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March 21, 2016

On Final Fantasy and Lost Empathy -- ACT II


I don’t want to risk slotting into the hole of “the Final Fantasy guy”, because that’s a hard hole to escape from.  Also, I’m seriously not equipped for it; I haven’t even played half of the main games in the franchise, after all.  Even then, you could still argue that I haven’t played that many -- depending on how you feel about some of the modern installments, i.e. entries in the so-called Lightning Saga and Final Fantasy Type-0.  Still, a franchise as famous as Final Fantasy can bore a squishy nook into any gamer’s brain.  As parasitic worms would.  Probably.

In any case, my backlog reaches into the heavens, and one of those games happens to be Final Fantasy 10.  Granted I’d already finished it at least once before, but I thought I’d have a look at it to see how it held up.  That’s becoming an increasingly-lower priority, since the Best Friends Zaibatsu started an LP of the game; naturally, I’ve been following it as closely as I can.  They’re playing through it so I don’t have to.  And as a result, I’ve come to a shocking conclusion.

I think I like Tidus.  I think I like Tidus now more than I ever did -- and he’s at risk of becoming my favorite Final Fantasy lead.


Let me back up and say that, speaking personally, I never had a problem with Tidus.  I never had a problem with FF10 in general.  I know that some people do, and I understand why.  Some of the plot beats are “iffy”.  The growing pains of transitioning to hardware with voice acting and full animations are so palpable that they might as well be tattooed to my face.  There’s some stuff in there that’s cringe-inducing, without question -- such as pretty much everything related to Seymour.

But as I’ve said before, the main character defines a story -- whether that story’s a game or otherwise.  Sure enough, Tidus’ role as the leading man is a major point of contention (especially since he could just be the audience surrogate, and Yuna’s actually the main character).  We’ve all heard the jokes and complaints by now, I bet.  “He looks like Meg Ryan!”  “His clothes are dumb!”  “He’s whiny and annoying!”  “He’s always crying about his dad!”  And so on, and so forth.  Again, I understand why people might have a problem with him; I’d call him “an acquired taste”, but that would imply the average person could open their hearts to a water polo ace wearing asymmetrical lederhosen.

If I had to sum it up right here, I’d say that Tidus is a dumb, goofy, awkward, embarrassing, groan-inducing doofus of a hero.  And yet, that might be the entire point. 


For the uninitiated: Tidus is the “star of the Zanarkand Abes”, i.e. a blitzball player in a futuristic city.  He’s in the middle of a game when it falls prey to an attack by Sin, a massive devil-whale capable of wreaking havoc with a sneeze.  Despite his best efforts, Tidus can’t escape Sin’s grasp, and gets sucked into it -- and ends up a thousand years in the future, in the tech-deprived world of Spira.  Lost and alone, he decides that the only chance he’s got at success is to act as a guardian for the summoner, Yuna -- so named because she’s on a religious pilgrimage to gain power and defeat Sin.

I suppose this veers into Spoiler Valley, Wyoming, but things get very personal for Tidus very quickly.  I’ll get back to that in a bit, but for now?  It’s worth mentioning upfront that my perception of the game might be a little jaded.  Like I said, I’m watching the Best Friends LP of the game, and to say it’s been a laugh riot so far would be an understatement the size of Europa.  But while there’s plenty to laugh about (commentary or otherwise), I genuinely think there’s a lot to like about Tidus.


He’s long since been convicted of the heinous crime of “the laughing scene”, which -- as you know -- cements him as history’s greatest monster.  But there’s more to him than that.  He’s dumb, no question, but his energy levels and gusto are infectious.  Even though he’s out of his element, he at least tries to interact with people well beyond him -- learning about and respecting cultures, trying to bond with races that he can’t even properly understand, and beyond that?  He just tries to be the nicest guy he can be.  He screws up and makes a fool out of himself on a freakishly-regular basis, but the important thing is that he tries.

Nowhere is this clearer to me than his relationship with Yuna -- and I mean relationship.  With so much time since my last playthrough, I had long since started working under the assumption that Tidus and Yuna get together just ‘cause.  You know the drill: two attractive people of similar ages get together, and you can count down the seconds until they’re joined at the lips and/or hips.  That’s not to say the love story here doesn’t have that inevitability -- we’re not exactly talking about high art here -- but what’s interesting is that again and again, Tidus puts in the work to build a bond with Yuna.


