How Gamers & Developers Have Lost Their Past.
[Note: Before reading any further, please direct any hate mail you have to the email address below, and not me Arnold (SolidSnake).]
I'm sure you've met a cynic or two in your life. You know the type: they always take undue care to belittle you when you make a verbal slip; they don't exactly hold your word in the highest regard; they seem to enjoy desecrating every new theory and concept that arises in whatever industry they may happen to follow; and, of course, they harbor a fierce insistence that the past was superior to the present. You may not be a fan of them, but an incontestable fact remains that very few among us enjoy admitting: cynics are very often right. Especially on the last front.
The discouraging axiom is true in almost every facet of life one can think of. The music was better in the '60s. Television's gone downhill since the '50s. They don't write novels like they did in the 1800's. Unfortunate? Yes, but they pale in comparison (from a gamer's perspective, anyway) to the fact the quality of videogames has drastically declined in the last decade. Adventure games require no intuition. Fighting games have no personality, no spirit. Puzzle games are nonexistent and, worst of all, RPGs have grown dim and mundane.
I suppose the trend is natural in any form of expression, but in most industries when the laggard drift becomes apparent, its members take refuge in the genius of the past: oldies are played on the radio; classic television still has its place in contemporary society; and literary classics are still studied extensively. Unfortunately for gamers, the electronic masterpieces of yesteryear have been all but forgotten. When was the last time you dusted off your 2600 and enjoyed a game of Pitfall? My point exactly. Game players have abandoned the masterworks of past generations in favor of glitzy visuals.
It's not just gamers who are responsible for the ruin of classic videogames. Developers have deliberately abandoned the formulae popularized by titles in the early-to-mid '90s, and gaming is a more somber world because of it.
Nowhere in the gaming industry is this more apparent than in the RPG genre. I remember an era when games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI were the standard by which other entries into the genre were judged. I remember a day when RPG meant more than the Squaresoft name. And, perhaps most importantly, I recall a period when Final Fantasy was an entire franchise spanning sundry titles and not just three games chock full of visual glitz. Ask the average gamer how many Final Fantasy titles he's played, and more than likely he'll respond with two of the three PlayStation incarnations (a strange force seems to inhibit gamers from having played all three).
Perhaps I'm rambling inordinately about the decay of one franchise, but the Final Fantasy series has always been a microcosm of the industry as a whole. The chain is like the Dow to the national economy. Its peaks and valleys have an impact on the financials of electronic entertainment, and for many veterans of Final Fantasy, it is the industry.
That's bad news for gaming today. After all, Square's flagship franchise hasn't exactly been burgeoning creatively in the last three years. While I certainly appreciate the efforts from developers to produce fresh material and avoid stagnation, Squaresoft has taken the campaign a step too far, alienating the more seasoned gamers who elevated the Final Fantasy series in the early '90s to the plateau of greatness it currently enjoys.
It's not hard to notice the trend. Almost every part of the Final Fantasy formula has been altered in the name of progress since the baneful release of FFVII - a title that transfigured the venerated franchise into a corporate hook - from an exclusive manifestation of the greatness of the RPG genre to a product marketed more towards button-mashers than the core of Square's fan base. As mentioned, it's evident in almost every facet of the series. From battle to character development to plot, the games were fundamentally altered - and in my view, damaged - by the revelation of the third dimension.
Take the battle system. Veterans of the series will remember manipulating the novel job system and taking full advantage of the myriad Espers at their disposal. The genius of these battle schemes was superlative. In the classical age of Final Fantasy, innovative systems of battle made the painfully random clashes with enemies a pleasure: gamers enjoyed the process of building indomitable parties. The process was so fluid and cohesive that fighting truly became a joy. The systems were well thought out and complex enough to present a challenge, but simple enough to be understandable as a reflexive structure to the casual gamer.
