Things That Should Have Happened In Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII is a good game with a lot of flaws. Mostly, the only thing people talk about are it’s flaws. I still think it holds up as a fun experience and a well-made game. It’s a milestone in the visual capabilities of the series, but the muddy storytelling of director Motomu Toriyama is somewhat notorious for being completely incomprehensible. Whenever one plot-hole appears, Toriyama just distracts you from it by pulling out a new plot-hole, until finally you finish Lightning Returns and think, “Well I guess all those plotholes are filled now that the universe has been reborn. Oh well.” This is not excellent storytelling.

As such, here are some ideas that have brewed in my mind for a while, which I think would have vastly improved Final Fantasy XIII. Personally, I sometimes like to pretend that XIII-2 and Lightning Returns never happened, because the game itself does not set the story up for a sequel, and very little of what happens in the game is really referenced later in the series. XIII-2 and Lightning Returns revolve mostly around Etro and Yuel, but deal very little with the actual journey of the l’Cie in Final Fantasy XIII.

So on that note, I’m mostly going to be dealing with things I would have liked to have seen changed in the original game, though I will make some reference to how my changes my fit the sequels. This also means that I’m not going to spend too much time wondering about why in the world the developers chose to refer to an area in XIII-2 as “Archylte Steppe ???” This seems to imply that the time period in which this happens is either before the fall of Cocoon or after the whole timeline has been fixed, but dialogue from the hunters indicates that it happens after the fall of Cocoon, and that the people who bear the same tribal tattoos as Fang are not in fact from the same tribe as hunters but just Cocoon citizens who reacclamated to life on Pulse. I’m also not going to spend too much time grinding my teeth at the fact that XIII-2 spends a lot of it’s time redeveloping areas from the first game, but completely leaves out many of them like Eden, the Arks, most of Gran Pulse, Nautilus, Lake Bresha, the second half of the Sunleth Waterscape, the Gapra Whitehood, and so on and so forth. But as you can tell, I have my issues with XIII-2 as well, which for the record most people believe to be superior to Final Fantasy XIII, but personally I think that it trades addressing everything Final Fantasy XIII got wrong for sacrificing all the things that it got right.

Anyway.

In Defense of Jihl Nabaat

Jihl Nabaat is a criminally underutilized character in Final Fantasy XIII. Her treatment in the story is baffling: we go through the process of setting her up as a character, even including her in the flashback sequences, set her up as a perfect antagonist to Sazh and build up resentment toward her, and then even include the perfect moment to fight her, and… she’s killed off. No fanfare, nothing. No one even mentions that she’s dead. Barthandelus throws a Ruin spell at her and she’s gone, just like that.

Now, you might say that the fact that she is so important and is disposed of with such little interest by Barthandelus is precisely the point being made about how fal’Cie view humans as nothing more than tools. It does make an interesting parallel with Jihl, who herself sees other people as tools to further her own ends. But this is still bad storytelling. Barthandelus is the most cliche and uninteresting villain in the Final Fantasy series, and that’s in a series that includes such one-dimensional characters as Exdeath and Necron. Not only is he visually unappealing (I’ve seen him hilariously referred to as “the space pope”), but his dialogue and personality are incredibly one-dimensional and cliche. Also, his motives make no sense, but then, that’s a much larger problem within Final Fantasy XIII’s story.

Most of Final Fantasy XIII’s story can be boiled down to: “the fal’Cie want the main characters to destroy Cocoon by killing Orphan, so the main characters rage against their fate and defy their masters by… destroying Orphan and dropping Cocoon out of the sky exactly like they were told.” Even more confusing is why the fal’Cie bother to fight the l’Cie and try to kill them at every turn: Barthandelus is working tirelessly to make the l’Cie choose to kill Orphan and thereby destroy Cocoon, so why is he also directing the entirety of the Sanctum’s resources at murdering them? You could say it’s a test of their power, but then, why does he also personally attack them several times? Why did he bother fusing with Orphan? What exactly IS Orphan anyway?

But I digress. Jihl.

