Tech, design, and the decline of Final Fantasy
I used to love the Final Fantasy series. It introduced a generation to huge, well realized worlds inhabited by rich characters, and because of that your heroic journey felt so much greater. But as the series continued and developed, my interest has dimished to practically nothing, and lately I've been wondering how that happened. I have a theory.
My theory is that technological advances let the creators of Final Fantasy hone in on their vision too closely, and subsequently it distanced the series from many fans.
Let me explain.
In the beginning
Final Fantasy 2(4j) was incredible when it was released. The character depth, the richness of the world, and the fantastic nature of the plot all came together to shatter my young mind. As it came from the early days of the SNES it was fairly basic graphically, but was propped up by some exceptional art direction. Dialogue was sparse, characters could barely emote, and there was certainly no voice work. Nonetheless, I was moved by the story and the character development.
Final Fantasy 3(6j) had the same limitations, but despite a grander scale they still managed improve on Final Fantasy 2 in every way. One significant design choice was incorporating a huge cast of playable characters, which by any right should have diluted their efforts. Instead they managed to flesh out the main ones even further than before, and did great things with the fringe characters too by alluding to interesting back stories and letting the the imagination of players fill the gaps. The Snowman Umaru and the Wild Boy Gau were both optional characters with mysterious pasts, but they were fantastic for it.
Each character only had written dialogue and a small set of emotes to express themselves, in many cases just single frames for entire emotions. Surprise, determination, sadness, elation, etc... And despite these limitations, I felt more involved in the development of these characters than the games that followed.
Frequently the best thing to have in design is clear constraints. It forces you to come up with creative solutions you otherwise would never have. In the SNES era we have a great example of an art style being defined by constraints - pixel art - that created a few unforeseen benefits.
Pixel Art - Not just capitalizing on nostalgia
The greatest thing about pixel art isn't how it makes us 20-somethings feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Pixel art is great because it's a style rooted in technology. Pixel art is culturally agnostic; a solution to a shared problem.
In the 80s and 90s it didn't matter if you were developing in the East or the West, you had a limited palette and a very limited resolution, and you did what you could. In terms of interpretation that's one thing that the player no longer has to accept or resist, the fidelity isn't there to introduce any cultural bias. Pixel art is neutral and adaptable.
The second great thing about pixel art is what it shares with cartoons, and that's in how it allows room for interpretation through simplicity. It gives the player just enough visual information to identify characters, but not so much that it dominates your interpretation of the character. It's a framework that we fill the details in with our imagination.
In this way there are similiarities between a game with basic visuals and a book in how they develop characters. They're both co-operative efforts to some degree.
Characterization in books vs film
If a story is available in the form of both a book and a movie, which one would you prefer to experience first? Regardless of what you may choose, you have to acknowledge that there is a difference in how you will experience the story, depending on the medium.
When I read a story I feel like I'm building the characters co-operatively with the author. Yes, the author has an intent here on who the character should be, but the nature of the medium lets you fill in the gaps with your interpretation. No visual is dictated, no voice is heard. As a reader that's your responsibility, and in filling the various gaps you play a part in creating characters that in turn contains a part of you.
This isn't as true with films or television. Seeing someone take on a role is extremely powerful, and it stomps on whatever ideas we had before. I read most of The Song of Ice and Fire before watching A Game of Thrones, but now that I have seen the show I cannot help but visualize those actors when I return to the books. Tyrion is now Peter Dinklage, and my mind cannot reverse that. He has a specific appearance, voice, and mannerisms. My intepretations are reduced.
Now, this can be a good thing depending on the skill of the actors, directors, and everyone else involved. This doesn't sadden me in the slightest with A Game of Thrones as they have a hell of a cast. But it's dangerous when these things aren't up to par.
Which brings me to the later Final Fantasy games.
Past the age of sprites
As the series moved onto the Playstation 1 with Final Fantasy 7 it was launched out of it's basic sprite heritage and into a brave new world of chunky polygonal glory. Despite the massive changes, the game still evoked much of the same feelings. Full 3d graphics were still basic enough that it carried some of the same effects as pixel art - abstractness allowing for interpretation.
But when Final Fantasy 8 came around, something was different. The characters felt… off. It was hard to articulate at the time, but as I observed the characters with their realistic designs and proportions, I saw realistic body language. Unfortunately in that more accurate body language I saw exaggerated movements, melodrama, and overall unlikeable characters.
While Final Fantasy 9 took a detour with a return to stylized cartoon characters, Final Fantasy 10 put us right back on course to realism. Full on voice acting, far more realistic visuals in and out of cutscenes. The game was critically acclaimed for having an never before seen graphics, an engaging story, battle system, and characters. I was excited to try it, but when I finally picked it up I found it repelling.
I hated the characters.
To be fair I don't think it was the voice acting alone, rather the writing was it's real death sentence. A combination of the dialogue, awkwardly directed cinematics, and blood curdlingly immature characters. I could see why people loved the visual effects and environments, but anytime it involved these virtual actors I felt embarrassed for everyone involved.
And there's nowhere for my mind to go. This is the vision that the creators intended, and any sense of agency I had before in developing the characters is gone.
I've come to believe that these kinds of characters may have been what the people at Square wanted all along, even for Final Fantasy 2 and 3, but the technology didn't allow for it at that time. With Final Fantasy 10 they could realize their vision, and it wasn't pretty. Or perhaps it was just fine for the Japan, but it had all the stamps of an adolescent anime that had limited appeal in North America.
Final Fantasy or Neverland?
In the end the most damning thing about Final Fantasy is it's unwillingness to grow up with us. It's core fanbase has learned and experienced a great deal in the past 15 years, but the series stood still. Sure, technology rocketed forward, but at it's core it never developed.
As the original series that opened up whole worlds to me, it's a damn shame that it never felt like it moved forward afterwards. But there's no going back, not for this series. I just wish they would focus more on better stories than they do on tech demos of increased visual fidelity.