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 thorugh 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 preson 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 Bioharzard 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 than 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, a 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 for 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 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-

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, considering the IP it’s a part of.  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 some side-scrolling game for 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.  That new song they recorded 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 worse 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 if 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 with 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 The Jerk. 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 for 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 of 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.

Final Fantasy IV binge, lore craziness, etc

I was too sick to go to work today and, while I was largely confined to the one room in which I was resting, I still managed to make the most of my stolen time.  I did more preparation for my imminent move and comfortably fielded my way through a job interview by phone (I rang off feeling rather good about it ^^).  Being quite ill, though, and not being up to much activity in general, I naturally sank a few hours into a gaming binge.

I know this probably doesn’t matter that much, but just in case anyone was wondering- last spring I thought I would have consistent access to a SNES on which to play the original FFIV, which I was totally stoked about since the 16 bit graphics and text-based  dialogue suited the game so much better than the upgrades on the DS remake.  Oh yeah, and the DS version had a few completely insane difficulty spikes.

In the end I ended up not being around the SNES all that much so I eventually ended up getting a digital copy on my Vita as part of the Final Fantasy IV: Complete Collection, which luckily turned out to be quite faithful to what I had seen on the 16 bit version until then.  Just a few graphical bells and whistles with some spells and summon monsters and some spruced up cut scenes, looking sorta like PS1 but perfectly good on the Vita’s smaller screen.  With said cut scenes, I like that they preserved a bit of the chibi aesthetic they seemed to be going for on the DS, which goes well with the high fantasy and occasional whimsy.  And the fact that it was kept to the cut scenes stopped it from effecting the tone of the overall story too much, which was for the best.

Anyway, since my first encounter with Golbez in the Dwarven Castle drove me completely bugsh!t I kinda didn’t do a damn thing for freaking ever but grind Rydia relentlessly until she learned bio…and still couldn’t stop sweating it.  Like…most sources I found said that bio deals non-elemental damage so Golbez shifting his weaknesses shouldn’t matter against it, but…but…is that, like, just the DS version?  In the original were there other complications that didn’t have to do with elemental weaknesses?  Is he just gonna incessantly deck anyone you try to revive with phoenix downs during a fight where you need to revive everyone except Rydia……????? X_X

Luckily, that fight turned out to be a complete push over this time around.  And whether this was a serendipitous sweet spot of the original or the product of Square observing it’s unfolding franchise over the years, the pacing of the incremental difficulty was pretty damn solid.  I haven’t finished it yet- I think I may be poised before the final battle?  Just finished off the Babil Giant and round 2 of the Archfiends?  -but so far I’ve never felt like I need to break off the main story progression in order to grind.  Part of that might have to do with the excessive grinding I did early on but it can’t be all of it.  I did, however, instantly want to drop everything as soon as I had the Falcon Airship and just hyperfocus on the Sylph Cave and the Passage of The Eidolons.  As soon as I found those two locations I knew I had found something that I’d been missing from most recent FF games.  Both of those (one of them more than the other) are crazy hard and optional and I totally couldn’t pry myself loose.  Part of it was that, as hard as the monster encounters were, they train you to think about prioritizing which character’s turn at what moment, which relates to one weakness.

Before this point there were a few awkward, mandatory battles where you could tell that the developers wanted that lesson to come through.  I’m thinking of the first time you fight each of the Archfiends.  In all fairness those really are simple rock-paper-scissor exercises.  Just try different elements until you find the weakness.  I don’t know if this is just my download or what, but I’ve never gotten the Libra spell to work when I needed it.  I know that some of the debuffs never work on bosses since they’d probably be game-breaking if you could just silence, toad, mini, hold or confuse whenever you wanted.  But all Libra is supposed to do is tell you their max HP, weaknesses and items they drop.  I mean…with a lot of FF games, finding the correct strategy for a boss fight usually isn’t what makes it hard, it’s actually implementing the strategy while making allowances for set backs (a character with a necessary job get’s KO’d, keeping buffs in working order, managing disposables, etc). With the first Archfiend fights, though, I felt like I spent more time coming up with strategies.  Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but for FF fans of my generation it’s a bit of a curve-ball.  But with the Sylph Cave, the Passage of The Eidolons and the fights with Asura and Leviathan, I feel like the trial and error process was smoother and more fun.

Before I move past this, though, I can’t help but notice that FFXIII and XIII-2 handled buffs and debuffs better than almost any other Final Fantasy I’ve played.  Reactions to the XIII games are divisive but I think the combat system is one of it’s unambiguous successes.  This gives me pause since, for so long, I simply didn’t notice how inept the Final Fantasy series had been with the finer points of RPG combat.

I think part of this could be chalked up to that fact that I got hooked on FF when I was young, particularly with V-X, and with my limited frame of reference as a child, surface level circumstances usually made enough sense on their own.  After all, it did make intuitive sense that debuffs would be handicapped or maybe altogether useless against most bosses- if they didn’t cap them in some way, the game would be too easy and the story’s tone and sense of proportion would be compromised.  I think that inference also caused me to hand-wave away any consideration of buffs or even character specific command options like steal, jump, etc during any time that’s not a random monster fight.

What that does, though, is condition you to think of the combat system as having two modes with two corresponding approaches: boss fights and not boss fights.  It really doesn’t get any finer than that, a lot of the time.  If there’s any circumstantial variation, it probably begins and ends with elemental weaknesses, with a few exceptions here and there to spice things up (killing Soulcage in IX with healing magic, keeping Ruby Weapon totally prostrate for the whole battle with Dazers in VII, etc).  However, the paradigm system in XIII makes it very convenient to use buffs and debuffs often- so often that there are a few characters that specialize in them.  XIII also had a cool elaboration on the limit break mechanic introduced in VII that tied into the paradigm system through the “ravager” function.  If you’re fighting a complete tank, you can have your party go largely on the defensive with “medics”, “synergists” and “saboteurs” buffing and debuffing while a “ravager” does middling but steady damage to build their limit gauge for a big devastating offensive every few turns.  What that means is that, even if you’re overwhelmed and the pacing of a battle only leaves a little bit of breathing room for decision making, you still learn to make the best of your smaller window and gradually you get better at spur of the moment decisions.  After playing FFXIII, the combat mechanics in the older games start to feel a little vanilla.

