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Dec. 16th, 2008

Arjen Lucassen

Replaying Final Fantasy X Part One

With this post begins a series I hope I actually have the stamina to finish - a recap of one of my favourite videogames, Final Fantasy X. It is - and will continue to be - spoiler laden. Expect it. Deal with it. If you want to play it one day, and be surprised at all the right moments - don't read this series. I'm writing it somewhat similar to the way that mike_smith writes his Harry Potter recaps, but slightly less acerbically - for all the bad things the game does, it does a hundred things well. Overall, I want to judge it for its storytelling, not its gameplay, and I hope I succeed.

I loves me a good FF game, and I can dig my claws into a messy, grandiose, cliche ridden JRPG any day of the week. I may of course get sick of random battles and never actually finish a veritable horde of them by virtue of you know... having a job... but I thirst for them in a way that no other gaming genre manages. I buy them up like rare pearls, diving into game stores and snatching them at the first sign of a descending price-point. I've a collection of JRPGs that I've never started simply because I felt the compulsion to buy the damn things while they were still there. As the Gamecube games I'd been eyeing for a while have completely disappeared except for ridiculous auctions on Ebay, I feel justified to an extent for my desperate hording urges. Certainly I'll be justified if I ever actually get around to playing them.

Anyway, this post is about Final Fantasy X. Apparently.

The storytelling in FFX is what sets it apart from its franchise mates - it gives you a sense of place, a sense of character, and it delivers moments in spades that make you care about the central cast. By the end of the game you've been very thoroughly taken on a journey, and the lump in your throat is not affected in the least.

FFX begins with a a cocky young sports star, somewhere between a J-Pop idol and an American High School Quarterback with Daddy issues (Hollywood cinema has taught me that all American Quarterback type people have either Daddy issues or Coach-Daddy-issues. Dire is the fate of the athletic white boy...). Tidus, our whiny hero, bears witness to a gigantic creature crushing half of his home city, and sucking the other half (including him) into its belly. It should be noted that right before being sucked in by the beast, a cranky mysterious bastard named Auron who's apparently been looking after Tidus since his no-good Dad ran off on him shows up, gives him a sword, tells him the monster is called Sin and then tells him this is his story. Thanks cranky man, for that useful insight into wtf is going on. Sin's belly is an altered other-universe with detritus from lost civilisations and spider-legged ping-pong balls that have gotta catch 'em all and possess 'em all - but that comes later. End game later. I'd have warned you about spoilers, but well... by the time you meet the root of all the problems, you've ironically lost the ability to give a shit about it. It just gets in the way of the character moments. More on that later.

Tidus goes through some ordeals involving mysterious old temples, angry giant fish monsters, and a group of mysterious scavengers who are plumbing the depths of the ocean for artifacts. These all breeze by with about five minutes of exposition, and fifty minutes of random encounters. But hey, that's FF for ya!

When the big monster suddenly attacks again things actually kick off though. Tidus wakes up in the ocean (again) and is rescued by a team of Jamaican Okinawans who are impressed with his sporting skills. The captain is quick to recruit the talented Blitzball player to his humble backwater team, and on the road to glory at the world Blitzball cup, the cocky city player discovers something about himself, the power of teamwork, and the way the game is played. "Mighty Ducks"! Whoops, I meant "Besaid Aurochs!" Eh, whatever. Naturally this big city player teaches the Aurochs to believe they can win, and to switch their mantra from a defeatist "Do Our Best" to "Victory!"

The captain of the team, Wakka, has another important job - he is a Guardian for a Summoner who must commence her pilgrimage. Fans of earlier Final Fantasy games are instantly excited at the prospect of minute long animated cutscenes for an attack that will only defeat all the enemies in the first third of the game before becoming obsolete. Ah, Summons. Wakka also drops a major bomb (no, not the red ones with the angry face), revealing that the home of our hero has been destroyed for the past thousand years! What? But this bizarre aquatic Jamaican society is so primitive and without technology! How can this be the future and not the past?

Tidus agrees to join the Aurochs and travel with them to Luca, the home of the World Cup in hope of finding someone who can take him back to the future. Or the past. Eh, whatever. Basically, Wakka is trained in human resources and manages to score talent far out of his company's league with a shonky boat ride and an old sword that has bubbles in it. That sword just happens to have belonged to Wakka's dead brother who looked a lot like Tidus.