Jihl is an interesting character because of how comically evil she is. She’s sadistic and seems to take immense pleasure is causing pain to others, and yet at the same time we can clearly see that she isn’t all bad. Her first introduction is a brief scene of her smiling at Sazh during the fireworks flashback. Even when she’s actively trying to kill Sazh, she always states her reasons clearly, and even sometimes makes compelling arguments. She honors Dajh’s sacrifice and says she’s going to have his crystal made into a memorial in Eden, without ever revealing the fact that his father was a l’Cie, so that Dajh can be remembered with reverence by the citizens of Cocoon. The thing that actually makes her interesting is how intelligent and well-spoken she is, and how she seems to be capable of surprising compassion for someone who so enjoys toying with people. She talks down to Sazh about Pulse l’Cie being “undesirables,” but she also treats him with some amount of respect, choosing to allow him the chance to get revenge on Vanille rather than having her soldiers shoot them. Even when she strikes Sazh and knocks him out, she doesn’t do this until he becomes uncontrollable with rage.

Really the thing that confuses me the most about the treatment of Jihl’s character is that it doesn’t make any sense from a storytelling perspective. They went through all this trouble to set Jihl up as a primary antagonist, she’s even in a fully animated FMV sequence, and then they kill her with no fanfare. In fact, it honestly feels like they purposely cut out a boss fight with Jihl for some reason. Right before Barthandelus kills her, Jihl leaps down onto the platform in front of the l’Cie and draws her weapon, and the party gets ready for a fight. There could have easily been a sub boss fight here with Jihl, and then the next scene of Barthandelus killing her could have gone on the same.

But this isn’t my biggest wish for Jihl. I think Jihl should have been the game’s main antagonist. Throughout the game we’re treated to metaphors about tools, about people being used by others to further their own ends. Barthandelus is the puppetmaster behind the actions of Lightning and her friends, but I think that the murder between Jihl and Barthandelus should have happened in reverse: I think that Jihl should have been the one to suddenly and inexplicably murder Barthandelus, before removing her glasses and reminding the party that “For every task, there’s a perfect tool.”

I wish that Jihl had turned out to be Orphan in disguise. We know from Barthandelus that fal’Cie have the ability to disguise themselves as humans, and we know that Orphan is ultimately the central power behind Cocoon. If Orphan is really the one at the center of this plan to use Cocoon to summon the Maker, why wouldn’t Orphan choose to disguise itself as a human and walk among them, monitoring the actions of Barthandelus by pretending to be his servant? How great would it be if Lightning and her allies stormed into Eden and Barthandelus appeared on the steps before them in the area where you fight the Adamantoise, and rambled on about how they’re nothing but puppets doing his bidding, and then from behind him came a blast and standing over his body, with her rod in hand, was Jihl, who reveals that she’s been using everyone from the beginning. The game even SETS THIS UP. She talks about using people as tools, doesn’t she? What better way for her to do that?

Jihl could transform into Orphan for the final boss fight, and the rest of the game could play out exactly as it did. If this idea seems too weird to you, let her be Eden instead. Eden is just another fal’Cie like Barthandelus who would have all the same reasons to keep a close eye on him, and the final confrontation could easily switch out Jihl for Barthandelus. After transforming into her fal’Cie form and being defeated, she could fuse with Orphan and become the final boss, the same way Barthandelus did. I mean, the weirdest thing about Barthandelus being the central antagonist is that we don’t know anything about him until he reveals himself on the Palamecia, meanwhile we’ve had the whole game to get to know Jihl.

I won’t delve too much further into this, but Final Fantasy XIII actually has a big problem with not utilizing it’s characters. Raines, Rygdia, Jihl, and Amodar all go mostly unnoticed, despite having thought and care put into their development.

Vanille’s Deepest Secret

Throughout most of Final Fantasy XIII, Vanille’s defining characteristic, apart from her optimistic bubbly personality, is that she’s a liar. She prances around smelling the flowers in an attempt to hide the dark secrets she possesses. Vanille is the fulcrum on which the entire story of Final Fantasy XIII revolves: she chose not to fulfill her focus and become Ragnarok, leaving Fang to do it on her own, resulting in Fang not being strong enough to do anything more than breach Cocoon’s shell. They should have both become C’ieth, but as she so often does in this universe, Etro felt pity for the two of them and intervened, allowing them to enter crystal statis anyway and placing them within the Pulse Vestige with Anima, to be kept safe until they reawakened.

