge crumbled I excitedly tried to teleport across, only to find the game had helpfully disabled this ability so that I could plummet to the bottom.  In an even worse example, one quest had me investigate towers responsible for transferring power around the countryside.  I got into a battle at the base of the tower and teleported to the top so I could get the drop on the enemies below.  Once the battle ended my characters bumbled around the base asking "where's the ladder?" and wishing they could fly to the top.  In the end I had to find another tower that had a ladder and watch the hero spend about twenty seconds climbing up it, then again to climb back down.

The stealth/infiltration sections manage to baffle just as much.  They use the warp-strike well, letting you stealth-kill robot guards and point-warp around surveillance.  This makes it even weirder when you have no choice but to wander on foot through a spotlight that previously meant discovery but now does nothing, a decision you have to make while on a time limit.  At the end I was asked to press L2 to summon Ramuh, an act that would have been satisfying and exciting if they had indicated what they wanted me to do with L2.  I pressed, I mashed, I held, all to no avail.  I had to look up that it took a full five seconds of holding down L2 without getting attacked to summon, which would have been obvious if the game had volunteered any of the different progress gauges that occupy its design layers for the purpose.

For some reason all the photos of the chocobos come out like this
The open-world part of the game is almost fun, with quest design reminiscent of the laziest parts of an MMORPG but more difficult and time-consuming to traverse.  What was at first the most fun part of the game for me (watching the heroes drive around listening to classic Final Fantasy music, a screen saver of which would have been a more satisfying use of sixty dollars) became such a familiar chore that I began skipping it whenever the opportunity presented itself.  The quests are designed to force as much of this travel as possible, like the missions you have to activate one at a time at the end of a long pier (it's three full stamina bars of running, and they won't let you use the car or chocobo to get there) and then repeat the journey to turn them in.  The game mitigates this by letting you teleport to your car, which immediately jettisons all the world-building potential the car has to make the game 5% as playable as it ought to have been, now with more load times.  You ultimately get the opportunity to hear the classic music on foot, but if they hadn't put Yoko Shimomura to criminal waste on the game's soundtrack this wouldn't be necessary.  Riding chocobos feels fun and exciting at first (you can drift them!) until you realize that the shrubberies that walled off your "open-world" exploration on foot do the same to the poor birds.  About all they're good for is crossing water and getting around slightly faster than on foot but far slower than by car, a far cry from the world-opening potential they had in previous titles.

As for the voice acting, the game is scattered with almost as much spoken dialogue as it has grunting.  The characters constantly halt their breath, grunt in pain or frustration, cry out with a yelp, or any other awkward noise you can think of, all at a volume loud enough to drown out anything else that might be happening.  This is mostly the fault of the same terrible voice direction that plagued the English dub of Advent Children, but the voices themselves are a predictable jumble of upbeat boy-band affectations.  The only way I found to mitigate this problem was to switch the game's voices to German, a language versatile enough to sustain this kind of prissy silliness without sounding too jarring.  That's when I had to reckon with the game's illegible text, a problem so easily and regularly solved by better developers that I'm not sure how this happened in 2006 let alone 2016.

This monstrosity costs $82,000!
A lot of the hallmarks of open-world games fall similarly flat.  You can customize the car in myriad ways that almost just about look natural, and one or two that succeed.  Despite this middling effort the characters themselves give you the equally poisonous options of anime dress clothes or designer couture.  I expected to find a lot of outfits over the course of the game, but upon searching it seems there are exactly four (eight if you count the ability to remove your awful jacket).

Final Fantasy XV's biggest selling point is its focus on the friendship of its four main characters: Ignis, the calm one with aristocratic tastes, does all the actual work in the party.  Pronto, the animated idiot, is the game's photographer.  Gladiolus, the sullen buff dude, is the bodyguard.  Noctis, the one you control, has no personality beyond acting stunned by everything and letting his servants do and say everything.  When his rich dad kicks the bucket you get a moment's pathos and awareness of his role, but it's gone 15 seconds later.  I hate everything about him, and anything you can find to like about the other three shatters under the weight of their subservience and loyalty to him.  If the game succeeds in anything it is hardening our hearts to aristocracy of any kind, but even this gives its writing far too much credit.  For all that Final Fantasy XV shows you it's possible to build a game around solicitous friendship and calm adventure it fails to achieve any of these new possibilities.  The Witcher 3 showed us how spectacular writing can make a by-the-numbers game into a work of art; Final Fantasy XV shows us the inverse: atrocious writing and a world whose pieces feel like they don't belong in it together can make even an audacious and ground-breaking idea fail absolutely.

