Final Fantasy X – Seymour and Video Game Villainy

When it comes to video game villains, there’s a certain amount of puppy kicking that you have get past in order to figure out what’s going on with them. Nintendo villains tend to not kick a lot of puppies, especially compared to Final Fantasy villains, who routinely have puppies positioned directly in front of their waiting feet.

Seymour is especially bad in this regard. He doesn’t particularly come off as insane, but the game gives him so many puppies to kick that it’s hard to understand who he would be if he weren’t a video game villain. He behaves with utmost creepiness toward Yuna and then tries to kill her, he murders multiple highly ranked members of Yevon (including his father), he orchestrates the mass slaughter of Yevon radicals that is Operation Mi’ihen, and his ultimate goal is to become Sin himself so that he can end human suffering by destroying every person in Spira. I define all of this as “kicking puppies” because it’s over-the-top evil behavior that doesn’t really serve any narrative purpose aside from establishing the villain as the bad guy. Seymour is difficult to understand because, once you take away all this puppy kicking, there really isn’t that much there.

In the Japanese version of the game, a lot of the heavy lifting is done by Seymour’s voice actor, Jun’ichi Suwabe, who is quite prolific and especially known for playing characters who are brilliant but slightly unhinged (such as, most recently, Victor in Yuri!!! on Ice). Suwabe’s voice is smooth and lovely, which goes a long way toward establishing a seductive quality to Seymour’s character, thus offering a partial explanation as to why he would have risen so high in Yevon. In Japanese, there’s a strong social positivity attached to the sort of highly formal and “soft” speech that Seymour uses, which is supposed to give us an impression of him being cultured and intelligent and every bit the summoner and scholar everyone makes him out to be.

I think this is the key to understanding the real conflict that Seymour represents, which has more to do with the Yevon religion than it has to do with him. In Spira, Yevon controls everything. Although tradition and religious faith comfort the people, the institution of Yevon is thoroughly corrupt and does nothing to actually protect people from Sin. The high-ranking clergy know that Sin can never be defeated by summoners, but they still take advantage of the people’s faith for political and economic gain. Because Yevon’s power is so deeply entrenched in the culture and society of Spira, only an outsider would be able to resist it.

As a the child of an interracial couple who lived in exile for most of his life, Seymour had the potential to be that outsider, but he devoted all of his energy to becoming an insider. He rose high in Yevon, which is, after all, what his father and mother wanted him to do, both of them hoping that he could prove instrumental in easing the racial tensions that were exacerbated by Maester Mika’s integration policies. As one of the members of the esoteric inner circle of Yevon, and as someone who has witnessed the horror of what it means to be a Fayth, Seymour has access to information that most people in Spira do not, but he is not able to do anything productive with this knowledge and insight.

Seymour resists the myth that Spira can be saved from Sin, but he has also bought into it so deeply that he has begun to embrace the original purpose of Sin, which was to protect Spira from complete annihilation by blasting its level of technology back to a preindustrial level. Seymour could have become a radical, but he is way too invested in the system. Essentially, his “evil” is that he has assimilated.

Tidus is a true outsider, which is why he gets to be the hero of the game. Still, Seymour is correct in his understanding that everything in Spira is a “spiral” of death from which it is difficult to escape. If Sin is not defeated, people may suffer at some undetermined point in the future; but, if Sin is defeated, everything will change, and people will suffer right now. Change is hard, even if it’s beneficial in the long run. If the system changes, people will lose things that are important to them. Tidus is clueless about all of this, and so he questions and undermines the system without really thinking about the larger consequences.

In the end, however, neither Tidus the radical nor Seymour the reactionary is a sustainable position, and it’s actually Yuna, the compassionate young women who can understand both positions, who survives and addresses all of Spira after both Tidus and Seymour are gone.

I think Final Fantasy X is a very political game, and I get the sense that what is being critiqued by its story is Japan’s Imperial system. With strong references to Okinawa and hip hop fashion, Final Fantasy X draws on the culture of Japan’s “lost decade” of the 1990s, when people desperately wanted to see change in their society. Japan can’t escape the dark legacy of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War if it doesn’t change, but it can’t transform itself if it doesn’t let go of the Imperial system, which is difficult to reform or dispose of. The older Seymours are too invested in the system, while the radical inclinations of the younger Tiduses fade like a dream. Someone like Yuna, who is both an insider and outsider and possesses the empathy to see the problem from multiple viewpoints, needs to step forward and save Japan by uniting disparate groups of people with a message of hope and a vision of an alternate future.