Tidus is introduced to another Guardian Lulu, whom he spends the rest of the game with in a desperate internal monologue bellowing "Don't stare at her tits, don't stare at her tits, don't stare at her tits..." Being that the player can't accomplish this feat, it seems unlikely that Tidus can either. Lulu seems like she can deal with the stares however - she's the only Goth in the village (did I say village? I meant planet), and her dress is made of belts. Yes, really. Her bosom is also... how shall we say... perilously arranged, and at any moment her ponderously large breasts look set to make a random encounter. Naturally after battle, her victory pose involves her bending over FHM style to show her entire cleavage. I tend to think this is because defying gravity for an entire battle is a struggle and she just succumbs to nature. One last thing about Lulu - she's a black mage, and her weapons are teddy bears. Believe me, I couldn't make this up if I tried.

So anyway, Lulu just so happened to have been getting it on with Wakka's-brother-that-looked-like-Tidus, and seeing Tidus is not exactly pleasant. So she has a bit of attitude in her approach to him. Tidus starts to learn a little about the monster that attacked him and used its belly as a time machine - it's called Sin, and it constantly attacks places populated by people - and particularly, places with lots of technology. Hence the backwards development of the world in the future. It has been defeated before - always by a summoner - but it always comes back. It can't be killed, only "calmed". It also gives off a toxin that can disorient people, and thus does Tidus discover his all purpose excuse for not knowing anything about the world around him - "Oh yeah... Sin's toxin".

So anyway, everyone is waiting around the campfire and talking about Blitzball and trying not to look at Lulu's chest when the Summoner emerges. Her name is Yuna, her eyes are different colours, and Tidus is smitten with her. She calls forth the Summon that she has just earned in the temple by furious praying to the applause of the audience. And you thought Summons were just for combat - welcome to the new Final Fantasy, where Summons will dance a jig and keep the people entertained.

Tidus and Yuna meet a little later in the night and Yuna mysteriously buys into Tidus's true background - that he's from the city of Zanarkand a thousand years ago. She seems like a melancholy dreamer which persuades Tidus that he's in with a shot if he can cheer her up and adopt a bit of a saviour syndrome. Too bad for him she has all these Guardians around that keep dissuading him from sneaking her out back and Summoning some prophylactics.

Thus does a man from a thousand years ago come to join a pilgrimage to the temples of the world, begging for power to be used in the battle against Sin. On their way out of town they all stop at a shrine, and everyone repeats the benediction to their God, Yevon, the worship of whom has superseded the use of technology. Tidus is astounded to note that the benediction is identical to the salute that Blitzball players made to one another before matches in his time. Hey, I reckon Australia is sports obsessed enough to adopt scrums as a marriage ceremony in a post-apocalyptic society inadvertently. This isn't so hard to buy here.

***********

The opening of the game is as filled with pretty cinematics as you'd expect from a FF game - detailed cutscenes introduce each of the characters. The sport of Blitzball is introduced right at the beginning, and looks stunning. The gameplay is recognisable - the usual array of "Attack", "Skill", "ITem", etc.

It's nice that the system levels the characters* in a way that is consistent with their styles - it matches story to gameplay, at least for a while. Eventually every character can become super-powered in any area, but that comes after the pilgrimage, when all the characters would theoretically have had a chance to learn from each other - so this consistency is very welcome.

The reason I breezed over a lot of the introduction scenes is that they're sometimes needlessly surrealistic. It's a technique I've noticed in a lot of Japanese media - bury the story in complete mystery, then get to the main narrative and leave people to make the connections later. I like surrealism, but two minutes of "don't cry" followed by mute graphics of a boy hunched over presumably crying gets a little old in little time. Once the main quest starts though, you're privy to well-constructed storytelling. I can't wait to share some more thoughts on why it's so good in future posts.

Till time the next!



