Monday, 4 January 2016

Final Fantasy XII and the Paradox of Final Fantasy

This is a transcript of my mini-episode for the Dead Genre Chronicles podcast (by the way, I'm on a podcast, check it out).


There is a paradox at the heart of what 'Final Fantasy' means in gaming. A Final Fantasy game must suffer two irreconcilable comparisons to the series' landmark seventh instalment; first, to the narrative and interface conventions it defined, and second to its astonishing transpacific impact. No game, or indeed any other work of art, could meet both, since landmark status can seldom if ever be achieved by preserving and perpetuating conventions.

Final Fantasy IX and X were commercially and critically successful, and still hold up today as excellent developments of the form and style laid down by Final Fantasy VII. They are outstanding games, deeply worthy of their heritage, but neither even approaches global landmark status.

Final Fantasy XII wasn't Square Enix's first attempt to break from the FFvii formula; even discounting handheld spin-offs, that honour goes to the misunderstood and underrated Finall Fantasy X-2. But where X-2 is an optimistic tale about the construction of new traditions, it is Final Fantasy XII that best expresses the frustration of the Final Fantasy paradox.

At a personal level, FFXII is the story of Ashelia B'nargin, princess of the recently-conquered kingdom of Dalmasca. Her adventure comprises a series of desperate attempts to restore her sovereignty and build a resistance to the grand empires that want to use her country as a battlefield.

But Ashe's actions are largely irrelevant to the history of Ivalice. At a political level, what really turns the world of FFXII are the tides of power and honour that bind the empires of Archadia and Rozarria to their cold war.

At every turn, Ashe and her party are thwarted by Archadia's effortless military and technological supremacy; more than once, hours of in-game travel will end in a cutscene where Archadian airships fly overhead, overtaking you and destroying whatever faint hope you journeyed in search of.

The true magnitude of the plot's commitment to futility can only be conveyed through spoilers, so if you want to avoid them skip ahead now.


We are used to Final Fantasy games where, in the end, the player's party challenge the power of Gods who wish to control the destiny of mankind. In Final Fantasy XII, though, it is the villains who chant about placing, as they put it, 'the reins of history back in the hands of man'. There are gods, the Occuria, who manipulate human affairs, by granting the powers of magical superweapons to some monarchs and not others; but it is Vayne and Cid who seek to break their monopoly.

Ashe – herself chosen by the Occuria to wield a new nethicite superweapon – defeats Vayne, having finally decided not to use the power of nethicite herself. In doing so, she allows the Occuria to remain in their position of absolute power and forswears the only thing that could make her political and military position secure. Though she ends the story with Dalmasca's sovereignty restored, the nation's army remains weak and the power of her neighbours stands almost unchecked.

It should be noted here that there's a distinctly Japanese relationship to the politics of nuclear weaponry at work in FFXII's plot, but it's a topic for another time, and for a critic who isn't tied by national and personal history to the development of nuclear power for military use.

### (end spoiler) ###

Very little is changed about the world of Final Fantasy XII by the actions of any character. Against the tides of history, individual agency is largely irrelevant. This is reinforced by the sheer scale of the slice of Ivalice you're permitted to explore. FFXII's playable areas are vast, but they also have open horizons that reveal just how much of the world is beyond reach.

It's a long game, and you travel what feels like an extraordinarily broad stretch of the world. But for all your wandering, you explore less than half of Archadia and never trouble the shores of Rozarria at all. This is the great advantage of unifying the game around a single scale rather than having the world-map/field-map dichotomy of older games (which is not to say that world-map-games are necessarily bad, just that FFXII gets excellent mileage out of the alternative).

I'd argue, though this is more subjective, that there is also an insignificance to the combat. There are no dramatic transitions between exploration and battle, few opportunities for a triumphant pose or the game's subdued version of the iconic victory theme. And the gambit system, which allows you to programme your own limited friendly A.I. rather than individually input commands, diminishes your moment-to-moment role in the fighting.

To truly address the motif of insignificance that runs through Final Fantasy XII, though, we have to talk about Vaan. Because while Ashe is clearly the protagonist and lead character of the game, it is Vaan who serves as our viewpoint on events, a less-intelligent Watson to Ashe's less-insufferable Holmes.

The story of FFXII's development is far from transparent, but something that's become widely-believed over the last ten years is that Vaan was a late addition to the cast, only added after Yasumi Matsuno's departure from the development team. Matsuno's departure is a complex issue in its own right – the official line is that he left due to illness, but rumours remain that he clashed with other key Squenix figures, or that creative differences drove him out.