I chose the awful selfie that best summarizes FFXV, and it was a hard decision
Even at its worst the Final Fantasy series has been driven by vision.  The stories, however thin they sometimes were, were told to demonstrate a theme or an idea.  I am maybe halfway through Final Fantasy XV and have hated it perfectly, unable to understand what the developers were even trying to accomplish.  The leavings on the cutting room floor of three awful RPGs have been swept together into a pile of astonishing failure.  I'm told that there is a patch to fix some of the later game by adding cutscenes to help the story make sense, but I already know that the only aid this game can ever receive is subtraction.  Play it only if you want to see one or two clever ideas put to death so that ten years of wasted money can be resurrected in the blood of your time.
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Balthier and Trembling

by Zen

Posted on Wednesday, March 16, 2016
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Disclaimer: I know this reads like some college freshman shit.  It's purple enough to be Prince homage.  Suffice to say that if you have not both played Final Fantasy XII and read at least the prelude to Fear and Trembling you do not get the joke and please don't judge me.

Once upon a time there was a man who as a child had heard the beautiful story about the gods' chosen hero, who was reborn in the power of his destiny to write his chapter of an eternal history.  When the child became older he regarded the same story with a newfound wariness, for life had informed and keenly honed the pious simplicity of the child.  In time such tales, told as they are again and again, were noteworthy more for their human omissions than their divine testaments.  In time he would deliver his answer.
Two great nations go to war.  The battleground, a small kingdom in between, is obliterated in a single explosion that asserts Arcadia's dominance over the entire globe.  This death and destruction set the tone for an era of bloodshed and fear.
The new Ivalice holds no place for the name Dalmasca; her new Dynast-King's time is nigh.  Happy the world whose hero arrives at all, to prevent these terrors.
Her gaze fixed on duty, her thirst for power and vengeance left unchecked, the deposed queen sees only the path to glory.  Filled with holy purpose, stones of power in hand and treaty signed in enemies' blood, the gods' will is fulfilled and a dynasty of sacred order and Roman peace is secured.  What hours of darkest night will these new shards bring?
Sword in hand, Dalmasca's enemies are laid to rest.  Sword in hand, she makes an enemy of all.  Happy the world whose hero gives not her heart to a stone.
When is a quest worth abandoning?  At what point do virtue and justice yield to some hope for dignity, for the peace that history denied a ruined homeland?  What price will the children of Dalmasca pay to see the machinations of empires repaid?
Revolution, resistance, insurgence--these words all splinter, shattered and bloody, at the breast of the uncompromising folly of conviction.  Happy the world whose hero must face the exhaustion her cause has brought the devoted.

The knight's path is arduous but firm, watching over his charge with no concern for his self.  Even a brother's hate and a kingdom's disgrace can be no burden to him as he shields his queen from any harm or interference.  Vulnerable and weak, a desperate regent is not, alone, enough to stand against the tide of history, and a pawn for others' designs she shall ever be.
In the end, the knight's duty is to both sides of a conflict, that it may not be won but rather dissolved.  Happy the world whose hero receives such protection and whose counterpart receives it double.
Memoirs are filled with the posturing of nations.  History's needs are those of borders and titles, of opposing nation-states and conflicting ideals.  This dialectic holds no meaning for the meager, for those desperate lives clinging to its lowtowns, its alleys of muted sighs.
History's orphans seldom offer counsel to its masters, and thus do their numbers swell.  Happy the world whose hero knows the lot of its weakest.
The ground beneath thrones has had its fill of tyrants' blood; their seats are too easily filled by their like for true peace to last.  The trick is to find that rare, solicitous leader who is both poised and willing to replace power with care.
Once again the survivors of war are claimed by the last remaining aggressors.  Once again force begets force, and all the virtues of youth meet their end at the peace table.  Happy the world whose hero has such enemies as these.
Thus and in many like ways we see how the thread of history must be informed by the pain of individuals.
Final Fantasy XII is a story of overcoming empire, overcoming gods, but most of all overcoming pain and loss.  Each of its characters, even those we see as frivolous and offensive, is essential to its precarious outcome.  For it is one thing to cheer on righteous violence and another to burn one's ambitious resolve at the altar of compassion.  Duty to country, to friends, to allies, to history, each is insufficient on its own.  The true leader feels pulled by all of these, but finds a way to be consumed by none and thereby satisfy all.