* Levelling up is unique in that the player needs to negotiate a "Sphere Grid", an enormous page full of nodes that need to be activated. Players receive Action Points for battles which allow them to move the cursor on the Sphere Grid and activate the nodes in order to receive the benefit it confers (e.g. Strength +2). Each character has a sort of path mapped out for them across the board via a series of locks that require special items to open. Their path dictates the style of combat that the character is known for - for example, Wakka receives lots of early bonuses to his Agility and Accuracy, while Lulu and Yuna both receive bonuses to their magic and MP. The system is frustrating at the beginning, but after forty or so hours of play there are endless ways to exploit it, and everyone's stats can be pushed to improbable heights.

Nov. 11th, 2008

Gonzo, Hunter S Thompson

Playing Difficult

N'Gai Croal, one of the most well-spoken commentators on videogames on the interwebs, wrote an interesting article about the need for scaled difficulty levels in videogames - that not every consumer in the medium is looking for a punishing experience, and that the time spent developing advanced difficulties should be reflected in the opposite end of the scale as well.

I happen to agree with this - if a section of a game punishes me too much, I'll likely put it away for the day - and perhaps never make it back.

What I found interesting with the article though was one of the comments that compared the difficulty level of games with the accessibility of great literature. The argument was that as an experiential form, a videogame is depleted by removing the difficulty as you can no longer engage with the content the way it was intended to be engaged with - just as simplifying the language of a great writer would also deplete it (*cough* Abridged Shakespeare *cough*).

I suppose there is merit in this argument - I played through Bioshock on easy the first time through, and it made the whole thing seem a little less epic. There's a few games I've hacked my way through on easy, and it removes some of the drama - a sense of accomplishment is missing, and as an interactive artform, accomplishment is important.

However, the argument is also fatally flawed. I have read some incredible literature, but I cannot claim to have understood and embraced every element of it immediately. For instance, last year I read Nietzsche, but I didn't necessarily understand it. After a study guide though, along with a few essays, and some cross comparisons from critical essays I grasped the words, and the meaning behind them. You could say that I learnt philosophy on easy.*

I like easy settings in games, but if they sometimes remove a sense of accomplishment from a game, they shouldn't. I think of games like Silent Hill 2, one of the greatest games ever seen with a story and subtext that nothing else in the mass-produced end of the medium can come close to matching. Silent Hill 2 offered a puzzle difficulty setting alongside a combat difficulty setting. As it is a game best played for mood, and tension, and the incredible story the differentiation of game elements was a wise and pertinent choice. Silent Hill 2 is a cerebral game, and the combat is not exciting enough to want to make it the focus of the game. Customising one's gaming experience is possibly the most intelligent means of scaffolding an interactive experience for a player.

I use the term "scaffolding" deliberately to extend on the metaphor of Nietzsche as videogame. I teach English, and helping students dissect the language of great literature and achieve understanding requires scaffolding, and assisting them to make meaning. Some kids can "play" English on hard because they are naturally talented - they don't need an "easy" setting for learning The Great Gatsby for example. I can assure you though, that the majority of students do. If teachers only focussed on creating a challenging experience for the "hard" setting to the neglect of the "easy" setting, how would they maintain their jobs?

Game companies should consider scaffolding their experiences in more ways than a single easy setting that makes bad guys die in one hit. Most games are made up of disparate elements and the way they interplay is what creates a gaming experience. By scaling each element separately, a more confident, relevant gameplay dynamic can be created for the majority of players. N'Gai Croal mentions a few games in his article that already do this. Here's hoping we see even more.

And just 'cos I love to pose questions to the crowd - what things from real life did you have to learn on "easy"? Any books that you needed formalised study to embrace? Anything you deliberately learnt on "hard"?



* A friend of mine with qualifications more impressive than my own actually went as far as to say that some things should only be studied with the benefit of a structured program, and the guidance of hundreds of years of scholarly thought. Nietzsche without guidance can be dangerous.

Nov. 1st, 2008

Spider Jerusalem

Headphones and Society

As a teacher, I get frustrated having to stop kids from having their headphones and iPods on all the time. They snake the chords up through their shirts, keep their collars up, and the girls keep their hair loose. It's a ruse that is surprisingly effective.

Yet even as I confiscate players from students, and nag at them I remember myself in High School and how the simple act of being able to enjoy some music would often sooth the savage boredom of a class. When we were set exercises to work on, it was a great way to just relax (of course when I was in High School there were no mp3 players, I was using a cassette Walkman, and some friends had Discmans) and I was probably more productive. I used to resent with a firey passion the teachers that believed the use of them was somehow a cardinal sin, that by listening to some music in those excruciating moments of "complete silence" we'd be circumnavigating the natural order of the classroom and introducing anarchy to the universe.

