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You Knew This Was Coming If You Were Paying Any Attention

Right, I’ve about had it.

Let me set some context for this blog post: I’m listening to “Blinded by Light” — aka Final Fantasy XIII‘s default battle music and riff on Lightning’s character theme — on loop while I write it. So, you know.

Strap in.

So this happened:

FF13:LR -- Light in mi'qote outfit
FF13:LR — Light in mi’qote outfit

To be more literal about it: ever since Final Fantasy XIII-2 introduced DLC costumes and such to the franchise for the first time in a flagship title, you must have known this sort of thing was coming. This picture, if you don’t know, is promo for Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, but is also cross-promotion for the upcoming Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Specifically, that outfit she’s wearing is the default racial costume for mi’qote female characters when they start the game. Lightning happens to be wearing it. There’s also going to be a reverse promotion, by the way, for FF14:ARR characters to wear Lightning’s FF13 Guardian Corps default outfit, Snow’s outfit, etc. as well.

So I’m going to give a little context here but if you just want to see me tear into Chris Kohler’s article, scroll down to “Or so I thought.”

Now, I loved FF13 and Lightning is, perhaps second only to Yuna, one of my favorite characters across any game. It’d be fair to say that if Yuna represents the person I think I am, Lightning represents the person I want to be, and that person is in charge of her life, in control, confident and strong, but (if you observe the arc of her character) struggling not to give up her personhood to do it. I respect that. I recently had a conversation with Maddy Myers where we both agreed Lightning’s default outfit in FF13 would be better with pants but wasn’t so bad.

So I get it when people see this picture and go “STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING.” I’m behind that, mostly. I don’t think this sexy pose or the painfully ridiculous mi’qote outfit fit what I love about the character. Practical, focused Lightning would never wear this nonsense and so it offends those of us who like that about her to see her in it. A tiny part of me, however, is saying: it’s a promo thing. I’m annoyed by it, I wish it didn’t exist, but it’s not built in. You’re not forced to see this on her if you don’t want to. And that does create a different rhetorical space. I am much more inclined to get angrier at this sort of thing when it’s required. I still don’t like it, but I can handle it. Plus like, she’s got that Cloud’s outfit costume too? I mean I hate Cloud but she looks great in the outfit, and it’s practical and makes sense so, you know, there’s that.

Then this shit happened.

Now everyone’s furious and I don’t blame them and I think the major reason I am upset about this is that it is not even remotely called for, necessary, or even interesting. I cannot say it more plainly. Lightning didn’t need her breasts enlarged to be sexier, she didn’t need them to jiggle (seriously, what is up with Japanese pop culture and breast jiggling?! Have you ever played a Super Robot Wars game? “Zero gravity” doesn’t even begin to describe the problems). This game is supposedly about Lightning being the savior, a detective/warrior/paladin who’s out to make sure everyone leaves the doomed world for something better. She is functionally a divine avatar. So what the fuck purpose does boob jiggling++ serve other than to please an audience that never asked for it, which I am going to say mostly exists in some marketing department’s head? I know this is Squenix Japan on this one, but it’s the not first or most recent “imagined hetero male audience” problem they’ve had recently, either. Remember this Hitman: Absolution Facebook app nonsense?

Long story short, yet another story of “male-dominated dev culture” + “imagined gamer audience” + “zero checks in place for this stuff” = “awful decision that will alienate more people than it convinces.”

And then what happens the next day? I see this:

FF13:LR Yuna Outfit
FF13:LR Yuna Outfit

Lightning wearing a Yuna costume. Holy fuck, talk about fanboy whiplash. One minute I am seething with fury, the next I practically catpaw’ed my monitor off the desk with joy. Two great tastes, together! And can I say Yuna’s yukata is one of my favorite FF heroine outfits? It isn’t necessarily practical but it’s mostly full coverage, it’s simple, elegant, tasteful, and reflects her character! I love it so much I made it as an Animal Crossing New Leaf design!