There’s a lot about this story that just doesn’t add up. We’re never given much of a glimpse into what Vanille and Fang’s life was like on Pulse. We only get a few mentions of what life was like in Oerba, and the leftover photographs and housewares inside Vanille and Fang’s house, or her robot friend Bakhti (also known to me as The Cash Machine). There is one brief moment which shows Vanille living on Pulse, and it’s during the opening credits movie, but even then Cocoon still has a hole in it’s shell, so it’s possible that this scene is depicting Vanille on Pulse after returning with Lightning and the gang. Also, Etro becomes an important figure later in the Lightning Saga, but during Final Fantasy XIII she’s mostly left enigmatic, known only as “The Goddess,” and she seems to have a penchant for intruding on history at inopportune moments, resulting in more death or the corruption of the timeline. Why did Etro choose to intervene when she did? If Etro presumably knew that Fang couldn’t breach Cocoon on her own, why did she wait until after she’d tried and failed to intervene and put Vanille and Fang into crystal sleep? Also, we’re told that Fang slept in crystal for five hundred years alongside Vanille, but we never see Fang in crystal form, when Vanille awakens Fang is already asleep on the platform beneath her.

How exactly does this whole Focus thing work? We never learn which fal’Cie it was that gave Vanille and Fang their focus to destroy Cocoon, or why exactly that was the focus they were given. If the C’ieth stones are any indications, the majority of fal’Cie only made l’Cie to do trivial things like destroying particularly nasty monsters or C’ieth who refused to die. And, if Vanille and Fang failed in their Focus, why didn’t they turn into C’ieth? I know the answer is that Etro intervened, but how does that work exactly? Does the fal’Cie who gave the l’Cie a focus get to decide whether or not their thrall turns to crystal or into a C’ieth, and does the authority of one fal’Cie usurp the authority of another? Did they actually become C’ieth and then Etro intervened to turn them human again and put them in Crystal? Who woke them up? Why did they awaken from their crystal sleep when they did? What happens when the fal’Cie who makes you into a l’Cie dies? We know that Anima died right before making Lightning and her allies into l’Cie, but that didn’t stop their focus. If a l’Cie who completes their focus going into crystal stasis, who gets to wake them up and give them a new Focus if the old fal’Cie master dies?

Really, this is a rabbit hole of questions that can go on and on forever. Concerned with clear storytelling, Motomu Toriyama is not.

But again, I digress.

I think that it would be an interesting twist is Vanille herself is the Goddess of Death, Etro. We know that fal’Cie can take on human form, and surely a goddess would have that power. Now, there are holes in this idea: we know Etro is stuck in the unseen realm and can’t return because she was banished there by Bhunivelze, but still, there are a lot of things that would make more sense about Vanille if it turned out she herself was Etro. Vanille is the only party member with the ability to cast the Death spell, and though that does have some connections to her character, it is odd that of all the characters it would be Vanille with this devastating ability that works on almost every single enemy in the game, including the final boss. Vanille is seen making a sign with her fingers and offering prayers to the heavens many times, what if this were the sign of the Goddess? What if she were actually trying to work some kind of magic when she did that?

And why is Vanille narrating the story? From a development perspective, there are explanations: Vanille was initially conceived as the central character and was going to be the game’s primary protagonist, but after showing off Lightning in a promotional video and receiving positive feedback from fans, Lightning was made the central protagonist of the game. For the record I think this was a good move. But Vanille is narrating the entire story of the game, seemingly from within her crystal sleep in the pillar holding Cocoon. She and Fang even speak directly to Lightning and the others at the end after they’re freed from crystal. If Etro is the one who intervened and freed them from crystal, why couldn’t it have been Vanille who did it? Also, what exactly is the significance of becoming Ragnarok? It’s repeatedly stated that ONE of the l’Cie must become Ragnorok, but both times Fang attempts to do it on her own, she isn’t strong enough. Is this an ability they all inherently know? Vanille and Fang do it effortlessly in the end and it’s presumably because they’ve been down this road before and know what they’re doing, but is this is a power that can be used any time? As usual, not much is explained.

