FFVIIR play-through continued (light spoilers)

Yesterday I played for nearly ten hours, wrapping up the Sector 5 sub quests and going all the way through to the sewers, just before Avalanche’s last stand at the Sector 7 plate support pillar.

Something I want to mention that I briefly touched on earlier is the combat system. Put simply, you can attack, dodge and block all you want but every other option requires you to invest at least a little patience. This can be like charging Barrett’s gun-arm or slowly, carefully building momentum with Cloud’s punisher mode. Most frequently, though, it’s the ATB gauge, which you fill by attacking, blocking and dodging.

This can be annoying at times, since in order to properly strategize you often need the assess materia, and materia can only be used once you’ve built up the ATB gauge. So you roll in and start banging away and just lumping any consequence that goes with that. This necessity can be maddening in near-defeat situations, like when you have to avoid a game over by either healing yourself or reviving someone else. You often have to dive back into the fray with almost no HP to fill your ATB gauge enough to use an item or a spell.

That is my only nit-pick so far though. Square Enix made me really afraid of their tendency toward appeasement with Final Fantasy XV. That game was designed to appeal so universally that the final product hardly took a single risk. If it seems like I mentioned random comparisons with XV in the last post, it’s because XV cast a long shadow. It was released in a partially complete state so they could trickle out a finished product that would accommodate fan reactions. To say nothing of the prissy lack of risk taking or difficulty. FFXV might be less fun if you just press X throughout every battle but the sad truth is that you can. If you chose the easy difficulty setting you could even play through the game with Carbuncle resurrecting you every time your HP reaches zero.

If that appeared to be Square’s emergent business model then I couldn’t help but worry about what might come next. FFVIIR, luckily, doesn’t repeat any of this. In fact I’ve been playing a lot of Mana games in the last few years and I rather like the strategy of getting in, spend your stamina/ATB/whatever gauge, get out and charge it again. The need to build the ATB gauge to even use an item is annoying but it isn’t a deal breaker.

There are also some interesting little doo-dads that borrow from other FF weapon and buffing systems. Each weapon comes with abilities that you can master and take with you, like in IX, or the Espers in VI. You can also craft weapons in a system that bears a superficial resemblance to the crystarium in XIII or the sphere grids in X. You can even add extra materia slots which adds to the strategy since you are less likely to wander into a battle with the wrong stuff equipped.

It was my worries about appeasement that made me sweat the cross dressing scene. Like, it didn’t happen in exactly the same way that it did in the original, and so much in this remake does not, but I kinda panicked. I was kinda afraid they may have made the cross dressing in Wall Market optional in order to appease in the opposite direction. I was kinda freaking out. And then Aerith walked Cloud’s spikey ass over to the Honey Bee Inn and all was right with the world.

Noticeably absent from original- the uncanny freak-out when Cloud walks in on a ghostly mirror image of himself. The ghost Cloud lunges at living Cloud and he blacks out. This was also the scene where we hear the song Who…Are You? for the first time. Later, Who…Are You? is paired with Jenova. When you first hear it used in relation with Jenova, the association with the hallucination in the Honey Bee Inn is nothing short of disturbing.

There is an echo of this event in the Remake, though, and it even happens around that time, even if it’s not at the same time. Before waking up in Aerith’s church, Cloud chats with a mysterious figure in a white void. At first I was so sure it was going to be Zack Fair. But it’s a second Cloud- perhaps alluding to the conflation in his mind.

Even with that difference I do appreciate how Wall Market and Don Corneo have been mentioned and foreshadowed, going back to the scuffle with Corneo goons in Sector 7. The constant background chatter about the long-reaching consequences of the Avalanche bombings dovetails nicely from the unexpected carnage after the first attack and Barret’s belief in needing to crack eggs to make omelets.

Not sure if my favorite quote from yesterday’s binge was “The Lady of Frost is the perfect companion for a man like you, Cloud” or “Never be afraid, Cloud”.

I also like “Cloud…this dress…and makeup…”

“Yes. Nailed it. Thank you. Moving on.”

End of play-through:

https://ailixchaerea.blog/2020/04/29/final-fantasy-vii-remake-just-finished-first-play-through-heavy-spoilers/

What’s so good about FFVII anyway? (big fat spoilers for the original game)

The story.

The Final Fantasy games are a combination of gaming and story telling and each one has a different emphasis. My favorite FF title that balances good gaming with good storytelling is VI. My favorite for gameplay without attention paid to the story would either be XV or XIII-2. And my favorite for story, regardless of gameplay, is VII.

Nearly every Final Fantasy game has an identical plot, themes and story structuring. Since Final Fantasy uses a balance between gaming and story, the story often does not need to carry all the weight. I believe, though, that Final Fantasy VII is either the most successful version of the classic Final Fantasy story or the most ambitious.

No small part of this is the carefully consistent thematic language that discusses death. Two of the main characters are dead: one of them passes into the holistic network of souls (Lifestream) to preserve its interconnected vitality. the other dead person holds his identity separate and wants to absorb the interconnected whole into himself. And these two dead people are the main characters– as in, they move all of the plot pieces.

There is also the somewhat understated use of historical and mythic references. Final Fantasy VII is a post World War II legend. The upper plates of Midgar look a hell of a lot like romantic, 1940’s, detective movie New York. You start the game blowing up energy “reactors”, massive power sources that can provide indefinitely or destroy all life. The nuke parallels only get stronger from there: the WEAPONs are kaijus. The first kaiju-like movies in the sixties, Godzilla and stuff, were about mutants created by radiation that destroy entire cities.

Then there’s the not-so-understated WWII references: Heidegger is named after Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher that collaborated with the Nazis and had a few of his students sent to concentration camps. Professor Hojo is also clearly modeled after Josef Mengele and the Cetra have an ancestral legend of a place called The Promised Land. The first Cetra victim of Hojo that we see is Aerith, who is one of our two dead main characters.

The first allegorical Jew of the game lays down her life to preserve the dignity and familial (one might say “brotherly”) harmony between all souls.

