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August 10, 2015

On Final Fantasy and Lost Empathy


Far be it for me to be typecast as “the guy who can’t stop poking holes in Final Fantasy games”, but there’s no way around it this time.  Bear with me here, though, because there are a LOT of posts to follow built around the ideas here.  Consider this foundation more than anything else.

Okay?  Okay.  So let me ask: does anyone here watch The Middle?


I’ve seen some of it, in my quest to fill the hole left by the long-since-finished How I Met Your Mother.  I can’t say I’m in love with The Middle, and I have yet to go out of my way to watch it, but hey.  At least it’s on.  And to the show’s credit, it’s got some juice.  Well, the humor’s kind of hit-or-miss, episodes tend to cram sentimentality and family togetherness into the last couple of minutes, and the kids are increasingly aggravating (typically without the saving grace of being funny), but there’s juice.  Whether it’s on purpose or not, I’d argue that the show’s greatest strength is how well it pushes the theme of apathy.

The members of the show’s Heck family regularly have to contend with people who couldn’t care less about their problems, beliefs, or even hopes.  The world around them turns regardless, and the people in it would rather go about their business with even tones, cool heads, and even smiles rather than move a single millimeter out of their comfort zones. 


The Hecks live in a world where no one cares about them, and that air of apathy -- the sense that nothing matters but basic, self-serving needs and desires -- regularly affects and even corrupts them.  But luckily, their bonds as a family keep them from going off the deep end.  Even if the world could care less about you, there are people around you that do.  That’s not just where the thematic density lies; the display of (and struggle against) apathy creates some of the show’s best scenarios.

So what does that have to do with Final Fantasy?  Simple.  I would be fine with the franchise in its current state if it intentionally played to something like a theme of apathy.  But it doesn’t -- and that feeds into an even bigger problem.


As you can guess, this is coming off of me and Final Fantasy Type-0 -- and the reactions I’ve seen to it.  I don’t want to generalize, but I’m worried that people look at the game and say “The only problems with it are that it has too much motion blur and the camera needs work.”  And I’m just like…really?  That’s what we’re going to focus on?  Those are the biggest issues?  So I guess it’s time for me to play Captain Bringdown, riding in on the S.S. Grievances alongside First Mate Nitpicks. 

I’ll gladly admit that it gets off to a promising start, but by the halfway point playing the game was the rough equivalent of having a gorilla slowly jam one knife at a time into my body.  I’ll refrain from spoilers here (as much as I want to go over the sheer madness of the final chapter), but I’ll say what I said before: the two “main characters”, Machina Kunagiri and Rem Tokimiya, utterly ruin the game for me.  As in, I have never seen two characters break a story in two so completely and decisively -- almost as if Doctor Doom slipped in a sleeper agent to sabotage everything.


I would call Rem a blank slate, but the game would have you believe that she’s a saint whose footsteps give rise to fields of wildflowers.  NPCs fawn over her, she’s the star of most optional cutscenes (inasmuch as a non-entity who stands around looking pretty can be a star), she’s pretty much only there to be pitied vis a vis some terminal illness, and you could simulate most of her dialogue by just going “DERRRRRRRRRP” for five minutes.  Oh, but I guess she’s nice and cute, so it’s fine.  I mean, I always thought characters were supposed to have personalities, conflicts, and arcs, but it seems I was mistaken.

So no, I don’t very much care for Rem, but I have just as many problems -- if not more -- with Machina.  Again, I don’t want to spoil anything here because it would take several thousand more words to explain everything wrong with this guy, but at a base level?  He’s emblematic of a big problem…or at the very least, embodies a pet peeve of mine.  Maybe all of them at once, but let’s take this step by step. 


At the outset, he seems like an okay enough guy -- not exactly leading man material, but he’s concerned about his obviously-unwell friend Rem, and worries as needed.  That’s fine.  But over the course of the game, in no shortage of go-nowhere cutscenes, he goes from concern to outright obsession.  Nearly every moment he’s on-screen, he declares that he’s going to protect Rem.  Or he’s worried about Rem.  All Rem, all the time.

I say “nearly”, of course, because a major part of Machina’s character (sure, let’s call it that) is that before long, he becomes distrustful of Class Zero -- AKA the twelve playable characters, and the cadets acting as their country’s saving grace in a losing war.  He really doesn’t have any reason to, considering the context -- some sleazy official puts the clearly-biased idea in his head, even though Class Zero is saving everyone almost single-handedly -- but it doesn’t matter to him.  All that matters is that Machina wants to protect Rem, and flips the mightiest birds he can to everyone around him.  And then he goes on to make some of the worst, most nonsensical decisions ever committed to a video game.

