Monday, December 18, 2006

Final Fantasy 9's Theme of Identity

I'm kinda blitzed from final exam studying and such, so this here's gonna just basically be a rehash of a post I made in the Final Fantasy section on Gaia. Sorry. Maybe next week I'll have a new and real rant for all'y'all.

I really love Final Fantasy 9. Although FF Tactics comes close, I think FF9 has gotta be the best installment of the series. From start to finish (well, near finish--that whole Memoria place seems to come out of nowhere), its plot and characters are epic, creative, and terrifically developed. There's a lot of themes in the game, from Love to the idea of Duty to Acceptance of Death, and many more. I think the biggest theme in the game that the characters all (or almost all) are fixated on, is the theme of Identity.

Someone brought this up at Gaia a couple weeks back, and when I thought about it, I came to a very interesting conclusion: the cast of FF9 is just about perfectly balanced altogether on this theme. One third of the cast (Dagger, Beatrix, Vivi, and Eiko) are people who discover themselves, who establish their own identity in the game. On the other side of things, the other third (Zidane, Steiner, Freya, and Amarant) are characters who don't exactly discover or remake their own personality, but rather, have their identity strengthened, solidified by the game's events, in ways of character development that are really no less interesting or skillful than the first group's. And the third...well, they just don't have much significance either way (Quina, Blank, Cinna, Marcus), so I guess they'd be right in the middle of the spectrum, or disqualified, or something.

It also interests me that each of the two groups' members represent a different level of finding or confirming identity, exactly as much as they need without going over that amount. Eiko, for starters, discovers what it is to have other people that she can trust and depend on, growing up just a little during the adventure while at the same time learning a little better how to be a child. Not a huge change in identity, but certainly a monumental one for a kid to have. Going one step up, Beatrix only finds a new identity in one sense, that of how to regard her role as Knight Captain. But that's still a huge aspect of her personality, so it's just as much and as little a change as she needs. Then you get Vivi, who basically starts from scratch in his search to find himself and his purpose. A huge step up in terms of a character finding themselves as you watch, but still not the highest, most complex and carefully portrayed example in the game--that would be Dagger's character, who does more than just build an identity from nothing as Vivi does--her experiences, efforts, and the influences of her companions change her entire being as you watch. It's a beautiful case of discovery and change.

The other side of the spectrum has just as much of a gradient, though. You've got Amarant, for starters. Now, he doesn't seem to really change at all in the game, or do much of anything, but all the same, his experiences with Zidane seem to remind him through the differences and similarities between them of exactly who he is, why he does what he does. It's only lightly touched upon, but then, Amarant's not a touchy-feely kind of guy, so it's just about right for him. Next, you've got Steiner, who struggles with issues of who he is and what his job means, much like Beatrix does. Conversely, though, he differs from her in that the conclusions he comes to are that his initial instincts and ideals of protecting the princess are more or less the right way to go (though, thankfully, he at least seems towards the end to not actively want to mount Zidane's head on a pike any more). Freya goes through a huge amount of mental anguish, yet internalizes most of it, meaning that, while we're all very aware that it's there, she's too strong to succumb to it and become a hopeless wreck over it. She continually works through her issues as the story progresses, putting the matters at hand first and formost as she should, and overall staying true to her code of conduct and ideals regardless of what seeks to shake them. It's again a case of an increased level of identity crisis being resolved, fitting the character's needs very well. And lastly, of course, we get Zidane, whose cheerful and helpful nature is a pillar to them all, and who faces conflict which threatens to shatter that trusty pillar of a personality, but ultimately emerges a stronger but unchanged version of himself for it. These aren't "static" characters persay, they're dynamic ones who simply stay themselves, just a little stronger, surer, maybe truer.

This is what I love about FF9, that no other of the series, and not too many other RPGs in general, does: it takes almost its entire significant cast (Marcus, Cinna, and Blank are only with you for little bits of the story, after all), and makes each and every one of them a deep, worthwhile character, but doesn't fall into the trap that a lot of other games do (such as FF7) of bogging the characters down with excessive identity issues. Everyone in the game has their own level of complexity, and it fits them even when it's low--you're not saddled with Mr. T suddenly becoming a tragic figure with a past just because the makers feel that everyone has to have huge personality issues to work through in order to be taken seriously, for example. The characters just have what they need, and there's more than enough food for thought in each of them with that.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Baten Kaitos 1's Inclusion of the Player

Baten Kaitos 1 is quite an interesting game, with a neat setting (floating islands, as I've mentioned in a previous rant), a pretty fair plot, a card-based battle system that DOESN'T suck ass (I think this may be the ONLY RPG where this is true), and several really great and original characters. One of the most interesting and unique parts of it, though, is that it actually includes YOU, the player, in the plot.

Now, it's not that I haven't experience this sort of thing before, on a very tiny scale. I mean, in Earthbound, the only way for Ness's crew to defeat the universe's ultimate evil is for Paula to eventually pray to the player him/herself to intercede and whup Giygas's ass. A kinda neat idea, too, that they're fighting an evil so monumentally unbeatable that it takes a being from a higher dimension to destroy it. And who hasn't seen or at least heard of that old televised Peter Pan play thing, where Peter asks the audience to clap and believe in fairies so that Tinkerbell can be saved? There're a few instances scattered here and there of the player/viewer/reader/listener/whateverer actually being included in something for reasons other than a quick joke.

But you know, I don't think I've EVER seen a game or show or movie or book or ANYTHING that takes it to the level that BK1 does. In this game, the player is represented as a Guardian Spirit, a sort of wandering soul that has taken residence in the main character Kalas (and for a brief time later, Xelha). Kalas and Xelha frequently actually interact with you, talking to you and asking you questions, and even the other party members occasionally talk to you. It's often noted that it's your presence that makes Kalas such a formidable and successful fighter (making reference to both the fact that you are controlling his actions and thus leading him to victory through your strategy, and that your presence can allow the main character to perform special attacks which far outclass all the other abilities in the game). And when you're temporarily banished from the BK1 world, the screen goes black--you actually cannot witness what's happening until the Guardian Spirit representing you is eventually called back later.

This involvement of the player really adds a neat and enjoyable angle to the game. It's fun to be directly thanked by the game's characters for helping them out, to have a direct hand in the game's affairs rather than just be an unseen watcher who happens to also play. And as I said before, it's a rarely-explored idea, probably because up until the medium of video games, the observer of a story, be it a book's or show's or movie's or whatever, did not have an interactive nature with the medium. With video games, though, you already are interacting with the game's mechanics, so with a little creativity, as BK1 demonstrates, the player can be made to directly interact with and influence the story as well. I hope at least a few more RPGs recognize the potential for this idea and also adopt it.