There’s also a fair amount of nuclear imagery in the game, especially during the Operation Mi’ihen sequence, when human bodies are vaporized into particles within the blinding light of Sin’s attack. That being said, there are no easy parallels between nuclear energy and Sin, which takes the form of an enormous cetacean monster. As in any game in the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy X revolves around a conflict between technology and magic, with magic being associated with organic or genetically inherited human potential. While technology is artificial and often at odds with the environment, magic is natural and elemental. It is only when magic is misused, generally in tandem with technology, that it becomes a threat to humankind. Unlike a nuclear bomb, Sin is not so much a weapon as it is a symbol of the hatred and xenophobia that necessitates weapons – a monument capable of transferring the suffering of the past into the present.

It’s therefore interesting that Yuna does not, strictly speaking, “defeat” Sin, as such a thing cannot be defeated. Rather, she releases the victims of the conflict that Sin represents from their suffering. When Yu Yevon, the summoner who created Sin and the supposed deity unjustly worshipped by the Yevon religion, is struck down by Yuna, all of the Fayth who have been trapped in a living death are finally allowed to disappear, with the Aeons and Tidus’s Zanarkand disappearing along with them. When the ghosts of the past (including Tidus) are finally laid to rest as the ideology that sustained them is discredited, the spiral of destruction is finally broken, and Spira can finally move forward.

Within the value system of the game, Seymour existed as the purest expression of the ideology of warfare, whose compulsion was so powerful that not even an outsider could escape it – and this is why the story casts him as a villain.

( Header image by Magistera on Tumblr )

Video Games as Art

While doing the preliminary groundwork for my class on “Video Games and Japan,” I found a Wikipedia entry on video games as an art form. The major strain of criticism I’ve encountered (generally from inside the game dev community) that holds that games are not “art” tends toward the argument that the ontological category of “art” is transcended by the multimedia and nonlinear nature of games. The sense I get from the Wikipedia entry, however, is that there is still a debate focused on the participatory elements of the medium and the ostensible lack of creative direction of an auteur.

I’ve frequently run across references to Roget Ebert supposedly saying that video games are not art, a quote that I was finally able to track down

Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control. I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.

Five years later, in April 2010, Ebert posted an essay titled Video Games Can Never Be Art, which was written in response to a TED Talk in which Kellee Santiago quoted him being old and grumpy. Here he writes…

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film.

Elsewhere in the essay he references Werner Herzog, which is never a good indication of having an open mind about new technologies. In any case, the internet exploded in response, and two and a half months later Ebert made another post conceding that…

I thought about those works of Art that had moved me most deeply. I found most of them had one thing in common: Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding. […] I had to be prepared to agree that gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art.

He’s not happy about it, though, and mostly he justifies why he’s not interested in engaging with the argument, his reasoning basically boiling down to the fact that he’s not interested in playing video games. So that’s a dead end.

When “video games as art” are discussed in other contexts, it seems to be in terms of “game art,” which is when games are presented in the context of gallery spaces, as in the case of installations like Super Mario Clouds. Like the Ebert posts, those conversations feel dated (probably because they in fact occurred almost ten years ago), and I wonder if the sort of games profiled by 365 Tiny Games are what are now considered to be “art games.”

Meanwhile, in her new book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, Dr. Angela Nagle prefaces a brief discussion of Gamergate by writing…

First, let me be clear on my own position on gaming. If you’re an adult, I think you should probably be investing your emotional energies elsewhere. And that includes feminist gaming, which has always struck me as being about as appealing as feminist porn; in other words, not at all.

This statement is striking to me because it indicates that, even in 2017, a highly educated and internet-literate person can still get away with saying that video games are not a legitimate medium of artistic and social expression, even though she’s written an entire book about online cultures shaped by engagement with video games.

It’s odd to me that this “debate” over whether video games are art is anything more than an interesting footnote in the history of the medium, although I’d like to believe that the sort of conservative mindset expressed by Nagle is fading as games continue to eclipse cinema and television within the mediascapes of global popular cultures.

( Header image by SuperPhazed on DeviantArt )

Breath of the Wild – Questions and Concerns

I’ve been playing Breath of the Wild slowly, only about one or two hours a night, and I’ve been focusing on working my way through the shrines. There may still be parts of the story that I’m missing, but so far I’ve seen a number of things in the game that make me go “Hey, this is 2017, why are we still doing this?”

For one thing, there are multiple queer-coded characters whose gender presentation seems to function primarily as a target for humor. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t poke fun at the gender binary, and I’m certainly not saying that over-the-top gay camp silliness isn’t wonderful, but it would be nice if there were more normalized queerness to go along with the jokes.

