Games | Final Fantasy: Populist Mechanics

Article by Jeremy Parish | March 9, 2010

Final Fantasy VI was the first modern Final Fantasy. Which is funny, if you stop and think about it: The biggest divide in the series’ fandom is found in the schism established by old-school die-hards who swear that FFVI was the last good game in the series, and that the newblood team behind the series’ PlayStation debut destroyed everything good about their favorite franchise.

This, however, is a complete fallacy. The core staff of FFVI and that of its sequel, Final Fantasy VII, are almost completely the same. Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yoshinori Kitase, Nobuo Uematsu, and Tetsuya Nomura worked on both games; the main difference between the two teams was that Square swapped out series mainstay Hiroyuki Itoh (who was busy working on Final Fantasy Tactics at the time) for fresh-faced scenarist Kazushige Nojima. The FFVI fan-camp’s enmity for its sequel is largely based on factors that have their roots in pragmatic creative and corporate decisions -- business realities that certain overly enthusiastic types took personally, in other words. These include the series’ shift to 3D, its newfound emphasis on cinematic exposition, Square’s so-called betrayal of Nintendo, and the fact that FFVII introduced a cult favorite series to a mainstream audience. The irony here is that all of these shifts were initiated by the same people responsible for making FFVI the timeless, heartwarming classic these same fans have canonized it as.

The fact of the matter is that FFVI probably would have looked and felt exactly like FFVII if the technology had been available at the beginning of 1994. However, the game was developed for a cramped Super NES cartridge, so its creators had to do their best to realize their cinematic ambitions within tiny memory constraints. Given the choppiness of FFVII’s finished outcome, it might be just as well that FFVI was forced to make do, because it resulted in a work that chafed at its limits in memorable ways rather than in something resembling the uneven foray into new frontiers the subsequent game proved to be. The game’s opening credits, in which the lights of Narshe slowly rise over a darkened horizon as armored walkers trudge determinedly through a snowy night with unknown intentions, will forever be remembered as a classic gaming moment. The opera scene is still regarded with fondness, even though the singers sound like they’re gargling. And despite its lo-fi presentation, Kefka’s world-splitting apocalypse and its aftermath remains one of gaming’s most harrowing plot developments.

What really seals FFVI as the first modern game in the series, though, is its worldview. It was the first Final Fantasy -- and arguably the first RPG -- to question the standards and contrivances of the genre. Not in a “Why don’t we just get rid of these things?” sort of way (Final Fantasy II had already done that, with dire results) but rather in the sense of, “What are these things, and why are they part of this world?” It’s a trait that would characterize practically every chapter of the series that followed. Earlier Final Fantasy games had already developed a practice of turning mechanics into plot points, the most famous instance being Tellah’s inability to cast Meteor without destroying himself due to his magic points being capped slightly below the cost of the spell, but FFVI looked at the actual existence of magic and turned it into one of the primary factors driving the story.

Where other RPGs simply took the existence of magic for granted -- you learned spells and spent mana because that’s how the genre works -- FFVI presented a world in which magic had long since ceased to exist. Although it was believed to have been destroyed during the War of the Magi a thousand years prior, the true story behind magic’s function and its supposed disappearance eventually comes out over the course of the game, and this truth serves as the crux of the game’s conflict. While this facet of the plot is eventually overshadowed by Kefka’s nutty nihilism, the mechanics of magic shape the lives of many of the game’s key characters, devastate the planet, and empower both the heroes and their nemesis.

In a particularly deft touch, the concept of magic is tied here to that touchstone of the series, summoned monsters, the Espers. FFVI’s story ties together several key elements of the recurring Final Fantasy mythos, as it were, and in the process provides a convincing explanation for why magic exists to be used in the first place, at least in that particular world.

This storytelling conceit has in many ways become a defining trait of the Final Fantasy franchise; yet fundamental as it’s become, it’s usually overlooked by critics and fans alike. The series’ long-running marriage of mechanics and story is a subtle element that differentiates the series from other RPGs, a thoughtful narrative detail that embodies the consistent level of quality that justifies Final Fantasy’s continuing popularity regardless of how disappointed various factions of the fan base may be in each new chapter. The Japanese RPG thrives on goofily named systems and a sense of determination to make each and every game’s combat engine compellingly different from anyone else’s, but few demonstrate the care that Kitase and crew take in integrating their systems into the plot.

Final Fantasy VI, for instance, defines magic as the fallout of the Warring Triad, ancient godlike beings whose powers were conferred onto certain humans, who became known as Espers. Sealed away in their own world apart from mankind, the Espers became magical by nature, while humanity -- isolated from magic for a millennium -- instead explored science, leading to the development of an unusual (for the genre) steampunk-inspired high-tech world. That same technology eventually provided humanity a means by which to open the sealed world and extract the essence of magic from Espers as well. At the game’s outset, only a small handful of characters who underwent radical surgical procedures to enable the use of magic are capable of casting spells (with the exception of a secluded village of practitioners), but eventually the Espers grant their abilities to all the heroes in order to stop the depredation of their home by a power-hungry empire.

In the game’s first act, this becomes the fulcrum around which the plot revolves: The heroes seek to prevent the empire from opening the sealed world and obtaining the power contained within. In the second act, the heroes fight across the ruins of a world devastated by the fallout of the empire’s success in order to liberate mankind’s holdouts from the chaotic power of the Warring Triad. All of this makes for an interesting and welcome integration of story and mechanics. Your characters are fighting for a reason, and that reason is also what enables them to fight. It’s not perfectly realized, admittedly; if magic has been gone for a thousand years, why are you able to stroll in to the local convenience store to buy a mana-restoring Ether for pocket change? But these are trivial complaints in the face of one of FFVI’s most important contributions to RPG narrative conventions: Connecting the hows of genre mechanics to the whys. And it usually comes down to the game’s summoned beasts.