On the surface it is a story we have seen too much of: the hero's journey, the chosen one leading a righteous rebellion against an evil and powerful empire.  These tales mostly play out the same, but this time the tired resolution is overcome.  This time, the whole picture is considered and a world of individuals cries out against it.  FFXII simultaneously honors and undermines a legacy of storytelling and thematic expression that is said to encompass human history.  It is an unprecedented and brave step forward for fantasy of all kinds, a therapeutic salve for the trauma of the hero's journey.

Ten years ago today this game blasted all expectations, misgivings, and cynicism out of the water.  Ten years ago today Yasumi Matsuno not only revolutionized the Final Fantasy series, but upended a legacy of lazy storytelling and miserable ideology whose origins are ancient beyond belief.

Go play Final Fantasy XII, and if you have the means to play the International Zodiac Job System version then definitely do that.  It is my favorite game, by my favorite writer of games, and its quality will surprise the doubtful and the faithful alike.
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The Other of All Game Protagonists

by Zen

Posted on Monday, December 7, 2015
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Two games came out on the NES with the same design goals, but with different inspirations.  Both games were open-world action games that emphasized the hero's gradual mastery over an environment, but while The Legend of Zelda attempted to capture the spirit of adventure of a young child playing in the woods Metroid was inspired by the solitude and anxiety of the film Alien.  Understandably, this led to two very different protagonists.  Zelda's Link as the chosen hero, guided by destiny to rescue his princess, is a trope that even as a child I couldn't stomach.  His rise to victory is pre-ordained, a series of formalities the game, like its world, is obligated to bestow.  Metroid's Samus shows up similarly under-equipped, and similarly unlocks the secrets of her environment to gain the power to achieve her goal, but the game inherited Alien's emphasis on its heroine's personal struggle.  Even after awkward world-building was forced into the series Samus retained her potency, her desperate strength.

Metroid 2's only indication
that Samus is a woman

It is mercifully mundane nowadays to note that Samus, like Ripley who inspired her, is a woman.  At the time it was something we talked about at recess.  "But the manual calls Samus 'he'!" Those of us who knew the code for her second quest (of course we couldn't beat the game ourselves), where the armor came off and her hair came down, knew the translators had just made the same assumption we had.  Seeing this made me think, probably for the first time, about where these assumptions came from.  But in the end Samus acted as a glorified peep show, rewarding the player with a flash of skin for completing the game quickly.  The positive impact of this representation was overwhelmed by objectification.

A few years ago I read a story about a man whose daughter loved playing Zelda games but wasn't interested in playing as another boy saving a girl.  He hacked the game script for Wind Waker so that it was a story about a young girl saving her brother, and it ended up working perfectly.  This is a really sweet story, one that highlights many of the imperfections to which "typical gamers" have the luxury of blindness.  There was a time I'd have sworn that gamers would cling to this anecdote as being indicative of video games' universal applicability, that the girl's desire to play Zelda at all meant vindication that games were more than mere focus-grouped novelty and had genuine cultural value, for everyone.  I now know better.

The backlash, in a smirking equivocation that has become all too familiar, came in the form of a version of Metroid hacked so that Samus is a man.  Neither hack was a high-profile event, but the audacity of this absurd rebuttal presages GamerGate's core tenet: that even one heroine is too many.  That young girls should stay out of the treehouse.

