Final Fantasy is a bit like life. That is to say, frustrating, full of seemingly pointless events, requiring much effort for the few scant rewards, and hard. For all that, playing Final Fantasy is to me, what poor policy decisions are to the federal Labor Party, that is to say, compulsory. What is it that makes Final Fantasy so compelling? Is it the opportunity for escapism which these alternative worlds cater for abundantly, or the excitement to transform the powers of darkness into vistas of light? Or is it the characters and the brilliant narratives with their cheesy dialogue, which are evocative of the best fantasy literature?
As I reflect on something that has absorbed my attention so insatiably since the purchase of my iPhone, it becomes clear that there are aspects of the Final Fantasy series that appeal to my deepest emotions and aspirations.
The company Squaresoft (now Square Enix), faced with the prospect of bankruptcy, wanted to produce one last role-playing game before the impending demise of their company. They had created some moderately successful Role Playing Games (RPGs), but as the demise of the company was imminent, they decided to create their last game as a type of sentimental farewell. So they invented a game which they appropriately called Final Fantasy in 1990, expecting it would be their last ever game. Instead what happened was that the game became incredibly popular, not only securing the future of Squaresoft, but creating an enduring legacy, a series of role-playing games, renowned for their moving storylines, a bevy of intriguing characters, and some insanely monotonous elements which drive most players spare.
The game launched one of the most enduring and popular gaming franchises as the company produced multiple sequels to the game, all of which ironically included the words ‘Final Fantasy’ in the title, which became an in joke at the game’s origins.
I was introduced to the game much later–in fact it wasn’t until my mayoral year in 2002 that I even had an idea of what it was. I was introduced to the eighth title in the series named (you guessed it) Final Fantasy VIII. And I must say, from the moment the game loaded, I was completely captivated.
From the opening scene up until the amazing first battles it was something I had never seen the like of before. (By the way, before I wrote this piece I had to wrestle with my author’s conscience about whether or not it was a worthy topic to be treated in a literary manner. I suppose it was the fact that it so completely won me over that I decided to do so.)
When playing any of the Final Fantasy variants one must be prepared to lose many hours of one’s life in this fantasy world created by the game designers. I can’t exactly say the hours were spent productively but I played Final Fantasy VIII for probably over 90 hours (maybe triple that time!) –and I didn’t even get to the end of the game. I think part of the allure of Final Fantasy is apparent in the name itself. It brings to mind a book I read once which dealt with the link between reading and Christianity. The author suggested that the reading of fictional stories was not anathema to the life of a Christian as, he claimed, we need to occasionally indulge in fantasy, so as to escape a reality that is often unrelenting and bleak. He also further posited that Christians must see beyond the supposed reality of the world; that we Christians should sharpen our perception of alternative realities through the use of our imaginations, which we unleash when engrossing ourselves in the reading of narratives. I don’t know that I fully subscribe to this theory but what is so compelling about game playing, specifically Final Fantasy, is the opportunity to leave our lives behind and vicariously enter a realm where we are transported beyond ourselves. The narratives in the Final Fantasy games are just so engrossing; they lure you in and make you want to continue playing so that you can further the narrative. What is also appealing (and which gives video game playing an advantage over reading) is that the player’s actions are part of the developing storyline.
Playing Final Fantasy VIII caused me to realise how many hours could be chewed up in a video game, so after that first experience with Final Fantasy, I put gaming aside for many years. I felt I had more productive things to do and I’m sure I’m right in that. But I played games from time to time and I even bought a Nintendo Wii console. But at the back of my mind I always dreamed of coming back to Final Fantasy. Then I bought my iPhone and one of the first things I discovered was that an application (strange title for a time wasting game) named Final Fantasy had been created.
Now where was I? Yes Final Fantasy. It is an amazing game. I know I sound like I am trying to justify myself but don’t we all do that when it comes to our pleasures and our passions? Otherwise we might see them for what they are: time wasting, destructive, and meaningless. Instead we give them plausible sounding justifications, such as when the confederate states condoned slavery and continued to attend church, seeing no contradiction with their faith and the enslavement and oppression of other races. But I digress. As a Christian I like to tell myself that I am in no way sinning by playing video games and that in fact the themes of the game are reflective of my faith; one of the key aspects to Final Fantasy, or any other video game, is the battle between good and evil. Sometimes I almost convince myself that I have found a valid excuse for this guilty habit.
When Final Fantasy came out on the iPhone I bought it straight away, even though at $13 it was absurdly priced, compared to most applications, which cost less than five dollars. The graphics on the first one where obviously crude by contemporary standards but I guess the remake brought the game to life and the gameplay, storyline, characters and the events made it riveting enough, despite the lack of obvious visual appeal. From that point on, I immersed myself in the travails of the warriors of light. I played Final Fantasy on my iPhone on weekends, during church sermons to keep myself awake, during gym workouts on the exercise bikes – you can actually get fit playing Final Fantasy. Keep fit playing by playing Final Fantasy – there’s a book title in that for sure.
Final Fantasy has its strengths as a gaming (and life) experience but it sure has its weaknesses. The strengths made me fall in love with the game from the outset – intriguing narratives and fascinating characters, battles with monsters and the desire for the warriors of light to emerge victorious. However, one soon discovers some insanely annoying aspects to all of the Final Fantasy games, which begin right with the first one and continue through all of the Final Fantasy games I have played. After playing a few of the different variants though, one accepts these annoying repetitive aspects as part of life, like one of the many day to day things that irritate us about life in general, like buses running late, or receiving poor service at Hungry Jacks.
Firstly, there is the battle system. It didn’t take me long to realise that most of my time playing was going to be spent fighting battles. That would be fine if there were sufficient variety in the battles and in the enemies you fight. Quite often winning the battles doesn’t take much skill and you feel they are not only repetitive but pointlessly easy. What makes these battles essential is they are the only way to increase the skill, strength and magic ability of your characters. Without the battles you will not be able to get through the latter stages of the game, which require extraordinarily high character levels, sophisticated magic deployment and advanced weaponry. So the battles improve your ability to fight as well as bring you items that will assist you such as the various potions and the money which you can use to purchase superior weaponry and armour. The sting in the tail is that these battles become mind-numbingly monotonous. They occur randomly throughout the game, and particularly at annoying times when, as a player, you are more interested in discovering what happens next in the storyline.
What’s worse though is that your characters must be insanely talented to get through the end stages and in particular to defeat the enemy in the game’s final battle. So unless you have read the ‘cheats’ or ‘walkthroughs’ (I know, I hate that term too), which give you specific ways to ‘level up’, you find yourself fighting hours of random battles to bring your characters to more respectable levels at the most painstaking pace. Once you have played more than one game in the series, this practice becomes somewhat less trying, but it is still tiresome at the best of times, particularly as the random battles are essentially all alike, with little variation between the various foes you fight. Though there are different monsters, or soldiers or spirits to battle – each with their own skills and talents – the grinding process of slow graduation is so painfully slow that it causes one to lose patience with the game. Still, isn’t that like life in that we can take ages to get anywhere and we learn little important skills by slow meticulous efforts?