Sunday, July 11, 2010

The games we play, the games we love

Final Fantasy XIII

Overall: 10 stars out of 10.

Eye Candy: 10 stars out of 10. Graphics are heartbreakingly gorgeous, girls cute and sexy.

Music: 7 stars out of 10. There are tunes in this soundtrack that will be played at weddings and funerals for a year or two, but the rest of us may wonder why. Sazh's Theme from the Salvage Yard is actually memorable. I like it.

Story: 10 stars out of 10. The game starts very, very slowly, like sunrise in a Wagner opera. Be patient and enjoy the meaningless mayhem while you can. It won't last.

Playability: 8 stars out of 10. This is not a great zero-sum game, like chess or Go, or a great princess-and-monster, like the original Tomb Raider games or Zelda, but it is fun, unclassifiably hard fantasy and hugely cathartic. This point can be overlooked. It has high catharsis value, and ranks as one of the mysteriously great healing games of all time. I can't explain this. My dreams, following chemoembolization for liver cancer, were grim, dire and hellish. My dreams, following the first three chapters of Final Fantasy 13 are models of immense satisfaction and quiet pleasantry.

Pentimento: Subtract 20 points for gratuitous aggravation. The characters slowly talk their way through raging selfish ignorance to gradual awareness that other people exist and perhaps the world is not as simple as a sheltered 14-year-old might think. The overarching soliloquy, varying only in minor details per cast member, telegraphs its feathersoft punches, and the "come to realize" moments could be engraved on grains of rice while the rest of us are waiting for the first obvious flipflop to drop.

Recommended: Yeah, sure, why the hell not? I run hot and cold on this point.
I am a huge fan of the Homeric passage though Hell: Alice in Wonderland, James Joyce's Ulysses in Nighttown, Dante's Inferno, Hanna Green's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Ovid's Orpheus and Eurydice, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Tom Jones' What's New, Pussycat? and, of course, Childbirth, and Golf. The best games all have this hellish overtone, more or less literal as the case may be.

I began to love Final Fantasy XII during the maddeningly difficult Barsoom Passage, the details of which I shall not divulge. But that stretch of the imagination wound my nerves up tighter than cheese wires, and when I staggered out the other side of the abyss back into daylight, I felt reborn, renewed, refreshed. Not bad as a working definition of catharsis.

Add to these Final Fantasy XIII, which is slowly becoming to my mind one of the great games of all time.

I'll admit, I still wonder what's going on, even though by now I've acquired the Omni-Kit. Which is a little like getting your first BSA flashlight — it's shaped like an L, with batteries in the handle and a light that browns out and flickers erratically in the right-angle head — which makes you wonder if the Boy Scouts of America knew what they were doing when they bought 20,000 of these pups. What's going on? Does the master storyteller have a firm grip on the tiller?

  • The plot is linear. That's odd for modern JRPGs.
  • There is no coherent group. The characters are cranky and uncooperative, and don't like each other very much or work well together, and that also is very uncharacteristic of Japanese culture, where the herd instinct is almost the only thing Americans think they know about Japan.
  • There is no plot. No plot at all, just episodes and incidents. This group of intrepid wayfarers is fluid, dynamic, recombinant and incoherent. It breaks apart at the drop of a hat, flows together by dribs and drabs, and wanders where it will over the rigid, unforgiving box canyons, ambush alleys and one-way-in-one-way-out death grounds.
  • None of this terrain is memorable. None of this is a Barsoom Passage or a Feywood.
By now, Snow has acquired a motorcycle he's not qualified to drive, and Fang, whom we've met but not by name, has acquired him and his crystal fiancee (we'll grant the implausible bits).

Lightning has insulted everyone and gone off by herself, abandoning Hope (catchy ain't it? — actually, it's the kid) behind, alone in the wilderness.

Like drops of mercury, everyone eventually re-coalesces (except Snow, who has dropped out of the story for the length of a Bible) to confront the miniboss at the far end of a Slough of Despond (whatever), including Lightning, who meets the overwhelming odds against success with cold logic and necessity. For now, her companions are useful. They may meet again, she says, as enemies.

And whatever Snow is up to, Sazh's group comes out of this adventure with the tidy gains of expanded roles and a utility kit.

Got it? Normal RPGs have strong cohesive groups which wander at will over the world map. This RPG has a incoherent schizophrenic aggregation, hardly a group, that meets its various ineluctable fates with no clear sense of purpose whatsoever.

Oh, there be "Focus," whatever that is. None of the characters know either.

Someone is playing games with our expectations! It remains to be seen if this risky strategem can realize its potential or not.

True, though, you don't play videogames to turn pages. They're not intended to program wetware with natural languages like, say, a book. The purpose is strong, engrossing, visceral, visual entertainment: Battles, puzzles, hide & seek. So at a minimum, how are the battles? Are the swarming minions many? Are the minibosses HAIRY? Are the boss battles INSANELY DIFFICULT? (Think "Aster protoflorian Linn.") Yes, yes, yes!

In a nutshell, by the time you've found your second eidolon, you know this game is going to be something special. And that's all I have to say about that.

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