Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Notes on Final Fantasy XII

1. To understand my current fixation with (and deep, deep satisfaction of) Final Fantasy XII and all its intricacies, one must first understand the game’s failings. Final Fantasy XII has a unique brand of ludonarrative dissonance (sorry). The story and the game do not match each other—not due to any kind of thematic dissonance between ‘story’ and ‘game’, but in the level of exclusive attention each demands of the player. The ‘story’ is one of competing kingdoms and arms races and both inter- and intranational diplomacy and bureaucracy. The player must keep track of name, militaries, geographies, family trees, timelines, and peace treaties if they are to follow what is happening. It is simultaneously the most mundane, most grounded, and most compelling story I have encountered in a Final Fantasy. The ‘game’, meanwhile, is a fascinatingly deep and intricate web of battle systems and side quests and hunts and secrets and rare items. The player is expected—at times almost forced by difficulty spikes—to put aside the story and spend tens of hours hunting a giant turtle or diving into an utterly optional area. It is, all of it, incredibly enjoyable, but then you return to the story and have lost all track of who is at war with who and the difference between magicite and nethicite (nuclear and atom bombs, I think) and just why you are going where you are going. Is the evil country Rozarria or is that the good guys? The first time I played FFXII, when it was new, I was eighty-hours in when I finally gave up. I had never before gotten eighty hours into a game without the end even being remotely in sight. I had just spent so much time doing other things that I didn’t even know what was happening, so I gave up. I had never before given up on a Final Fantasy. 

2. FFXII refuses to be played how it wants to be played. It is impossible. It wants 90% of your attention on this half and 90% on that half. It demands 180% of your attention. It is impossible to play FFXII how it wants to be played. But, just like Metal Gear Solid demands the player to accept they will be spending as much time watching as playing (or: watching is a major component of playing Metal Gear Solid), one can enter FFXII with a particular mindset, with a particular goal on what they want to get out of the game, and it can be the most engrossing thing. I’ve long wanted to return to FFXII to better explore its design: the gambits, the sidequests, the particularities of Yasumi Matsuno’s grubby design fingerprints smeared all over it. So I began again with an agenda: I am playing for the design, not for the story. I will focus all my attention on this aspect of the game, and ignore that aspect, rebalancing what the game gets so wrong. To stress, I chose to play a JRPG not for the story. This is not something I ever thought I would do.

3. If we ignore the story and how it is told, then, the design of FFXII is immaculate. By ‘the design’ I mean the way everything works together. The way it sets out to achieve certain forms of engagements with its rules and systems and mechanics. The way it translates the decades-old turn-based battle system into real-time, streamlining it and giving it a rhythm while holding on to its core focuses of tactics and strategy. The way it is so transparently influenced by MMO design. As long as one ignores the story, it becomes so explicit what the game is tying to do, and it just does it with a mighty level of confidence.

4. The ‘real-time’ battles. FFXII does away with the battle scenes of most JRPGS. In place of the stop-start pacing of running around a map and then, every few steps, everything blurring and a whole new battle screen appearing, enemies are visible and fought on the map. You just walk up to them, fight them, and keep walking. On the surface, this solves the various pacing issues that turn-based battle scenes have always been plagued by. But it introduces new challenges. Turn-based battles allow for deep, strategic choice and clear communication of intent without needing to hastily press the right buttons in the right order. The design of FFXII is at its most fascinating where it adapts the strengths of turn-based battles into its semi real-time design, while leaving aside the monotonous and boring parts. The transition from ‘walking around’ to ‘fighting’ is as simple as the characters pausing for a split second to pull out their weapons. From here, the player can press X to pause time and open a small menu no different to any turn-based Final Fantasy. You can choose attack, magic, item, etc. With the menu open, you can press left and right to scroll between the menus of different characters. The battle does not require a separate screen, but it still manages to use menus seamlessly and intuitively to ensure no lower level of strategic control.

