Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Final Fantasy XII: An Experimental Narrative

Whenever a writer sits down to put words on paper, there is a lens through which those words are focused. Works of fiction, non-fiction, biographical and autobiographical writings, short stories, comic books, movie scripts, even most poetry - it's all told through somebody's point of view. There's a voice guiding the story along, usually in first or third person, letting us, the reader, know who the main character is. This is important, because writers need that filter in place to make sure they elicit the desired reaction from their readers. For example, if the entire narrative of Harry Potter wasn't focused on Harry's experience, we'd probably be wondering why this kid with the vaguely Batman-like origin was the title character when so much of the book was dedicated to Hermione trying to find new ways to bend the laws of physics so she can give herself more homework.

Marty McFly would slap her right in her stupid mouth.

So I think in that respect, there's something to be said for the daring creativity of the writing team behind Final Fantasy XII. Because somewhere in the course of drafting the script for the game, they decided they were going to spit in the face of all established convention and create something with absolutely no main character.

It's something they tried once before, in the epic Final Fantasy VI. There, they established early on that most of the story was going to focus on the mysterious backstory of protagonist Terra Branford. However, as the game progressed, the supporting cast grew in importance and the audience was given powerful revelations regarding their histories and motivations. By the end of the game, it could still very much be Terra's story, but everyone has firm enough ground to stand on that it emerges as an ensemble game. Taking away any of the characters would subtract from the narrative. Except Gogo and Umaro.

The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the Final Fantasy world.

So while Final Fantasy VI tries this to a degree, Final Fantasy XII goes all out. The thing is, they don't really make it obvious they're going to do that. Vaan, the first character you can control, has all the trappings of an honest-to-goodness lead protagonist. He lives in the slums of a city controlled by an oppressive, war-mongering empire. His older brother, whom he idolized, died as a result of that empire's actions. He's the leader of a local group of young ruffians. He dreams of breaking out of his station in life, defying the empire, and becoming a freewheeling Sky Pirate, sailing the skies in an airship.

Then you meet other characters and we forget Vaan exists.

See, the thing that made FFVI work is that every character became the main character. By the end of the game you could put any combination of your extensive roster in to the final battle and it wouldn't feel terribly out of place. I feel like when I get to the end of FFXII it will be similiar, but not because everyone was developed to have an equal stake in the story. More likely, it will be because I care about everyone so little that I really won't care who I throw in there as long as I win.

You see, Vaan begins as so archetypal a protagonist that the only revelation missing is that his father is actually Darth Vader.

"Luke . . . I . . . kind of got around a lot."

But then we meet Balthier Bunansa and his leggy assistant Fran, Sky Pirates with Han Solo and Chewbacca written all over them. Following that is the rescue of Princess Leia, I mean, Ashelia Dalmasca, ruler of the kingdom of Dalmasca, which was overthrown by the Empire. Then we throw in Basch, whom we all think at first is a horrible traitor, but discover that this was actually another trick of the empire. He can be Lando. It's close enough, shut up. Then for no real reason, we add Penelo, Vaan's childhood friend. Whatever, she's an ewok. Anyway.

This was the Christmas Special.

Now of course, their actual resemblance to any Star Wars characters is circumstantial at best. The point is that they serve essentially the same function. We've met our Luke, now we bring in the supporting cast to tear him away from his provincial life and make him the empire-smashing hero we know he can be.

And then none of that ever happens.

From the moment other characters come into the game, the viewpoint of our narrative starts ping-ponging around as if the writers wrote individual scripts for all the characters and then threw them in the air and grabbed random parts to stick together. Okay, so the story is about Balthier having to face his past and stop his evil father (he's got an evil father! He must be the hero). No wait, the big issue is Ashe trying to overcome the empire and win back autonomy for her small kingdom (that's even more heroic!). Oh, hold on a second, no, it's Basch's story, and he's got to defeat his evil twin and take revenge for the empire ruining his life while restoring honor to his name (oh come on!). Wait, what? We're not going to really focus in on any of these as the main plot? So what IS the main plot?

And that's the question which remains unanswered. When you don't have a focused point of view, you can make as many great storylines to follow as you want. If the central idea boils down to "our heroes good, empire bad," then the writing is flawed in a pretty major way. Vaan, for his part, is quickly relegated to making occasional inane statements and generally being completely out of place with the others.

So instead of Luke Skywalker, we end up with Anakin. Episode I Anakin, as essentially his purpose is hang out with the grown ups and occasionally stumble into something which forwards the plot. What's worse is that if they ever just solidly backed one character like Basch or Balthier, this game could've been the Original Trilogy. Since we're stuck with Vaan, it is unfortunately the prequels.

Lead Consultant for Final Fantasy XII.

As long as I'm getting all the Star Wars comparisons out of my system, this is Jar Jar Binks:

This is a Bangaa, native to Ivalice, where FFXII takes place:

So we even have bumbling lizard-things with annoying voices. My prequel analogy runs deep.

Alright, enough about the story. Let's talk about the game. Why would I keep playing something when the plot - or lack thereof - obviously leaves me baffled and uninterested? Simple answer; it's actually pretty fun.

I received Final Fantasy XII years ago as a gift when it was brand new. I have been trying ever since to actually sit down and beat this game. When I opened up my save file to try and pick up where I left off, I was staring at a game with 130 hours already on it. This was from when I tried to play through it a year ago. Two years before that I'd already put in 100 hours on my original attempt. FFXII is an absolutely enormous game, and there's so much to do that I'm fairly certain both times I put it down was just because I had become overwhelmed at the sheer volume of tasks which had to be accomplished in order to achieve everything.

And I MUST achieve everything.