To whit: the Lifestream borrows from ideas common in Hinduism that also appear in Buddhism. The soul of the individual needs to merge with all other souls and share the totality of its experience for its own good. And then there’s this big fat Jesus thing going on with Aerith. Which is interesting because the Final Fantasy games are usually very critical of both religion and also just power in general. So I don’t think it’s a pro-religion thing, maybe pro-spirituality.

If not pro-spirituality it is at least spiritual-friendly. What clinches the whole spiritual “reading” is the importance of Cloud’s subjectivity in the main plot. When we first meet Cloud, he doesn’t even give his name until he’s asked frankly- he’s just Ex-SOLDIER. Later, Cloud falls into the Lifestream while being locked in his own mind. He is both in the afterlife and trapped inside of his own pain. Another human being, Tifa, bodily enters his mind with him.

Later, the party goes directly into the planet’s core. Given that the Lifestream is every transmigrating soul crisscrossing through the core on their way to their next lives, this is familiar territory for Cloud. The final confrontation with Sephiroth even takes place in Cloud’s mind, after the last boss fight.

Basically, I’ve never played a game that gets plot, mythic themes and characters to work so well together. It sucks you into a discussion of big ideas in a way that’s poetic and exciting…and without getting preachy or taking sides. Or if it is, the side is that nukes and fascism are bad, which I happen to be okay with anyway 😉

Final Fantasy VII Remake: First Impressions (light spoilers)

After a five day delay it finally freaking came in the mail. I don’t normally get on crazy fan-girl hype trains like this but this, for me, is a truly unique game. I got hooked on Final Fantasy VII around 2000 on the PC version but I played it for the first time in 1997, when PlayStation in general was new to me. I was around nine years old and I got my mom to rent it from Blockbuster.

I remember finding this add in a 1997 issue of GamePro. I think I had the magazine in the first place because it had a story on Tomb Raider II.

By 2000, the Zelda series and a monster-hunting PS1 game called Jade Cocoon were my two favorite games. And then Final Fantasy VII happened. And I still don’t think I’ve encountered a game that has a story that’s quite like it. Like I mentioned in my earlier FFVII entry, I think a lot of that may have been a series of happy accidents, of a ton of cooks pulling off a good soup against the odds.

However it happened, though, it happened, and if you clicked on this then I probably don’t need to catch you up. So because my nutty lil fan-girl heart won’t let me keep this to myself:

The Deluxe edition, with the art book, soundtrack sampler and tin casing with Sephoroth

By the way, the FFIX Moogles are from an Etsy dealer called nhimconshop ^^

Between today and yesterday I’ve played for over twelve hours and I’m only just getting to the Airbuster fight. Still nowhere near finished, and I’ll definitely upload a post later when I’ve played all the way through. I’m completely spazzing out over this though and I gotta get something out now.

I’ve written at length on this blog about how scenarios originally written for sprites and dialogue boxes don’t always make the best one-to-one adaptations for modern graphics and voice acting. From what I’ve seen so far, though, the early portions of this game definitely justify the use of both. During the bombing of Mako Reactor 1 in the beginning, I quickly noticed something that FFVIIR did better than XV: meaningful use of size and proportion.

FFXV is a good looking game, don’t get me wrong, and it has some really cool moments with summoning Astrals- Leviathan and Bahamut in particular. Not to mention flying around in the Regalia. But the sense of size in FFVIIR seems to hit harder, somehow. Inevitably, this has got to do with my love for the original tempting me to compare the different versions. And…well…nostalgia: if you remember locations and events in a story fondly you would naturally enjoy seeing a beautiful and thorough reinterpretation.

A few reimagined moments from the original are super pretty

Not that there isn’t depth to be appreciated in that comparison: I played through the original multiple times and I always wondered A. is mako a gas or a liquid and B. although it is made from the Lifestream does that mean that it is the same as the Lifestream? Is that why they’re both pale green? In the first Reactor, you see a giant pool of churning, luminous liquid with crashing waves folding in on each other like whirlpools.

At the same time, though, there is an appearance of thematic consistency to the presentation of size. When you first descend the ladders in the actual Reactor core at the beginning, you are coming out of a series of infiltration obstacles that make you feel both cramped and like you are being watched. The hugeness of the room with the mako pool and the Reactor core shocks you. Barret also asks an interesting question as you navigate the catwalks and ladders: if you fell in, would you just keep falling until you reached the heart of the planet? Anyone who has played the original game knows how important those words are.

LOVE the sense of size and distance in this game

Also loved the use of size and distance in Sector 7. Parts of it are cramped and dilapidated, but there’s also these gorgeous, sprawling distances, stretching out from beneath the plate.

Callbacks and contrasts are also implemented through music. A song called Lurking In The Darkness in the original soundtrack is heard for the first time in the remake in a new scene. Cloud is taken aside by some goons that look and sound like they work for Don Corneo, attempting to dig up dirt on Avalanche. (Remember, this is about my first impressions so I’m still early in the game).

A few different songs from the original soundtrack are used in different ways. The song On Our Way, in the original, isn’t heard until Kalm, before Cloud tells his version of the Nibelheim incident. In the remake, we hear it in Sector 7. In the original, we first hear Words Drowned By Fireworks when Cloud takes Aerith (or whoever) on a date in the Golden Saucer. In the remake, we hear Words Drowned By Fireworks in the flashback to Cloud and Tifa as kids.

(Is that true about the Golden Saucer date? I feel like I remember Words Drowned By Fireworks before then….even if the song is named after the scene)

Another cool bit of foreshadowing and cosmology-building is the story of what happened to Jessie’s father: mako poisoning. He never wakes up and Jessie has a theory on why: mako is the Lifestream, the Lifestream is the flow of transmigrating souls between lives. All souls pass through the center of the planet on their way to the next life. If her father’s body and brain are poisoned by mako energy it makes sense that his soul would be suspended between the center of the planet and his body.

