11 Nov 2006

Final Fantasy X

Games, Writing

Final Fantasy X was the first console roleplaying game I played, and one of the few I’ve played all the way through. It’s going to be hard to top.

I’m not going to bother with spoiler tags, since I want to talk mainly about the story, so I’ll hide the rest of this behind a more tag. Beware – spoilers beyond the link. Heavy spoilers.

I don’t recall when I first tried Final Fantasy X. Possibly some time in 2002. (It was released late 2001.) I didn’t get very far, and restarted in (I think) late 2003.

The main criticism I hear of FFX is that it is “too linear.” That’s a very valid argument. There are really no gameplay choices at all. You (as Tidus) start in Zanarkand, get transported to Spira, meet Yuna, follow her on her pilgrimage through Spira, get attacked by the ultimate evil monster, Sin, at predictable times, defeat the boss mobs in a predefined order, right up to the final battle in Zanarkand where Yuna changes the direction of the storyline.

At that point, you get access to an airship and can travel all over, which you need to do to pick up the characters’ ultimate weapons, which are very important in the game ending.

By most RPG standards, that’s tediously linear.

However, what it does allow is crafting the RPG as a novel-like storyline. Since the writers know what’s going to happen at each point in the gameplay, they can build a linear narrative. And FFX’s story is superb.

It’s a fantasy – obviously – but a well-written one, with a creative and consistent ruleset. My boss always gripes that he can’t read fantasy, because it’s too easy just to pull a magical stunt and solve whatever problem the author needs to solve. That’s true, too. Terry Goodkind does that excessively in the Wizard’s First Rule series. I had to stop reading Janny Wurtz’s “Wars of Light and Shadow” because of all of the scenes where new magic was needed, so new magic happened. It’s a shame, ’cause she’s mostly a good writer.

The best fantasy doesn’t do that. It adheres strictly to a set of rules – which you may never actually see, but which you can sense is there. It doesn’t add a rule to solve a problem, it sets the problem in the space of the underlying rules. Usula K. le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (+ a couple, these days) is the best example that I know. It sets very strict boundaries on the practise of magic, and mostly shows you what they are.

FFX’s setting is quite different from anything I’ve seen before, but it’s mostly true to the ruleset it defines. There’s offensive and defensive magic (offensive mostly “black”, defensive mostly holy or “white”, like other FF games) and magical creatures available to Yuna as the Summoner. This is where the story is creative and becomes quite dark for a kids’ game: the creatures, aeons, are formed somehow from the souls of the dead; those who sacrificed themselves to allow themselves to be used this way, becoming fayth. Sin is revealed in the end to be a form of aeon, given life by the mass sacrifice of the inhabitants of Zanarkand, one thousand years ago. And the dead continue to walk the land, if not sent to their final resting place by a Summoner. They become fiends, or, if their will is strong, they may become Unsent beings, driven (mostly evil) versions of their former selves.

That’s an unusual fantasy base, but it’s mostly consistent, and forms a deeply sorrowful backdrop for the story.

The main theme of the story is the doomed love between Yuna and Tidus. As an outsider, he’s not aware of the true intent of a Summoner’s pilgrimage – to sacrifice herself in battle with Sin, giving a scant ten years’ peace before the monster regenerates and resumes its reign of terror. So much of what he says and does in the early part of the story is very poignant, as he speaks to Yuna of life after Sin is defeated. His enthusiasm cheers Yuna, but she knows that she won’t be around to be a part of the peace.

At about the midpoint, Yuna is captured, and in her absence, Tidus learns the truth about the pilgrimage from her other companions. He’s devastated, not only by her plans, but by what he’s unwittingly said and done. They’re reunited and admit their love in an absolutely beautiful but heartbreakingly sad full motion video, using the song Suteki da ne. Which is why that song can still upset me, and why it rarely leaves my playlist for long. Beyond just the sorrowful nature of this scene, the words foreshadow the ending, too: “The dream” / “I dream” (yume miru).

Isn’t it beautiful, to walk together in each others hands
I do so want to go,
To your city, your house, into your arms.

That face,
A soft touch,
Dissolving into morning,
I dream.

Later, in the final turning point, Yuna learns that she must sacrifice one of her companions to defeat Sin. That is the only way to acquire an aeon of sufficient strength. Tidus has been trying to find an alternative. He considers her death far too high a cost for a mere ten years of peace. While Yuna is willing to sacrifice herself, his words take on more meaning when she knows that one of her friends will also die. She changes her mind, and risks everything, including the future of Spira, to the complete destruction of Sin.

Which sounds great. Now you can play through the end of the game, and they’ll all live happily ever after.

Except that…

Along the way, Tidus learns that he’s not in fact part of this world. The Zanarkand he knows does not exist now, and isn’t exactly the Zanarkand of a thousand years ago. It, and he, are dreams of the fayth of Zanarkand, the fayth who sustain Sin. Torn from the dream Zanarkand, Tidus’s purpose is to help Yuna destroy Sin and let the souls of the fayth rest.

