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February 2, 2012

A Retroactive Defense

A couple of days ago, I finally knew what it felt like to be a troll.

I didn’t do any actual trolling, mind you.  But I could feel my face morphing into that big-grinned JPEG as I perused the forums, watching as gamers tried in vain to sort out the plot of the recently-released Final Fantasy XIII-2 (the sequel to a game which I loathe as much as other people loathe Twilight).  I saw some mention of gods trying to kill themselves and alternate timelines and paradoxes involving multiple versions of characters…it amused me, seeing people say “screw it” and “I give up” after failing to make sense of it.  Now, to be fair, these were people who were speaking via spoiler tags and only had information from Japanese streams to go by.  But with consistent reports of XIII-2 having a particularly weak story, seeing intelligent posters throw up their hands does not bode well.

Well, I guess I saw it coming.  Just hearing about all the logical inconsistencies in previews -- and seeing the first 25 minutes or so on YouTube -- gave off signals.  Tell me if any of these make sense:

--Lightning was the main character of Final Fantasy XIII, a no-nonsense warrior (for better or worse) who plenty of people and the game’s developers are fond of.  Therefore, XIII-2 stars her untrained, unconfident little sister Serah -- a character who spent most of the original game frozen in crystal.

--Final Fantasy XIII, for all its ups and downs, had a conclusion; not everyone made it to the end credits, but those that did managed to find some much needed solace.  Therefore, it NEEDED a sequel in XIII-2 to continue the narrative and purportedly answer the question “Is Lightning truly happy?”  This, in spite of the fact that YES, LIGHTNING IS HAPPY because she’s reunited with her sister and they both get to live.  To say nothing of the fact that the sister project Final Fantasy Versus XIII, which has been in development since roughly the time of the original XIII’s announcement, is nowhere in sight.

--Lightning is sent to another dimension (or something) and becomes a knight for a goddess (or something); she needs help in a war against a deadly foe.  Therefore, she sends for Serah -- again, untrained and unconfident -- to put her in danger once more…you know, instead of the other characters that fought side-by-side with her in the original game.

--The world Lightning’s been transported to is Valhalla, a bleak and post-apocalyptic world ravaged by war.  Therefore, Lightning is capable of summoning an ultra-cute Moogle who shatters any sense of gravitas by squeaking “Kupo!”

--Serah is now the protagonist of the story, and as such is about to enter the fray against monsters the size of monuments with the aforementioned Moogle (who can turn into a bow with way too many strings and doohickeys for some reason).  Therefore, Serah’s clothes magically change from a simple yet stylish outfit to a strap-laden…something.

This is why people make fun of you, Square-Enix.

--Final Fantasy XIII built itself upon the development and interaction of its characters (again, for better or worse), establishing them as comrades and friends who would face any obstacle.  Therefore, those characters are relegated to brief excursions and cameos -- in spite of one of them being Serah’s fiancée -- while a new character with a new backstory that needs explaining is given a lead role alongside Serah.

-- One of the complaints leveraged against Final Fantasy XIII was its inability to make its dual worlds of Cocoon and Pulse feel like anything more than a million-dollar paint job, choosing instead to bury its lore and world-building in menu-based “Datalogs.”  Therefore, XIII-2 does the exact same thing and adds time travel into the mix.

In the usual “love it or hate it” response to XIII, some people enjoyed the world and its datalogs.  Others have cried foul.  Guess which camp I belong to?

Sure, you could call me -- and by extension, other gamers who skipped over the datalogs -- lazy.  And you’d be right, to some extent.  I didn’t come here to read; I came here to play a video game.  And hiding material that can be either a relief from the failures of the main story or, you know, something that helps explain what’s going on is a damn stupid idea.  With all this talk of a “Fabula Nova Crystallis” project that was supposed to feature three games with a shared lore, you’d think that explaining the world and connections between the games would take center stage.  As XIII-2 wasn’t even a concept until a year or so ago, it seems like a misfit.  An unnecessary misstep.  (Or necessary, based on real-world matters; one could argue that the failure of Final Fantasy XIV -- again, put into the market before Square-Enix finished Versus XIII -- forced the company to put out XIII-2 to recoup their losses.)    Sure, they might make their money back, but at what cost?  Smearing the already-ridiculed name of Final Fantasy?  Putting the company deeper into the hole by announcing new content and dividing their best men?  And if rumors are to be believed, suggesting that there’s going to be a Final Fantasy XIII-3

Say that out loud right now.  Thirteen-three.  THIRTEEN-THREE.  Logic, everybody!  Square-Enix has LOTS of it!

