December 05, 2006

Because I am Stupid I Make Myself Suffer

by psu

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.

Posted by psu at December 5, 2006 07:30 PM | Bookmark This

Ha ha, I told you so.

Posted by peterb at December 6, 2006 12:15 AM

So -- what is the attraction of the Final Fantasy games? I'm honestly curious; I'd like to at least understand the level of devotion it inspires, even if I fail to share it. One of the first games I played on PS2 was Final Fantasy X, and after a little progress (past the first stadium sports match thingummy) I just couldn't see the point.

I've played a fair number of 'Western' RPGs, starting with the gold box games and continuing through to Planescape, so it's not that I dislike RPGs, it's just that 'Final Fantasy' seems to be a radically different definition of RPG.

Is there a better starting point for the newbie than number X? Perhaps VII?

Posted by Jon Mann at December 6, 2006 12:40 AM

After playing Shadow Hearts I picked up FF10 because I enjoyed SH a lot and Final Fantasy is ya know, the iconic JRPG.

I can't say that I enjoyed FF10. The production was sort of stilted and the game didn't have the same enjoyable rhythm as Shadow Hearts. I gave up on it.

FF12 has been better.

I personally enjoy the Japanese take on the RPG because they generally have streamlined away some of the aping of D&D that the "Western" games do. When done well, it's a less tedious way to move from plot point to plot point. Of course, the genre comes with its own baggage, and most of the games suffer for it.

Maybe this would make a good topic for another article. :)

Posted by psu at December 6, 2006 07:35 AM

Man, that same thing happened to me -- except that, since I'm like an abused gaming child, I obsessively saved at the save point that was RIGHT THERE.

In my case, I was looking for the ghost in the first place. I'd managed to miss where it was actually at, and assumed it would be in the crazy morass of corridors that I had just been romping through like an hour earlier. A morass of corridors that had not been filled with very tough monsters. However, apparently once I went back to the dungeon when I was *not* following the story tracks, they went and upped the difficulty level of all the monsters by a huge margin.

I think that's bullshit game design; you can't spend an hour or two acquainting a player with part of your terrain, and then turn right around and say "OK, now that you've looked away for a second, this portion of the game will now be way too hard for you for quite a while."

Posted by Eric Tilton at December 6, 2006 11:50 AM

I failed to care about the characters or the story. The same thing happened in 10, X-2, and 8. So I ditched the game. Too bad, I actually really liked the inner loop as you put it. I love finding new abilities on the checkerboard. I love being able to say "Your gun sucks. You now know how to use a staff. Go beat on something." As much as it disturbs my enlightened good self, I enjoy watching a bunny-eared high-heeled fishnet-stockinged woman run around. And she had a cool accent. But I hated the main character. I just don't like playing shiftless layabout thieving guys who only care about themselves. I suppose he would have grown out of it eventually. And the save points were way too far apart so it didn't fit with the amount of time I wanted to spend at any one given spot. Oddly enough I will probably get a ps3 eventually so I can try the final fantasy advent or whatever they are doing for it. One of these days I'll find that magic of being a kid playing rpg's for the first time...

Posted by Doug at December 6, 2006 01:44 PM

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