It’s also really cool that people of all races and genders are in love with Link, and it’s cool that Link is totally okay with this, but the insistence of the game designers that he is male still rubs me the wrong way. For some reason it’s okay to queerbait a shark boyfriend (fish pun totally intended) with boy Link, but heaven forbid that Mipha or Princess Zelda becomes romantically attracted to girl Link. Ditto for Link dressing up as a Gerudo – couldn’t it have worked just as easily for female Link to have needed to wear special clothing?

I’m also fascinated by the gender politics of Gerudo society. If there are male Gerudo, why don’t we see more of them? It’s fun to joke about how a homosocial society finds heteronormativity strange, but I think that it would have been super interesting to see how that plays out for the male minority.

And speaking of the male minority, I definitely want to know what happened with Ganondorf. Was he the reason the Gerudo ditched the whole “the one male born in a hundred years becomes king” tradition? It’s kind of a bummer that, while the Hylians have a long history that affects their actions and worldview, the Gerudo seem ahistorical. If the Hylians have been able to transmit information about Ganon from generation to generation, why would the Gerudo have forgotten about Ganondorf? Since they have their own language, don’t they have their own books? Why is their history given less weight than the history of the Hylians?

Before the game came out, I was beyond excited that the Gerudo were making another appearance. After all, it’s 2017, and Nintendo has demonstrated greater sensitivity to global diversity (in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, and so on) for the past several years. The amount of time and care the Breath of the Wild development team was putting into the game made me optimistic that they were devoting significant attention to rectifying the boring and ugly tropes formerly allowed to pass because of technical limitations and the relative lack of conversation surrounding the Zelda series. The more I actually play the game, however, the more I’m becoming frustrated with various aspects of the worldbuilding and storytelling.

Specifically, Breath of the Wild could have been much more sensitive regarding its portrayal of transgender issues, and I don’t think it would have hurt the game if there had been some solid LGBT+ representation. Also, it’s more than a little disturbing that the theme of gendered otherness is conflated with racial otherness, and if I never have to see another Orientalist stereotype of a harem outfit presented unironically for the viewer/player’s pleasure then I can die happy.

It’s a bit weird to see “legitimate” and generally fairly progressive venues like The New Yorker hail Breath of the Wild as being “a perfect game.” I can’t help but wonder if perhaps it’s not being unduly rewarded for reflecting the interests of “serious” (typically white male) gamers while the vocal demands made by a number of groups overwhelmingly marginalized in mainstream gaming journalism were ignored, even when they were repeatedly made directly to the developers in interviews. Journalists have basically been like, “Breath of the Wild is everything that the sort of people who read and write for ‘serious’ gaming publications like Edge magazine think a good game should be,” all the while amplifying the voices of a small and very specific group of gamers. Meanwhile, it’s apparently not worth discussing that the story and visual imagery of Breath of the Wild actively reinforce stereotypes that harm real people.

I am head over heels in love with Breath of the Wild, and I really appreciate how the game gives the player a sense of moving through a huge open world. I just really wish the story elements were as expansive and as carefully considered as the gameplay.

( Header image by Nicole Busse on Tumblr )

Breath of the Wild – Initial Impressions

I’ve really been enjoying Breath of the Wild.

To be honest, I wasn’t crazy about the game when I first started playing, as the “go anywhere and do anything” mode of gameplay can be a bit overwhelming at the beginning. Now that I’ve put a solid two months of my life into this game, however, I can say that I’m having a crazy amount of fun with Breath of the Wild. It’s everything that I’ve ever enjoyed about the Zelda series in terms of adventure and exploration and the thrill of discovery. The player is free to go off on her own in any direction, but there’s just enough guidance to ensure that you’re never going to be completely lost or unsure of what to do next. In other words, I think the game developers were able to create a perfect balance between creative direction and player agency.

Breath of the Wild is deep and rich and full of cool things to interact with, and it’s saturated with color and charm and humor that ranges from stupid dad puns to surprisingly clever sex jokes. It’s also been breaking my heart with its sheer beauty, with the music and lighting effects being especially phenomenal.

My favorite thing about the game is that it’s filled with plants and animals in a vibrant and interconnected set of ecosystems. Link can ride around on a horse all day hunting and fishing and collecting mushrooms and herbs, and it never gets boring. Whatever you chose to do (or not do), the game will reward you by being an absolute joy to play.

Because Breath of the Wild is so rewarding, I think I’ve become more disciplined about playing it than I’ve ever been about anything in my life.