But I digress.  I’m not here to talk business savvy, and certainly not to try and critique a game that I haven’t played (and by the looks of things, will never play).  I CAN, however, criticize the game that introduced me to the power of hate. 

Final Fantasy XIII, in the eyes of many, was an underwhelming game.  I can understand what the developers were going for in trying to make a focused experience; it made sense story-wise, because the six heroes were on the run from enemy soldiers.  And when you’re on the run in the wilderness, it’s hard to talk to people, or have towns, or anything of the sort that might draw your eye.  That’s where a lot of the complaints about linearity are drawn from, I bet (and it didn’t help that you WERE essentially walking down a tube for fifty hours).  Combine that with a world with terms like l’Cie and fal’Cie and Cie’th with little explanation of what they are, or why they do what they do, and combine that with details about the setting that go unexplained in the plot proper, and complaints of an underwhelming world are justified.

What I find interesting, though, is that a lot of people hearken back to Final Fantasy X as a means of defending XIIIX didn’t have a world map, either.  X was also linear as all get out.  X was also followed by a direct sequel -- Final Fantasy X-2 -- in spite of its story being concluded, arguably as a response to the company losing a huge amount of money on the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.  How could anybody hate on a 2010 game when an oft-revered game in 2001 did the exact same thing?  And to that I say, yes.  There is a chance for some inherent hypocrisy.  And yes, X’s conventions probably haven’t aged that well.  And yes, anyone who takes even five minutes to analyze X would find a LOT to complain about.

But what Final Fantasy X did, it did well -- better than XIII, for that matter. 

Like how to wear lederhosen.

See, X also had a story that depended heavily on in-universe lore.  It made religious dogma a part of the narrative, and ran it not only through the course of the story but the world itself.  Technology is forbidden, unless the people of Spira want to incur the wrath of Sin, a massive beast that wreaks havoc on the world.  The people devote themselves to the teachings of Yevon, with churches at virtually every stop; failing that, they have a special motion that they do that’s a fantastical equivalent to clasping their hands in prayer.    Summoners -- people who go on pilgrimages to learn how to summon Aeons and eventually beat Sin at his own game -- are treated like heroes, and there are plenty of them roving about that players get to meet.  The world itself -- thanks to a lack of tech -- mixes rustic and natural aesthetics with humble huts, stone structures, and temples.  What little technology remains in the world is either sanctioned by the maesters (popes, essentially) or magitek left behind by the fayth (the ghostly basis for Aeons) for summoners to complete the trials within certain temples and prove themselves worthy.  The monsters of the world are either Sinspawn, creatures given life and power by falling off of Sin -- so basically, its dead skin gains sentience -- or unsent, people that have died and aren’t given a proper burial ritual.  Pyreflies encapsulate the spirits of the dead, and can be seen throughout the world…though usually, it’s the summoner’s job to do the sending ritual that will let them find peace in the afterlife -- the Farplane.  Summoners have done their duty for a thousand years, with one sacrificing him/herself to defeat Sin for a temporary but much-appreciated era of peace.

All of that is explained in-game.  ALL OF IT.  No need for Datalogs.  No need for supplementary materials, like novels or guides.  You don’t even need to fire up a wiki and search online to sort through it all.  Everything that you need to know about Final Fantasy X is told within the context of its story -- and because of it, the themes and ideas it wants to convey are a lot easier to understand and appreciate.  Faith and loyalty.  Heroism and sacrifice.  Change and dissent.  And most of all, life and death, and its eternal cycle; it leads to the question the game asks: “How do you break the cycle?”  Even if you find the characters annoying -- and general consensus is that Tidus IS annoying -- there’s still a lot to absorb and appreciate with minimal fuss. 

