If you look at a recent post over on Nightmare Mode on “Fixing Final Fantasy“, you can see that I’ve gotten back in the habit of writing long comments on posts. Across two different comments on that one post, I wrote what was probably a few hundred words in total about Final Fantasy XIII and the two direct sequels, X-2 and XIII-2, that hold much of what I consider to the be the “broken” part of the Final Fantasy series: instead of story, they turn to spectacle and, increasingly, the DLC market to make back the huge invests it takes to make one of the games.
However, beyond all that, it was my own use of the sentence “I’m invested” in a tweet later that day that reminded me that I have, in fact, played all the single-player games in the numbered series over the years. Although I still don’t own them all, I have personally payed for VII through the latest XIII-2 with my own money. And it’s that act that speaks to some serious dedication to the series on my part. Looking at my own collection of games, they outnumber even my love for the Metroid and Zelda series on my shelves. Over the dozen games or so, I’ve probably put in months worth of time over the last two decades.
Yet, even when I feel that I am losing my ability to get into their young worlds as easily now that I’m older, I still eventually buy every one of them. There is something about the way that they are constructed that brings me back to games like VII and VIII — which I’ve finished multiple times each over the years. Even with the sometimes sugary jPop tunes and reliance on tired tropes, I want that fresh hit of nostalgia that they can bring me. I go to the Final Fantasy series looking for something and, if I find it, I get hooked. It’s that hunt for the special ingredients that got me thinking about the series and a simple question: what makes it so special?
Going back to the first game, Final Fantasy, shows that they did not innovate much at the time. Borrowing from other games of the time like Dragon Quest, itself a mutation of the Dungeons & Dragons material of the time, they had a class-based battle system where a set of warriors tracked down a set of villains. Through a series of misadventures they manage to track down the real problem, and become part of a legend about their own deeds. A small band succeeds where armies and kings cannot.
In thinking about even that small description, some of which I had to research because I’d forgotten most of the details, I found something that had escaped me at the time and I think points to an important element of the series: the characters can, and do, become more than they start as. The Warriors of Light can, later in the game, change their classes if they want. Even while they are improving themselves through gaining experience points and levels, they can choose a different path. Even though its a subtle point in this first game, the idea can be traced throughout the whole series.
- One of the more powerful moments in Final Fantasy IV (originally II outside Japan) is when Cecil must give up his knight status, defeat the darkness within himself, and become a Paladin.
- In Final Fantasy VI (originally III outside Japan), Terra must confront the fact that she is half-Esper and help bring peace to both humans and Espers.
- Final Fantasy VI has Cloud facing up to his memories coming from Zack and finding a path to becoming his own person again.
- VIII leads Squall to embracing his own destiny, becoming the leader he needs to be, and giving up his old ways.
- IX shows both Zidane and Vivi rejecting their original “purpose” and choosing their own way in the world.
- Even X pits Tidus against his fate: in order to save the world, he has to ‘die’ in the process.
Again and again, in looking at a general theme across all the games I have played in the series, even including those I did not put into the above list, shows that the major element of the series is personal growth. As the player, you are driven to, battle by battle, make the characters stronger, yet it is these moments of maturity that mark the games as more than just another in the genre. The characters are not just becoming a better version of themselves through outer conflict, they are battling their inner thoughts and demons too. It is through this that they grow and endear themselves to us; they have personal issues just as we do.
In the franchise explosion to everything from fighting to rhythm games, this is starting to get lost. It has become, and I would cite XIII-2 as a great example, less that the characters must mature into their destinies and embrace the cost such a choice brings on, and more that they must just battle some major threat. XIII cannot decide if it wants to follow this older model and spends most of the game with characters debating if they should follow their own destinies, while having the player walk them through a straight path to their destinations, both metaphorically and literally in most places. It’s sequel is so concerned with player choice, itself a reaction from the design of the original game, that it throws open the doors to speculation and interpretation of any segment of the game allowing the freedom to replay nearly anything at any time.
The Final Fantasy recipe has been reduced to orchestrated moments, realistic visuals, and recurring tropes. Throw in a moody spiky haired hero, a misunderstood magical girl, and then your choice of Chocobos, Moogles or Cactuars. Sprinkle in either crystals either being prominent items or elemental forces. Now have failing machinery and magical mayhem at various points. Optionally, have multiple worlds, continents, or even timelines. The formula is not hard to determine, yet difficult to execute well.
The question, of course, then becomes this: is ‘being an RPG’ part of that recipe too?