Approximations of filmmaking in other mediums

As a prose writer it’s easy for me to get attached to my sandbox mentality.  When you hit your stride with a story, you luxuriate in your solitary ownership of the process so much that it could potentially spoil you for anything that requires any diversification.  Just lately I’ve been skimming the RPG Maker website since I’m way too much of a wuss to actually get a real engine and attempt ground-up game design.

Not that it was ever a terribly good idea to go into game design completely on your own in the first place: in the eighties and nineties, a game we would consider simple by modern standards would be a neck-deep passion project of a small handful of developers.  The fact that the Mortal Kombat games were pioneered for 16-bit arcade cabinets by two people may have been uncommon for the time but by today’s standards it’s almost Herculean.  Being a total Final Fantasy fan girl, I’ve been following the development of the FFVII Remake and the FFVIII Remaster with bated breath and the developers have said repeatedly that video game development is rapidly reaching par with filmmaking as the most expensive and collaborative of art forms.

This specific comparison has been on my mind lately because I recently finished playing through a game called The Space Between that I first found out about through John Wolf’s YouTube channel.  Put simply, The Space Between is completely narrative driven; no puzzles, no combat, no normal video game mechanics of any kind.  Your job is simply to move through the linear story through exploration and dialogue.  In other words, it’s an interactive short film.

In the last few years (going on decades) this has hardly been unique: we’ve all heard of the TellTale Games along with Quantic Dream and Dontnod Entertainment: interactive video game “films” have pretty much blossomed into their own genre (to say nothing of visual novel games).  Most of them, though, typically rely on a combination of polished graphics (whether that’s attempted photo-realism or an emulation of hand-drawn art) and exploiting opportunities to work in more conventional gaming mechanics into the cinematic narrative.  Telltale Games produced two Batman games that use elements of stealth, puzzle-solving and beat’em up combat.  Life Is Strange relies on puzzles and Vampyr is an action-RPG.  These games also typically have ordinary and recognizable situational and narrative cues that give you a pretty clear idea about where things are going.

With films, there are definitely several precedents for auteurs forgoing these expedients:  something like Elias Merhige’s Begotten or David Lynch’s Inland Empire require you to take it in like a painting or a sculpture.  These films are almost purely visual with little to no use of narrative craft.  When I was in college I encountered a helpful way of describing this in an essay by Tania Modleski about cinematic excess.  According to Modleski, cinematic excess is when the visual content overwhelms or outpaces the narrative content.  According to this model of filmmaking as visual art and narrative craft, mainstream film is basically a hybrid medium: stories are largely what people are looking for from a mainstream film, making them a combination of literature and graphic art.  A “pure” film, with no emphasis on literature, would probably be something like Dali’s Andalusian Dog, since it’s a series of images that are held together by a thematic thread but has no frankly expressed story.  Begotten and the films of Kenneth Anger could also be classified as “pure” filmmaking with little to no reliance on literature.

Before I go on, I just want to bottom-line the fact that Modleski’s breakdown is meant to be descriptive and not judgemental: something that uses visual presentation along with a story is, in the most literal sense, a hybrid of literature and graphic art.  Even dramatic writing is a sort of hybrid since, along with its visual presentation, drama and theater often have their own academic and artistic partitions.  A novelist and a playwright are not interchangeable.

The application to video games should be pretty clear: something like Pong or the very first Mario or Donkey Kong games are good examples of “pure” video games.   They have virtually no reliance on story-telling of any kind- all of the content is in the gameplay.  No one who has ever enjoyed those games has ever required narrative context for them to make sense. 

When video games became more mainstream in the late eighties and early nineties, fictional scenarios were implemented more and more to make them conventionally compelling, since stories are something we all have some familiarity with.  It could be argued that this was where the expectation that video games be as “real” as possible emerged.  Since then, the majority of popular video games, like popular films, have been literary hybrids according to the Tania Modleski analysis.  Clearly, Telltale Games, Quantic Dream and Dontnod Entertainment have become specialists in this hybridization, making it even more frank with their cinematic influence (not that they were the first game developers to be seriously influenced by film, obviously).

I’m bringing all this up because it offers a more streamlined way to talk about the use of narrative devices in video games. Specifically where The Space Between is concerned.  If video games have widely adopted literary hybridization with the same success that filmmaking has, then the recent popularity of linear, cinematic video games is a useful point of comparison.  Life Is Strange is a hybrid game and The Space Between is definitely, obviously a hybrid game.  But even between hybrids (and especially between ones influenced by film) there are degrees of specialization and craft convention.

If, for the sake of argument, we designate subgenres like Metroidvania and Soulsborne as the middle of the spectrum (since they often employ a vast, single map, mostly visual storytelling and a narrative pace that hinges on puzzles, combat and other ordinary gaming mechanics) then The Space Between easily lies closer toward the cinematic end of the spectrum. 

Like I said, the story is firmly linear and, as the player, your participation is limited to putting one foot in front of another until the end.  What makes playing this game different from watcing someone else play it is that, from a first person perspective, you have a deeper sense of immersion and participation (although your interactions and relationships are dictated by the script).  You hear things happening around you based on your movements and locations which gives the impression that your actions matter, that you are tapping on one side and something on the other side is tapping back (very literally in some cases).  One of the cooler instances of this involves…snipping sounds.

Lemme back up, and this where we’re gonna go into some spoilers (if you wanna close out of this and experience the game for yourself, I’ll include a download link at the bottom of the entry).  Your player character has had a lifelong relationship with someone named Daniel, apparently going back to childhood.  Potentially.  There are only so many ordinary ways where one ends up in a blanket fort with chairs, talking to someone on the outside.  I guess this doesn’t necessarily have to be in childhood.  It’s a flashback, at any rate.  So Martin (our player character) tells Daniel he doesn’t want him inside with him, but he doesn’t want him to leave either.  He asks him to put his hand on the blanket and Martin touches back.  Martin then asks if he feels his hand or the blanket.  This flashback establishes some basic thematic language and has a few parallel echoes later on.  It’s presented as fundamentally important for Martin but the specific nature of his relationship with Daniel is almost never frankly stated.  Almost.

