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July 10, 2017

The Final Final Fantasy (15) -- An End

Sometimes in order to go forward, you have to go backward.

Disagree if you must, but I have to be honest -- with myself, and with anyone who happens to read this post.  Final Fantasy 15 is not a good game.  The gameplay is weak.  The story is weak.  Everything about it suggests two things: that the final product was as mismanaged as you would expect from a 10-year development cycle, and the figureheads at Squeenix have no idea how to even brainstorm a good new Final Fantasy game, let alone make one.  To be clear, I’m making those first two statements based on my experience with the first 15 hours of the game -- and once I hit that mark, I tapped out.  I gave up.

I can’t keep doing this anymore.  I can’t keep dancing in the palm of a company that can’t tell a competent, straightforward story.  Not even amazing; just basic competency.  And since this is a video game we’re talking about, then maybe it could be saved by some stunning action and adventure.  After all, I don’t bemoan the Tekken games for their flagging narratives because their gameplay more than makes up for it.  But FF15 couldn’t fulfill that promise.  It couldn’t even come close.

It’s as if this company has completely forgotten what made it tick once upon a time.

It does beg the question, though: what did I expect?  Why did I even bother when it seemed like a foregone conclusion?  The short answer is that FF15 represented a sort of final hope -- the pivot that would decide whether the franchise could grow and survive, or would continue its long since-confirmed stagnation and decay.  Deep down, I wanted to believe that all it would take to bounce back from the dreaded Lightning Saga was a fresh start.  Given that it went from Versus 13 to 15, I thought that that meant something substantial.

It didn’t.  It was just a stopgap effort -- a way to make headlines and promises alike.  I may never know how much or how little of the original Versus 13 hides inside 15’s crumbling shell, but I’m inclined to believe that it was the worst of both worlds.  Pull from the old era, and you run into the utter madness and contrivances of The Lightning Saga.  Pull from the new era, and you bloat your title with blandness and every conceivable detail obscured by miasma.  They needed a fresh start, yet all they did was spray some perfume on a bunch of month-old bananas.

For me, FF is over.  I wanted to believe, and I got smacked in the face for my effort.  For my faith.  But again, I should have known better.  I should have expected nothing less than abject disappointment.  So why did I go back to the well?  Why did I even think about giving the game a shot, given the foregone conclusion?  Why is it that I couldn’t quit this company -- and arguably STILL can’t quit it until the release of Kingdom Hearts III?  The simple, obvious answer is probably one that a lot of people would admit to, and gleefully.

Once upon a time, Final Fantasy meant something to me.  Something that I’m only just now realizing.

If it wasn’t for Final Fantasy -- FF7 being a notable example, though 8 is just as valid -- I might never have wanted to be a writer, AKA the dream that I’ve held in my heart to this day.  I’ve said as much before, as embarrassing as it is to admit.  What kind of idiot derives his hopes and ambitions from a boxy-modeled, unevenly-translated role-playing game that would crash on a whim if you tried to use one of Cid’s limit breaks?  And you know what?  That’s a fair question to ask.  It’s not as if I owe everything that I am to Squaresoft’s long-released title; it’s one influence, not the main one.  But it came to me at exactly the right time, and gave me exactly the message I needed to hear.

So here’s the thing about me: I’ve always been an overachiever.  Always doing more work than necessary, even if (especially if) it’s to my detriment.  I can’t help myself.  If there’s work or a task put in front of me, I feel like I can’t be satisfied until it’s done 100% thoroughly, and 100% perfectly.  I guess in a way, you can think of me as a workaholic -- and worse yet, someone who’s willing to obsess over tiny details and slight issues for no reason.  Paradoxically, that tends to lead to me making bigger mistakes elsewhere (namely in the amount of time I spend on something).  But yes, I have tunnel vision that makes me rigidly zero in on one thing, and to hell with everything else.  I’ve been like that since elementary school.  You know -- the place where I should’ve been more content with playing tag and gliding down slides.

School was…stressful for me, to say the least.  As you can imagine, I was an A student.  Was that because of natural talent, of inherent intelligence?  I don’t know.  But I’d imagine that it had more to do with the amount of work I put in -- and more importantly, my abject fear of achieving anything less than the highest grades possible.  I’ve legitimately risked getting hit by cars because I was too busy brooding over Bs (and god forbid, Cs) while crossing the street.  On some level, I was convinced that I had to get As simply because I was me.  Because that was what people expected from me.  The pressure from the outside was unspoken, but ever-present; what might have been a throwaway line spoken by people nearest to me ended up becoming something that would keep me up at night, or wake me up hours before my alarm clock would go off.

Succeeding in school was a way to secure my pride, but it was also a way to make sure I met everyone’s expectations of me.  When you’re smart -- when you’re a part of the “gifted and talented” camp for as long as you can remember, and dropped into all of the special schools and classes -- you have to prove that as many times as you can, whenever you can.  Parents will prop you up as their golden boy.  Teachers will nod knowingly at you.  Peers will come to you for answers or advice.  Everyone, everywhere, will count on you.  It doesn’t matter how old you are, or what grade you’re in.  When people see you as a genius -- a genius, instead of a person -- you have to turn their ideals and perceptions into reality.  If you don’t, you’re not a genius.  You’re nothing.