Yuna may have known most of her other guardians for a good while, but she forms the closest attachment to Tidus.  He gets closer to her thanks to his outgoing nature and general cheer, and pulls the overly-polite summoner out of her shell bit by bit.  By treating her like a person, her pilgrimage gets closer and closer to her ideal: one filled with smiles and laughter, instead of everybody keeping the “Lady Summoner” at arms’ length.  Of course, Tidus gets someone to connect with as well; it’s thanks to her that he comes to understand Spira and the people in it, and as such matures throughout the adventure -- even if it’s by virtue of staring death in the face.

What I’m getting at here is that FF10 -- with its lead, its romance, and with the game in general -- feels decidedly honest.  The lovebirds don’t go from zero to face-sucking because that’s what they’re supposed to do; they do it over the course of hours of game time.  As the days and weeks pass in-universe (well, presumably weeks), Tidus and Yuna laugh, chat, bond, find common ground, disagree, support, chide, and more.  The lady plays a role in that, but it’s the leading man who sparks it.  But whether it’s one or both, throughout scattered scenes or the game in general, Tidus establishes himself through countless moments of awkwardness, buffoonery, and general goofiness.  In a way, it’s what makes him charismatic.

But you know what the best part about Tidus is?  The game hates him.


Matt said it best during an early instance in the game: “The game is burying Tidus for us!”  A whole room full of athletes groaning at the sight of him is hardly the only instance, though; he gets shoved around, carried like a sack of flour, shown off as a clumsy weakling, made an example of (especially in the face of the significantly-cooler swordsman Auron), and generally treated more like an inconvenience than one of Yuna’s guardians.  He kind of invites pity by way of choking on food and challenging prospective blitzball champions on behalf of a team that hasn’t won in decades, but it’s impossible to deny the truth.  Even if any given gamer has enough justification to poke fun at a guy like Tidus, FF10 beat them to the punch at its inception.  By design.  The minds at Squaresoft wanted to make an example out of their “hero”.

Well, I say “hero”, but is there anything else Tidus could be?  He’s certainly no villain.  He’s wrapped up in someone else’s quest, culture, and world, for sure, but he’s still a proactive member of the cast.  It’s thanks to his place as an outsider that he’s able to poke holes in the dogma that condemns Spira to an endless cycle of death.  Even before that, he’s still trying to do the right thing, be there for others, and better himself -- all while dealing with some personal issues.


I’ve heard that Jecht is a really popular character -- and I can see why, given his stint in Dissidia.  Still, even if nothing is directly stated (as far as I know) the original game paints Jecht in a really dark light.  Despite being a star blitzball player, Jecht doesn’t share the wealth with his family.  Kid Tidus calls him out for his alcoholism, the missus is constantly crying, and Jecht has no problems dishing out the verbal and emotional abuse -- maybe even physical, at least potentially.  He’s the man responsible for making Tidus live in a broken home.  Such an awesome character, right?

To be fair, it’s not as if Jecht is a total monster.  The spheres littered throughout FF10 show the man in a different light; he’s capable of being a loyal friend to Braska and Auron, even if he’s still rough around the edges.  He’s capable of being kind and noble, and he genuinely does care about Tidus -- even if he wasn’t always the best at showing it.  Still, I can’t help but sympathize with -- and align with -- Tidus on this one.  Disagree if you will, but I’d say Tidus has every right to “whine” about his dad when he’s stuck in the shadow of the idealized manly-man (and secretly abusive patriarch).  And then things only get worse when he’s dragged into another world, and he’s in his father’s shadow even more by virtue of him becoming the oceanic embodiment of doomsday.

I think we can cut him a little slack, is what I’m trying to say here.


Interestingly, Tidus’ story elements tie into his gameplay elements.  That’s kind of a given when your game has a blitzball player who fights with a blitzball, but it’s no less noteworthy.  Thanks to FF10’s systems, each character has specifically-defined roles, so that you can get Pokémon-style type advantages going pretty quickly.  So Tidus’ advantage is that he’s one of the faster members of the cast -- able to lead the charge, and jump in first, and meet the challenge of the enemies’ swiftest head-on. 

Additionally, he’s a pretty good support unit.  He’s able to take advantage of the turn-based mechanics to delay enemy turns, and use some white magic to increase the number of turns his pals can get (which more or less makes him invaluable, unless you send the party into different sectors of the Sphere Grid).  There’s also the matter of one of the very first moves you can unlock: a buff that increases the strength and defense of the three units on the field.  What’s the name of the buff?  Cheer.  Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.


I guess what I’m getting at here is that, even though I was all right with Tidus before, I actually like him a lot more nowadays.  I can appreciate him, and see the merit -- see why people who love the game to this day have every reason to do so.  Yeah, FF10 has its faults, but any good product can overcome them with its strengths.  So while Tidus is a character that’s a far cry from cool, he’s still someone that it’s more than possible to care about.  And I do.  I care about him, his quest, and his plight.  He’s a character with empathy that makes me feel empathy.