During another scene that could potentially be a continuation of the flashback, Martin tells Daniel to get a pair of scissors and cut one hole above and another below.  When this flashback(?) ends and we’re back in the present, we’re standing in rows of sheets hung out to dry outside of an apartment building.  As you’re passing through the corridors of sheets you hear one snip.  A little while later, you hear another.  After that, you glimpse a sheet with one hole near the top and one near the bottom.  If there was any doubt that was what it sounds like, later on you see a curtain sucked around a human outline with a hole in its face and another between its legs.

Since many of the flashbacks seem to be dropped during conversations with another character named Clara, it’s probable that Martin is actually talking about these events as you, the player, are shown them.  This possibility is emphasized even more later on when the momentum near the end picks up, when he says “Clara don’t do this” when eerie events that resemble his connection to Daniel start happening.  If Clara is doing anything, the only potential reason the player is given is because of what Martin told her.  The fact that the player has been in Martin’s POV during the mid-conversation flashbacks that show his story adds to the sense of participation.  Even after the sections where you are basically forced to sit in Martin’s POV and watch him talk, you are put in very ambiguous and tense situations that will not progress until you go where you have to go to trigger the events.

Essentially, you are shown a visceral vulnerability of the player character that may or may not have been vocalized before, then, following this huge, personal surrender, the protagonist loses all sense of control and safety.  Fear was overcome to let another person in, and then the fear was justified in spades.  You’re not even sure of the exact threat and you will not learn how badly you fucked up until you walk yourself into the worst of it.

Think of the cut-scene in the second BioShock game where your awful ending will not happen until you press a button, and you will press the button because you can’t do anything else.  That’s kinda what’s going on.

If The Space Between was a short film, the ending and the momentum that’s built up by Martin’s trust and his subsequent betrayal is where we would get the real payoff of the literary and photographic hybridization.  There is even a word from early twentieth century German film that’s easily applicable to this: expressionism.  Put simply, an expressionist film is set in a vacuum, establishes its own “rules” in the course of its story and needs no context.  David Lynch has probably done more heavy lifting than anyone toward updating and localizing German expressionism for America with films like EreaserheadLost Highway and Mulholland Drive.  Those films are not set in a vacuum, but the real world locations that they are set in tend to not inform the internal rules of the “world” any more than a vacuum.  Usually, a psychological or emotional continuity takes priority over a literal one.  All of the visual cues and character decisions make sense, but only if you accept the subjective dominance of one specific character over all others, since the things that have emotional connotations for them will end up controlling everything else.

If The Space Between was a film, the ending is where Martin’s psychological continuity would start replacing the literal continuity in the foreground.  What makes this kind of narrative device different from, say, something like the Pink Floyd film The Wall which is strictly about a character’s internal life, is that The Space Between tries to draw your attention to an objective world that definitely exists but is still invisible.

The game begins with what appears to be a newspaper article about the body of Martin Melanson, a well-known architect, being found in a hollow within a wall.  So we have a definite statement of something happening, but everything else is totally subjective.  David Lynch has done similar things, such as in Lost Highway when Fred Madsen appears to magically change into Pete Dayton while he’s in prison.  Pete is released from prison and the story, through visual cues, seriously begins to look like a separate, parallel event to the Fred Madsen story.  What stops the viewer from firmly deciding that Pete Dayton is in a separate story is that he was followed out of prison and is being surveilled by two FBI agents from the Fred Madsen story.  The presence of the FBI agents are a constant reminder that, no matter how much this looks like a broken continuity, one thing is still chronologically following the other.  Like The Space Between, something is definitely happening in the real world, but the subjective continuity makes it totally invisible.

For film, this is an example of a well-established device that relies completely on the visual cues and the performances of the actors to overwhelm a frankly stated plot.  The plot is overwhelmed with a visual and dramatic continuity that still has a thematic relationship with the plot, even while leaving it behind.

As much as I enjoyed The Space Between, though, I couldn’t help but wonder: what makes this different from an interactive film?  Does its presentation as a video game actually bring any real hybridization, or is this simply a film via video game?

As previously stated, the orientation of the player in Martin’s first person point of view does much to differentiate the experience from that of watching a film.  Dialogue is used often but many of the essential stories told by Martin are shown directly to the player through flashbacks rather than through explication. The next difference may not be a substantial one but The Space Between utilizes the same graphics as early nineties PS1 games which has a few different consequences.

One of them, which is admittedly negotiable, is nostalgia-tinged uncanniness for those of us that grew up with the PS1. It creates the experience of finding something startlingly foreign within something familiar. It also uses some commonplace technological limitations from that era to good effect. Most early PlayStation games used text-based dialogue to save information space and, rather like those very games, The Space Between‘s text dialogue allows the communication between characters to share the foreground with the atmosphere created by the music.

Which is to say, the dialogue happens within a sonic atmosphere rather than interrupting or embodying it like voice acting would. This, both for this game and older games, is a huge gain for the immersion. It’s this immersion that enables the player to be directly in touch with the subjective continuity as it takes over the objective one, making it an effective blending of cinematic trope with classic video game presentation. The first person player experience plays into the success of the expressionist structure.

Now….as cool as I think this game is and as much as I’m enjoying reviewing it, this review was not originally the point of this entry. What I wanted to talk about in the first place were ideas from filmmaking seeping into other mediums. There are a few different reasons for this.