I hate the earphones when I'm trying to teach, but when people are just working on their assignments or something? I'm okay with them. That's how the good teachers (i.e. teachers I liked) used to do it for me and my peers, and that's how I try to do it with my classes. The trouble is with mp3 players that they're easier to disguise, and so I have students trying to be duplicitous when I am already more accommodating than other teachers. It's like the potential to be sneaky is tantamount to the need to be sneaky. Damn kids.

Mp3 players are everywhere these days, and everyone has opinions on them. As a music addict, I love them - I love being able to have a soundtrack to the simple act of walking. I know people who hate that idea though - that by plugging in all the time, we are losing our sense of natural ambience, of the world around us. Should we so blissfully shut out the world with our portable music players?

The answer is difficult to work out. I know one thing though - riding on the train today, listening to some teens swear at one another, then some kid start to sing 'because I got high' with some extra special "I'm a singer, check me out" warbling, and special emphasis on the swearing, then some girl starting swearing over the phone about some guy... and the afternoon went on, weirdos on the bus, offensive people in the street (there must have been a Race Day on or something, there was a lot of classy outfits on decidedly non-classy people) - it was a damn minefield for a guy like me who is discovering his inner-old-man more and more every day. So not having my mp3 player for a great deal of it - well, I missed it a great deal. Sometimes, even as a writer who has ambitions of telling Australian stories in different contexts, all I want to do is retreat into my special little universe. If a set of headphones and tunes bounced dangerously directly upon my eardrums is all it takes for that - well, consider me a misanthrope in the making.

How about all of you? Like the mp3 player invasion? Hate it? Have a position on the place of them in schools? Have a controversial flamebaiting opinion that you want to throw at my blog whilst laughing hysterically? Go to!

Sep. 30th, 2008

Power Ballads

HAPPY... happy... HAPPY... happy

Happiness is:

*A warm blanket waiting for the Great Pumpkin

*Listening to an old Deftones album and finding it works better now than it ever did then

*Signing up for the NaNoWriMo forums again, knowing that this year I can actually make the most of the social opportunities rather than read all about it second-hand from merry olde Toowoomba

*Finishing a wretched assignment - only two more to go! Of course, they are real bastard assignments, but nevertheless...

*Playing the holy hell out of a fantastically charming videogame and finishing it in short shrift despite it being an RPG with plenty of hours of quest in it

*Catching some interesting movies on late night SBS that tickle the synapses in a positive way

*Getting effusive praise for my l337 cooking skills when I whipped up a pasta dish for Jazz and her friend while they got ready to go see Bill Bailey

*Discovering that I've received good marks on my assessment thus far, and that if I can keep it up I should get through this semester with a decent enough GPA, in spite of my worries

*Home made mango and banana smoothies. Yum!

What's happiness for you at the moment friends?

Sep. 24th, 2008

Spider Jerusalem

Video Game reviews

Continuing with my "posts based on votes" policy, I'm moving on to write a couple of brief videogame reviews. I've played some good stuff recently, and wouldn't mind having a chat about it.

Elite Beat Agents - Nintendo DS

I picked up EBA for $25.00 at K-Mart only a few days ago. It has been my obsessions ever since. If you've never heard of it before, EBA is a rhythm game. Music plays, you must complete particular actions in time with the music. You are in control of a mysterious presumably government organisation - the Elite Beat Agents. From all over the world you capture cries of distress. The agents rush to the scene to use the power of dance and motivate the hapless character in need of assistance. The first mission sees you helping a 17 year old babysitter get her charges to bed whilst working up the courage to ask out her ideal boyfriend. Later levels see you help a pimping Leonardo da Vinci impress a disinterested Mona Lisa, a pug puppy find his way home, a mother change the weather, white blood cells dressed as naughty nurses beat off a virus, a baseballer defeat a giant magma monster, a little girl call home her dead father, and eventually chase off an alien invasion. And that's right - all through the power of music and dance. The songs are great, ranging from pop-punk like Avril Lavine, to Queen, to David Bowie, to Jamiroquai - even a Chicago ballad. The agents are as serious as death in their Men-in-black suits, even as they dance crazy. This game is power Japan - and pure crack. It has everything that makes you keep playing in Guitar Hero with the added bonus of a fantastic sense of humour. I've been pushing the difficulty levels further and further, and its been awesome. I highly recommend this game for any DS owners out there.

