Monday, 4 January 2016

Final Fantasy XII and the Paradox of Final Fantasy

This is a transcript of my mini-episode for the Dead Genre Chronicles podcast (by the way, I'm on a podcast, check it out).


There is a paradox at the heart of what 'Final Fantasy' means in gaming. A Final Fantasy game must suffer two irreconcilable comparisons to the series' landmark seventh instalment; first, to the narrative and interface conventions it defined, and second to its astonishing transpacific impact. No game, or indeed any other work of art, could meet both, since landmark status can seldom if ever be achieved by preserving and perpetuating conventions.

Final Fantasy IX and X were commercially and critically successful, and still hold up today as excellent developments of the form and style laid down by Final Fantasy VII. They are outstanding games, deeply worthy of their heritage, but neither even approaches global landmark status.

Final Fantasy XII wasn't Square Enix's first attempt to break from the FFvii formula; even discounting handheld spin-offs, that honour goes to the misunderstood and underrated Finall Fantasy X-2. But where X-2 is an optimistic tale about the construction of new traditions, it is Final Fantasy XII that best expresses the frustration of the Final Fantasy paradox.

At a personal level, FFXII is the story of Ashelia B'nargin, princess of the recently-conquered kingdom of Dalmasca. Her adventure comprises a series of desperate attempts to restore her sovereignty and build a resistance to the grand empires that want to use her country as a battlefield.

But Ashe's actions are largely irrelevant to the history of Ivalice. At a political level, what really turns the world of FFXII are the tides of power and honour that bind the empires of Archadia and Rozarria to their cold war.

At every turn, Ashe and her party are thwarted by Archadia's effortless military and technological supremacy; more than once, hours of in-game travel will end in a cutscene where Archadian airships fly overhead, overtaking you and destroying whatever faint hope you journeyed in search of.

The true magnitude of the plot's commitment to futility can only be conveyed through spoilers, so if you want to avoid them skip ahead now.


We are used to Final Fantasy games where, in the end, the player's party challenge the power of Gods who wish to control the destiny of mankind. In Final Fantasy XII, though, it is the villains who chant about placing, as they put it, 'the reins of history back in the hands of man'. There are gods, the Occuria, who manipulate human affairs, by granting the powers of magical superweapons to some monarchs and not others; but it is Vayne and Cid who seek to break their monopoly.

Ashe – herself chosen by the Occuria to wield a new nethicite superweapon – defeats Vayne, having finally decided not to use the power of nethicite herself. In doing so, she allows the Occuria to remain in their position of absolute power and forswears the only thing that could make her political and military position secure. Though she ends the story with Dalmasca's sovereignty restored, the nation's army remains weak and the power of her neighbours stands almost unchecked.

It should be noted here that there's a distinctly Japanese relationship to the politics of nuclear weaponry at work in FFXII's plot, but it's a topic for another time, and for a critic who isn't tied by national and personal history to the development of nuclear power for military use.

### (end spoiler) ###

Very little is changed about the world of Final Fantasy XII by the actions of any character. Against the tides of history, individual agency is largely irrelevant. This is reinforced by the sheer scale of the slice of Ivalice you're permitted to explore. FFXII's playable areas are vast, but they also have open horizons that reveal just how much of the world is beyond reach.

It's a long game, and you travel what feels like an extraordinarily broad stretch of the world. But for all your wandering, you explore less than half of Archadia and never trouble the shores of Rozarria at all. This is the great advantage of unifying the game around a single scale rather than having the world-map/field-map dichotomy of older games (which is not to say that world-map-games are necessarily bad, just that FFXII gets excellent mileage out of the alternative).

I'd argue, though this is more subjective, that there is also an insignificance to the combat. There are no dramatic transitions between exploration and battle, few opportunities for a triumphant pose or the game's subdued version of the iconic victory theme. And the gambit system, which allows you to programme your own limited friendly A.I. rather than individually input commands, diminishes your moment-to-moment role in the fighting.

To truly address the motif of insignificance that runs through Final Fantasy XII, though, we have to talk about Vaan. Because while Ashe is clearly the protagonist and lead character of the game, it is Vaan who serves as our viewpoint on events, a less-intelligent Watson to Ashe's less-insufferable Holmes.

The story of FFXII's development is far from transparent, but something that's become widely-believed over the last ten years is that Vaan was a late addition to the cast, only added after Yasumi Matsuno's departure from the development team. Matsuno's departure is a complex issue in its own right – the official line is that he left due to illness, but rumours remain that he clashed with other key Squenix figures, or that creative differences drove him out.

The popular myth holds that after Matsuno's departure, his original protagonist was deemed too old to appeal to the core Final Fantasy fanbase, so Vaan was introduced as replacement. Opinion varies as to whether the original protagonist became Basch or Balthier, or whether the character disappeared entirely.

I haven't been able to find an unambiguous source for any of this. Certainly, elements of the game's story changed after Matsuno's departure, but this is to be expected on any large video game. The ambiguity leaves a cloud hanging over Vaan, particularly as the idea that fans of JRPGs couldn't handle a 'mature' character feeds into a trite, overplayed narrative about the kind of people who like Japanese games.