So I have to ask: what the fuck happened to Final Fantasy?

All right, let’s be real for a second.  Obviously, I’m of the opinion that some of the modern-day FF games are unthinkably awful.  But putting the “modern” moniker into perspective, what does that mean?  The official, numbered releases after 10 -- as of writing -- are 11, 12, 13, and 14.  Two of those games are MMOs.  One came out in 2006, while the other came out in 2010.  We’re still waiting for the next official entry, as if the bearer of the fateful 15 is some mark of legitimacy and prestige.


You could argue that it kind of skews the perspective here.  Fans starved for the FF brand have had to nibble on spinoff games and the occasional sequel.  So off the top of my head, that includes Crystal Chronicles, Crystal Bearers, Dirge of Cerberus, Crisis Core, 13-2, Lightning Returns, and most recently (in the States, at least) Type-0

How many of those games are good?  It’s hard to say with absolute certainty, especially with that wretched thing we call free will, but I’m under the impression that Crisis Core’s the best of the bunch.  Chronicles and Bearers are pretty marked departures, especially since the former notoriously required a sprawling nexus of cables and GBAs to do what Smash Bros. did a generation earlier.  Dirge of Cerberus has Gackt, and…well, I’m sure that counts for something.


We could argue all day and all night about where the franchise’s problems started, but I don’t think anyone’s going to fight me on the claim that this whole Fabula Nova Crystallis project has been on shaky ground since day one.  Even if it’s not the start of the decline, it’s certainly helped cement it; whether it’s the meme-born complaints that “13 is a straight line from start to finish” or “Squeenix keeps shoving Lightning in everything”, or the general issues of “the story makes no sense” and “it’s all just emo angst”, the franchise has a serious image problem.  It’s had that problem since 13, at a bare minimum -- and it’s a problem that Squeenix couldn’t wipe away, even with two unexpected sequels.

One of my biggest personal problems with the so-called Lightning Saga -- and Type-0, maybe even more so -- is that the games constantly asked us to care about the plight of people who didn’t deserve a second glance.  People call Tidus annoying, whiny, and stupid, but he was barely a taste of what was to come.  I mean, at least his dumbness doesn’t actively empower the villains or threaten the fabric of reality itself.  But here we are regardless. 


The characters in the Fabula Nova Crystallis project are the biggest threat the world faces.  The six “heroes” of vanilla 13 (after wandering aimlessly for dozens of hours) do exactly what the main villain wants them to do, even though they have no plan and only succeed because of what’s almost literally a deus ex machina. 

Then 13-2 introduces time travel, which leads to a sequence where Serah -- instead of traveling to a different era and warning Hope not to build a biomechanical god that’ll ruin the future -- decides that the best course of action is to whine with such utter ferocity that it distorts time and space and changes the past from the future.  Type-0 has the most insincere and asinine “romance” I’ve ever seen, one that ends in a “tragedy” so bafflingly stupid that it qualifies as a hate crime.

It’s fine, though.  It leads to an ending that very nearly gave me a brain aneurysm.


Actions and motivations in the modern FF games don’t make sense, and it leads to the worst possible situations.  I’m supposed to care about these characters, but I can’t even begin to connect with characters whose thought processes are more alien than a lobotomized xenomorph.  It’s not just about them being idiots, either -- though that plays into it.  Their plights don’t make sense, either; Lightning runs out to save her sister, even though she cast her out under the pretense that her unmistakable brand of doom was all a ruse to marry Snow?  And then when Lightning herself gets branded, she decides on a whim to kill everyone because a hazy image told her to? 

And she can’t even follow through on that because a fourteen-year-old offhandedly mentioned pets, which made her experience a life-altering epiphany?  So the crux of her character arc is that she’s convinced she’s a tool for destruction, and…that’s what Serah needed most in her life?  But then when Serah did one thing that Lightning didn’t approve of, she -- as the elder sister -- immediately made her run off into the night, necessitating a dumbass rescue mission in the first place? 


I’ve already gone on at length about the foibles of these games, so I’ll keep things short here.  The important thing is that they’re trying so very hard to create dramas requiring investment and gravitas and empathy, but they’re failing incredibly hard because their “stories” are filled with crazed moon-people.  (This might be a Squeenix problem instead of purely a FF problem, given that Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep had one of its leads being dumb enough to trust every Disney villain without a second thought).  I’m not saying I need perfect characters.  Nor am I saying that I need super-intelligent characters, or characters that have altruism bursting out of every orifice.  But god damn, we shouldn’t have had to go through at least half a decade of shlock.