So I dunno, man. I’m up, I’m down. I’m still super interested in this game, because I feel like a lot of the gameplay elements it’s going to use hearken back to Final Fantasy X-2, which is unquestionably my favorite JRPG, or RPG, or possibly even game of all time. Clothes are power! Fun jokes and neat locales! A bit of the old and a bit of the new! After FF13-2 which I liked but didn’t love, I super want FF13:LR to be good. So Lightbreastnado is seriously chapping my Chocobo hide but I’m going to try and power through unless something else titanic and awful happens.

Or so I thought.

Then this happened.

I read this and can only describe my reaction as flipped the fuck out.

Like, okay. I gotta break this down but first I’m gonna tell you that I loved FF13 and I know some people didn’t and that’s fine, because it had some flaws, some important ones. They were flaws that I was willing to ignore in favor of the parts of the game that I came to really enjoy and be engrossed in. So if your plan is to roll up in here and argue about FF13 I suggest you kindly don’t, because we’re not gonna convince each other, but I will feel compelled to start arguing about all the hypocritical, illogical bullshit that many people trot out to “explain” why FF13 is “bad” that very frequently have no basis in, say, reality.

Just wanted to get that out of the way.

But seriously, this article of Kohler’s is basically my problem with gaming culture and nostalgia, especially as it relates to “beloved” franchises, in text form. Kohler claims that FF is “dead” because there was a press conference where they talked about Lightning’s breast size, and it used to be the pinnacle of console gaming’s vision of Respectability. I mean, take a look at this paragraph from the article:

In its heyday, Final Fantasy was the ne plus ultra of console videogames based around strong, relatable characters and epic storylines. Sure, the games had their moments of levity, but mostly took themselves seriously enough to attempt to tackle subtle, complex themes on platforms that were largely dominated by paper-thin plots and cartoon characters. They pushed the boundaries, if imperfectly; despite what I may have believed in high school the writing was not exactly Shakespeare. But the ideas of orchestras playing the games’ amazing musical scores or of art galleries displaying the design work of Yoshitaka Amano were not out of the question. And surely today’s game designers, the people making games like BioShock Infinite or The Last of Us, were inspired in part by early Final Fantasy.

You have got to be kidding me.

Seriously can we get past this high art/low art nonsense that plagues every mass medium, ever? Well video games sure are respectable when there’s ORCHESTRAS and ART GALLERY SHOWINGS but not when there are JIGGLY TITTIES. Then they are mere mass entertainment! Never mind that I find the invocation of The Last of Us, a game I cannot imagine being inspired in any way by any Final Fantasy game except in the concept of zombies or fungus or fungus zombies as enemies. But really, the invocation of Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us is purposeful: they are the two most recent games that try to be High Art rather than Mass Entertainment because they cover Very Serious Themes like “What It’s Like To Be A White Dad With A Spunky Daughter Sidekick Also Some Firearms.” I have said my piece about Bioshock Infinite already so ref that for my thoughts, and I can’t comment much on The Last of Us as an actual GAME because I don’t have any interest in playing it (I made it about 45 minutes in before giving up). So I guess what Kohler is saying is that Final Fantasy represented the Masterpiece Theatre of games and because they were Just So Goddamned Classy and Sehr Deep, we can thank them for inspiring the Seriously Important You Guys games about guys shooting people we enjoy today in the West.

I’ve played them all, guys. I didn’t spent a lot of time with 2 and 3 (like, Japanese 2 and 3), but I’ve played them all since the very first FF. And let me tell you something: I loved most of them, but they are not what your imagination is telling you. FF1 has ciphers for characters, as does FF3. The heroes of FF2 are not exactly the greatest or deepest, and while some storytelling finally seems to emerge in FF4 (which I am currently replaying on the PSP) those characters are pretty thin. They don’t explore anything like “depth” in the “fine literature” sense. Same for FF5 which was more about the job system than deep, meaningful narrative. FF6 seems to be the shining star for most of us who played it as FF3US back in the day, and I admit it’s one of the best FFs but it’s hardly ORCHESTRAS and ART GALLERY SHOWINGS. Don’t even get me started on FF7 (which I like less the farther I get from it) and FF8 (which I loved but is basically Final Fantasy: the Teen Drama Game). What did the FFs of the 80s, 90s, and even early 00s push in terms of boundaries? Am I supposed to think they were groundbreaking because they killed off Aerith? That’s nonsense.

