About eight years ago, Squaresoft released what I consider to be its most crowning achievement: Final Fantasy VII. It’s strange to say that, not because it’s Final Fantasy VII, but because it was actually eight years ago, and by that point I had already been gaming (really RPGing) for more than half of my waking life. I guess that places me in the “old-school” caste of gamers—that decrepit bunch of geezers that still remembers what gaming was like on the NES. But now, with another console generation coming to a close—this being the fourth transition I’ve seen—I’m beginning to see some sense in those angry wails that the old-school gamers of MY time were spewing forth. This is a big deal for me, you see; I was a vehement opponent of the old-school gamer, whom I believed to be an elitist jerk. In my mind, old-school gamers simply refused to accept the technological and social revolution that the Playstation brought with it. Now that Final Fantasy was “cool,” they wanted no part of it. (For those of you that just started playing RPGs with FFVII, you’ve got to realize that at the time it was the most attention an RPG had EVER received from the media. When I saw a commercial for it, I nearly pissed my pants.) It was with this premise in mind—that the old-school gamers were just hipsters, upset that their underground phenomenon had been discovered—that I railed against them, pointing to all of the innovation and creativity that the PSX afforded us. How could better graphics and more processing power possibly hurt? Companies could finally make games that didn’t cut corners; worlds like we’d never seen could be realized in their full 3D glory. That was the dream I envisioned, back when the Playstation was first released.
Well, a lot has changed since then. The PSX has come and gone; the PS2 and the Xbox and the GameCube have come, and well, they’re going too. The horizon promises even more polygons per second and wireless connectivity and broadband connections and all of those wonderful things that new technology brings with it. And I’ve changed too; I can’t play RPGs in six or seven hour marathons. I have a career, friends, family—these things are important to me, and while I remember fondly the nights I spent playing Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Cross until 3 AM, I know that time in my life has passed. But that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten about gaming. My heart still skips a beat when I hear “The Prelude.” You can’t spend seventeen years with a controller in your hand and then just “grow out of it.” Gaming—RPGing—isn’t a phase; it’s a way of life, and although my girlfriend adores teasing me about being a geek, she knows better than anyone that a lot of what she loves about me was forged in those late night sessions with Xenogears, or afternoons crouched around Secret of Mana with my best friends. I still remember my dream from eight years past, but it never came to fruition. I think I know why.
Somewhere along the renaissance of new hardware, game companies lost sight of what a game is supposed to be. That might sound a bit presumptuous at first, but hear me out. The first games created on a console were simple things, really—I’m told you can program something like Pac-Man in a few hours. But they started the entire craze: Galaga, Pac-Man… if we move forward a bit, Super Mario Bros. They all share one thing in common: they are incredibly easy to play. Anyone can pick up a controller and play Super Mario Bros. Galaga requires a joystick and one button; Pac-Man doesn’t even require a button.
How does this tie in to RPGs, you ask? Well, they started the same way. The first RPGs were entirely text-based, and their interfaces were extremely intuitive: if you wanted to try something, you just typed it in, or selected the option. If it worked, great; if not, reload and try again. People spent hours playing games like this. Even the first console RPGs—Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, and Phantasy Star—all had exceedingly simple interfaces. This is not to say these games were not difficult; quite the contrary, Phantasy Star II is probably the most difficult RPG I’ve ever played. But the learning curve was gentle.
The 16- and 32-bit eras fleshed out these simple games. We began seeing side-quests, item creation, and mini-games. They weren’t thrown in for novelty (well, I should say the properly implemented ones were not thrown in for novelty). Instead, designers used these additions to the main game to further realize the universe they’d created. Ultimately, the 16-bit era is when games began coming alive for people. I don’t think of Dragon Warrior II as being a world, really—but I certainly treat Final Fantasy VI as its own universe. Every aspect of these 16-bit games was a facet of a larger gem. This is a lot more important than I originally imagined. Looking back at Secret of Mana or Chrono Trigger, I now understand that none of the content was extraneous—everything was placed there to make the game more immersive. Every single side quest in Chrono Trigger added to the game’s depth and scope. But they were still side quests. The core game that Square created was easy to pick up and rewarding to play, and that’s what made the game so great. Throughout the 16-bit era you’ll see that formula reproduced, to the point of redundancy. But the hardware is also partly to blame—there’s only so much you can do with 16-bits of memory.