I don’t mean they’re utterly boring all the time- it’s just that once you’ve been made aware of the weaknesses through comparison, you really can’t unsee them.  While the combat system in FFIV doesn’t go much further than the likes of, oh, VI, VII and IX, it nonetheless distinguishes itself among the 90’s Final Fantasy games.

Theeennnnnn….there’s the story…when you look at the body of work of either a franchise or an individual content creator it’s always interesting when you can see ideas developing.  Like, when I saw Lynch’s Blue Velvet, it seemed obvious to me that it was an early draft of concepts that would later be fleshed out more in Twin Peaks.  If that doesn’t make me a horrible trog, then what about my reaction to the original Dark Souls when I thought it was a tepid, unsatisfying first draft of Bloodborne?

Anyway, FF recycles a handful of concepts often- pantheism, Gaia theory, evil empires, a first villain embodying institutional evils (nationalism, organized religion, etc) that turns out to be the pawn of a second more mysterious villain -but FFIV uses a few more specific ideas that are developed later on in FFIX.  Particularly, the alien invasion in a high fantasy setting.  Both IV and IX are science fiction stories disguised as fantasy stories.  If I wanted, I could take this in a whole other tangent about how FFXIII is a fantasy story disguised as a science fiction story, but I’ll resist that temptation (for now).

I mean…alien invasions…that’s basically what’s going on in both IV and IX.  One planet gets destroyed, the inhabitants are preserved in either a non-physical or dormant state, and its stewards attempt to terraform your home planet (I’m still cracked up by the fact that FF stories are usually set on planets called Terra that are being terraformed or, in some cases, your home planet is being terraformed by aliens from a different planet called Terra).

The differences between the portrayals of the sleeping aliens are interesting.  In IX (can’t help listing it first, I played it first 😛 ) the steward is a figure named Garland, a name recycled from the first FF game, who at times seriously appears to be a digital AI being.  Garland is not confined to any one physical body and, when he first appears, the story frames him in such a way that his presence is synonymous with the spaceship called The Invincible.  This could just be thematic nuance- the sight of Garland being thematically linked with the sinister mystery of The Invincible and the opaque origins of Kuja -but later we are tempted to think it may be more than that.

After Garland appears to be dead he telepathically communicates with Zidane while the party navigates Memoria.  IX also states, firmly, that none of the dormant Terrans have been decanted yet.  Neither Zidane nor Kuja are natal Terrans: both beings were created as war machines, to stop the cycle of death and rebirth, draining out the pre-existing souls via mist so they can be replaced with the Terran souls in Garland’s custody.  Even the genomes (is that a proper noun?  Genomes?) in the village of Bran Bal are meant to be empty vessels that the Terrans will be placed inside of.  Before we learn all this, all the other manifestations of the Terran presence are technology they left behind or deceptively presented by Kuja for the planetary natives to misuse.  And throughout the whole game we have Vivi wondering out loud if the fact that he rolled off of an assembly line makes his soul any less real than that of any other sentient being.

Vivi’s whole journey as a character is about whether or not your own subjective certainty of your existence has any bearing on your real existence.  Very Blade Runner.  And that wasn’t lost on my dad as he watched me play IX as a kid- he watched me go through the whole Terra \ Bran Bal segment and he kept calling the genomes Skin Jobs.  Even now, as I’m writing this, before I type “Terran” I have to check myself so I don’t type Skin Job.  Anyway, all of that taken with the fact that Garland exists in a form separate from his body seems to imply that he’s a creation like Zidane and Kuja, maybe that body isn’t even the real seat of his personality- it could just as easily be the Ilifa Tree or The Invincible.

In FFIV, the alien stewards are a pair of brothers who, unlike Garland, seem to be natal aliens (Lunarians this time, instead of Terrans).  How long these two have been awake, as well as the length of the Lunarian life span, is not clear.  Like IX, these aliens have technological doo dads that have been sitting around on the planet they’re trying to invade for millennia.  A race of people inhabiting the Eblan region seem to remember one of these knick knacks (the Tower of Babil) being there for their entire recorded history.  The two waking Lunarians were present and involved during the Tower’s construction- or at least they have knowledge of it that makes it look like they were.

They have a similar perspective on the function of the eight crystals on both respective planets, which could mean that even those have been created and planted by the Lunarians.  Lunarian Number Two went to Earth and introduced airship technology, Prometheus-style, and at the start of the game we get a cut scene explaining that airships appeared within recent history.  Perhaps the initial contact happened thousands of years ago and the pro-active meddling by the Lunarians is a recent event.  This ambiguity (did contact happen in distant or recent history) is harder to overlook once we learn that Cecil and Golbez are descended from Lunarian Number Two (yeah, the dude does have a name, but I’m trying not to bog you down in jargon).  Both Golbez and Cecil are referred to as his sons.  It’s not clear if this is figurative (in the sense that they’re descendants) or if Lunarian Number Two is literally their bio dad.  Cecil, at least, has a normal human life span and is like, 20-30’s, whenever twinkish bishi dudes are considered adults.  At the point in the game I’m in, it’s still not clear how long Golbez has been around.  It is said that he’s the older brother.  Maybe all this will be cleared up in just a few days of game play, idk just now.  The chronology seems vague so far, though.

Speaking of the alien stewards, I think it’s kinda neat that we get one of them as a playable party member for awhile.  It reminded me of getting Edea in the party near the end of VIII, or how when I was playing VII I kept thinking how cool it would be to get Sephiroth in your party outside of the flashback sequence.  Lunarian Number One doesn’t stick around very long, but it’s cool to have him during the time that you do, though.

