Teaching Final Fantasy X, Part Three

tidus-and-yuna-by-spookiepie

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?

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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

the-summoner-by-chereshi

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 )

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 )

Final Fantasy X – On Tidus as a Viewpoint Character

Tidus the Fashion Disaster by Nick Wanserski

A friend of mine is playing FFX for the first time, and he wrote to me to say that he doesn’t understand all the Tidus hate he’s encountered. These are his exact words:

The reason Tidus acts the weird, silly, monkey-like happy-go-lucky way he does is because the alternative – the realistic option – is someone curled into a fetal position and staying that way for the whole game.

I think the main reason people get annoyed with Tidus is because he’s childish and passive. Instead of taking control of his situation, he waits for someone else to save him. Aside from being a doofus and completely shutting down, he’s actually got a third realistic option, which would be for him to pull himself together and stand on his own two feet.

Sure, he’s seventeen, but so was Ashe (from Final Fantasy XII) when she had to pretend to commit suicide in order to become the head of an underground political resistance movement. Garnet (from Final Fantasy IX) was sixteen when she orchestrated her own kidnapping in order to find a means of overthrowing her corrupt mother. Celes (from Final Fantasy VI) was eighteen when she betrayed the Empire. And Yuna? She’s seventeen, and she’s already made the decision to sacrifice her life for the possibility of a peace that she knows won’t last.

On a more personal level, I was seventeen in the winter when FFX was released in the US, and I was going through an extremely tough period. Sure, there wasn’t a giant magic whale destroying my city and sending me a thousand years into the future, but my world had been painfully shattered, and I was more or less on my own. Instead of waiting for someone to come in and fix my life, I got my shit together and did what needed to be done.

The point is not that I’m a special snowflake (although I am a very special snowflake), but rather that I know from personal experience that it’s entirely possible for teenagers to deal with all sorts of terrible circumstances with dignity. Anger and poor decisions are to be expected, but the level of petulance that Tidus demonstrates is unnecessary.

The exact moment at which it became painful to watch him was Yuna’s sending after Sin destroys the village on Kilika Island. Many people lost their lives, and everyone else lost their homes and livelihood. And yet everyone else stood back up and brushed themselves off. Yuna continued on to the temple, and the blitzball team still intended to play in the tournament. Meanwhile, Tidus postures and pouts. Even if the tragedy didn’t strike some sense into Tidus’s head, being surrounded by models of appropriate behavior should have.

I think it hurts the game for the point-of-view character to be so self-centered. There’s a lot of interesting geopolitical stuff going on in the background that eventually gets shifted into the immediate foreground, and the suspense and buildup would be much more effective if Tidus weren’t so focused on himself.

I also think a more comprehensive perspective on the broader picture wouldn’t have detracted from the teenage love story but rather would have served to make it more poignant, as it would have encouraged the player to be more aware of just how brightly the bond between Yuna and Tidus shines against a backdrop of chaotic darkness.

Sin is scary, but other human beings are much, much scarier, which is one of the major themes of this game and its sequel. The best moments in the game are when Tidus removes his head from his ass and pays attention to what’s going on around him, and I wish there had been more of those moments, preferably in the interest of developing the game’s amazing cast of supporting characters.

( Header image by Nick Wanserski’s illustrated essay on the A.V. Club )