The more selfish ones are, as the opening paragraph states, that I am growing curious about other art forms than the one I’m most accustomed to. So I’m skimming the more, shall we say, vanilla edges of game development. I’ve also had ideas for screenplays that I’ve been seriously excited about in the past but, realistically, filmmaking can be very difficult to get into. Which hasn’t stopped me from roughing out screenplays, but genuine difficulties exist. So perhaps it’s prudent to be aware of other expedients.

Was this what Christoph Frey, the mind behind The Space Between was thinking when he made that game?

I can think of some reasons why it may not have been, such as a wish to simply make an uncanny and dreamlike work of art, but if he was thinking about an alternative to filmmaking, I could hardly blame him. Alejandro Jodorowsky, a renowned filmmaker by any standard, struggled for decades to make a sequel to his 1970 classic El Topo and, recently, has decided that his vision was too pressing to wait any further on the convenience of the film industry. He then turned to an artist he trusted deeply and elected to make the El Topo sequel, called The Sons Of El Topo, into comics. I have read the first hard back English language volume, Cain, and Abel is expected to get a hard back English release later this year.

Being the pragmatic and opportunistic magpie that I am, I always jump at the opportunity to learn more about how my own ideas may benefit from similar adjustments. My recent desire to throw myself into RPG Maker started with a conversation with a friend about making our own video game together. My mind took off but at the time I wasn’t aware how obtainable RPG Maker software is. As I plotted the story out I realized I cared too much about it to let go and so resolved myself to write it as a novel. And then I saw the bad-ass retro SNES and Gameboy-style assets and skins on RPG Maker and now I just don’t know. So the pros and cons of different kinds of artistic hybridization have been on my mind lately, how a story may change from one medium to another. Especially since this particular story of mine is connected to the same world-building project of two different novels I have in the works.

Why not do both the game and the book? Good question, why not indeed. Neil Gaiman did a few different retellings of Neverwhere for different mediums. Butttttt Iiii dunnnoooo…..I like the idea of a creative exchange between different mediums that are all involved in the same project. Such things have their flaws, as the expanded FFXV and Kingdom Hearts universes attest, but…I wanna 😡

And, at least, I think the multi-volume El Topo saga indicates that success might just be obtainable on that front. Several things that had a very specific function in the original film, that worked specifically as cinematic techniques, have been translated to intriguing effect in the comic book continuation.

For example, the cross dressing and the seemingly random fetish imagery. Film, like theater, can get so subjective at times that you wonder if there is meant to be any actual context (I.e. expressionism). El Topo exploited this potential well. The protagonists’ transformation has a lot to do with a female phantom-self, a kind of Jungian anima, that may or may not actually exist. This female reflection is portrayed by an actress but, when she speaks, she has a male voice. Later, in a separate setting, an apparently female character also has a male voice-over when she speaks. Does the female reflection of El Topo exist in the same way that the named characters do? What about the same phenomena appearing casually in a different place?

The comic continuation has made it clear that at least some of these things literally exist: male to female cross dressers do, in fact, seem to be common place. Particularly in the clergy. And that El Topo, post-martyrdom, is venerated by Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims. This could either mean that El Topo has literally synthesized all of these religions into one or that this is a non-literal way of indicating that El Topo is universally revered in the fictional world. It is also now clear that the honey-combs that appeared at El Topos grave were not an illusory symbol but literally appeared as his dying miracle.

Another smaller but cool wrinkle is that the ghost of El Topo and the appearance of his sons are all meticulously drawn to resemble Jodorowsky himself in his performance in the original movie. Cain is identical to the violent pre-apotheosis El Topo and Abel is identical to post-apotheosis El Topo. El Topo’s actual ghost looks simply the way he did at the moment of his death. In the beginning, when El Topo’s final massacre near the end of his life is retold, the artist is very precise is recreating Jodorowsky’s specific facial expressions and it’s freaking beautiful.

The precise nuts and bolts there remain to be seen for English speakers, and my French is a little rusty right now so I don’t know if I’d be up to tackling the older digital versions of the French run. Another thing that has yet to be seen is whether or not the female version of El Topo will be revealed to have a literal existence after El Topo is dead- she was an essential character in the film and I would love to see her again in the comic.

So yeah. I find some of Jodorowsky’s words rather applicable to my current predicament: “There is no failure, only a change of direction”. Closed doors can definitely lead to successes of their own with the right mindset as he himself has made clear.

Link to the Ichio page where Christoph Frey’s The Space Between can be purchased-

https://chrstphfr.itch.io/the-space-between

Final Fantasy XV: Episode Ardyn (fan dialogue, fix-it fic-ing, tragic love done wrong, Ailix does fanshipping, etc)

Only a few days ago Square Enix dropped what is supposed to be the very last piece of DLC for Final Fantasy XV and it was…well…something.  It was something, anyway.

Not altogether bad, but severely flawed in certain ways.  Unfortunately, the flaws of this DLC echo many of the flaws in the base game so maybe that shouldn’t count too hard against it. One of the weaknesses echoed here is that it’s just too easy.  I get that it’s short and episodic like all the other character chapter DLCs and not meant to last too long, but you can still pack a decent challenge into a small space.  Again, though, the base game is almost startlingly easy compared to any other Final Fantasy game I’ve played so far.

I remember when I got to the point where Noctis wakes up in a daemon-covered Eos I was like “oh cool, now we’re starting the second half of the game”.  That part does resemble how a lot of Final Fantasy games mark the middle of the story: FFVI is divided between the World of Balance for the first half and the World of Ruin for the second (I’ll try not to dwell on FFXV’s botched references to VI…).  The middle of FFVII is marked by the appearance of Meteor in the sky, etc.  While this isn’t exactly consistent with the pattern, FFXIII has you get kicked down to Pulse.

Soooo given the established precedents, night-covered daemon-ravaged Eos seriously looks like the second half is about to start.  And then you get that notice saying that once you enter Insomnia the final battle is afoot.  It was kind of a facepalm moment for me.  I had barely been playing the game a few weeks by that point and I was seriously taking my time, trying to absorb as much as I could and do every side-quest I could find.

