The World Is Square’s

by Christian Smith 

Submitted by: (Christian Smith)
Spelling 2
Grammar 2
Coherency 3.5
Strength of Arguments 5
Presentation 3
Originality 2.5
Penalties 0
Total 18

Warning: Contains possible very minor Final Fantasy VI & VIII spoilers.

(Note: I concentrate on Final Fantasy games because of my familiarity
with them, but the conclusions are meant to be universal.)

     So there I was, yelling in bleary-eyed confusion at my television screen. It was three in the morning and the freaking Card Queen simply wouldn’t play Triple Triad right. She kept using Direct trading, and not using my Angelo card. In all likelihood when she did move on, she’d trek to some far-flung corner where Random and Plus would make my task that much harder.

     Great revelations are possible when you haven’t gotten enough sleep; standard neural pathways get scrambled, and imaginative leaps between previously discrete concepts allow for the blossoming of novel modes of thought. That isn’t what happened to me. My eyes were sore and I felt like I’d been pummeled by bad news.

     Why was I doing this? Because it was there to do, part of an array of inessential subtasks and gimcracks. The primary sensation for the first-time role-player is wonder at the games’ complexity and immersivity. Pitfall II amazed me, and I hardly would’ve gotten hooked on Final Fantasy VI if it hadn’t appeared as an immense field of unexplored territory before me; the sheer expansiveness demanded my attention and deserved my approbation. Much of the development was superfluous (Umaro was hardly an invaluable asset to my questing band), but I undertook to explore it anyway.

     At no point, however, did I find myself—as I did suddenly in early-morning frustration at Final Fantasy VIII—hating and resenting the very game I was playing, so my new disgust gave me pause. Was I a wuss? Was I just annoyed by my inability to rapidly defeat that humming hunk of plastic and silicon? That’d be quite possible because, like all intellectual aesthetes, I’m an arrogant jerk. But that wasn’t it. I cheerfully endured all manner of hideous death at the hands of Ruby Weapon in Final Fantasy VII —and due to a particular moment in VI, I shall always fear the words “Throat Jab.”

     No, I was bored and incensed because somehow, somewhere, I picked up the dictum that I should acquire everything available in the game. Such completism was crucial for semi-linear games like the Legend of Zelda series, and the world small enough that it was no Herculean task. But modern games like Final Fantasy VIII span multiple CDs. Sure, there’s the video segments and music to take up room, and each successive disc must hold more of the world as you become more mobile. But we’re still talking about hundreds of megabytes of explorable space—not something you’ll beat in a weekend (unless you’re an experienced gamer with a ready supply of coffee, cola, and disdain for mere sleep).

     Is it the game’s fault? After all, it was the folks at Square who decided to include the superfluity of Lake Obel and Selphie’s ever-expanding “Sir Laguna shrine” website. For those who care to look, there’s oodles of world-building detail in Final Fantasy VIII, and unassisted it takes hours of committed play—and true luck—to run it to ground. I won’t gainsay such inclusion, deepening as it does the sense of a real world being lived in, where not everything that happens is intimately related to the fate of mankind. Annoying as it can be, Triple Triad is an integral part of the sense of an other-reality that Final Fantasy VIII purposefully generates.

     So the change is in me. It would be the height of absurdity to blame anyone but myself for my altered attitude, but at the same time external stimuli probably impelled the change, even if they didn’t compel it. So what’s different? Maybe that I am much more hooked into the online gaming community (if only as a spectator and not an interlocutor); though I had internet access back when I was playing Final Fantasy VII, I never looked at gaming sites. Now I’ve found that the sheer wealth of player-assisting materials assembled by these sites—FAQs, guides, walkthroughs, scripts—boggles the mind. These things also cheapen game play, and should be done away with.

     A nation of players, webmasters, and dedicated FAQ writers cries out in anger. I anticipate that the unanimous response will be “If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read the walkthroughs. No one’s forcing you.” Of course they aren’t. But the very existence of guides is purposeless (excepting only foreign-version FAQs limited to translating text and menus and not supplying strategy or hints, thus allowing gamers not fluent in Japanese to play Japanese games). I’ve never encountered an unavoidable task in a Final Fantasy game so arduous that a relatively small amount of work wouldn’t overcome it; the final boss of VIII is a cakewalk, given proper preparation. Certain side quests may be very hard indeed—but they are optional for that selfsame reason.

     Of course guides are written for more than Final Fantasy, and I haven’t played anywhere near every game out there. But sheer economic sense dictates that this pattern of difficulty will be universal. What programmer would dare say to his boss, “Well, the average player will get stuck on level three and never progress”? Developers know that their product must compete in an arena where disappointing games are summarily dismissed, and further products from the same studio are liable to be met with suspicion. Companies don’t thrive by making titles for hardcore gamers who’ll blow off work to spend hours on acquiring a single rare device; they depend on a large flock of Joe Consumers to purchase and enjoy their game, especially now in the era of multimillion-dollar game budgets.