Never mind that this is a vision of the past that reduces the FF games to novels rather than being games. I’ll be honest, a lot of what was satsifying about many of the FFs is their character design, and that they play pretty smooth for JRPGs, which can often be a clunky and unforgiving mass of confusing systems (sidenote: it’s important to have systemic depth, but FF13 is evil for withholding some of that depth until later in the game so you get a handle on it but the combat is too confusing I guess? Because whatever, FF13 critics don’t need logic). While I didn’t enjoy the gambit system of FF12 I know a lot of people who found that very rewarding and fun, considerably more than any other part of the game. But that’s not what we remember them for, in this weird High Art public nostalgia. No, it’s all about the narrative moments and the stories which are just so deep, man. So, so deep.

I might be sounding kind of hypocritical right now given my love of FF13, and maybe I am to a small extent. I’m not going to claim that the characters in that game are Sehr Deep You Know because they’re not, but I will say they had enough depth so that I found a way to engage with all of them. Someday I’m going to write about the parallels to queerness and feeling empowered by queer identity I see in the concept of l’Cie, for example. And that’s a personal thing and I know they’re not going to appeal to everyone and a few of them are, while fun, massively problematic stereotypes (looking at you, Sazh). Of course, strip off the serial numbers and I just described every FF cast from 4 onwards. So, you know, there’s that.

Kohler goes on to talk about how the Final Fantasy name has basically fallen from grace. He cites the failed FF14 which bombed really hard, and then says of FF14: A Realm Reborn, the sequel that most agree is actually looking pretty fun (I was a beta tester and I enjoyed it), “even if it’s good, it’s still going to be an MMO with a monthly fee in an era dominated by the free-to-play model.” I… what? I know WoW is slipping in numbers but it’s still the biggest bloody MMO I can think of which works on a monthly fee and that seems to be working just fine for Blizzard, so… is the Warcraft name dead now too? Where are you going with this?

Then he talks about Final Fantasy X-2, which “decided that what the series needed was to take all the female player characters, give them skimpier outfits and make them into J-pop stars.” Okay. So… what would have been better? A grimdark journey through Yuna’s inner turmoil where maybe her dad comes back and they journey to Nevada? I’m confused. Yeah, Final Fantasy X-2 had a lot of elements that were new to the series. It was the first flagship FF sequel, for example, but it had magical girl transformation sequences and it started at a pop concert and the heroes were all girls in what probably are somewhat problematic outfits but it was also a great exploration of Spira as a world, a setting, and a culture. It was the first FF story that looked behind the happy ending to the problems that come after you’ve saved the world. And it featured one of the most amazing women protagonists any RPG has ever seen, even if she was in denim cutoffs. Never mind that it was a localization that focused on snappy, fun, witty dialogue rather than stentorious fantasy cliche speeches, which was also a first for FFs. Never mind that it adapted FFX‘s battle system into one that wasn’t overly complex but felt fun, fast, and new compared to the game it was a sequel to while retaining familiarity.

I think what that statement really says is “They tried something new but it wasn’t what I expected or wanted so it’s all wrong.” But claiming that the game is “about” putting the girls in hotpants and staying in for a pop song music night is a statement that suggests, to me, the speaker had already made up their mind about FFX-2 because it was out of their comfort zone. To me, FFX-2 represented the series’ first step into contemporary storytelling, moving out of the shadow of Endless World-Saving Fantasy Narratives. That was something FF8 tried with questionable success but I respected it for that, at least.

Kohler talks about Final Fantasy: All the Bravest as a “naked gameplay-free cash grab.” I’ve never played All the Bravest but as far as I can tell “naked gameplay-free cash grab” is the mobile games market default, so I hardly see the issue. Interestingly Crystal Defenders didn’t come up, there. Wonder why.