"Come at me, bro."

It seems like a lot of information to remember, but let me assure you that after playing the game, you too would have no trouble recounting it.  No need for a refresher course, or another playthrough, or skimming online for a plot summary; even if you haven’t played the game in half a decade (like I have, give or take), the things you see and experience in Spira stick with you.  By contrast, I have a hard time remembering anything substantial about XIII’s world.  I know what a l’Cie or a fal’Cie is -- sort of -- and I know there was a War of Transgression that happened, and there’s some ages-old rivalry between the urban-developed Cocoon and the more rural Pulse, but…the rest, I’m drawing a blank.  I know l’Cie are bad, but I can’t articulate why citizens would be afraid of people who are pretty much just the gophers of the gods.  I can’t remember the name of most of the game’s locations; there’s Palumporum and Bodhum and…uh…Gran Pulse and Oerba…and that’s about it, even though I know you visit more than four areas.  I’d have even less success describing any distinct features of the areas, especially in comparison to places in X like Besaid, Djose, Kilika, Zanarkand, Luca, Macalania Woods, Home, Guadosalam, and Mt. Gagazet (a site which has one of my favorite songs in a Final Fantasy game).  Keep in mind that I played XIII just two years ago, and started a playthrough of the game a couple of months ago.  Why can’t I remember anything significant?  Has my memory gotten that bad from playing games?  Or is it okay for me to be cynical, and say that there wasn’t anything worth remembering? 

I wouldn’t go that far.  XIII, for better or worse, focused very heavily on its characters.  X had a different goal in mind, choosing to make the details of its world more overt.  It was a conscious decision by its creators, and I’m convinced that it wasn’t a fluke.  Why?

Say hello to Maechen.

Maechen is an NPC -- non-playable character for you regular people -- Tidus and crew meet in their travels every now and then.  He’s not plot relevant per se, and I believe you can walk right past him if you want, but do you really want to?  If you’re trying to do a speed run of the game, sure, but just thinking about learning from the old scholar about Spira seems like an advantageous prospect.  Ignoring the fact that he has a ridiculously awesome voice, Maechen’s existence in the game is a signal of three strengths that Final Fantasy X has and XIII doesn’t. 

1) The game wants you to care about its world -- and it gives you a reason to care because the world actually matters.  The mythos is built in the confines of the game because (like Final Fantasies before it) there was the assumption that after creating this world, they wouldn’t be able to revisit it; therefore, they had a mere forty-eight hours of playtime to make players fall in love with Spira.  So they put it on the center stage.  You’re out to save the world, after all; you have to have an intimate relationship with it, and appreciate it as the character it is.  That includes wanting to learn more about it.  But more importantly…

2) The world is much more interactive, and therefore important to the player.  I’d say a good 90% of RPG plots eventually break down from whatever motivation/goal the characters have at first to “let’s go save the world.”  Not a bad thing, of course, but that goal helps when you feel like there’s a world to protect.  That goes well beyond any world-building; you have to make the world feel alive.  How?  Graphics are important, yes (especially since X was considered astounding in its time), but you have to give players something to latch onto.  Having side characters helps -- Maechen is obvious, but you have other characters who play their incidental roles.  The Crusaders, who fight futilely but stalwartly against Sin.  The Al Bhed, atheists who use machines at will and even have their own language.  Other summoners -- some noble and helpful, others conceited and condescending.  And…

3) The interplay between these characters and more lends the world, and the game itself, a distinct personality -- to say nothing of the visual aesthetic that, while foreign, is definable, understandable, and consistent.  In general, there are four area types in Final Fantasy X: a sparsely populated, natural area; a village almost devoid of technology (outside of the occasional save point or travel guide); temples which lead to summoner trials, and the sacred grounds around it; the wreckage from Sin’s attacks, as well as the ruins from abandoned worlds.  All strange, with some unexpected designs, but all comprehensible.

Final Fantasy XIII, on the other hand…

One of these things is not like the others...

Hell, just look at their logos.  They're supposed to depict events in-game, but... (spoilers in the second caption)

Pictured: a young woman dancing and shifting water about.  