About the playable characters, I also appreciate how you get a spectrum of different magic users throughout the game that demonstrate what the developing characters will eventually be capable of (Tellah, Palom, Porom, Lunarian Number One).  It makes it more satisfying when Rydia and Rosa start getting all of their respective black mage and white mage skills.  Also, the pacing of this story is so dang fast and so many characters appear to die so quickly that I don’t know what to think of the fact that four of the previously dead characters are now alive at the end.  In a different game it would either be tonal whiplash, gimmicky or both.  But this is a game with chibi sprites in a strip club, an underground continent of dwarves and a space ship that takes you to the moon and plot details unfolding a mile a minute so yeah.  Rapid fire character deaths and resurrections shouldn’t be that disruptive in the end.  Really, the whimsy combined with some of the more dramatic details gives this game a lot of it’s memorability.

Not that it doesn’t get stupid at times.  I wanted to yell at Cecil when he attempted to dismiss the females from the party before going to the moon.  I mean…it’s not necessarily sexist, since Cecil has a guilt complex a mile thick and watching Edge forgive Kain could have plucked one of his heart strings in a way that would make him want Rydia out of harms way (he feels responsible for her well being because of other plot details).  But, like, on the other hand…she’s a goddamn summoner.  And she totally saved everyone’s ass when they were about to get murdered by Golbez.  The girl is a goddamn tank and Cecil is pulling some gallant manly man shit and asking her and Rosa to sit out the final battle.  Thank god they didn’t listen.  Seriously, fuck you, Cecil.  At least in that moment.

Anyway, we’ll see how the closing chapters unfold.  So far so good, though.

Final Fantasy Adventure!

As a truly relentless Final Fantasy fan girl, I couldn’t resist a recent opportunity to grab a copy of Final Fantasy Adventure to play on my old-ass Gameboy that I got for a birthday present when I was like nine. I go through little fits and starts with that particular handheld, largely with regard to the LoZ Oracle games. The plot for those games are such that I don’t feel lost after taking a long break, at least with Ages: the side quests between dungeons are so hard and involved that I don’t think you’re meant to approach the game with any sense of dramatic momentum in different parts in the story, not even the open-ended, episodic kind between the side quests in Majora’s Mask. Before that, the last Gameboy game that really grabbed me was Metroid II: Return of Samus, which could potentially be the best economic usage of the Gameboy’s limited information space for visual storytelling- possibly the most carefully designed thing that I know of for the Gameboy, followed by LoZ: Link’s Awakening.

Final Fantasy Adventure is not carefully designed by any standard. Especially when compared with other games for the platform (Metroid II for instance) that have a careful way of directing your awareness of your surroundings and their possibilities. As a child, most of the video games I obtained without help from my parents were from garage sales, which meant that I had a ton of games but no instruction manuals or any other supplemental material it was meant to be packaged with. Over time, this made me good at determining how successful a game was based entirely on it’s ability to present itself. Link’s Awakening has a very plain story progress route and there’s almost no way to mistake what the next step in your journey is. Metroid II is tough but fair: it gives you everything you need to figure it out on your own, even if it takes some extra effort and patience, kinda like the better Tomb Raider games.

Final Fantasy Adventure is just awkward. And it’s not like the first NES Zelda game where the confusion typically comes from not having the game manual and the map it’s packaged with. I sorta thought it would be, though: the online vendor I got my FF Adventure copy from packaged it with the manual and an officially licensed map. That map can be helpful at times and even potentially necessary: I don’t think I would have figured out that the axes can be used to cut down trees if it wasn’t for the explanations of different items, spells, etc. on the back of the map. But some situations and story junctures just don’t offer any way for you to figure them out on your own. Like walking figure 8’s around palm trees to get to the Oasis Cave: was there actually a common gaming convention that led people to do this on their own in the early nineties? Like, was there some reason why it would be an intuitive thing to try on your own? There’s that kid in the village who gives the “palm trees & 8” hint but there’s just no puzzle like that before hand that would prompt you to be thinking about that. The route to the Dwarf Cave is almost as bad (what is it with FF and doing frustrating things that involve dwarves? FFIV, much?). At that point you’ve had the axe for awhile and, if I remember correctly, the item description doesn’t actually tell you that you can chop down trees, and there’s nothing about the route to that area or the nearby village that would prompt you to experiment with the axe. Which is where the map packaged with the game comes it handy with the item descriptions, or, you know, online forums.

Those are pretty much the only two serious flaws in the story sequencing, but there were other problems. Because those problems only interfere with your progression now and then, it’s fair to call them mere oddities. Such as the dead ends in some of the dungeons. Some of the levels have multiple floors with pits that drop you down to the floor below. The floor you get dropped down into may be filled with monsters or some other slap on the wrist for your carelessness. In my head I took to nicknaming those rooms murderholes- I think I gleaned that phrase from a book. I’m pretty sure they were holes in castles that could be used for unleashing molten lead in the event of an invasion? Or a pit with animals in it? The phrase murderhole had something to do with a trap, anyway. It’s probably just a google search away but nevermind.

Anyway, I assumed a few of the dead end rooms in dungeons were murderholes. And sometimes they were. But usually they were just dead ends. Period. Were they put there as misdirection to add to the challenge? Maybe, but I sorta doubt it. The possibility has both odd and oddly amusing implications. I mean…it’s clear, at a glance, that this game borrows heavily from earlier Zelda games, and like early Zelda games, you are taught early on to test blank walls for breakable sections (using disposable mattocks, rather than Zelda-style bombs). If you find a dead end that doesn’t have pits on a higher floor dropping you down, and if the number of explorable directions aren’t numerous enough for a dead end to be confusing from a navigation stand point, then…are they supposed to trick you into thinking they connect somewhere else through a breakable wall? Is that supposed to be the nature of the misdirection? Are they banking on you being an avid late eighties’ Zelda gamer?

