16 August 2012

Finally! The Seventh Fantasy (III)

It was fairly late yesterday by the time I installed Final Fantasy VII, set up an account to start playing, and wrote nonsense about it on the Internet. I stopped playing before I even reached the first save point, so I had to start again from the beginning today.

I think the enjoyment in a game like this is in the progression. Tetris never changes, and yet I'll keep playing that game until I drop. I don't have to reach the end of Super Mario Bros. to feel like my playing time has been well-spent - I will gladly run through World 1-1 a thousand times, because the sheer act of running and jumping is its own reward. Moving through the world - seeing surprising new sights and overcoming ever-more-difficult challenges - enhances the game immensely, but it you can still have a great time while dying over and over on the first stage.

In a story-driven role-playing game, progression is essential. Even when you're running around in a field fighting the same slimes and rats for hours on end, you're progressing. Your actions as a player may be the same in every fight, but the in-game character is gaining experience points, levels, gold, and items. Something is changing. There's an arc from where you were when you started playing to where you are when you finish, and that's why players tolerate and even crave repetitive RPGs.

Likewise, most RPGs I've played - okay, most video games in general - have had cringe-inducing-ly bad stories, and yet players really latch onto this tripe. I've heard several game developers claim that games are superior to movies because once a movie starts playing, it will continue to the end, even if no one is present to watch it, but a game requires a player to push it forward, and this means the game/player bond is closer than that of the movie/audience. While I personally find this viewpoint absurd, the fact that some people do buy into it goes a long way toward explaining why video game fans hail certain video game stories as brilliant, while they would never tolerate the same story if it were presented in a movie. The written narrative of a Final Fantasy game does not take the player's choices and actions into account, but it also wouldn't be told without somebody being present to hit the "Continue" button every few seconds. There is a connection to the storytelling process, even if that connection is largely an illusion.

More important than the content of the story is its presence. That is, it doesn't matter so much if the plot or characters are worthwhile, as long as the story is present enough to create a sense of progression. Cutting to a cinematic sequence conveys the idea that something, anything, has happened. Has the state of the game changed between when I started playing and when I ended? Good enough.

Over the years, I've probably gone through the opening scenes of Final Fantasy VII half-a-dozen times. If I play Sonic the Hedgehog's Green Hill Zone two days in a row, I'm going to have a blast both times. If I play the intro to Final Fantasy VII two days in a row, on the other hand, my characters will have lost all their gained experience, and I will already clearly know exactly what awaits me in the story. That isn't to say this is a bad or invalid way of designing a game. The blame is on me for not pressing on to the next save point. Still, I expect my excitement levels for this game will remain pretty tepid until I finally reach a point I haven't played before.

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