Tag Archives: Final Fantasy

Menu-Assisted Narrative

Mega Man Zero ends with Zero facing down a hoard of Pantheons, his saber ready and his will resolved to fight every last enemy that crosses his path. The music swells and he charges off into battle.

The sequel picks up a year later and the opening stage is you, as Zero, still fighting the fight. The implication is clear: Zero’s been at it for the entire year since the first installment. It offers a neat sense of continuity between the two games, and Zero constantly using his tired/low-health animation instead of his usual idle one definitely lends itself to the sense of weariness found in the scene.

But that’s not the best part.

Hit start and you’ll bring up the pause menu. Menus are perfunctory things in most games; maybe a game will dress it up like an in-universe tablet, but for the most part, they’re utilitarian places to change loadouts or access options. Mega Man Z2 uses the menu to communicate atmosphere: it features the exact same design as the one from Z1, this time with cracks and broken parts. Zero has been fighting for so long, the pause screen is falling apart.

After the level, when Zero gets repaired and is ready to go back out on missions, not only is his idle animation back to normal, but the menu is now redone and shiny — just as Zero is back and better than ever. 

In this game, the start menu helps tell the story. In the opening it displays the passage of time, then it shows that Zero is in perfect shape. It’s perfectly possible to go through the opening without once opening the menu and miss this bit of setting entirely. 

There are things we’ve come to just expect from video games. Call it ludonarrative dissonance, call it the necessities of mechanics, but we’re used to certain gamey things. Extra lives, pause menus, health meters, the list goes on. Sometimes, games can try and explain it, like the HUD in Assassin’s Creed being representative of the interface of the Animus as Desmond accesses Altair’s memories, but typically it doesn’t really matter. It’s when these mechanicy things are integrated into the narrative that things get really interesting. 

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII has its Digital Mind Wave system. At first, the DMW seems like a kitschy mechanic; slots roll throughout battles and if the right numbers or characters line up, player character Zack Fair gets a stat boost or, sometimes, executes a cool attack. As you progress through the game, people who Zack meets get added to the DMW, and attacks and boosts based on them with it. Alright, cool; the DMW is representative of Zack’s psyche, an interpretation backed up by the flashbacks you’ll see when the reels align on one character. 

But then comes the ending.

So, uh, spoilers for a game that came out twelve years ago as a sequel to a game that’s now 22 years old, but Zack dies. On the run from evil corporation Shinra’s army, Zack tries to fight them off but eventually succumbs, passing on his legacy to Cloud (and leading into the original Final Fantasy VII). You get to play Zack’s last stand, an unwinnable fight with a foregone conclusion. It’s tragic and sad, and probably the last place you’d want a slot machine rolling in the top left corner.

Or so you’d think.

As the fight goes on, and as Zack weakens, parts of the DMW break and one by one the characters he’s met along the way are removed from the DMW. This mechanic you’ve come to rely on slowly becomes less useful, and the characters you — and Zack — care about are being taken from you as you die. It’s a visceral experience: something you’ve come to take for granted is slipping away. You feel the loss happening.

Video games are such a wonderful, fascinating medium. There aren’t many ways to smoothly integrate this sort of storytelling into other forms. An aspect ratio change could communicate Zero’s shift in film or television, but it wouldn’t be quite as obviously subtle. Perhaps a book’s font slowly growing more indistinct and faded would be able to communicate the sort of fading that Crisis Core’s DMW does, but would that be too obvious, too gimmicky? Maybe the only way to know is to try, but in the meantime, man, I love that video games can do this. Menus and in-game mechanics aren’t the sort of things we usually think of as ways to tell a story, and yet, these two games did. It’s honestly a shame that they don’t get more credit, and that more games don’t play around with their medium as much as they could.

 

Postscript:
I didn’t mention any entry in Metal Gear Solid because, dude, Hideo Kojima’s on an entirely different level when it comes to the interplay between games’ ludic and narrative elements.

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Another Boyband Saving The World

So Final Fantasy XV is finally coming out ‘soon,’ with the demo dropping recently. The game’s been on my radar since the debut trailer for Final Fantasy Versus XIII (as it was called then) was released almost nine years ago and as a fan of the Final Fantasy series — mostly because I plain love a good JRPG (there’s something fun about Japanese melodrama and saving the world) — I’m quite eager to see how this game works and if it’s any good.