5. The main restriction on real-time combat is the inability to control multiple people at once. You see this in other real-time JRPGS, like Kingdom Hearts, where the player is in charge of Sora, and Goofy and Donald just do their own thing. You can set vague AI behaviour (defensive or support or aggressive) but you lose the fine-grained control that turn-based combat can give you over an entire party. FFXII’s answer to this is the gambit system: the ability to finely program each character with conditional behaviour. I can set a character to cast Cure on any ally whose health is below 30%. I can tell a different character to Steal from any enemy with 100% health: they will steal once; my other characters will attack; and then they won’t steal again. I can set these gambits in a ordered list of priorities. My support character will stop attacking to cure anyone, but my tanks will only stop attacking to cure once there are no more enemies about. 
At any point, the gambits can be manually overridden by the easily accessible menu system but, for the most part, I can program my characters into a well-oiled machine that does exactly what I want to do. And it is terrific and streamlined. It feels like the antithesis of the labour required by a game like Tiny Tower (or any previous Final Fantasy, really) that never lets you automate or make more efficient the mundane level of action. FFXII let’s me prove, once, that I know what I’m doing, and then never forces me to do that thing again. Why should I have to manually choose to cure every time I know I need to cast cure anyway? Why shouldn’t I be able to prove to the game that I know I need to cure when health is low just once, and then have it automated? The beauty of FFXII is that it has the confidence to let me not press buttons. It has the confidence to play itself.

6. More on gambits. Not just a simplified programming language, gambits are also incorporated into the grind loop of JRPG play through the need to buy new gambits and use experience points on new gambit slots. Before you can set an “If ally: health lower than 30% then ‘cure’” gambit, you need to go to a gambit store and buy the condition “ally: health lower than 30%”. This probably annoys some people, but for me it incorporates the ability to set an intricate, well-oiled machine into that same grinding feedback loop as the one that lets me buy an expensive sword or use advanced magic. When I watch my team destroy an enemy without me pressing a single button I don’t just get the satisfaction of watching them do exactly what I told them to do, but of seeing my time and labour spent buying those gambits pay off. 

7. FFXII came out at a time that MMOs were all the rage. World of Warcraft was in full-swing. The previous Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy XI, itself was an MMO. MMOs was both what was trendy and what much of the development team had experience in. FFXII plays like a single-player MMO. I vaguely remember this annoying people (probably including myself) at the time, as thought it had just jumped on a bandwagon. But now I just find it fascinating, like everything else in the game. The real-time-ish combat is one element of this, with the way my team surround an enemy on the map and do their own thing reminding me of watching an old roommate doing raids in World of Warcraft. But the MMO influence is so ingrained. The countless sidequests and ‘hunts’ and secrets. Like an MMO, FFXII is selfconsciously full of stuff to do, as though the player should be paying a subscription fee. Of course, it is exactly this vast quantity of stuff that detracts from the story, so those critical of the MMO influence probably had a point. But the counter to this is that now that I am playing with an utter disregard for the story, I find myself loading up the game and thinking, “What should I do today?”. I have never thought this in a JRPG before. 

8. FFXII is also a game designed to be played with a game guide in hand. Or, to word that more cynically, it is a game designed in such a way to punish people who don’t fork out money for the game guide. This is before wikis and gameFAQs made such a business model rapidly outdated. But it means the game is full of the most hilariously obtuse sidequests and weapons. The Zodiac Spear, for example, is the most powerful spear in the game. To get it late in the game, the main condition the player has to meet is to not open a variety of chests earlier in the game. The game doesn’t tell you which chests, but there are chests in various obvious places and if you open them, you won’t get this spear. The only way you will know not to open them is to read the game guide (or, now, a wiki). Apparently people quit the game in disgust when they heard this (kitting all the characters out in the best weapons is, after all, a major ambition for many FF players). When my partner read these instructions out from the wiki page, I laughed and laughed. It was just so absurd. Another example is an unlockable fishing mini game which, among other conditions, requires you to talk to a man, run across one area to another area but not enter it, run back to the man, and then gain access to the mini game. To get a better fishing rod, you must first kill Gilgamesh. Maybe I’ve just lost my completionist streak in recent years, but none of this makes me mad. In fact, the idea of such an obscure, dense game existing makes me happy.