Don’t get me wrong – the game doesn’t feel like work, but it does require mental energy. It’s not difficult, exactly, but it requires that you be fully engaged with the diegetic environment. Sometimes when I get home in the evening I just want to take a bath and read for a bit and go to sleep, but I’ve been forcing myself to sit down on the couch and turn on the Wii U so that I can get just a little farther in Breath of the Wild.

Every night I try to play through at least one shrine. Shrines are puzzle-based mini-dungeons, and since they’re hidden all over the world (often in dangerous areas) locating and then being able to access a shrine is often a major task. There are 120 shrines in the game, and some of them are significantly more difficult than others.

If I can, I’ve also been trying to complete or at least trigger one sidequest a day. Some of these are basic fetch quests, while others encourage the player to venture out into the world and investigate strange phenomena far off the beaten path. I have seen some extremely strange and interesting things in this game, and I don’t think I’ve covered even half of the map yet.

Meanwhile, I haven’t gotten very far in the main quest at all. The overarching story (such as it is) is told through a series of flashback sequences, and I watched them all on Youtube a day or two after the game came out. I mean, this game really isn’t about story. There’s a princess who wants to be a hero, but because she’s a girl and doesn’t have The Phallus Of Destiny her job is to sit in the castle and wait for the hero to save her. Some story, right? Aside from some of the randomly dropped weapons becoming incrementally more powerful, nothing in the game really changes if the player completes one of the dungeons, so I’m saving them for when I get around to it.

For the time being, my goals in the game are to make Link (1) rich, (2) swol, (3) fashionably dressed, and (4) a certified master chef, and I am making good progress. When I walk in on Ganon in Hyrule Castle, I want him to be impressed.

Even though I must have put well over sixty hours into Breath of the Wild, the game still feels infinite. Its plot and background information is offered to the player in such small fragments that people will probably still be trying to put everything together years from now. I have some major concerns about the story, but it’s easy to put them aside and just have fun in the wide open world.

( Header image from Daniel Shaffer on Tumblr )

Teaching Final Fantasy X, Part Three

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The Spring 2017 semester is already a quarter over, and my class and I have just crossed the Moonflow! I thought it might be fun to share our first three weekly quizzes with anyone who might be interested in the progress of our journey.

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Quiz One (until you board the S.S. Liki)

(1) What sport does Tidus play?

(2) Who are the first people Tidus encounters after he leaves Zanarkand?

(3) What is the name of the island where Tidus eventually washes up?

(4) What does Yuna become after she completes her trial in the island temple?

(5) What do you think is the main visual motif of Final Fantasy X?

(6) How would you describe Tidus’s attitude regarding his father?

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Quiz Two (until you set out on the Mi’ihen Highroad)

(1) What video game company gave Sony investment money to develop the PlayStation?

(2) What happens to the village of Kilika immediately before Yuna and company arrive there?

(3) Who is Seymour Guado (the man with the impossibly styled blue hair)?

(4) According to Auron, what is Sin?

(5) What type of black magic is strong against Yellow (lightning) Elementals?

(6) How would you describe the relationship between Tidus and Yuna?

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Quiz Three (until the morning after the Djose Temple)

(1) Why were the Nintendo DS and Wii consoles so successful?

(2) What happens when a summoner defeats Sin?

(3) Why do some people in Spira (including Wakka) dislike and distrust the Al Bhed?

(4) How successful is Operation Mi’ihen (the battle against Sin on the beach)?

(5) What type of enemies are Wakka’s standard attacks effective against?

(6) How would you describe Seymour’s behavior and attitude regarding Yuna?

*

So, how did you do? Any questions?

( Header image from SpookiePie on Tumblr – please check out the full comic! )

Teaching Final Fantasy X, Part Two

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I’ve finally finished the syllabus for my “Video Games and Japan” class, and you can download a copy from my webpage: (link)

My first day of class is tomorrow, January 24. I’m very excited! The course has a full enrollment of 25 students, and I intend to overload anyone who shows up and asks to be added. The more the merrier, right? For what it’s worth, roughly half of the students are female.

The class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’ve structured it so that we will talk about industry history, Japanese culture, and game design theory on Tuesdays, and on Thursdays we will apply this information to Final Fantasy X. In terms of assignments, this means that students will be asked to read academic articles and book chapters for Tuesday classes, and they will need to have played FFX up to a designated point by the beginning of class on Thursday.

FFX is extremely well written and has excellent pacing, and it lends itself to division into “chapters” of relatively even length. It actually wasn’t that difficult to figure out that students should play “until the morning after the Djose Temple” and “until you wake up in the Sanubia Desert” and so on. The kids should be in the Calm Lands by spring break, and they will have beaten the game at the end of the first week of April.