In my humble opinion, of course.


Now, let me be honest.  If you’ve read some of my stuff before, you likely know that I lean towards more heroic characters.  I put a lot of stock in heroes -- men and women who live by virtues, fight for something near and dear to them, and stand up against the villains that plague their worlds.  That’s my preference, but it’s not my requirement; I can appreciate anti-heroes and less-than-noble characters no matter where they pop up. 

I mean, remember Looper?  Nonsensical time-travel shenanigans aside, I really enjoyed that movie precisely because it steered into the skid; selfish people did selfish things, but the movie was stronger for it.  It was more or less acknowledged that the major players weren’t exactly altruists, so that things could progress with that in mind -- with a whole new set of tools at the crew’s disposal, without something as silly as an audience’s morality messing things up.


But this isn’t necessarily about morality.  It’s about using elements in the best way possible, and the mere fact that Machina (and similarly, Rem) exists is proof that Squeenix didn’t feel like doing that.  Machina doesn’t care about anything but himself and Rem, and even then you could argue that he only cares about the latter because of symbolic weight -- or to put it simply, because she’s a doll he has to protect from the mean ol’ Empire.  He has no loyalty to his superiors.  He has no loyalty to his country.  He doesn’t even have loyalty to Class Zero, his comrades and the genuinely good people trying to keep their home of Rubrum safe -- and Machina as well. 

If that single-mindedness was adequately developed (and didn’t revolve around boneheaded decisions), then it would have made Machina into a better character -- a flawed and maybe even tragic figure whose actions led to a punishing fall from grace.  But in Type-0, his moves, beliefs, and even nature all feel arbitrary, as if they added in drama for drama’s sake.  It’s impossible for me to give an eighth of a damn about a character whose entire premise is built on what might as well be moon-speak, for all the sense it makes.  And then there’s the other stuff.


The sad thing about Type-0 is that it came close to being good.  Relatively speaking; it had a better shot than, say, 13-2But it’s as The Spoony One once argued: the recent Final Fantasy installments have all had huge problems deciding who the main character is.  With Type-0, there was a good story just waiting to be told thanks to Ace, the card-slinging, de facto leader of Class Zero.  His character makes sense, his dilemmas are meaningful, and when he’s actually allowed to take the stage (along with the rest of his regularly-ignored cadets) the game reaches its highest points.  Instead, the story chooses to follow Machina and Rem, to the point where they figure prominently on promotional materials.

If we take that at face value, then Squeenix wants players to identify with Machina.  They want us to feel for this character, and his plight.  I could be jumping to conclusions here, but if that was the intent, then it doesn’t particularly sit right with me.  Think about it: is this the character Squeenix wants people to sympathize with?  Or even worse, Machina is who they think people will sympathize with?  Want to follow?  They expect people to love a guy who’s possessive, antagonistic, gullible, insensitive (even to Rem, given how little he actually talks to her), and just plain stupid?


I know it seems like I’m obsessing too much over the story of a video game, and the medium isn’t exactly the place to go for good narratives.  But setting aside the fact that that’s kind of what I do, it’s worth remembering that Type-0 is an RPG.  It’s part of a genre -- and a franchise -- half-built on telling stories.  And while I’ll gladly concede that the game has some genuinely fun gameplay mechanics (when they’re not impeded by poor design choices), it’s hard to keep having fun when your reward for a downed boss is some of the most asinine story beats ever committed to a disc.

I mean, it’s thanks to characters that we get our viewpoint -- our anchor -- to whatever world we’re experiencing.  But thanks to someone like Machina, the view and scope of Type-0’s Orience gets narrowed to the width of the average straw.  What are the four kingdoms like?  What’s the situation with the war?  What are the people all over saying and feeling?  What sort of personal issues and opinions do the cadets of Class Zero have, considering that they’re child soldiers who act as the lynchpin of the war and by extension change history by dint of their nigh-inhuman abilities?  WHO CARES?!  Machina has to protect Rem!  That’s all that matters!  That’s all the justification he needs for anything!

I don’t know what’s worse -- the fact that someone like Machina exists, or the fact that this isn’t the first time Final Fantasy has done this song and dance.