Still, I feel Vaan is absolutely essential to the thematic project of Final Fantasy XII. He is the ultimate in insignificance; orphaned and stripped of his family by the war, he lives by street crime and odd jobs in the capital of Ashe's kingdom. Though he is close enough to the familiar hero-of-humble-stock to pass for it on first inspection, Vaan is not really any kind of hero at all.

Vaan is an NPC given life. In any other JRPG, he'd be the street-savvy kid hanging around near the airship dock with big dreams and little concept of the outside world. He'd have three different dialogue boxes, one in each act, indicating a steadily-growing awareness of the stakes at work in your quest.

So why cart such an inconsequential character around with the heroic Princess for seventy-plus hours? Why force him between the player and the game? When he displays any character at all, he's unquestionably annoying.

Yes, thank you, child.
The relationship between Vaan and Ashe brings out the absurdity of the relationship between Final Fantasy's magical heroes and the undifferentiated mass of virtual bodies they claim intent to save. Vayne's quarrel with the Occuria is irrelevant to the citizens and subjects of Archadia. Only the most powerful men in Ivalice are more oppressed by the Gods than by human rulers.

For Vaan, no theological quibble can be worth the threat that the Occuria's nethicite poses to his friends in Rabanastre. Ashe contemplates the use of nethicite as a weapon of war; Vaan's mere presence represents those who would be destroyed. He highlights the distance between Ashe's idea of her subjects' needs and the actual experiences of her people.

Ashe stands between Vayne's might and Vaan's insignificance. Technically a divinely-entitled monarch, she should be free to challenge the gods, but her claim to heroism rests in principles that demand she not use the tools presented. Vaan represents the second horn of this dilemma. It would be trite and inaccurate to call him the voice of Ashe's conscience; instead, he is a prompt to the player's awareness.

Were Ashe to be the viewpoint character, the conventions of the Final Fantasy series would preclude any possibility of considering this tension. We might see the precarity of Rabanastre's citizens in occasional NPC dialogue, but we have been trained out of identifying with these digital sheep. We trust that the game will enable us to save them, except for those that will be sacrificed in some spectacular cutscene to symbolise the stakes.

Vaan forces us into their perspective, makes us understand why it is that the means of heroes must be limited, cautious, and surgical. If this limits their ability to transform the world, perhaps we should reevaluate the idea that the world is in need of transformation.

It's no coincidence that this question appeared in FFX-2, and went on to reappear in the sequels to Final Fantasy XIII (itself a game about the inevitability of dire fates). But Final Fantasy XII states the question most clearly: for whom do we transform the world, and at what cost?

FFXII gives a hopeful answer. When Ashe and Vaan finally get their moment at the fulcrum of history, they choose to give up the possibility of nethicite power, to place it beyond reach of another human epoch. This is the answer that places the principles that underlie heroism ahead of the empty egoism that so often goes in their place. It's Bruce Wayne choosing to fund public infrastructure and advocating progressive taxation instead of dressing up as a bat and growling at people.

And Final Fantasy XII is defiantly hopeful about Final Fantasy as a project. It treats the Final Fantasy rulebook with the same forward-looking disregard that Final Fantasy VII once did. It rejects, or gives up on, the attempt to equal FFVII by imitating it. It recognises the impossibility of pleasing everyone who will try to claim some ownership of the Final Fantasy brand or identity.

So it's sad to see, half a decade later, the grim fatalism of FFXIII. It's hard to read that as anything other than a response to the hostile reception of FFXII. The recent furore over the Final Fantasy VII remake trailers has only emphasised this sense of futility; every feature of the original game has become a battleground between those who consider it essential and those who hold it to be anachronistic. By the time the remake emerges, the game's fan base may have entirely self-cannibalised. 

But on the other hand, there's Final Fantasy XV, a game of massive areas with open, stunning horizons. A game that enshrines a journey, and where, at least in the demo, the armies of a powerful empire occasionally swoop effortlessly overhead to attack you. A game that locks you to a single, small scale in a vast world. Possibly a game that, in completing the Fabula Nova Crystallis sequence, will finally break its fascination with the inevitable. The paradox of Final Fantasy may yet see resolution.


Wednesday, 11 November 2015


I am learning to cry.

Not learning to stage-cry. Not learning to perform crying, whether in honest fiction or dishonest manipulation. Not training a nerve pathway to bypass my emotions en route from brain to tear ducts (if that's how it works – I wouldn't know).

I am learning to cry when my chest tightens and breathing becomes difficult. Learning to cry when I have a reason to cry. Learning how to tell when I have a reason.

I am learning to cross an emotional wall that I don't remember building. I haven't cried a lot since childhood. I internalised early the idea that crying is weak or shameful, so that by the time I learned otherwise I had ruined the emotional pathways to doing so.

In my first nine years of adulthood I think I cried three times.

This is not healthy. I have spent the last year trying to re-engage with myself, to allow what I feel – which is who I am, really – to manifest in what I do and how I live. I've written a bit about it before.

