A ‘Fantasy’ World Full of Pixies and Pixels
I was moved to tears.
Last summer, Squaresoft released the first Final Fantasy movie, whose computer-animated heroine begged the question: “Is it wrong to have a crush on a cartoon?” But players of Final Fantasy video games have been caring about pixels ever since the series debuted in 1987. These are 60-hour games with tangled epic storylines, each set in a completely different visual universe which usually combines magic and technology, spells and broadswords with the semi-salvaged husks of tarnished chrome machinery. Your character is always a thief or a disillusioned soldier, caught between well-meaning extremists and omnipotent conglomerates on a landscape of moral ambiguity. You play to watch the animation, to find out what happens next.
Even if you don’t have Nintendo blisters, the latest Final Fantasy installment cannot fail to impress you. Final Fantasy 10 is the first one for Playstation 2, and the animation astounds. Walking on water set afire by sunset, a barefooted summoner performs the rites of an imagined planet, freeing the souls of the dead in nimbuses of colored light. Soldiers wading knee-high into battle are obliterated by a radial shockwave, leaving dashes of black dust on the ignited air. (Animation can be dark: to Japanese artists, this is a news flash from Planet Obvious.) The landscapes of the previous games were richly-rendered flat canvases, but Final Fantasy 10 has a three-dimensional world shot by an agile, spiraling camera that skates smoothly between close-ups and long shots. Gone is the blue text box, banished with other dear quirks of the series. The characters speak.
And Tidus, the protagonist, sounds like the lead singer of a suburban boy band. If there are four flavors of hero, Tidus is of the “irreverent teen” variety, though he’s more often chubby-cheeked crybaby than wise aleck. His native metropolis is commercialized and techno-cool, with five-story video screens broadcasting statistics of fictitious sports over glittering golden skywalks. Tidus matches: his caution-yellow clothing evokes some fantastical line of clubwear.
But the looming and colossal evil known as Sin rips the hero from his neighborhood and shunts him to Spira, where tan, sea-faring people lash palm leaves to the bamboo ribs of beachside huts. Of course, he tries to get home, and instead gets involved with Spira’s own mission to defeat Sin, led by Yuna, a self-sacrificing young summoner and her heterogeneous gang of guardians.
Yuna is the requisite romantic lead. We first see her swooning beautifully in the doorway of the Chamber of Trials. Dewy with sweat, she collapses into the arms of a burly guardian, exalting breathily: “I’ve done it! I’ve become a summoner!” Sadly, the heroes of Final Fantasy seem to grow more androgynous, be they taciturn, long-lashed fighters or spunky, spikey-haired pickpockets. Role-playing games have a girl-friendly reputation, so it helps to have characters both genders can identify with. (Heaven forbid, of course, a female lead.) But as the lead guys get more girly, so, it seems, do the women. The main female characters in FFX can’t hit; they only cast spells. Deadly spells, in one instance, but still. These worlds were invented for fun, as glut troughs for the human imagination, so why not invent me a shuriken?
Tidus has been plopped into a pre-made world, a quest already happening, a band already formed. All fantasy stories involve gangs of misfits, but you want to accrue your misfits gradually, not in a boxed set. Spira is assaulted by sin every ten years, so, every ten years, the summoners and their guardians tour the temples, learn to summon different things, and beat sin back into hiding. This is not an adventure. It’s an errand. Tidus just tags along. Of course, his pivotal importance becomes apparent; this isn’t your average decennial scavenger hunt; but his ties to the world are supernatural and hence, arbitrary.
One theme that emerges in FFX is Sacrifice. (The other is “Water.”) Not Sacrifice like, turning yourself to stone. Sacrifice like, being cheery and ingratiating despite the soul-spending trauma of your daily existence. “People put so much on us.” Says Yuna, “So when I feel like I’m going to collapse, I’ve learned to smile.” Yuna’s falsified laughter hides an onerous burden, and neither is much fun to watch.
I would never suggest that the advanced technology is itself anathema to good narrative, except in one instance: Voice-overs. When read off a screen, the dialogue’s overall care in character shines through, and its many stupid moments are forgiven. In FFX, they’re highlighted by often-disastrous acting. In flashbacks of Tidus’s youth, his father grunts like a pro-wrestler, a bad-dad act so bad it wins a chuckle. Yuna can only say two words without inhaling hesitantly.
The 1992 characters might not have had “real-time” facial expressions—but they could hang their heads. The Red Wing pilot could pause on his way out of the room, put his head down, lift his head, and turn around to tell his commander that, no, he wasn’t going to steal any more elemental crystals from innocent mages. Given a few-well chosen cues, your mind supplied the rest. The fact is, I wouldn’t trade the text boxes, even for stellar acting. Playing was a perfect combination of reading a book, watching a movie, and, to a lesser extent, playing an actual video game.
The series has never been, truly speaking, interactive. You can’t change the story. Even Game Overs are rare. But the illusion of interactivity was maintained. The dialogue had prompts where you’d move the cursor and pick a reply. The consequences were small but could last the duration of the game. In FFX, you feel trapped in these endless lavish animation sequences where second-rate actors read second-rate lines. With pre-recorded dialogue, you can’t even change the characters names. (This becomes a problem with characters named “Lulu” and “Wakka.”) FFX is a slow film more than a video game, a maze of beautifully rendered streets full of doors that don’t open, stands of swaying grasses with no treasure buried beneath them.
Even as video games become more filmic, their influence is bleeding into other arts. Game Show, a recent exhibition at Mass Moca, included imagery appropriated from video games, as well as works that actually engaged the paradigms of video games. One artist produced an interactive retelling of a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquz through the medium of first-generation desktop games.
Two recent books are devoted to video games, one, the [i have these titles in my notebook, just not on me right now] shows a young couple in their pajamas, bathed in the blue glow of a tv screen. She has spiky hair; the two of them look like they belong in a Volvo ad (drivers, not passangers.) Another book, [title here] catalogues the “golden age of video games”, reflecting perhaps the simultaneous vogue of the eighties and video game culture. The Final Fantasy music video played on MTV. Movies based on video games proliferate: the truly awful but entertaining Tomb Raider, the less awful, more entertaining Resident Evil.
The Final Fantasy movie didn’t do nearly as well as Square hoped. The viewing public, it seems, is largely indifferent to paralytically cool fictitious machinery with 3-D holographic interfaces. Even I found my die-hard square loyalty taxed by the unamazing script. Word on the street has it that the company’s re-evaluating it’s direction. Final Fantasy 11 will be the first online version, and I imagine that like Quake or Sims or Tetris, this game will claim several of your friends. After that the future seems unclear.
To everyone but me. What Square needs to do is hire me to write scripts for them.