I’ve argued before, and extensively, that The Lightning Saga’s (*dry heaves*) titular heroine is actually a borderline psychopath -- if only by the sheer level of incompetence that went into creating her.  It’s not often that you get a character with such a severe lack of empathy; Aiden Pearce, Kratos, and Alex Mercer combined couldn’t hope to match her.  Remember, Lightning is a character that not only decided on a whim to kill everyone just because it was her supposed mission, but set the majority of the plot in motion because her sister’s effectively-ruined life was a mild inconvenience for her birthday. 

I’m exaggerating, but only a little bit.

Incidentally, Lightning isn’t the only character in her Saga (*spontaneously gains ulcers*) with a severe lack of empathy.  She plays a big part in degrading games like 13-2, but the one who comes to mind right now is the purple-haired villain Caius -- who is almost exactly like Machina.  He’s out to destroy the very concept of time in his game of origin, but he does what he does in an effort to save his Rem, the young seer Yeul.  At no point in the story does he ever stop to think about how his actions might affect others -- which in all fairness is fine for a villain.  But more importantly, he does awful things ostensibly to protect Yeul, yet he never even stops to ask if Yeul wants protection, or just what she wants in general.  He doesn’t care what she thinks or feels, because he’s so convinced that what he’s doing is right for her.


But Yeul’s not the innocent, pure-hearted waif the game pushes her as, either.  First off, she’s an accomplice to Caius’ acts of chronocide throughout pretty much the whole thing.  That might not be so bad if she wasn’t a seer practically hand-picked to “protect the sanctity of the timeline” or whatever -- which she only does to try and ward off the good guys, while letting Caius destroy time because reasons. 

What really gets to me is that Yeul doesn’t express anything even remotely close to an opinion or a desire through the whole game.  She just stands around looking pretty -- in the sense that she’s typically emotionless and rarely says anything besides cryptic moon-speak -- and goes along with plans that ruin reality for reasons never adequately explained.  Also, she (or versions of her) end up dying anyway, sooooooo…way to be, Caius.


Arguably, you could extend the lack of empathy to a lot of characters (good or evil) in what’s been shown of the Fabula Nova Crystallis project so far.  13-2’s Noel might be trying to do the right thing, but he plays white knight to Yeul -- and Serah, similarly -- without any concern as to what she really wants out of life.  More pressingly, the better part of vanilla 13 is spent slaughtering innocent soldiers who are just trying to do protect their home; by and large, the player ends up proving their paranoia-bred aggression right. 

And even though I haven’t played Lightning Returns (I just know my brother’s going to give it to me as a “birthday present” one of these days), I can’t imagine Lightning caring about anyone except to pay lip service to her as a savior.  Also, I’m pretty sure a subsection of the plot is about how Lightning loses her emotions, so I have my doubts that she cares about anything that doesn’t directly benefit her.  Because that’s who I want to play as.  Someone with no personality, no charisma, and no concern for her fellow men.  It’s all about those little sisters, baby.  Or a facsimile of them.


Maybe I’m reaching here, but my theory is that FF in general has had a problem with empathic characters -- to an extent.  It’s easy for me to dump hate on something like The Lightning Saga (*struggles to stay upright as organs detonate*), but even for a guy like me with only a tangential understanding of the other games, it’s not hard to draw some conclusions.  It’s been a while since I played FF7, but I seem to recall Cloud passionately declaring that he doesn’t care about the planet, the people, or anything else; as a soldier, he’s only in it for the money. 

Squall spends a decent chunk of FF8 treating everyone and everything like an inconvenience.  Tidus of FF10 goes on and on about how it’s his story, even though he’s a guest in a world far bigger and weightier than him.  And it’s my understanding that Cecil of FF4 starts out as a dark knight who does (or at least did do) unspeakable crimes.  It’s almost as if the four warriors of Eight-Bit Theater are secretly the perfect representation of FF heroes -- with “heroes” plastered to an asterisk the size of an RV. 

But here’s the thing: in the case of those older titles, it’s actually all right.  In fact, it’s even fairly appreciable.  And that, dear friends, is because in the best-case scenario, those characters had that magical thing known as an arc.


I fully acknowledge that Tidus isn’t exactly the best character, and that his game isn’t exactly the best.  But there are things about it that I can and will defend.  Yes, the star of the Zanarkand Abes is plenty annoying, loud-mouthed, frequently embarrassing, and undeniably selfish.  He’s so busy worrying about himself, his problems, and his issues that he can’t notice the obvious signs that the people (and the world) around him aren’t in the best state.  But at least he makes the effort.  At least he willingly chooses to become entrenched in the world and its customs.  At least he actively supports the people around him, even beyond his love interest Yuna. 