Video games are helping. Virtual worlds are an emotional gym, albeit one I often stare through the window of rather than using. Like going to the gym, it takes an act of will and an openness to pain to engage with a game.

It's interactivity – I extend myself, and something responds. It's as interactive as any button-press, except that the buttons are inside me.

Okay, I freely admit that sentence is ridiculous. I'm using humour to restore emotional distance.

The inner button I'm pressing is the power switch.

Tales of Symphonia was maybe the first game to bring a tear to my eye, long before I realised crying was something I would have to learn. I can't now remember exactly what it was that got to me, but somewhere in Symphonia's convoluted turns, Lloyd and Colette were so alive that even I couldn't stay numb to them.

Don't Kiss the Prince

Not all tears are the product of sadness.

Emil, the hero of Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, is one of the queerest characters I've encountered. He talks openly about how handsome Regal is, at one point suggesting the other man take to carrying a rose in his teeth. His struggle, both literally within the world and thematically within the story, is against his violent second nature, his 'Ratatosk Mode'. But for incongruous baggy trousers, his outfit is pretty much a dress:

(Somebody please buy me this outfit)
Marta, who accompanies him throughout the game, initially idealises him as her heroic 'prince', mistakenly believing he saved her life once. She pushes him constantly to play into a romantic fantasy. He resists the casting, even to the point that doing so drives him into Ratatosk Mode.

There is no noble core to Emil's masculinity, only the physical, verbal and emotional savagery of Ratatosk. And Emil feels this, deeply. He dreads this loss of self.

So I cried when, on the last night before the final confrontation, Marta went up on tip-toes to kiss Emil. I cried – or at least achieved a single, proper, rolling tear – because she accepted Emil for what he is, because she released him from her fantasies, because Emil was not required to be something he was not in order to be loved.

(Emil never protests anyone's use of male pronouns for him, or I wouldn't be using them)

It must be said, too, and I will try to say it with as little scorn for myself as possible, that I am easily moved by the simplest romantic resolutions. Emil is given this – and given it without cost to his identity, given it as an act of faith in his eventual freedom – without Marta or the game forcibly normalising him. However far it felt from reality, the assertion of the possibility felt powerful to me.

I cried at the end of Tales of the Abyss, too, even though that's a much more normative romance. I try not to put scorn on myself for it, but I really am a sap.

Turds in the Soup

It doesn't take much turd in your soup to ruin it. Once there's a turd in there, you aren't going to keep eating. It doesn't matter how good the rest of the ingredients are, or how carefully they were prepared.

There's an archetypal character in the Tales franchise that is a turd in the soup. In Tales of Symphonia, he's Zelos Wilder. Tales of Vesperia has Raven, Tales of Xillia Alvin and the latest incarnation is Tales of Zestiria's Zaveid.

A brief summary of crimes:

- Constantly hitting on female characters

- Forcing physical intimacy on other characters

- Responding to literally every situation with humour, irrespective of the mental and emotional cost to anyone else nearby
Pictured: turd
It's weird to me that these characters are such a consistent feature of the franchise (Tales of the Abyss doesn't have an obvious example, but Jade is close in some ways; I've written about the displays of masculine toxicity in Tales of Graces before). Tales games, if they exhibit any common feature, specialise in emotionally rich male characters, men and boys who feel and grow and communicate better than many real male human beings.

And yet, floating in the middle of every otherwise delightful soup, a turd. Tales of Xillia 2 almost fixed the problem by spreading the unwelcome behaviour across multiple characters. This had a diluting effect; to some chefs, absolutely anything can be seasoning.

Indeed, if we're really going to tell stories that grapple with masculinity as Tales aspires to, we're going to have to deal with this behaviour, because it happens, it's real. It's common, even. But playing Tales games is generally, to me, immersing myself in something better. It's participating in a world where that archetype doesn't feel realistic.

Zestiria is the best yet for this. The central theme is respect for the feelings of others. Maybe it's an unrealistic picture of a better world (maybe it isn't) but it's at least a consistent one.

Except for Zaveid's turdery. And while the rest of the cast are unanimous in their rejection of his behaviour, when the emotional tone of a scene has been tainted it is very difficult to restore. Too often, I cannot get the odour out of my nostrils.

If there's one Tales game I don’t think I'll ever cry at, it's probably the one I know best: Tales of Vesperia. It's just a little too cynical, and it concerns itself more with other emotions. Moral abhorrence, mostly.

A Tale of My Own

I sprinkled tears right across Tales of Xillia 2, but I think the superlative writing team would be surprised at where.

I didn't cry at the first grand sacrifice of the story. By that point I was more than a little distracted by upheavals in my living arrangements over the summer, having to take significant breaks from the game because I was away from my consoles. The longest of those breaks, over two months, broke the spine of the game's wider story despite my best efforts.

I didn't cry at the ending, responding to its cruelty with angry defiance instead. Between that and struggling with the bosses because of the break, I found it hard to engage.

When I did cry with the plot, it was in sympathy with Elle's tears. They served as training wheels in a way – we're conditioned quite deeply to be moved by the distress of children. It could be seen as manipulative, I suppose, though that depends a bit on whether you feel the game exploits Elle or whether her situation is treated with respect. There are definitely questions to be asked of Ludger's paternalism.

