As I pretty much just said on Twitter, any topic that reaches five Twitter posts’ worth of commentary from me is going to get a full-on blog post. We’ll see how long I stick to that.
Lately I’ve had discussions in multiple arenas about what makes a good Final Fantasy game. Co-GAMBITeer Matt Weise and I were chatting earlier about how we both found FF8 to be one of the more enjoyable in the series, despite the hardcore types’ response to it typically being somewhere between “SQUALL SUX HE IS AN EMO” and cross-grabbing, holy water-dousing, exorcism-like bellows of “Anathema!” The reasons why there vary; the character of Squall and his dispassionate act 1 attitude are part of it, as is the game’s aesthetic focusing rather intently on sci-fi elements rather than traditional fantasy narrative (yet Final Fantasy IX, which brought back the traditional fantasy narrative, was also not a fan favorite either).
But the holy grail of FF-dom appears to be Final Fantasy 6. When Kotaku, with their typical caution-to-the-wind exaggeration, calls it “the most beloved Final Fantasy,” it’s a point I’m willing to concede them. Whenever I hear people talk about which FF they love the most, FF6 is almost to an individual the one chosen. There are some exceptions (Kristen! hay gurl, shout out). I mean, just in language from that Kotaku story:
Why do people love Final Fantasy VI, or Final Fantasy III as it was known in the states? Because it nailed every aspect of why we love Final Fantasy as a whole. The compelling characters, one of the greatest video game villains of all time, the rich, emotional story; Final Fantasy VI has just about everything.
This phrasing is what made me go: “Whoa, step back there, Chocobo.”
Now, do not get me wrong, mostly because if I ever implied I didn’t like FF6 in any way I’ll wake up tomorrow with a moogle’s head in my bed. I genuinely loved FF6 when I played it. I agree that the character design was great and the individual characters had distinct and interesting personalities, PC and NPC alike. Kefka is a good villain, too; it’s no surprise that his voice actor in the Dissidia: Final Fantasy series has taken a distinctly Mark Hamil-as-the Joker in Batman: the Animated Series approach to the character, because they have much in common.
But I think “rich, emotional story” is not something I would apply to FF6. Perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics, which I can accept, but I often feel like in their rush to nostalgia, Final Fantasy series fans overattribute… something. I don’t exactly have a word for it. I just have a hard time thinking of FF stories as “rich, emotional” stories, or even as “deep” stories, or “engrossing” stories. For the most part, my memories of these moments are that the games were awesome fairy tales. They had straightforward narratives that didn’t take chances or make you think too hard. The only one that managed a successful twist was Final Fantasy 7, and I give that game credit for it: the death of [redacted] is one of the great spoilers of all time because of its tremendous impact, but hilariously, it was something that no RPG could get away with after. Like some great acts with tremendous impact, they could only do it once.
Since then, we’ve been on the lookout for potential [redacted]s from minute one of every RPG we play. And to be fair, we’ve even found a few. But boy, for that one moment of taking a chance on something not often done before — killing off an actual playable character — the writers of FF7 made an impact.
This is, perhaps, why I feel that the stories of the FF series — even some of my favorites, like FF10-2 and, yes, even much-maligned FF13 — are interesting and enjoyable, and even well-written, but not rich or engrossing. On the average, they don’t take chances, they don’t do anything particularly new. What they do is present the standard Propp-ian, journey of the hero narrative with a cast of interesting characters, a fun battle system, and gorgeous graphics/settings. In fact if I had to put words to a suspicion, I’d say that character design and world design are taking the place of “rich, emotional narrative” for those who have this amazingly overpowering nostalgia. Certainly, I think that’s the case in FF6. It’s absolutely the case in FF10-2, my favorite FF to date. 10-2 is fundamentally a story about characters and locations, not events; without FF10 as a precursor, FF10-2 wouldn’t function. The enjoyment of the game, for me, was seeing the growth of Spira as a world, and Yuna (as well as the remaining FF10 cast) grow/change as people. But the actual story of FF10-2? Boringly generic. A threat rises, and the power of love and teamwork sees you through. If it weren’t for the very witty dialogue, the story would be entirely without merit on its own.
I have yet to play a console RPG that I would really say is, all the way through, a “rich, emotional” narrative. FF7 gave us a brief, wonderful moment of it, but like [redacted]‘s actual life, it was all the more beautiful for its brevity. I’ve played lots of console RPGs that were satisfying, but few that were particularly deep or ambitious. I have to wonder what, in the end, would I even say constitutes a deep/rich RPG narrative. It may be that I simply “know it when I see it.” Unfortunately, I just don’t think that’s happened yet. I am entertained, sometimes enlightened, but almost never drawn deeply in.