The experience left me shuddering, cold, wet and huddled in the depths of a motel shower as images of the latter replayed in my mind, replayed with a complete fantastical void. A void not born from under-developed characters, dull storytelling, schizophrenic sound design or automated game play, but a hollowness that existed in the visual spectacle of it all. I no longer felt immersed and shackled with that nerdy anticipation of the next slice of character development or plot twist. It is no secret that a cloud-sized cavity has cracked and worn away a series that has been exponentially eroding all sense of wonderment, awe and contentment for years now. Its drip-fed emotional cinematics having been punctured, dousing fan and critic alike with a masturbatory splurge of overwrought self-indulgence courtesy of an over-eager and premature art department.
For too long as modern gamers we’ve fervently gorged ourselves on consistently pretty aesthetics, lapping up every improved dynamic weather transition and wrinkle that lines our gruff protagonists face. But our thirst for graphical perfection and mind-blowing set pieces are never quite quenched, and our discontent over developers vanity as they redirect their franchises is only making things worse. It’s not all their fault though or ours. Remember a time when those FMV cut-scenes were the equivalent of gaming popcorn? You’d drop your controller to the floor to reveal raw-red thumbs sore from that boss fight. The one where you hammered x to give that that statutory JRPG gimmick character (you know who you are!) a phoenix down for the umpteenth time, and then there was that aneurysm caused from being simultaneously poisoned, confused, silenced, blinded and down right mortified when you saw that gap in the inventory where remedies used to be. But after that cruel and unforgiving ordeal there was the treat, a beautifully animated treat, both soothing, short and sweet that synchronized your immersion to 1000% (without staggering) and sent you off into an otherworldly state. A state that reminded you that those jagged polygons and micro-pixels you controlled were real people with vigour, heart and dreams of their own. Suddenly all that post-traumatic stress was worth it.
Just what happened to that gaming past-time of the 90’s where the cut-scene evoked a dramatic silence, a quick sssh and overtook any complaint about broken game-play mechanics or glitches through a brief yet well earned spectacle? Why now when given the choice do we skip through these sequences with as much finesse as delivering a swift limit break? Who is really to blame? I’ll tell you who. Graphics. Spurned by new hardware developers are forced to change a games structure beyond recognition because iconic franchises like Final Fantasy were born from an era where content was scaled up to make up for graphical shortfalls. So let us painstakingly denote how and when this visual binge turned our gaming world of balance into a world of ruin.
Final Fantasy I-VI – A Pixellated Beginning: Pravoka, Bafsk, Narshe, Tycoon
Squaresoft gained traction with its RPG series through the story, characters and sound design that inhabited these memorable locations due to the very fact that its graphics could not emulate realism in any shape or form. Like its text-based forbearers before it (Zork et al), Final Fantasy essentially blueprinted a new genre where customisation and exploration coincided with the developers inability to ground anything in a substantial and focused arena. Despite its small ‘bit’ era, the movement to more impressive pre-rendered backgrounds as it shifted from console to console boasted many high impact sequences with the opera house cut-scene in VI still continuing to resonate with more die-hard fans than anything before or after it. These ugly graphics by today’s impossible standards that caused endless door-entry fails allowed a vague almost literature-esque re-imagining where like a reader the player conjured up who these protagonists truly were and why you cared about them. We filled in the blanks. The experience was personal to you, and you only. With each instalment, the depth increased both narratologically and visually, as developers fixated more and more on making their blobs believable. It’s a quaint oxymoron when you consider that the more aesthetically recognisable our heroes became, the less believable they were.
Final Fantasy VII/VIII/IX – The Golden Balance: Or Final Fantasy went 3D…well partially.
This development meant animated pre-rendered backgrounds needed to be more realistic and in proportion to the fully rendered Tetris blocks…I mean characters in comparison to the top-down view point of its predecessors. To encompass this and the power of the 32-bit Playstation, Squaresoft began to use animated cut scenes (FMV) in a bid to make the series more relevant and combative with other emerging companies and genres. Whilst these were infrequent and fairly short, they made the whole isometric experience more bold and unforgettable (one word: Aeris) often providing that layer of exposition that made those dystopian worlds exciting and fresh. Unsurprisingly it was the most expensive video game ever made at the time, with the series making a risky jump on to a new platform that was beginning to positively ejaculate great releases each week. With visual ingenuity came more difficult decisions, more technical problems and ultimately more expense, but in the case of FFVII it paid off, inspiring a tsunami of imitators that made the genre a staple of the console. Unfortunately success set a template of risk that the company has continued to indulge.