9/10

Runaway: A Road Adventure - PC

I earned my chops as a videogamer in the 90's where graphic adventure games were all the rage, and Lucasarts meant more than "shonky Star Wars tie-ins". I still use Monkey Island references in conversations (usually to blank looks) and throw around Sam and Max-isms where I can. So when I encountered Runaway and reviewed its packaging, I figured I was going to love the hell out of it. "An old-school adventure game" it seemed to cry, and the animation looked like it would be reminiscent of Monkey Island 3. However, it didn't take me long to realise that my hopes weren't necessarily to be. Firstly, I read the game booklet which was overlong, badly written and kept making excuses for itself. That was the initial hint that the game wasn't going to offer all I was hoping for. Once I started playing, it became even clearer. The sense of humour the game was promising was absent. The main character started monologuing and telling the story in the most frustratingly long-winded, inane way imaginable. Here was the guy I was supposed to empathise with - and he was annoying! More to the point, I started to see this guy as a bit of a Mary -Sue (or whatever the male equivalent of that is) - he was a Physics PhD with the skills of MacGyver, apparently a charming and lovable guy that everyone thought was cool, a bit of a womaniser, and somewhat athletic. All that, and all the guy could do between monologues was whine. Blah. The Spanish team who made the game gave it a cool look, but unfortunately used a TERRIBLE writer, and equally poor voice actors (though I think they suffered more from the writing then their own lack of ability). The puzzles - and as an adventure game, this is where it all hinged - were okay. Some were great - some were 'meh'. Some were predictably frustrating, and without the humour and fun of the old Lucasarts classics, I wasn't motivated to spend my time pixelhunting. I used a walkthrough for a number of puzzles simply because I couldn't be bothered. The game was best when its European-ness (it's a Spanish developed game) shone through. One of the middle chapters has you working with a crew of stranded drag queens to stage a daring rescue, and involves creating makeshift bullets with gunpowder and lipstick dispensers, amongst other things. Later you have to experiment with creating new drugs with a Rastafarian herbalist - and yes, you do partake. There are some sublime moments with secondary characters that make the game tremendous fun - but the main character never really gets off your nerves, which is a huge let down. Still, the game doesn't take that long to play, and if you use a playguide to get you through the more obtuse puzzles, you'll get something out of it. If it's in a bargain bin (it was when I bought it - $7.00) then it's worth playing.

6/10

I'm rocking through some other games at the moment - I've started playing Sacred on the PC, I'm thinking of hitting Morrowind, I'm still playing Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift, and I'm a little way through both Fable and Mass Effect and need to return to each. I shall of course let everyone know what I thought when the time comes!

Sep. 10th, 2008

Spider Jerusalem

Irrational Rationale

I just handed in a big mother of an assignment, a complete unit plan for a senior drama class. It was made more difficult by the fact I was trying to introduce something I'm only just learning myself.

Below, I'm copying my rationale for the unit - just cos. I often reread my own journal entries much further down the track, and by posting it here I'm hoping that it'll encourage me to reflect on my own work. I kind of rushed the second half of this (hence the sudden lack of academic referencing) so it doesn't read so well - but I have captured something about my intentions here. I'm uncertain the assessment item I made was the best, but nevertheless...

The unit is a hybrid Cyberdrama and Political Theatre unit. I've tried to introduce the many new exciting facets of Cyberdrama with Political theatre from a Queensland context, taking and borrowing from the strong tradition of street and protest theatre in the 70's and 80's throughout the state. I've ignored every dramatist's favourite cranky german Bertolt Brecht, and gone more towards the agit-prop tradition, with a bit of Living Newspaper (from the Federal Theatre Project of the 30's in the USA) and of course, some of my precious Boal.

Anyway, enough jibber-jabber. Here is the rationale! Feel free to pose any questions you have about it to me - I'll be happy to answer.

omg, politcs!:-O Cyberdrama and Political Theatre RationaleCollapse )