I know he's there, watching. Judging.

Now, since Final Fantasy VI brought us its Colosseum, every subsequent entry into the series has offered us a mini-game - a time-waster that really has nothing to do with the story, but can net you some nice rewards and is actually pretty fun. VII had Chocobo Breeding and Racing, as well as the Golden Saucer casino. VIII and IX had card games, very, very addictive card games. X brought us Blitzball, and holy crap how awesome was it to have an actual sports league as an optional part of the game? That's like if every new iteration of Madden included a 100+ hour bonus game where Eli Manning treks across the world gathering allies and combating evil.

It would be mostly biographical.

XII has . . . fishing.


Alright, there's certainly more to it than that. The fishing system is a rapid button-pushing stress-fest, where you get 6 chances to catch something and each perfect game gives you a chance to advance to another fishing spot with even harder, faster combos. If you want one of the best items in the game, you've got to beat all the fishing holes. It CAN be fun, when you're winning, or it can be an experiment in whether your controller is more durable than your wall.

Now, besides fishing, FFXII does offer some other distractions. Personally, I can't get enough of its hunt system. This game breaks away from the others by making itself more like it's online predecessor, Final Fantasy XI. The world is littered with notorious monsters; beasts that are larger, stronger, and immensely more powerful than their regular counterparts.

They are the Alecs in a world of Stephens.

The game keeps track of which of these monsters you have found, and some you must first fulfill a series of arcane requirements to make appear. A few of them can show up at anytime, but others require you to sign up with a hunting club which will reward you with trophies for each successful hunt. Those monsters also drop rare and powerful items. Other unique monsters are called Marks, and you make them show up by signing contracts to go out and hunt them for big rewards. New Marks show up at regular intervals as long as you keep forwarding the main story, and that alone provides some motivation to keep doing so. I've caught myself several times running to check if new Marks are available after every minor advancement of the plot.

Still waiting for this one to show up.

There's also a system of crafting new weapons and armor by collecting the things monsters drop and selling them. Naturally, the best weapon in the game can only be obtained by collecting a number of the rarest drops and selling them in the correct order. This is less entertaining and more a time sink, since a lot of the better items drop so infrequently you have to wonder what they were thinking. I know that following FFXI they wanted to give players the feeling of the online game but in single-player mode, but was it necessary to include the Rat Tail aspect I alluded to in my previous post? You do that with MMOs so people keep playing every month. There's no subscription fee for this. The company already got my money. I don't know why they insist on forcing me to play long after the part where you hunt monsters and hope to get their items becomes fun and meanders over into tedious.

I'm still interested in fulfilling these requirements and getting the best items because . . . well, they're there, and I think Square Enix understands that so long as they keep putting stuff in games, there will be people who will spend hours trying to get it. So I'll keep playing, but with The Backlog now in my life, I've got some motivation to maybe leave a few things untouched and power through to the ending.

Overall, this game is fun for me. Not great, but good - perhaps the experience can best be summed up with this appraisal of JRPGs. Despite my issues with its core, there are enough bells and whistles to keep me playing. Maybe one day this week I'll be able to sit down and really whittle down all the extra content thrown in until I've got nothing left except beating the game to accomplish. Although this also depends on whether or not I try to navigate my way through The Great Crystal, a hellish zone whose every turn is a descent into madness dictated by non-Euclidean geometry.

Pictured: Map of the zone

If nothing else, I'll at least be able to say that I finally got my money's worth on a game I received as a gift.

Hey, wait.


Brett said...

Disagreeing guy disagrees:

Ashe is the main character.

[Spoilers ahead blah blah.]

Every portion of the quest, once Penelo is rescued, has to do with figuring out what the Archadians are doing and how Ashe can get her revenge/her country back. Visiting the Marquis, the long trek to Raithwall's Tomb, the trek to Mt. Bur-Omisace, etc...

Vaan is a decoy protagonist. Basch and Balthier are secondary characters with important subplots that crop up, but whose decisions and desires don't drive the action; they're along for the ride and happen to encounter their adversaries on the way. (Compare how often Balthier talks about his father or Basch talks about his brother to how often Ashe talks about her kingdom, the nethicite, the swords, her dead husband...) Balthier might claim to be leading man, but that's only because Ashe is a lady (and because he's damn cool). Fran and Penelo are throw-ins.

Actually, Larsa is probably second protagonist next to Ashe, thanks to his influence on the main storyline, his number of cutaway scenes and the fact that Vayne is both his and Ashe's antagonist (while Balthier and Basch have separate, secondary antagonists).

(And actually actually, just to point it out, the character who is actually actually responsible for the entirety of the plot is... Venat.)

I think the point at which Ashe's protagonist status is most clear is when Ashe meets the Occuria at the top of the Crystal Grande - not only does everyone else disappear for a major revelation of backstory, but it's stated pretty much straight out - Ashe has a Choice, and the outcome of the story will hinge upon this Choice.

(Of course, it is an essentially on-rails JRPG, so the Choice is all pre-written and not the player's, but that's another issue.)

In conclusion: Ashe Ashe Ashe!

Ayn said...


If you do some research behind the game, the original writer/director intended Basch to be the protagonist, rather than Vaan. This idea (allegedly) was scrapped because the last time they tried a protagonist who was a 'strong man in his prime' (Vagrant Story), it didn't go over so well, thus they dropped him in favor of Vaan/Penelo, who were created much later in the development.

I will agree that Vaan is a decoy protagonist. Though part of that is due to the above conflict -- supposedly, the pressure to change protagonists/story direction was something that left the director pretty stressed to the point of taking some sort of leave for the project: It sounded like they had to scramble in later parts of production to piece parts of the plot together.