Vanille being Etro would continue to make sense as the series progressed. Vanille is somehow capable of seeing into Serah’s dream world and calling her out of it, and Serah’s dream world is within the Unseen Realm, Etro’s domain. During Lightning Returns, Vanille inexplicably has the ability to speak to the souls of the dead and guide them to the new world. No one ever even attempts to explain why she has this ability. Again, I know this pokes holes in the central plot of the three games, but still, I think it would have been a much more interesting twist to have Vanille turn out to be Etro herself, intervening physically as well as magically in the events of the world to try and stop the death of innocent people.

Vanille lies so frequently that she even comments she can’t remember which events are truth or lies anymore. She outright lies to Hope and tells him that he promised to come and see Gran Pulse with her. I actually like the idea that maybe if Vanille were Etro, she could see alternate timelines, and in one of those, Hope did promise to come and see Gran Pulse with her. Either way, Vanille spends much of her time lying to others, even if she does it with good intentions. If Vanille is such a capable liar, couldn’t she be lying about her identity too?

A Titanic Superboss

I’m not the only Final Fantasy XIII fan to be baffled by the development choice NOT to make Titan the game’s superboss. Instead the superbosses are the final C’ieth stone mission and the Long Gui. Titan is a very prominent figure on Gran Pulse: he’s always seen walking around just beyond the mountains, no matter where you are on the plains. There’s a series of C’ieth stone missions revolving around running a gauntlet for his amusement and showing off your strength to him. He creates mist that causes power C’ieth to appear, and he even speaks briefly to the party. We also know that he’s a fal’Cie, and the characters in Final Fantasy XIII never met a fal’Cie they didn’t want to kill. It just seems obvious that Titan would be the game’s optional superboss. It even seems to imply that he would be, considering several of the C’ieth stone missions are done specifically at his behest, or in his area of the world. It would make sense that fighting him is the ultimate prize for completing these missions.

But alas, nothing. And even stranger is the fact that never appears in the Lightning Saga. Atomos actually reappears in Lightning Returns, sleeping in the Dead Dunes. This conflicts with the widespread notion in Nova Chrysallia that Pandemonium is the only living fal’Cie, because Atomos is clearly still alive and hasn’t become a crystal, but nonetheless, there he is. If Atomos survived, why didn’t Titan? Especially when massive juggernatus like Atlas seem to mirror his design. Surely he’d have been involved somewhere within the side-story of these huge creatures? Is the Atlas included in the second game a re-skinned version of a planned Titan superboss that never made the final cut?

Really, every time I see him on the Archylte Steppe, it’s like the game is just rubbing my face in the fact that he isn’t available to challenge.

Where The Hell Is Everybody?

Everyone, including Vanille and Fang who are natives and presumably understand a lot of it’s history, wonder where the hell all the people on Gran Pulse disappeared to. It’s brought up a few times with confusion, and then never addressed again. We know that the War of Transgression took a huge toll on both Pulse and Cocoon, but Gran Pulse is literally the entire planet, and there doesn’t seem to be one surviving human anywhere. We even see the ruins of Paddra, which indicate that it was a very modern, technologically advanced city, because it’s ruins include cars and traffic lights. The world is filled with C’ieth stones, and it’s never addressed whether or not these C’ieth stones are the remains of the humans who lived on Pulse after the war.

Did the war take such a massive toll on human life that only a few survived, and then those few all eventually became C’ieth? Why is there not a single l’Cie on Pulse who fulfilled their focus and turned to crystal? We never learn the answers to these things. Even weirder is the fact that in Final Fantasy XIII-2, Hope and the Academy set up shop in the ruins of Paddra and launch an investigation into it’s history, but they only bother researching it’s ANCIENT history, learning about the Seeress who led the city. They never bother trying to learn what it actually was that leveled the city and left ruins behind.

Three games and still the plot-holes left in Final Fantasy XIII are never addressed, we’re just given new plot-holes to contemplate.

Let’s Go Back!

