Occupy Midgar

Final Fantasy 7 by Square (Sony, 1997)
Black Materia: Final Fantasy 7 by Random and Lost Perception (RandomBeats, 2011)

Over the last month I’ve become convinced that Final Fantasy 7 (FF7) is truly the video game for 2011.

In this classic from SquareEnix (nee Square) you have a group of young people (AVALANCHE) battling a massive corporation, which controls the government and military. This company (SHINRA) is  relegating much the population to criminalized slums along with destroying the economy and, especially, the environment. SHINRA – sort of Johnson & Johnson meets Halliburton – has in many ways spelled out its own, and The Planet’s, coming the apocalypse through its own overreach and excess.  Instead, dooming itself through over-leveraged mortgage derivatives – ala Lehman Brothers – SHINRA’s self-inflicted end comes at the hand of a biologically engineered monstrosity – Sephiroth.

When Occupying Midgar, the giant octopus of corporate greed becomes quite literal.

What bought my ticket on this FF7 nostalgia-train was stumbling across (via Kotaku) a hip-hop tribute (!) to Final Fantasy 7 by Random. Random’s album, Black Materia, is quite good, if a bit top heavy (the second half of the album lacks the emotion or attachment to the source material of the first half). The most impressive track, perhaps, is “Tifa,” which manages to make the powerfully convoluted Cloud/Tifa story into a touching tale of childhood romance.

Black Materia reminded me just how great of a game FF7is  and just how well it has aged over the last fourteen years.

Oh sure, the feeble, super-deformed first attempt at 3D graphics has aged horribly (especially, in context of Square’s other PS1 generation Final Fantasy games), but basic game systems (particularly if one carefully forgets about the snowboarding) are extremely sound. In its straightforward old-fashionedness the “materia systems” seems revolutionary in 2011. Think of the awfulness of the combat and customization of Final Fantasy 13, with its attempt to merge the game play of a real-time MMO with classic turned based JRPGs which ends up only having the frustrations (and none of the virtues) of both paradigms.

What stands out to me most thinking about this game, here at the end of 2011, is the well-characterized nature of Final Fantasy 7’s female protagonists. While Tifa’s out-of-proportion costume and character design seems to argue against this assertion (remember 1997 was the awful days of the original Tomb Raider), if we look a bit below the surface things become more complex and interesting. Both Tifa and (especially) Aeris are fully developed characters with their own story-lines developed beyond simply as foils for Cloud Strife.

No video game moment – much less character death – matches in video game history the scene of Aeris’s death at the hands of Sephiroth. That scene is a huge cultural touchstone for gamers of a certain age (i.e. can remember the 1990s) and remains the most mentioned aspect of this game in any retrospective look at FF7‘s impact. The very centrality of this moment, of Aeris’s brutal murder at the hands of a male villain, makes her an obvious example of the trope known as “Women in Refrigerators.”

There is a lot truth to an association of the Aeris’s famous death with this trope. As Gail Simone classicly puts it, the very femaleness of women characters in popular fiction “inevitably” leads to such characters “being killed, maimed or depowered.” Yet, what makes Aeris stand out from the pack of the countless super heroines and love interests thrown under the bus by innumerable male writer  is that her death is not about making the storyline of a male character more interesting. Aeris’s death is not about Cloud’s story but an fitting end to her own story within Final Fantasy 7‘s plot.

While, of course Aeris’s death does complicate Cloud’s story and make it more interesting but, her death is not primarily about that. Rather, that scene is an out growth of Aeris’s character (her ancestry, her desire to protect the planet, etc.) and a culmination of her story, not his. I am not seeking to argue that the representations of gender in Final Fantasy 7 is perfect –  for the game is a JRPG from 1997. But for being what it is (again, a JRPG from 1997) the representations of female characters within the game and its plot are remarkably progressive.

Final Fantasy 7 has a lot to offer us in our age of rising inequality, corporate greed, enviromental destruction, political unrest, and global weirding. The themes of the game, perhaps, have more to say to us in the lean year of 2011 than they did in the boom times of 1997. As we approach this seminal game’s fifteenth anniversary we should, perhaps, consider putting our dusty CDs of Final Fantasy 7 back in our PlayStations. Not just because of be the game’s classic status but because the story of Cloud, Aeris, Sephiroth, and Tifa has something to say to us today.


