Tuesday, November 10, 2009

For The Last Time: The Origin Of Narrative In Final Fantasy

Things I have to do: make these shorter and post more often. So it goes. Spoiler warnings ensue. If you haven't played Final Fantasy II, I recommend it for the story but definitely not for the battle/levelling system. It was the only game I have ever finished out of goddamn spite.

For The Last Time: The Origin Of Narrative In Final Fantasy

    The world of 8 bit RPGs has its fair share of simple story arcs. Dragon Quest (or Dragon Warrior at the time if you're picky) had you save the princess then stop the DracoLord who happened to be just across the river from the kingdom where you began. Final Fantasy, the first one, was king of the fetch quests, often going many levels deep of what you had to get in order to get something else.

    At first glance, The Game Overthinker is entirely correct about the heroes entrance in what is an extended final act with the prelude included in the instruction manual or, depending on the games, Nintendo Power. The heroes of these games are without origin (except for Ultima and even then it's not so much a backstory as a trading card) and without complication. The story of the light warriors, how they came to be and how they came together was left to the mind of the player. Where were they from if not in the world of the game? Final Fantasy does not explain the origins of any of the light warriors, nor does it involve the two possible light warriors you did not pick. This goes back to the silent protagonist theory in that the light warriors are not characters so much as cyphers for the player. This is more or less confirmed by the ending script addressing the player as the one who watched over all the whole time.

    The question then is could there have been more behind the fetch quests? Could the narrative have been self contained in the game without relying on the instruction manual for introductions? The latter days of the NES certainly showed that it was possible to contain an entire story in a cartridge with the prelude included not only in the manual but the game like in Startropics or the later Ninja Gaiden titles.

    Of course, the more complex stories did not reach North American shores for some time. The original Megami Tensei games for the Famicom, based on a Japanese novel, have yet to see a fan translation, but those were the earlier days. Mother offered the everyday life riff to the genre with graphics that would have been, at the time, considered excellent if cutesy, leaving Mother 2, better known as Earthbound, with the almost unfair tag of "8-bit retro". If there were any major casualties of their own complexity though, and of their own timing, they would have to be Final Fantasy 2 and 3.

    Not to belabor a point, but if this is your first time looking up Final Fantasy on the internet, and the jump from Final Fantasy 3 to Final Fantasy 7 confused you, let me break it down for you:

  • Final Fantasy 1 - Released as Final Fantasy in Japan in 1987 and North America in 1990, subsequently re-released for every platform known to man including talks of a release for more advanced coffee makers.
  • Final Fantasy 2 - Released in Japan in 1988. Skipped initially, this was released in North America eventually as part of Final Fantasy Origins for the PSX. It received a fantastic fan translation.
  • Final Fantasy 3 - Released in Japan in 1990. Skipped initially, this was released in North America for the Nintendo DS. Once again, there was a fantastic fan translation.
  • Final Fantasy 4 - This was released for the SNES in both Japan and North America in 1991. Released in North America as Final Fantasy 2 as a Super NES launch title, the truth is this version of the game is so diluted that Squaresoft released it as Final Fantasy 4: Easy Type in Japan. This game has since been re-released for the Game Boy Advance, the Nintendo DS and the PS1 (though nobody really likes to admit the last one).
  • Final Fantasy 5 - Released in Japan in 1992. Skipped initially, this game was one of the earliest and thus most famous fan translations. It was later released as part of the Final Fantasy Anthology for the PS1 with a terrible script. It was later released for the GBA with a better script... at least a script that doesn't sound like it was written on international Talk Like A Pirate Day.
  • Final Fantasy 6 - Released in Japan and North America in 1994. Released here for the SNES relatively in tact, has received a fan translation anyway and multiple ports for the PS1 and GBA. The author is still hoping for an overhauling remake.

    And the rest, as they say, is history. So why did it take so long for Final Fantasies 2 and 3 to reach North America? Look at the release years. It took three years for the first game to come to North America, by the time they released the thir game in Japan, Nintendo was priming up for the release of the Super Famicom/SNES. Our 2 was actually 4, a watered down, poorly translated (not that we cared at the time) 4 but 4 nonetheless and it gave the impression that tales filled with love, betrayal, great political dynsties and adventure would only be possible with 16 bits of processing power in a box whose front buttons you couldn't kick in from frustration.

    This assumption was wrong because Final Fantasy 4 would not exist as it does without the themes that began with Final Fantasy 2. In fact, none of the Final Fantasy titles would exist in the same way without 2 as 2 is the first with an actual, self contained narrative. The characters are actual characters with personalities that match their strengths. The game starts with the four main characters running for their lives in an invasion, one of them appearing to not make it, instead becomming kidnapped and then a villain, serving the evil emperor. Right there we have three mainstays of the series:

Invasion: 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12
Betrayal: 4, 6, 7, 10, 12
Evil empires: 6, 7, 9, 10, 12

    Given that 2 included a rotating cast of characters to fill the fourth role, it also ended up killing most of those who inhabited that space for any time being to the point where one would be surprised the pallette did not include red shirts for the lot of them. Neither Tellah nor General Leo nor Aerith's deaths were entirely new ideas in the Final Fantasy universe. Heartbreaking, heroic and tragic, maybe, but not original.

    Finally there is the premise that a group of rebels is the only group with enough near god-like powers (if you crack the battle and levelling system) that can defeat the Emperor and restore the world to right. This is true for every Final Fantasy including the first one. The only game that adressed this in an alternate fashion was Final Fantasy 3. This game stated that the Light Warriors in that game, characters that the player named and chose the class for but had an established script, were not the first people in this position and introduced the Dark Warriors who took on a similar task in the past.

    In the end though, Square, now Square-Enix did the right thing by keeping the story elements as the games progressed. They especially did the right thing by carefully discarding the battle and levelling up system that required near suicide and repeated button pressing to the point of carpal tunnel. If anything, at least it serves as proof that a complex narrative doesn't depend on a system's bit-size.

All release date info courtesy of Wikipedia, all game element info courtesy of me sitting on my ass and playing them. 

No comments:

Post a Comment