Of course it wasn’t all about Midgar. With two more releases on Sony’s software (barring Tactics from discussion) the realism extended further, the futuristic nature of VIII coincided with the technological anxiety of the late 90’s whilst still embracing its predecessors format despite some controversial gameplay tweaks. The opening sequence remains one of the most evocative cut-scenes ever concocted (and its ending truly immeasurable in comparison to other entries) and for the first time our heroes were to scale, human, life-like, real, more relatable. Despite backtracking to a more familiar medieval aesthetic with IX (which was already in production before VIII was even released) after several dystopian futures, FMV continued to support the game-play rather than rule it, and the cartoony endeavour still evoked kinship. Squaresoft had struck gold by balancing the narratological elements of the original games with a prettier and more seamless aesthetic. The era would not last as new hardware was on the horizon that would quash this golden balance and record-smashing era of JRPG’s.
Final Fantasy X/X-2/XII – A Difficult Transition
Squaresoft’s debut on the PS2 initially split the hardcore Final Fantasy crowd who had grown weary of the anime angst that had began to latch itself onto to the series like a tumorous flan. Sadly its predecessors successes appeared to only make the developers even more determined to pander to its new-found Western audience. Despite The Spirits Within making a SINful mess at the box-office the company were also undeterred in their quest to make the series film-worthy. Now in full 3D, there was no excuse to not have voice acting in the 128-bit age: a decision which would annihilate a large portion of gameplay, content and immersion. ‘But isn’t this meant to be a role-playing-game?’ I cried on initial release. ‘Who are we supposed to project on to’? This leap to voice acting also relinquished the players ability to entitle their characters, and subsequently FFX lost a potential mythological date on the geek timeline where Tidus would have been named en-masse as Douche at the earliest opportunity.
The gaming industry grew at an unprecedented rate with the triumph of the PS2, and it became ever-inspired by the Hollywood business models, chasing blockbuster success and taking notes from literary film adaptations. The consequences of this indulgence whittled down the amount of personal involvement and say that players had with their characters (how YOU personally felt about your Terra to your Tidus). We were made redundant, relegated to a birth of art-department voyeurism that had began to infiltrate our games. We were being weaned off having our own experience, and they became petrified, set in an Americanised whining stone where Squaresoft forced you to play through their corporate version of events. Of course important to note is how the game space was reduced, linearity crept in, the world map and airship vanished for the first time and the dialogue grew more corny and fungal as the game developed. However, and it remains a rather large however, FMVs were still a treat, still well employed, earned and executed despite their growing tendency to be used to ham up the story itself rather than play a supporting or gimmicky expositional role.
With, FFX-2, cut-scenes became skippable for the first time. This very fact almost assumes that Square-Enix were aware of the vacant hole where plot and logic used to be as they pursued a ‘chicks with guns’ mantra media campaign to attract a new testosterone fuelled audience. Square-Enix knew the series had to change, they had progressed too far visually to backtrack now. Final Fantasy XII side-stepped this: Continuing the tradition of releasing software at the end of a consoles life-cycle, 2006s XII was unequivocally a lot prettier to look at, and seen by many as the swan song RPG for the PS2 (I reserve that for Persona 4 myself) marching forward with its traditionalist aesthetic a year after the Xbox 360 began to balance things out with Sony. As a result and to compete and demonstrate the capabilities of the most successful console ever made, the visuals took huge precedence, and my beloved FMV’s dissipated after the impressive opening. Once again the world map was M.I.A., a seemingly permanent casualty of graphical excess and as for the story and characters?… Can anyone remember? Wasn’t there a rabbit/woman hybrid thing in there somewhere? After pocketing huge sums from their first online adventure (XI), XII moved away from random encounters, its combat a jumbled precursor of the pretty pirouetting paradigm system that would hit the next generation of consoles.
