Trick to make me write #2,147: strand me at a carwash for an hour with an iPhone and no earbuds.I’ve been continuing to play FFXIII, and I find my disdain lessening as time goes by. It will probably never eclipse FFVI (which, as previously noted, will always be to me FFIII—I realize this is incorrect, but it is a mistake tied closely to my identity), but that’s not really 13’s fault. None of the FF games I’ve played since 6 have felt adequate.1 Part of it is the beautiful graphics that Squeenix has always aspired to—in 6, the SNES’s highly-touted and rarely used Mode 7 makes not one but two appearances2. The switch from top-down to isometric made the games harder to navigate, and moving from place to place became a more visible process. I’d never run into walls before, or misinterpreted a texture for a door, but starting in 7, this happened all the time. (Since 8, my dad has referred to the FF series as “those walking games.”)
I’m not sure when this came about, but the advent of human voices in the game also takes away. The midi-synth madness of SNES soundtracks was tragically sad, I admit, but those moments when 6 gave me voices are still with me, a dozen years later. Celes/Maria’s aria. Kefka’s laugh. They didn’t sound human, but they sounded like they mattered.
In 13, the voicework is, to my ear, ridiculous. Sometimes, the (mostly American-sounding) voice actors seem painfully aware of how awkward their lines sound.3 Snow is particularly intolerable. He sounds like he was written by Hiro Nakamura. (“Heroes don’t rest. Heroes hero heroically. Hero!). This I survive by observing that everyone in the party obviously calls him “Hero” as a matter of sarcastic derision, by pretending that this reflects on the actor, rather than the character, and by imagining that the rest of the cast took advantage of this extensively. (“Hey, guy who voices Snow, will you rescue my dry cleaning?” “Oh, no! My car has been attacked by filth! Save it, guy who plays Snow!) It’s pretty ferociously unpleasant, to be sure, but I can live with bad dialogue.
What irks me about the voicework is its ubiquity. In the most somber moments, my party sounds like a team of out-of-work foley artists auditioning to do backup for Bobby McFerrin. It’s like someone told the director he didn’t have to pay for tape, and so he decided to use as much as he could.
“Uaoh?” says Sazh, looking up.
“Hnk,” comments Lightning, climbing a stair.
“Aaa-aah,” wonders Hope, peering out a window.
“Herrrk,” declares Snow, blinking.
Every operation has its accompanying vocal emission, so that in intimate, in dramatic, in terrifying, in life-threatening moments, I’m constantly jerked out of what’s happening by Vanille’s “Woo-oh-aaohh?” of awe. (I can’t stop picturing the director, keeping each actor for hours after the lines are recorded, interrogating: “He’ll nod his head. What sound would Hope make when he nods his head?” “Wouldn’t he just nod? Like, quietly?” “Don’t be silly, EVERYBODY makes a noise when they nod.”)4
It’s the gameplay, which I guess is what matters, that is beginning to impress me, though. What I remember about 6 was remembering. My two favorite characters—Sabin and Cyan5—were absolutely useless without memorization. Sabin’s Blitz ability required you to memorize gamepad gestures; Cyan’s Swordtech counted up from 1-8—with each number doing something completely different. Past that, you had to remember weaknesses, which were often obvious but sometimes completely unintuitive (Ghosts, for instance, both used and were weak against fire magic). Characters had roles, but you could customize them to the extreme—to the degree that, if you spent enough time6, every character could know every spell. And because every character was customizable, by the end of the game, everything seemed very samey. Attacked by Necromancers? Cyan, Locke, and Celes all cast Fire 3, and Sabin does his Fire Dance. Repeat until dead. (Later, every character would cast Ultima, except for whoever had the Gem Box, who would cast Ultima twice.)
What I like about FFXIII’s combat is that everything is dynamic. At first, I was totally put off by the idea of “Auto-Battle,” which I thought took all of the complexity out of the fight. As I’ve played, though, I’ve realized that it’s not about knowing which particular ability is appropriate for which context—though you can still play like that if you want—it’s about knowing how to manipulate Roles and Paradigms. Imagine it like this: think about a group in WoW, only each character can/should respec three or four times in the course of a fight, and every class is a hybrid. This intrigues me—it’s not about knowledge, it’s about awareness—knowing what’s happening, and what responses will be most appropriate.7 Context and situation interact with the scope of each character’s abilities, and so combat becomes a matter of constant decision-making. This feels more complex than combat in 6 was.
It feels more like thinking.
11aMy history with the Final Fantasy series is, I realized recently, almost obscenely weird, and reveals certain absurdist inconsistencies in my core values. It goes like this: it’s been a long while since I played a Final Fantasy game, despite my love of the series, because I until this year did not own a PS2. My reasons were not technological but political: I refused to buy a PS2 because I was personally offended by Square’s late-nineties decision to abandon Nintendo for Sony. As a result, all of my PS2 experiences have been secondhand. I gave up every GTA game since the GTA2 (the top-down shooter that more or less nobody remembers) for this conviction. I missed the God of War games, and the chance to play Shadow of the Colossus when it still meant something. And I missed all of the PS2 FF games. I remember watching friends playing FFX-2 (which numenclature I was baffled by), and marveling at the combat and character progression systems. I have no idea what happened in FFX, or XI or XII, although I seem to recall that one of them was an MMO. I made up for it by watching The Spirits Within incessantly.
It wasn’t until recently, when explaining to someone why I was only now getting a PS3, that I realized the fundamental absurdity of this: I did own an original Playstation, on which I played FFVII-IX. AND, to further undermine my politics, I never owned a N64 either, and so could have played none of those games had Square stuck with Nintendo.
In short, I am extremely stubborn, and I am an idiot.
1a You will observe that I footnote extensively. I am not David Foster Wallace—you can tell by how I’m not dead, not a genius, and not (at least I hope) intolerably pretentious—but I do have ADD, and footnotes give me a place to stow my digressions when my brain wanders off.2 My second most prominent Mode 7 memory comes from this game I’m embarrassed to have played. Which I guess says something about the prominence of the technology.
3 “Moms are tough!”
4 My suspicion is that all of these problems are products of translation. The game’s language is more or less okay, and the accents are all good—in that way, it’s a good translation. My inference is that games translated from Japanese (and sometimes even those written in English by a Japanese writer for an American audience) reveal certain cultural incompatibilities in the way conversation happens.4a (That is, perhaps there’s some Japanese geek blogger furiously opining about how the characters in Gears of War 2 flex too quietly.)
4a This is also why I’ve never gotten into anime.5 What? I was 12 when it launched.
6Which of course I did. Like I said: I was 12.
7 So the operative question is: can I get away with playing 13 in my rhetoric classes?