The popular myth holds that after Matsuno's departure, his original protagonist was deemed too old to appeal to the core Final Fantasy fanbase, so Vaan was introduced as replacement. Opinion varies as to whether the original protagonist became Basch or Balthier, or whether the character disappeared entirely.

I haven't been able to find an unambiguous source for any of this. Certainly, elements of the game's story changed after Matsuno's departure, but this is to be expected on any large video game. The ambiguity leaves a cloud hanging over Vaan, particularly as the idea that fans of JRPGs couldn't handle a 'mature' character feeds into a trite, overplayed narrative about the kind of people who like Japanese games.

Still, I feel Vaan is absolutely essential to the thematic project of Final Fantasy XII. He is the ultimate in insignificance; orphaned and stripped of his family by the war, he lives by street crime and odd jobs in the capital of Ashe's kingdom. Though he is close enough to the familiar hero-of-humble-stock to pass for it on first inspection, Vaan is not really any kind of hero at all.

Vaan is an NPC given life. In any other JRPG, he'd be the street-savvy kid hanging around near the airship dock with big dreams and little concept of the outside world. He'd have three different dialogue boxes, one in each act, indicating a steadily-growing awareness of the stakes at work in your quest.

So why cart such an inconsequential character around with the heroic Princess for seventy-plus hours? Why force him between the player and the game? When he displays any character at all, he's unquestionably annoying.

Yes, thank you, child.
The relationship between Vaan and Ashe brings out the absurdity of the relationship between Final Fantasy's magical heroes and the undifferentiated mass of virtual bodies they claim intent to save. Vayne's quarrel with the Occuria is irrelevant to the citizens and subjects of Archadia. Only the most powerful men in Ivalice are more oppressed by the Gods than by human rulers.

For Vaan, no theological quibble can be worth the threat that the Occuria's nethicite poses to his friends in Rabanastre. Ashe contemplates the use of nethicite as a weapon of war; Vaan's mere presence represents those who would be destroyed. He highlights the distance between Ashe's idea of her subjects' needs and the actual experiences of her people.

Ashe stands between Vayne's might and Vaan's insignificance. Technically a divinely-entitled monarch, she should be free to challenge the gods, but her claim to heroism rests in principles that demand she not use the tools presented. Vaan represents the second horn of this dilemma. It would be trite and inaccurate to call him the voice of Ashe's conscience; instead, he is a prompt to the player's awareness.

Were Ashe to be the viewpoint character, the conventions of the Final Fantasy series would preclude any possibility of considering this tension. We might see the precarity of Rabanastre's citizens in occasional NPC dialogue, but we have been trained out of identifying with these digital sheep. We trust that the game will enable us to save them, except for those that will be sacrificed in some spectacular cutscene to symbolise the stakes.

Vaan forces us into their perspective, makes us understand why it is that the means of heroes must be limited, cautious, and surgical. If this limits their ability to transform the world, perhaps we should reevaluate the idea that the world is in need of transformation.

It's no coincidence that this question appeared in FFX-2, and went on to reappear in the sequels to Final Fantasy XIII (itself a game about the inevitability of dire fates). But Final Fantasy XII states the question most clearly: for whom do we transform the world, and at what cost?

FFXII gives a hopeful answer. When Ashe and Vaan finally get their moment at the fulcrum of history, they choose to give up the possibility of nethicite power, to place it beyond reach of another human epoch. This is the answer that places the principles that underlie heroism ahead of the empty egoism that so often goes in their place. It's Bruce Wayne choosing to fund public infrastructure and advocating progressive taxation instead of dressing up as a bat and growling at people.

And Final Fantasy XII is defiantly hopeful about Final Fantasy as a project. It treats the Final Fantasy rulebook with the same forward-looking disregard that Final Fantasy VII once did. It rejects, or gives up on, the attempt to equal FFVII by imitating it. It recognises the impossibility of pleasing everyone who will try to claim some ownership of the Final Fantasy brand or identity.

So it's sad to see, half a decade later, the grim fatalism of FFXIII. It's hard to read that as anything other than a response to the hostile reception of FFXII. The recent furore over the Final Fantasy VII remake trailers has only emphasised this sense of futility; every feature of the original game has become a battleground between those who consider it essential and those who hold it to be anachronistic. By the time the remake emerges, the game's fan base may have entirely self-cannibalised. 

But on the other hand, there's Final Fantasy XV, a game of massive areas with open, stunning horizons. A game that enshrines a journey, and where, at least in the demo, the armies of a powerful empire occasionally swoop effortlessly overhead to attack you. A game that locks you to a single, small scale in a vast world. Possibly a game that, in completing the Fabula Nova Crystallis sequence, will finally break its fascination with the inevitable. The paradox of Final Fantasy may yet see resolution.