I mean, I know that game was popular and deliberately inverting popular mechanics is a way in which influence shows itself (see some of today’s Dark Souls derivatives). But if the mechanic that you’re trying to turn inside out is that specific…well…it’s just odd. And it happens several times throughout the game. If the dead ends aren’t there to throw off your sense of direction, not murderholes that you get dropped into from an upper floor and not attempting to mislead you with strangely specific suggestions of breakable walls then…well…then they seriously start to look like authentic dead ends. Which is either lazy or guided by some principle that I just can’t account for. Maybe they have some other function that I haven’t figured out. But they sure do look pointless.

Then there are the narrative glitches. Only one of these really bothers me, though, and it’s why Dr. Bowow has a robot in the submerged Dime Tower while he talks about it as if it’s this mysterious, lost thing that no one has found since it’s disappearance. I mean, that’s the only way to make sense of him giving you cryptic hints about where it is- that he does not actually know. But the robot says Dr. Bowow put him there…so…yeah. I’m also choosing not to dwell on the fact that his name is Dr. Bowow, seeing as it’s probably a script with a clunky Japanese to English translation from the early nineties.

There are also parts of the explanations from Cibba that seem a little incomplete. I mean, when you get to the parts of the game where he’s telling you what to do, he’ll get you from point A to point B easily enough, but the reasons why his suggestions are true are not very obvious. I mean, it seems apparent that you need to excavate the ruins of the ancient Vandole civilization because 1. Julius and Fuji are at the Mana Tree and 2. the Vandole empire were the only humans to ever make contact in the past. So using the route that they built (via Dime Tower) is simply the most straightforward way of getting to the Mana Tree and thereby stop Julius’s influence over it. But that’s never spelled out in so many words. No character appears to make that connection on their own. It is 100% implied. As far as I can tell, it makes perfect sense, and it ain’t no crime to make the player think a little about what’s going on- I rather like that -but the implication is done so awkwardly that I don’t know for sure if it’s intentional.

While the progression route, dungeon design and script have problems that range from lazy to surreal, though, I have to say I enjoyed Final Fantasy Adventure more than I’ve enjoyed any Gameboy game since I was a teenager getting wrapped up in Metroid II. Part of this has to be nostalgia. I remember visiting out of state relatives with my mother as a five year old, some of whom were teenagers, and I would watch one of the older girls play a Gameboy over her shoulder. Within seconds of booting up Final Fantasy Adventure, I was almost positive this was the game I had watched my older cousin play. I also started gaming in early childhood way back when, so the appearance of early nineties video games is bound to tug on my heart strings in and of itself. But the game has genuine strengths of it’s own, though.

The thing that hit me first was how fun the exploration is (at least when the obtuseness of the next necessary step wasn’t driving me crazy). Maybe nostalgia has more to do with this than I’m consciously aware of, but I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure there were a ton of things that were done very well in video games in the late eighties and early nineties that a few modern developers are having real problems with. Like open world. I never played Skyrim and some of my friends never fail to remind me of what a luddite trog I am because of it. And I have no reason to doubt that it’s reputation for a good open world game is justified. I’m sure it is. But some other developers like Square Enix (oh, how the mighty forget) seem to be choking in their effort to keep up with it’s popularity. I mean…they destroyed the pacing of FFXV by totally shoe-horning the open world quality. You’re literally tempted to break off the main story whenever you damn well feel like it. And there’s not much in the story that hinges on exploration, so it just comes off as a distraction. Which is strange and annoying since, back in the nineties when Square developed FFVI, the whole second half of the game was open world and the majority of the possible exploration was linked directly to the story arcs of the main characters. Once you have your second airship could either go straight to Vector and fight Kefka, or you could explore a whole other half of the game that develops a ton of back story and motivation for most of the characters. Square anticipated the modern fascination with open world before they even made the switch to 3D graphics and then utterly failed at it, while Western developers are making the sub-genre their own.

*huff* Anyway! Let’s try to keep the ranting to a minimum. I think the joy of exploration was something that old school JRPGs were really good at, whether it’s open world in the same way as FFVI or if it’s something like FFVII or Pokémon where you end up navigating an overworld even though the progression route is linear. Or even like the first Zelda game, which most of us fell in love with through random exploring and deduction. For the most part, Final Fantasy Adventure offers fun exploration in the same way. Another thing I liked about this game also has to do with a facet that might turn off a lot of modern Final Fantasy fans: it really doesn’t feel like a Final Fantasy game most of the time. That’s probably because our assumptions of what an FF game is are tied up with things like turn based combat and multiple playable party members. Kinda like FFXV (DLC notwithstanding), you only get one playable character with NPC characters backing you up at times. Maybe this says things about the sort of mind that I have, but if something looks intriguing enough, I don’t care if it breaks consistency with other things that it’s supposed to be a part of. If it’s done well, the broken consistency makes me more interested. And since that aspect reeled me in, the other wrinkles that do relate to other Final Fantasy games are both uncanny and fun.

This is true of the FF hallmarks within Final Fantasy Adventure in general, but it’s especially true of the usage of certain boss monsters. Like Lich and Iflyte. Lich was one of the four elemental Fiends in the very first FF game, and when the original development team got together for one last hurrah with FFIX, they brought back the four Fiends as guardians of the keys that unlock the ancient, extra-terrestrial vessel containing the souls of Terra (can you still call something extra-terrestrial if they come from a planet called Terra? *looks lost*). The usage of Lich in FF Adventure is kinda similar to IX- it’s guarding the spell that let’s you access the Vandole ruins…which in turn leads you to the Dime Tower. Both Adventure and IX use the Fiend(s) as guardians of either a lost race of ancient aliens or a lost race of ancient humans. Does it necessarily mean anything? Maybe. Probably not. But I think it’s cool and it makes my little lore loving brain spin. Also…Iflyte looks like a rather typical devil. Sorta like Ifrit…a common summon monster in most FF games and one with lore significance in XV. Lore significance that ties into an ancient founder race. And Iflyte/Ifrit is guarding the Sword of Mana, which is itself a key to the ruins…connecting this creature to the same gate-keeping function as Lich, Fiends, etc.