People haven’t been left confused and stupefied by modern FF games just because they toss around words like l’Cie and fal’Cie (and THAT system’s a hassle in its own right).  They were left confused because there was nothing to latch onto -- no one to latch onto.  With the exception of Sazh, maybe, the characters are swirling whirlpools of drama without the foundation needed to form a connection.  Their archetypes, and exaggerated ones at that, might as well be the entirety of their characters -- especially in Type-0’s case, since that game couldn’t even be arsed to develop its cast.  I can form a bond with plenty of characters in plenty of stories (someday, I’ll have to talk about Who Killed Captain Alex?), but I’ve got nothing to give for characters who demand empathy while showing none in return.


Watching that LP made one thought come to mind again and again: “Oh man, Squeenix would never let that shit fly today.”  Like I said, Tidus is a goof who’s constantly mistreated, shunned, and practically bullied.  He’s awkward and cringe-inducing, but given how hard the game slams him, I’d say that’s 100% intentional.  Conversely, when does Lightning ever get slammed?  When does she ever get mistreated, or mocked, or made an example of?  When do we ever get to see her flaws or failings -- not the issues with her character, but how she stumbles from day to day?  Is she even capable of stumbling?  When is she allowed to be anything but “cool”?  When she’s complaining about Snow behind his back?

Think of it this way.  It’s true that in both their games’ starting FMVs, it’s shown how cool they are.  Tidus gets to be a blitzball ace, while Lighting launches her one-woman assault against the soldiers on that train.  But after that, what happens?  Tidus is completely out of his element, in the midst of an enemy attack and expected to use a sword Auron pulled from out of nowhere…and proceeds to wave it around like a flyswatter (which to be fair was against bugs the size of huskies). 

Lightning’s first enemy is a massive scorpion mech with buzzsaw hands and giant laser cannon, and she proceeds to dispatch it without breaking a sweat.  And yeah, she’s a trained soldier, but she’s still taking Proton Cannons to the face and carving up doom-machines with a dinky little sword.  And bear in mind that happens hours before she gets her powers -- and she lives in a world where having magic powers is a no-no, so what the hell?  I call shenanigans.


But like I said, Tidus has more going for him than being the butt of every joke.  He has the traits of a hero, which I can personally appreciate.  More importantly, he has the traits of a character, and a fleshed-out one, at that.  He isn’t just the one thing and only allowed to be the one thing.  He’s usually flexible enough to suit the situation, and contributes something by design.  Again, his awkwardness is intentional as a way to humanize him.  And because he’s flawed, he’s able to draw out emotion.  Empathy, even, both from his history and his journey.

In all fairness, the question of empathy isn’t just a Final Fantasy problem, or even a Squeenix problem.  True, the so-called Lightning Saga is indicative of a lot of problems -- a sort of guide on how NOT to write a story -- but going forward, games need to put up a better effort to present characters that are deserving of adoration and empathy.  It can’t be programmed in, and it sure as hell can’t be pulled from the audience just because all of the elements are there.  I mean, just look at Hope from vanilla 13; he saw his mom die right in front of him, but the popular opinion on his lasting legacy will probably be “whiny emo kid”.  That probably wasn’t the authorial intent.  People aren’t willing to let low-quality appeals slide when they know A) they’re being duped, and B) there’s much better out there.  In the face of The Witcher 3 and the Bloody Baron quest, the game has evolved.  Everyone needs to step up.


But going back to Final Fantasy, I don’t think it’s a lost cause.  The franchise marches on, and 15 presents a chance at a fresh start -- assuming that this is the game where they drop that l’Cie garbage, at least.  15 is worrisome in its own right, because in the worst case scenario it’s been through almost a decade of rewrites and the final product is a hodgepodge of barely-connected beats.  But you know what?  I’ve actually got hope that the next game will be a return to form.  I could be proven HORRIBLY wrong, but let’s not act like the potential isn’t there.

I’m not expecting a Tidus-level goofball, but I don’t need one.  The idea of a road trip with Noctis and three of his pals is an interesting one, rife with potential and the chance for some good synergy between characters.  (Maybe I’m in the minority here, but Prompto was my favorite of the bunch in the Duscae demo.)  It’ll take more than a bunch of bros to make the game good, for sure, but if the commitment is there -- if Squeenix extends that level of connection to as many elements of the story as possible -- then there’s hope yet.  It all depends on whether or not the franchise, and the company at large, opts to make more than just things to be sorry for.

They did it once.  They can do it again.


Yep.  They sure did do a thing.

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