He’s awkward about pretty much everything he does, and he screws up plenty along the way, but he still makes an effort to not be an asshole.  And he actually realizes at the “big reveal” -- that Yuna’s pilgrimage will end in her arguably-pointless death -- that he’s been an asshole.  He figures out that he’s been selfish, and insensitive, and thick-headed, and tries to do better.  Given how his game ends and what he does to resolve the plot, it’s a far cry from the blitzball ace in the opening hours.


Yes, I brought up Cloud and Squall, but I’m guessing you noticed that I didn’t go into much detail about their lack of empathy -- because their games didn’t, either.  It’s supremely easy to label Squall as the quintessential emo teen and progenitor of angst, but it’s plenty easy to defend him.  Setting aside the fact that he has every reason to lose his empathy (what with being made into a child soldier forced to lose his memories over years of training), he makes an effort to reach out to others in line with his persona and beliefs. 

Even if we ignore his romance with Rinoa and the character development it brings, Squall tried to be something more than just a soldier.  He comforted gunslinger comrade Irvine when he was minutes away from botching an assassination attempt.  He gave a rousing speech to his fellow members of SeeD when it looked like all hope was lost.  Hell, you could even argue that he was the only sane man in a world gone mad, and only took up his gunblade so he could sort out its problems.  You know, with the sorceress threatening to wreak havoc and the monsters from the moon that launch their assault on the planet.  (In hindsight, that game was pretty weird.)


It’s the same for Cloud and Cecil, arguably.  With the former, tragedy and a ghost from the past force Cloud to stop caring about just Cloud and do something that matters -- up to and including saving the world, and not just because that’s what you do in a JRPG.  Meanwhile, I was under the impression that half of the point of FF4 was getting Cecil to go on his redemptive arc and journey -- to stop being an emissary of darkness and transform into a noble Paladin.  But who knows?

Whatever the case, the takeaway from all of this is that characters create opportunities.  They don’t have to be static, and they don’t have to be psychopaths.  But they don’t have to be squeaky-clean heroes, either; it’s more than possible (if not preferable) for them to start in one place but end in another, and are often made stronger because of it.  If a character like Machina or Lightning doesn’t have empathy, then it does more than just make them unlikable or incomprehensible; it limits the playing field of the story, and ends up hurting everything in-universe and out of it. 


BUT the tradeoff is that ignoring that quality -- that lack of empathy -- is just as limiting.  Trying to slot a character like that into the hero position can (and for me, often does) break the entire story, because it’s like trying to twist a screw in with a hammer.  Directly or indirectly, it’s best to own up to a character’s nature rather than pretend like they’re something that they clearly aren’t.  And I say that because I have to make a confession.

One of my favorite TV shows, period, is Everybody Loves Raymond.  I’ve seen practically every episode, and I’ll gladly watch reruns of it without complaint.  It’s a funny show, partly because it owns up to the fact that the Barone family is full of ostensibly-terrible people.  Ray is a selfish, slothful man who puts huge amounts of effort into being even lazier.  His wife Debra becomes more wrathful, bitter, and even unhinged as the show progresses. 

Robert loves playing the martyr, and immediately assumes that little brother Ray is jealous whenever something doesn’t go his way (to project his own corruptive envy on a regular basis).  Frank is a glutton rightfully described as an ogre and a brute.  And Marie might as well be one of the most heinous villains ever committed to fiction, willing and able to exert her control over everyone around her…and she does it with a smile.  As if she doesn’t even know what she does is wrong.

And it’s awesome.


In a way, I suppose what I’m advocating here isn’t so much “have empathic characters” as it is “have self-awareness”.  If your character is an asshole, then fine.  Play to that.  Use the attributes to your advantage.  It’s not a requirement to have an asshole character, by ANY means, but it’s not an instant loss if it does happen.  It can become a boon to those that are willing to mess around with the tools.  For those that aren’t?  For those that would shove “heroes” like Machina in our faces?  Pack up and go home, please.

With all that in mind, there is one more thing I want to say.  Hopefully, I’ve managed to explain well enough how someone can handle a less-than-savory character, and how to avoid it.  But as I said at the start, I put a lot of stock in heroes.  I like the Boy Scout-types, and the paladins, and everything even remotely related to them.  But how do you handle them?  How do you handle guys who are already as good as they can be?

I have a theory.  And with this post down, maybe one day soon I can finally, finally, finally talk about something -- or someone -- I’ve wanted to for at least a year.

But until then?  I don’t know.  We’ll see.  Maybe I’ll go with some weird vampire guy instead. 


Don’t worry.  He’s not as cool as he looks.

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