Again, it probably doesn’t mean a damn, but I still find it fun to think about. The whole thing with the Tree of Mana being on this unreachable place that’s close to the sky also makes me think of both FFIII (floating world in there), FFIV (the moon) & FFXIII (Cocoon). It even seems to be an inverse parallel to things like Meteor in FFVII and Pandemonium (the vessel of the Terran souls) in IX. It’s just an interesting development in a central and re-occurring part of the common mythology that echoes between many of the FF games. My curiosity is also tickled a little by the fact that FF Adventure was retro-actively included in the Mana series as it’s first game. Does this mean that Fuij, as the last gemma capable of becoming a Mana Tree when the prior one dies, is the final Mana Tree period? She has no children, and it seems like the heirs to the Mana family are born before they transform into the Mana Tree. And if the subsequent Mana games build on that mythology, does that mean that the whole Mana series is situated at the end of it’s own mythic timeline? Like an apocalyptic or post-rapture sorta deal? You don’t usually see things like that in a lot of mainstream fantasy stories. One of the reasons I’ve gotten attached to Hollow Knight, lately. Then again, I haven’t played any other Mana game to completion ( I did briefly poke around with Secret of Mana, though) so I don’t know. I could be totally off base with that.

The music can be uneven in Final Fantasy Adventure, but it gets better as the game progresses and starts to add a certain gravity near the end. I’m a sucker for music- no other art form captures my emotions quite as fully. And the music helps to give the ending it’s sneaky pathos. Sumo defeats Julius in the end, but his effect on the Mana Tree and the world are irreparable. Fuji becomes the new Mana Tree, and as the end credits roll we see Sumo having these little silent interactions with other NPC’s that look almost like he’s saying good bye. It all ends with Sumo bringing his chocobo back to the wild. It’s not a huge deal, but…well…the chocobo has mechanical body parts from Dr. Bowow replacing his broken limbs. One of them appears to be a steel plate on his face. Yet the chochobo goes back to it’s own kind. As if everything is going back to normal except Sumo. No particular plot point is effected by this, but I appreciate how understated and melancholy it is.
This is one hell of a messy game, but still a fun and rewarding one in the end. It’s very clunky and awkward and very retro, but for me there’s enough happy coincidence at work to make those qualities add to the memorability of the game, along with it’s genuine strengths.

Vampyr video game review (spoilers)

A few days ago I finished my first play-through of Vampyr on the PS4 and I think it more or less…maintains the standard of Dontnod’s previous game Life Is Strange.  That comparison might be a little difficult for me to make since I’ve only played through Life Is Strange once and I’ve already made some progress into a second play-through of Vampyr.  That, in and of itself, speaks to one significant difference between those two games: Vampyr invites repeated play-throughs more than Life Is Strange.  At least for me.  Thing is, Life Is Strange is so heavily narrative driven that I got way too attached to my choices and what my “head cannon” of the story is.  I fully intend to replay it at some point, but it ended in a way that just seemed too “neat” to be tampered with.  Part of this is established  by how linear it is as well as the attempt at flowing like a true-to-life experience, like a film.

Not that Vampyr isn’t narrative driven and carefully written (carefully written a lot of the time, anyway).  It’s just that the player character and the setting are more conducive to exploring and experimenting.  Life Is Strange revolves around a girl in her late teens to early twenties who, for the most part, only has the resources and perspective of an American minor.  The appearance of Maxine Caulfield’s time travel ability creates a stark point of departure where she has to navigate the possibilities of her new power with her pre-existing frame of reference.  This divided perspective rooted in a single character (without getting into the Before The Storm stuff) orients everything about our view of the story and it’s pacing.  The scope of Life Is Strange revolves, very closely, around Max’s personal point of view, which means you are not going to be easily tempted to step off the beaten path.

The way in which Vampyr differs from this has to do with some mechanics that are rather common in other genres, like a map showing different accessible regions.  The leveling mechanic and combat add an action-RPG touch that at times leads you to play the game like an action-RPG, with the attendant exploration.  Your player character being a vampire also puts some emphasis on combat which also makes Vampyr feel a little more like a “normal” video game (although you do not need to feed on non-combatant civilians to finish the game…not if you don’t want to, anyway).

What also adds to the relative openness of Vampyr‘s gameplay is it’s sense of place.  Vampyr is set in London in the year 1918 and Dontnod worked hard to make this very immersive.  The character animations are some of the best I’ve seen in recent history with a few very memorable instances of subtlety in body language and facial expression.  Particularly with the characters Edgar Swansea and Elisabeth Ashbury.

Right now, during my second play-through, I love watching the exchange between Johnathan Reid (our player character) and Swansea in the boat at the beginning.  Swansea’s body language is great at establishing both his familiarity with the world of vampires and the supernatural and also a certain obtuse enthusiasm.  Swansea never get’s uncomfortably awkward but there are a few moments where he seems like he’s about to.  In the boat, a few of his gesticulations almost look as if he’s tempted to touch Johnathan, like he’s barely stopping himself from being overwhelmed by curiosity and excitement.  Later in the game you have the chance to make some decisions that lead to him being turned into a vampire and his facial animations shine well after that point as well as his voice acting.