Nothing was ever done on my terms.  That was true before I even hit middle school; I got shuffled into every special class along the way, because I was me and therefore I could (supposedly) do everything without flinching.  But even if I wasn’t, the weight of school -- of academia, of curricula, of expectations -- pressed down on me.  When I was in second or third grade (certainly before the halfway point of third), my school kept pushing this program called the “New Standards”.  In hindsight, it was probably nothing special in terms of mental stress or tests of knowledge; just a fancy way of convincing the district that kids were getting a top-notch education -- and preparing for state-wide tests, a HUGE factor in many a teacher’s lesson plan -- by upping the intensity on math, English, and the like.  So before long, it wasn’t enough to solve math problems correctly; you had to solve math problems, and then write five to eight paragraphs explaining the reasoning behind it.

Maybe that wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t found my personal release -- if I hadn’t awoken to a passion I didn’t even know I had.  Third grade for me saw the rise of the New Standards in full, but there was still a gap; alongside the rest of my class, I got the chance to make my own, personal, original story.  And I indulged.  As did everyone else, given that we had three opportunities to do so throughout the year.  But I got a kick out of it, and pushed nearly 20 pages each time when everyone else was content with a quarter of that (and this being third grade, you could get away with doodles taking up half the page). 

Granted I took heat the first time out because I basically wrote Sonic fanfiction -- unaware of the marvels of copyright infringement -- but after that, I worked exclusively on original content.  And it was amazing.  I never knew how much I could learn to love writing about cows going to space -- complete with full-on training montages and veteran bovine astronauts -- or cockatoo mechanics getting their hands on secret formulas to turn cars into Mach-speed machines.  (Weirdly, that stuff is less bizarre than what I’ve planned now.)

So yeah, I had fun.  The problem is that over the next three years, that was almost exclusively all the fun I got to have.

I was denied my release, again and again.  I never got to experience the joys of creative writing -- at least, not without drastically bending the rules -- until the very last gasps of fifth grade.  Everything after that was focused solely on making sure that we elementary schoolers were made into scholars.  I mean that quite literally, because I was in a program where anything from uncouth statements to trains of thought were called out as being “not scholarly behavior”.  And sure, I get the intent; better to have an educated youth than a tiny imbecile.  But you know what?  If I had to guess, I’d say that a lot of people out there -- across the age spectrum -- would have no problems admitting that they hate or hated school.  I wouldn’t blame them at all.  Not when so much of it is devoted to aggressively pushing standards and agendas that could break the minds of would-be lights of the future.

And I say as much because, honestly?  I think I actually did start to break; I was certainly on the cusp of it in the early years, but I either stayed on that level or degraded as time went on.  When I was ten years old, I would get so frazzled and frustrated by the work -- especially when I didn’t have an answer, or screwed up too hard -- that I actually started getting terrible migraines.  It got so bad that my parents thought there was something wrong with me, and took me to get a CAT scan.  Near as I can tell, there wasn’t anything wrong.  So I guess I assumed that I was being a big crybaby about it, and needed to hunker down.  I needed to work harder.  Do better.

So I did, even if it meant countless tears shed.  Even if it meant panic attacks that got so bad they left me hyperventilating.  Even if it meant getting up before sunrise, with hands that shook for hours at a time.  Even if it meant dealing with a nervous twitch for the back half of my middle school years.  Even if it meant homework well into the night, and sacrificing dozens of lunch breaks to study in the library.  Even if it meant trips to the counselors’ office to try and keep “such a good student” from falling apart.  Everything I did was worth it if it meant getting those As.  Every sacrifice was worth it so I could live up to the expectations of others.  So I could do what I was meant to do.

In that sense, a lot of the particulars around school became painful for me -- painful, stressful, and always forcing me to walk on the razor’s edge.  Even something as simple and rewarding as reading a book threatened to become my noose.  I couldn’t just grab something that caught my eye and disappear into another world; I had to worry about book reports, reading comprehension tests, and meeting massive quotas or suffer a failing grade. 

It wasn’t enough to enjoy books for what they were, or the stories they wanted to tell.  I had to pore over everything, analyze everything, review everything, reason everything.  It was all in service of the next class, the next assignment, the next test, and the next grade.  What should have been a relaxing, revelatory pastime all too often became a way for school -- for the phantoms within and without -- to keep their chains wrapped around me.  For someone who distorted “overachieving” into “the bare minimum needed”, I needed something else.  I needed an escape -- something that no one could touch, in a realm far beyond that of overshadowing grades and grinning onlookers.

And I found that.  On one hand, I found writing.  On the other, I found video games.

I found Final Fantasy.

It was thanks to FF7 and FF8 that I had my mind opened -- that I saw a new, infinite world of freedom waiting to be explored.  That world wasn’t real, of course, but it could be made real.  It could feel real, with the right moves and elements.  Brave heroes.  Dastardly villains.  Sprawling worlds.  Epic adventures.  Action-packed battles.  Those games -- and indeed, plenty more -- let me see the soul that storytelling could offer.  And in turn, I felt my soul resonate.  I was inspired.  I had a newfound lust for infinity, of the potential that could shake a heart right out of the body.