But mostly I cried about Nova. The circumstances that justify her presence in the game are a cruel mismatch for her personality and force her into a conflict with Ludger that just isn't fair. When it came to a head, and I realised that her displays of affection towards Ludger weren't just sprightly service manner, I was cored.

For the rest of the game, her periodic phone calls carry hints of the hurt she feels. Her attempts to regain good cheer ring desperately hollow. Her voice falters in greeting, her eyes drop away in parting.

I wanted the game's finale to reconcile them. For once, I found myself with a headcanon, something I'm never normally comfortable with. The game didn't deliver, but that wasn't why I cried. I cried because the part of my version of the story that the game allowed me to enact is the kind of thing I would cry at.

If I were able to cry.

I'm learning.

The Uses of Eyes

Which brings us up to the present day, and Tales of Zestiria.

I could talk about the story. That provides plenty of reasons to cry.

The plot, of necessity, is a tapestry of tragedies. The malignant power that provides the story's existential threat is a manifestation of human inhumanity – the tangible essence of a lack of empathy. Hero Sorey, whose defining advantage is the limitless empathy facilitated by an upbringing without spiritual or material want, can't save everyone.

I could talk about the masterful subtlety of the writing, or the moments when it breaks and the characters do too.

But one thing I've heard about, that I'd never managed before, is to cry for beauty. To be moved not by an emotion of my own or one borrowed from a story, but simply by a raw phenomenon, an experience without leverage of pain or triumph.

I can't quite claim to have achieved that, if achievement is the right word (and it is, but in the therapeutic rather than the Xbox Live sense). When the sun-haze and scudding cloud-shadows over the golden fields of Pearloats Pasture became too much to look at, when I had to look away, blinking, a little of that was the transformation of the place from my first visit to it, and everything it implied about what Sorey had achieved there.

But I cried for the low sweep of the valley, and for the beams of daylight I could almost feel. I cried for the breeze and the gentle swell of the music, for the view across the walls and rooftops of Pendrago and the towers of the great bridge beyond the hill in the distance, and for the wonder of motion, Sorey's divinely-empowered run eating up but somehow also reinforcing the miles.

I can't really express my gratitude to this series of games without gushing. There are other experiences I've learned from this year, too, and I'd gush about them if I got started. What I'll finish on is this: open your heart, if it needs opening, and give some Tales a try.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Whose Silence is This?

Devon Carter's 'This Silence is Not Mine' stands as one of my favourite pieces of critical writing. It resonates with me because it points towards the novelistic understanding of narrative that I prefer over the dominant conception of video game narrative built around agency and expression[1]. Normally I can tolerate the silent protagonist only in worlds that are silent.

But then there's Tales of Xillia 2's Ludger Kresnik, a character without significant dialogue of his own yet probably the character I've engaged most deeply with this year. Ludger is no blank slate – he emotes both vividly and subtly, and indeed occasionally even utters the kind of not-quite-verbal speech that silent protagonists are sometimes allowed. But in all scenes where there is explicit communication among characters, Ludger is silent[2].

Part of what brings Xillia 2 so powerfully to life is the richness of the characters around Ludger, but more is the incomplete and very human structure of submission it imposes on him. However dire the circumstances, Ludger cannot speak. Whatever his anger or frustration, explicit goals and plans must come from other characters. Ludger exists only in tension with the will of others.

This is something I seek in games, in quasi-circumscribed virtual worlds, because lifelong anxieties make it difficult for me in the 'real' world. Games are safe spaces to allow external forces free rein; their dominance and their costs are confined to a small box which can be switched off if it becomes too much[3]. In-game events cannot affect one to quite the same extent that rent, bills and hunger can, to say nothing of more complex relationships.

This is why I love Vaan in Final Fantasy XII, the perfect viewpoint character for a game about the unmanageability of history. It's why I feel such empathy for Final Fantasy X’s Tidus, who can only ever be a hanger-on to Yuna's journey. And it's why more competent, driven protagonists like Tales of Vesperia's Yuri and Tales of Graces' Asbel leave me cold (see also: protagonists on whom the broader story centres, like Cloud and Squall).

There is a second twist to this, though, because Xillia 2 has dialogue choices. Quite a lot of them, even. It's almost retro, a throwback to the idea that a plot is more interactive if you chuck a menu up on screen occasionally.

At the very moments when silence and submission would be most comfortable, would exonerate me of the party's toughest decisions, I'm forced, with Ludger, to take responsibility. I found it paralysing. Often choosing would take me far longer than the pace of real dialogue would have afforded Ludger. At least once, on a choice for which there was a time limit, I deliberately elected to let the timer run out, as if I could force the game to take responsibility back.

It's never clear what effect the choices have on the game's core narrative (for some choices, the game will tell you which other characters you've impressed, but only after you make the decision). More than once, I found myself doggedly opposing choices that led to plot events that were probably inescapable. Even when it comes to affecting which ending you get, few choices before the game's climactic chapter matter.