If you choose to explore this possibility, Johnathan Reid transforms him as a punishment for inadvertently unleashing a version of the Spanish flu that also transforms its victims into extremely impulsive and dangerous undead creatures called Skals.  After his transformation, though, Swansea either seems totally dismissive of it being a punishment or unaware of it.  If Johnathan brings it up, Swansea will happily assure you that hearing your thoughts in his head occasionally is quite punishing (in this game, fledgling vampires sometimes hear the thoughts of their makers).  He fantasizes out loud about conducting radical experiments on his vampiric body that a human could not survive through.  If Johnathan asks him if he learned anything from his prior mistake, Swansea will say that he promises to never do any experiments on mortals.  He adds “See that?  I said mortals.”  I just love how that reflects on his grasp on the conversation’s tone and how his casual and light-hearted word choice contrasts with Johnathan.

Elisabeth Ashbury, a fellow vampire, is another highlight.  She may be the only video game character I’ve ever seen who, through facial expression, body language and voice acting, pulls off a kind of stoicism that reveals tenderness by implication.  It’s possible for a budding romance to take off between Elisabeth and Johnathan.  Here, Elisabeth comes as close as she ever does to being effusive with warmth and it’s pulled off largely by what is unsaid and what is said timidly.  I also gotta say the chemistry between these two characters is a joy to watch.  During my first play-through, I got an ending that was kind to the couple, and I loved the emotional pay-off.

Also, when I said “only”, I meant the only one to pull off these things largely through character animation and voice acting.  Emotional momentum can happen a million other ways in video games and I feel like text-based RPGs and action-RPGs are sometimes unfortunately overlooked here.  For me, reading dialogue while watching character animations can be very persuasive and when Final Fantasy X used voice acting for the first time in the history of the franchise, I wondered if maybe they weren’t doing it simply because they were expected to.  I also remember playing Diablo II for the first time as a preteen and that game had some truly bad voice acting at certain parts.  The American accents kind of got to me.  I mean…is the spoken language of Diablo‘s world meant to resemble any particular real world language?  Probably not, but the American accents messed with my suspension of disbelief.  And a review of Vampyr probably wouldn’t be the place to get into the ups and downs of voice acting in the various Silent Hill games.

So yeah, I don’t think photo-realism and voice acting are necessary to create emotional investment in the story of a video game, but Elisabeth Ashbury is probably my favorite implementation of convincingly dramatic character modeling and voice acting.  Rumor has it that a TV adaptation of Vampyr may be in the works and I think the casting of Elisabeth is something that it could potentially stand or fall on.

There are also some interesting elaborations on vampire lore in this game.  I already mentioned Skals, one of a few different species of vampires.  The Disaster phenomena, aka Dus Astros, which figures largely in the later parts of the game, was intriguing…at times.  Maybe it’s because I’m an Anne Rice fan who has read everything she wrote to date about the spirit Amel, but when it was revealed that the Red Queen and Myrddin are spirits that live in all vampires, I thought the writers could probably do something a little more creative than what they ended up doing.

It did have some interesting nuts and bolts, though.  Myrddin has created numerous vampires including both Johnathan Reid and William Marshall.  The Disaster appears periodically throughout history and typically begins life as an ordinary female vampire.  What the Disaster does, then, is cause a giant regional disaster (*giggles*) like a plague and feed on the pain and suffering.  Anyway, William Marshall, the knight from British history, has dedicated his existence largely to fighting the Disaster when she appears.  At the end of the game you have the chance to ask William a few different questions.  If you ask him who the first Disaster was, he says he cannot say it in front of Elisabeth, who is his fledgling and surrogate daughter.  Off hand, I can’t think of any obvious reason why he shouldn’t talk about it pertaining to Elisabeth herself, so perhaps it has to do with him.

This reflects interestingly on an unexplained plot hole.  During my play-throughs thus far, I have come across three different animated sequences that almost resemble comic book art.  One is after fighting and killing Johnathan’s sister, Mary, whom he turned into a vampire on accident, another is after fighting the Disaster in the sewers beneath London and the last one covers the ending.  Mary’s accidental transformation is a plot hole because Elisabeth explains to you clearly how vampires are created and it’s through a human drinking a vampire’s blood.  During Mary’s death, there is no visible opportunity for her to drink any of Johnathan’s blood.  If Elisabeth is to be trusted, Mary’s transformation has no obvious explanation.  Now this could be a simple oversight on the part of the writers, but this brings us to the placement of the animated cut-scenes.  The two latter ones, after the Disaster fight and at the end, are very specifically related to huge plot points.

So.  William Marshall cannot bring himself to talk about the first Disaster he ever fought.  What other vampires has the spirit Myrddin created other than Johnathan Reid and William Marshall?  King Arthur is one of them.  King Arthur died at the hands of his son, whom he sired with his sister, Morgan LeFay.  As far as I’ve dug into the lore of this game, King Arthur, William and Johnathan are the only three that are specifically singled out as being the progeny of Myrrdin.  So according to myth, King Arthur’s sister played a huge role in his downfall, William Marshall will not talk about the first Disaster he fought, and Johnathan’s sister became a vampire for no reason that reconciles with anything else.  It almost seems like, whenever Myrddin creates a male vampire, that male will soon make a female, but not through the ordinary blood exchange (remember that part in the myth about Arthur impregnating his sister?), and that female seems disposed to become a Disaster.

If this theory is true, then obviously Johnathan killed his sister before she could mature into a Disaster, but look at how quickly she develops as a vampire as opposed to Johnathan.  Many agree that the fight with Mary Reid is the first truly hard one in the game.  Not only is Mary more emotionally explosive but her destructive supernatural abilities far outstrip Johnathan’s.  She seems to be maturing far quicker than normal and is far more powerful than a typical fledgling.

This theory also makes sense since Myrddin and the Red Queen seem to be two halves of the same whole.  An avatar of one may necessarily call into existence the avatar of the other.  If a Disaster appeared in the time of King Arthur, potentially in the form of Morgan LeFay, that would even help explain the nationalist loyalty that many vampires feel.  The Ascalon Club, an exclusive shadow-government of vampires and humans, is dedicated to the protection of England.  Myrddin says a few times that he is committed to keeping England safe.  This protective sense of possession would make sense if, whenever a legendary English male figure became a vampire, a Disaster would also appear.