Something that is true of all undergraduate students everywhere in the world is that there are a lot of demands on their time, and they often have to make difficult decisions regarding what assignments they are and are not able to complete. I understand that playing a video game can feel as if it’s not work, which means that many students may procrastinate if they’re not given an incentive to treat these “reading” assignments as serious coursework. I’m therefore planning on giving written quizzes on FFX at the beginning of class every Thursday, which should be fun.

A friend of mine who teaches at a university in Australia has been thinking of developing a course like this, and he asked me a good question regarding a practical concern, namely, what happens if students get stuck? At the boss fight with Seymour on Mount Gagazet, for example?

In my own experience, dealing with the difficulty curve in FFX is mostly a matter of level grinding. One of the reasons I chose this game is because it’s fairly easy – and because it has a minimum of grinding. I took the major hikes in difficulty into account in the syllabus, and I’m going to do my best to alert the students to potential problem areas in advance. I also put PDF copies of two strategy guides up on the course website on Blackboard, and I’m planning on including links to a number of fan-written online guides as well.

From what I understand, the way that other instructors teaching games have handled the issue of difficulty is to pair students up or put them into groups of mixed skill levels so that they can help each other out. When I was an undergraduate, however, I worked well over 40 hours a week at multiple jobs, and I think there is a special place in hell for college professors who assign mandatory recurring group work. The university where I’m teaching this class has a fairly high number of nontraditional students, so I don’t think something like that would work there anyway.

If I had better library or media lab support, I would consider scheduling something like a “lab” for class, meaning that I would book a room for a certain number of hours a week where my students could play the assigned texts together. If I were assigning multiple games instead of just one, I think this would be an ideal scenario, and it’s something I might consider if I have an opportunity to teach a class like this again.

The one thing I’m somewhat worried about is that I will have one or more Final Fantasy Experts™ in the class, by which I mean people who are obsessed with game trivia. I’ve played FFX five times, and I will play it again along with the students, but I don’t remember all the tiny details of the game perfectly, and there are other Final Fantasy games I’ve only played once or twice. I don’t want to try to pass myself off as some sort of authority on the series, but I do need to act as a moderator and as an administrator, and I hope I will be able to maintain a friendly atmosphere while still commanding at least a small degree of respect. Please wish me luck!

( Header image by Chereshi on Tumblr )

The Last Guardian

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The premise of The Last Guardian is that you are a boy who has mysteriously woken up in a hole in the ground next to a chained creature that looks like a giant Chihuahua with feathers. Either the species of animal is called Trico or the boy decides to call this particular puppy-bird Trico, but Trico is not doing okay. After the boy and Trico work together to escape the underground area where they’ve been imprisoned (or discarded?), they emerge onto a cliff overlooking a giant castle, which turns out to be totally empty. Since Trico really wants to go inside, and since the boy has nothing better to do, into the castle they go.

The Last Guardian is very pretty, but it suffers from terrible controls, a terrible camera, Trico’s terrible AI, and several terrible glitches.

These are the first three times I rage-quit the game:

(1) During the opening sequence, the boy needs to feed Trico three barrels of food. When I started the game, one of the barrels was not there. Even though the initial area isn’t that large, I spent twenty minutes looking for the last barrel until finally going to the internet for answers. Apparently it’s a glitch that one of the barrels will randomly not generate.

(2) A bit later on in the game, when the boy first enters the castle, Trico is too large to fit through the doorway. The boy is supposed to run through an upper hallway and emerge back outside at the front of the building, where he is supposed to call for Trico. Trico will eventually make his way outside; and, if the boy stands for long enough on a high balcony, Trico will hop on up and follow him back inside. Although this sounds simple, my description doesn’t convey the sheer gigantic scale of the architecture. There is absolutely nothing to indicate to the player that Trico can “hop on up” to a ledge easily as tall as the Washington Monument, or that it can hear the boy calling from several football fields away and through multiple stone walls when its attention is focused elsewhere. It was infuriating that the poor design forced me to get up from my couch, turn on my laptop, and use a walkthrough so early in the game.

(3) You know what? It would be tedious to explain what happened, so I won’t.

To make matters worse, The Last Guardian is hard in the way that NES games were hard. It teaches the player a set of rules and then refuses to play by them. Basically, the controls don’t work properly.

To give an example of what I mean, there is a point in the game during which the following sequence must be undertaken:

(1) The boy climbs onto a pile of rubble.
(2) The boy jumps from the rubble to a free-standing bell tower.
(3) Trico will jump on top of the tower’s cupola.
(4) The boy jumps and grabs Trico’s hanging tail.
(5) The boy climbs up Trico’s tail onto the creature’s head.
(6) Trico will look toward a ledge.
(7) The boy jumps from Trico’s head onto the ledge.
(8) The boy runs along the ledge to a broken bridge over a pit.
(9) The player jumps over the small gap in the bridge to the other side.