The choices exist to reward engagement in the characters with the agony of choice. It's an interactivity far more palpable than pushing buttons. More importantly, because of the way choices are framed, because of the game's narrative structure taken as a whole, Ludger's voice is restored in them, and harmonised with my own.

I played Ludger as a reluctant, stumbling non-hero, unwilling to make tough choices and struggling to communicate with his allies. Partly this was because I struggled to intuit which potential nuance of any given phrase the game would pick up on, so I often made choices which the characters put a different spin on to the one I was expecting[4]. But by accident (or maybe design, though not mine), there was a coherence to my errors.

Ludger's silence, and the awkwardness I bequeathed him, fitted. My Ludger made bad decisions and hurtful remarks because neither of us could handle loving the people around him as much as we did in such cruel circumstances. His silence was not mine, but it was so like mine – a silence I often find myself in – that the difference seldom mattered.

All of which was only enough to earn me the sorta-OK ending, out of the game's four choices. For the true ending, not only would Ludger have to be braver, nobler, and more confident, but so would I. It may be a while before I can face trying again.

[1] Herein lies the (perhaps over-strong) line I draw between games I play for narrative and games I would prefer display as little narrative as possible. Silent protagonists – truly silent protagonists, the Gordon Freemans who are silent because they are protagonists in a video game, not because their silence is part of the plot – feel to me like holes, like an absolute barrier to my engagement rather than a necessary precondition for it.

[2] It was pointed out to me after I drafted this that in Xillia 2’s new game plus mode, Ludger’s speech is restored for his dialogue choices. I imagine this changes a few things about how the story feels, but I can’t comment on it directly as I haven’t experienced it myself.

[3] So the orthodoxy goes, anyway. Perhaps I would be a healthier being if I had not spent so much of my life believing it.

[4] A familiar experience. I'm not great at verbal communication.

Monday, 28 September 2015

What a Wonderful Genre

I sometimes wonder whether there’s a value in genre-based critique, particularly for a genre as diverse and nebulous as JRPGs. Looking at Tales of Vesperia means addressing the genre at large as well as its contemporaneous western perception, but I’m wary of falling into the trap of fanboyism. I’m not even sure what might constitute a ‘genre crisis’, never mind whether one actually occurred.

The perception of a genre crisis persists, though. I think it’s probably been there for a long time – some of the things that bring it about are inescapable consequences of an international games industry – but the phenomenon of games being proclaimed ‘the saviour of the JRPG’ is newer, I think. The World Ends With You is the first such game I was aware of.

To quote the almost inevitable arch-villain of any extended defence of the JRPG, Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw, from his 2008 review of TWEWY:
“I had heard that The World Ends With You does things differently to most JRPGs, and while I took that with mountainous piles of salt … I thought if the release dates are from bizarro world, maybe the entire game is, too, and will turn out to be the first good JRPG.”[1]
And that’s very much the perception I remember having of TWEWY. That it does things differently. Maybe it’s just what this genre needs. TWEWY certainly positions itself as modern and exciting, not always successfully. Its contemporary setting, punk aesthetic and action combat were all trumpeted as much-needed progress; even Yahtzee found a positive word for the game’s look.

But the actual extent to which the game innovates is unclear. Modern settings weren’t new; the Persona franchise was a decade old by TWEWY’s release, and more obscure modern-set games go back much further (the original Mother, for example, came out in 1989). Action combat in Japanese RPGs goes right back to the SNES (Secret of Mana, Tales of Phantasia). Even the ‘punk fashion’ doesn’t actually look so very different from the outfits on display in any number of earlier titles.

The game’s treatment of its female characters is sadly predictable. Shiki, Neku’s first partner, gets damseled at the end of the first act to provide motivation for acts two and three. One of the female villains is an ‘ice queen’ archetype, the other emotionally erratic and constantly being told to calm down. Rhyme gets fridged in act one, then turns out later to have already been in a different fridge all along[2].

On the mechanical/structural side, the game really isn’t that innovative at all. The plot progresses as the search for cutscene triggers, along with the completion of occasional arbitrary challenges and a steady supply of boss fights. You can overlook it at first, but about half-way through the second week there’s a day where all you do is go to a new area, find out what the next challenge is, backtrack to grind it to completion, and repeat.

There are genuine innovations here – the gender-neutral but not gender-ignorant clothing/bravery mechanic is one that I wish had taken off – but the game’s biggest strength lies in its dialogue writing. When not burdened with the demands of exposition, the dialogue is incredible. But TWEWY isn’t the first well-written game, and good writing predates digital games by a few years at least.

In fact, I’d argue, one of the things that got the game touted as forward-looking, the non-turn-based combat, is a real weak spot thematically. For a game trying to engage with the modern, digital era, where combat serves among other things as a metaphor for brand advertising, I feel like turn-based combat would have been quite at home. It could have been built around the frantic exchange of text messages or emails – discrete bursts of activity followed by an anxious wait for the potentially disastrous response.

Turn-based combat was a favourite punching bag of JRPG haters, though, and probably still is. Certainly Yahtzee went after it with knives drawn – reviewing Super Paper Mario, he crowed that “The stupid, effeminate, blouse-wearing turn-based combat is replaced with wholesome, traditional, masculine head-stomping,” which is a perfect distillation of the insecurity that underpins a lot of JRPG criticism.

