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April 12, 2012

Final Fantasy XIII: Target’s a Target (Part 2)

You know, I’m starting to wonder if there’s a place in the industry for Final Fantasy anymore.  FF13 was announced in…2006, I believe, and came out in 2010.  To date, it’s one of the most hotly-debated and put-upon installments in the series (with good reason).  Versus 13 -- in a glowing example of “Why would you?” was also announced in 2006, if I remember correctly.  It’s 2012 now, and there’s no telling when, or if, it’ll make it here before everyone shifts focus to the PS4.  13-2 was a sequel nobody asked for, but got anyway -- arguably, at the cost of Square-Enix’s credibility.  Of course, you could argue that decision came from a need to recoup losses from FF14, the dead-on-arrival MMO that’s gotten slammed in reviews, required lots of work from the developers, and necessitated an apology.  Probably should have kept that one in the oven a bit longer, eh Squeenix?

Let’s check the score card here.  That’s one game that’s extremely divisive (yet universally acknowledged to have faults).  There’s another game that fixes some problems while adding several more -- an incomprehensible story, adding the controversial DLC plan into a once-adored franchise, and an ending suggesting another sequel.  There’s a third game that’s such a mess, Square-Enix has to do some serious clean-up work just to make it passable.  And there’s a fourth game that was announced no less than five years too early, with hardly anything to show for it since.  Do you see how this might be problematic? 

Even the box art is broken.

Square-Enix and Final Fantasy have stumbled this generation -- and as the premiere JRPG company/franchise, the entire genre has taken a hit because of it.  “JRPGs are dead!” the naysayers claim.  “JRPGs are stupid, boring, and clichéd!” the detractors yell.  They wouldn’t be saying that if we had a good, generally well-received Final Fantasy on our hands.  If we had an awe-inspiring, meaningful adventure, people could still point to the franchise as a bastion of the genre.  But we don’t.  All we have are a series of tubes that look pretty, a sequel befuddled by time travel, and an MMO that’s the laughingstock of gamers everywhere.

It’s like nothing else matters but that one name -- in spite of all the other games that have eclipsed it since.  Persona 3 and 4 are utterly amazing.  The recent Xenoblade Chronicles is similarly astounding.  There have been three releases in the Tales Series this past generation (and another one still lies in Japan), delivering consistent quality.  Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon did JRPGs right years before 13 screwed it all up.  Even weaker releases like Infinite Undiscovery and Star Ocean: The Last Hope had their moments.  You’d expect a big release, one with ten times the resources and pedigree than some companies combined, would be able to pull something together.

You’d think wrong.  And now here we are, sitting at our computers, scouring the internet for information about Versus 13, hoping -- praying -- that the magic finally comes back.

Will it?  God, I hope so.  I want to heal these wounds that 13 inflicted upon me; I want to believe in Square-Enix again.  I want this wait, this tale of a game in the works for more than half a decade, to have a happy ending.  I want others to be able to believe.

Well, enough about that.  Let’s get Austrailian.  (That was my best segue ever.)

Eternal Champion of the “Meh” and Queen of Contradiction: Fang

Also a world-class mime.

When Fang was first announced, I wasn’t sure what to make of her.  I was still fangasming at the thought of playing the Monk-like Snow, and being from a different generation/console era I never experienced the Dragoon class of earlier FF games firsthand.  In spite of that, I was willing to give Fang a chance.  Between her and Lightning, though, I could see a trend.  Square-Enix was moving forward; not content with having RPG ladies designated solely as white mages or love interests, they would have their girls deliver on the action every step of the way.  They’d be bold.  They’d be brave.  They’d make me lament ever being born a man.

And then the game happened.  I will forever associate Fang with one certain line:

Shut up and come quiet…shut up and come quiet…shut up and come qui- is that some kind of Australian thing?  Like, is that what people that are native to Australia say?  Do they not like adverbs?  Was the localization team trying to make it sound like slang or shorthand speech?  Shut up and come quie…why couldn’t she just say “quietly”? Wait a minute, why does she have an accent in the first place?  This is a fantasy world, there’s no such thing as Australia.  Why the fu-

No, no, no…calm down.  Don’t…let one…lack of an adverb…get you down…

I’d better move on to a different subject before this drives me insane.  Anyway, Fang.  What can I say about Fang?  Well, first and foremost, she’s here to be a tough, competent woman.  Just look at her description from the manual:

"Fang is a mysterious woman who is working with the Sanctum military despite bearing the mark of the detested l'Cie. Strong-minded and disinclined to mince words, she has the demeanor of someone wholly unconcerned by life's trivialities."