She deduced this through a discipline called planetology. I don’t know if the word / concept of planetology existed before Dune, but that’s where I first encountered it. Not that this means that there’s some kind of epic Dune tie-in, but I think it’s cool that a related concept is now involved in FFVII. (It’s just an elaboration on ecology: when humans discovered space travel and started to own and buy and sell entire planets, they realized that the well being of an ecosystem hinges on the whole planet. So it’s changed to planetology)

All that about Jessie’s theory establishes an important concept that has a big role in the original story. I also appreciated how the clones are introduced earlier in the story. It validated a theory of mine that both Sephiroth and Jenova are not only controlling them but can actually possess the bodies of the clones and transform them. Ifalna tells us that Jenova is a shapeshifter in the original game, so that would account for Sephiroth’s apparent ability to travel vast distances instantly and Jenova’s different forms. Anyway, in the remake Cloud runs into a clone super early and Sephiroth possesses him. He actually makes Cloud hallucinate Sephiroth’s old appearance, black cape and all.

The combat system is also great. It’s not stupid simple like XV where you’re basically mashing one button over and over again and you can freely play as other party members. It also requires that you strategize in many of the same ways you did in the original- like pairing the elemental materia with a relevant element spell so you aren’t forced to constantly tap out your MP in order to exploit elemental weaknesses. There is also just as much necessity to consider how different materia impact your stats when doling them out.

If those of you who have played through the game already noticed my mention of the elemental materia, that means what you think it means: I did the big annoying Easter egg hunt en route to Mako Reactor 5. It bugged the hell out of me but I couldn’t let it go, I just had to get the materia. I also snagged the chocobo / moogle materia from inside the fan. This game has side quests, and they rope you in, but they don’t run the risk of derailing the story’s entire dramatic momentum like they do in XV.

Loving the shit out of this so far and can’t wait to keep playing ❤

The play-through continues below:

https://ailixchaerea.blog/2020/04/19/ffviir-play-through-continued-light-spoilers/

Anticipating the Final Fantasy VII Remake

Early development pic from Final Fantasy VII Remake’s rendition of the Don Corneo / Wall Market sequence ^^

While I myself have not contracted COVID 19, the pandemic has had consequences for my living situation and my job. For that reason I have been trying to remain optimistic and excited about as many things as I can which is why I am now talking about a video game.

After a long and uncertain development, Final Fantasy VII Remake is hitting the market next month. Ever since the rumors of a remake were validated back in 2014/15, I could see a lot going wrong and a lot going right with this. After the initial confirmation, Square Enix revealed that it worked with some outside developers that had mishandled a lot of material and the project was substantially set back. If it simply remained in development hell forever, I don’t think I would have objected. So much went right with the original and with big budget video games being both collaborative and designed to give investors a return, such a good story is probably a happy accident. I don’t think I would trust a team of corporate writers, however capable or well-intentioned, to understand the finer points of what made the story of the base game so iconic.

Especially considering how certain decisions were made. Test players for the original were shown two versions, one with Barret dying and one with Aerith dying. The responses gave us the result we are all familiar with today. This is further substantiated by data miners who found dialogue for Aerith in the later parts of the game buried in the game’s code. If any mid-nineties gamers stumbled upon this unused data with a Gameshark Pro or anything similar, it no doubt would have lent credence to the contemporary rumors of a secret way to resurrect Aerith.

Which brings us to the edifice that Final Fantasy VII eventually became in the minds of those of us who fell in love with it. The true life of any work of art is what happens to it after it has left the hands of its creator(s) and Final Fantasy VII has had an interesting life. Having discovered FFVII in the year 2000, I remember the GeoCities and Angelfire websites with all the fan theories, lore dumps and fan fiction. The one I remember most fondly was hosted by an individual called Seraphim and had breakdowns of each character’s lore background and some thoughts on what builds were the most advisable for which party member.

As was typical of the fandom at that time, Seraphim included a lengthy explanation of why he believed Aerith could be brought back from the dead and some ways that he suspected it might be done. I don’t remember any mention of the dialogue that data miners would eventually uncover but Seraphim did rely heavily on circumstantial evidence. Much of which was derived from FFVII’s more random and fruitless fetch quests. You know, like finding all the Turtle’s Paradise flyers and buying the house in Costa Del Sol. The house for sale, Seraphim wrote, would be essential for a young couple wanting to make their way together after the threat of Meteor has been dealt with. Like many other gamers of the day, Seraphim also believed that the sick man in Midgar also held a mysterious key to Aerith’s resurrection (“This guy are sick”).

I remember other GeoCities / Angelfire sites from that time. One of them, authored by someone who called themselves Habib, had a far simpler site that existed only to celebrate Sephiroth, his favorite villain. The webpage had a bunch of screenshots of Sephiroth in Nibelheim, looking dramatic with the village burning around him while the song Those Chosen By The Planet played on a loop. For little preteen Ailix, this was fucking epic.

Another late-nineties beauty had a truly ambitious and well-written narrative poem describing the plot of the whole game from Sephiroth’s perspective. This page also contained a small personal bio of the author, stating that Professor Hojo was her soulmate.

As someone who had lived through that era and loved every minute of it, much of my appreciation and understanding of the game was shaped by this early dialogue between fans and the game. One particular fan theory has stayed with me and, in my assessment, was proven to be at least thematically relevant to the later Final Fantasy games.

I first discovered this theory in the writings of our old friend Seraphim, which was that Cloud and Sephiroth were not the real hero and villain of FFVII: this was in fact Aerith and Jenova. This has thematic echoes in Final Fantasy X, XIII and XV. Two of those games have protagonists that don’t survive the main game (I know Tidus is in FFX-2 but I’m sticking to the base games). The other one framed characters as protagonists who neither set the plot in motion nor were able to directly effect it in the end. All three of them wrestled with the angst of pre-determination and the plight of those who witness things happening versus those who make things happen.

In FFXIII, Lightening is propped up as the main character but only Fang and Vanille have the power to effect the mainline story in the end. XV and X examine doomed martyrs and their growing bonds with those they must leave behind. I don’t think it’s reaching too far to trace the emergence of these themes to Aerith.