Baldur’s Gate 2 is the worst game I have ever played

Baldur’s Gate 2 by Bioware (Interplay, 2000)Baldur's Gate 2

The original Baldur’s Gate is one of my favorite games of all time. Open-ended and challenging, the game reenergized the hard-core American CRPG. Masterfully adapting the sometimes cumbersome (THACO, anyone?) second edition AD&D rules for real-time gameplay, Bioware really showed the world how to make a great, nigh-perfect role-playing game.

Needless to say, I was extremely excited to play Bioware’s follow-up. Sadly enough, I could not have been more disappointed in how this game turned out! So much so that it is difficult to for me to put my rage into words.

Perhaps it is best to just take the flaws in this game point by point.

My choices in BG1 have no consequence in BG2: In my playthrough of the first game in this series, I killed Xzar and his annoying halfling friend. But look here! There alive in & well in the sequel! What’s up with that Bioware? There are virtually no consequences for anything I did in your original game! Quayle as a kindly uncle figure to a whiny unwinged elf? What the hell? And, come on, what’s up with me starting the game with Minsc, Jaheria, and Imoen in my party? I never traveled with any of them in the original game! And who gives a shit about Imoen?

My choices within BG2 have no consequences: There are so-called “turning points” within the “plot” of this “game” that seemingly are supposed to have consequences but they really do not. Choosing between the vampires and the Shadow Thieves? No real difference between them! Oh, sure you might have a few different quests in Chapter 3 but in the whole the game turns out the same! You still end up in Spellhold. And deciding to try to sail back to Amn instead of going straight to the Underdark? All that gets you is 30 minutes in fish-city and no real consequences! Come on, Bioware! What real RPG gamers want is real choices not the illusion of choice.

Reused textures and tile-sets: Bioware artists are you really that lazy? There so many reused tile-sets in this game that it is extremely pathetic. There are only like three different layout for houses in this game and they are all recycled from BG1! There are only two tile-sets for random encounters in this so-called “game” and the in-Amn random encounter’s art is just recycled from the Bridge District! One of the major dunegons in this game is used twice (Bodhi’s graveyard hideout). Did you really think that we wouldn’t notice your laziness, Bioware? It often just felt like I was on a visual treadmill as a slogged through this “game.” Speaking of treadmills…

Limited exploration options: More often than not while playing Baldur’s Gate 2, I felt like I was playing a “game” set on rails. So much of this “game” is completely linear! While in the original game you can pretty much explore the entire world while ignoring the core plot, BG2 basically sets you on a clearly fixed direction. Besides that there are so few quests in this game. I mean there are like three quests in all of Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 has like one long dungeon! The great sense of exploration, epic scope, and the ability to stumble in danger is largely gone from this “game.”

This game is idiot proof: What is up with “pins” on the world map that clearly mark quest givers and stores? Half the fun of the original Baldur’s Gate was wandering around trying to find the right house out of the sea of identical looking housing. What is the point of a so-called RPG if you don’t have to take detailed notes just to keep track of where the quest givers are? Clearly Bioware is now designing their games for the lowest common denominator – shooter fans and console gamers.

Romance over plot: BG2 contains “romances” between your player character and a few non-player characters in your party. It is clear from this development that Bioware has now moved away from making each NPC an interesting character to focusing on a small sub-set of fanservice character “romances.” These gross virtual sexpots have little do with the “game’s” plot and never push the story forward. It is clear that Bioware is now putting development resources towards fan service things like “romances” instead of more valuable things like art resources and real content.

If Bioware, formerly the king of the American CRPG, can produce a real piece of crap game like this we are, clearly, reaching a crisis point in the RPG market. If once-great companies, like Bioware, continue to produce quick cash-in games like BG2, real RPG fans will be begin abandoning the genre in droves.

It makes me sad to type this but, the terribleness that is Baldur’s Gate 2 could mark the beginning of the end of the American CRPG.