In a sense, Final Fantasy’s plot-based emphasis on summons can be traced back to Final Fantasy IV, which presented summoners as a powerful force to be feared. The villain’s master plan (and the game itself) kicked off with a mission to assassinate the world’s summoners. The sole survivor, Rydia, became closely tied to the realm of summoned beasts, and her ultimate quests revolved around proving her mettle to the royalty of that land. Years later, Final Fantasy IX was in many ways a combination of FFIV and FFVI’s plot concepts, presenting summoners as powerful mages hunted to the brink of extinction even as the villains sought to harness the creatures’ powers for their own ends. The game’s single most exciting moment is the titanic brawl between Bahamut and Alexander (a clash whose appearance in previews promised a more gripping story than was actually delivered). And then there was Final Fantasy X?, whose entire story revolved around the pilgrimage of a young woman to call upon the aid of the world’s summoned creatures in order to combat an implacable force of nature called Sin, yet unaware of the dark truth connecting her guardians to Sin.

However, it’s in Final Fantasy VIII that the summons aspect of the series realized its pinnacle, presenting gamers with what might be the most in-depth integration of story and mechanics ever seen in an RPG. FFVIII was a brave game by any means, throwing out more than a decade of series conventions in order to create an internally logical and consistent world. Admittedly, this logic involved magic and weeping moons, so it required the application of significant suspension of disbelief. Yet within that fantastical framework, FFVIII offers an explanation for everything the player can do and has to do, and at every turn these elements are bound inextricably to the central plotline.

That plotline may or may not make a damn lick of sense, but you have to respect the team’s effort. To wit: FFVIII is the story of students at an elite military academy, which was established to counter the threat of sorceresses, women who possessed the extremely rare ability to wield magic. However, science has developed a way to synthesize imitation magic, or para-magic, for use by normal people by forging pacts with summoned creatures called Guardian Forces, a process called junctioning. Like so many pacts with powerful forces, junctions aren’t without their drawbacks -- memory loss, for instance. (Which of course neatly excuses the game’s reliance on Final Fantasy’s favorite cliché, character amnesia regarding key plot points.)

As a result, GFs are extremely controversial and unpopular, and only members of the party’s elite cadre use them freely. This allows them to become vastly more powerful than the vast majority of their opponents, which means that for the first time (and only time) it actually makes sense that a Final Fantasy party can slaughter enemy soldiers while shrugging off their counter-attacks like mere insect bites. Furthermore, the party’s connection to the Garden academy is played up by the fact that enemies don’t drop random bits of pocket change upon defeat; instead, you earn a salary based on your rank and performance once your team is inducted into Garden’s elite organization, SeeD. (This is actually a terrible pun based on the fact that the Japanese pronunciation of Garden founder Cid’s name is the same as the word “seed’; fortunately, we western types were spared that joke, along with Laguna’s enthusiasm for the similarly homophonous Ragnarok.)

All of these factors combine to give FFVIII the most interesting combat system in the series; although it looks on the surface to be identical to the Active-Time Battle format innovated by FFIV, the underlying mechanics encourage players to approach the game however they wish. It’s possible to play through the game relying almost entirely on the extremely powerful GFs, transforming battles into button-pressing exercises as you try to fully utilize the Boost feature. It’s also possible to play without ever once summoning a GF. You can power-level and watch as the game grows ever more difficult while enemies level up alongside you, or you can make use of the Card skill and transform every non-hominid random mob into a playing card that offers no character experience and can be refined into other items. You can draw spells from every foe you meet and immediately max out your stats, or you can make use of your other resources to enhance your power instead. And all of these abilities and options ultimately derive from the same source: An evil plot from the far-flung future, and the main character’s unwitting fulfillment of his father’s legacy.

A decade later, and 15 years after FFVI, the series’ tradition of unifying plot and mechanics remains a key facet of each new Final Fantasy world -- perhaps unsurprisingly, since Kitase remains the man in charge of the franchise. Even Final Fantasy XIII makes use of a concept that falls somewhere between FFVI’s Magicite and FFXII’s Occuria: To wit, the party is unable to make use of magic until its members are branded as L’Cie, unwilling and unwitting tools of seemingly omnipotent beings who possess a mysterious connection to the world’s crystals. This mark of destiny also relates to the game’s summoned monsters -- a fact as unsurprising as learning that the coquettish jailbait character’s L’Cie mark is in a compromising location. Tee hee!

Final Fantasy’s willingness to explore vastly different styles and mechanics remains its greatest strength and its Achilles’ heel: No two Final Fantasy games play exactly alike, which is always annoying to someone who feels like the series was perfect with a specific chapter (see also: The aforementioned hatred for FFVII by diehard, if myopic, FFVI fans). But however the series changes -- and it will continue to change, seeing as Square Enix has promised the upcoming MMO Final Fantasy XIV will do away with the traditional concept of experience altogether, just as FFXIII has done -- at its heart, each new system it employs will always demonstrate a thoughtful connection to the plot surrounding it. Love it or hate it, each new Final Fantasy represents a highly chimerical yet extremely deliberate philosophy of RPG design... even when it doesn’t actually feel like an RPG at all.

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