9. Yasumi Matsuno’s games remind me of Dark Souls. It’s something I first thought of when I played Vagrant Story (some thoughts here) earlier this year. Tonally and environmentally, it felt like the world of Dark Souls: alone in an obtuse, undead city; muted music (except for the occasional and unexpected boss battles) and just the ambient environmental sounds. Final Fantasy XII, similarly, reminds me of Dark Souls but not in atmosphere so much as obnoxiousness. Dark Souls is deliberately vague in what you are meant to do and where you are meant to go. It is a post-Twitter game, as Matthew Burns once said to me. It expects players to gather around the bonfires of social media and share tales of secrets they found. Final Fantasy XII just wants you to buy a game guide, but it gives it a similar sensation of depth, of jumping into a pitch black hole and not knowing how long you are going to fall for.

10. Final Fantasy XII is beautiful. There’s a particular aesthetic of late-Playstation 2 games (and late-Playstation 1 games, in a similar way) where the resolution of the textures is disproportionately intricate compared to the low polycount of the models. The characters are these most basic models but the lattice-work of Fran’s armour or Balthier’s cuffs or Basch’s blonde locks or Ash’s belts are all so immaculate and intricate. It’s this really wonderful aesthetic juxtaposition, low-poly and high-res. I don’t have the art language to really describe why its beautiful, but I could look at these characters and their world all day, just as I could with Vagrant Story’s similar juxtaposition.

11. Yasumi Matsuno’s fingerprints are all over Final Fantasy XII and it is the most fascinating thing about he. He was the co-director before stepping down (over disagreements with changes Square wanted to make, I believe). So FFXII, at the same time, displays a clear lineage with Matsuno’s earlier games, but its an imperfect lineage. I think I just have a fascination of late of being able to sense an oeuvre of a game creator’s work. So Matsuno made Final Fantasy Tactics (which XII is based in the same world of), and Vagrant Story. He also directed Tactics Ogre, but I haven’t played that so I can’t talk to it. So let’s talk similarities across the games I have played. There is, on the most obvious level, the unorthodox battle systems, each game being mechanically interesting in a way the other Final Fantasies are not, with their semi-real-time battle systems or focus on tactics. There’s also little visual flourishes that connect the games. In, say Final Fantasy VII, casting magic is something very external, with green circles rippling out from the character. In both FFXII and Vagrant Story, meanwhile, magic feels like something introverted, like an inward focusing of energy rather than an outward pouring. The character raising their hand to their head and the blurs and lines kind of ripple more inwards than outwards. It is tiny, but it feels like a common strand. There is the aforementioned Dark Souls oppressiveness and the high-res-low-poly look. It’s risky to attribute too much to a single member of a large production team, but XII feels like a game conceived by the person who conceived it. It has a personality and a style.

12. But there’s more than fingerprints on FFXII’s design. There’s a transparency in is flaws. The late, hamfisted addition of both the license board and protagonist Vaan, added at the last minute as an androgynous anime teenage boy protagonist to a story originally written about Balthier (or so the story goes). In one scene, not far in to the game, Vaan stands up front and centre while, off to the side in the background Balthier calls himself the leading man, as though the voice acting had already been done and they just had to deal with it. And it’s true: the leading man is off to the side. It’s a flaw, to be sure, but such a fascinating one. FFFXII wears its design on its sleeve, and it makes it a much more interesting game to engage with.

