SquareSoft (2001, PlayStation 2)
since the early days of interactive fiction, game developers have
been wondering -- how does one tell a story using video games as a
medium? The advent of the laserdisc -- and later, the CD-ROM -- gave
developers the wrong idea, by churning out full motion video titles
that, while cinematic, had limited user inputs.
For a long time,
Western developers favored the graphic adventure as a means of
storytelling, while the Japanese preferred role playing games, which
replaced the mind-bending puzzles with battles and character
building. At the forefront of this movement has been Final
Fantasy, which has been consistently impressive, partially
because of the huge budget and manpower put behind them.
the pinnacle of JRPG storytelling is Final Fantasy X. It was
voted in 2006 as the best video game of all time by the readers of
Famitsu, the premiere Japanese video game magazine. At the core of
the story is Tidus, a young athlete whisked away to another world.
This land, dubbed Spira, is a gorgeous tropical paradise, yet is
under the constant threat of a giant monster named Sin.
eventually join a pilgrimage to stop it, joining along with a young
summoner named Yuna. Final Fantasy VIII told its love story
two years before FFX, but hiccups in execution -- including a
divisive main character -- allowed room for improvement. Tidus is
much brighter and friendlier, even if he is a bit whiny. He joins the
pilgrimage mostly because Yuna has something of a crush on him.
actually tells a compelling story this time around, and the romantic
climax -- featured on the cover of the American manual -- is far more
involving than the similar scene in FFVIII.
is one of the most gorgeously realized worlds yet rendered into a
video game. While Square's mediocre beat-em-up The Bouncer was
meant to show off what kind of graphical tricks the PS2 could pull
off, Final Fantasy X was Square's first real RPG on the
system, and they didn't spare any expense.
The world is loosely
inspired by the Okinawa region, which is why this game feels more
Japanese than any of its culturally neutral predecessors. One of the
reasons Final Fantasy stands out from its peers is the way its
game worlds refuse to be pigeonholed into genre classifications --
none can be defined strictly as "medieval" or "sci-fi".
Although some inhabit the nebulous zone in between those
descriptions, Spira defies pretty much everything and is by far the
most unique of all.
It's a strange world, filled with its own
culture, religion, and even metaphysics, and the whole game is about
how these clash with not only Tidus' feelings, but the player's as
well. At the very least, Final Fantasy X's world gives some
context to Tetsuya Nomura's occasionally outlandish character
designs, even if some, like the goth girl Lulu, still seem to exist
more as a fetish object than a true inhabitant of the land.
of this involvement comes from the narrative, which is far more
involving than any game before -- or, arguably -- after it. Before
Final Fantasy X, major plot points were handled by squat
little sprites or awkwardly constructed polygonal models, both with
very limited ranges of emotion.
Almost everything here is represented
with a fully animated, fully voiced cutscene. Even the dialogue boxes
of the non-voiced sections are gone, replaced with subtitles. Whereas
many of the previous Final Fantasy games were games with story
elements, this is a story with gaming elements
sometimes the narrative pushes just a little too hard. It's hard to
say there are any real dungeons in Final Fantasy X -- most of
the adventuring requires walking in a straight line, with an
occasional branch that leads to treasure. It takes a few hours before
the game loosens its reins and stops giving tutorials. This ensures a
well-paced story, but it also drastically limits the sense of
freedom, an element which is already pretty rare in most JRPGs.
are also tons upon tons of cutscenes, all of which are unskippable.
It also highlights another problem -- if the player doesn't like the
story, there's very little of worth here. The battle system, which
ditches the Active Time Battle system of the previous Final
Fantasy games, is fast and fun, but the character development
system -- the Sphere Grid -- is pretty lacking. Even if you didn't
care of Squall or Rinoa's antics in FFVIII, at least you had
the Junction system to play around with.
In Final Fantasy X,
the most interesting parts of the Sphere Grid don't open up until the
later portions of the game, far too late for those who aren't
immediately drawn in by the tensions between Tidus and Yuna. It
doesn't help that, like many of the Final Fantasy games, it
tends to devolve into ludicrousness -- the monster that terrorizes
Spira is actually Tidus' drunken father, the kind of wholly absurd
metaphor for filial tension that would potentially get one laughed
out of their high school creative writing class.
again, like most JRPGs, once you accept it on its own terms -- silly
melodrama and all -- it remains a completely original, fascinating,
even emotional tale. As a piece of video game storytelling, Final
Fantasy X doesn't quite reaches the heights of, say, Metal
Gear Solid 2 or BioShock, both of which use the medium in
ways that other kinds of fiction can't.
But as a cinematic
experience, featuring interesting characters and a beautifully
realized alternate world, it walks an agreeable line between
narrative and gameplay, even if it tends to err too far from the