There were two reasons for this design choice: one of them is that the majority of the content is post-game.  The second is that Square Enix was seriously considering a move toward a different business model focusing on MMO’s and mobile apps, with Final Fantasy XV being something of a transitional device.  Square evidently planned on developing a ton of DLC for the game, to be released over the next few years, and how that would go would be guided somewhat by player feedback.

So it pretty much was an incomplete game upon its initial release.  Maybe some of the super-easy, loosely-structured gameplay in the main storyline was supposed to afford wiggle room for other DLC and update doo-dads.  Evidently the unfolding of the central storyline was also supposed to be guided by reactions from fans.  The unfolding definitely was, but I guess there’s also room to infer that some of the actual plot details could have been governed by fans as well.  The Ignis DLC, with its multiple endings that would impact the story going forward, may have opened up a door for multiple timelines.  So who knows what that would have yielded if they hadn’t decided to stop at Episode Ardyn and put the rest of the planned story revelations into an upcoming novel or story collection.

Interestingly, though, out of the fan reactions that made it to the ears of Square Enix, no one had mentioned the super-easy difficulty as a problem.  In fact, they thought the part where Noctis is stripped of his powers in Gralea was too hard.  Sooo the game started shockingly easy and stayed shockingly easy throughout the exchange between Square and the players.  So Episode Ardyn can’t be singled out for that, exactly.  And I’m sorry if I seem like I’m spending a lot of time dwelling on a weakness that’s fundamental to the IP itself and not the specific fault of this DLC, but it messes with me.  Because it’s so ubiquitous, in almost every facet of FFXV. The Pitioss Dungeon was the one clear exception.  Costlemark Tower requires some persistence and grinding but isn’t really hard.

It also reflects badly on how Square Enix has developed other parts of the digital supplements, like the multiplayer expansion.  It seems like quotas of monsters to hunt is something that gets plugged in a lot.  I mean it’s most of what happens with the multiplayer expansion and the majority of things to do in Episode Ardyn involve wandering around and getting in fights.  It’s like they want to do an “open sandbox” design but don’t really have a good idea as to how to flesh out the gameplay in the “open sandbox”.  The multiplayer expansion consists entirely of kill quotas and the dungeons that get unlocked post-game from Ezma’s key are just successive subterranean rooms with monsters to kill.  If Episode Ardyn was the last DLC for this game, they evidently decided to end with what they did the most of.

The biggest map in the DLC is the city of Insomnia during your raid, with items scattered all over that become visible when you knock out a shield generator, and gimme points for destroying signs and cars and balloons and megaphones along with push-over battles with Insomnia’s military (the Kingsglaive, maybe?).  A few decades ago, there was a game called Rampage on the Nintendo 64, where you play as a claymation monster causing random havoc in a city, Godzilla-style.  In elementary school there was only one other person in my sixth grade class who was as annoyingly hyper-active as me and we spent a loud, cackling evening once on that game.  That was what Episode Ardyn reminded me of.  Which is to say I had a little bit of fun.  It was easy to the point where I only got KO’d once and it was a simple planning mistake, but I had fun.  The music they used for the orgy of destruction also got a smile out of me: it’s this rap-like thing that reminds me of nu-metal, a late-childhood / early teens throwback for me.

But it’s simplistic, and after spending much of FFXV not being challenged at all, it’s just sort of…like…having another bowl of ice cream for dessert, after your ice cream dinner which was smothered with hot fudge, caramel and pieces of Oreo and Heath bar.  Ice cream is nice and I pretty much always like ice cream, but there is such a thing as being overloaded on it.

That being said, the story complications weren’t s’bad.  It was cool to see Ardyn get pulled out of the Angelguard prison after two millennia of somnolent captivity.  By a young Verstael Besithia, no less, when he was young enough to have the features we’d see on the Magitek troops once they started cloning them from him…which is to say a face quite like our lil blonde friend Prompto in the base game.  It seemed like a neat, subtle thing to do- seeing Verstael and Ardyn interact with each other was almost like a villainous mirror of Prompto and Noctis (what with Ardyn’s connection to the Caelum family).

Next, we have some follow-up to some other revelations from the prologue anime that got released back in February which set part of the stage of the DLC.  When the crystal flashed and gave it’s choice for the throne, there were wing and blade-like shapes flaring out from it that looked like Bahamut.  Implying that Bahamut chose Somnis and shafted Ardyn and causing people on YouTube to make theory videos about how Bahamut might be the real villain of FFXV.

Early in the DLC, we get a sort of convoluted reversal of that which I didn’t fully understand.  At the end, though, there is a conversation between Bahamut and Ardyn that goes back to supporting the idea of Bahamut orchestrating Ardyn’s journey.  Ardyn learns that his death will carry the daemons with it, and when they’re gone, the need for a divine steward (such as the Caelum family) will go away- essentially, that Ardyn and the kings of Lucis will perish together in the end, satisfying his desire for revenge.

Bahamut has a similar talk with Noctis near the end of the base game about accepting his destiny graciously, which creates a really nice parallel that links us back to the brotherly enmity we witnessed between Ardyn and Somnis and the role that destiny played between them.  It’s a neat way of characterizing the Caelum family as a group with a light and a dark half that are both equally dependent on each other.

There were still a lot of glaring omissions, though.  The Starscourge began with Ifrit’s rebellion and the Starscourge was the whole motivation for Ardyn becoming an Oracle.  Late in the game, Bahamut and Ifrit continue to be big players.  Has this all been about human proxies in a war between the gods?  It’s definitely implied.  Prolly not stated to maintain the impression that the human characters are still centrally important, though.

The possibility that the whole plot of FFXV is built around a proxy war between Bahamut and Ifrit also supports the presented narrative of the Caelum family, of it’s light and dark nature that are divided by enmity and united by mutual dependence.  Noctis, Ardyn and Luna are all martyrs to a superhuman cause.

