Final Fantasy X came out on Steam this year. I hadn’t played it in a decade. I wasn’t sure if the game was as good as I remembered, or if I was suffering from long-term nostalgia distortion. I changed careers in the last decade, moving from programming to writing about videogames. (And also still programming.) The indie revolution happened. Today I spend more time playing more games, and more time pondering them after the fact. As a result, probably half of the games I’ve played in my life, I’ve played in the last decade.
Naturally I wondered: If I revisited FFX, would I see it differently? It’s possible my initial perception of Final Fantasy X is hopelessly warped, or simply out of sync with my tastes and standards as they exist in 2016. The only way to know for sure was to play it. So I did.
I discovered that the good parts were better than I remembered and the bad parts were worse. My initial take on the game was basically correct, but now I think I’m better at drilling down and figuring out why the various parts did or didn’t work.
I’ll do my best to explain things to those who haven’t played the game, but this series is primarily aimed at people who are already familiar with the material. Obviously I’m going to be spoiling everything.
The Final Fantasy Franchise
I’m not an expert on the franchise. FFX was my first experience with it, and since then I’ve played a few others. FFX is my favorite by a long ways. I anticipate the first question from all of the fans of the series will be a run-down of what I’ve played so that they can appraise the degree to which I am full of shit and the extent to which I am hopelessly biased. So here’s a quick take:
Final Fantasy IV: It was actually an adventure getting the hardware to run this game, but in the end I only played a few hours.
Final Fantasy VII: It’s my second-favorite of the series. It was charming and strange and I liked all of the non-Cait Sith parts. To say more would probably require giving the game its own full write-up.
Final Fantasy VIII: I found brooding protagonist Squall to be a little too off-putting. I couldn’t tell what the author wanted me to think of him, so I couldn’t even tell if he worked. The story was just a little too strange for me. When we got to the time compression stuff I ran out of space in my brain for random mysterious bullshit and kind of gave up. Then I found out that all foes auto-leveled with you and I lost all interest. I really loved the look of the school / airship, though.
Final Fantasy IX: My playthrough ended when a PS1 memory card diedProbably the same memory card that was part of the FFIV story mentioned above.. But I think I’d have given the game another try if I’d been able to connect with it emotionally. I didn’t have anything against the game. I just didn’t love any of the characters, and these games live or die on our connection to the characters.
Final Fantasy XII: I didn’t like this game on my first try. Aside from Balthier, the characters seemed to lack flavor. But I’ve been itching to replay it and see if my opinion has changed now that I’ve absorbed a bunch of other JRPGs.
That’s it. I haven’t played anything newer than XII. I’ve never played any of the mobile games, or the MMOs, or the really old games, or any of the dozens of spin-off titles, or the board game, the clothing line, breakfast cereal, political party, religion, or whatever else Square Enix has done with the brand.
Unlike long-standing fans of the series who played them as they were released, I binged on most of these over the space of a few short years, and played them completely out of order.
The First of its Generation
FFX was the first Final Fantasy of the Playstation 2 console generation. It hit the shelves in North America over a year after the PS2, so it wasn’t exactly a launch title. But it was still an important system-seller and acted as proof that this new machine would be “worth it”. It was indeed a massive step up visually. I’d say the in-game cutscenes look more detailed than the pre-rendered cutscenes of FFVIIIAlthough maybe that’s just due to just the step up in resolution, which was pretty big.. Which is astounding, considering the games were only 2 years apart.
This is more remarkable than people realize. Yes, “The hardware is faster so of course the graphics are better” is the predictable response. But the impressive thing here isn’t just the step up in graphics, it’s the complete overhaul of the entire art pipeline. Between Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy X, you’ve got new tools being used to make new kinds of models that use new animation techniques that key into the new voice acting and lip-sync, not to mention new texturing techniques. So much new technology had to be invented and mastered during this time period. It was a time of rapid change, and it’s amazing this game came out this polished, this large, and looking this good.
I missed all of the consoles between the Atari 2600 and the Playstation 2. By 2001, I was a diehard PC gamer pretty much by default. I had to keep my machine up-to-date for my work, and so I never saw any reason to spend any money on these odd machines that could “only” play games. FFX was the first game that made the case that I’d been missing outGrand Theft Auto III was the other big contributor to this..
Being a Playstation 2 title also means this is the first Final Fantasy to be fully voice-acted. This was an obvious move for a team that was so enamored of making high-quality cutscenes, but it also created a certain tension with the conventions of the series. One of the long-standing traditions was that you can name the characters as they join your adventuring party. That’s fine when the dialog is text, but creates problems when everyone is voiced. It would be difficult and awkward to try and write the scenes in such a way that nobody ever used anyone else’s name. You’d end up with people referring to each other by job title (Summoner, Black Mage, etc) which would probably make the player wonder why the game bothered. Why ask me to name the character if the name will never be used?