     So guides will always be unnecessary to beat a game—but are they even necessary to beat a game fully, leaving no stone unturned and no monster unbeaten? A moment’s thought will discern that they probably will never be. With as many FAQs as are written, by many hands, the likelihood that every author is an awesome player is quite low. Therefore, they may have done it first, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it without their help. “But what if I don’t want to take the time wandering around and trying everything several times?” Well, then you don’t actually want to explore the game. You just want the rewards that come from doing so.

     This is not just about my preference; if it were, I could simply avoid walkthroughs and save you the bother of reading this. I don’t merely wish to remove a “temptation” through the elimination (or attenuation) of guides’ ubiquity; I honestly believe that it would foster a more robust environment for all individuals’ enjoyment. Certainly it is not my prerogative to dictate how other gamers approach their play, but I am convinced that flippant acceptance of the “FAQ culture” as uncontroversial and beneficent legitimates a view of gaming that derides the true abilities of the creators.

     The Final Fantasy games have featured progressively wider worlds. An integral part of that world-building has been the introduction of random or superfluous elements. It isn’t difficult to see why: our real experience is varied, chaotic, and plural, and any attempt at verisimilitude must reproduce these facets (at least until programming savvy, storage space, and processor power become sufficient to support in-game artificial intelligence driving truly unpredictable story engines).

     Too, happenstance and serendipity are just as fascinating and beautiful in a game as in real life. The funny snippets of dialogue you run across by chance, the occasional new item or gorgeous image—these are meant to deepen and extend your appreciation through their evanescence, not serve as an indispensable core. I still remember the first time I noticed the forest skulker in Final Fantasy VI and received the Seraphim esper; a little touch, and hardly an example of expert gaming, but I felt good. There is an undeniable sense of achievement that accompanies a successful stratagem or rare item acquired, but it is lessened if the player is only following directions. Building step-by-step guides that divulge every detail is also an arrogant act that completely belies any professed regard for the game; you cannot admire the writing and simultaneously subvert it through completist processes intended to rob it of all casualness and causality.

     Even the classic spoilers about storylines that everyone warns about and tries to avoid are to my mind less destructive than strategy guides and the pervasive mindset that encourages them. They’re certainly more respectful—a good game will survive a player’s knowledge of its future events through attractive play or well-done detailing. But even complete lack of knowledge about the story won’t resuscitate a sense of wonder if blinkered methods of rigid rule-following are used to ferret out every nugget as soon as possible. When you first receive a world-spanning ride like a chocobo or airship, of course you will immediately delve into the multitude of possibilities newly accessible. But a sense of open-ended play, that appreciation of all the hard work a bunch of wage-slave coders in Japan have done, can only be maintained in the face of ignorance about who or what you’ll meet next. If you know it all, you are in fact no longer role-playing.

     For role-playing games are defined by the player’s capacity to be proactive, instead of just responding passively to events or to the confines of the rules or board. Final Fantasy VIII is role-playing because the plot engine advances after the player performs actions; Triple Triad is not role-playing because the player reacts to proffered situations. The more diverse the options, the more “pure” the role-play, up a continuum to paper-and-pencil games like Dungeons and Dragons, where the player can literally do anything. If you know exactly where to go next to trigger another rare event, you are no longer a role-player. Instead of driving the plot with your freely chosen actions, you are merely responding to the conditions of the game’s playing field: you are actively pursuing means that lead to predetermined ends. A machine could do what you do.

     So in-depth guides—and the attitudes that inform them—serve no purpose, reduce enjoyability, and denigrate the games themselves. Why do they still exist? First, I suspect that beneath the honest desire to help others, walkthrough writers are driven by a self-aggrandizing urge to have their play recognized as some sort of standard by sharing their “expertise.” Second, there will always be a large population interested not in playing, but in winning—this is America, after all.

     But I for one am going to attempt to preserve whatever modicum of surprise and wonder the next game holds. When I play Final Fantasy IX, I will not look at strategy guides (an option already open to me). But I also won’t betray that commitment by acting in the manner the guides encourage, as they argue by example that the game is not finished until everything is found. Instead, I will only explore and retry until it ceases to be fun, and then I will move on. If the game is good, I might bother with finding everything—if not, not. This is the only way to truly assess the game’s qualities. In any case, I will maintain my pace and enjoy myself; the experience is about wandering, not about driving hard to unearth all of Square’s secrets. Even the best, largest games are, as yet, very fragile compared to the terrific power of the human intellect. It’s rude to demolish them when all they want is to engage us.

     Above all, I will respect the creators. Even if they aren’t brilliant artists (and they aren’t—none of the Final Fantasy games has risen above the level of potboiler for any length of time, no matter the jaw-dropping graphical lagniappe), the workers at Square deserve a fair hearing, divorced from rote reaction. They deserve actual role-playing.

     It’s Square’s world, and we only play in it.

This is a very well done editorial in almost all regards. One thing that hurt this editorial was that the writer tried to sound a bit too intelligent:
Advanced vocabulary can do wonders in getting your point across by specifying specific meanings and reducing ambiguity, but this was way overdone, and reduced the coherency of the editorial. It also affected how the editorial was presented, since it proved at times to deter more casual readers.

In addition, this topic has been covered before, but the quality of this editorial I think merits it only a small deduction for originality.

But all in all, this is a well reinforced ed, with a very strong opinion, and it brings up a good point regardless of the minor faults within it.

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