He closes out the article with this:

Cash cows don’t last forever. The declining sales of Final Fantasy games, following the utter mess that was Final Fantasy XIII, should indicate that. At this point, it’s tough to see a path back to relevance forFinal Fantasy, if the caretakers of the series are spending their creative cycles thinking about the particulars of breast physics. That’s not why the Final Fantasy brand still carries the cachet that it does, and the modern games are at this point living entirely off an inherited reputation.

You had a good run, Final Fantasy, and it was nice knowin’ ya.

That’s nonsense.

I’m sorry, it is. The idea that Final Fantasy is now dead because it is now doing things that other games do boggles my mind. As infuriating as it is, breast — or ass, or whatever — jiggle physics in games aren’t exactly new. Yeah, I guess part of me hoped that Final Fantasy would be “above” that but like… considering plenty of massively successful AAA-space games also do it without killing off their franchises I hardly see it as a death knell. Don’t even get me started on the idea that Final Fantasy X-2 represented the downslide into Pop Art Nonsense instead of High Art Fantasy Narrative that has now consumed the franchise because I will probably headbutt a wall until I shatter if you do.

But you know, the truth is, I kind of hope that Final Fantasy does die. Here’s how I put it on Twitter earlier today:

Because honestly, I don’t think it’s the series, or the name, or even the devs that are holding the baggage anymore. It’s the players and the critics. I think they don’t even know what they want FF to be anymore and even if they did, it’s a fading thing that can’t be effectively articulated. So instead we make sweeping pronouncements of this sort. The idea that FF is some shining beacon of High Art that inspired our current crop of Games About Important Stuff that is now magically devalued because it tried to change over time, and in so doing stepped into a world of costume changes and pop art and DLC costumes? That’s ludicrous.

Maybe Final Fantasy isn’t dead. Maybe it’s just not for you anymore. And you know what? Speaking as someone who has found great personal pleasure enjoying the last few games that you say are the series death knell?

I’m fine with that.

21 thoughts on “You Knew This Was Coming If You Were Paying Any Attention

  1. Great piece! FFXIII wasn’t really for me mostly because of how long it took for the game to open up, but Lightning is one of my favorite FF characters. I’m upset that devs decided to change her breasts, add the jiggle physics, etc. especially since none of it is necessary or asked for. It’s catering to some imagined audience. Bleh.

    But yes, your analysis of the Wired piece is spot on. And now I feel like I should go back and try to finish X-2. The whole “What happens *after* you save the world?” take on things is fascinating.

    1. I only recently played FFX, but it’s now easily my favorite of the series. I’ve got FFX2 on my to play list, although I’m waiting for the HD version as I’ve waited this long already. So good to hear its cool bits celebrated.

      Anyhow, I haven’t played FFXIII yet, though I probably will someday. I do like several of the things they were trying with it and I’m curious to see how well they work for my tastes. Kate liked it, although it didn’t make her top 3. Some of the points of critics seem sound, but I find most of the griping to be off putting.

  2. Let me get a couple positions out of the way first: 1) Kohler doesn’t have any right to declare FF dead for anyone except himself, so dressing down his critique is something I agree with even if I don’t agree with all of your arguments. 2) I’ve had a long history of buying consoles strictly to play FF games, so I think of myself as a dedicated and long-time fan of the series. IN terms of favorites, all of the games have their pros/cons, but 6(3US) remains my personal highpoint of the series, with 9 and 10 being a close second. 3) What most MMO players have come to accept is that WoW is the only game that can justify having a subscription because of the burgeoning behemoth it’s become; this is why most other sub-based MMOs have eventually gone free-to-play. Kohler denouncing FF14:LRR’s sub-based design is in line with the perception that Blizzard is an exception and S-E won’t succeed regardless of 14’s quality, but at the same time, they’re still pushing expansions for FF11 and Everquest, so that perception has flaws.

