Experimental Fantasy

I did finish Final Fantasy X last week and the game did prove to be quite the trip. It ended well, really well, even if the ending felt like it belonged to a slightly different game than the one I played. 

The game was a bit of a mess, with a lot of really good ideas (Pilgrimage to defeat an ancient eldritch evil! Lies and half-truths peeled away during the adventure! A corrupt religion that’s slowly exposed! Punching destiny in the faith!) that aren’t explored nearly enough despite the game being far from short. The characters, as with any Final Fantasy, are memorable even if they don’t get developed quite enough, which is a bummer because there are some fun simmering conflicts and contradictions that could make for good character work. I’m sure some of this is lost in translation, be it cultural connotations that don’t communicate (apparently the corrupt religion is heavily inspired by institutional Buddhism and Shintoism, something lost on a Western player) or just quirks of rewriting a Japanese script into English.

In any case, it was still a fun game and, after a brief foray into Final Fantasy X-2, I’ve started Final Fantasy XII. It’s a totally different ball game; gone are the tropical locales and somber quest to save the world, in are an evil Empire and the brave Resistance daring to fight back amidst a larger political landscape. XII feels very different from X, even though there are still similarities from the Final Fantasy DNA running through both. One thing I’ve really enjoyed as I’ve been on my Final Fantasy kick lately is how very different each one is while still feeling fully formed. None of the mainline Final Fantasy games are sequels to one another; VIII has nothing to do with VII. Setting, characters, and even core gameplay mechanics change drastically between games. Each game plays like a variation on a theme, some notes on familiar but the melody is new, each one an experiment where some things will work wonderfully, some things will be odd, and some things best forgotten.

Over the years, though, Final Fantasy releases have become markedly less frequent (six came out between 1996 and 2006, versus two in the last ten years, including this June’s upcoming XVI). There’s no doubt that part of the reason is no doubt that games have gotten bigger and more complex, with budgets and the sales needed to recoup those budgets ballooning. We’ve seen it across the industry; most releases by major studios these days are massive affairs upon which the company’s entire future seem to rest. There’s not much space to be experimental or try something that might not work when a poor gamble could jeopardize ever putting out a game again.

A similar trend has happened in movies too, where now the expectation of a successful movie is one that makes a metric boatload of money. Gone are the mid-budget sci-fi movies like The Terminator and Escape From New York, many movies these days have the expectation to be the next Star Wars and make Avatar money. To that effect, the movies being greenlit are going to be ones that have mass-appeal, the ones that sound good on paper, the ones that are safe.

I’d be remiss not to mention that the independent scene has been doing a lot to fill that gap, in both films and video games. There’s definitely stuff being made that breaks the mold, but gone are the days when LucasArts would publish a Star Wars RTS, Halo-clone, class-based shooter, Jedi adventure game, RPG, and starfighter simulator within the same two years. Instead, next month’s Jedi Survivor will be only the fifth non-mobile, non-MMO, non-LEGO Star Wars game in the last ten years.

Even Final Fantasy has fallen into that complacency. 2016’s XV felt like a fairly standard open-world action RPG and the upcoming XVI doesn’t look to be terribly innovative. This isn’t bad, by no means — games can be really good without having to reinvent the wheel. But as the language of video games has become more and more codified, I can’t help but to miss that time not too long ago when every game felt like an experiment, like a chance to try something new.

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