Pictured: the crystallized form of a continent hovering above the planet, encased in crystal and formed through the sacrifice of a being originally designed to destroy the world.  Not pictured: more crystals.  Pictured: the ornament on one of the characters' necklace.  Also pictured: two women and...a horse's tail?  Part of a curly mustache?  God, this game is going to turn me into an alcoholic...

A lot of areas in XIII are ornate to the point of impracticality and obfuscation.  There were times when I would stop and swivel the camera around to take in the sights, only to ask myself “What am I looking at here?” Looking around at all the nice graphics and cutting-edge tech on display only spoils the effect, not enhances it; you see expansive areas most of the time, but the actual amount of the areas you can explore is limited to a mostly-straight path.  You don’t get much of a chance to investigate for yourself, which is justified because -- again -- you’re on the run from the bad guys.  You’re on your own throughout the game, which is highlighted by the fact that all the side characters that might help flesh out the world are gone, save for flashbacks in cutscenes and a few faces you might meet along the way.  You don’t see Pulse -- the expansive world players had been hoping for -- until you’ve clocked about twenty-five hours in playtime.  At long last, you get to explore…only to find that there’s nothing much to see or do besides kill monsters, take on sidequests that let you kill more monsters, and move further toward your next destination.  (Compare this to X, where even if you didn’t care for talking to NPCs, you could still ride chocobos, play some blitzball and recruit new players onto your team, search for ancient weapons, and dodge lightning.)  At times, it feels like XIII tried to steal focus away from the world and place it back on its characters; navigating a single area requires getting through multiple cutscenes.  You could enter an area and trigger a cutscene where two characters start talking, walk a third of the way through the area and trigger another cutscene where two characters pick up on the same conversation, then walk another third and trigger another cutscene where the same two characters finally come to a conclusion about the same topic of conversation.  It shatters the flow and depth of the game so we can see these people, inoffensive at best and infuriating at worst, faff about.  Trying to make XIII look and feel more important had the opposite effect; in a world where RPGs like Lost Odyssey, The World Ends With You, Mass Effect, Skyrim, Fallout, the Tales series, and the STELLAR Persona 4 exist, it’s hard to consider Final Fantasy XIII and Square-Enix as any sort of authority on RPGs anymore.    

So here we are in 2012.  Final Fantasy XIII.  Then, XIII-2.  And -- if Square-Enix goes through with it -- XIII-3.  Frankly, I’m baffled.  Baffled that a game with so many missteps gets a sequel. Baffled that I could hate a video game so much.  Baffled that I’ve become one of those jaded nostalgia-lovers who claim that Old Man Game X is superior to Whippersnapper’s New Game Y.  I don’t enjoy thinking or feeling like this, but it’s something that I feel I need to express.

What is all that in the background?  Who cares?  Look at those legs!

That said, I’m not that far over the edge.  Is Final Fantasy X perfect?  NO.  Characters and character designs are still silly.  One of the main villains is so obnoxiously a villain, you’d think that someone would prevent him from becoming a damned pope.  Melodrama leaks from every orifice.  But the biggest fault is that the ultimate villain -- the mastermind of sorts, even beyond the planet-destroying Sin -- is both impossibly underwhelming and has zero explanation outside of a few conversations in the last few hours of the game.  No motivation, no characterization, nothing.  No matter what time period you’re in, a “twist” like that is just a good way to induce a headache.  But in spite of those flaws, I still say with confidence that Final Fantasy X is still much better than XIII.  And with an HD remake on the way, I’m hoping that those who never got around to playing it finally get their chance.  Though what this means for Square-Enix, we shall see; they might make some money (as they are wont to do), but when you have the two games almost side-by-side, people may start wondering “What the hell happened?” in earnest.

But seriously, guys.  FINISH VERSUS XIII.

You strut around with a badass crew and drive tanks.  Life is cruel sometimes...

All right, I think I’ve gotten enough bile out of my system for now. I’m not done talking about this game just yet, but for the moment I’m done getting angry about it.  And the next time I bring up the subject, I plan to do the impossible: I’m going to find a way to defend XIII.

Yeah.  That’s what the title was referencing.  And then, suddenly, plot twist!

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