This seems like fairly run-of-the mill video game spatial navigation, except for two things.

First, Trico does what it wants. There are no special trigger points on the map or actions that the boy can take that will ensure that Trico positions itself appropriately, so the player frequently has to wait. If Trico doesn’t jump onto the bell tower when the boy calls to it, the player has no way of knowing that the game expects the boy to use Trico to get to a higher vantage point. Once the boy is on top of Trico’s head, there’s no way of knowing that the boy can jump to one specific ledge while Trico is looking in that specific direction. I suppose some gamers are born with an instinct for these things, but I have to rely heavily on a walkthrough.

Second, even if the player knows exactly what the game requires (may the angels bless the Polygon walkthrough), the boy can’t run or jump with any degree of accuracy. The joystick will move the boy, but the shifting camera and its uncomfortable angles mean that it’s difficult to translate the directional commands of the joystick into the desired direction of movement onscreen. Moreover, the boy runs when he wants and walks when he wants, and the player can’t control his speed. The triangle button will make the boy jump; but, because the player can’t control his direction or momentum, there’s a lot of trial and error involved – every leap is a leap of faith. This renders the game’s platforming maneuvers extremely difficult to pull off. Even something as seemingly simple as hopping over a small gap in a straight bridge will frequently result in multiple time-consuming failures.

I think my problem may simply be that I’m so used to playing Zelda games, which stand at the absolute pinnacle of 3D adventure exploration. I’m not accustomed to having the mechanics of a game actively work against me, and there’s not really a learning curve for mastering controls that aren’t consistent.

In any case, the homework that I’ve assigned for myself is to play The Last Guardian for half an hour every evening, which is about as much of it as I can take in one sitting. I’ll just keep telling myself that it’s supposed to be good, and maybe my patience will pay off.

( Header image by Cerulikat on Tumblr )

Teaching Final Fantasy X, Part One

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Starting in two weeks, I will be teaching a class about Final Fantasy X at George Mason University. When I decided to put together a course on video games in a Japanese context, I saw two options for how to structure the class. The first was that I would assign a number of games to emphasize breadth, and the second was that I would assign one game to emphasize depth.

My main concern is accessibility. A lot of people who love (and develop) games genuinely suck at playing them, and I didn’t want to assign any texts that my students can’t “read.” I also don’t want to try to force my students into a major commitment of time or money, which will only result in them not doing the assignments. For practical reasons, it made much more sense for me to only assign one game.

I decided that the game would be Final Fantasy X because of its accessibility. It’s not a difficult game, it doesn’t require a great deal of grinding, and it can be played from start to finish in about forty to sixty hours. There are two official English-language strategy guides floating around in PDF form, and there are numerous fan-written walkthroughs as well. Even if I somehow get a student who has never played a video game before, I’m pretty sure they can handle Final Fantasy X.

The game also exists in multiple versions, which include the original PS2 game, the PS3 HD release as a disc and as a digital download, a digital version augmented for the PS4, a Steam version of the PS3 HD remaster, and a quality ROM for the PCSX2 emulator. What this means is that I won’t have to try to swim upstream to get the university library to make a copy of the game available for students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it, which poses numerous logistical problems.

What I also appreciate about Final Fantasy X is that it’s a good game. It’s not my favorite Final Fantasy, and I haven’t adopted any of its characters as my children, but there’s certainly a semester’s worth of material to explore.

I’ll write more on the course structure later as I continue to iron out the awkward folds in the syllabus.

( Header image from the Final Fantasy Wiki )

Final Fantasy XV Kingsglaive

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Kingsglaive begins with an extended exposition dump, which is how you know it’s Final Fantasy.

As far as I can tell, the gist of the story is that there’s an empire engaging in imperialist expansion. The empire uses mechanical soldiers, wild monsters, and terrifying summon beasts called “daemons” to attack the smaller kingdoms it wants to colonize. In order to prevent the city-state of Insomnia from being destroyed by the empire, its king erects a magical barrier around the city walls. Although the king manages to save everyone inside the city, all of the outlying territories are blasted to scorched earth. Insomnia is not completely closed, however, and it has taken in a number of refugees, some of whom have enlisted in the military. An elite task force of immigrant soldiers has been granted a share of the king’s magic, becoming collectively known as the “Kingsglaive.”