But attempts to get away from turn-based combat have had mixed results. TWEWY’s system at least produces some sense of rhythm and party interaction. Eternal Sonata and other games that adapted Paper Mario’s action command system tended to end up with blind guesswork and repetition. More drastic experiments like the gunplay in Resonance of Fate could be bewildering, not to mention difficult to balance because of a lack of precedent to learn from.

Meanwhile, games that stuck to a known formula for combat tended to draw less notice, but be more consistent. Tales of Vesperia adds only tweaks to a system polished through Tales of Symphonia and Tales of the Abyss. Blue Dragon worked wonders with a modified version of Final Fantasy X’s completely turn-based battles.

I’m not complaining about innovation per se. My problem with all these examples is that they’re innovation at gun-point, innovation not driven by the needs of the work but the demands of a hostile audience. If there is a genre crisis at all, it resides in this tension. Certainly that’s what Vesperia engages with at every level of its design.

What I’m not sure of is whether there’s any great value to my pointing this out, which is a bad thing to say at the end of a thousand-word blog post. I don’t expect to be able to persuade people, and I don’t really want to try. I’m certainly not qualified to approach this as a design textbook, or even as a way of advocating a design principle. I do want to capture what Vesperia expresses, though, and that involves at least a little of both those other things.

[1] Yes, I watched that video carefully enough to transcribe it. Don’t say I never suffer for my work. (The note about release dates refers to the fact that TWEWY – like more recent ‘genre-saviour’ Xenoblade Chronicles – came out in Europe before America).

[2] Okay, yes, I’m indulging my love of tortured metaphors here. Bigger-than-average-spoilers for explanation: having been killed off in act one to get Neku angry at the Reapers, Rhyme turns out to have come into the Reapers’ game as a result of a death whose function in the story is to motivate Beat.

Monday, 21 September 2015

The World Trends With You

For a game that went into development in 2005, elements of The World Ends With You feel outright prescient. This was a time before Facebook or Twitter even existed (or at least, before they were open to the general public), when ‘social media’ meant MySpace and Livejournal. Unfortunately, largely because of how Facebook and Twitter, and their explosive success, have changed social media and social patterns, other bits of the game haven’t aged well at all.

The good first: TWEWY has a ‘trends’ mechanic whereby most equipment in the game has a ‘brand’ and different brands are in vogue in different areas. Over time, trends shift and brands rise and fall. Equipment with trending brands gets bonuses. The ever-shifting trend chart will feel pretty familiar to anyone who spends a lot of time on Twitter, as will the way trends shift unpredictably and arbitrarily over time and from region to region.

What feels less in-touch is how you interact with these trends. You can boost a brand by wearing it and fighting battles, and some plot events involve using protagonist Neku’s mind-reading powers to manipulate others into setting or following trends. Neku, trapped in a shadow version of Shibuya, invisible to its ordinary inhabitants, becomes a sort of spooky, subliminal influence, enacting the unintelligible whims of vast and sinister powers.

For 2005-7, you can see where the developers were coming from. I’m sure that people who know the ins and outs of the fashion industry have some sense of where the trends one sees in the street come from, but otherwise it can seem very mysterious indeed. This is particularly true for those of us of a male persuasion, who are socialised to find fashion completely opaque.

Having the combat promote brands is one part pure ludus, of course, but it’s also a metaphor for being seen wearing. This is how fashion brands work, or at least how they’re supposed to – people see someone influential wearing <brand> and want to imitate them. That TWEWY also has supernatural forces and mind control at work to create this effect is a pointed comment.

But our understanding of trends – and certainly the definition of the word ‘trend’ – has been transformed over the last decade. There’s nothing in TWEWY to make you feel involved in trends. Neku stands apart from the culture he influences, boxed off by the metaphysics of the Reapers’ Game. Trends happen to the background humans, even to the point that in the end they are all brainwashed into one particular pattern of thought.

And there’s another quirk of the game that takes this from being merely dated[1] to actually off-putting. Neku is a misanthrope; we are first introduced to him as he bitches about how noisy and irritating other people are. The enemies you fight to promote your brands are collectively referred to as ‘Noise’, too.

One of the few insights the game gives into Neku’s character is his preference for one particular designer’s work and philosophy, but the philosophy in question is a conceited, shallow existentialism that feeds Neku’s contempt. Neku seems to hate other humans for existing (and to assume they can generally do no more than exist). His dislike of noise isn’t a now-familiar objection to the ceaseless howling of twitter or the noxious stew of Facebook[2], he’s just petulant and self-centered.

Yes, by the end of the game Neku has begun to open up. One of his final lines is “I have friends now”. But there’s no sense that this is part of a wider development of his empathy. His friendships were developed in isolation from humanity, just like everything else that happens in the game.