But they were perhaps shy of abandoning the practice completely, so they allow the player to name the Aeons – who aren’t really characters – and the main character. So the main character is named Tidus by default. The player can change it, but it doesn’t matter because the name is never used. On the rare moments when someone needs to say his name, they instead call him, “New guy”, or “Star player of the Zanarkand Abes”.
This means there’s some disagreement on the proper pronunciation of “Tidus”. The cast called him Tee-dus, but most English speaking players will see the word and assume it’s Tie-dus. Voice actor James Arnold Taylor talks about this in one of his videos:
Apparently the English pronunciation came from the guy who did the voiceover for the original English trailer. He decided to pronounce it Tee-dus, and the mostly Japanese-speaking people who hired him simply accepted it. So that version of the name stuck when it came time to hire the cast for the English version. Again, this was just how they referred to him behind the scenes, “I’ve got to go read some more lines for the Tee-dus cutscenes.” It never appeared in the game.
As I said above, I haven’t played any Final Fantasy since XII, but the fact that the most recent one has the name of the main character in the title is probably a good indication that they have abandoned the practice of having an awkwardly player-named main character. The whole point of the feature was to give you a sense of agency and authorship over the world, and that only works if the choice is reflected in the game itself, so I don’t think this compromise actually benefited anyone.
This is Not Hard Science Fiction
I know it’s pretty strange to have this as a follow-up to my Mass Effect series. This is a completely different kind of fiction. If we’re measuring videogame science fiction in terms of hardness, then I don’t care how you categorize the difference between hard and soft sci-fi, Final Fantasy belongs somewhere on the “Jell-O” end of the spectrum. It makes the emotionally-driven Star Wars look like Star Trek. It’s basically a big fever dream of insane ideas, all glued together with outlandish but lovable charactersYour mileage may vary. Particularly in this game..
But I think this actually works as a nice compare & contrast with Mass Effect. This game makes a couple of the same blunders, but emerges mostly unharmed because it knows what it wants to be and it didn’t try to change genres mid-story. A major plot hole in one kind of fiction is just a trope in another, and it all comes down to how well the author accomplishes what they set out to do.
I bring this up because I’m worried some people might be expecting this to be another merciless catalog of plot holes, mistakes, and annoyances. But that’s not what this series is about. There are a lot of strange story beats in Final Fantasy X, and while some of them hurt the story, for the most part this series is about finding things that are curious and different, rather than listing things that are wrong or irritating.
This is a world that runs on emotions and Rule of Cool. And that’s fine. While the game is ponderously long, it doesn’t spend much of its running time explaining the mechanics of Spira. It’s actually pretty breezy when it comes to worldbuilding. It doesn’t waste time explaining how Blitzball stadiums work, or how people learn magic, or where food comes fromAlthough I assume that – being a coastal society with no farms – it must involve a lot of fishing, or who makes these ridiculous clothes, or what sort of scientific wizardry is required to maintain some of these haircuts. And this is okay because – unlike Fallout 3 – none of that is part of the plot of the game. This is about the characters, their relationships, and (occasionally, when we have time for it) about their efforts to save the world.
Final Fantasy stories create this odd feeling where you’re basically fine with where the story is going, until the moment where you try to explain it to someone else and as the words come out of your mouth you realize just how unapologetically ludicrous the whole thing is. FFX in particular is really good at spacing out the individual doses of crazy so you don’t realize just how much you’ve absorbed until you’ve overdosed.
That doesn’t mean I’m not going to pick apart the world of Spira. I mean, that’s kind of what I do. But Spira doesn’t need to make sense in the same way that Council Space (Mass Effect) or the Nilfgaardian Empire (Witcher 3) do. It can run on nonsense magic, as long as we understand what the characters want and why they’re doing the things they’re doing.
 Probably the same memory card that was part of the FFIV story mentioned above.
 Although maybe that’s just due to just the step up in resolution, which was pretty big.
 Grand Theft Auto III was the other big contributor to this.
 Your mileage may vary. Particularly in this game.
 Although I assume that – being a coastal society with no farms – it must involve a lot of fishing
The Best of 2011
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2011.
Here is a 13 part series where I talk about programming games, programming languages, and programming problems.
Juvenile and Proud
Yes, this game is loud, crude, childish, and stupid. But it it knows what it wants to be and nails it. And that's admirable.
Starcraft: Bot Fight
Let's do some scripting to make the Starcraft AI fight itself, and see how smart it is. Or isn't.
The Middle Ages
Would you have survived in the middle ages?