More than a decade later, the unending war and concomitant maintenance of the magical barrier have taken their toll on the king, so he enters into negotiations with the empire. According to the provisions of the treaty he and the emperor will sign, the empire will stop attacking Insomnia if its crown prince, Noctis, will marry the former princess of an imperial holding, Lunafreya. The emperor is already quite old, however, and what he really wants is not the gradual takeover this marriage would ensure, but rather immediate access to the magical crystal that powers the city and serves as the source of the king’s magic. About halfway through the movie, the emperor betrays the king, and Insomnia falls.

This is point at which Final Fantasy XV is supposed to begin, I think – Lunafreya is on the run, and Noctis is trying to catch up with her. It’s important that they find each other because, unbeknownst to the empire, Lunafreya has escaped Insomnia with the king’s magical ring, which allows its bearer to access the power of the crystal and communicate with Insomnia’s guardian spirits.

As for the actual members of the Kingsglaive who help Lunafreya escape, it’s not a spoiler to say that, as with any franchise spin-off, they’re not going to appear in the main story, so they need to be “dealt with” in some way. It’s also not a spoiler to say that Sean Bean is the English-language voice actor for the king, and we all know what that means. Thankfully, everyone still manages to get in some good moments…

…except for the one female member of the Kingsglaive, who is “dealt with” in the first third of the movie. This character is a combination of Rosa from Final Fantasy IV and Lulu from Final Fantasy X, and she’s awesome, and I love her, and she deserves much better. One might argue that the female soldier needs to be taken offstage in order to make room for Lunafreya, but I call bullshit. I mean, heaven forbid there are two female characters onscreen at the same time, right?

If nothing else, Kingsglaive is gorgeous. I watched the Blu-ray via my PS4 on the huge HD television I bought specifically to showcase PS4 graphics, and it was like looking into a window of someone’s house, if their house was a magnificent city filled with attractive people.

Unfortunately, because the named characters are so meticulously detailed and so beautifully animated, the off-model characters really stand out. The cast of the film isn’t that large, so this means that a handful of characters who look and move like human beings are walking around in a sea of digital constructs that radiate circa-2005 Resident Evil 4 uncanniness.

I actually (really) enjoyed Square Enix’s 2001 movie The Spirits Within, where everything was on the same narrow rocky ledge in the uncanny valley. I also enjoyed the visuals of Advent Children, in which the character animations were uniformly unnatural and conscientiously gamelike. In Kingsglaive, however, the disconnect between “strikingly lifelike” and “totally an in-game render” continuously caught my attention, especially when it came to Lunafreya. You can tell that budgets were cut in several of her action scenes, and it’s also weird that her face is perfectly flawless when you can see every pore and blackhead and bead of sweat and ingrown hair on every one of the main male characters.

I watched the movie with the English-language track, and Lena Headey’s performance of Lunafreya is outstanding. Headey’s acting is sensitive and emotionally resonant, which is uncanny, because the animated character has very little affect. I think this is supposed to have something to do with the fact that she’s been a prisoner for all of her adult life, but Lunafreya’s lack of facial expressiveness is taken to a ridiculous extreme. To give an example, she is a passenger during two dangerous car chases, and throughout both she literally never breaks a sweat or gets a hair out of place. In one scene the car she’s riding in has flipped and is skidding precariously along the roof of a building as it bursts into flames, but her face is completely blank and peaceful, like she’s drinking tea and watching the sun rise. I’m no expert on human psychology, but I think even the most perfect of princesses would express anxiety in this situation – or pain, given the crazy angle her neck bends when her head hits the roof of the car.

Essentially I’m upset that the female lead is sidelined when she should be the main character.

I think my problem with Lunafreya is that I watched her way more closely than I was supposed to. I wanted the story to be about her, but Kingsglaive wanted me to pay attention to the male characters instead. My own tendency to identify with female characters aside, Headey’s performance really is excellent, and she stole every scene she was in. When Lunafreya was onscreen, I would settle down into a mindset of “maybe the story is finally going to become as interesting as the graphics,” but then the focus would jerk back to the dudes and their explosions.

I’m so used to seeing CG explosions that I wasn’t too terribly impressed by the choreography of the action sequences. I’m given to understand that Kinsglaive has been in production since 2013, yet the recent conversations we’ve been having in the United States about depictions of destruction in superhero movies seem to have gone over the producers’ heads.

After the credits roll, there is a short scene in which Noctis and his three bodyguards drive around in a fancy car while joking around with each other, which felt incredibly weird to me. I just witnessed the destruction of an entire city and watched a bunch of people suffer and die, and now I’m supposed to be happy? If I’m being honest, this severe shift in tone doesn’t make me feel kindly disposed toward Noctis. Thankfully, the short animated series Brotherhood Final Fantasy XV provides a much more sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of Noctis and his companions.