That Square Enix first hit upon an idea they would explore in later FF titles within FFVII does not necessarily mean that it will (or even should) be treated with reverence in a remake. In general, what works well in one situation might work better in another. If they decide to be too dismissive of the importance of Aerith’s death, though, they will have sacrificed an essential, perhaps even defining aspect of the story of FFVII. This possibility weighs on me because many fans will loudly demand an opportunity to save Aerith’s life and Square Enix has shown an uncritical tendency toward appeasement in the past.

For me, this matters as much as it does because, whether one believes that Aerith and Jenova are the real main characters or not, I believe that Aerith and Sephiroth are mirrors of each other. Somehow, after all these years, I had completely failed to gather this on my own. I’m only aware of it now because I played through the game with one of my best friends a few months ago and she pointed it out. So kudos to you, bestie (It would feel inappropriate doing anything remotely close to naming names).

Aerith and Sephiroth mirroring each other does not get in the way of who you choose to believe are the main characters….but it goes a little smoother if Aerith and Jenova are the hero and villain and Cloud a kind of “narrator”. This lends itself to both a psychoanalytical and a religious reading of the story.

Both readings start with the soul. Let us begin with Freud’s notion of the uncanny. Put simply, Freud believed that the soul was initially conceived as a second self to assuage our fear of death. Kinda like a new car to drive in when the old one breaks down. Later, though, after the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, religion lost much of the credibility it once had in the west. Yet many religious ideas continue to cast long shadows in our minds in spite of us not having any further use for them.

If one continues to believe in a soul after one no longer believes in a supernatural dimension to the world, it is tantamount to a second body killing you and taking your place. Another word for this is a doppelgänger, which according to Freud embodies the essence of the uncanny. Something uncanny looks like it might be alive but probably isn’t: it is a sense of dread over something that’s not alive exhibiting living qualities without a rational explanation.

Cloud wrestles with a doppelgänger. Do I even have to spell this out? In Final Fantasy VII, we see a second version of a familiar flashback with a vague shadow-shape in Cloud’s place. This shadow-shape eventually has a name: Zack Fair. Zack Fair was the last love of Aerith Gainsborough. Cloud’s idealized hero-worship of Sephiroth compelled him to join Shin-Ra, and Zack Fair was the protégée of Sephiroth.

In the game’s beginning, Cloud retells the story of the Nibelheim mission with himself in Zack’s place. Few things can threaten your sense of self like the possibility that you stole the “self” of someone else. The ultimate invalidation is the realization that you are the doppelgänger. When Sephiroth first reveals this to Cloud, he even includes a lie that Cloud is a botched Sephiroth clone. Not only is he a shadow of a real “self”, but he doesn’t even get a number like the other clones.

This visitation from Sephiroth comes after the death of Aerith. Cloud’s love for Aerith enabled him to cling to his identification with Zack. Aerith made Cloud’s fantasy self feel real and Sephiroth brought back the memory of the one who filled the place that Cloud wanted: a memory which made Could feel like his place was taken by a double.

Zack was both a fantasy that Cloud wished to embody and also dead before the mainline story even begins. And both Aerith and Sephiroth choose to die for a mysterious destiny beyond the grave. Aerith made Cloud’s shadow-self a convincing and comforting fantasy and Sephiroth turned the shadow-self into a frightening doppelgänger. Both Aerith and Sephiroth represent appearances of both death and fantasy for Cloud. Each one represents both a fantasy and a threat. Beyond these appearances though (and their importance for Cloud), Aerith and Sephiroth also embrace the reality of death within the world of Final Fantasy VII.

I say reality because both Aerith and Sephiroth go on to effect the plot in a disembodied state. The game treats their existence after death as real and their actions after dying as having consequences. The in-world mystical language offers other interpretations as well: in Cosmo Canyon, Bugenhagen tells the party that all biospheres rely on souls returning to a collective spiritual body (Lifestream) between lives to nurture the whole with their lived experience before moving on to their next earthly form. The holistic cycle of existence hinges on the transience of one’s specific, mortal identity. Death is not personal annihilation so much as a home-coming and a chance to share the growth of your lifetime with all other souls before moving on to the next life. This means that death is the gateway to a greater existence that’s based on interconnectedness.

In contrast, after dropping into the Lifestream \ Mako mixture in the Nibelheim reactor, does Sephiroth let go of his personal identity and move on to another? How many times do you see both Sephiroth clones and psychic representations of Sephiroth after that point? After the planned impact of Meteor, all souls will return to the Lifestream where the Sephiroth\Jenova hybrid will consume them. So far from integrating with the whole, Sephiroth wants to integrate the whole into himself.

During the very end of the game, we learn that there are only seven more days until Meteor strikes Gaia. At this point you can either enjoy the open world or go straight to the final dungeon. During the discussions made after the final raid on Midgar and the descent into the Northern Crater, there is expressed doubt as to whether or not a final confrontation with Sephiroth and Jenova is even really necessary if all rests in the hands of Holy, the force that Aerith summoned during and after her death. This is after Cloud has been forced to confront the lies he told himself, Barret’s admission to taking innocent lives in the bombing of Mako reactors and the proven failure of Shin-Ra’s huge materia bomb. To top it all off, Holy might not even step in. The final step before the ending happens after the loss of moral and psychological direction and the proven failure of a realistic plan. The steps into the final battle are taken after demoralization and in the pursuit of a final desperate hope after literally everything else has proven to be either fake or wrong. Between pushing on after accepting mortality or stalwartly clinging to the importance of your own survival and beliefs, it is clear which side the story sympathizes with.

