something doesn’t really jive between the New York Times and videogame reviews. the paper just seems too stuffy and venerated to talk hit points and summon spells without hinting at an incongruity that makes the whole effort seem a bit amateurish… like a stern-faced adult trying to seriously critique something on the other side of the generational divide. and such a bias would seem fantastically unfair, as the NYT has been nothing if not democratic and immensely forward-thinking with its attention to technology over the past two decades or so (and perhaps before… i wouldn’t really know). yet for someone who has traditionally turned to the annals of EGM, Gamefan, IGN, etc. for their videogame news and reviews, the NYT is going to have to find a writer willing to supplant the paper’s usual diffidence with an obvious passion for gaming if they have any hope of surmounting the unfair but very real skepticism some gamers (i.e. me, and… well, i haven’t really talked bout this with anyone else, but i’ll just go ahead and assume everyone agrees with me) have of their scant videogame coverage.
and their recent review of Final Fantasy XIII is not helping. in fact, it’s hurting. a lot.
… if you haven’t noticed by now, the following rant is going to be as geeky as it is tossed off, and both reveal and revel in a nerdy element in which i seldom indulge in a public forum. proceed with caution.
now… my initial distaste from this article comes from the fact that i SERIOUSLY disagree with the writer’s assessment of the game (and we’ll get into that). honestly, if i saw eye-to-eye with the writer, i probably wouldn’t be sufficiently motivated to bitch about the review’s real problem, which is ultimately its supremely myopic perspective on the fundamental nature of JRPGs (japanese role-playing games) as well as the review’s penchant for harping on a single, ill-explained point rather than discussing the rest of a seriously multi-faceted product.
so, a real quick primer for those who didn’t cut school in 7th grade to get Knights of the Round in FF VII or… later snuck out of high school (literally crawling behind cars) to rush to EB Games, buy FF X, play it through lunch, and haul ass back to school for their final class of that day… Final Fantasy is a series of stand-alone japanese role-playing games that have come to assume tremendous importance in the world of interactive games. renowned for their innovation and emotionally driven and diverse narratives (always) and their precedent-shattering production values (recently), these 40-60 hour adventures each create a unique universe as vast and well-considered as a Star Wars, and - in selling almost a BILLION units - have helped Final Fantasy to become a celebrated brand in the U.S. in addition to being a national treasure in Japan.
so when Seth Schiesbel writes that the animation and visual splendor in FF XIII (the first iteration of the series for an HD platform) rivals that of Avatar, he’s not kidding. in my not even remotely humble opinion, this is the most beautiful videogame ever made. the graphics are unpredictably mind-boggling… by which i mean they exceed their extremely impressive technical measure with the ends to which they work. the vistas, landscapes (metro-future, outback, fantasy, etc…) architecture, and character design are so complete… so thorough… it feels as if the environments exist far beyond the reach of the game’s camera and whatever the system happens to have rendered at that moment. the art design is genuinely humbling… and in a way that would be impossibly time-consuming in a more free-form adventure like a Bioware game (and yes, the blu-ray factor rides to the rescue again, providing yet another decisive victory for the PS3 as the xbox 360 stumbles over its antiquated DVD format yet again).
and the impressive art design is itself in service to something greater - perhaps the richest of the series’ narratives. replete with the melodrama and emotionally facile soliloquizing that has long since been a staple of even superior japanese storytelling, (and is now ubiquitous in even the best of JRPGs and anime), the tale is nevertheless an indelible and emotionally vivid dystopian saga that starts in a familiar place but is prone to bold decisions.
in short… and bear with me, here…there’s an abandoned planet called Pulse (think Australia), and floating above it in its atmosphere, a bubbled mini-planet called Cocoon, on which all the people live in their future-fantastic cities. the dynamic is governed by a mysterious race of demi-gods called the fal’cie, and they have the people of Cocoon pretty convinced that Pulse is an evil place that is constantly attempting to destroy Cocoon. sounds pretty topical, right? right. when the game begins, a fal’cie from Pulse has been found on Cocoon, thus “contaminating” everyone in the vicinity… and the forces of Cocoon have begun to “purge” Cocoon of its contaminated victims, relocating them (via train, initially) to Pulse. on or around one such train - for six different reasons - are our heroes… who eventually encounter the Pulse fal’cie and are made its l’cie (essentially servants of the fal’cie, all of whom are given a Focus to which they never learn the details… a mission they have to discover & then complete in order to have a peaceful eternity). so you’ve got some holocaust imagery… a bit of jihad… this is a premise ripe for allegory, and being a videogame one assumes it’s going to be allegory of a rather facile sort… but even though the game eventually winds down to a simple matter of choice and human agency, the choices that are made - and their consequences - make this a surprisingly moving saga.