How powerups are acquired in Other M
This juvenile tantrum presaged something else: Nintendo itself rescinded Samus's heroic status, releasing a new Metroid game whose only purpose was to retroactively excise all agency, power, and courage from its once ground-breaking protagonist.  This game, Metroid: Other M, is the most aggressively sexist game I have ever played, made all the moreso by its determination to undo the barely-progressive "mistakes" of its forebears.  Its purpose was to reassure us that Samus, while she may have done cool stuff once, is ultimately nothing but a pretty vessel for male will, delirious with her desire to procreate.  Her newfound weakness illuminated a path of unconscionable derogation.

At the center of the most important moment in gamer culture right now is a series of videos made by Anita Sarkeesian on the representation of women in games.  A lot of nerds have responded with threatening vitriol, and while no video she could possibly have ever posted to YouTube justifies death and rape threats, I was somehow still surprised by how calm and careful her videos are. All she does is follow a trope from its origins in other media through the history of video games and then point out that, while these are mostly very good games that she can enjoy despite their problematic elements, those elements are still troubling enough to warrant attention and discussion.  It's the product of someone who clearly has a great love of the art form and wants to see it rise above its shortcomings.

For any element of the gaming community to react badly to this is confusing on many levels.  First are the obvious ones: I don't like to think about how people in our society could ever be this morally bankrupt, and that anyone could watch this video series and not only find fault with it but feel the need to make a "rebuttal" that attempts to invalidate rather than engage her points takes an uncomfortable degree of dishonesty and intellectual laziness.  What keeps me wondering, though, is how wrong I was about gamers' priorities: I have always known gamers to be so obsessed with the art form that they see as "theirs" that they want it to be all things to all people.  It isn't just that they like games, it's that games are the best.  It's that a higher class of people like games, smarter people who see the value in something the rest of the world doesn't understand.  There's a smug pretense about it all, and I always found this overcompensating myopia to be constitutive for gamer culture at large.

The controversy over Anita Sarkeesian, as well as GamerGate, highlight the shameful truth: that these gamers are more interested in abusing women than they are in video games.  Rather than wanting to see games eliminate those qualities that lead to justified derision, rather than shepherding a fledgling art form into true cultural relevance, they lash out at anyone who suggests they overcome their deep and protected bigotry.

Of anyone who still thinks this is an example of "boys will be boys", or of a vocal minority, I ask simply to consider the example of Samus Aran.  An already-problematic character, she nevertheless blazed a trail of representation that, if supported, could effect real change in how young boys are taught to think about women.  I have already written about the power this art form can have over the way that we care; to not only shout down any attempt to listen to women about how our art affects them but to find whatever meager sprig can grow in the wasteland of mainstream representation and pull it up by the roots represents a degree of hatred and willful oppression that nobody can afford to ignore.
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Preparing to Die

by Zen

Posted on Saturday, April 12, 2014
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So I last wrote about the problems that go with using zombies as the object of violence in a video game.  I was hyperbolic and self-righteous, but there's nothing in there I would want to take back, short of pointing you to some of the more recent research into the Kitty Genovese case that shows I maybe should not have used it as an example.  All the same, I'd like to talk now about one of very few games that actually does something interesting with zombies and undeath: Dark Souls.

The undead of Dark Souls are essentially ordinary people, but afflicted with a curse that gradually eats away at their memories of home and self.  The game is set in and around an asylum where the undead are sent in hopes of preventing the curse's spread.  Their ultimate fate is a violent madness, such that other undead serve as the game's foes as well as merchants and allies.  By far the most important thing about undeath in Dark Souls, however, is that it represents a real-world affliction that the game gives genuinely sweet and sincere perspective on: dementia.

There are two storylines in the first Dark Souls that I'd like to highlight.  Anyone who plans on playing the game should probably stop reading, since I'm going to spoil the ways one's interactions with these characters unfold.  While these aren't story spoilers in the usual sense, they're a part of why Dark Souls is a brilliant and challenging game and I recommend letting the game reveal itself to you naturally.

The first character on the list is Big Hat Logan, a ravenous scholar who has ditched his apprentice and keeps getting himself captured:
Initial meeting:
  Mm, you seem quite lucid! A rare thing in these times.
  I am Logan. I'm a bit cooped up, as you can see.
  I have a bright idea. Suppose you set me free?
  I'm old and empty-handed, but i could repay you with my knowledge, and sorcery.
  This place is melting my mind. The inactivity is repressive!

