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A funny thing happened on the way to Zanarkand...

FFX Spoilers, duh

So there I am, having killed Seymour (again, maybe) and approaching the 'point of no return' - you know, that point in JRPGs where the world suddenly opens up and you're given free reign to explore and grind and unlock ultimate weapons through absurdly time-consuming quests while the final boss waits patiently for you to come slaughter him. Tidus has just passed out and a lot of mumbo-jumbo was spouted about 'fayth' (gotta love Square's fanciful misspellings), dreams, Sin, etc. The cut scenes are getting longer and more frequent, as they're wont to do when the game's main quest winds down and prepares hashed-together answers for all those, ahem, deeply intriguing mysteries.�

But then Yuna drops a sphere - the game's superfluous doodad which serves as an excuse for flashbacks. Here we go again...�

About halfway through the main quest we, through the eyes of Tidus, who serves as the player's proxy, learn that Yuna's pilgrimage will ultimately end in her death. The sphere she drops later is something of a will, or just a monologue of memories. She goes through the list of guardians, recalling how they met and what each one means to her. Well, OK. I'm enjoying my time with the game, but its linearity has grown stifling and the narrative has begun to bore me, and then the strangest thing happens...

That scene moved�me.�

Or, "all the feels," as the Tumblr hipsters like to say. Finally, nearly 40 hours into the game, Hedy Burress (who voices Yuna) moves beyond the stilted, breathy way of speaking she's used for, I dunno, the entire game, and finally, finally sounds like an actual human being.

I can't remember the last time a game genuinely moved me. Sure, I was shocked by Aeris' death - but the power of that scene comes from the heartbreaking piano tune, and not Aeris herself (who was barely a character). Games rarely match the emotional power of film, or literature, or drama, and that's fine, because they rarely strive to (which isn't to say that they can't�or are unable�to).�

And so I wondered why it was that this scene, spoken by a character who annoyed me, speaking about other shallow characters I didn't care much about, could really affect me. And I suppose I forgot about some of the basic principles of fiction - archetypes, character arcs, and catharsis (no worries; I won't be throwing any Aristotle at you).�

There is a certain mode of viewing for every artistic medium. For the media that is part of our cultural DNA, it's something we don't even think about - it is an unconscious recognition of various forms and devices. It's understanding that Greek nudes are not meant to be sexual; it's letting go of reality and not wondering why a murderous British barber suddenly breaks out in song; it's ignoring the massive plot holes in any number of mysteries or thrillers or action movies. It's a combination of suspension of disbelief and an unconscious knowledge of the devices that each respective medium employs in an attempt to reach its conclusion: emotional catharsis for the audience and/or a challenging of viewpoints.�

Anime is particularly important in this regard - for us in the west, the mode of viewing required is not necessarily innate in our culture, and those looking from the outside in are often baffled by "anime style." Devices like action lines, and big eyes, and the way the characters seem to grunt and gasp and moan and make so much goddamn noise.�It's important to understand that anime makes use of very broad archetypes and a very standardized form of visual and aural language; so we know that big eyes is not meant to be cute for its own sake, but is meant to invoke youth, which invokes cuteness, which signifies the role that character has in relation to the story's world. We know that this anime character is not literally sweating, but that sweat bead is meant to represent an emotion in reaction to the situation - a visual shorthand, if you will. Anime uses these type of broad, simple devices more than any other medium - but that's the Japanese style, and we can see the same methods used in their traditional drama, in their paintings, in the bold violence of a Kurosawa battle scene, in the simple of lines of a haiku poem, and we can probably trace this all back to the general principles of Zen but holy shit this is supposed to be about video games damnit what is wrong with me-

All of which I mean to say is that Final Fantasy X�is the most Japanese�entry in the series, and it starts with the story and characters. It eventually occurred to me that the seemingly shallow party members aren't really meant to be considered fully-rounded characters; they're designed�to hold fast to their archetypes, and their power lies not in their individual traits, but in how they play their role in the group's dynamic. The stoic warrior; the grizzled veteran; the cold big sister; the naive-but-sincere moron; the cute spunky girl; the self-serious, hesitant young woman. Sound familiar?