    Here’s my take: Kohler’s argument that FF is some kind of sacred art that has been sullied by the addition of boob-physics is poorly-stated, but he’s got a point. You don’t hear about symphonies playing music from Dead or Alive or Mortal Kombat. Art galleries showing videogame conceptual art aren’t common, and when it shows up, Amano’s artwork often is on display because of the strength of his style. So there is something to be said about the dynasty of art that’s sprung up around the FF franchise, and consequently I think it’s logical that some people aren’t as accepting of the new additions to the franchise in the same respect. Now, when we get twenty years out from 10, or 10-2, or the 13 saga, maybe that’ll change.

    It’s Square’s own dedication to reinvention that has become so alienating to people, because the games they’re producing now have so little in common with the games that were produced a generation ago. When you have older players that are looking for an identifiable touchstone of their younger selves playing the games that inspired them to play more games, I don’t think it’s surprising that modern-day FFs would be off-putting; because on the Square end, it’s a new generation of developers, and they’re specifically charged with doing things differently in each and every game.

    Is my opinion of the franchise sullied by the addition of boob-physics? No. My opinion of Toriyama has gone down a few notches, and I’ve been put off the franchise that was a huge inspiration to me in the past because I think the design sensibilities that are driving the FF developments these days don’t result in a rewarding game (briefly, because the over-emphasis on cinematic story-telling shrinks the size and scope of the playable world). But my opinion of the franchise remains the same: there are a lot of FF games that inspired me, and that’s not going to change because of new additions, or DLC, or the decisions of new developers vs. the old guard.

    I know that we aren’t likely to agree on all points here, but I’ll agree that I love Yuna as a character, appreciate what 10-2 set out to accomplish, and have been in love with the idea of Lightning since seeing the first teasers for 13 years ago. But that game and its sequels never struck the right chord for me, the one that compelled me to keep playing to reach the end of the story. Ultimately, Final Fantasy is alive and well as long as it inspires someone to push forward, but nowhere is it written that the whole of the series has to inspire the same people the same way forever.

    1. AUGH Chrome just ate my reply. I apologize for brevity but I’m gonna bullet point it out and can clarify later.

      1.) It’s not so surprising that people would resist change of a beloved series. I guess my problem with Kohler’s article is that calling changes you don’t like “the death of a franchise” is pretty self-indulgent, AND I think while it’s understandable that you might not like change, demanding that the franchise stay true to roots that might be moribund by this point is also a little too self-indulgent.

      2.) I agree that FF14:ARR is risky and that Blizzard might be the exception. But at the same time I don’t think trying something financially risky contributes to the rhetorical/cultural death of the franchise. It might, problematically, contribute to the FINANCIAL death of Squenix if they’re not careful, but that’s another issue entirely.

      3.) You’re right in that, in the early days, Final Fantasy as a series did basically stand for “games telling sophisticated stories” though I might argue in some cases that’s a comparative rather than absolute measure. The problem is that the medium has matured. We don’t need the old approach to FF to tell a compelling story anymore. And honestly, here’s my queston re: orchestras and art galleries: why do we need them? I think the idea that FF represents “high culture” is rooted in this persistent low-self-esteem belief a certain generation or two of gamers that are used to the medium being “lowbrow,” looked down upon, etc., so they want to engage the cultural mechanisms of “respectable” things and go “Look, games can do that too!” Honestly, I think Bioshock Infinite‘s fan reaction is sort of the same. We want to prove that games “can be high quality cultural content.”

      Frankly, I have zero investment in that idea and so I really take issue with the argument that FF as “high culture,” proven by non-gamer acceptance of its narrative and artistic elements as “art,” is worth pursuing. And I admit, my interest in pop culture and queer culture might be influencing me, here. I’d rather have a big, brassy, chaotic and vibrant pop culture thing than “high art” in the end anyway, which is in fact part of why I love FFX-2.

      Anyhow, except maybe that point, I don’t actually think we disagree that much, except for small points of taste on certain games which are just to be expected. And yeah, that second-to-last paragraph of yours is well said, and I think part of the root of the problem. I don’t feel like my past experiences with FFs are threatened by the franchise heading in new directions. They can’t take that away from me. Maybe people like Kohler feel that change invalidates or cheapens their past experiences/memories somehow. Which is sad, but possibly true.