While Episode Ardyn may have aptly tied together a bunch of the themes thus far, I also think it supported one of the worst narrative qualities of FFXV.  Most Final Fantasy games have a halfway point where the world is in danger and the priorities of every character are either turned on their head or otherwise re-evaluated.  FFXV stops at the point where this would have happened- not just in terms of Final Fantasy‘s typical plot structuring, but they also truncate the main character arcs where, in older FF games, they would only just be taking off.

The characters of FFXV are barely required to re-examine or take ownership of themselves.  Sure enough, one of our last images in the game is Noctis and Luna holding court in the afterlife.  He seems to be sharing a happy ghostly existence with a woman he pined over but has not spoken to since childhood, so evidently the plot requirement that Noctis die has rewarded him for not growing up.  All the pathos of tragic love rewarded with total indulgence, culminating in the most saccharine portrayal of tragic love I may have ever seen.

Just on it’s face, this is lazy and possibly repugnant storytelling that glorifies an unrealistic picture of romance.  That’s bad enough.  Especially with stuff like 13 Reasons Why and the Twilight books fresh in our memories.  But it’s worse when so many of the older Final Fantasy stories have done better than that, often with love stories.  In VII, Cloud found validation for his sublimated identification with Zach through Aerith, which is a kind of morbid fantasy ideal, but in the end he was nurtured by his friendship with Tifa, whom he had known since childhood.  In FFVI, Locke gets wrapped up in a white knight complex over his failure to protect his dead girlfriend, Rachel, and during the World of Ruin segment, he can be found attempting to track down an Esper that he believes can revive the dead, which turns out not to be possible.

Even without keeping our focus on romantic subplots, a lot of similar things happen.  FFIX involves the search for a soul, which both Zidane and Vivi have idealized as an unobtainable seal of approval entitling you to your existence, and both of them learn that you don’t need any deeper validation than your own subjectivity and lived experiences.  I could go on.

I’m not saying old Final Fantasy games are Shakespeare or anything, but a few of these character arcs show genuine attention to detail and there’s no reason not to give credit where credit is due.  And like I said, FFXV breaks the pattern of something that was (at least) admissibly pulled off in a lot of the older FF titles.

Another reason why I’m dwelling on the botched portrayal of tragic love between Noctis and Luna is that, in one of the polls Square Enix took among gamers, many reported that they would have liked to have seen Noctis and Luna get their “happy ending”.  None of the fan responses brought up the issue that the relationship was over-romanticized and that it was based on A. a marriage contract between two nations and B. a childhood encounter between the two affianced.  There are ways to deal with political marriages in narratively compelling ways, but trying to make the two marriage pawns “true lovers” on the strength of a childhood meeting years ago, and nothing else, is not the way to do it.  I also feel like Episode Ardyn was meant to leave wiggle room for the “happy ending” with Bahamut placing Ardyn, fully clothed and with his social standing in Niflheim intact, at Angelguard again.  And we hear no mention of the raid on Insomnia with the younger Regis in the base game, so presumably it was purged from the historical record, implying that Bahamut can manipulate time.  That’s two DLC’s (counting Episode Ignis) that suggest multiple timelines.

I would maintain that everything I’ve written in this post so far is defensible but I’m about to get into territory that departs from actual sources and is total speculation on my part, or fix-it fic-ing.

What if FFXV actually had a second half after the global disaster, like every other FF game, and Noctis had the chance to make his own choices free of family obligation and unrealistic fantasies?

Who has been at Noctis’ side throughout the whole journey, expresses concern and regard for his emotions, treats him like an equal without pulling any paternal moralizing crap, and has a truly upsetting falling out with him that they bounce back from?

Prompto.  You read that right.  I think Prompto should be Noctis’ canonical love interest.  I’m not saying this trait is always a telltale signs of closeted homosexuality in and of itself, but just think about it: Prompto is really vocal about thinking this or that girl is cute, way more vocal than any other character.  The other guys in the brotherhood even rip on him over it, albeit gently.  For all of his chauvinistic noisemaking, though, he never does anything chauvinistic, toward a female or anyone else.  Prompto even seems to easily make platonic friendships with female characters (Iris and, in his own DLC, Aranea Highwind).  You could rebut this by saying no other male character makes any romantic or sexual moves on any female character, but Prompto is the one who sounds off about it.  Therefore, it is only in his case that the question is begged.  Prompto makes a lot of noise about how straight he is, but when do you ever see him truly bent out of shape over a girl?  Who is the only person whom he ever gets bent out of shape over?  That would be Noctis.

Another rebuttal could be that Noctis shows no visible signs of being anything other than straight.  I think this was a commonly voiced objection when Gotham briefly entertained a ship between Penguin and the Riddler.  Viewers would complain that Edward Nygma, aka the Riddler, never frankly expressed attraction for a man.  However, a lot of bisexuals can attest to the fact that it’s possible to cling to the illusion that you’re straight, regardless of feelings, if you only ever act on feelings for the opposite sex.  This could just as easily be true of Noctis if the writers cared to take it in that direction.

If the game continued past the first glimpse of the World of Ruin, we also may have seen a different and more compelling story about demanding to live in spite of a prophecy requiring you to die.  That, as a central theme, would have gone nicely with a new love interest once Luna was ruled out as a possibility.  And by new love interest I mean Prompto.  C’mon, Square, one unambiguous same-sex couple wouldn’t kill you.  They sort of went there with Fang and Vanille in FFXIII, but it wasn’t frankly stated.

Is this me airing a fan-fic thought bubble?  Totally, but I think it’s defensible by the standards of fan-fic thought bubbles.  If that’s too wonky, then I guess I’m just saying FFXV has a story that’s abruptly short and compares badly to many of the older installments.  Boom.  Ended on an objectively arguable note.

