Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Of Flying Whales

My About Me page lists such luminaries as Conrad and Melville as authorial inspirations. Metaphysically, I am an Aristotelian or (more accurately) a Thomist, of sorts; I read Thomas Aquinas through his great twentieth-century expositors, especially Etienne Gilson, and I believe that this has a heavy influence on my writing. My knowledge of the physical laws that appear in my works (usually to be purposefully flouted) was imbibed at the font of my mathematics doctoral program, through which I studied graduate-level quantum theory and cosmology. And, lest my pedigree be suspect, I can point to Carl Friederich Gauss, Prince of Mathematicians, as my teacher-to-pupil mathematical ancestor. (So can about twenty thousand other people, of course.)

This list of influences and credentials is, admittedly, impressive. Yes. But it would be incomplete were I not to add one more source that, due perhaps to childhood trauma, has never been far from my mind. Those of you, my readers, to whom the felicitious locution "You spoony bard!" is not unfamiliar will know that of which I speak. I refer, of course, to the video game Final Fantasy II (Final Fantasy IV in the original Japanese version) produced by SquareSoft for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the early nineties. (The total number of random Google hits my blog has received to date just octupled.) After having completed the American version too many times to count easily, I obtained the original version together with an English language patch, and am proud to say that I beat it as well, despite the added difficulty.

I know that I've spoken dismissively of video games in the past. This is for three reasons. First, I am a grown-up now, and have better and/or more lucrative ways to spend my time. Second, they rot your brain. It's true. And, third, I don't like first-person shooter- or slasher-type games, and those took the market over in the late nineties. I liked the old two-dimensional games like Zelda, which could sometimes be quite beautiful. (I also love to peruse Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornament.) Final Fantasy IV (IIE) is, alas, not particularly beautiful*, although the re-release looks to have corrected this. It is a great sadness to me that I will most likely never play it, as I have no intention of ever spending money on the system for which it was produced.

No, what chiefly I loved FF IV (IIE) for was the grand sweep of its story. It is a remarkably coherent story, considering the number of ridiculous plot elements introduced into FF VI (IIIE), which I also played extensively. There is much for the writer-of-fantasy-series to learn here. The key is the gradual broadening of perspective. What begins with the dismissal of Cecil the Black Knight from the Red Wings of Baron ends with the defeat of the evil Lunarian Zeromus deep beneath the surface of the Moon. (I can't believe I remember all that.) The story follows something of a spiral pattern, with new characters, forces, and places being held in reserve until the proper moment. This works to maintain player interest. The same idea applies in fiction.

This is a matter of nuts-and-bolts practicality: you can't introduce all your characters in Book I and have them keep returning to the same familiar places throughout the series. It's boring. On the other hand, if you're writing epic fantasy and not episodic sword-and-sorcery, you can't let the finish line recede indefinitely. There has to be a point where whatever was causing the trouble in the Prelude to Book I is finally overcome, or else the reader will feel cheated. She'll get the feeling that you didn't know what the hell you were up to when you started, or else that it wasn't important enough not to alter in exchange for (ahem) enhanced financial security.

Another thing I like about FF IV (IIE) is its blend of fantasy and science fiction elements. Actually, it's pure fantasy, but it has spaceships and world-annihilating robot giants, which people tend to associate with science fiction. These things are given an air of strangeness and immense antiquity, though, and there's no incongruity in the transition from the spaceship (built, of course, to look like a glowing whale) to the lunar palace where our heroes meet Fusoya, Cecil's Lunarian wizard-uncle. I think this appeals so strongly to me because it tends to naturalize or humanize the aspects of our civilization (namely, industry and techonology) that I find most jarring, being a birds-and-flowers sort of fellow.

Well, FF IV (IIE) is one of those things I had to discover when I discovered it (early adolescence). I'm certain it wouldn't draw me now if I hadn't played it before. But game design is an artin the sense of chair-making rather than of, say, Gilson's Arts of the Beautifuland FF IV (IIE) is certainly a memorable product of its time, and one that, for one reason or another, affected me deeply.

A special welcome to all my new Google hits. Thank you for increasing my site's traffic. Alas, there are no games for sale here, no downloads, no hints or secrets or cheat codes. Go read a good book; or, better yet, go for a long walk and just listen. I recommend Moby-Dick and/or the National Park System.

* It did have a good score; I especially loved the overworld pieces.

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