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Old-school vs. new-school Final Fantasy games: a theory

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During a three-day stay at the hospital a month ago, I blew through a marathon listening of the 30-something episodes of the RetroforceGo! podcast, having luckily discovered it a few days prior and downloaded it to my computer. A common sentiment I heard expressed several times on the RetroforceGo! podcasts (and most recently again on the Squaresoft episode) was a sense of disconnection between the "old-school" Final Fantasy games (everything prior to FFVII for the Ps1) and "new-school" Final Fantasy games (FFVII for the Ps1 onwards). I think a few of the hosts mentioned that they liked the older Final Fantasy games slightly more because they felt more interested in the characters, to name one out of a few reasons I remember being discussed, as well as a general sense of apathy towards the increasing presence of FMV cutscenes in the newer Final Fantasy games. I have often felt this way as well and although a number of friends as well as my brother shared these sentiments, I have never found anyone with similar viewpoints in the video game Internet world until this podcast. For my first post on Dtoid, I would like to offer a theory I have had for a few years as to why this may be the case, an idea that came to me during a trip to KFC after beating Final Fantasy X for the first time.

Theory: Newer Final Fantasy games are not as compelling because they increasingly reduce the role of the player's imagination.

In the 1930s, while making the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a major question which plagued Walt Disney and his animators at the time was whether or not it was possible for people to feel emotionally about what is essentially a series of paper drawings. In particular, they questioned whether audiences would actually mourn Snow White's "death" along with the dwarves or if they would see it as nothing more than a series of "moving drawings." Of course, we know that these concerns were unfounded as audiences of the time (and even today) literally broke down crying during these scenes. While animated films and Squaresoft RPGs seems to be two completely different things, I think that the above anecdote is very relevant to the early Final Fantasy games, as well as many other retro games.

Even in the SuperNES era, it is difficult for me to believe that the major draw of Final Fantasy games were their graphics. And while I know that there is a group of gamers who love and adore the gameplay of RPGs, I feel that the gameplay is also likely not the major draw of Final Fantasy given the tons of games out there with excellent and creative gameplay mechanics. To me, the draw of the Final Fantasy games was the story, the characters, and the world that these games created (though I will concede that music has drawn me into many games that I would not have otherwise played such as Rygar: The Legendary Adventure for the Ps2: incredible music, mediocre game).

It should be noted however, that despite the technological limitations of video game systems of the time, the development of characters, the story, and the world of the game was hardly compromised because even though the systems lacked the power to show you everything, your imagination was able to do the same, if not a better job.

When I played old-school Final Fantasy games, not only was I played it literally with my hands and controller, but I was also playing it in parallel in my mind. I am sure that at the time, I had assigned each Final Fantasy VI character a unique voice and in my mind, they certainly did not look like this:


(courtesy of www.videogamesprites.net)

I know that in my imagination, this was not what Terra looked like. I am sure that everyone who has played Final Fantasy VI has their own internalized view of what Terra looks like.

A key moment in Final Fantasy VI is the poisoning of the water supply of Doma Castle. If you look at the scene literally, there is not much there to look at. Kefka does his synthesizer laugh while he does his two frame laughter animation. Nobuo Uematsu's maniacal carnival-like "Kefka's Theme" underscores the impact of the poisoning, which is a bunch of sprites one-after-the-other switching over from a standing position to the dead position, all in about one frame of animation. To describe this scene in such a literal manner however is flawed because it ignores the role of the imagination. Since the systems are not able to show you the full impact of this scene, the programmers give you what they can and allow your mind to fill in the blanks. Without a doubt, Nobuo Uematsu's incredible music also helped to underscore your imagination's Final Fantasy VI.

I am sure that anyone who has played this game has played movie director and internalized the game in order to better bring it to life. It is for this reason why the poison scene has the impact that it does. It is the reason why Shadow's sacrifice makes us sad. It is why we celebrate with the characters when they save the world at the end. In other words, our imagination has made us closer to the characters, closer to the world, and closer to the story in a way that the game cannot by itself.

Let us now look at Final Fantasy X, the most recent of the series that I have played to completion. In comparison to the older Final Fantasy VI, there is very little work required of my imagination. Every line of dialogue is voice-acted out for my listening. Characters move realistically and have enough detail to show their emotions even in the in-game models. The moments in the game that would have previously required alot of imagination to visualize such as the Blitzball game, Yuna's first sending, the underwater romance scene, and the ending are all 100% choreographed, directed with full-blown cinematography, and acted out for my viewing. In other words, you are passively watching the results of Square Enix's imagination now brought to life with the wonders of technology. I remember watching the ending of Final Fantasy X for the first time, which came at a time when I had sort of lost my interest in anime and thinking to myself: "wow, I have just seen the greatest anime in history, except it's a game."

There's nothing wrong with developers wanting the technology and opportunity to show you the complete vision and visualization of what they have dreamed up. I know that would love to see more of what Hironobu Sakaguchi and the others dreamt up when they made Final Fantasy VI or perhaps my second favorite game Final Fantasy IV (though I know I will get a chance for that soon thanks to the DS) and I know that there are many out there that would as well. The catch however, is that the more Square can show you and put into life for you, the less blanks and opportunities there are for your imagination to go to work. While I concede that I did not feel this way about Final Fantasy VII for the Ps1, I submit for consideration that the limitations of the game as well as the relative lack of cutscenes ensured that there was plenty of room for your imagination to run wild. In an extreme case, I refer you to Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht for the Ps2 in which there was literally nothing for the imagination to do as everything in the game that was not an FMV cutscene were the boring parts where you ran around in ugly and uninteresting environments doing boring things.