Then the Playstation came, and it changed everything. Final Fantasy VII ushered in an era of polygons, of FMV, and of complex combat. Say what you will about how much you enjoyed the game, but no one can deny that FFVII changed the playing field. Personally, I think the change was for the better—FFVII used the technology to further immerse us in its world. FMV was a brilliant move on Square’s part; take for example the death of Aeris. Part of the wonder of that scene isn’t how awesome the light looks, or how smooth the animation is—no, the real beauty of that sequence is that we can see their facial expressions. We see the light fade from Aeris’s eyes; we see Cloud’s expression change from amusement to horror; and most importantly, we see Sephiroth’s cold grin. Final Fantasy VII used the PSX as a venue to tell its story, and nothing more. There wasn’t any FMV where Square decided to render a city or a sequence for the hell of it. Everything the gamer experienced was deliberately chosen to impart the most emotional impact, and there were times when the real-time hardware simply wasn’t up to the task. (The attack on Juno, for example.) That is why I was so excited when I finished FFVII. This is the future of gaming, I thought to myself—stories that could be fully realized. The environments were beautiful and realistic; the characters were lifelike and displayed emotion—what better way to tell a story? And even better, the combat was becoming more advanced too. There wasn’t anything too tricky, but the materia system added some depth to the battles that hadn’t been present before. All in all, I was pleased.
The rest of the 32-bit era passed similarly. In my mind, the mold had been totally broken. Games like Xenogears, Suikoden, and Skies of Arcadia were shattering barriers, introducing content that was unthinkable during the 16-bit days. There were some stumbles, like there always are, but the industry was moving forward at a rate that I’d never imagined. I shook with anticipation with what the PS2 might bring with it.
This latest generation of hardware didn’t realize my dream. I didn’t really understand it at first. When I picked up Final Fantasy X, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I mean, sure, you can always find flaws in any game: Tidus is a whiny bitch. The sphere grid wasn’t too innovative. Why isn’t there an overworld map? But technically, the game was amazing. The storyline and characters were both top notch, all things considered—Yuna was a wonderful female lead. But after completion, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. I tried playing other games, but after an hour or two I just put them away. I couldn’t play past the first dungeon in Xenosaga, even though I was sick with anticipation when it was announced. I haven’t even tried to play Kingdom Hearts. In fact, one of the only PS2 games, besides FFX, that I actually completed, was Ico. I couldn’t put the game down. I kept thinking back to Ico, and wondering what made it so different. It wasn’t until I read Michael Krahulik’s “A Digital Renaissance” that I really began to put the pieces together. At first I thought this problem was limited to the PS2 and its batch of games. Once I started looking further back, however, it dawned on me that the problem really began with the undeniable success of FFVII, and the unforeseen consequences that accompanied it.
This is where we go back to what I said way back in the beginning, that game companies have forgotten what a game is supposed to be. This is a universal problem, not one limited to just RPGs, but for the purposes of this editorial I only want to discuss role-playing games. Final Fantasy VII was a wonderful, complicated game, but at its heart, it was still a game—the combat and the interface were largely intuitive, like its 16-bit predecessors. When it was so wildly successful, every RPG company took notice, and immediately sought to emulate the formula that made FFVII so popular. However, a perfunctory glance at FFVII will yield a very different conclusion as to why it was successful. Game companies didn’t see the immersion that resulted from FFVII’s FMVs; instead, they saw CGI and assumed that was what we wanted to see. They didn’t see the materia system as a novel way of enriching combat; instead, they assumed we wanted more complicated combat systems. And finally, they didn’t see the excellent graphics as the means of telling a story, but instead saw them as a marketing tool, or the wrapping paper to disguise a poorly constructed game. (I have left sound out of this because I believe it’s the one area that has universally improved, thanks to new hardware. But music is an old, old art, and discussing its stagnations and innovations is something I’m simply unprepared to do.) Once all of these assumptions were made, the template for a new sort of RPG emerged, one that stopped being a game to be enjoyed, but instead became a beautiful shell that held rotting innards. Ironically, even Squaresoft is guilty of this crime.
Really think about this for a moment. When was the last time you played a “new” RPG? Please don’t mistake this as a harkening-back to the days of the SNES, when every RPG undoubtedly felt new. This is something different. When I picked up FFVII, or Xenogears, or Skies of Arcadia, I walked away feeling like I had experienced a new world. It’s much the same as reading a new book—yes, you’re still reading, but the outstanding books are the ones that make you forget that you’re reading them altogether. Likewise, a game should not make you conscious of the fact that you are playing it; to use a literary term, it should not be self-reflexive.
But all modern RPGs are. The interface for Xenosaga was absurd; the battle, leveling, and equipment systems were so needlessly complicated that I was sure I’d make a dumb mistake and curse my save file. I don’t want to have to conduct heavy research and plan out the path of my characters before I even start a game; I want to pick up my controller and get sucked in to a new world. In reality, Final Fantasy VIII took the first steps down this path, with a magic system that added nothing to the rest of the game. The Saga Frontier and Star Ocean series are more examples of games that were chores to learn, rather than delights to explore. I am not postulating that these games are bad, (well, ok, the first Saga Frontier was terrible), but they do contain completely unnecessary chunks. Imagine reading a book about whales, and suddenly for 100 pages the story describes, in detail, the physics of aquatic combat. Sure, some people may be interested in it, and there’s a correlation between aquatic combat and whales, but most people are going to ask: “why is this here?” That’s the same question I ask myself when I see a mini-game or a side quest or any sort of “extra content” in a game: why is this here? And more and more often, the only answer I can come up with is: the developers are just trying to make the package look more appealing. But that’s not the point. I realize that they are trying to sell us a product, but just throwing random things together does not result in an enjoyable game, even if those random things have been elements of successful games in the past. I refuse to believe that game companies abandoned their desire to produce quality RPGs. I think they’re just misreading the data, and as a result they’re trying to cater to a market that isn’t really there.