As we’ve slowly found out more about the game, however, I’m a little annoyed that the game essentially features what looks like a boyband as the main characters. It’s disappointing to see yet another male dominated video game, but certainly not a deal breaker, least at this stage. That said, I’m curious as to the reasoning behind them going in this direction. Fortunately, game director Hajime Tabata explained why:

“Speaking honestly, an all-male party feels almost more approachable for players. Even the presence of one female in the group will change their behaviour, so that they’ll act differently. So to give the most natural feeling, to make them feel sincere and honest, having them all the same gender made sense in that way,”

This is where things start to really bother me: I don’t see how having a more diverse cast would be less approachable. These days around half of gamers are women and if we want video games as a genre to grow up we’ve gotta get away from this girls-have-cooties mentality that’s permeated the industry for far too long.

It’s especially frustrating that it comes a part of Final Fantasy of all things. The series has usually been quite good at representation, with the games featuring multiple female party members who often had an important role in the story beyond being damseled. The latest major installment, XIII had a woman as protagonist, something I talked about in my first post here three years ago. Not every game needs a female protagonist, but that doesn’t excuse making the game about a boyband.

Now Tabata does have some good intentions. He wants to get into the private life of men and stuff I’ve read about the game has said that the game does feature its male characters openly showing affection to each other. Which is actually really cool (suck it, patriarchy!). An unironic, actually honest look at a bromance is possibly as rare as strong female protagonists. There’s a reason one of my favorite moments in the finale of  Agent Carter was Howard Stark admitting that he loved Steve Rogers and missed him. I am so down for more honest bromances in fiction.

But I do not believe that this has to be an either-or scenario. I think we can have a single story or game that features both male intimacy and strong female characters — especially since Final Fantasy games usually take well over thirty hours to complete. Final Fantasy XIII had a mixed cast, but had some great scenes between sisters Lightning and Serah. If it’s vitally important for there to be chunks of time with the guys alone, then why not split the party? Final Fantasy VIII did it sixteen years ago, why not do it again?

I realize that in some ways I’m splitting hairs here, and we still have an indeterminate time before launch during which, unlikely as it is, things may change for Final Fantasy XV. I’m probably going to play the game at some point too; this isn’t a boycott. But I love video games and representation matters as much as defying gender norms about men. In an ideal world, we could do both at once and I don’t see why Tabata’s game couldn’t be that ideal world.

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Protagonists and Such

Call him the main character, the lead, the hero, the player character; most every good story has a protagonist. He (or she) is the person we follow. Either because they provide the viewpoint and let us into the world or because they’re out on a grand quest. A lot of stories rise and fall based on the protagonist (or lack thereof).

The lack of a protagonist in The Phantom Menace is one of its shortcomings. Obi-Wan would make a great one, only he winds up playing second fiddle to…well, everyone for much of the film (and sits out all of Tatooine). What about Anakin? He doesn’t get introduced until Tatooine and has no character arc (what’s his motivation?) beyond being the kid who wins the podrace and blows up the droid control ship. Heck, he hardly does jack on Coruscant.

Padme, then! Only she doesn’t do much of anything (besides the senate thing) and her duplicity as to who’s actually her and who’s a handmaiden hamper our getting into her as a main character.

Fine! Qui-Gon! He’s awesome, he gets the plot moving, he can be the protagonist, right? Only no. He plays the mentor archetype, the one who guides the protagonist along. Qui-Gon is a static character who guides the plot, but has no personal investment. Plus, at the climax, the duel with Darth Maul is (sad to say) completely irrelevant to the plot.

Basically: there’s no protagonist in The Phantom Menace, no one for us to root for besides the umbrella of “the good guys”. It hampers our investment in the story. It worked for The Empire Strikes Back because we already had our investment in Luke and Han from A New Hope, but in the latter Luke was unquestionably our viewpoint character and protagonist. Menace has no such luck.

Not to say having a clear protagonist means we’ve got a good story on our hands. Let’s look at Twilight (having read a crappy book makes for good examples). Bella is unquestionably the protagonist, but she lacks anything that makes us care. She has no motivation past getting Edward to fall in love with her. She’s boring and has little characterization/use besides being an avatar for the reader. If the protagonist has no proper characterization, arc, or motivation it becomes hard to get invested.

Look, a work doesn’t have to be high art to have a protagonist. Rod, from Hot Rod, is an example of a great protagonist. Does he have characterization? He’s a delusional, hubristic wannabe stuntman, so yes. His arc is to get the girl and save his stepfather’s life so he can kick his ass. Why? Because he wants his stepfather to respect him. Yes, Hot Rod is a (hilarious) stupid film, but there’s a clear protagonist. It works! The Princess Bride has Westley and Buttercup as protagonists and Fezzik and Inigo as deuteragonists. Escape from New York has Snake Plisskin, Final Fantasy VII has Cloud, Chuck has Chuck.