It’s the isolation that no longer feels resonant. It’s not just that we see ‘trending’ differently now. It’s that the idea I remember having in 2007 of how trends work seems naïve. Had I played the game then, I might have felt reassured by its portrayal of trends and fashions as the work of a sinister corporate nether realm. But the failure to address how we ‘ordinary people’ participate in and propagate trends is now obvious.

The separation between Neku, along with the other residents of Underground Shibuya who can shape and exploit trends, and humanity at large grants the latter group the comfortable innocence of the powerless. They are only ever victims of trends, or occasionally unwitting pawns of trendsetters. If Twitter has a general lesson at all, it’s that this is a fiction.

This is where the passage of time really hasn’t been kind to TWEWY. Something that was hidden in its understanding of its theme has been laid bare. There’s more to be said about TWEWY’s relationship to modernity, but for a game touted as a much-needed update to the JRPG genre, its theme now feels simplistic and outdated.

[1] Not actually a sin, for what my saying it is worth. TWEWY feels right to me as a piece of its time – the retro phone graphics of the HUD are spot-on for the kind of phones I had as a undergraduate (2005-8).

[2] Both of which are probably not quite as bad as the hype suggests, but bad enough that I’d be sympathetic now to most people complaining about noise in those contexts.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Dog Time

‘World’ is, by root, as much a temporal concept as a spatial one. I’ve said before that one of the things that Tales of Vesperia struggles with is conveying the passage of time between its plot developments. The plot moves in fits and starts, tied tightly and transparently to the movements and actions of the player characters.

There is one side-quest in the game, though, which is a little more sophisticated. At roughly the end of Vesperia’s first act, you can run across Little Wolf, the nemesis of Yuri’s canine companion Repede (Repede being a playable character in his own right). Little Wolf challenges Repede to a ‘marking battle’, a contest to say which of them can claim more territory around the world.

The way this works is simple; rest in an area of the world map and Repede will claim it as his own. Meanwhile, over time, Little Wolf slowly builds an empire, taking unclaimed territories and nibbling away at Repede’s. If you, at any point, manage to take 95% of the world map from Little Wolf, you win and he shows up to concede. He will still, even more slowly, claim territory, but his submission is clear.

After starting the side-quest, you can get an item which displays Repede’s and Little Wolf’s territory on the world map – not the live one that tracks your position as you move around, but the more detailed one available from the pause menu. Repede’s territory is marked with blue blobs, Little Wolf’s with red, and the boundaries pulse and blur enough to make them seem dynamic and in constant conflict.

What the slow swelling of Little Wolf’s territory conveys, in a way that little else in this game can, is the passage of time. It’s not perfect – you have to keep opening a pretty deeply-buried menu to see it – but it’s there, and it does suggest that some things happen in the world without Yuri’s direct intervention.

It conveys some broad things about the party’s situation, too. You can only claim territory that you can get to, and if you start the side-quest as soon as it’s available, your travel options are extremely limited. Many areas are inaccessible until you get the airship late in act 2, by which time Little Wolf can claim a lot of land you can’t reach.

The world changes as the plot progresses, as well. A handful of the areas you have to claim are lakes or mountain ranges when you first encounter them, and only become places where the airship can land after the earth-shaking events of the final act. In my early play-throughs of the game I spent a long time searching for concealed landing-spots in act 2 before discovering these transformations.

Perhaps the most important function of the Little Wolf side-quest is its interaction with the sections of the plot that restrict your mobility. In particular, during the section where you’re trying to rescue Estelle, your airship is damaged and you’re forced to ground. On recovering to the nearest town, you find that a civilian exodus has tied up every last boat, and you’re trapped on one particular continent.

Vesperia then sends you on a long, torturous journey to where Estelle’s being held. From having granted you and your characters an exclusive mastery of the skies, the game narrows down to a single convoluted path, fraught with monsters and harsh terrain. It never really manages to convince you you won’t rescue Estelle, but it does its best.

Functionally, of course, the rescue of Estelle will wait for you to reach your destination. Until you hit the right series of triggers, Estelle – and her captors – remain in limbo. There’s time to chase up any of the side-quests that are available to you (not many, but there are a few diversions, at least one of which is only available during this sequence). So it’s hard to feel much urgency.

But through it all, Little Wolf advances. He’s always moved fastest on the far side of the world from where you’re stuck. Now there’s hours of gameplay where you can do nothing to stop him. Whenever you come back to the dog map, Little Wolf’s territorial gains are a diagram of your delay.

You can always recover – tents aren’t expensive by the standards of the late game, and once you have your freedom back you can claim territory pretty quickly (though you must fight at least one battle each time you rest before you can rest again). Nothing is missable, you don’t get locked out of the rewards[1], but time does pass.

It’s this sense of the inexorability of time that I think games often struggle with. In-game time is malleable in a way that real-world time isn’t, and many ways of making in-game time more restrictive also place harsh demands on players that have little respect for differences in ability or circumstance. Vesperia’s dog map offers a way to weave between this limitations.

[1] Though Vesperia is quite happy to lock you out of other sidequests if you miss particular steps. I’m of two minds about this, but it’s a topic for another time.