More FFIV lore analysis

I have, at last, vindicated the frustration of twenty-one year old Ailix and beat FFIV. There was a bit of the typical Final Fantasy difficulty spike before the final boss but nothing too spooky compared to VI, VII, VIII or XIII. As has been typical of this playthrough, all of the real grindy grind marathons have been entirely because I decided I wanted to. When I first played through FFVII I got on this crazy, single-minded kick of wanting every character’s ultima(te) weapon. FFIV was pretty quick and painless in that regard. The one that really seemed to require effort was Edge’s Masamune and Murasame, since one of them is pretty deep in the final dungeon and protected by some fairly tough monsters. Excalibur, meanwhile, was a fetch quest that’s kind of a walk in the park if you’ve waited until the very end of the game to do it. I may be inclined to be blasé, though, since I had already completed the Feymarch dungeon and collected the rat tail without knowing what it was for beforehand. As frustrating as that particular dungeon was at times, I had a lot of fun with it.

If you’re reading this for helpful notes it may behoove me to mention that you might want to have both Porom and Rosa in your party for the final battle with Zeromis. With Rosa absolutely maxed out, of course, with Holy in her repertoire. You’ll also want to buy as much elixirs and dry ethers from the Hummingway cave as you can (the Hummingway cave had a bit of a Twin Peaks vibe. Lots of colorfully dressed short creatures making discordant, electrical-sounding noises…).

Basically, if you Holy spam the crap out of Zeromis with another reasonably maxed out white mage on healing detail with everyone else doing decent damage (having Rydia summon Bahamut repeatedly sure won’t hurt, if you’ve managed to navigate the Cave of the Father) while being absolutely shameless with keeping everyone doused with elixirs, you should do okay. I didn’t feel too much like a lame-ass for using elixirs like that, since Zeromis will screen nuke you repeatedly and if you get stuck in a rut of trying to revive multiple party members with phoenix downs on one turn and then healing them another…well, that gets you in a downward spiral that’s real hard to climb out of. I mean…if you have the Asura summon, that could be occasionally helpful, but what she does once summoned is just too random to be reliable.

BTW I deduced the thing about having two white mages in retrospect: I just went in with my normal arrangement (Rosa, Edge, Cecil, Rydia and Kain) and almost didn’t make it. Basically, Rosa was on both Holy and healing duty. Which turned out not to be feasible. And I barely had enough elixirs. I was one away from being out, with only Rydia and Kain still alive, when Kain came down from a Jump and wasted the bastard. Rydia was pretty low on MP also; I’d more or less resigned myself to dying while trying to get her to Osmose her way back up to the point of being able to summon when Kain miraculously won the fight. A satisfying final boss, really. When judged solely as a boss fight, anyway.

This game has many of the same narrative strengths and weaknesses of Final Fantasy XIII. Both stories do a great job of discussing themes while also being lazy with plot construction. When a story does a good job of discussing ideas while failing to get you to care about its characters it creates a funny feeling of watching something archetypal. Which could turn out to be true, but even then, those archetypal tropes and comments don’t create depth in and of themselves.

The concept of Zemis/Zeromis ties into both the thematic strength and the narrative weakness. With fantasy stories about fictional worlds that could, potentially, be constructed in a total vacuum with no reliance on the real world, the consistency and integrity of the world building is more open ended and therefore more delicate. With no correlating outside material (other than other sources taking place in the same fictional universe) you’re kind of trusting the storyteller 100%. You are anyway in a lot of cases, but the totality of the storyteller’s job get’s starker and more delicate the more unrestricted they are.

The really big narrative weakness in Final Fantasy IV is something that can easily happen in fantasy stories with an alien-invasion plot. World A is the world we spend most of our time in and it’s the one we get the most immersed in (Earth or Gaia or whatever. The Blue Planet). Since the unfolding of a plot has to happen through gradual revelations, there are necessarily parts that look like blank spots until they are revealed or explained, and the mystery of the blank spaces is usually something that keeps you interested until the end.

Anyway, there were obscured plot details that were resolved with the appearance of World B: The Red Planet, or the moon. In a fantasy setting, bringing in a separate world that informs things about another has the potential of subverting one set of rules with a completely new set of rules. Final Fantasy IX sidestepped this by having the Terrans be almost completely off-camera- we only see their biomechanical creations and future host bodies. Same goes for Jenova and the Cetra in VII- the original worlds of both groups are totally off-camera with only the most relevant details being visible.

In Final Fantasy IV, we get to set foot on the other world. I mean, we don’t get full immersion- the aliens are still in cold storage waiting for their custodians to find and prepare their new home. We have the Crystal Palace, the Cave of the Father, Hummingway village and the Lunar ruins- that last one I haven’t explored yet, though.

With both IV and IX, you could argue that the World B changes the rules up to that point. In IX, though, less things are stated openly. Some people have a variety of theories about whether or not Necron was present beforehand, what precisely is happening in Memoria, why Memoria is there, etc. I have my own interpretations of all that which I might get into in a later post, and I think the game offers more than a Rorschach ink blot to go off of. What I mean is that you can credibly infer what is going on from the implications. But because so much is implied in IX, it’s possible to finish that game with a personal interpretation that keeps everything in the same world with the same set of rules. I don’t think that’s sound way to “read” FFIX, but because so much is not said openly, the player has a lot of latitude to make their own interpretations. FFIV has less latitude, though.

For one, Zemis/Zeromis is tied directly to both the thematic threads and his utterances are so reminiscent of certain plot points that it’s hard not to think that he’s talking literally about how the fictional world works. And he does not say much. He only tells Golbez that his commitment to a path of darkness is irrevocable and that “the crystal cannot cleanse your sins”. This isn’t just a thematic nod, since the story on the mythgraven sword describes a hero who goes from “dark” to “light”. I mean, we see moral reversals and forgiveness all the time in this game- Cecil razed Rydia’s village at the very beginning, after all. But the mythgraven blade tells us that the journey through sin and absolution is literally a part of the world building mechanics. And Zemis’s transformation into Zeromis is only explained as his hatred “growing stronger” after his death. Which supports the possibility that moral and spiritual states of being have material expressions in the world of Final Fantasy IV.