Fair enough, I suppose.  I guess that, unlike a lot of character descriptions in manuals, this one’s fairly accurate.  She’s tough and competent, and she’s sharp and smart-alecky, and…uh…



…………………………………………………Well, damn.

I’ve stared at this page for about three minutes now, and haven’t come up with anything substantial to say about Fang.  That’s generally not a good sign…but, fear not.  I think I can explain myself (and prove to myself that my memory hasn’t gone the way of the stegosaurus.)  See, I think that the problem with Fang is that she falls prey to what I call “The Naoto Effect.”  The effect is as follows: a character’s importance and impact on the plot is directly proportional to how early they appear in the story. 

It’s named after Persona 4’s Naoto Shirogane, a gun-toting high schooler who’s the last party member you gain in the game.  The problem is that by the time she joins the group, she’s missed several important events -- the school trip, the diving scene, extended time with little Nanako, etc.  She (and it’s obvious it’s a she as soon as you hear her speak for the first time -- heck, even the first time you see her art) is supposed to be the group’s brain, filling in the details and leading them to the culprit; by the time she’s an official member, you’re already well on your way to the ending.  While she’s suitably strong once you get her, you only have two or three dungeons left to use her; by then, chances are you’ve already got your team defined and don’t want to disrupt your synergy.  While she does get her moments in P4, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was too little, too late.  The Naoto Effect rears up even more ferociously in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn; the eighth party member, Himi, only joins up after most of the game is done, you’ve already got most of your equipment set, and you just need someone to handle MacGuffin detail.  She doesn’t even know who some of the main villains are by the time she’s encroached in the action.

Even on her worst day, Naoto knew that much.  And yes, this is most definitely a girl.

Fang has the same problem.  The beginning of the game has five of the six playable characters all meet, going from groups of one or two to an eventual party of five.  All five of them meet at one critical juncture; all five of them are sexually harassed by godbot tentacles brought before a divine being and have their adventure set into motion; all five of them learn quickly just what they’re up against, and what the stakes entail.  All five.  Not Fang.  Fang misses all of that doing…doing who knows what.  She misses the most important event in the story because she’s faffing about elsewhere; you don’t recover from that, no matter how sassy or Australian you are.

 The insular, personal nature of FF13’s character development (sure, let’s call it that) means that the more the characters interact, the more likely they are to come together and show off what they’ve learned.  The problem is that Fang doesn’t get to buddy-up with anyone.  Yeah, she and her group of…whoever those guys are supposed to be…take Snow onboard their ship.  But they’re largely enemies at the time, so that doesn’t count for much.  The plan is to have Snow, Lightning, and the rest publically executed (though that doesn’t make any sense; why not just kill them on-sight?  What if they use their powers to try and escape?  Why would you bring them to a heavily-populated area if you treat them like infectious monsters?  Do you think U.S. soldiers dragged bin Laden back to America just so he could be shot after the latest episode of The Cleveland Show?).  Eventually, she meets up with Lightning -- earning a bitch slap from her; class act, Lightning -- and ultimately…decides to join up with Lightning and the group.  Uh…right, moving on.

Look, you guys know I’m doing my damnedest to remember something substantial about the game, right?  You know that if I could mention something that left an impact, I would?  But I can’t.  I just can’t do it here.  Fang’s job is to smash things and snark (well, one other thing, but we’ll get to that).  When she’s not doing that -- even when she’s doing that -- she’s a background voice with no impact on any of the proceedings.  When she does do something, it’s in stark contradiction to what she did earlier in the plot.  She acted like she was an enemy to the “heroes” and then suddenly decides to join the heroes -- and then never makes use of the resources she enjoyed as an elite soldier again, in spite of the obvious benefits it would offer, like an airship, supplies, sanctuary, allies, or someone who can listen when they say the pope is trying to kill everyone in the world

"He looks trustworthy.  Let's give him the highest seat of power possible!"

