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RPGs vs Movies: Review of The Spirits Within, and RPGs as Storytelling Medium

by Usagi Vindaloo

Warning: Contains Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VII Spoilers

It was an overcast Monday night in British Columbia, Canada, when I did my duty as a sworn worshipper of Final Fantasy, Square, and RPGs in general; I went down to the theatre (dragging my not-so-fanatical parents), plunked down 7 bucks, sat in a dark theatre, and watched Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. I went in with many apprehensions: would this be nothing but eye candy? Would this be a black stain on the Squaresoft name? Would this be even WORSE than Lara Croft: Tomb Raider? Luckily, my fears proved at least somewhat unfounded; it was truly an enjoyable movie, well worth the money, and perhaps even worth a repeat viewing. Square "does good" again!

Yet one thing stuck out in my mind: The Spirits Within was a good movie... but it was NOT a Final Fantasy movie.

I puzzled over that. Why wasn't it a Final Fantasy movie? After all, it blatantly ripped off several elements from past chapters of the gaming saga; the doctor's name was Cid, the meteor and the ending sequence of the movie was stripped from Final Fantasy 7, and Aki Ross kept reminding me of Rinoa for some odd reason. Yet it still didn't satisfy my "vision" of a Final Fantasy movie. After trying, with only moderate success, to formulate a reason for this, I decided to take a different route: pin down what I felt a Final Fantasy movie would be. Of course, the obvious things came up right away: the chocobos, the Moogles, the presence of magic, other worlds (i.e. not post-apocalyptic New York) and even the crystals. Still, I was unsatisfied. Then, at last, in the middle of work the next day, it hit me.

Final Fantasy is not a world, or a set of characters, or even a theme. It *is*, first and foremost, a STORY.

Not just any story, either. A highly developed, dynamic, entrancing story, with vibrant characters that leap right off the screen and make themselves at home in your psyche. Each game is a work of storytelling art, a novel that, more often than not, we find ourselves reading from the opening credits right to the last note of the sweeping finale.

When seen in this context, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within falls short. It tries, it really does, and it succeeds admirably in inspiring emotion in its audience, but it just can't compete with the original games. For example, the scenes where key characters die were done very well and reverberated with emotion, but they did not even begin to reach the level of pathos that the deaths of Tellah and Aeris had. The Phantoms were spooky, and gave a sort of Alien-ish creepiness to the movie, but they were impersonal and distant, without direction; a story is usually much more fascinating with a core monster or monsters, hence the final bosses of the game series. The main human villain in the movie, General Hein, was well developed and had some great moments. I like him... but then I think of Sephiroth, think of how much of the game I spent entranced by him and his story, think of all the time I spend obsessing over him, think of how many tortured hours I've spent writing pages and pages of fanfiction dedicated to the one winged angel. Poor Hein never had a chance.

So it's a bad story, I thought. Then I reconsidered and reached a surprising conclusion. I do not believe that these "failings" are the fault of The Spirits Within; rather, I believe that these are the inherent failings and shortcomings of the movie format itself. Similarly, the Final Fantasy game series is not alone in its storytelling brilliance; countless other RPGs have stories that are just as good, if not better. In other words, I think that the problem is not that The Spirits Within is a bad movie, but that movies as a storytelling medium are inherently WORSE than RPGs.

Shocked, huh? I was too, when that thought popped into my head. It certainly was a subject I'd never considered before; there just seemed too much of a gap between the two genres. Back in the days of 8 and 16 bit, movies were movies, games were games, and never the twain shall meet. Even now, many people think of movies as an art form and RPGs as a slightly more complex form of "hit the other guy until he dies". But with the evolution of more and more complex plots in RPGs, coupled with leaps and bounds in technology and visual presentation, the gap between movies and games has been getting smaller and smaller. The release of a Final Fantasy movie, and the inevitable comparisons that will be made between it and its ancestors, has finally made it possible to compare RPGs and movies on a somewhat level playing field... and from what I'm seeing, RPGs have it made.

The success or failure of a movie is often heavily dependant on time, and on managing that time correctly. A movie can have the best story, amazing actors, and perfect execution, but very few people are going to go and watch it if it lasts for 10 hours (yes, I know that there are exceptions - Titanic, Hamlet, Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, etc - but I think it's fair to say overly long movies don't go down well), or if it involves long stretches of dialogue between characters. Movie makers are therefore challenged/forced to keep their vision contained within an approximately 2 hour timespan; not only that, but they must keep that 2 hour span consistently interesting, with little or no "slow downs". I may be wrong, but I suspect that these pressures have resulted in more than one wonderful (if not vital) idea being lost to us. For example, backstory is most often taken for granted; if a character appears claiming to be an old friend/rival/enemy/lover of the hero(ine), we take it as such, often knowing next to nothing about the dynamics of their previous relationship (for example, what was going on between Aki and Gray BEFORE The Spirits Within?). Scenes are discarded if the movie is running overtime or if they don't "contribute" to the plot; more often than not, the first scenes to go are character development, funny/touching moments, and in some cases even major plot points. Stories can often get rushed in an effort to keep the movie "under control" and within the time restraints; we've all at some point watched a movie and said, "Whoa, wait, slow down!" Of course, we can hardly blame the producers and directors for this; they simply don't have the time and the luxury to go into as much depth as we - or they - would like.

RPGs do not have this restriction. What's the rush when you have anywhere from 30 to 100 hours to play with? The game creators are not under obligation to keep things "moving" all the time; any "dead zones" in the plot are usually taken up by actual game play (e.g. dungeons, exploring, wandering around and whacking monsters). Because of the large amount of time available to them, coupled with the desire to give the player time to "do their own thing", action in an RPG often follows a more realistic arc. For example, some movies skim over the protagonists getting past enemy defenses so that the action can move immediately to the dramatic confrontation with the villain; in an RPG, the protagonists spends time defeating guards and overcoming obstacles in an effort to reach the same confrontation. Character development abounds, either as part of the plot or as side quests to embark on at leisure. While movies often leave characters' pasts as a mystery and only refer to them in vague ways, RPGs usually make the issue clear. This is done either by having the player/audience follow the protagonist from the beginning (e.g. Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Chrono Trigger, Seiken Densetsu 2, and others which start in the village where the hero grew up, so the audience instantly becomes acquainted with what sort of life they lead) or by making it a very vital part of the plot (a good example would be Final Fantasy 7, where Cloud's past became an integral storyline and was revealed fully over the course of the game). In an RPG, players get a much more rounded sense of the story and the characters, and thus come away feeling satisfied (well, MOST of the time, anyway... I suppose if we were totally satisfied, there'd be no fanfiction, right?) This sheer length and depth can only be rivalled by written fiction, and perhaps a series of movies or TV shows (since this would allow for more time to spend on character development).

Of course, I realize there are exceptions to these points. Some RPGs suck, and some plots only work well in movies. I just had an argument with my mother over whether Schindler's List could be done as an RPG (I said yes, but Mom looked at me like I had just morphed into Hitler himself). She then pointed out that an RPG with nothing but dialogue (e.g. a romance) would stink like yesterday's sushi. I tried to come up with a reply, failed, mumbled something and scuttled away, defeated.

Despite that, however, there is one thing I know.

No movie hero inspired me like Celes.

No movie villain drew me like Sephiroth.

No movie has gripped me like Final Fantasy.

In your face, Hollywood.

I would LOVE to hear the other side of this, so please, send comments, criticisms, or flames to me at mclough@interchange.ubc.ca - or, better yet, write rebuttals! Give Mistress Nightshadow work to do! ^_^

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