13. Boss battles are usually dreadful in Final Fantasy games. They are boring and mindless, requiring more endurance than intelligence. I didn’t realise quite how bad they were until I played Persona 4 Golden, with its legitimately enjoyable boss battles The key difference: Persona 4’s bosses were not immune to every single status change. You could poison them, you could screw with their stats. In most Final Fantasy games, meanwhile, bosses are immune to everything except perhaps for an elemental weakness. Your inventory of tactical support spells is reduced to nothing more advanced than Rock Paper Scissors. FFXII, however, with its many hunts (optional boss battles) and rare hunts, has no shortage of giant enemies to endure and, importantly, they often are susceptible to this or that status effect. You can screw over their accuracy, you can silence their magic, you can dispel their shields. It makes such a difference. Suddenly, you can use tactics against them, not just mash away with attacks. My partner would look up the wikis about what particular tactics would work against which hunts and—this is important—it would be so satisfying to just execute the strategies the guide suggested, watching them unfolding in their intricacies. Like the time I set up my gambits to cast Reflect on all allies and then to cast Thundaga on those allies so that three Thundaga spells would all reflect onto the single, giant enemy, smashing its massive reserves of HP. It was satisfying to watch it unfold, as both a strategy and a system. 

14. Final Fantasy XII is a hot mess. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Another Quick Update

Apologies for continuing to not update this website. I've been teaching the last semester and that's taken up most of my time. I have been writing elsewhere, though. I've written a few quick columns for The Conversation. This one about Jane McGonigal's dubious play-Tetris-to-cure-PTSD project/blog was pretty popular. I've also written about how the Liberal Government's draconian, scorched-earth budget effects game makers in Australia, and my presumptive hostility towards blockbuster games with Themes. I wrote a piece for ABC's The Drum about esports and videogame spectatorship. I wrote a piece for Overland's print journal that has since been republished online, where I write the letter I would have written to Susan Sontag about games criticism if she were still alive. I'm pretty happy with that one. And, for the newly launched Unwinnable Weekly, I have a "Notes on Luftrausers" post in Issue 2, which I strongly encourage you to chip in some money for. I think this is my favourite Notes post yet, maybe, and I'm so thrilled to be able to get it published somewhere.

I've also been taking advantage of my ungaming tumblr to throw out a whole heap of super rough, unfinished thoughts. The kind of stuff that probably would end up as blog posts here eventually if I had more time. It's been really liberating to just dump them there, half-formed, and get people to engage with them. I really love how the design of tumblr kind of encourages that messiness. I've been using that blog for both gaming and non-gaming things. Here are some really rough thoughts on Final Fantasy XII that I am currently fleshing out into a Notes post. Here are some thoughts on why this console generation transition is really interesting because nothing is happening. Here are some thoughts about the federal budget which was, literally, forged from satan's own toilet paper. Here are some notes on David Sudnow's Pilgrim in the Microworld, which is a really great book.

Oh yeah, let's talk about what I've been reading. I read both of David Sudnow's books, Ways of the Hand (about becoming a jazz pianist) and Pilgrims in the Microworld (about getting really good at Breakout!) and both are excellent, closely descriptive accounts of what the hands do at various tools. Both are definitely worth a read if you have an interest in the bodily, phenomenological pleasures of videogames.

I also just this last week read Anna Anthropy's new book on ZZT, written for Boss Fight Books, and it is really remarkable. It does this incredible job of transitioning from a close, detailed look at 'the game itself' as this kind of seed in the first chapter that then shoots outwards into this vast discussion of communities and an important snapshot of a particular moment in time. Not only is it a really great analysis of a game, capturing both personal and broader cultural implications, but a really significant contribution to videogame history. Here is a cool quote from towards the end of the book on exactly why that history is important. Here is Cameron Kunzelman's review for Paste.

I bought a WiiU last week for Mario Kart 8, and have since been instagram-ing countless slow-motion replays. I should have a piece up soon about how spectacular (in the most literal sense) that game is. I also finally played A Dark Room to completion on iOS after reading Cara Ellison's piece on the first Unwinnable Weekly, and it was truly remarkable. I've also gotten sucked into Pocket Trains because NimbleBit knows how to hook me.

And that is what I am up to.