This also helps to explain William Marshall’s somewhat crazed passion for finding and stopping Disasters, up to and including chaining himself up forever in a castle, since, while he did not exchange blood with a Disaster prior to her creation, he did get bitten by her during the fight.  This infection is known colloquially as the blood of hate, and he even spread it to Elisabeth once.  During that time, Elisabeth was a blood-thirsty monster until William concocted a sort of antidote.  Elisabeth was cured of the mental frenzy of a Disaster, but the blood of hate remained alive in her body, meaning that if she ever tries to make more vampires, they would become Disasters.  As Johnathan puts it, she is a “healthy carrier”, like Typhoid Mary.  (and yes, the appearance of the current Disaster has to do with Edgar Swansea doing experiments with her blood)

Then again, the mysterious creation and maturation of Mary Reid could be a simple oversight.  It’s not like there are not moments of laxity with establishing causal links in Vampyr.  Now and then, the next elaboration in the story line may either be unexplained or obliquely explained.  At one point, Johnathan’s objective is to help the Ascalon Club in their fight against Priwen (vampire hunters), which I think happens after the fight with Doris Fletcher.  Before this, there is no reason to think that the Guard of Priwen and the Ascalon Club are in a state of open war.  You even have an earlier opportunity to talk to Lord Redgrave, the leader of the Ascalon Club, about things like this and he makes no mention of it.  Then, the closer you get to the Ascalon Club, Johnathan’s mental narration tells us he plans to take advantage of the protection the club offers it’s members while investigating further.  This is a little messy, to say the least.  The next lucid story objective appears before we have time to really dwell on the messiness, but it is still messy.

There are also a few moments where the next story direction comes from an in-game document you pick off of a corpse but, unless you take the time to actually read the paper, you are not given a clear reason why the next objective appears.  I could see how one could argue that expecting the player to read the in-game notes and stuff is perfectly reasonable, but it still creates this odd possibility that there is a way to play parts of the game where you don’t know how or why Johnathan knows something.  This oversight stands out, especially since Life Is Strange, Dontnod’s previous game, was so tightly written.  As I said at some length earlier, though, Vampyr is intentionally open-ended and exploratory, so perhaps a little messiness is to be expected when coming off of a prior game that was quite linear.  These little oversights are no less of an eyesore in the writing, though.

The gameplay, though, is pretty solid throughout.  The combat is what I would call tough but fair, which I think bears some mention since some other reviewers have brought up the combat system as a weakness.  I liked the combat since it encourages you to try a few things, evaluate how their working, then go back in, and the aggressive AI makes this tense as well as engaging.  Over time you start to notice certain patterns, like you may, occasionally, catch an aggressive Skal alone and off guard, but you will never catch one of the Guard of Priwen alone, even if you have them off guard.  Renegade Ekons (in-game jargon for the species of vampire that you and Elisabeth belong to) are often alone, but also have an annoying tendency to be a little close to Skals who might decide to enter the fray at painfully vulnerable moments.  Combat in Vampyr teaches you to look for circumstantial advantages and disadvantages before and also during a fight.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this game.  Weaknesses in the writing notwithstanding, it continues Dontnod’s trademark of strong, narrative driven games while also taking some substantial steps in a new direction.

My recent PS4 experiences and Final Fantasy XV

A little boring, I know, but I’m trying to hold myself to some kind of regularity standard 😉


Soo I’m actually closing in on my third playthrough of FFXV (not for any good reason- I botched my chance for the regalia type-F so I gotta get to the post-game section all over again) and I’m not sure how much my opinion of it has changed since I originally began playing it.

Fundamentally, the game is pretty much a desert feast.  For me, games like Bloodborne and Salt And Sanctuary are like well-rounded meals compared to most modern video games.  Bloodborne is a meal; Final Fantasy XV is a four-hour stretch of ice cream, fast food and cheetos.  My retro sensitivity also keeps me in touch with older FF titles (IX, VI, VII and IV), Shin Megamei TenseiChrono Trigger and the odd platformer and horror-survival game here and there, but right now we’re talking about new stuff.

I’d also like to add that I’m not sure whether or not I qualify as a Soulsborne fan.  I really love Bloodborne and Salt And Sanctuary, so clearly I like some fundamental aspects of the formula.  However, I only recently started playing the PS4 remaster of the original Dark Souls and it just seems…underdeveloped?  Some of that is to be expected, since the first game to break some new ground can hardly anticipate the more mature off-shoots of its influence, but I also kinda think Bloodborne ruined me.  So I think I have a foot in the Soulsborne door but I don’t think I’m “there” yet.

What I meant about a meal versus desert-marathon is that Bloodborne (if I may be a little repetitive in my examples) takes advantage of multiple different dimensions with both gameplay and narrative.  A huge manifestation of this is the use of multi-player within Bloodborne versus the recent expressed priorities of the big bugs at SquareEnix.  When one first plays Bloodborne without any prior experience of Soulsborne or its derivatives it almost seems unplayable.  If one putzes around enough to get into the cleric beast boss fight and score your first Insight point, there is a clear implication that you really should take advantage of co-op.

I’ve came across a few gamer size-kings on YouTube who felt emasculated by this, but I think it’s the beginning of one of the game’s essential sweet spots.  The circumstantial emphasis on multiplayer (which gets VERY difficult to avoid in the last of the Chalice Dungeons and parts of the Old Hunters DLC) also adds something cool to the narrative experience.  Bloodborne has little to no plot explication.  The vast majority of information available to the player as to what they’re doing and why is visually and circumstantially suggested by the environments and creatures.  You do get some interesting interactions with NPCs but their understanding of what is going on, rather like your own, is only superficial and relative.  Beyond this, the rest of our information about the setting and the plot comes from item descriptions and loading screens.

