It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; or, the plot Dickens..
Everybody loves “Rocky” (1976); I mean, what’s not to like about the quintessential American dream of some white guy who able to overcome the odds and defeat the heavyweight champion of the world, a guy who is stronger, more eloquent and blacker than him. Besides this important admission to the modern lexicon of the underdog, “Rocky” is also important for its unforgettable theme by Bill Conti and establishing a cornerstone of the modern film vocabulary--the “montage”: a collection of vignettes accompanied by music to establish the passing of time and the bettering of oneself; in this case, running up the stairs of Philadelphia Museum of Art and wrestling a chicken. “Gonna fly now...”
This is important to the fundamental concept of role playing video games. Besides the idea of pretending to be somebody else for awhile and do things that they would do (a concept quite a few RPG’s in fact ignore), an RPG can offer you the satisfaction of turning a nobody who can’t do anything into a somebody who is strong, smart, and likely has the ability to cast spells. The information shown in a five minute film montage can’t compare with the satisfaction of turning your farm boy on a quest to avenge/save the kingdom/princess into a hulking, spell-casting badass over the span of some fifty hours. From fighting rats in the cellar to dragons in castles, this predicable template is what brings back gamers for more of the same. We want that satisfaction.
The Final Fantasy series has long allowed gamers to indulge in this “satisfaction illusion” with providing hundreds of hours of grinding through dungeons to level up their characters. Final Fantasy XII goes the logical next step in turn based combat and offers a system that is automatic and for the most part, hands free. Final Fantasy XII uses a “Gambit” system which is just like basic programming (ie. Step 1: heal if health under 50%; Step 2: if health over 50%, then attack enemy etc.). All that button mashing “A” to confirm your party to “attack” enemy has been eliminated by this simple and straightforward system that has you wondering why it hasn’t been used before. However, this forward leap in technology is a step backwards in old school methodology: by taking away the monotonous act of making the same combat decisions over and over again, the game also takes away the pleasure of knowing you have something (if at least artificially) to do with your character getting “stronger”.
Indeed, if the “Gambits” are programmed properly then just about no stopping of game combat is required; you just steer your merry band of murderers as they gallivant across the countryside slaughtering the poor monsters they encounter. As the player you simply direct where you want to go and everything is taken care of for you. It’s like the difference between driving a car and walking fifty miles, but more pleasurable, say like driving a car getting a highway hummer at the same time, but without the satisfaction and an overwhelming feeling of impropriety, say like getting said highway hummer from your sister. Who is dead. And had all her teeth filed into fangs.
However, “Gambits” aren’t mandatory, and in fact this “hands off” approach won’t work for the entirety of the game. Boss battles require different strategies compared to normal enemies. Conversely, someone could eschew the “Gambit” system entirely and micromanage every action, constantly pausing the action to simulate the turn-based style of yesteryear. Still, what’s done is done and there’s no going back. The sharp edge of technology has pierced the patchy screen door of RPG complacency, and the automated mosquitoes of “progress” have gotten inside and are here to stay and suck the blood of the soft, rubbery skin of fun. After this watershed, a RPG that still features turn-based combat is denying inevitable change and tacitly accepting an outdated system that shouldn’t have been improved a generation ago.
This aspect of Final Fantasy XII wouldn’t have been that bad except for the fact that in this game, as in most Japanese RPG’s, the main interactive component is combat. The acquisition of experience and money, accomplishing quests and main story goals, venturing into new areas—these all require combat, and lots of it. The Final Fantasy series does offer much besides combat: the series offers amazing visuals, music, elaborate cutscenes, Byzantinely convoluted plotlines, androgynous characters—more than enough to appeal to any sexually confused gamer. But this is a videogame, something you interact with, and having the main interaction with it on “autopilot” takes away part of the reason we’re playing it in the first place. If something is turn-based, then it doesn’t make any sense to artificially remove the “turns”.
These two contrasting modes of combat – turn-based and “automatic” - aren’t inherently flawed. While my criticism of Final Fantasy XII and early Final Fantasies sound like abject dismissal of their combat, in actuality both of them can work out to be quite fun if they were used in the right context. Fallout had an amazing, rich turn-based combat system that featured deep game play strategies. If you were going to take turns in combat, well, make sure every move counted. Likewise, an automatic battle system could be fun in a game if you had other things required of you to do, say solve puzzles. It’s a game; let me play it.
So, I was having my weekly video game think-tank session with JazzOleg where we try to solve the world’s problems by talking about video games we like and don’t like. I mentioned this review for Final Fantasy XII and also my main complaint that it takes the fun and satisfaction when the game basically “plays itself”. Upon hearing this Oleg put down his pipe, got up from the rocking chair and went out to the veranda that overlooks the valley that leads down to the lake and the boat house. He stood there for some time, watching the sun set as the temperature fell. In time he re-entered quietly and poured himself yet another brandy. Swilling it, he said at last, “While I hold your position, Msgr. Lasttoblame, to be one of logic and honor, I will inform you that the great satisfaction I obtain from playing Final Fantasy and other RPG’s is by outfitting my characters with the best armor and weapons and upgrading them as I see fit.” He then stood there silently, biting his lip, until he lifted his glass and downed the brandy in one swill. Oleg then did a line of coke the length of my arm and jumped out the window. When I peered through the broken glass I saw that Oleg had picked himself up and was running away, yelling “Video games can make a grown man cry!” and “It’s all about the story!” over and over again.
Wise words, even if I don’t agree with them. Gamers can play a video game whichever style fits them: cautiously, brashly, methodically, carelessly. Whichever style it is it doesn’t matter as the fun they derive from said game. If there are gamers like Oleg who enjoy looking over a menu tab again and again to agonizingly choose a +7 Sword of Vorpal over the BFG, well… there just are. People will have their fun however they want it. However, it should be noted that the automation that happened with the turn-based combat will likely also happen with upgrading your inventory and stats, as can be seen in the “X-Men: Legends” action-RPG’s. Just as there are people who don’t enjoy constantly confirming “yes” to attack, there are also people like me who don’t enjoy looking at a massive spreadsheet in order to marginally improve my characters.
Technology is change. Progress is change. But technology isn’t necessarily progress. The current trend in video games is to make games more and more accessible to more people, and the direct result is that of making games more and more easy. Final Fantasy XII follows this trend by using technology to make choice selection easier and faster. This is in effect “giving something for nothing” and gives the illusion of an action game without actually requiring the reflexes and co-ordination to play an action game. Easier and easier games redefine games as less interactive and demanding when the complexity of technology and the maturing of gamers’ sophistication requires the opposite.
Fell asleep with my thumb on the analog stick and woke up 3 levels later. Didn’t cry one bit despite playing game in room with lit scented candles sitting cross-legged on my Ethiopian hemp rug in my drawstring tie-dye pants. Aerith still dead.
The Bottom Line
I don’t think my opinions are based on genre preferences. I’ve played lots of RPG’s over the years, a couple of them Final Fantasies; I liked a few of them even. I believe that game should be challenging and involving because those are the hallmarks of a good game. Both the “Gambit” system and countless cut-scenes of boring and confusing exposition remove us from this challenge. If a gamer plays specifically for the experience of a video game and not the challenge, then said experience honestly better be worth the many hours you put into it to receive the appropriate amount of satisfaction. On this definition, the majority of video games don’t apply.
Final Fantasy XII is a victim of its own pride of being dumbed-down technology and bloated, self-important art.