FMVs and graphics have followed a similar path. Legend of Dragoon is a good example of FMVs with absolutely no point, outside of aesthetic value. Xenosaga, from what I’ve heard, also throws hour after hour of cinema at the gamer. So many new RPGs have beautiful graphics and painstakingly pre-rendered backdrops, but to what end? Does the difference between thirty thousand polygons and three million really define what’s immersive and what’s not?
This is where I want to pull back to the game Ico that I mentioned earlier. From a purely technical standpoint, it’s not terribly impressive—the textures are grainy, and the polygon counts for the characters are fairly standard. But play Ico for a few minutes and you’ll forget all of these things, as you just marvel in the way Ico interacts with his environment. (Ico is the name of the main character.) His animations are all extremely life-life, not because each one has eighty frames, but because he reacts naturally. He runs a little wildly, and if there’s something in his hands, he’s prone to drag it behind him as he runs. It takes him a little time to stop, and he flails his arms if you try and stop suddenly. When he hits a wall he falls back with an “oof.” I’m just scratching the tip of the iceberg here. The world that Ico creates is entirely believable because of its presentation, not because of its polygon count. Krahulik (whom I mentioned earlier) notes the intuitive use of light in the game—when you run outside into bright sunlight, you are momentarily blinded, as Ico’s eyes adjust. You can’t pick out individual leaves in bright light, either—instead, they look like a shimmering mass of green and gold, just like they do in reality. There is almost no text in Ico, because there doesn’t need to be. The tale is told through the world and through the main characters’ body language. (And some choice emotive sounds.)
This is the effective use of hardware that I’m talking about: Ico’s designers made the PS2 work for them. They did things that would have been impossible with inferior hardware, but in the end what they created has very little to do with processing power and everything to do with creative vision. Isn’t that what graphics are supposed to do? What’s the point of being able to see the individual hairs on a person’s nose if it adds nothing to the game’s atmosphere? Hyper-realism isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily a good thing either. Developers need to rethink how they approach graphics—there’s SO much room for creative flexibility. Processing power doesn’t have to mean more polygons. It can mean so much more.
The next-generation RPG should create a world that we can lose ourselves in. The graphics can be amazing or they can be average, but their purpose isn’t to awe us—in fact, in the end we shouldn’t even realize we’re staring at rendered images at all. It should simply serve to draw us in, so that we stop being a passive observer and instead react to the presented situations as if we were in them ourselves. The game should make us smile at the clumsy way a character walks, or be put on guard by someone’s body language. Immersion can entail a large, open-ended world, like the one crafted in Morrowind, but we also need to feel like we’re a part of this universe, and not just another cog in it. It’s not enough to be able to go anywhere or do anything, not if all that results in is a color palette change or maybe some better gear. Does the next generation world change with our every action? Maybe, or maybe not—that all depends on the scope of the designer. But it needs to be a world, one that we believe in and want to revisit. I looked forward to soaring the skies with Vyse, but at the end of the Final Fantasy X, there was no sense of wonder as I faced down Sin.
These games need to be intuitive as well, or introduce their complexities gradually enough so that the system feels integrated with the story. Why not make the menus and the interface a logical extension of the game’s premise? This could mean a traditional menu, or no menu at all, like Ico. It could be someplace in between, where a character opens their bag and we switch to a first-person view. There are so many ways of making the way we interface with the game original and exciting—why recycle the same ideas for the sake of consistency? Likewise, if the combat needs to grow more complex, or if the item creation system must take a prominent role, make us understand why. Is a new class of enemy forcing the characters to engage in different combat tactics? Does the nature of combat need to fundamentally change? Make us want to utilize these changes, and leverage them, rather than forcing us into it, and hoping that it grows on me. In the end, we just want to relax for a while, and play a game that stimulates our minds without taxing it. After all, this is what we do to unwind.
So, my dream hasn’t been realized yet. And the more previews I see for the PS3 and the Xbox 360, the less hope I have for it ever really coming to fruition. Developers are more concerned now with pushing the technology to its limits than exploring the capabilities thereof. Some companies realize that they’re losing us old-timers, and every now and then they throw us a bone in the form of a reworked Final Fantasy, or an updated Zelda. But the games I remember—simple, fun games that sucked me in—I’m beginning to think they’re a dying breed. Maybe I’m just a stubborn old man, without the patience a game like Xenosaga or Star Ocean III requires. And I’ve no doubt that both of the games I just mentioned are entirely enjoyable, and that other gamers have mastered them effortlessly. But I can’t help but wish for the games of my youth, where all I had to do was pick up a controller to be transported to an entirely different world—without having to spend three hours getting there.