Before moving on, there is a phrase describing a trope that covers events like this: the power of love. Trinity brings Neo back to life with her love in the first Matrix film. Steve Martin changes the polarity of the earth to stop a plane from taking off to keep a girl he likes nearby in LA Story. That’s basically how the “power of love” trope works.

While what happens with Zeromis is credited to hatred, it still has the basic mechanics of the “power of love” trope. Something happens for no other reason than a powerful emotional cry going out to the universe. You could reasonably call it the “power of prayer” also. Harry Potter takes advantage of the power of love trope, but also manages to incorporate it into its world building, making it less of a naked, self-justifying trope. I’m not sure if Final Fantasy IV makes that transition successfully or not. It’s clearly supposed to.

The reason I’m droning on about this trope and it’s common usage, though, is because it’s widely disliked for a reason close to all this: the power of love trope has a tendency to subvert the constancy of the world building or “rules” of a story. It’s a commonly used deus ex machina. This is also the risk of bringing in the rules of a second fictional world when the player/reader/viewer/whatever has spent so much time getting used to the rules of a first one.

This destabilizing risk at play with both the “power of love” trope and the appearance of a second set of fictional rules are tied together in that the aliens in FFIV are something of a founder race of the first planet. The Tower of Babil has been there for the entire history of the Kingdom of Eblan. It seems like that, anyway, no one there seems to remember a time when it wasn’t there. The Lunarians also know a ton of specifics about how the crystals work and the Earthlings seem like they just worship them as forces of nature that have always been there.

The crystals are the McGuffin tying this plot together and it seriously looks like the Lunarians have all the answers regarding them. The Lunarians have also been technologically advanced for much longer than the Earthlings and will even sow bits of knowledge Prometheus-style (Cecil’s dad and the airship technology…). So it looks like the crystals may actually be a creation of the Lunarians- not divine elemental sources after all, but technology that controls the elements. An apparently controversial technology- the mythgraven blade says one thing and Zeromis says another -but still technology in all likelihood.

Because the Lunarians are the founder race and this is a story about ancient aliens, we have to take their assessments of the relevant McGuffins as definitive. You can’t explain any of the ending events of FFIV as part of the prior set of rules for the first planet, since the inhabitants of the second planet created the whole situation. The second planet has all the answers, so the paradigm shift is unavoidable. And the central plot dynamic has to do with material expressions of spiritual states of being, as spoken by an authoritative second planet source, so the “power of love” trope is equally unavoidable.

Paradigm-shifting plot-twists can be pulled off in the late stages of the story but not if the player or reader has to accept too many radical breaks in consistency too quickly. If a plot-twist effects earlier plot mechanics, it has to somehow be addressed, or the reader or gamer feels like they’re trying to swallow something either sight-unseen or with incomplete information. Witness the timeline issues that are never brought up again (unless it happens in Interlude or After Years, in which case I will happily eat my words. Even if it does happen in those, though, the original game was presented as a standalone story for years sooo….those last two games must be taken as after-the-fact retcons).

As I explained in my last post, this is brought up by the appearance of airships and the lifespans of Cecil and Golbez. The same Lunarian introduced the airship technology and fathered both of those characters. This Lunarian is also the brother of Fusoya, our first friendly denizen of the moon, who is ancient- presumably thousands of years old. Not very many Lunarians are awake, so Fusoya and his brother are probably ancient caretakers of the planet.

Probably. The age of each brother is not specified but the rest of the story only leaves room for so many possibilities. If the two brothers are caretakers for the rest of the sleeping planet and one of them is canonically stated to be the caretaker since the era when the Tower of Babil was constructed…what about the second brother? On one hand, airship technology was only introduced in the recent past and there’s no reason to think that Cecil is any older than the other adult-ish(?) characters. On the other hand…we are told nothing about the background of Golbez, other than he has the same father as Cecil. Then there’s Mount Ordeals and the legend of the Paladin inscribed on the mythgraven blade, which the village of Mysidia has known about since time immemorial. When Cecil transforms into a Paladin and draws the mythgraven blade, he hears the voice of his father. Did Lunarian Number Two plant the mythgraven blade thousands of years ago? Apparently. So are both Lunarian brothers thousands of years old? What exactly caused Lunarian Number Two to go rogue and start doing his own thing on the Blue Planet in the last few decades?

The parentage of Cecil and all of these complications are introduced very quickly near the end of the game and are never addressed in the first game in the trilogy. The consequences that the plot-twist has for the plot so far are never addressed, which compromises the continuity. The paradigm shift with the Lunarian founder race and the elements of the “power of love” then start to be a bit of an eyesore.

There are other weaknesses in the story, but in my opinion this is the really big one. That being said, the thematic discussion of redemption holds up well. Between Cecil, Kain and Golbez there are three major character arcs that involve stark examples of absolution. Rydia’s reappearance from the Feymarch does a good job of bearing this up as well. When Cecil gets shipwrecked near Mysidia, he has every reason to think Rydia is dead, which renders his treachery to the village of Mist complete and snatches away his last shred of redemption in his own eyes. It’s a great way to set up the Paladin transformation, and when Rydia comes back it stops her from being another female character predictably sacrificed to develop a male one through tragedy. I also appreciated that Golbez elected to stay on the moon at the end of the game, as it echoes Cecil’s expiation arc. Despair is also examined hand in hand with redemption, which makes sense: redemption is transcendence, despair is being cut off from transcendence. Self-sacrifice or suicide can be ways of narratively exploring the link between the two and a ton of characters attempt to off themselves. The link and the mingled hope and despair implicit in it is even stated by one character after Cid appears to blow himself up: “Why do so many choose death so easily?”

