Saturday, January 09, 2010

Final Fantasy is now Entirely About the Modeling of Realistic Human Hair

Final Fantasy is ruined. This great series of videogames, one that for over a decade delivered the best games of all time, strung together like pearls, has now officially died. By focusing on what didn't matter and ignoring what made the series so wonderful, Square-Enix has neutered the series. Specifically, they've abandoned the notion of creating "role playing games". And they've directed their energies, I think exclusively, on an aspect of gaming I wouldn't have considered essential: the realistic rendering of human hair. As a fan of the series since the beginning, I have to say, I didn't see that coming.

There were hints, I suppose, going back as far as the pointless and stupid Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

"Her movements (which mirror the actions of real actors) feel about right, and her hair blows convincingly in the wind." - Roger Ebert

"As you watch Aki, voiced by Ming-Na, you're struck by how realistic her hair is and imagine that much of the budget must have gone into giving it a special shampoo- commercial glow." - The New York Times

"It is said that a full third of the film's budget was spent on making the heroine's wispy hair convincingly wispy; how many heads of organic hair they could've bought is apparently irrelevant." - The Village Voice

Those of you who remember the movie remember that even though the hair was amazing, it was boring, the story made no sense, and the characters sucked. If only we had recognized this in 2001 for what it was: a warning siren. It was lauded though, at the time, for its groundbreaking CGI. We see now, 9 years later that a movie can only coast for a very short distance on special effects alone. Who now would rent or own this dog? The visuals, which looked fine at the time, now seem distinctly old hat. (There's a lesson here about Avatar by the way) But even in 2001, we can see Squaresoft's earnest passion to animate an uber-realistic head of follicles. Why? Why do they care so much about hair?

I have a pet theory. If you cast your mind back to the release of Final Fantasys 1, 4 and 6. (1, 2 and 3 in America) you remember that they were heralded as incredible games with terrible graphics. Even by the standards of the day, Final Fantasy games were far behind the curve, visually. Now as a fan I forgive that entirely. I personally would much rather that the limited memory available on an NES or SNES cartridge go toward gameplay depth in an RPG at the expense of graphical wonder. And the sales of those games bear that out. In fact, they prove a point. If a game that good doesn't need cutting edge visuals to be a best-seller, then the visuals aren't really what make an RPG good.

But here's where the pet theory comes in. Square knew it had a bestselling franchise. It also knew that the franchise had a reputation for butt-ugliness in the graphics dept. Square doubtlessly felt much great shame and experienced a loss of face. The President of the company may have even drawn out his seppuku knife and angled it at his ribs. So they committed to turn this complaint on its head. The worst looking graphics? From now on we'll have the best looking graphics. Final Fantasy games ugly? From now on, no game will be more beautiful. And the obsession with prettiness was born.

That also marks the exact moment when the gameplay excellence began to decline. And little did we know that the series would eventually become solely about hair. Thick, lustrous, silky hair. Feathered hair. Wind swept hair. Waterlogged hair. And the hair physics! A hair physics engine so complex and powerful that it could probably play Deep Blue to a draw at chess.

A brief recap of the franchise since it started going downhill:

Fans loved 8, but at the time I was worried. The Junction system didn't have the Materia system's depth, exploration and leveling didn't pay off quite as much, and the card game was given too much importance. I appreciated that the movies looked great (particularly the opening movie), but I was alarmed that the story was so weak. (No villain practically the whole way. What's-his-name, your schoolmate who turns bad, was set up nicely as a villain, but then abandoned)

IX was excellent. The crystal system was too simplistic, and again the real estate for meaningful exploration continued to shrink, but as a game it was fine. Chocobo Hot and Cold was a highlight.

X was the bombshell where you realized that the train was heading, permanently, in a new direction and you'd better ask yourself if you were on board. While superficially a huge world, in truth it was claustrophobic. No freedom to explore. No backtracking at all until the game was 90% over. The Sphere Board superficially appeared to offer freedom of customization, but in truth forced each character down a narrow development path. (If you think Kihmari is the exception, try making him a black mage). And the story that earned so much praise, made precious little sense.

X-2 was the same deal.

XI I ignored.

XII. Now number 12 was in some ways an improvement over 10. But while the characters all had rich, exciting, nuanced and compelling hair, they didn't have much in the way of personality. The story was so convoluted, incomprehensible and poorly written, that even now I can't remember a single thing about it. Not a thing. I cannot provide a summary, and I think I beat the game. I think there were some bad people in an army who wanted some bad things. And there were lots of political interludes where people I didn't know discussed incredibly urgent matters that made no sense, and then many of them died. I think the hero's name was Vaan. And there was another guy who was supposed to be a kind of Han Solo character but ended up being pretty lame. That's all I remember about 12.

XIII. And now we get to the death knell. The end of the line. The deeply disappointing, completely inexcusable Final Fantasy 13. Now you might say it's unfair of me to judge a game I haven't seen or played, but I ask you - since I never intend to see it or play it, how long am I supposed to wait to pass judgment? Can't I just say that it sucks? Consider: 1) No towns. 2) All shopping is done from save terminals. 3) It's the Sphere Board system all over again. 4) Every map is just a straight line tunnel with fancy graphical wallpaper on the sides. 5) The story (from what I've read) is weak-sauce Aeon Flux, and the hook of "If they win they're going to die anyway" was lifted directly from FFX.

Most of that I would have expected, but the complete abandonment of non-linearity did come as a surprise. We knew this was where the train was heading. Each sequel since VIII has given you less and less freedom. But we've suddenly and unexpectedly arrived at total, unforgiving linearity. We are now fully on rails. The only navigational spaces in XIII are death tunnels. The story is utter nonsense and the characters (Lightning honorably excepted) are apparently really annoying.

But the game does have one saving grace, and here I quote a review of the import:

"The Graphics: My God, I want to eat everyone's hair." - Tim Rogers,

Yes. The hair is stunning. Judging the game purely on the hair standard, which I have to assume is how Square-Enix intends it should be judged, the game is an obvious home run. Let's check out some stills:

That is some great animated hair. I have no doubt each individual hair has independent motion and under windy conditions is programmed to move with a partly-randomized, partly-scripted flutter that mimics pure realism. And then upon contact with any other neighboring hair is programmed to interact with the correct balance of friction and attraction. I think this is the technology Peter Jackson used to animate battles in Lord of the Rings with 100,000 orcs, only now it's being used for hair.

The only reason I am bitching is because I used to love these games. They accomplished something that all video games want to do, and few succeed at: immersion. Not the kind of immersion where you like the game and are into it. The kind where the game permits you to be the director of the story - where you can put yourself in the game. This series used to put you in the driver's seat to an extent not seen anywhere else. You could explore and fight and adventure in your own way and at your own pace while still staying within the confines of a scripted story. A massive world was given to you, one that you could navigate by land, sea and air. Because you could customize your hero with great depth, the game gave you an opportunity to personalize the experience. No two players played Final Fantasy VI or VII the same way. No two players had the same experience. Now look at XIII, and turn the question on its head: Will any two players have a non-identical experience? Is this a game, or some kind of bad movie where you occasionally tilt a thumbstick upward to move the story along? I don't plan on finding out.

I hope there's a backlash. I hope Square does a reassessment and decides to go back to basics. The series could be great again. But for now I say so long to Final Fantasy. I wish it well, with lots of conditioner and no split ends, but I will look elsewhere for gaming this year.