now… traditionally JRPGs are full of towns the heroes can visit and shop, replete with non-playable characters the hero can visit, from whom the hero can steal, with whom the hero can exchange canned dialogue, etc… but since everyone in Cocoon is terrified of / trying to kill our branded heroes this time around, towns and such just don’t make sense. you’re constantly on the run, and that’s reflected in the game’s design, which is a lot more action-driven than previous entries in the series. it translates into a lot of corridors… a lot of narrowly pre-determined paths, which might seem ironic given that we’ve concluded the game is essentially about the power of human agency. and the NYT review understands that as the key discrepancy between JRPGs and American RPGs… japanese games are largely interactive, meticulously designed stories, whereas American games are a bit more open… with dozens of endings and the ability to decide who your bland, voiceless, but endlessly customizable hero marries and if they’re an elf or an orc or whatever. and Schiesbel is correct in that a set narrative is not necessarily antithetical to a more open style of gameplay. but that also doesn’t mean that crafting a narrative that pushes the player along at a certain clip and in a certain direction as is dictated by the protagonist’s circumstances is necessarily bad… in fact it ignores how FF XIII transcends a genre usually beset by menus to instead achieve a sense of peril and urgency missing from even the most white-knuckled action games.
moreover, it rides the distastefully stale wave of criticism which obtusely suggests that FF XIII actually even IS any more linear than the series’ previous installments. it’s not. at all. while the game has willfully sacrificed the ILLUSION of choice in order to relay the emotions of its very particular story, it’s no different than the typical JRPG, which just endeavors a bit harder to hide the rails. in FF7 for example, when you first access the world map (a feature that’s been missing from FF games since FF10) your characters are a bit aimless and the polygonal globe of gaia opens up as if the player can take Cloud and co. anywhere he likes. but… you can really only go to the village of Kalm. there’s only one place the game lets you go. and when you get there, you can shop and stuff, and then there’s only one person you must speak with in order for the game to proceed… one inn in which you have to check yourself in order for the flashbacks to kick in and the game to continue. many hours later, you acquire an airship and can revisit several locations and do some sidequests, but there is only ever one obvious destination you must visit in order for the story to continue. all FFXIII does is to remove the illusion of freedom… which is hugely appropriate given that the characters are bound by several external forces and feel suffocated by their predicaments. they never have a question as to where to go, and neither does the gamer… otherwise it’s the same. every Final Fantasy has been about fighting the next battle and the next and then the next… but only in FFXIII does every individual battle (no matter how minor) feel as if it’s progress… as if the characters are working towards a greater goal.
it’s a bummer that a fun, solid game like bioshock is celebrated for its meta-contemplation on control (a point the game & its sequel contrive to make several times over, and hope to define the experience), but that FF XIII - which raises weightier, more articulate questions on the topic not only in the player’s experience, but also in the ultimate fate of the characters - is slandered for the same reason just because it shakes the foundations a bit. the consequences in bioshock are flimsy and tremendously de-value the moral choices the player has made, whereas FFXIII - by circumspectly denying the player the illusion of choice while continually calling attention to the idea of agency - resolves into a poignant look as to where decisions begin, and in what ways they do / do not effect an ultimate outcome in a world overrun by the parallel forces of fear and solipsism. FFXIII takes the discussion beyond the realm of games, and into the world at large with games forever serving as a conduit… it’s a brilliant conceit, and one the game’s developers have been right to publicly defend.
and though the battles have always been fun… this time around they’re not only MORE fun, but never tedious. ever. the battle system is among the greatest in the history of the genre, arriving at a spectacularly happy medium between considered tactics, active button-taps, and a healthy dose of pre-battle strategy. the game keeps the training wheels on for a while… perhaps longer than is necessary, but once they hand over the reigns fully and give the player complete control over their party and an abundance of skills, the battles become a real spectacle… carnage and chaos that always feels as if it’s being tightly controlled. it’s also easily the most difficult final fantasy game of all (an argument can be made for FF VI, but… i don’t think so), and the freedoms the player is extended as far as customizing his / her / their party is concerned trump most any other JRPG out there. potential party paradigms are great in number, and it’s tremendous fun to figure out the right one for any particular battle.
so some people (not me. at all) will appreciate the open-ended nature of american RPGs more than their Japanese progenitors, and that’s fine. my problem is with the rash of critics that have erroneously slighted FF XIII for being a reactionary rebuttal to the open games of the West, or as if it’s somehow quantitatively less interactive than the rest of its ilk. it’s a trap into which even some of the more dedicated videogame outlets have fallen prey, but to chide the game with zero supporting evidence as being more linear than its predecessors, while being so lost up the ass of that reductive argument that you fail to recognize the game’s fascinating commentary on control, or the delightful facets in which the game affords the player newfound control… maybe its the circulation of the NYT and the fact that it reaches a much broader audience than just the gamers… but there’s a short-sightedness here that doesn’t sit well with me. ultimately, games should be fun… and if schiesbel found the game tedious, well, that’s his prerogative… but he seems so hung up on linearity that he never allowed himself the freedom to appreciate the game’s true intentions. the game has made amnesiacs of a lot of critics, but the NYT doesn’t have a history of game criticism to forget… only one to forge, and this article lacks the apparent enthusiasm and interest in the subject to transcend trends and techno-awe and deal with FFXIII as a game at all.
as for me… this was like engaging with a smarter version of avatar for upwards of 50 hours, and the best time i’ve had with an RPG of any flavor since I was 13.
p.s. how embarrassed must Square be about Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, right now? i mean, all that silliness about photo-realism, and after pretty much crippling the company they’re now - a mere 9 years later - at the point where the in-game graphics of the latest FF game are FAR superior to anything in their film. yikes.