If we wanted, we could take this into a discussion of different religious traditions that emphasize either the integration of the soul into the greater universal network (Hinduism or Buddhism) or the existence of personal identity after death (Abrahamic religions). On one hand it’s debatable whether the developers of Final Fantasy VII actually wanted to talk about *all that* but on the other…clear parallels are rarely coincidental. During the playthrough with the friend that I mentioned earlier, she even suggested that perhaps the last telepathic conversation that Cloud has with Aerith is meant to resemble the New Testament’s account of Christ’s anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Before moving too far past all this, I wanted to address the fact that I opened with a fan theory that Aerith and Jenova are the real main characters of Final Fantasy VII rather than Cloud and Sephiroth. Especially since I spent so much time talking about what the appearances of death mean to Cloud as expressed by Aerith and Sephiroth. By main characters, I mean the characters who move the plot. Antagonist does something, protagonist responds, etc. One of the more polarizing aspects of the story of Final Fantasy XIII was the revelation that the relationship between Fang and Vanille supports the entire plot and the characters that we initially thought of as protagonists (Lightening & co. ) are mere witnesses.

And clearly the division between the active protagonists and antagonists and those that witness alongside them can dramatically effect what the story is about. If FFXIII’s main character was Fang, it would be a story about interpersonal love triumphing above all. If it were Vanille, it would be about the supreme importance of the greater good. Situating Lightening (and Cloud) as main characters, though, makes FFXIII (and VII) about a clash between free will, determinism and the spectrum of truth claims that our minds use to make sense of the world around us.

Final Fantasy VII is a deeply compelling story about the search for meaning, something most Final Fantasy games touch on at least a little bit. If the function of a character like Aerith or Sephiroth is going to be fundamentally changed because of pressure from fans in the upcoming remake, I hope it is done thoughtfully. Is a lot of what I was just droning about pure fan interpretation and is it bullshit to expect Square Enix to keep up with every little pet conceit of every gamer? Totally. I don’t think Final Fantasy VII Remake will be a complete failure if it doesn’t validate every fan theory and interpretation and I’ve seen a lot that makes me deeply excited to play it. I don’t think anyone who was there for the original wouldn’t be excited to inspect every little inch of every street of Midgar- something that has been teased nonstop.

Speaking of the things that strike me as promising about the remake, I must disagree with a lot of people about the multi-game format. I think this is absolutely the right way to go about remaking such a huge and nuanced game. I would not want to play a remake that is not as meticulous in its recreation as possible so I couldn’t be happier about the current plan with multiple games.

Post script: I didn’t include this earlier when I first brought up Freud because I didn’t think it contributed anything useful to the analysis, but I wanted to make it clear that I was aware of the Oedipal interpretation that is opened up with Zack being an adopted shadow-self of Cloud. In Freud’s understanding of the associative logic of the subconscious, the doppelgänger taps into the Oedipal anxieties compelling the young male to identify with the father and reject the mother. With Cloud’s hero-worship of Sephiroth, it’s clear that Sephiroth is filling the role of a male ideal for an immature and neurotic Cloud to tack his self-image onto. This would make him both a father-figure and a vessel for castration anxiety.

This also has ramifications for Cloud’s relationship with Aerith that I don’t think advance an interpretation of the story in any way that’s interesting. Potentially even misogynist or queer-phobic: you could read the whole Wall Market cross dressing sequence as being sub-textually *about* castration anxiety…which just isn’t any fun, especially since it would associatively pair the whole experience with the flamboyantly gay Wall Market men with a fear of emasculation. Especially for queer Final Fantasy fans like myself who want representation to get better instead of worse.

Dragging all that into an interpretation would be particularly depressing since our last glimpse of the Honey Bee Inn in the new remake just looked so beautiful. It reminded me of the last few dance numbers in the movie Leave It On The Floor (a neat lil movie about gay men and drag queens). Like, I legit expected to hear the Beyoncé song Sweet Dreams playing as Cloud is scooped into that dance ^^

Here is Seraphim’s site for those who are interested

http://elbryan.tripod.com/FinalFantasyVII.html

Vigil: The Longest Night- open beta!

As soon as Salt and Sanctuary came out I was smitten. That game captured the 50% of my brain that Bloodborne did not take over. It’s still my favorite game available for the PS Vita, and to date it looks like no follow up is planned (nor has there been any new updates from Ska Studios, the developers).

Recently though, while I was putzing around on a Salt and Sanctuary Facebook group, someone uploaded pics of a new game currently in development called Vigil: The Longest Night. The art style immediately grabbed me, and I love side-scrolling Soulsborne \ Metroidvania hybrids even if…they kinda stumbled over each other as soon as it became clear that there was a market for them.

Like, by the time Blasphemous came out, I had already been seriously hooked by both Salt and Sanctuary and Hollow Knight. Blasphemous was a perfectly good game with great level design, platforming and combat, but I just couldn’t get into it since I’d been neck deep in similar things recently.

What caught my attention about Vigil: The Longest Night though was the enthusiasm it seemed to garner among my fellow S&S fans. My appetite was also freshly whetted by a recent Symphony Of The Night play through so I couldn’t have been more stoked when I got wind of a recent open beta event. Best believe I snatched that shit up ^^

This being a demo of the beta version, I wasn’t surprised to run into a few hiccups, some of which may very well have been the fault of my machine. There was some truly aggravating collision detection with climbable/grabable surfaces. The second biggest annoyance was the lagging, which would get worse whenever I loaded a file immediately after a death and the game would get stuck whenever I got killed by the first boss.

Speaking of, the lagging made that fight unplayable for awhile. Luckily, this demo is generous with exp, enabling you to either brute force it or experiment with unlockable combat upgrades. Which isn’t such a different beginning- it reminded me of the Festering Banquet and the Sodden Knight from Salt and Sanctuary, really.

Personally, my breakthrough with boss one came when I lost patience, tried playing it like Bloodborne and got totally confrontational. As in, keep rolling past them and spam from behind. Which makes me wonder if, when Vigil is finally released, it will be the kind of game that rewards aggressiveness the way Bloodborne did, where attempting to play it safe is the quickest way to die.

After that fight, we get our first taste of familiar Meteoidvania level design. We find a locked door that separates two halves of an area we see separately at first. It was also around this point that I found that the lagging almost completely disappeared when I turned off every graphical bell and whistle in the ‘video’ menu. Which was fortunate for my nerves since that’s when the platforming ramps up…and I don’t think my sanity could survive platforming at that pace.