Despite my frustrations with Kingsglaive, I enjoyed the experience of watching the movie, and I’m looking forward to playing Final Fantasy XV when it finally! comes out!! in two days!!!

( Header image from DualShockers )

Oxenfree

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Oxenfree is a teenage conversation simulator set on a haunted island.

The protagonist of Oxenfree is a teenage girl named Alex, who takes the last ferry out to Edwards Island with her pothead friend Ren and her edgy stepbrother Jonas with the intention of spending all night on the beach, where two girls named Clarissa and Nona are waiting for them with a cooler of beer. Alex has brought an old-fashioned transistor radio with her; and, after hanging out around a bonfire for a while, Ren suggests that Alex go with him to show Jonas a cave where her radio can pick up strange distortions. This ends up opening a portal to another dimension… sort of.

I enjoyed Oxenfree. The graphic design is gorgeous, the OST is ambient and chill, and the horror elements build on each other and are genuinely creepy.

The actual conversation feels a bit off to me, though. I can’t put my finger on why, but I suspect that my discomfort stems from the male writer/director’s misunderstanding of how young American women tend to communicate.

Alex spends the beginning of the game walking around with Jonas and Ren, and these two young men don’t respond well if the player chooses the conversation options that don’t read as “masculine.”

To give a generalized example, let’s say that, after something terrible happens, Jonas says to Alex, “I’m scared.” If she demonstrates sympathy or empathy, responding with something like “Are you okay?” or “I’m scared too,” Jonas will become annoyed or openly hostile. Meanwhile, a stiff upper lip response such as “Let’s keep going” is usually configured as “correct” and doesn’t result in passive-aggressive snark being directed at Alex. Each conversation branch generally has three option, but there’s always an additional option of not saying anything, and as I played I found myself “choosing” it more frequently.

Regardless, the story of Oxenfree is fascinating, and moving through this story is a unique and interesting experience. Still, as a game, it suffers from two major problems and two minor problems.

The first major problem is that Alex tends to walk slowly. On one hand, this encourages the player to enjoy the scenery and the ambiance. On the other hand, backtracking is a slog.

The second major problem is that the loading times between areas are obscene, usually exceeding ninety seconds. Because these loading times are so punishing, I felt strongly discouraged against unguided exploration.

The first minor problem is that, in order for Alex to uncover the full story of what’s happening on Edwards Island, she needs to go on a scavenger hunt to collect a dozen letters scattered across the various areas of the game. Because of the slow character movement and unbearable loading times, I couldn’t be bothered. As far as I can tell, a Cold War era submarine somehow managed to get itself caught in a time loop just offshore, and the “ghosts” are the sailors trying to free themselves. It’s strongly implied that the protagonist has gotten herself caught in a time loop as well. The main story is about the interpersonal relationships between the characters, however, and I don’t care enough about the deeper story to undertake this optional sidequest.

The second minor problem is what I’m going to go out on a limb and label as misogyny. Oxenfree really wants Alex to spend the majority of its playtime with Jonas and Ren. As someone who has actually been a teenage girl, I tend to find that interaction with teenage boys is best in moderation, and neither of the teenage boys in this game does anything to make me feel more sympathetic towards them.

I therefore wanted Alex to spend time with the two other teenage girls on the island, but the game was not having it. One of the girls, Nona, is set up as Ren’s love interest, while Oxenfree goes way out of its way to make the player dislike the other girl, Clarissa. I like both Nona and Clarissa a lot, and I found them to be extremely compelling characters. I wanted to know more about them and their lives, but the game doesn’t give Alex many dialog options to interact with them that aren’t disdainful or downright mean.

There are several different variations on Alex’s personality that the player can choose to express at any given conversation branch, but I’m not interested in any variations in which she’s mean to Clarissa and Nona. Unfortunately, her options for being kind to them are extremely limited – in fact, I’m pretty sure that I was able to choose them all in one playthrough.

I just saw a post on Tumblr about a similar narrative tendency regarding female characters in stories created by men, “when we’re supposed to dislike a female character but she’s obviously a straw-woman the writer’s using to work out some unresolved issues he has with an ex or his mom or an unrequited crush so you actually kind of like her out of spite.”

Despite the lags in gameplay, Oxenfree only occupies about three to four hours of playtime. My concerns aside, they’re three to four hours well spent, and I’ll more than likely return to Oxenfree at some point in the near future. When I do, though, I intend to be just as bitchy to the boys as the game seems to want me to be to the girls.

( Header image from Kotaku )