Thursday 9 April 2015

To Walk a Turning World

About a month ago, Austin C. Howe was firing some shots at Final Fantasy XII on Twitter, and I responded with this somewhat ambitious declaration:

More seriously, I do think Howe's wrong that "There's nothing to say" about FFXII. I certainly didn't find it "Boring to engage with" (as my 500+ hours in-game across multiple playthroughs will testify), nor do I personally think it has a "Bad story." It's certainly a divisive, much-maligned game, but I love it and want to offer a few thoughts in its defence.
Not helping, Vaan. (image from)
I love FFXII, first and foremost, because I love travelling through its world. As the first banner Final Fantasy title to present its entire world at a single scale[1], spaces that would previously have been very abstract are now robust, tangible and teeming with life. They're also much less, for want of a better term, cartographical – there are dramatic contours where previously there would have been only the fine lines of insubstantial cliffs.

And the game's biggest, most controversial innovations all serve to draw attention to this world. Combat no longer happens in a separate, distinct space. The gambit system has the direct consequence of minimising the role of combat altogether, reducing ordinary combat choices to a matter of how you move through the space of each zone. The random chests challenge and frustrate the idea that the goal of exploring a world is tangible or ludic reward.

FFXII is a game about travel – movement not just through space but through time as well. Where ludic elements intrude on this journey, it is to add labour and slow 'progress'. Monsters punctuate their zones, some barely dangerous enough to slow you a step, some that must be navigated carefully around (there's probably a whole essay just in the placement of the toxic marlboros and lethal elementals).

Time, and the sense of its passage, are vital to the scale of the story. FFXII's story is about being a small boat on grand, historical tides. Even your princess represents a kingdom swamped by its much larger neighbour – she is a pawn much as her domain is[2]. The story moves at the speed of monolithic empires, and if your journey was deprived of its temporal extension the game would feel fast-forwarded.

Where the plot does touch the lives of the characters, it's mostly to devalue the destination or motivation for the journey. Roughly speaking, we can identify five journeys in the narrative:

-Across the Yensan Sandsea to Raithwall's Tomb, a journey invalidated at conclusion when the Imperial Navy fly effortlessly over the same ground and capture you, in a scene that could not belabour the theme of 'you are very small and we are very big' more heavily if it tried.

-South to the sacred Mt. Bur-Omisace, where on arrival you discover that the political situation in the Empire has changed and made your trek irrelevant (bonus points here for the return to Bur-Omisace after the Stillshrine of Miriam where the Empire has been and gone in your absence, symbolically destroying the authority to which you had appealed).

-North to Archades, the Imperial Capital; here, in theory, the Empire can't trivialise your journey by effortlessly catching up because, y'know, they're already there. Instead, when you finally reach the Draklor laboratory, someone else – Reddas – is there ahead of you and already causing trouble.

-South again to Giruvegan in pursuit of Cid, who turns out not to have gone there. Giruvegan is the closest you get to a journey that is rewarded, but at best it's rewarded with a gift from the ambiguous Occuria – and the discovery that one of their number, the renegade Venat, has been supporting Vayne and Cid all along.

-Finally, the ascent of the isolated Pharos lighthouse is long enough to arguably constitute a journey in its own right, and sure enough, it gets doubly trivialised – not only is Judge Gabranth waiting at the top, but once you beat him Cid turns up out of nowhere to mess with you.

The journey, always, is what matters, what allows the world to turn; that turn serves always to extend the journey. If the ending of FFXII feels weak (and to me it felt almost irrelevant), it's because the limit of the disk means the journey can't be meaningfully extended again. The last level is short, tacked-on, isolated. It breaks away from this game's mould to fit the genre's expectations of a dramatic final confrontation.

This is a game with a profound contempt for classical notions of player engagement and reward. Its story denies the power fantasy of being the hero who shapes the world (the villains, Vayne and Cid, both use the slogan of 'the reins of history back in the hands of man'); its combat is designed to minimise any sense of environmental mastery on the player's part by detaching combat power from player input.

One of the most rewarding experiences I ever had in-game was when, needing to do some grinding to tackle some of the more daunting side-content, I decided to try walking from one end of the world to the other. It took about half an hour, I think, and I really got to feel the geographical, especially topographical, qualities of the world – down out of the Paramina Mountains, across plains and deserts that rise into the Mosphora, back down along the coast of Archadia and up again across highlands to Balfonheim.

I played it as a walking simulator, basically (maybe a hiking simulator?). And I think the game liked it.


[1] Yes, there's a case to be made for FFX, but I'd argue the ambiguous scale of the Calm Lands (as well as possibly the Thunder Plains and Bikanel Desert) counts against it.

[2] It's not my place to launch into gender critique, but I'll acknowledge there's no way the devs would have ever done that with a prince – they even kill both prince and king off at the start of the story to avoid doing so.

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