The art style clearly excels at creating an understated sense of relative depth across different textures and layers of the background and foreground. Up to and including facial features and skin.

As the old woman with the lantern shows us, this game also succeeds at fanciful yet uncanny fluctuations of proportion. One minute I’m reminded of The Nightmare Before Christmas, the next I’m thinking that Leila, as she descends a ladder with a full moon behind her, looks like she leapt out of something like Batman: The Animated Series or a Genndy Tartakovsky creation like Samurai Jack.

Yes I have a flaming magic pike shoved in the back of my neck, what of it?

Not that it doesn’t have its weaknesses here and there. Leila’s face and her faster leg and arm movements and sword-swings often look like PSP graphics. It just messes with my sense of immersion, is all. A single, cohesive art style would be for the best. Imagery with a frank resemblance to CGI should be kept to an absolute minimum except when something is supposed to starkly contrast with everything else.

After turning off all of the graphical options like dynamic trees and saturation and whatnot, the occasional use of CGI-looking imagery meshed a little better but was far from seamless. Leila’s facial profile and cloak still looked a little bit like they came from a PSP, but the tentative steps into 3D made the second boss fight both eerie and gorgeous. The shrieking monstrosity’s girth and arms seem like they’re about to pop through the screen occasionally.

In fact, with all of the graphical enhancements turned off in the pause menu, Vigil: The Longest Night has a very memorable beauty. Faces often have an offbeat look reminiscent of fairly tales. The 2.5D graphics shine the best, though, inside of houses and caverns.

In fact, everything really starts to go uphill very fast near the end of the demo. When you make contact with Maye Village you find that, unlike many other Soulsborne protagonists, Leila is actually well-known in her town and seems to have specific relationships that we get to modestly explore in dialogue. We encounter stories about a young couple and their recent elopement. A suspicious and pedantic professor keeps mentioning the relevance of mythology and then we pass through a small clique of eerie and serious looking women, raving about a “DEITY”. Shortly after that, we’re in an underground cave with this shit going on:

The music that was available on the demo also stood out well. In the menu screen and the opening level area I particularly liked the use of music boxes and oboes. The cemetery music was another highlight. Nice change of pace with the strumming guitar and the keyboard. Both the music and the sound design partake in the general upward swing near the demo’s end.

Other than some glitches that I’m sure will be patched well before the game officially launches, my only real complaint are some awkward English translations that make some of the dialogue in the town of Maye feel a little wooden. And that’s probably gonna see some attention before launch as well. I like how Leila is not a player-insert like protagonists of Dark Souls, S&S and Bloodborne (even the Knight in Hollow Knight is something of a silent enigma that the player can project themselves onto…in spite of having very character-specific lore that stops them from being an “everybug”).

I mean I do appreciate ambiguity in story-telling, especially if it allows other strengths of the given medium to shine through. But we’re all very familiar with Hidetaka Miyazaki’s brand of uncertainty and Leila is just a breath of fresh air. Really, I can’t freaking wait for this game to actually be playable in its entirety.

On to the play-through!

Earthworm Jim Special Edition!

Two days ago I played a Sega CD for the first time as well as the definitive version of one of my favorite games from my childhood: Earthworm Jim.

This is a game that I played so often that I basically have the progression route for a whole play through etched in the muscle memory of my hands. The only other games that I might have a similar intimacy with are Mega Man 3, Sonic 2 and maybe the first Tomb Raider game. That last one is a real maybe but I wouldn’t rule it out. Final Fantasy VII may be my favorite video game period but that came into my life at a much later time.

Even with that deep level of nostalgia and rote memorization, though, there is still so much to be delighted by. Not to say nostalgia still isn’t mixed up in it though 0.0

For one, consider the era it came out in. It was the early nineties and Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were just ramping up. I remember Nickelodeon being turned on a lot in my home and my parents liked it more than I did. You see, I was probably around four years old, and almost everything on that channel terrified me. I remember an episode of Rugrats that had a freaky as hell dream sequence.

My mom was also a big fan of The Ren & Stimpy Show and the niche it carved out for itself. People these days seem to call it toilet humor. When I look back on things like the episode where Ren had cavities, I’m more tempted to call it comedic body horror.

Whatever it was, though, it caught on and we got things like Rocko’s Modern Life, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Eek The Cat, Cow and Chicken and Space Goofs. And Little Kid Ailix liked every single one of them more than Ren & Stimpy. Cow and Chicken was probably my favorite. Maybe you could lump in Ed Edd n Eddy if you cared to. That hooked me also.

Considering that Earthworm Jim dropped in the early nineties and its blend of juvenile humor and absurdity, I think it’s fair to say that it was part of the same general trend. Earthworm Jim also may have had more personality than all of them, though.

I mean, who else remembers Boogerman? Nonstop toilets, nonstop boogers, nonstop monsters made of literal crap, it just played out the whole toilet humor gimmick to death. I was in elementary school back then and that game was somehow really popular with my peers. But it was a lifeless golem made of pandering gimmicky bullshit. I mean I’m being way more articulate than Little Kid Ailix was, but Little Kid Ailix knew that Boogerman was built on two or three gags being cycled over and over again. It was a distillation of all of the laziest tendencies of the Ren & Stimpy derivatives.

Don’t get me wrong, Earthworm Jim was totally one of those derivatives as well, but it was more than that. In fact, the gross out jokes were kind of the smallest part of the whole equation. There were other gags to, but even those gags were just one part of the whole.

(Is it just me or do the loading screens in the special edition look like the title screens from shows that were part of the What A Cartoon block from Cartoon Network?)

I mean, the For Pete’s Sake level, for example. That clearly relies on a big versus small gag. Jim is big and Jim is protecting Pete who is small. If Pete get’s hurt, Pete turns into a giant red bulldog monster with throbbing veins, clutches Jim in his teeth and drags him back a few obstacles behind where he was. It’s a classic gag, sorta reminiscent of Looney Toons, really.