But what about ensembles? Shows like Firefly, How I Met Your Mother, and Lost; who’s the actual protagonist? That’s the beauty of tv, supporting characters can all get their spot in the limelight. An episode like “Ariel” has Simon as one of the primary protagonists, or “The Constant” has Desmond as its protagonist. Several protagonists are far easier in an episodic serial.

Now the big question. The Avengers. It’s got seven main characters (Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Loki). Who’s the protagonist?

They all are. Each one has their character arc and/or motivations (Loki wants to go home, Iron Man grows into a hero, Hawkeye wants to make up for what he did, etc). With or without the prior movies, each protagonist is set up in The Avengers and winds up as a realized character. You can call any one of them the lead (well, maybe not Hawkeye [it’s workable, but definitely a bit of a stretch]), and the movie still works. You can have multiple protagonists, so long as they’re actually protagonists and not a cast of supporting characters.

It feels like it’s the obvious thing. Stories need not just a protagonist, but a good one. Motivations, characterization, an arc and all that. A good protagonist can help even a mediocre plot. Somewhat, anyway. Y’kinda need the whole lot to tell a good story.

But you already knew that.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! Each story has a clear protagonist!

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Good Female Protagonists

The Hunger Games is out now in cinemas. It’s a film based on a book that apparently is wild popular among teenage girls. A lot of people have likened it to the next Twilight.

I, as a guy who’s read both book series, am here to tell you that no, no, that’s wrong, man!

See, Katniss is a great example of a Good Female Protagonist. Bella, eh, not so much. At all.

It’s really weird. After all these years we still freak out and go “Holy crap guys, it’s a Good Female Protagonist!” when we see her in a movie that’s not targeted at women. It’s as if she’s a quaint little oddity you find in only the most obscure media.

Not that movies are helping. Bella, of Twilight, is an example of an absolutely horrible horrible character (female or otherwise). Yes, this is a film/book targeted at girls, but that’s not an excuse.
She is entirely reactionary. Her personality revolves around what happens around her. It’s always “if they, then”. The love triangle in the latter bits seem to be dependent on who she’s with. Bella has no motivations, no desires beyond, well, get with a guy.
Again, and this is an oddly appropriate point to stress, I have read these books. I know what I’m talking about.

And Katniss of The Hunger Games? She causes the action. Her involvement in the game is of her own volition. Although she has little control over her situations and what life hands her she very much controls what she does in each situation. She’s not reactionary or passive, Her pattern is “if I then”.
As for the love triangle that’s garnered an unfortunate amount of press? Katniss lacks the flippancy of Bella. Furthermore the triangle is interwoven with the books’ themes as a whole (which is a testament to good overall writing beyond characterization, which in turn is not the focus of this essay).

It’s more than clear that Katniss is a whole different breed of protagonist: she thinks, plans, and connives. She knows exactly what she wants and she strives to achieve it. She has a personality.

Through all this I find it important to point out that, besides Katniss, there are fantastic, well developed, interesting female protagonists. Interestingly enough, they can be found where you’d least expect it: Video Games.

Hear me out. I know video games tend to present women as caricatures to cater to their demographic, but there are exceptions. And these are good.

Final Fantasy XIII (which isn’t the 12th sequel but— it’s complicated) had, for the first time, a woman as the main character. Lightning wasn’t hyper-sexualized (as other characters in the series have been) and her gender never came up as an issue. She had her dreams and wishes; she had her obstacles to overcome.
The writers have said that when writing Lightning they just wrote her as if she was a man. I’m not sure whether that undercuts everything I’ve said, or is just an interesting aside.

So what’s a good example? What’s my favorite example? No, not Pepper Potts and Black Widow in the Iron Man movies (though they do count), I’m going back to video games again.

Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazer are the two girls in Uncharted 2. Both women are strong, independent, know what they want and how to get it. They’re more than plot devices or eye candy. They have characterization, they develop as the story progresses, they change. They’re actual people.

When asked why he insists on writing strong female characters, Joss Whedon (guy behind Firefly) quipped: “because you’re still asking me that question”. It’s unfortunate that they are still so rare. But they’re out there; be they named Katniss, Lightning, or Elena. We can just hope that trend follows that set by The Hunger Games rather than that of Twilight.

So go watch The Hunger Games, money speaks after all.

Writer’s Note: Yes, I know I’ve left out other great examples. This was written at about one in the morning and I didn’t feel like sussing them out. Forgive me.
Also, I know that you may not be familiar with these characters from FFXIII or Uncharted. Just google “Uncharted Cutscene Elena” or something. Or take my word on it.

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