Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Why Final Fantasy IV Is So Great

The Characters of Final Fantasy IV, Square Enix, Airi Yoshioka
I recently made a video game purchase. It's the first such purchase I've made since…oh, 1996 or so. Yeah, I've been out of it. The problem is not that I don't like video games, but that I like them altogether too much. If I have them around, I play them. I ditched the game console and the TV at the same time, and have never regretted the decision.

Except that I miss some of the RPGs I used to play back in the day. Most especially, I miss the 1991 game Final Fantasy IV, released for the Super NES in the United States as Final Fantasy II in a super-easy version with truncated options and a dumbed-down script. This version is the one I came to know and love as an eighth-grader. Later on I acquired the original Japanese version with an English-language patch (the so-called J2e version), which made me realize how much I'd been missing (including, among other things, that porno mag in the basement of the dwarves' castle). The game has been remade and rereleased several times since then. When I became aware that the iOS/Android version (itself a port from the Nintendo DS remake) had been ported and released to Steam for playing on Windows, I knew I had to have it.

In my younger days I played various other Square RPGs for the SNES, including Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu III, and Chrono Trigger, and, for the Gameboy, Final Fantasy Legend II and Final Fantasy Legend III. (Yes, this is a post that could just as well have been written in 1997, because I basically went into cryo-sleep with regard to certain aspects of pop culture then.) But Final Fantasy IV was the first, and remains dearest to my heart.

Various things about the Steam version, controls- and graphics-wise, are less than optimal, of course. It's a port of a port, so what can you expect? I'm still used to the extremely crude SNES version, though, so it wows me every time. I mean, you can actually move the sprites diagonally – uh, they still call them that, right? – and tell that they represent people. Amazing! The music is awesome, and the 3D rendering of the overworld and towns and dungeons is quite lovely. My teenage self would have swooned with delight.

As to the plot, the characters, and the settings, the Steam version preserves and amplifies everything I love about the original. To wit:

Things I Love about Final Fantasy IV


The Spiraling Plot

The main character of FFIV is Cecil, who begins his story a black knight and conscience-stricken airfleet commander. From there the story literally spirals around the world, introducing the player to its geography bit by bit, exposing ever wider narrative vistas, with little side-plots coming and going at intervals. Once the upper world is largely explored, the action shifts to the plains of the underworld, and eventually the moon, with the biggest reveals saved for the very end.

Here's what I think FFIV has to teach us about plot construction in fantasy writing:
  1. Maintain reader interest by holding back information, settings, and characters until the proper time. Keep new plot points coming at regular intervals. Never dump too much at a time. This contributes to re-readability as well, which to my mind is just as important as readability. When I read a favorite old book, there are always parts (settings or characters) to which I constantly look forward; but with some books, I run out of those things too soon, and feel dejected when I realize that the rest is just a resolution of stuff that's already gotten under way against a backdrop that I'm already familiar with. As often as not, I stop reading at that point.
  2. Spiral out from your starting point, revisiting old problems and old scenes but with ever-increasing "radius" from the center, letting the complexity build up on its own. Let the end get way out there while still tied to the earliest parts of the plot. Certainly FFIV, which begins with a medieval castle and an errand to a nearby village, and ends with a cosmic battle at the core of the moon, gives us something to aspire to.
  3. Meander a bit, while keeping it tied to the main plot. Obstructions are your friends: no obstructions, no plot. Always try to do something other than what's expected. Case in point: Cecil journeys with his friends via ship to Baron, with the plan of sneaking in to steal an airship. But they're attacked by Leviathan en route. Edward disappears. Rydia is swallowed by the beast. Yang leaps overboard in an effort to save her. Cecil is washed up on the beach of a land in which he once committed atrocities. The party eventually gets to Baron, but everything is different from the player's expectations, and the characters have grown and changed. It's a sleight-of-hand trick, really: build up expectations with one hand, while preparing to spring something on the reader with the other.
  4. Reveal something major toward the end (a la The Empire Strikes Back) to make the reader say aha! or oh my! and come back to savor the sudden recognition. This is a matter of style: it's not as important to keep them guessing as to build up to the point without belaboring it. Even a well-worn story can "surprise" every time if it's handled properly.

