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April 4, 2012

Final Fantasy XIII: Target’s a Target (Part 1)

So apparently, this is a thing that’s happening now:

Why?  Just…why?  Final Fantasy characters wearing Prada clothing?  That doesn’t…I mean, why?  I can understand downloadable content putting characters in costumes from games like Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed, because different as they may be they’re still from videogames.  They appeal to the consumer base.  But Prada?  Is that something that gamers are running out to buy nowadays?  Is that something that needed to be associated with Final Fantasy?  Did Square-Enix really want to associate another clothing brand with its games?

This…this confuses me.  The more I try to understand the thought process behind some of the company’s decisions, the more my head hurts.  But really, that just leads into a big problem with this “Fabula Nova Crystallis” project that they’ve been boasting about for years.

Final Fantasy XIII -- and its brothers, arguably -- is too easy to make fun of.  You could poke fun at the bland gameplay and endless array of tubes.  You could poke fun at the melodrama that drags out over several family generations, spinning in circles like a Fast and Furious reject doing donuts off-camera.  You could poke fun at the increasingly absurd character/world designs and delusions of grandeur taking precedence over telling a competent (or even sensible) story.  You could poke fun at Square-Enix for announcing Versus XIII about six years too early, and materializing a sequel to one of the most divisive (read: awful) games in the franchise out of nowhere to peddle DLC and set the stage for another sequel answer questions no one asked, and leave the questions people WERE asking locked away in datalogs.  You could poke fun at the developers for trying to make a strong, competent female warrior -- they failed, but at least they tried -- and then in the sequel making a swimsuit an alternate costume for its sole female character…while giving the male one a suit of armor.

It's still a slight improvement in terms of practicality.

I have a lot of issues with XIII, and that same disdain has started bleeding into other aspects of both the FNC project and Square-Enix/the Final Fantasy franchise as a whole.  Like any teenager, I held the games in the highest esteem; I thought of them as amazing stories, rivaling any given classic novel.  Now that I’m older and slightly wiser, I know that’s not the case; Final Fantasy VIII is full of morons and an absurd plot.  X has several levels of stupidity centered on a teenage boy’s angst.  XII tried to be sophisticated and smart when really it was just stuffy, boring, and pretentious (and had trouble defining its lead character -- seriously, there had to be at least four people vying for the role).  Dissidia told the same story for nine out of its ten playable heroes (friendship!  You’re not alone!  Believe in stuff!) while shoving the important bits -- plot, explaining what’s going on and who these people are -- into the last few hours  and hidden files.  Not even golden boy VII is immune to criticism; ignoring the fact that it birthed hellspawn like Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus, it started trying to turn RPGs into overblown spectacles, forgot who its villains were early in the game, and made tropes like massive swords, amnesia, and sub-textual homoerotic relationships standard for the genre.  Also spiky and/or white hair.  And villains with…er, family issues.

He's gonna poke someone good.

So I have a theory that, if I played any given Final Fantasy post-VI, I’d probably get as frustrated as I am with XIII.  But for what it’s worth -- for the sake of keeping up my status as the “eternal optimist” -- I want to find some good in XIII.  Not just “it looks pretty” because you shouldn’t be playing RPGs to enjoy their graphics; I want to find something legitimate to latch onto and say “Hey!  That’s…that ain’t bad.”

It’s not gonna be easy though.  I want to talk about each of the main characters in turn; I already did Lighting, so that’s one out of the way.  Now that’s just five more.  But let’s be honest: who’s “the best” and who’s “the least annoying” are always going to be subjective measures; someone who enjoys one character may hate another.  In the same sense that I revile Lightning, others may think of her as the coolest thing since the hoverboard from Back to the Future.  Whatever the case, what I say here is my opinion alone, and if there are people who would speak in her defense, then that’s cool.  But for now, I’m going to do my damnedest to make a point.  So let’s get started.

But first, I need to go smoke a silo’s worth of cigarettes.

Character I thought would be awesome: Snow

The best part of FF13?  Hearing Troy Baker do what he does best: sound awesome.

The worst part of FF13?  Playing as Snow.  I went in the game expecting to punch it up with (what I assumed was) the game’s monk-class character.  As time went on and I learned more about the game -- and actually got my hands on it, eventually -- I figured, “Eh, no big deal.  I can play defense.  No problem.  I’ll take one for the team -- and besides, nobody’s gonna mess with the highest-HP character in the game!”  What I expected was someone who could take hits and dish ‘em out, increasing the likelihood of the party’s survival and a routed enemy.  What I got was the golden opportunity to stand around, mashing auto-battle so I’d earn the right to stand in a golden bubble, a blue bubble, or -- brace yourselves, I’m about to blow your mind -- a RED bubble.

His strategy?  Yell "Come at me, bro!" until it's dead.

Why do I bring up gameplay in a discussion about characters?  Because in retrospect, Snow’s gameplay mirrors his character arc -- it doesn’t move, ever.  Where does he start in the story?  As a blustery, self-righteous hero out to save his fiancée and prove himself to the naysayers.  Where does he end in the story?  As…a blustery, self-righteous hero out to save his fiancée and prove himself to the naysayers.  Does he learn anything?  I suppose; he’s forced to face the consequences of his actions and realizes that he shouldn’t be so reckless…and then proceeds to be reckless as he goes wherever he wants, reveals himself to be a much-maligned servant tainted by the gods, and causes a crapload of destruction on a racetrack for…some…reason…in GLORIOUSLY RENDERED CG MADE WITH OUR STATE-OF-THE-ART CRYSTAL TOOLS ENGINE!

Look at all that...uh...that.