But look at all the other details that the game gets you to take for granted. What planet are you on and why can you see space? Why does this seem to be the only level that gives you a sense of having just come from the interstellar race with Psycrow that you do between every level?

The music also adds something. It adds something during every second of the game, because Tommy Tallarico is an angel sent to Earth to make beautiful beautiful music. But in For Pete’s Sake the music is restrained, which lets everything else go to the foreground. But still has this droning, rhythmic, science fiction quality.

Oh, and this tonal balance that happens between the normal gag stuff, cuteness and eerie atmosphere? It shifts dramatically in the second to last level, Intestinal Distress. The level is weirdly minimal, save for the appearance of being inside of someone’s digestive tract. And the music is…well…horror movie music. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. Sure enough, the last level is called Buttville.

During one of my early play throughs, I remember the growing realization that the final boss and villain of the game, Queen Slug For A Butt, is bodily connected to Buttville. As in, you are actually inside her and your progression to the exit- AKA her asshole -triggers the final boss fight. Little Kid Ailix was like “is this…seriously what it looks like????”

That, needless to say, goes beyond “toilet humor” and is truly weird. And the music in this level. The track commonly known as Falling, in a different context, could actually create a feeling of vertigo and dread. I almost wanna say it reminds me of falling into Hell. Certain puns come to mind, like “the belly of the beast”.

Actually, at the age I was when I first played this, it hooked my imagination. I’ve always written stories, almost compulsively, and Little Kid Ailix was set on a kick of designing stories set inside of bodies.

Anyway, on the special edition for the Sega CD, one of the first things you’ll notice is that the soundtrack is so crisp and perfect that the music alone could fully justify it. It’s just that good. If you’ve played the SNES or Gameboy Advance ports and thought they were markedly inferior to the Sega original, then the Sega CD sound quality makes them absolute garbage by comparison. Maybe it was re-recorded- I don’t know just now. I do know that the Sega CD was capable of CD quality sound so it wouldn’t surprise me.

And while I love how smooth the muscle memory of my endless play throughs can make things, my heart was instantly warmed to find out how many of the levels are expanded. In the part of New Junk City where Jim is suddenly without his suit, he announces “I’m nude!” with a Southern drawl.

Did Jim have a Southern accent in the WB cartoon series? I don’t think he did. But the “Ahm noood” combined with his “woah Nelly!” from the original makes me think he was meant to be Southern in the game. Could that be why there’s a loading screen with him *snickers* loading stuff into a truck bed? It also seems consistent with the banjo music that plays when you race against Psycrow. And yes, banjos are a commonly recognized hallmark of Earthworm Jim music. Banjos, science fictiony electronic beats, parodies of music from nineteen-thirties Disney cartoons and industrial rock. And it all fits into the same atmospheric whole. Did I mention the composer, Tommy Tallarico, is a freaking gift?

So I was wrapping up the Psycrow race after What The Heck? when this shit happened

I blink and I’m like “What the fuck is this shit??”

This shit wasn’t in the original game. After tooling around for a minute, I notice the music for this new level has creepy, empty wind sounds and dry wooden creaks, like a plank dangling from its nail off of a crappy cobbled-together fort. And what is that pink thing? It’s kind of like…a dinosaur? I guess? Are those nostrils or its eye sockets? They’re empty so I wanna go with nostrils. Please let them be nostrils.

So you inch up to it, it starts to stalk you, it speeds up and…and…what the fuck are those sounds it’s making? It sounds crazed and hungry, but what are the actual noises? Hoots? Grunts? Gibbers? All of the above?

Whatever this nightmare fuel is, you gotta deal with it throughout the whole level. In fact there are a few puzzles built around getting the pink, sightless, hooting crazy fucker to crash into things to remove barriers or step on levers to launch you into the air.

What delighted me more than all that, though, was that this new level, called Big Bruty, required me to use all of the same problem solving strategies I used as a seven year old. It re-connected me with Little Kid Ailix’s feeling of having solved a few puzzles, got a game over but still eager to press on in spite of the frustration. This bizarre little curve ball of a level actually made me feel a lot of things that I haven’t felt for a long, long time.

It was a very pleasant night of gaming with my amazing girlfriend, in other words. And a lovely way to get re-acquainted with a gleeful part of my childhood. Now I kinda wanna see if that graphic novel the original devs are working on is in any way obtainable

(Eat your heart out, Doug Funnie, someone did the black and white pencil intro better then you! 😀 )

Little Samson

Today I was treated to a chance to play a special NES rarity called Little Samson. Why this game didn’t blow up into a franchise is beyond me since it has got to be one of the most well-designed NES games I’ve ever played.

I feel like I should qualify this a little: by “well-designed” I mean neatly designed. Neatness is not the only measure of good design. The early Mega Man games, for example, do not take the time to carefully and systematically flesh-out concepts in a way that lets you easily build on one after another. Sequential concept elaboration is simply a design convention and there are other possible approaches.

As I was playing Little Samson with my significant other (whose video game library is gloriously encyclopedic) I had a thought that captured the nature of this distinction: if you want something with teeth right now, put in Mega Man 3 and start with either the Shadow Man or the Gemini Man stage. And yes, while most Mega Man games have a “rock paper scissors” affinity pattern that usually leaves a rather sequential path to quick victory, you have the choice of starting in one of several different levels.

Most people my age though, who didn’t have the benefit of guides back in the early nineties, relied heavily on trial and error. Which meant you would deduce things in a stage you were in no way prepared for and apply them to the platforming in other stages. Eventually these deductions would get you acclimated enough to the platforming and general level design that the easiest possible stage to beat through platforming alone would become apparent.

A less clunky way of putting this is that Mega Man games typically have non-linear design, which places a greater emphasis on trial and error and deduction. Little Samson, meanwhile, has a linear design.

The teeth come eventually, though. The opening stages are little more than obstacle courses that teach you the rudiments of handling the four player characters. These basically function as a tutorial that shows you the basic uses for each playable character’s specialized abilities.