Final Fantasy XIII/XIII-2/Lightning Returns – The Art Department Years
With Squaresoft now defunct after the Enix merger in 2003 the newly resurfaced Square-Enix vowed to be an immovable graphical force, but as we approached the end of the decade content had been irreversibly drained with puzzles becoming Westernised fetch quests and the chocobo’s, moogles and monsters relegated to the nostalgia division. Upon its release in 2010, Square-Enix’s next gen iteration of the series, Final Fantasy XIII, received a muted reception from fans and Western critics alike. The developers responded accordingly. Blaming the openness of current gaming worlds, and more deplorably that we should expect linearity due to the spiralling costs of video games and visuals. Getting carried away isn’t unusual for an art department, just look at how every horror game post Silent Hill 2 has attempted to unleash and exploit its own version of pyramid head, or how Metal Gear Solids cinematic gluttony went into mind-numbing overdrive with the fourth instalment.
For Square-Enix at this point it seemed that the more garish the colour schemes became, the more frightening the haircuts grew, the more the combat resembled some space-age modern dance, and the more mentally unhinged those tacked on whacko characters got the closer they would get to Final Perfection. But they were wrong. These aspects became overwrought and overthought out caricatures of what once was. Being doubly pretty meant also being doubly shallow, and the very essence of what made the franchise stand strong despite tweaking the formula faded. With this instalment the game map – remember, a feature specifically employed to promote free-roaming – was used as a railroading method to force the narrative down gamers throats. The characters were merely fashioned from a pastiche bric-a-brac assortment of previous FF templates with developers seemingly more concerned about putting on an obscure fashion show to provide cosplayers with new fixations than providing anything that was remotely identifiable as a relatable personality. The cut-scenes too all blended into one homogenous show reel, that despite their bright attractiveness revoked those moments of wonder where less was more. Even the refined combat system, though fast and fluid was merely engaged as a means to centralise the best visual aspects of the game as S-E wrestled further control from gamers: a huge contrast to the mostly stationary action of previous instalments.
The sequel FFXIII-2 struggled to regain its predecessors depth too, often reeking of fan service with institutionalised carbuncle cameos and by making monster dress up as much a part of core gameplay as the combat. Despite having done the groundwork aesthetically, Square-Enix tied their cinematic weight to the docile story of its predecessor which was a poor move. But there were the improvements right? It was no longer linear right? Wrong. I’d seen more overhaul in a God of War game. NPCs, towns, a time-travelling chocobo serial killer/shop owner and puzzles reunited me with that content I used to love now in a shiny bloom of HD but they were few and far between, and so poorly implemented and disjointed that even that headache inducing story was a welcome break. Alas the Lightning trilogy will be completed next year, again at the end of a consoles generation…and if these findings are anything to go by, the worst is yet to come.
Final Fantasy XIV-XV – An Unplayable Future
Despite initially being labelled as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, Square-Enix’s next pet project will be the now retitled Final Fantasy XV. This came after their second online adventure proved disastrous, further damaging their reputation in conjunction with that despicable fan-baiting FF7 opening remake, and their latest ‘one year in development’ tech demo sinking the developer further into a cinematic lesion where games play themselves. Between the well-paced release of short beautiful FMVs that humanise pixel people to the flamboyant excess of modern AAA gaming, Square-Enix can no longer call upon their visually abused series for success, because it belongs to a bygone era. Necessity is often said to be the mother of invention, and as we travelled from 8-bit to HD we now stand in an era with all the gigabytes in the world yet there is still seemingly not enough space or chance to return to that considerate cinematic balance discovered in the late 90’s. In that era creativity was checkered by the limits of hardware. Such seemingly frustrating limitations provided a template for gamers to fill in for themselves, to add their own goals, experiences and challenges. That template is now already filled out, patented and brutally abused by Enix execs before you’ve even placed the disk in your console. Graphics cost money, graphics create buzz, graphics create investors and marketing rules the industry.
In essence the series died with Final Fantasy X-2 where the gameplay pragmatics favoured gaudy visuals together with redundant platforming, dire pop music and over sexualised fashion shows which converged in a lazy vat of formerly successful ingredients brewed together in a corporate cauldron of mass market and aesthetic appeal. If Square-Enix could only turn their attention to other devices, then perhaps, just maybe a platform like iOS could persuade them to evolve the franchise without remaking past successes or prioritising tech over gamers. Graphics and visuals are just one aspect of a video-game, and as developers become more and more bloated by self-fulfilling tech and as they flounder around and stuff themselves silly with a new generation of graphically obese mega-consoles I worry for content in video games. I worry for the franchises left that are set to be consumed and regurgitated again when they fail to meet impossibly set sales targets, but I pray for the day that the industries AAA Hollywood induced stomach explodes, in a beautifully garish mess that will let indie developers scavenge the remains.