What does he do?  Bluster when he’s happy or needs to show his resolve, angst when he’s sad or unsure of what to do when someone calls him out on his antics.  It comes to a head in Snow’s Eidolon awakening scene.  See, the Eidolons (magic Transformers) appear to the “heroes” in their time of need (when their angst reaches critical mass) to present them a challenge (boss fight).  If they succeed, they gain the Eidolon as a new source of power.  If they lose, they get killed -- a fate supposedly in line with their broken resolve.  It begs the question of why the fal’Cie, the gods who made the “heroes” their personal gophers, would threaten people with death when they started feeling down.  “Oh, you’re having a crisis of confidence, so die for it.”  Why?  Why would they threaten their gophers, the ones doing their oddjobs, with death?  If they lose, then suddenly you have no one who can take care of your job.  It’s like if you sent me out to get you a newspaper, I slammed my knee against something, and then you sent a hitman after me so I’d A) win a bare-knuckle fistfight and find newfound resolve, or B) die and you now need another potential failure of a gopher to get your paper.  Fal’Cie, do you see how your little system might be a problem?   

From a writing standpoint, I guess it makes sense to make the characters forcibly face their fears and weaknesses, beat them senseless, and literally come out stronger because of it.  But with Snow, there’s a problem: he DOESN’T stare his weakness in the face.  He isn’t forced to learn a lesson in a moment of weakness or wavering faith.  His Eidolon comes out after he spends hours trying to dig out his crystallized fiancée and gets ambushed by dozens of enemy soldiers.  His problem wasn’t internal; it was completely external, and only helped enable his bluster.  You could argue that he internalized his anguish in a moment of weakness, but if that’s the case then why is it never brought up again?  Were his problems resolved in that one instant -- the one in which he had no idea what the hell was happening

A needlessly ornate, nonsensical, yet somehow pandering design?  Shiva baby, you were made for this game!

To be fair, Snow IS a nice guy.  Nicer than Lightning, that’s for sure.  He’s certainly a lot more nurturing and dedicated to a definable cause than she is.  He’s idealistic and brave, and all that good stuff -- normally, the kind of thing that I’d get excited about.  But Snow is never put through his paces.  When he starts, he’s reckless and doesn’t have a plan, even getting civilians involved in a battle that should’ve belonged to his hilariously-outnumbered resistance group NORA (No Rules, Obligations, or Authority -- which I’m pretty sure is not how any organization ever has worked).  At game’s end, he’s still reckless and doesn’t have a plan, only the game sort of warps reality to make that sound like the right thing to do.  Endangering innocent civilians by revealing yourself in the most obnoxious way possible?  Stomping through the streets and causing a mass panic as you try to start a coup?  Wantonly deciding to kill a god-baby-thing, even though you’d discussed that that WASN’T what you wanted to do?

Look, I like idealistic, heroic characters.  I think Superman is cooler than Batman, I approve of hot-blooded passion, and I enjoy a character who isn’t dialing up the angst/scowling/stoicism by about eight thousand percent, but it’s hard to get excited about this guy -- or any of the game’s other characters. Hope blames Snow for the death of his mother, and calls him out.  What does Snow take away from that?  He admits his folly in saying things that he shouldn’t have, and that he was running away from the guilt.  That’s nice and all…except Snow’s problem was that he was doing things that he shouldn’t have, like asking for potential fighters amongst the refugees when he should have had a fighting force a wee bit larger than five people.  He gives Hope the knife that the kid was planning to use as a murder weapon, and gives him another shot at revenge.  And what good would that do, Snow?  You’d be dead, your group would be screwed, your fiancée would never be saved, and…well, actually the world might be better off without you and your pals, but that’s debatable.  But in spite of all your bluster, and in spite of your belief in heroism, you can’t speak when it really counts?  You can’t convince one kid to believe in you? 

"I'd trust you if you didn't dress like a bum!"

Later on, Snow has a crisis of confidence when it’s suggested that his fiancée conspired to set his mystic servitude in motion.  He’s down about it for a while (in cutscenes, at least), but snaps out of it following a boss fight with a slightly-more-important-than-usual side character and the death that results.  Snow takes it upon himself to dedicate his life to a new goal: save Cocoon, the place where all the people live, and bring back his fiancée.  You know, the same thing he’d wanted to do for some forty hours of gameplay.  So basically, Snow’s character development doesn’t move him anywhere; it’s a circle, trapped in a vacuum, trapped in the Phantom Zone and spiraling toward a black hole.  Does he learn anything?  No.  Does he change?  No.  Does he realize when he’s done something wrong?  Possibly, but his answer to adversity is to continue doing stupid, reckless things.  And then his arc can start all over again, when he rams his motorcycle made of robo-babes right through the throat of some giant robotic head to the tune of some ominous Latin chanting. 

Like all the FF13 characters, Snow could have been good.  He could’ve been a deconstruction of what it means to be a hero, and been utterly transformed from his basic archetype.  He could’ve been a powerful (i.e. good) counterpoint to Lightning, and come out both stronger and wiser after facing his troubles head-on -- he could have even proven himself and made his presence and beliefs more palpable for his comrades.  He could have been deep, engaging, and even admirable.  Instead he just comes off as shallow, aggravating, and stupid.

He’s still a counterpoint to Lightning, in the end.  But…well…probably not in the way you’re thinking. 

Well, that’s enough distaste for now.  This stuff is bad for my heart, you know?  If I don’t tae a break, I might bite it in a couple of days.  So tune in next time when I discuss another character…though I must warn you, things are about to get Australian.

That’s kind of a weird state to be in, but whatever.  Australia’s a dangerous place, yo.

Quoth the cassowary, "I will flay you and enjoy it!"

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