It is standard in any RPG that once you reach a certain point in the game, you have the ability to revisit previous locations and unlock new secrets. Now sure, most of the previous locations in Final Fantasy XIII are straight corridors, but even so, I wouldn’t mind going down those corridors again if they contained new challenges, opportunities and treasure. One of the most glaring problems with Final Fantasy XIII is the lack of opportunities to make money, well why not have some C’ieth stone missions scattered throughout the areas you’ve already passed through? It wouldn’t be very difficult to just replace the PSICOM soldiers with some of the monsters from Pulse and throw in some C’ieth along the way. I know, it wouldn’t make much sense that there were C’ieth all over the place on Cocoon, but it the fal’Cie had no problem turning the Cavalry into Sacrifices, surely they could be persuaded to do it elsewhere on Cocoon. It would also be a great way to earn more money. In Final Fantasy XIII, literally your only source of income at the end of the game is to farm Sacrifices for Perfume or farm Adamantoise and their kids for Gold Nuggets and Platinum Ingots. Even if you LIKE fighting an endless parade of Adamantoise, this is still lazy development. As usual with Final Fantasy XIII, they don’t utilize their resources.  Even if stomping back through the Vile Peaks and fighting new monsters wouldn’t be incredibly fun, it would at least be more fun than fighting the same monsters on the Archylte Steppe over and over again to grind for Crystarium Points while you prepare for C’ieth stone missions. Slap some Perfumes or Incentive Chips onto the monsters in previous locations and put them on a higher level and bam, you’re ready to roll.

And there you have it. These questions have been rolling around in my head for a long time, and there are always more. But for some reason, despite all the glaring flaws in Final Fantasy XIII, I keep coming back to it. Some detractors would call that “a dog returning to it’s vomit,” I call it being in a codependent and possibly abusive relationship with Square Enix.

#127: Final Fantasy

I’ve loved video games my whole life.

The first game system I ever received was a Nintendo Entertainment System. I must have been three or four years old at the time. The first video game I ever remember seeing was Super Mario Bros. I remember watching my parents play it once in the living room together, with my mom not doing very well and asking my dad questions about how to play it. Funnily enough I don’t have a specific memory of playing the game, although I must have at the time. I do remember my earliest memory of playing a game, and it was Mega Man II, also for NES (although at the time we all just called it the system “Nintendo”). I remember sitting in my mom’s room, with the game hooked up to a television on her dresser, and watching the opening scene of a camera panning up a building to Mega Man standing with his helmet off on top of the building.

I remember how difficult Mega Man was. I could never get further than one or two levels in, and once I actually managed to make it all the way through to the final level and couldn’t beat it. I remember playing the original Super Mario Bros, and an old lady who babysat me tried to teach me the trick to getting 99 lives with a turtle shell. The second video game system I got was a Sega Genesis. In the early 90’s, everyone picked a side in what became known as the “console wars”: either you were a Nintendo person, or a Sega person. It’s not that you necessarily only liked the games from one system or the other, everyone loved all the games, it’s just that the systems were so expensive that no one’s parents could afford to buy them both. To have both was a big deal. I only happened to have both by luck, because my cousin, whose name is Andy (and who will reappear soon in this story), was getting rid of his Sega Genesis and sold it to my mom. I’m not sure for how much but for some reason my memory tells me 50 bucks. I have no clue if that’s true or not.

My first Sega game was Sonic the Hedgehog 2, along with Taz-Mania, a game about the Loony Tunes character Taz the Tasmanian Devil. Fun fact: I was surprised to learn Tasmania is an actual place later on in school, I always assumed it was a made-up place from Looney Tunes. Anyhow, a lot of people fondly remember the first Sonic the Hedgehog, and it’s opening level Green Hill, with nostalgia, but for me it was the second game. I actually never even played the first game until years later in elementary school, and was kind of aggravated by the lack of a spin dash ability.

I loved Sonic 2. I played it constantly. Eventually my cousins who were around the same age as me wanted a video game system, so my mom came up with a rule that I could only have one of my two game systems at a time, and if I wanted one, my cousins got to use the other. I still think that was a stupid rule, particularly because I always chose my Sega Genesis, and eventually my Nintendo just became their de facto possession, and they lost it.

Not that I’m still bitter about it or anything.

But it was mine.

Just saying.

Anyhow, like I was saying I loved Sonic 2. I loved the levels and the characters of Sonic and Tails, and during school I used to draw pictures of Sonic running around on the back of my school papers. I don’t know if schools still do this but at the end of the year the teacher would give our parents a folder filled with all of our work from that year, which make pretty great keepsakes. My mom still has many of my Sonic the Hedgehog drawings, which I was constantly getting in trouble for doodling.