Nowhere is this more obvious than in her Eidolon fight.  Remember how I mentioned that the magic Transformers appear in times of emotional distress?  Well, Fang’s fight actually follows that rule overtly, unlike Snow’s.  The problem is that it’s due to ass-backwards reasoning.  Whereas the others decide to fight their fate and try to not turn into crystallized zombies for failing or crystallized statues for succeeding, Fang decides to fight them and save them from turning into said zombies.  Ignoring the fact that she’s threatening to kill them if they try and save themselves from a horrible fate, why wouldn’t Fang want the same?  Did she want to succeed and turn into a crystal statue (again)?  Was that her idea of a good time?  Why wouldn’t she give it a try?  Why would she raise her lance, especially if it meant potentially hurting the one party member she had a reason to care about -- the one party member she’d sworn to protect?

I guess it doesn’t matter.  What’s important is that she got her robo-dragon, and nobody among the main cast is smart enough to ever bring up her ploy at attempted murder again.  And Fang reciprocates by not only admitting “All right, I guess trying to overcome two fates worse than death is better than turning into an ice sculpture”, but also deciding that the people she just tried to kill -- four of which she hardly even knew and bonded with before the game proper -- are “her new family.”

"The dragon made me do it."

Now I remember why I hate this game so much.  When they don’t explain anything -- the world-building, the rationale of the characters, the importance of one group over another -- it makes the story irritating and shallow.  When they DO explain something, the reasons given are contrived, bewildering and obtuse; it’s as if they exist solely to get players back into that pretty, pretty tube without any thought of what happened an hour ago or what will happen an hour later.  (Consider that the “heroes” go from “we have to protect that…that robo-baby thing Orphan to avoid the world’s end” to “let’s kill the shit out of Orphan!  FOR THAT IS WHY WE LIVE!”) 

The final boss.  I just saved you fifty joyless hours.

But I digress.  Back to Fang.  Here’s an interesting little tidbit:

“Tetsuya Nomura and Motomu Toriyama have dished out the latest on Final Fantasy XIII in this week's Famitsu. For those who've been keeping up with the game, the comments from the two are particularly revealing this time.

Let's start off with some character trivia. Recently, we shared details on Oerba Yun Fang, the sexy black haired girl from the Tokyo Game Show trailer who, although a l'Cie like Snow and the rest of the main cast, appears to support the government. It turns out that she wasn't so sexy when the FF project began. According to Nomura, she was originally scheduled to be a male character. When they switched her to female, they decided to give her a sexy quality, which they removed from Lightning in order to differentiate the two. So remember -- Lightning originally had sex appeal, Fang was originally a guy.”

Huh.  Well.  Yeah, I guess it’s great for them to have admitted that.  I mean, yeah, it’s not like anything like gender is important to a character, right?  It’s not like there’s any discernible difference between a male warrior and a female warrior, right?  It’s just aesthetics!  All you have to do to make a female character is give them longer hair, less clothes, and breasts!  That’s all there is to it, am I right?  It’s not like insinuating anything of the sort is inviting yourself to start a quagmire of monstrous proportions at any given moment while simultaneously shattering your credibility and immediately signaling the fact that you’re taking a huge shortcut for the sake of expediency at the cost of a story’s quality, you know what I’m sayin’? 

This is a complicated subject.  I may know writing, but I know that it’s better for me to bow out now than try to argue any further.  I will say this, however: writing a character of the opposite sex -- no matter what your own gender may be -- is a very tricky business.  You need skill as well as sensitivity, and the foresight to know when or if there are going to be some nasty implications.  Can you imagine what scenes like this would be like if Fang were a man?

IIRC, they're standing on the outside of a flying airship here.

Furthermore, would you see Fang in a different light if you played through the game, knowing that she was supposed to be a man?  And can you think about the implications of her relationship, knowing what she very nearly was?

Think about that for a while.  Because for now, I’m taking a break.  When I get back -- IF I get back -- I’ll continue exploring not-Australia with another Final Fantasy girl.

May God be with me.

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