There are other expressions of this a little further from the foreground. The four demonic guardians of the crystals (typically represented by the Four Fiends in older FF games) are now named after demons from the Inferno section of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The last fight with them, with all four at once as a single being, even has a loose consistency with the deeper circles of Hell reserved for betrayers. In Inferno, people’s bodies frequently combine. In one canto, a scorpion stings one of the condemned souls, the soul turns to ash, then the ash swarms around the scorpion, absorbs it and turns into a hybrid. Obviously that has no bearing on the plot of FFIV, but it’s a way of keeping a relevant theme in the background. Then there’s Namingway constantly offering to change your name for you, which is rather on the nose.

If I really wanted to bog myself down in minutia, I could get into the thematic comparison between temporal and spatial world views. Theological concepts like salvation and damnation are typically part of a temporal cosmology where a grand timeline of the universe is privileged over local circumstances. In the worlds of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of humanity, everywhere, all has a common destiny which involves salvation for some and damnation for others. Salvation and damnation seem to be consequences of the timeline’s eventual end. In spatial cosmologies though, locations and nature are privileged over any possible timeline. Ancient pre-Christian belief systems in the West, for example, with deities embodying different natural forces. This is also exemplified by the reaction that both Vikings and some Native Americans had to Christian missionaries: they appreciated the Christian origin story as relevant to a certain group of humans…but fundamentally believed that different people originated in realms that are so different as to almost put them on the level of other planets or species. That different humans, like different non-humans, can be literally worlds apart. I imagine that some interpretation involving this is possible with this game, what with involving language of salvation and damnation combined with a world organized by four different elements. Which could possibly play into the thematic structure examining despair and redemption, side by side.

Maybe some of the writers and developers were thinking about things like that. Or maybe they were just reaching for different sources from religion and mythology which, as a fantasy writer myself, I understand is very fun to do just in and of itself. When I was in middle school a friend and I made our own table top game that was literally just a giant amalgam of mythology and religion. So no hate on that front. There’s at least enough suggestions of a temporal versus spatial thematic layer to raise the question, though.

As interested as I am in this kind of nutty interpretation, though, compelling thematic structures are not enough to create a good story in and of itself. In fact, I think this very disparity is something that Final Fantasy games historically have a messy relationship with. FFXIII is an even better case and point than IV, in both how it can go very right in one way and horribly wrong in another. I can only think of two, maybe three, Final Fantasy games that really got the balance right, and even the way in which the successes compare with the failures are interesting. Since I seem to be losing inhibitions with being a full tilt weeb, I’m sure I’ll write a longer post unpacking that even more eventually.

The relationship between graphics and scenario writing in video games

I have attempted two playthroughs of Final Fantasy IV and choked both times.  As a FF fan that ain’t normal for me, to say nothing of how excited I was to play it in the beginning.  From what I read on the internet prior, it seemed like IV was the turning point for Final Fantasy becoming the narrative heavy experience that we all know today.  I don’t think I’ll sound too lame if I own that the Golbez fight in the castle of the dwarves was a factor in the termination of both of my playthroughs, especially if I add that I was playing it on a DS those times.  For some reason, Square Enix decided to buff a boss fight in this remake that was already notoriously hard to begin with.

So playthrough one ended with the Golbez fight and playthrough two ended when I started buffing Rydia immediately before she disappears from the party.  I got her to learn bio, which most agree is a thing you want to have in the dwarvish Golbez fight, but my nerves were so fried from all the grinding that took that I just didn’t have the patience to keep playing after that point.  Just yesterday, though, I was able to start playing the original 16-bit SNES version and I’m actually getting more interested in the events of the story than I was the first time around.  Within my first few minutes of SNES FFIV I was reminded that the effect of the Nintendo DS graphics and voice acting was almost as much of a turn off as the remake’s infamous difficulty spike.

No matter what the subject of a film, painting or video game is, how that subject looks is bound to direct your attention at least as much as the script of the subject’s story.  However with video games and commercial cinema there is an oddly quantitative way of judging something as qualitative as visual and auditory effect.  To me, it’s comparable to saying that photographs have destroyed the reason to ever draw, or that photography has replaced painting.  We could digress even further if we dwell on what ways of looking and sounding are treated as the most “natural” or “appealing” in computer animation (I mean, if I wanna look like Serah Farron in FFXIII, I’m gonna need to spend several grand on plastic surgery).

But for now, regardless of what we are treating as real, let’s at least allow that trying to look “real” is something that is widely valued in both video games and big budget movies.  How “real” something looks can be valued with strange single-mindedness, though.  For some, the fact that black and white film can have color doctored into them is a good enough reason to do it, regardless if certain decisions were originally planned to have the best effect as black and white images.  Digitally adding color to a film like Orphee or Les enfants terribles would, to say the absolute least, be very, very single-minded.

I think this was the mistake that was being made in the DS FFIV remake.  Voice acting and 3D graphics were added without consideration for how they would change the flow of the action.  The voice actors also sound unsure if they are supposed to be melodramatic or earnest.  I get that stories and characters are allowed to have tone shifts, but with the FFIV voices the changes sounded too random to be intentional.  In the older version, though, the use of text-based dialogue allowed both the delivery of words and their content to go by the player’s own pace.  In this regard, I think the DS remake compares particularly badly to  the original.  Just look at the different presentations of the desolation of the Mage Village and the theft of their crystal.  I found the 16-bit portrayal easier on the eyes and therefore easier to take in.  Probably because the scenario was written with a 16-bit image in mind.

 

Anyway, this is more of a random thought of the day.  I’m still pretty early in my playthrough but so far everything about the presentation is working better.