So rather than confronting you directly with multiple layers of difficulty, like Mega Man, the ways to approach different obstacles are broken down for you in the beginning. It is up to you to determine where and how to use these strategies. Later, when the “real campaign” starts, you will normally find that the following stages will accommodate one of the player characters more than the others. This is the period bracketed between the first and second boss fights.

While the second fight is pretty hard, you may begin to be a little dismayed at what appears to be a flaw in the neatness of the design: the dragon pc will get you most of the way through the first two bosses. Which could tempt you to think that the dragon might be the all-purpose boss-killer.

Boss number three will immediately disabuse you of this, to say nothing of the third stage levels requiring more pc rotation than anything beforehand, with the dragon and the mouse being the most useful for the platforming and the golem being useful for some annoyingly persistent enemies. And for nothing else: the golem can barely platform at all. Then you fight a boss that’s unapproachable for any pc except the mouse with two hit points.

The third stage and the third boss are also a great opportunity to address how original this game looks. In fact, I don’t know of any other NES game that looks quite like it. Your main pc, Little Samson himself, reminds me of the child version of Son Goku from Dragon Ball. The sorcerer in the opening cut-scene also reminded me of Dalton from Chrono Trigger. What do Chrono Trigger and Dragon Ball have in common? Akira Toriyama!

(Now I’m kinda torn…does he look more like Dalton or Piccolo…?)

Turns out, the art was done by someone named Yuko Nakamura, for whom I can find no other credits. Which is unfortunate because there are some delightfully wild style variations.

The figures in the palace at the beginning, with their robes and headdresses, look almost Babylonian. Rather like your Toriyama-esque main character, there are some sprites that have a cutesy chibi vibe, like the bubble-breathing diosaurs. The pink dragon pc also reminds me of Icarus, the dragon Gohan adopted in Dragon Ball Z: The Tree Of Might and the different villainous sorcerers all sort of look like Piccolo. The second boss looks like a cross between a dinosaur and a Giger-style xenomorph. A later boss transforms into a huge dragon that takes up most of the screen. Later levels have large purple cartoon hands reaching out of the ground along with stone corridors with Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Against any expectation the prior levels and creatures may have furnished, the third stage either looks like an alien planet or some sort of cutesy Mordor. Big’ol starscape in the background with vanishing platforms that either look like chemicals or energy with glowing heads that shoot projectiles. And when the long vertical wall platforms become more common you really tend to rely on the mouse pc.

So you’re doing precise platforming while you’re dodging energy projectiles with a mouse with a standard HP limit of two hits. With the same mouse, you also have to win a boss fight with a sorcerer made of floating demonic skulls with lil bombs like the kind Samus Aran drops with her morph ball. On an alien planet. I did say the teeth come eventually.

Which is another interesting gameplay elaboration. All pcs have different max HP limits. My SO and I were utilizing a quick-save feature that wasn’t in the original game (don’t ask ’cause I ain’t telling :p ). So the quick save may have made this seem like more of a feature than it was meant to be, but I noticed that I was trying to anticipate future pc rotations.

If I noticed that I was relying a lot on the mouse with two HP, for example, I would collect as many HP buffing power-ups as I could so my mouse wouldn’t be a one hit kill. I really started hoarding the HP buffs in stage two when I realized the blue bastard boss fight is best approached with the dragon and therefore needed that pc to have a higher max HP than is standard.

This feature also holds true for other power-ups as well. Every pc has its own unique health bar which means they all need to be healed individually. This calculation is deepened by the fact that you don’t simply lose the pc and keep playing with others when they hit zero: you die if you reach zero in any form. So you need to be thinking of which pc will receive what power-up when you find it.

The music also changes based on what pc you’re using which, at times, can be a lil bit annoying. Which is too bad since the music is pretty good in general.

From the opening tutorials, you learn that the golem, mouse and dragon are the most specialized playable characters with Little Samson being “a jack of all trades, master of nothing”. It’s normal to use Samson early in a stage while you’re assessing which specialization(s) will suit the stage best. Which means you spend a lot of time listening to Samson’s music, and that can be pretty grating. I really prefer a full immersion experience with music and sound and everything happening when it’s supposed to, but while I was playing the third stage I actually muted the game.

That was kind of a disappointing time for that to set in since so many design choices really come together beautifully in the third stage. Not that it’s anything more than an annoyance. If it gets to you that much you can just switch characters. And anyway the final level has its own music regardless of which pc you choose.

Speaking of the last level, Little Samson has a final boss fight that will make you hopelessly dependent on your ability to memorize jumping patterns with the character with the least HP because they happen to deal the most damage (unless you’ve collected buffs). In a few different puzzles and situations you can rotate transformations for alternate dodging and attacking but not this time.

(THIS fucker X_X)

On the other hand. It is also possible to use different characters as meat shields and adroitly switch back to the mouse in time to spam with your morph ball bombs. That’s what my SO did after I spent several minutes fixating on jumping, which actually worked like a dream.

(Then we got a nice lil cliffhanger going on post-credits with this guy flashing on his throne after the four sorcerers wink out of existence)

After we beat the game, my partner showed me a bunch of images to use in this blog as well as some footage of our play through. On one recording we could hear my voice saying “this is simultaneously one of the cutest, weirdest and hardest things I’ve ever played.”

Which is an assessment that I stand by. The difficulty is pitch perfect, it plays fair and it combines a handful of influences from Mega Man to Mario while having a character that’s all it’s own. I remember, when I played the third Mario game, I was in disbelief that it was actually available for the NES- it looked like it should be a SNES game. Little Samson‘s graphics are nearly at the same level of sophistication, especially with cool little gimmicks here and there like rotating sprites. I’m gonna be jonesing on how cool this is for awhile and I’m still surprised that this game didn’t pick up the momentum that it should have (yeah I know it was released just as the SNES was getting off the ground but it’s not fair D: )

Approximations of filmmaking in other mediums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More FFIV lore analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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