Other games in the series follow a similar pattern. But in, say, FFVII, most of the characters exist as caricatures until lengthy cut-scenes detail their backstory and motivations before they go back to being caricatures (a method that works with varying degrees of success; secret characters Vincent and Yuffie are given much more interesting and developed backstories than main characters like Tifa or Cait Sith).�

Not so in FFX. Here, characters begin as caricatures, but we rarely see any major flashbacks that are solely intended to develop a single character. Rather, we pick up bits and pieces of each character's history, which are (relatively speaking) weaved in and out of the main narrative in a more organic fashion. It's expert storytelling, but the problem is that this main narrative is nearly 40 hours long and so for much of the game you'll be wondering why you should care about them. Ah, but when you near the end - even as the minutia of the plots gets even hazier and bogged down in mystical nonsense - you realize that the game has just spent 40 hours slowly and patiently building these characters up and - oh, hey, catharsis, Yuna's memories, etc.�

What's even more impressive is that the quality of the voice acting improves as the game goes on - and as you get to know the characters better, what might seemed like stilted acting makes a little more sense (sometimes, anyway). When I first booted up the game - the HD remake on Vita - I thought, "Jeez, why is Tidus so goddamn shrill?" But his voice gradually becomes less annoying - in tandem with how his character develops and matures. That is some quality storytelling right there - it's a slow burn, for sure, but it is rewarding.

The same goes for other characters as well. Hearing Yuna speak confidently later on is key to understanding just why the acting seems�so bad earlier. Auron doesn't speak like a poor Wolverine imitator because he's meant to be cool and tough - he does it because he's wounded and, hey, actually dead. Likewise for Lulu. And later on, knowing what we know of Wakka's naive belief system, his voice suddenly seems like a perfect fit.

Which isn't to say that all the voice acting is good. Nearly every secondary character and NPC has some terrible acting (except for that old historian dude you run into) - from Seymour and Jecht to Cid and (especially) the child actors. And again, while the way the character development is presented is expertly done, it still requires a commitment from the player - and those early hours can be dull as hell.�

It's funny how character development could be so absorbing (eventually) while the plot itself takes the opposite turn. It starts off well enough: Tidus is magically transported 1000 years into the future, and we're introduced to the main thrust of the game: the summoner's pilgrimage to destroy Sin. I like how single-minded it is, especially after the loose and vague plot of FFIX or the drastic turns that FFVIII took so often. It serves the game well - what, you want to go exploring on an overworld map? Too bad! You're on a pilgrimage, damnit, no time for that. It's no secret that FFX did the "run down the corridor" thing long before FFXIII did. The linearity is still stifling and rather dull, but at least it makes sense within the context of the plot itself.

A plot which isn't particularly interesting, it might be said. I did say that this was the most Japanese FF, and I meant it. A small group of watery islands (not the sprawling continents of FFs past) constantly threatened by an unstoppable earthquake/tsunami monster - gee, sound like any country we know? Even the game's fictional religion has more resemblance to eastern religion than JRPGs' usual target, the Catholic church (well, except for those�Gregorian chants).�

There is potential there for a powerful metaphor, but it soon gets bogged down in typical FF nonsense. An unstoppable environmental threat is not enough - no, this is the Kitase/Nomura Final Fantasy, and we need an effeminate villain with mommy issues to shake things up. And while Tidus initially provides a pair of fresh eyes for the audience, the details of his plot - he's a dream, or something? - is as absurd and vague as this series gets.�

Ultimately the game is a major slow burn, and the pacing is about as lopsided as I've ever seen in a JRPG (excluding Xenogears, of course). And here you thought I could only write about old Captain America games! More fool you, I suppose.

Next time:�Spira, its inhabitants, the battle system, and the endgame.

All in game screenshots are my own.�
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About touchofkielone of us since 5:43 AM on 08.07.2014

Playing games, writing about them. A vague validation for this strange time-wasting hobby of ours.

RPGs are my bread, and platformers are my butter. I love old games and Marvel Comics games, Final Fantasy and Atlus, beat-em-ups and tactics RPGs.