Hey, sorry about the abrupt departure last week. I was mostly twirling my thumbs before I realized I was stumbling into something a little more substantial than I realized. I maybe should have posted something else and turned this into something a little more substantial, but meh. I figure it’s the holidays, why not have some fun? Besides, I think art analysis is a lot of fun, and what makes this art distinct is some of the best kind of analysis. So let’s dive back in to what makes a Final Fantasy game a Final Fantasy game?
Last week, we discussed the plots of Final Fantasy games (they have two: the Captain Planet plot and the Star Wars plot) and the mechanics, namely the job system (that party customization is achieved by either swapping out characters or swapping out jobs that the character performs).
I want to return to the customization of the party by way of the job system for a bit. I think this is pretty critical and defining to what makes Final Fantasy. After all, the six jobs available in the first Final Fantasy were part of what distinguished it from its peers like Dragon Quest and Ultima. As was discussed last week, early Final Fantasy games typically break down into two camps: games with a large cast whom have set roles, or games with smaller casts whom can take on different roles (with the assignable job system). Most games blur the lines of these two approaches, but it seems a succinct grouping.
Later Final Fantasy games would take a more ambitious approach, one that would involve specific characters that could be heavily customizable. In Final Fantasy Seven, Eight, and Twelve, characters are suited towards specific roles. For example, Tifa, Squall, and Basch, respectively, are all ideally-suited towards physical damage dealers. You can customize them however you wish, making them healers, magical damage dealers, sneaky multi-hit types, but doing so will be slightly against type. Customizing them more subtly – giving a physical damage dealer the ability to use offensive magic – is often a much more viable option.
There is a fine line to be balanced, though. Final Fantasy Eight’s Squall is so clearly a damage dealer, making him anything else is almost a waste. Turning instead to, say, Rinoa, to be the primary damage dealer is more akin to deliberately pranking the game than mere versatility. The opposite occurred in Final Fantasy Twelve, where the differences between characters was ultimately so minute that with adequate advancement, any character could be made into any job you wanted. This led the party to feeling especially interchangeable at later stages of the game.
Taking a step back, the role of the party feels important. Having not just a specific roles and jobs, but having multiple characters at your control seems noteworthy. Other games had and have this mechanic – in fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a role-playing game that lacks it – but often those games tend towards huge, sweeping character lists like Suikoden and Phantasy Star. Other games have multiple party members but the party is set more or less at the outset (Dragon Quest is often this way).
Getting into the party and the characters leads us into discussing the narrative. Not the plot (although that’s obviously related), but the actual mechanics of the story. Elements like the fusion of fantasy and science fiction elements, airships, the role of and presence of ancient civilizations, the dynamic between memories and the present, as well as who and what defines who a person is. These are all common threads within Final Fantasy games.
So is that what makes a Final Fantasy? A party with a variety of possible members, each with strengths but still plenty of customization options, on a quest to either gather four crystals or stop an evil empire (or both)? Is there still more?
In a Kotaku article (https://kotaku.com/5963157/what-square-enix-says-makes-a-final-fantasy) Square Enix is attributed to have put together a list of five components: Magic, Summoning, Gorgeous Beauty, Refinement, and Change & Challenge’.
Magic and Summoning I can certainly believe. Summoning has been a part of the franchise since Final Fantasy Three and a key story element since Final Fantasy Six, while Magic has been a component since Day One. Gorgeous Beauty seems more aesthetic than mechanical (or even functional) but I don’t think anyone would argue that the attention to aesthetics is not a passive one. The making of a beautiful world (in all intentions of the word) isn’t enough, the game play and narrative must push the character to want to explore it and see that beauty, interact with it.
Refinement. That could be taken behind the scenes, as something the developers must strive for, or something in the game itself. As a player, one must constantly evaluate their process and make it better. What worked at a previous stage must be made better in a later stage. Perhaps, but that seems less unique to the Final Fantasy series and more a common trait of all role-playing games, or even games period.
Change & Challenge? That sounds so vague as to be almost pointless.
Gorgeous worlds, with both magic and high technology, along with great power at your beck and call, along with a close-nit team of experts who are capable of greatness but can also adjust to their situation. Yeah, that sounds like a hell of a fantasy.
At the end of this little exploration, I don’t feel like I really answered my question. I don’t feel like I hit on the singular element or elements that make a Final Fantasy game distinct from its peers. Odds are, that’s the result of so many different iterations and its own evolution across thirty years of game-making. What ‘makes’ a Final Fantasy game has changed overtime. But if nothing else, there’s at least Cid and a sombrero-wearing Black Mage.
Yes, it’s a sombrero and I got a whole bag of -aga spells right here that says so.
This Friday, I will be in Washington DC for Anime USA! Please come by and say hello. Check out the books for sale as well as the panels. The schedule is:
6pm Friday, in Education 1, Intro to Japanese Cuisine
10pm Friday, in Education 2, Myths of Japanese Martial Arts
6pm Saturday, in the Culture Track, How the Meiji Era Created the Modern World
8pm Saturday, in the Culture Track, the Ins and Outs of Mecha
1pm Sunday, in Education 2, Beginner’s Martial Arts class
Between panels, I will be at the table available for signings, selfies, chatting, and going into great length about how Ultra Magnus should have been allowed to keep the Matrix. Come say hello!