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Game Design Essentials: 20 RPGs

July 2, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 15 of 22 Next

14. Final Fantasy

Designed by: Hironobu Sakaguchi (the original and many sequels), others

Influenced by: Dragon Quest, Falcom RPGs and (superficially) D&D.

Series: Twelve main games and XIII and XIV on their way. There have been a huge number of side games as well; the best-known are probably Final Fantasy Tactics, Crisis Core, Final Fantasy X-2, Chocobo's Dungeon and, more prominent in recent years, the Crystal Chronicles sub-series.

Legacy: A huge swath of JRPG production has been directly influenced, if not trying to outright ape, one or more games of the Final Fantasy series.

Is there anything to say about this series of games that hasn't already been said? Ah well, I will give it a shot anyway. Ahem.

Final Fantasy! Single-handedly saved Square from obscurity! Injected new life into the JRPG genre!

Final Fantasy! Made the fortunes of the Sony PlayStation! At long last brought JRPGs to something approaching cultural relevance!

Final Fantasy! Aped by countless game companies, stagnant and wallowing in its own cinematic pretensions. Seems not to know how profoundly goofy it has become. And yet, FFXIII will almost undoubtedly outsell every other game released the month it hits shelves.

Final Fantasy (Screenshot courtesy

These things do not concern us here, but what does is its design, and the Final Fantasy games, since about IV on, have had excellent design. Like the Falcom RPGs that came before (although not to their extent), Final Fantasy games have always made it a point to redesign the core systems for each new game.

Usually, each game features some key feature that serves to distinguish it from the others. Sometimes, as with Active Time Battle and the Job System, the feature proves to be so engaging in its own right that it's returned to in later games, or even become nearly standard through the industry. The mechanics are well-planned, they make characters powerful without becoming too powerful -- unless the player works hard to gain well-hidden super abilities.

It's good that Final Fantasy has such strong straight design elements because frankly, as a medium for actual role-playing and realism, it's sorely lacking. Every game system Final Fantasy has introduced has been something purposely counter to the traditional values of role-playing games. Active Time Battle: it's cool and all, but menu selections in real-time? Job system: does it make sense that a high level fighter be able to instantly become a wizard, or a dancer or a chemist, on a whim?

Espers and Materia: what now? Did anyone fantasize about these things before they were built into Final Fantasy? Those are the more defensible elements; let's not even get into "Dressspheres" and "Sphere Grids" and whatever else they're putting spheres into today.

Probably the most damaging influence it has wrought upon the JRPG field is Final Fantasy's complete divorcing of play mechanics from reality. Some of those systems award the player's characters a resource called AP, or sometimes JP. (Usually Ability Points or Job Points.) Often the fights that award high AP are completely different from the fights that award experience points. What AP is supposed to represent has never been adequately explained.

Increasingly in JRPGs, awards and points are bestowed more for the role they play in the fill-in-the-blanks design template, where spending time in the game makes characters more powerful, rather than even pretending to be depicting processes that could happen, even in a fantasy world. The source of this tendency I trace to Final Fantasy.

Why is it, exactly, that racing Chocobos should grant the player access to a hideously overpowered mega spell? Why does spinning the wheels of a slot machine cause damage to a foe? How could a character change so utterly that he has completely different skills and abilities just by picking up a new "job?"

All RPGs traffic in abstractions. To some degree, an RPG can only be as successful as the extent to which he causes the player to ignore how arbitrary it all is. One of the signs of the aging of the JRPG genre is how its games have, recently, become less careful about how blatantly made-up their various systems are.

Final Fantasy games are where this tendency originated. Its item screens, character clothing, magic trinkets and board games have become synonyms for each other, anonymous resources that mean nothing beyond the story events that provide them and the various advantages they grant. They may all be balanced (more or less) regarding the place they hold in the game, but, why? And yet, due to Final Fantasy's massive popularity, the tendency to tack on a strangely-named "system" has spread out to the whole of JRPGs.

In terms of game design, I must reiterate, all these things are perfectly fine. In terms of RPG design, though, they seem out-of-place. These games have turned into a strange amalgam of things that Gary Gygax would not have recognized.

Take Paper Mario, for instance. I love the Paper Mario games; they are as well-written as any other game you could point to, but are they really RPGs? Does the person sitting at the controller "play the role" as Mario, any more than he does in a typical side-scroller? Paper Mario also has a charming battle system, but it barely pretends to simulate anything.

The opposite approach, at least in the context of JRPGs, is that of Dragon Quest, which has kept pretty much the same battle system since the '80s. It's been updated with better graphics, and animations, and the occasional add-on feature (and sometimes those fall prey to the same thing as Final Fantasy), but it's still recognizably the same mechanism by which the blue-suited warrior went forth and slew the Dragonlord.

It is true that Final Fantasy games have been so influential because of their great popularity, and that popularity didn't arise randomly. But that popularity has resulted in people uncritically copying the negative aspects of the series in additional to the positive ones. Just like how everyone's trying to be World of Warcraft now by duplicating what they notice about the surface aspects of that game, without considering the strong design foundation the game is built upon.

Am I being too literal-minded, here, in my treatment of "role-playing games?" I may well be. But I have discovered that attempting to put Gygax and Arneson, OD&D and the era of Lake Geneva into any sort of context with late-era JRPG weirdness is asking for disillusionment. The disconnect between them is unavoidable, and too seldom remarked upon. It is the reason why I, and many others, feel I must add that "J" to the initials RPG here, instead of sticking with the letter "C."

Article Start Previous Page 15 of 22 Next

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