848987 is a quasi-random number.

CRPGs: Two Experiences in One (an Ode to FF6)

May 21, 2005 essay

I remember Final Fantasy VI fondly. FF6 is probably the one game I have the deepest nostalgic pining for. After that would, I guess, be A Link to the Past, but I’ve not given this much thought. Furthermore, I’m not saying that I feel FF6 is the best video game of all time. That is a very different discussion.

This discussion, however, is focused squarely on something that has generally been accepted by the role-playing audience: that CRPGs are really just stories with bits of a game between chapters. They are, almost fundamentally, two separate but intertwined experiences.

Ludologists and narrat..o..logists(?) have a field day here. The myth is that ludologists enjoy games for the way they’re played while narratologists prefer the enjoyment they get from the experiential story of a game. The latter case can mean either the writer-crafted story as one might find in a Final Fantasy game, or a more player-centric story as one may devise from Animal Crossing. This is sort of a false dichotomy, probably created just for the sake of making argument easier.

But FF6, like most (all?) CRPGs, has segments of story and segments of gameplay which alternate. It opens with a story segment: you are introduced to Terra and the mission which snowballs into the rest of the plot. Upon learning your mission, the next segment has you playing to achieve the goal. There is no “story” during this period, save for what might be called “filler” material — i.e. things that would be edited out of a movie. No one will care about your goofy encounters with the strange, malicious cave rats. But this is important to you, the player, as you are now within the second experience of the game: the experience of general survival and development. One you reach a predetermined location, the game returns to story mode.

FF6, I would argue, gained most of its strength through its story experience. Its experience as a pure game was enjoyable at best, tolerable on average, and frustrating at worst. To be fair, some players of the game really get into the combat. They may, perhaps, derive more pleasure from following and maximizing stats than from the actual plot. I am not that kind of player; I feel the stats detract from the story, and that as long as I can defeat a boss, my characters are Good Enough. This is not to the advantage of the game as a whole, of course.

Would FF6 have made a great movie? An enjoyable novel? That’s hard to tell, but my instinct is to say “not as-is”. There are nuances inherent in player agency that make the story of a game much more personal. Certain moments in the game — where the party is divided into multiple, smaller teams that must work together — gain strength from the player’s immediate control. The sense of working together is enhanced because now the player must, fundamentally, coordinate with him- or herself. The characters’ survival will depend on the player’s ability to puzzle solve and form well-balanced parties. Small touches like this are where the gameplay elements of FF6 shine. They serve to sharpen the experience that the story is relating to the player.

But ah! The story! FF6 becomes literally about an opera along the course of its plot, and I think this serves to emphasize a strong hypothesis I’ve had about games in general, and FF6 in particular: that they are our generation’s operas and plays. Their characters, their stories, their music. This obviously can’t and won’t apply to all games. And typically this applies only to CRPGs. But when all the right elements come together, they can have all the force of a Carmina Burana or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I think that after FF6, some of this magic was lost with the series. FF7 hit hard with its snazzy FMV but it simply doesn’t resonate with me. I remember little of it. The same with its sequels. I have barely made a dent in FFX, which I started and stopped many months ago. I can accept that this may be, partly, the work of nostalgia, but I think it goes deeper. The stories lost some thematic strength, perhaps. The marriage of its scripted elements to its gameplay elements weren’t as strong. It may be that iterate attempts to make the gameplay more immersive and enjoyable on its own began fracturing the two game experiences further apart. In other words, it was a victim of its own success.

This, I think, really is at the heart of my inability to get caught up into FFX. The experience has been so fractured that it is not very accessible to me in the short play-times I’m allotted. Each step of the story so far has only made it more complex and unintelligible. But the gameplay felt like a completely different experience. Something is broken between the two, but I’d have to play more and really think about it to decide what may be the culprit. What is different here than from earlier installations? I don’t think it’s simply the change that the battle interface underwent. Something else; something that reaches more deeply into the core of the two experiences.

I think the story experiences of FF6 are worthy of the same critical treatment as a Shakespearan play. It may be that the game will not withstand this level of study but I feel that there’s a lot to be taken from the story. Just its thematic treatment of family dynamics (maternal or paternal obligations; the relationship of siblings, etc.) is worthy of deeper consideration, and there’s probably plenty of flourishes, both broad and delicate, that I have forgotten.

CRPGs can offer two separate but intertwined experiences; how strong each is on its own is, I could argue, less important than how strongly they play upon (and against) one another. FF6 found a careful but not entirely perfect balance. That sensitivity may have been lost to more recent volumes of the series, but it need not be gone forever.

(I’d like to apologize for being so focused on Final Fantasy as opposed to other CRPGS. The reason — and it’s a good one — is simply that I’ve not played any other CRPGs. Not in the same scope, at least; I’ve played Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. But I’ve not had much experience with Lunar or Arc the Lad or Baldur’s Gate or whatnot. I’m not proud of this fact, per se. I’m just explaining what may be perceived as deliberate bias.)