There was a time when I told people -- teachers, parents, and everyone who would ask -- that I wanted to be an architect when I grew up.  I’m pretty sure there are still people out there who believe that I went down that path.  But I didn’t.  Instead of getting in deeper with math, engineering, and computer-aided design, I worked in secret on my own stories.  Inevitably, they were heavily inspired by JRPG fare -- probably to their detriment, given that they borrowed gameplay mechanics wholesale.  But even if I started off with an idiot’s view of what makes a story good, I still took the key lessons to heart.

I was trapped.  I couldn’t have broken free of my bonds, and my prison, even if I tried.  But even if someone had locked me up and thrown out the key, I didn’t need to escape.  I could still stay right there and imagine what I wanted, and create what I wanted, and reach that infinite world I so desired.  I could stand shoulder to shoulder with my inspirations -- with my heroes -- and make something on my own terms.  If I wanted my freedom, and my hope, and my happiness, I only had to do one thing.  I had to write.  And write.  And write, and write, and write, and write.

I had seen what my heroes had done for me.  And because of it, I wanted to make heroes of my own.  I wanted to be a hero.

I still do.  Because my heroes are dead.

Sometimes I can’t believe that Final Fantasy has reached this state -- if not objectively, then at least on a personal level.  The lord of JRPGs, the franchise of franchises, has to spend a decade to maybe reach the level of basic competency.  And to what end?  To pretend like it still rules the roost?  Dozens of JRPGs have come out in the time between Versus 13’s announcement and 15’s release; while not all of them have been winners, there’s still a decidedly high number of them that are.  Acting like those don’t count when there’s overwhelming evidence to the contrary smacks of idiocy of the highest caliber.

And here’s the kicker: it’s because of that huge swath of time -- and everything before, and everything after -- that I’m still here today, pursuing my dream.  There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, and so much to prove to a world so eager to give in to despair and resist the tides of change.  But it’s not something I have to do. It’s something I want to do -- that I want to do -- so that I can keep the cycle of heroes, inspiration, and hope spiraling on.  No matter how bad things have gotten, and no matter how much pain I’ve faced, I’ve still had heroes who continue to guide me, and show what can be done with that infinite world.

Yes, Final Fantasy inspired me to be a writer.  But Persona inspired me to be a good writer.

Yes, I owe a lot to Persona 5.  I owe a lot to Persona 4.  I owe a lot to Persona 3.  To Lost Odyssey.  To Baten Kaitos.  To Baten Kaitos Origins.  To Dragon Quest VIII.  To Kingdom Hearts.  To Eternal Sonata.  To Mana Khemia 2.  To Ni no Kuni.  To Xenoblade Chronicles.  To Xenoblade Chronicles X.  To Devil Survivor.  To Devil Survivor 2.  To The World Ends with You.  To Pokémon Black.  To Pokémon Moon.  To Etrian Odyssey III.  To nearly every single Tales game that’s released in the west.  To more JRPGs than I can even list in a single paragraph.  To more games than I can even list in a single paragraph.

I’ve seen the soul of those games.  I’ve felt it -- and because of it, I’ve felt something in me.  When I play FF15, I don’t feel anything anymore.  Nothing positive, at least.  On a good day I might not feel anything negative -- but then again, I’m at risk of feeling pure emptiness if I turn the game on again for another session.  And yes, I would love for the franchise to be back.  I’d be back on board if FF16 turns out to be the true fresh start, one that discards all of the foibles and vices Squeenix has cultivated for years.  But as long as they’re willing to scamper back to the safety of the past, even if they can’t reclaim it -- as long as they’re willing to turn their backs on infinity -- then I have no faith in them.  Final Fantasy and I, as far as I can tell, don’t have a future together.

But that’s fine.  I just have to make my own.

You would think that making such a declaration and forgoing a seminal part of my psyche would leave me a broken mess, ready and waiting to drown my sorrows.  But I’m not.  As I sit here and type this, my eyes are bone dry.  I don’t feel bad about saying goodbye to Final Fantasy, at least on a deeper level.  I guess I already knew that I’d come to this conclusion, even if I hadn’t really admitted it in writing.  At least, not recently.  I’m pretty sure I did the same thing with 13-2 and Type-0, but those were both predicated on the promise of 15 being good.  Since it’s not, it’s time to let it go.

So I have.  When it comes to FF15 -- and all future FF games, at least for now -- I’m walking away.  I have better games to play.  More importantly, I have better things to write.  I’ve got a manuscript that needs tending to, and the sooner I finish that, the sooner I can fulfill my dream.  And also, push the dream project I’ve had in my heart since I was 11, and is in no small part influenced by Power Rangers shenanigans.  It’ll be a fun story, I think.  A lot of people might enjoy it.

And that’s where I stand.  Once again, I’m walking away from future FF games.  But with that said?  Read that last sentence again.

I’m walking away from future FF games.  Why?  Simple.

Sometimes in order to go forward, you have to go backward.

See you soon.

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