  3. You know, if Shakespeare had the technology, he would have been all over boob jiggle physics. ALL OVER.

    So I totally agree! I don’t get why great art can’t be funny in some people’s eyes. I don’t understand why gameswriters insist on perpetuating the “Comedy’s can’t be art!” that film critics stick to. Seriously, what I liked about a lot of Final Fantasies (and didn’t like about XIII) was that XIII *wasn’t* particularly funny. FFVII had the creepy bathhouse scenes, and absurd nonsense like two characters getting into a slap fight on a giant cannon. And Barrett. FFVI makes jokes for every orifice. Tidus was the protagonist of X.

    I mean, I’m anti-boob jiggle as a rule–I watch enough anime, and, judging by the popular shows this season, they have a very definite audience for boob jiggle mechanics, I assure you–but this is the sort of thing they’ve been doing for years. Nothing’s changed, except now you can buy costumes that make the jiggle happen.

    1. Here is where I learned comedy can’t be art: high school theatre.

      When I was in high school drama, every fall the play was a one-act that was sent to a Wisconsin state forensics competition. It was, almost universally, a grimdourdark exploration of Just So Much Drama Yo. I once asked my theatre teacher why we never did anything funny.

      She looked me straight in the eye and said: “Because comedies never win.”

      An early brush with systemtic attitudes toward what constitutes art/”classy” performance vs. not!

  4. I have been saying that for years with my friends and acquaintances in forums. The problem with Final Fantasy is that the critics want the new Final Fantasy to be like FFVI or FFVII “IN MID 90s”.

    The problem is that those people were teenagers with no previous experience of a game with “deep storylines” (arguably FFVI storytelling and character interaction is a lot superficial for nowadays games, but it was the best available in a console back then). FFVI, FFVII, FFVIII, FFIX were solid games, but if released today, they would get the same kind of flak most RPGs get just for being RPGs. Because in mid and late 90s, games with serious storylines and cinematics were groundbreaking experiences, but now you can have that in your average platformer, action, fps, tps, horror survival, racing, sports and even puzzle game. So, for those bitter critics and fans, Final Fantasy is not that life-changing experience, but just another game in the crowd, with often a confusing story and a less than thrilling gameplay.

    Then, the real problem is the lack of hindsight that “masterpieces” are not timeless. FFVI would not be huge in 98, FFVII would not be huge in 2000, the same way as Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band would be “just old hit makers trying to go with the new trend” in 1969. The timing IS important to make a classic. And no matter how godd the recent Final Fantasies may be, they will never have the perfect timing the ones people look at with nostalgia glasses and find them flawless had.

    1. YEAH! THERE IS ONLY ONE RIGHT ANSWER TO THE QUESTION “Which FF is your favorite?”, am I right? =P

      FF7 is incredibly over-hyped. There, I said it. FF8 isn’t one of my own favorites, but I don’t hold the view that someone with a different preference than me automatically becomes Wrong About Everything.

  5. Lightning is one of the worst characters in gaming history (you know, if she had any character to begin with), so when you see someone start out saying she’s they’re “favorite” character ever (oh and they hate Cloud), well, you know the article is just all downhill from there. Unsurprisingly I disagree with nearly everything.

    1. Oh no, they don’t like Cloud (obviously one of the most deep and nuanced FF protagonists ever written)! ENTIRE ARTICLE INVALIDATED!

  6. I don’t know, I think the guy has a point. I don’t think he’s saying the FF franchise is dead: I think he’s saying the creative spirit that brought us all those reinventions and all those wonderful, special moments based on amazing characters and beautiful artistic scenes seems like it is going away, and being replaced with a company that is happy to just focus on the lowest common denominator, sexist crap that doesn’t distinguish their games from any of the rest of the chaff.

    FF wasn’t the pinnacle of art in games, but it was an amazing game series. And it still is and could continue to be… but if they decide to spend their time animating breasts instead of making characters you can identify with, the future for these games doesn’t look so bright.

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