The thing that I loved most about Sonic, though, was the music. Chemical Plant and Mystic Cave Zone especially. My aforementioned cousin Andy (the one who sold my mom the Genesis, not his two sisters who always got to keep one of my game systems) always knew more about video games than I did, was always a more skilled player than I was, and always had something interesting to show me. I used to watch him play in awe, and I was very entertained just watching. He revealed to me that there were cheat codes to Sonic 2, which he had memorized, and he would sometimes put them in and show me Super Sonic, who could jump incredibly high and fly through levels at triple the speed of Sonic. I was amazed by Super Sonic, by his shiny yellow hair and his ability to float in the air as stars rippled past him, and by the way he would cross his arms and stand on his tiptoes, looking regal and powerful, when you stood on the edge of a clif. I also loved the Super Sonic music that played, and I would go to the sound test menu and turn on the Super Sonic music, then turn the volume way up on the television, and run around the house as Sonic, jumping on the furniture and making up stories about Sonic’s adventures.

Incidentally, Andy refused to tell me the cheat code and never did, I learned them when I got older and found them online. He did input them for me and let me play as Super Sonic sometimes, but he seemed to enjoy not telling me and keeping the information a secret from me. Once, after I begged him incessantly, he finally wrote the cheats down on the back of an envelope, and it turned out they were completely fake and not the real cheat.

Not that I’m still bitter about it or anything.

But really, he should have just told me the damn cheat codes.

Andy was to be a pivotal player in my love of video games. He always had the newest systems and the newest games, and he would always let me play them, though usually I had to spend most of the time I visited watching him play, but even still, I was fine with that. I never really got to play much of the Super Nintendo, I had an aunt and uncle who had one along with Super Mario World, and on a few occassions I would visit and get to play, but I never had a Super Nintendo of my own. I still loved playing Super Mario World for the limited time I could, though. Anyhow, Andy eventually got a Sega Saturn, which I was entirely interested in due to it’s complete lack of Sonic the Hedgehog games, though I did watch him play Panzer Dragoon, and was pretty stunned by the graphics.

It’s funny now to look back at older video games and think of how stunning the graphics were to people at the time. But good game designers have tried different ways of creating beautiful games, and some of them have stood the test of time. For instance, I still think Super Mario World looks incredible, but unlike many other games it isn’t because of superior graphics as much as it is superior art design. The characters and environments are drawn in a style similar to cartoon animation, which means that they hold up over time. The opposite of this would be games like Doom or Goldeneye, who tried to go for a very realistic aesthetic, and as such look like paper mache pasted onto polygons now. I think that games that use an animated style, or any style that resembles animated art rather than realistic art, hold up over time.

I had only ever heard of Zelda as a game for the Gameboy, a device which I found fascinating. Gameboys were the first real handheld video game systems, apart from little handheld poker or Yahtzee games with little light up screens that had the game built in to the system. The first Gameboys were massive and heavy, with tiny little screens that were always green, and the games were black and white except for the fact that the screen was green, so they were more black and green than anything else. There was also a slew of accessories, my favorite of which was a huge clip-on magnifying glass that went over the screen and made everything look bigger, along with “worm lights,” which were glorified reading-lights that plugged in and lit up your screen in the dark (back-lit screens, surprisingly, would not arrive until much later). I had an aunt (Andy’s mom) who apparently loved Zelda and though she never let me play it I’d seen her playing it on her Gameboy (the game, by the way, was The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening). I later saw the original Zelda for Nintendo but never found it terribly interesting, and always died very quickly, along with having no clue where to go.

Andy had a Nintendo 64 and I saw him play a lot of great games: Wave Race was the first one I saw, followed by Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, and then shooters like Goldeneye, Perfect Dark, Forsaken, and many others. In those days video stores still existed, and in video stores there was a video game section where you could rent games. I both watched and played a lot of Nintendo 64 games through Andy, who would let me play his consoles while he was busy with something else when I visited him.

Andy eventually moved in with me and my mom when he was sixteen and I was about seven years old. He’d had a falling out with his mom, and in my family throwing your children out is a somewhat common occurence, so my mom took him in. I fell in love with Andy. He was the older brother I’d always wanted. I actually had an older brother but he’d been adopted before I was born by a relative who lived somewhat far away and didn’t allow us much contact, so Andy became my older brother. I totally worshipped him. I followed him wherever he went, I listened to his music and sang along with him, I watched movies with him, I read his video game magazines and played his games when he was busy, I watched eagerly as he played and asked questions which he patiently answered (being an adult now and having played video games next to kids who are around the age of seven, and listening to the endless barrage of questions, I understand just how patient he was with me, which is kind of surprising because I remember him not having too much patience).

