December 05, 2006
My rag-tag group of adventurers had just prevailed over the ghost-like sewer monster. The fight had not been too tough, although it did require some careful tactics. Having come all the way here, I figured I'd have a look around. Just around the corner from our fight was another network of sewer pipes and water ways, so we took a few tentative steps that way. From the shadows, a brown lumpy form appeared and took a swipe at me. The blow landed on my head and with one hit, the game was over. My last save was from 45 minutes back at the entrance to the sewers.
Welcome to Final Fantasy, I thought.
My esteemed gaming buddy tilt has often commented on the notion that games have large scale mechanics and organization that make up an "outer loop" along with small scale mechanics that make up their "inner loop."
Madden is a football simulation wrapped up in a large scale management simulation. In Zelda, you crawl through dungeons, solve clever puzzles, find interesting items, and fight tedious boss monsters while at the same time working towards your ultimate destiny as the periodic savior of Hyrule. The Elder Scrolls games are a collection of linear quests that are hard to find wrapped up in a min-max leveling game. Halo strings together a chain of thirty second pieces of combat as you journey from cut scene to cut scene. I could keep this up all night.
It's no coincidence that game franchises work hard to maintain their core mechanics from version to version. Fans of the franchises became fans because the gameplay was enjoyable. They eagerly await the new Bloodspank game because they want the same experience as the old Bloodspank game but a new setting, or new characters, or higher resolution textures. Therefore, to keep their fans, developers strive to remain faithful to the original experience.
Which brings me to Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy, it seems to me, has a very clear two level structure that has basically remained unchanged through all twelve instances of the game. On the one hand there is the standard RPG inner loop: you fight stuff, you collect loot, you gain levels and abilities. Each game tweaks these mechanics, streamlining some while making others more complicated.
The large scale organization of the games are also similar in that they are a linear jaunt from dungeon to dungeon. Each dungeon is designed to be encountered when your party has been appropriately developed and buffed. In between dungeons, there are cut scenes.
This combination of content: the fighting, the dungeons, the cut scenes, is what keeps people coming back to the game. For whatever reason, people like working through these little obstacle courses in a quest to watch the next cartoon.
The tricky thing in this game is that sometimes difficult areas are interleaved with the areas that are safe, and it's hard to tell when you've gotten yourself lost and are about to be punished for it. This happens repeatedly to me in FF12 whenever I venture even the tiniest bit off the shiny rails that the developers have built for me to follow.
What I discovered this week was that this problem seems to have inhabited every FF game ever built. Because being punished over and over again on my PS2 wasn't enough for me, I picked up the recent reissue of Final Fantasy III for the DS.
I played through the intro. No problem. I got into the first town and looked around. No problem. I walked out into the overworld and ventured north, not knowing that I had missed the cut scene that told me to venture south. Thirty seconds later, two wolves in the woods crushed my head like a grape. Even after almost twenty years of development, if you are playing Final Fantasy, you are never more than a few steps away from a one hit kill.
Besides this long standing structural problem and an annoying lack of savepoints before boss fights that I tend to lose, I have generally been enjoying FF12. The streamlined combat takes a lot of the tedium out of the RPG inner loop. For once the writing, and overall production of the outer loop isn't cringe inducing. Even the voice acting is pretty tolerable.
So, I'm looking forward to spending the next few weeks beating up creatures from the nightmares of Japanese children, picking new abilities out of a large checkerboard, trying to min-max my character development and watching cut scenes. I think I'll put off the side quests for now though. In Final Fantasy, you can't be too careful.
Please help support Tea Leaves by visiting our sponsors.