Gamers, I may be getting old.
Not in the conventional sense; I am still spry enough not to go on a final, 1980s sci-fi inspired run. But I think rather that in my maturity I am no longer able to dismiss as merely conventional to the artform that which my younger self might. I am speaking, of course, of the convoluted story that permeates modern RPGs, many of them falling from that increasingly senile Square Enix.
Like many of us, I have the nostalgic love of SE that could only be fostered by a nerdy NES/SNES addict. My first exposure to role-playing games came from a console, not a pen and paper, and as such, my love of fantasy grew from the Oriental, rather than the Occidental, tradition. This continues to shape my vision of fantasy today, as the fantasy I write owes much less to Tolkien and his imitators and more to the Eastern standards like Final Fantasy or Record of Lodoss War. As my appreciation for Western fantasy tropes has evolved through engagement with good fantasy literature, however, my tolerance for Eastern weirdness has slackened some.
I begin to wonder: is it me? Or have the major Japanese/Korean studios just lost it?
Consider the first Final Fantasy game: my juvenile mind found no complications in its paper-thin plot. After all, bad guys need killing and worlds need saving, so hand me a sword and get out of my way. I was astounded by the relative depth of Final Fantasy IV in regard to its earlier cousin: named characters, progression, romance (what my younger self would have called “mushy stuff”), family betrayals. This was real story!
But by modern standards, even that august game’s story is showing its long teeth.
Somewhere around Final Fantasy VI, however, the series began its descent. Final Fantasy II introduced gamers to the aspect of a plucky group of rebels sticking it out against the evil empire, but VI was the one (and only) game in the series that gave that theme some actual gravitas. Rather than the empire being cartoonishly bad, it was merely a greedy empire… only a certain laughing lieutenant was really “evil” in the cosmic sense, and all he wanted to do was exploit a non-human race’s powers to become a god. Gotta love that subtext!
Final Fantasy VII attempted to continue this theme of Othering and colonialization by ham-fisting its way into the arena of environmentalism, telling us that it was not groovy to drain the planet’s lifestream (oil? Mother Earth has oil for blood?) and unleash cosmic mayhem upon the world through genetic manipulation and cloning. Or something.
I wonder how much is lost in translation (since my Japanese language skills are not on par to tackling a video game) and how much of if the story really is muddled and badly-told.
The successive iterations of this theme through the ages of Final Fantasy (and Square’s numerous other games) have only further solidified that I have no idea what the hell is going on in the writer’s heads.
At the same time, Western studios, once purveyors of material not worthy to grace the tables of cheeto-bedusted Dungeon Masters basement-wide, have started producing modern material that is not only moving and significant, but feels like it can meaningfully engage the minds of players (see the Mass Effect series). Why the difference?
It bothers me on a deep level; I feel at once driven by a sense of brand loyalty to defend Square, and indeed, I do not need much prompting. I can feel the edifice of story surrounding recent releases (XII and XIII come to mind) but I cannot find a way to engage with it, to interface with the game in such a way that the story becomes meaningful and personal to me again. I wish to share the triumphs and sorrows of the characters; I wish to feel elated when they (I) succed, and crushed when one of our own falls.
But with recent news that gaming giant Capcom might be shutting off its Western operations to anything but ports and translations, what does this mean for the East/West split in games? Are we forever bound to be one demographic divided by a large cultural and language barrier? Does the terminal weirdness of everything Japan mean that only those who engage with its pop art (anime, manga, video games) on a very deep level will be able to “get” its games? Is the reverse true? Will we ever see a normalization of game styles and the gaming life between the sometimes creepily obsessive video gaming population of the East (I am looking squarely at you, Korea, and your crazy Starcraft obsession) and the more laconic West?
Or am I just being paranoid? Does this post have too many rhetorical questions? Are they really rhetorical? Do I expect readers to attempt to answer them? Does anyone even read this? Or could I just talk about silly monkeys? Haha… monkeys.