One consequence of this kind of story-telling is to make the player feel alienated from any single in-game source of information and therefore compelled to reach their own conclusions.  When this is combined with the multi-player experience, though, it’s hard to avoid discussions with your fellow co-operators about the world and lore of Bloodborne.  Not only are you sorely tempted to team-up with other players by the occasional overwhelming boss fight or punishing section of level design, but the multi-player experience also adds to the unfolding of the narrative through discussion and mutual discovery.

Compare this to what SquareEnix has shared with the press regarding its future business models: they plan on shifting most of their emphasis to MMO’s and mobile apps.  Essentially, they plan on letting go of the single-player experience as a primary concern.

If me opening this entry with a stated comparison between Bloodborne and Final Fantasy XV seemed a little odd, just look at how FromSoftware and SquareEnix look at multi-player: one of them seamlessly integrates a HUGE multi-player component into the linear narrative more common in single player games, and the other uses narrative as a threadbare gimmick to hold the game together.

Like I said, a meal versus a desert feast.  In Final Fantasy XV you are encouraged to do every little side quest between point A and point B regardless of how it effects the story’s sense of pacing.  This can be cute at times, like when Gladiolus wants to delay the journey to Altissa in order to look for the perfect ingredients for a cup of ramen.  At other times it’s just kind of jarring.  When the party stops at the elevator near the only Lucii royal tomb on the Niflheim continent you could, if you wanted, take a break to help a train passenger find her lost chocobo chicks and a journalist find pictures.  This is happening at the same time when the party is experiencing its first internal crises.  There has been a recent character death, one of them is permanently disabled and two of them are fighting like cats in heat.  Noctis being compelled to do little random chores at the same time goes beyond distracting into bizarre.  The game is designed to give you several chances to do stuff like this, which can only mean that the developers meant for the player to treat the central plot as secondary.

While I think these kinds of side quests are presented very awkwardly and constitute something of a weakness, they are very fun at times.  Particularly the things you have to go off the beaten path to find, like Costlemark Tower and a few of the more challenging hunting side quests.

I’m not trying to state the obvious by insisting that this game is awkwardly developed but even with the recent DLC, multiple updates and the Royal Edition expansion, there are still a few glaringly important angles that somehow escaped everyone’s notice even back when FFXV was just released.

One of the major plot-points in the movie Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is that Lucis was defending several smaller states from being annexed by Niflheim and once the peace treaty (to be ratified with the marriage of Noctis and Luna) is set into motion, Lucis has agreed to stop defending these states.  Not only was Lucis protecting them from being conquered, but they also exacted levies from them in the form of military personnel.  Most of the warriors of the Kingsglaive are not indigenous to Lucis; when the treaty is signed, they feel as if their homelands were forfeited in a negotiation between more powerful nations.  This consequence of the peace treaty seems like it should have had way more impact on the plot of the video game; at the very least you should encounter a mention of it here and there.  Noctis should have at least some reaction to it, since the marriage alliance between Lucis and Niflheim involves him and Luna personally.

While we’re talking about differences between the various pictures of the FFXV universe, I wanna mention what I consider the coolest of the recent content updates (version 1.16) which really tied a huge part of the story together and makes a connection between the plot of the game and the distant lore.  And even involves Ardyn and Luna’s character arcs.

In the distant, mythic past, Ifrit was the only one of the six deities to directly interact with humanity.  He helped them create the super-advanced civilization of Solheim and encouraged their every ambition.  Ifrit’s enthusiasm for humanity eventually did its part in romantically winning over Shiva, who had previously looked down on humans.  Ifrit eventually began to feel spurned by Solheim, though, since its people began to shift their loyalties to themselves and the rest of humanity and away from the god Ifrit.

When Ifrit has a meltdown over this, Shiva is instrumental in defending humanity from his wrath. The rebellion and the fall of Ifrit subsequently gave rise to the Starscourge.  This links us directly with Ardyn, the first oracle, who initially acted as a big’ol sponge soaking up the Starscourge infection.  Ardyn was made immortal in order to contain the Starscourge indefinitely, but subsequently felt shunned by the world he was supposed to protect, as he was basically turned into a walking quarantine zone.  While Ardyn is not on-screen participating directly enough in the plot for us to connect with him much, I felt like this helped make him more interesting.

About Ardyn, though…this leads us to one of the really, really bad decisions at work in this game: the repeated internal comparisons to Final Fantasy VI.  I have no clue how the developers thought FFXV would ever benefit from that comparison.  I mean…the 16-bit buddies regalia decal, the use of the word ‘magitek’, the use of the phrase ‘world of ruin’ and Noctis saying to Ardyn “Get off my chair, jester”…for some reason, they thought it would be a great idea to beg people to compare this game to FFVI.

Also…”Get off my chair, jester”?  Seriously?  Are we seriously supposed to think Ardyn is somehow analogous to Kefka?  Has anyone who has played both FFVI and FFXV ever thought that Ardyn compared well to Kefka?

Like…like…that was a 16-bit game from the early nineties that did open world way better than FFXV.  I mean, the whole second half of FFVI is totally up to the player.  During the original ‘world of ruin’, you are guided up to the point of recovering the airship.  From that point, you could do anything or nothing.  You could go straight to Kefka’s final boss fight if you wanted or you could track down the rest of the party.  You could even go way out of your way for some delightfully random optional characters like Gogo and Umaru and Mog and some truly awesome optional dungeons (some of which are harder than Kefka in Vector).  As wonky as some of this stuff is, none of it is positioned in a way to take any momentum away from the pacing of the central narrative. All those bells and whistles were in the original game in the early nineties.  Zero need for later additions in reaction to demands from the fanbase.  But somehow the developers thought the most recent Final Fantasy game would look good if they invited people to compare it to FFVI.