It's much different in the modern titles. Take Final Fantasy VIII, for instance. The game's battle scheme is miserably flawed. In fact, the only reason I continually subjected myself to the listless horror of the endless battles was a deeply-embedded sense of duty to the Final Fantasy franchise. The draw system made the process of securing for your character powerful spells exceedingly repetitious; the scheme was fundamentally flawed and had no place in a Final Fantasy title - a series that prides itself on innovative and strategic conflict. Add to that a junction system that could be endlessly exploited, and you have a powerfully easy string of battles that are more chores than anything else. Admittedly the materia system was a bit smoother in Final Fantasy VII, but even that was nowhere near the level of cohesion exhibited by the classical titles.
That's not even the biggest problem. The character development in the more contemporary installments was laughably artificial - a far cry from the masterful progression of the series' golden years. Just look at the leads from Final Fantasies VI and VIII and notice the difference. Terra (not exactly the central character, but the closest to it, I suppose) races through her title in an effort to find herself - to find her place in a world torn apart by racial angst. A microcosm of the world in general, she learns to cope with the differences within herself and grow stronger because of her diversity, despite it nearly destroying her early in the plot. Her development is ingenious, and another example of the wonder of classical Final Fantasy.
For Squall (FFVIII's front man), just take all the florid compliments I bestowed upon Terra and turn them upside down. He was terrible. Never before in my gaming career have I seen a character so bitter, so disinterested in the well-being of friends and the world in general. He seemed to plod through his surroundings without any kind of moral barometer or purpose. He was antagonistic, belligerent and depraved. It's not often that I root for the villain in an RPG, but I did in FFVIII - not because the antagonist was well-developed (quite the opposite), but because Squall was such a frothing yutz. I was hoping Edea would murder the bastard with that icicle during the assassination attempt. His development is limited to one change: resisting Rinoa and then later becoming infatuated with her. Well, two, I suppose, if you count the painfully stilted orphanage scene (I guess I did grow up with you folks; I must have forgotten).
Besides, it's not only the main characters in the modern incarnations of the franchise who exhibit this weakness. The supporting cast is also miserably artificial - especially in Final Fantasy VIII, but also in its predecessor. Characters like Quistis are palatable, but once you look at Irvine and Selphie, it becomes apparent that the characters in the title were designed by some chain smoking, mescaline abusing, gin guzzling, narcoticized, schizophrenic 60-something harboring a fierce resentment of the gaming industry. This wasn't a problem in the older titles. Just look at Shadow. His complexity made him truly memorable, and his inner demons gave him a depth that some main characters never had.
In all fairness, however, the storylines themselves remained relatively unscathed by the transformation of the series in the last several years. However, since Final Fantasy is such a character-based franchise, the plots still suffered by association. Still, that's not to say the premises of the PlayStation installments of the series were exactly novel. "Apocalypse looms. Grow spiritually (kind of). Save world." Gee. Forgive me if I don't give Square points for innovation. Granted the backdrops of the classic games were similar, but at least the SNES titles had a little variation and flavor to their tales of the impending end-time.
I do, of course, have a point to make with my jaded rambling: by discarding the greatness of the past, the quality of the RPG genre and gaming as a whole has been fundamentally damaged. While I'm not an opponent of progression and technological advancement in the industry, I'm a fierce believer that it's arrogant and almost blasphemous to toy with the perfection of a series like Final Fantasy.
Gamers must reconnect with the heritage that forged the seven billion dollar industry we currently enjoy. Fortunately for players who were introduced to electronic entertainment by the cold hand of the PlayStation, it's easier than ever to get your hands on the classics. With Square nobly rehashing the masterpieces of yesteryear, there's no excuse not to become immersed in the genius of the past.
Still, younger gamers becoming acquainted with the classics is only half the battle: the developers in the industry are responsible for taking heed of the lessons and examples presented by the likes of FFIV, VI and Chrono Trigger and using them to create fresh material with the more seasoned player in mind: it's entirely possible to be innovative while still observing the past. Perhaps soon we'll see developers draw from the genius of yesteryear while still looking toward the future.
7/21/2001 Bryan Keers