Written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table:

Monday, 14 September 2015

Of Maps and Men

Right from the very first lines of the opening narration, Tales of Vesperia emphasises how wild and uncharted its world is. Towns are only safe because of vast and powerful magical barriers; few humans ever go outside, and those who do will be eaten by monsters if they can’t defend themselves. The failure of a town’s barrier is a cataclysmic event.

Given this strict binary between townsfolk and travellers, the game quickly sorts the player characters into the latter category. Yuri and Estelle are forced to flee from their homes into the wilderness. Before they go, though, they are given a map. Apart from the immediate area around the city, it’s blank.

Yuri and Estelle decide to fill in the map as they go; it updates automatically from this point forward. Shortly, they meet Karol, a young trainee monster hunter about to be thrown out of his guild for cowardice. Karol doesn’t have a map of his own, but takes over the role of cartographer when he realises how little of your map is filled in.

Later, your quest brings you to a forgotten shrine, Baction, where you find a dungeon consisting mostly of repetitive square rooms differentiated only by monster placement and cracks in the floor. Here, again, Karol is given mapping duties – this is the only dungeon in the game that has an on-screen minimap. Numerous skits and cutscenes emphasise Karol’s love of mapmaking, of which the most striking is when he says:

“Nothing calls to a man’s heart like the thrill of making maps!”

This is not a sentiment the other male characters share (Yuri responds, drily, “I’ve never had that thrill.”) Both Yuri and Raven emphasise a more familiar violent and promiscuous masculinity. Throughout the early part of the game, Yuri constantly trolls Karol for his cowardice, apparently with the idea that this will toughen him up. Later, when Karol does get to ‘prove’ his manhood by defending the rest of the party from a boss all by himself, Raven says, “Facing down challenges like that is part of becoming a man.”

But while Karol does fit or try to fit some parts of this image of masculinity – trying to be a monster hunter, carrying comically oversized weapons – his actual manhood is constructed very differently. It’s in his building a guild of his own, and developing its reputation through hard work and respectful business with other guilds. It’s in his interest in mapmaking and his (implied) willingness to step back and let others benefit from it[1].

In other words, Karol’s masculinity is sited in responsibility, and in engagement with community. What Karol seeks is not just manhood in himself but legitimacy, a place in society. For Yuri and Raven, masculinity is no such thing; one way or another, their masculinity is about the freedom of power and self-determination.

Karol’s love of cartography dovetails with his masculinity. As Kaitlin Tremblay writes in this month’s Critical Distance Blogs of the Round Table prompt:

“Maps… order and define spaces… They set a boundary to what otherwise feels vast and potentially limitless, a way to compartmentalise and therefore tackle the world.”

Where Yuri and Raven – along with most of the game’s other male characters – are erratic and chaotic, Karol’s is a masculinity of order and control. It is a masculinity that takes wild spaces and tames them, and this sounds like a good thing. At least, it sounds preferable to Yuri’s rampant individualism.

But control and categorisation are the subtle weapons of masculine hegemony. Yuri’s violence – and Raven’s lechery – may seem more dangerous, but many of the game’s villains are motivated by the desire to control, to keep people in their places. And, on the face of it, Karol’s maps only really serve those already capable of using the spaces he charts – since these spaces are dungeons and the hostile wilderness, only those who can already take care of themselves benefit[2].

Mapping the world, by implication mastering it, is an expression of privilege. Maps that go beyond the purely topographical – surveillance maps, maps of national boundaries or battlefronts – are often tools of power. We see this in the refugee crisis in Europe at the moment, thousands of people dying or being mistreated for the sake of lines on a map.

Vesperia doesn’t address this facet of maps directly. Its world, Terca Lumireis, is not really divided among nations, since the land outside the magical barriers is equally hostile to everyone. While there are occasional references to governance and military action, it’s basically never the focus of events. Karol’s maps are never used to express collective, institutional or hierarchical power.

The game does entrust the map to hierarchical power, though. When you complete the world map, the ‘reward’ cutscene and title go to Estelle, an Imperial princess. By this time, she’s already passed over the possibility of succession, but she remains an image of royalty – indeed, the supernatural legacy she inherits suggests her bloodline may be exceptionally pure.

What does she use the map for? In the cutscene, an NPC notices her looking at it and asks Estelle to tell her about all the exotic places she’s visited. Estelle, whose passion is storytelling, obliges, talking right through the night.

Maps can be tools of power, but they can also be souvenirs and reminders. Somewhere I still have the map of New York I bought on a trip there in 2004, because without a map I can’t fit the memories of those four frantic days together in a coherent order. Estelle’s use of the world map does more than that, arguably; it enables her to bring the now-tamed spaces of the wilderness to those not privileged to be able to visit them.

Whether this is enough to defang the map as a tool of power, I’m not sure. The game could be seen as naïve in suggesting that. But as a suggestion of a better way – not just for maps but by implication for masculinity – it bears some consideration.

[1] I’ll return to this point later, but the rewards for completing the world map all go to Estelle.

[2] It should be noted that not all such characters are male in Vesperia. In their own distinct ways, all three of the party’s female members are empowered to be outside the safety of the towns, but where addressed at all this tends to be framed as ‘unladylike’.

Written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table: