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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Why I Quit Final Fantasy

Since I seem bored with writing about writing these days, let's talk about video games. Specifically Final Fantasy. I was a big fan of the games since FF7, and from my first exposure to it in high school, I was hooked on anything with two F's in the title and someone holding a funky sword on the cover. I loved the characters, the rich and epic story, the experience systems, and the hybrid style of future and fantasy.

So why did I have to quit?

Well, "have" is a strong word. Somewhere in the Venn diagram where "have to" and "want to" cross over is where the truth lies. Let's look at each of these in turn.

Why did I have to quit Final Fantasy? Well, the big reason is the games are too long, too expensive, and too advanced (that's apparently three reasons, sorry). I'm a 26-year-old with a wife, mortgage, and .8 of a kid. The time I have to play video games any more dwindles sharply. I can barely dedicate my time to the short games like DDR and Guitar Hero. Trying to start a new FF game would be like trying to read War and Peace a chapter per week. By the time I get to the end, I will have no idea how I got there, who the people are, and how they met in the first place. So the significance is lost on me. Now imagine reading War and Peace and having to grind Warthogs in the Thalassian Valley.

New releases are expensive too. I picked up Dirge of Cerberus for $50, and it was a 10 hour game I played only once. The real reason I picked it up was because, like many others, I just wanted to find out what happened in the FF7 world. I could have played it twice (since I usually do, one without help, and one finding everything), and thought about it, but I didn't see what the point would be. I already knew what was going to happen, and the game made feel like I was playing army with an air rifle or pop gun. There was no impact, no fun in the journey.

Dirge of Cerberus was part of the "Compilation of FF7" which is a fancy way of saying "we released a bunch of stuff related to FF7". This and the Advent Children (the short movie) were the only real things that made it America-side within a reasonable time (is Crisis Core out in the U.S. yet?). Apparently, Square thinks this is the way to go. FF10 had a sequel on the same system, which was all right, but then FF11 needs you to pay a monthly fee, since its a MMORPG. FF12 has Revenant Wings which is a... what? Spinoff? Sequel? Anyway it's on the DS and I don't have one, and I'm not gonna buy a system to play one game. Likewise with Crisis Core and PSP. And now we've got this Fabula Crystalis Whatsis for FF13? Isn't this supposed to be like this 10 year dedication to one single FF world, released on multiple systems? How expensive is that gonna be? I can't even get a Wii. So if I want to get the whole story of FF13, I'm going to have to take out a small loan and freeze myself cryogenically. No thank you.

Which leads me into why I wanted to quit Final Fantasy. Dirge of Cerberus brought to us a very complicated weapon system, with many combinations and permutations of guns, so that you would get nervous purchasing even a key chain, lest you have buyer's remorse. The game was linear, and mostly composed of movies. Simply put, the game wasn't very fun.

None of the games have been very fun. Since FF7, there's been a steady decline in the 'fun' factor of Final Fantasy (lots of F's in that sentence). FF8 I loved -- great characters, but the magic system made you nigh invulnerable. FF9 was cute and had memorable animation and story, but the characters and magic just didn't click like the last two games. FF10 brought voice acting, which was both good and bad. The sphere grid was interesting, but like Dirge of Cerberus, you worry about buyer's remorse and end up never using it to its fullest potential (maybe I'm too hoardy with the rare items). But the characters were bland and lifeless (I never even used Kimahri), the enemies repetitive, and the environment was neither cyberpunk nor swords n' sorcery. When you started FF10, you thought "aw great, here's this cool world that looks like Las Vegas in the future, and they're playing soccer in a ball of water. And there's a giant alien monster that I can't even see attacking. This is gonna be awesome." And then you find out it was all a dream. And you have to go on a journey with a beach bimbo and a daddy's girl. I couldn't identify with Tidus, couldn't inject myself into him. The same with Zidane. But I could with Cloud and Squall.

Then in FF10-2, who knows what they were smoking when they made that. It was an okay game, especially since I wanted to find out what happened to the characters I had a meager investment in. It certainly wasn't a FF game though. And after a while, it just wasn't fun. The mini-mission style and my completist personality just didn't mesh, I was always afraid I was missing stuff. Plus its nature led to the story not being very engaging. Eventually, I was just playing it to get through it. To get ready for the next playthrough, I leveled up my character's jobs so everyone was expert in everything, thinking this would be fun. I did the 'rubber band a quarter to the button' trick, but it still took a few weeks. When I got there and restarted, the game was even less fun than I remembered. The battles were dull and repetitive. It felt like I was watching a movie that I had just seen. Not to mention there's no way to complete the game at anything beyond the most basic level besides getting a game guide or FAQ. Seriously, there's no way you could know that dodging 200 lightning bolts would get you Kimahri's ultimate weapon, unless you looked it up online. That's not fun. There should be at least a clue somewhere, otherwise reality intrudes.

Let's clear up something with linear first. Most FF games are linear up to a certain point, then you get free reign to explore the world. The trick here is to make a game that doesn't feel linear. FF7 and FF8 didn't feel linear - you skipped around on the map, your primary mission changed, you went to a variety of places, you revisited places frequently. FF10, you could see the path you were going in a dotted line, and you only ever had one mission - get to Zanarkand - it never changed as you went.

I loved FF7 for the hybrid style. You started in a big futuristic metropolis... that sucked a mysterious chemical out of the ground for power... right next to a farm for yellow ostriches you could ride... past a gigantic snake... to an ice cavern... to go after a samurai... who was genetically engineered... with DNA from an alien. See? It's got something for everyone. FF9 though, had knights, and castles, and airships, and while it was all gorgeous, it was also predictable. FF10 was the same way, very little that was vibrant and jumped out. It was very calm, and there was nothing that made me want to play just to see what happens next. There was no puzzle.

I don't know what happened to FF. Maybe all the talent trickled out slowly. Three big players have already formed their own studio, so who's left at FF? Maybe it's all the marketing guys making massive games. But once I saw the plan for FF12: Revenant Wings, I knew I had to quit. I didn't want to stay in FF with only half-assed knowledge, and I didn't want to play games that weren't fun, just for the sake of being a fan.

At this point I do have to make a confession. I used to write for the FF Compendium. I was brought on as a maintenance person, but I basically took the place over. It was like trying to clean up after a fire -- the place looked like a geocities website. I diligently neatened everything, made updates, and piece-by-piece, took apart the back log of things that needed to be added.

Then I started improving everything. Tables, anchor tags, frames -- that was all hot shit in 1998, but it was making the site horrible and archaic. For Christ's sake, the site still played midis. I was the only one ever doing things on that site, and the webmaster didn't much care for my improvements. He thought I was moving too far too fast, he said from his horse-drawn carriage. I'd like to say we split over creative differences, but he didn't like that I was making minor changes without telling him, like deleting faulty entries. I wrote him a nasty letter telling him the sheer magnitude of maintaining the website, and everything that still needed to get done, and to back his ass off. In truth, I was half-trying to get fired. The fact is the guy hired me to do a job, and I was doing it, and doing it well. Then he thought I was making too many changes that he didn't like/approve, so bye-bye. In my experience, if you're going to be a webmaster, then you should be the person who's on your site the most, that you should have just a little ambition.

As I understand it, he hired a whole new staff after I left, like five people in five departments. Wow, you'd think you'd really get stuff done with all those people. Let's look at his last update - "Well, our server move is complete! I've finally conquered my e-mail backlog, which is a start. 8-) There are still more things in the pipeline though." Hmm, not promising. What was the update before that. "Just reminding everyone that I'm still alive. I did a quick update a week or so ago to get up to date on my e-mail backlog." Well, gee, there sure was no e-mail backlog when I was working there. Where's his famous team that was supposed to help him? The last update made by someone who was not the webmaster was in June (and there's a delightful sql error on the update history page).

Frankly, my leaving couldn't have come at a more opportune time. FF12 was about to be released and I had A) no desire to play it and B) no time to play it. Not to mention more games were coming down the pipeline on systems I didn't own, and I didn't feel I could live up to the job if I didn't keep up with the games. Plus I'd started a new job, and wanted to put more energy into my writing. And I was sick of dealing with his prideful crap, and limiting what the site really could have been. Crash and burn. Well, enough gloating. Back to Final Fantasy.

I must say I'm a little sad. FF13 looks like its going to compare with FF7 at least with style - cyberpunk and swords. The girl looks like a winner, no Yunas or Rosas (and she's got a weather-related name, and a funky sword). It also promises fast-paced battles and cool summons. But this Fabula Crystalis Nova thing? Three games on three different systems? And none of them have to do with each other. Kingdom Hearts is going the same way - another franchise I like. But KH2 was too heavy on cutscenes and the buffs to the main character made it too easy. Plus they're making three new games on three different systems, and none of them are a sequel. Not compatible with my life style. And who wants to play all that? I simply can't invest my time anymore, and the games just aren't as fun as they used to be.
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