The Restrictions

One thing I like about Final Fantasy IV in comparison to subsequent Square games is the extent to which each character has his or her unique abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. You're forced to figure out how to make them work as a team. The characters in the next couple of Final Fantasy games are too customizable for my taste. Most egregiously, every character in Final Fantasy VI can be transformed into a magic-using demigod through judicious use of magicite, eroding their distinctiveness and rendering their unique abilities superfluous.

Everything good in life has restrictions. Restrictions add color and variety and structure and romance. It's the Morlocks of the world who want to do away with them, because their aim is to make everything formless and gray. FFIV has many restrictions, and that's what makes it such a cool game.

Furthermore, being a romantic at heart, I generally play RPGs for the story. FFIV is very structured (with some optional side quests available toward the end), which allows it to have a powerful, poignant story. A game like Seiken Densetsu III, in which the resolution depends on what characters you're using, or even like Final Fantasy VI, in which the complete freedom to choose your own party in the latter half reduces character interaction to generic conversation, has much less narrative impact.

The Seamless Combination of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Elements

Here is a world in which swordsmen and magic-users travel around in hovercrafts and whale-shaped space ships, in which ninjas and lunarian mages sneak into giant robots brought to the earth via interdimensional elevators, in which dwarves fend off airships with tanks and fighting monks destroy giant cannons in high-tech quasi-biblical towers reaching from the underworld to the stratosphere. Cool.

But I'm going to stop right there, lest it become too obvious to my readers that I owe more to a 16-bit video game than to Conrad and Melville.

Let me just say, though, that I can't stand genre restrictions on material elements. The work should define the elements, not vice versa. Writers should be bold and take risks. Once something gets labeled, you have to worry that it's on the way to the grave.

The Allusions

There are lots of beautiful mythological elements in Final Fantasy IV: Greek, Hindu, Semitic, Norse, &c. The Four Fiends of the Elements are named from Dante's Inferno. Somehow they're all knit into a fairly coherent whole. These are fairly obvious. But revisiting it now after many years, I'm delighted to find a fierce lunar feline named after A. E. van Vogt's coeurl ("The Black Destroyer") and an allusion in the Feymarch library to the wonderful archives in Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer. Incorporating elements from my favorite sci-fi authors is a sure way to my heart.

The Characters

Final Fantasy IV has a girl with green hair, Rydia the Summoner, my favorite character. Her mother dies at the hands of the protagonist, but she forgives him, overcomes the tragedy in her life, and grows up (relatively quickly, thanks to differing time-streams) into a formidable sorceress with gods and monsters at her beck and call. She also wields a whip and, as a grown-up, wears a slinky green dress.

Mostly, though, I just like her green hair. What is it about green girls? From Orion slave girls to The Green Girl of Jack Williamson to Marvel Comics' Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy), pop sci-fi is sprinkled with attractive green-hued females. It's hard to think of other colors so singled out in this way.

But the other characters are also memorable: Cecil, the dark knight who undergoes a personal purgatory to become a paladin; Kain, the cool yet conflicted dragon knight; Rosa, the kind-hearted white mage loved by both; Tellah, the rash and angry old wizard; Edward, the soft and sad yet tenacious spoony bard-prince; Yang, the modest and disciplined fighting monk; Palom and Porom, the lovable wizard twins; Cid, the crotchety airship engineer; Edge, the sanguine and virile young ninja; Fusoya, the lunarian mage.


Final Fantasy IV appeared on Steam with little or no fanfare last fall. If you like such things, go check it out. It'll set you back just $15.99. Worth every penny.

While you're at it, peruse these seven lessons to be learned from old-school RPGs over at Black Gate.

No comments:

Post a Comment