In the Duke's Archives, after rescuing him:
  A great pool of knowledge, the fruits of superior wisdom and an unquenchable desire for truth.
  Some would say Seath had an unsound fixation …But his work is a beautiful, invaluable resource.
  All progress demands sacrifice.
  And I certainly bear no antipathy for that wonderful scaleless beast.

After defeating the area boss in the Duke's Archives:
  Oh, there you are, it has been a while.
  Or were you just here?
  This fascinating place defeats my sense of time…

Then later:

Later still:
  …Who are you…
  …Stay clear…stay clear of my work…
  …Curses upon you!
  …How dare you disturb me!

After this you find his clothes in a heap, and if you search carefully you'll find him in another area of the archives running around naked.  He attacks you on sight, wild and paranoid.  The player has witnessed Logan's decline from celebrated intellectual to babbling fool, and there is no "good path" to take with Logan to prevent this fate.  It's a sad perspective on the fragility of intellect, where we witness perhaps the heaviest fall from greatness in the game.

But for me the most poignant story in Dark Souls will always be that of Siegmeyer of Catarina and his daughter, Sieglinde.  It's always been a heartbreaker, but when I sat down to write about it I realized it was even sadder and far more real than I had thought.  Siegmeyer is an undead adventurer.  He's friendly and good-natured, but not really up to the task of scurrying around Lordran getting into scrapes.  Time and again the player helps him out of a bind, and eventually comes across his daughter.  She's not undead, but she's come to Lordran to track him down and make sure he spends his remaining time comfortably instead of being a burden on others and getting into trouble.

Sieglinde is just as sweet and kind-hearted as her father, but when the player eventually comes across their reunion it's the aftermath of his inevitable decline: he has gone hollow, and it was up to her to put him down:

My father…all Hollow now…has been subdued. He will cause no more trouble.
It's finally over…I will return to Catarina.
You assisted us both greatly. I can hardly return the favour.
Oh, father…dear father…

Rather than leave him to his fate in the Undead Asylum, Sieglinde sought to look after her father herself.  When the time came for him, it was left to her to pull the plug.  This is the scene that rewards the player for helping Siegmeyer through all of his difficult troubles, and it's representative of the tone of Dark Souls in general.

Dark Souls 2 made a tiny change that drives these themes even further.  Instead of being called "Humanity", the item that returns the player to full human status is called a "Human Effigy".  Upon creating a new character, the player is not prompted to decide the character's appearance or background until Strowen the firekeeper bestows one of these, saying it is a doll made in the image of a famous adventurer.  She then says it is the player's image, and this is when appearance and background are decided.  The doll is in fact completely vague in appearance, but the act of trying to make it out as one's self allows one to recall one's own self by trying to project it on the effigy.  Instead of a magic soul item, it's a definite focus for "getting it together" and recovering one's sense of self.

A few years ago my father was diagnosed with vascular dementia.  It's been a long and gradual decline, full of worry and crisis and hard decisions.  The worst thing about it is that whatever hard decisions you make, and however correctly you make them, the result is the same.  The best you can sometimes hope for is to make him comfortable for a very slightly slower decline.  Most players won't even realize it, but Dark Souls forces these kinds of decisions.  At the end of the game it's up to you whether to prolong a misguided and exploitative source of warmth and life for a little bit longer or plunge the world into an age of darkness.  Fans still can't agree much on which is the "good ending", because there isn't one.

Ultimately, Dark Souls is far kinder to the player than it is to its characters and world.  Advertisements for Dark Souls 2 proclaim that it's not about death, but life and learning.  This is an optimistic spin, but not untrue.  As with all stories that dwell on themes of the inevitability of death, Dark Souls teaches us to hold on to what we love and make the most of our time.  It also brazenly confronts the fact that not all of us live out our days as ourselves, and sometimes we lose those things we cherish before our time really comes.

The undead aren't always cannon fodder, hellspawn, or an apocalyptic plague; sometimes they're our parents.
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