I should point out however, that FMV cutscenes by themselves do not necessarily lead to this restruction of imagination. In fact, in many games, I would argue that they help you work your imagination. While I could use a classic example of an old school RPG with FMVs such as Ys: Book I and II for the Turbo Duo or Lunar: The Silver Star for the SegaCD, let me pick what is probably a more unconvential choice just to illustrate the point: the original Wild Arms for the Ps1, one of the earliest RPGs for the system.

I don't think it can be denied that the opening video to Wild Arms as well as its accompanying music "Into the Wilderness" by Michiko Naruke are amongst the best video game FMVs and soundtrack cues in the history of video games. In watching the video, it is possible to see the genius of the opening video and its impact on your imagination.



The Wild Arms opening is very much in the veins of the classic FMVs of older games because it doesn't so much act as to show you the best parts of the game as it acts to open your mind to the possibilities of what you can imagine the game to be. This is the only time you see your characters in a realistic (well, as realistic as anime goes) manner and so the video, which simply introduces the three major characters of the game, along with rousing adventurous theme basically delivers the following message to its gamers: "When this video is over, the graphics are going to take a massive skydive and you are going to have to use your imagination to fill in the rest. Let this video and the awesome music give you a peek at what this game can be: use it as a starting point for your imagination."

To a large extent, I think it is possible to categorize the FMVs of previously mentioned games such as the Ys games and the Lunar games in this way. The FMV acts, not to say, this is what we the developers want you to see. Instead, the FMV acts to jump-start your imagination and send it in the right direction. We can even extend the argument beyond RPGs.



The above is the introduction video to "Sonic CD" for the Sega CD. In a similar fashion as the Wild Arms video, the video serves to stir the imagination as opposed to stifling it. In looking at this video now, I almost see it as Sega's way of challenging the player to make their Sonic CD experience as exciting as the video.

Again, this is in sheer contrast to the FMV cutscenes that populate more recent video games, especially RPGs like Final Fantasy X.



Here is the romantic underwater love scene from Final Fantasy X. It is one of the greatest video game FMVs of all time. Were this from a film, I would possibly hail this as one of the most romantic scenes of all time. However, as a player who is familiar with the older Final Fantasy games, I cannot help but feel that I am merely an observer, voyeuristically watching the Tidus-Yuna romance unfold whereas in Final Fantasy VI, I felt like I was literally connecting with Locke and Celes and bringing them together because a romantic scene and the hours of romantic development like that which exists in Final Fantasy X were not possible back then.

Be curious to what people might think of this theory. Feel free to offer any comments.
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About Tascarone of us since 9:27 PM on 03.03.2008

Once upon a time, back in the 8-bit and 16-bit era, I was a "hard-core" gamer. Since that time, a variety of factors ranging from money to college to real life significantly cut into my video game time. Nonetheless, I have always retained my love and interest in video games, although to a lesser extent.

At present, my video game time is generally monopolized by World of Warcraft. I play a troll mage named Moor (WoW Armory profile here) on the Nathrezim server where I am a happy member of the guild Sanity.

Current-generation consoles I own include an XBox 360, a Ps3, a Wii, a Nintendo DS, a PsP, and a PC.

I am a huge fan of video game music. In fact, I confess that many of the games I own, such as the Halo games and Rygar: The Legendary Adventure are in my collection solely because I love their incredible musical scores. I have only been able to attend one VGM event, Video Game Live's New York concert on April 26, 2008 which was an amazing experience.

During middle school and high school, I was inspired to attempt music composition after hearing the reprise of Shadow's theme that appears in the ending of Final Fantasy VI by Nobuo Uematsu and "Angel's Fear" from Secret of Mana by Hiroki Kikuta, an attempt that quickly ended due to my lack of talent with little more to show than a crappy five-song musical. The highlight of my musical career as well as my journey through video game geekdom came during an impromptu musician meet-up at the Otakon anime convention in 2003 in which I had the honor of performing the violin solo in Yasunori Mitsuda's incredible "Scars of Time" from Chrono Cross.

I have been a lurker on Destructoid for some time. I am an especially huge fan of Destructoid's three excellent podcasts, which are not only the best video game podcasts I have heard but amongst my favorite podcasts of all time. I give much credit to these podcasts for bringing about a resurgence in my interest in video games and inspiring me to think more about video games. I also give them special credit for entertaining me during a series of hospitalizations in which the only thing I had for entertainment were these podcasts saved on my Zune.

I was particularly inspired by Podtoid and randombullseye and ended up composing the music to randombullseye's game Bonerquest, my first and last foray into video game composing as I quickly came to realize, as I did back in high school, that I lacked the training and talent for the art. Nonetheless, I am grateful to randombullseye for the opportunity to have contributed to a part of an actual finished product as opposed to the unfinished sketches that populate my desk and computer hard drive.

I love writing and I often find myself discussing and writing about video games on a variety of subjects and contexts. As a high school student, I had great difficulty writing long papers or long articles and so I began to force myself to write as much as possible. By the time I was in college, writing huge amounts of text for both school and school-unrelated purposes became not only easy but rather relaxing and unenjoyable. I therefore apologize in advance because I know that a great deal of my writing will probably be far far longer than what is probably necessary or appropriate. In the past, my writings on video games found themselves in a variety of places ranging from the WoW forums, a text file on my desktop, to my friends' Xanga and MySpace pages and for some time, I have thought about consolidating my video game writing at one place, which is why I am happy that I discovered Destructoid. The Destructoid staff and community have greatly influenced my thoughts on video games and opened my eyes to things that I never saw. I hope that many writing can give a fraction of that inspiration (or at the very least some entertainment) back to the Destructoid community.
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