And so it happens. You make your preparations, fight the final battle, and free Spira. But though Yuna is freed of her fate, the fayth who are dreaming Tidus are going to their rest, and love is still doomed. Yuna weeps as he begins to fade and she realizes the truth. At the point where Tidus tries to put his arms around her, but is too insubstantial to hold on – I lost it. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to watch the final scenes with anyone else around. Oh, and of course, the ending music is again the love theme, Suteki da ne.

In all, it’s a very well-constructed tragedy, with despair turned to hope at the final turning point and despair within triumph at the end.

So I understand why gamers complain about the linearity of the game, but for me the story is far more important than the gameplay, and I love it.

Having said that, as a work of fiction, the game has a huge flaw, in my opinion. That’s the point I mentioned earlier, where you’re freed to pursue the quests to give your party members their ultimate weapons.

Not only do you really need a couple of the weapons to make the endgame playable, there’s some story tied into them. You have to uncover secrets like Anima, one of the secret aeons that Yuna will use, who’s part of the story of one of her enemies. You learn more about Spira by doing the quests.

So what that means is we have Sin’s arrival in Zanarkand (the dream Zanarkand, though we don’t know that at first) as an inciting incident. Tidus’s acceptance as Yuna’s guardian as the first turning point. Tidus’s learning of Yuna’s purpose as the midpoint, with the love story giving impetus to the plot. Yuna’s refusal to play by the rules as the final turning point, and we’re all ready for the climax…

But instead of getting to it, we’re sent off on tens of hours’ worth of side quests. It’s a huge break in the momentum, and completely screws up the pacing of the story.

I doubt whether most players care. But I think that if the gameplay could have included these side quests in passing, the story would have more impact, and the game itself would be better.

Maybe it’s only a quibble, but I think it’s a blemish on a great game.

A few comments on why I’d write such a long article about a game I haven’t played in over two years.

– Clearly it’s had a longer-lasting impact on me than most movies and books, even great ones. I think that’s part the quality of the story, and part the nature of the medium.

A movie is a couple of hours long. A novel – hmm, 6-8 hours? An RPG can be hundreds. I certainly remember seeing play times of over 100 for FFX. I seem to recall it was 80-90 hours at the love scene at Lake Macalania. Most of that time is in battles, not the full motion video storyline, but it’s still time with with the characters.

Even with the weak characterization of computer-generated FMVs, so many hours over so many weeks of play time gives a huge sense of identification. When the tragedy happens at the end, it’s very personal.

– There were interesting musical tricks feeding the drama. Yuna’s theme is a modified form of the love theme. We hear it when we first meet Yuna, and then during the first time fighting monsters with Yuna in the party. By the time we reach Lake Macalania, we know it well enough to identify the song with Yuna, but the real version is so much sadder and more profound that it colors everything you’ve learned about Yuna.

While the game opens with the melancholy Zanarkand theme, which is repeated many times in different forms, when we finally get to the ruins of Zanarkand, that isn’t the theme that is used. Instead, it’s another, more melancholy, variant of Yuna’s song. Everywhere else in the game, when there’s a random encounter, the music switches to battle music. In Zanarkand ruins, it doesn’t – it stays with the Yuna variant. The result is that it seems to drive the story forward – something huge just changed or is about to change, and in fact, we’re about to hit the final turning point.

– Though the direction The Book has taken has made me take an interest in yuri stories, a good old-fashioned boy-girl romance can be every bit as moving as any other kind. It’s the telling that matters. Nomura Tetsuya, Nojima Kazushige and Kitase Yoshinori weren’t constrained by the medium to hide the romance behind embarrassment and childish behavior. In anime, that seems a requirement for boy-meets-girl, and less of one for yuri.

But then, no romance in any anime that I’ve seen works as well as Yuna/Tidus.

– The game introduced me to J-Pop, and how lovely Japanese music and lyrics (translated or not) can be. Uematsu Nobuo wrote all of the music, and it’s perfect for a gaming setting. On continuous repeat while moving around, it doesn’t get boring, and the key pieces, which are usually for boss battles, are powerful and disturbing. Of course, he wrote the music to Suteki da ne, while the scenario writer (which I think is the same thing as “scriptwriter” for a video game), Nojima Kazushige, wrote the lyrics – which makes it about as canonical as a song can be.

Although I prefer the music of Kajiura Yuki, that’s partly because the medium she works in is different. (There’s no requirement for songs to continue to repeat, and she can write complete pieces – the anime producers will clip what’s needed for a scene.) Had it not been for Uematsu’s video game music, I probably wouldn’t have discovered Kajiura, and followed that thread down to The Book.

This entry was posted on Saturday, November 11th, 2006 at 3:02 pm and is filed under Games, Writing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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