Andy’s influence was a really big part of my life at that age. Because I didn’t listen to anyone but him. I wasn’t a bad or disobedient kid, it’s just that I did what Andy said, when he said it, and I did it happily. I loved his approval, and I did not question or argue with him. My mom probably used this to her advantage a few times and had Andy order me to do something that I wouldn’t do when she asked. Andy also began to go through a phase that a lot of white guys in the 90’s went through of adopting a lot of mannerisms and speech patterns of black culture. In the south, they have a word for this, which is “wigger,” a very crass portmanteu of the words “white” and, well you can guess the other one. He started listening to a lot of rap music (although he also listened to a good bit of alternative 90’s rock, provided it was a male artist, so I heard a lot of Third Eye Blind, Sublime and Sugar Ray in those days), and went through a very long Insane Clown Posse phase. To his credit, he never became the kind of cult-like devoted “juggalo” follower the band is known for having, he just enjoyed getting high and listening to their music and laughing at the absurdity of it.

My world changed in a profound way one day when I came home from school. I walked into the living room to find Andy just starting up a game. I was surprised to see it wasn’t a Nintendo 64 game, it was actually a Playstation that he was playing. I do remember seeing people with Playstations around that time, and I remember seeing games like Crash Bandicoot and some of the wrestling games that had a huge surge of popularity in the 90’s (along with professional wrestling itself, which was more or less a glorified soap opera with people throwing each other around and bouncing off of ropes), but I don’t know if it was before or after this moment.

This moment was important. This moment is imprinted on my memory. It’s the moment that everything in my life came into focus. It’s the moment that I became a writer, a musician, and an artist. I didn’t know all of that yet, but this is the moment that it started.

The game was called Final Fantasy VII (Andy had to explain to me what roman numerals were, and that the symbol meant “seven”). It was the start of the game, and Cloud Strife had just hopped off of the train and stood with his back to the camera. His blocky, pixelated form didn’t look silly to anyone at the time, in fact the graphics were great. The first thing I noticed was his spikey blonde hair. Now, I hadn’t watched Dragonball Z at the time, and didn’t know anything about Super Saiyans, but I remembered thinking that I recognized the game he was playing and said “Hey I know that guy! Who is it?” but I’d never heard of Cloud. Looking back, I must have thought it was Super Saiyan Goku, although paradoxically I don’t remember seeing the episode of Dragonball Z in which Goku goes Super Saiyan until a bit later, and I THINK that I was watching the show as new episodes came out.

At any rate, I was intrigued by the spikey blonde haired character, and sat down to watch Andy play. I had never seen a roleplaying game before, and I was confused about the fact that instead of actually moving around and slashing the sword with the buttons on the controller, Andy was selecting commands from a menu, and then the characters would go forward and do what he told them. Even though it was new, I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed watching a green aura swirl around Cloud as he did his magic incantation pose and throw lightning bolts or blocks of ice at enemies.

Final Fantasy VII quickly became everything to me. I think that what did it was the music. The music was so beautiful, so intensely beautiful, so world-changingly beautiful. I’d never heard anything like it. The song that always stands out the most in my mind is called Anxious Heart. It plays several times in the game, but it’s the area music for the Train Graveyard. I remember watching Andy play this area, and my mom was chatting with someone who was in the room, and actually made a comment about how these new video games had this cool incredible music. I’ve never forgotten her saying that. It was true, the music was incredible.

My favorite was the battle theme. I heard it constantly because there are endless amounts of battles in the game. I remember one morning when I woke up, and I heard that battle song as I woke up, and I instantly became filled with excitement and ran into the living room, jumping up onto the couch beside Andy to watch the action. I would stand in the living room floor and watching the battles, singing the battle music in “dum dum dum”s and mimicking the actions, standing in battle position and moving like I was slashing a sword, doing the character’s victory poses.

I loved Final Fantasy VII in a way I had never loved anything before. I was completely enraptured, watching this game. I was fascinated by everything, by the characters, by the battles, by the monsters the characters fought and summoned, by the villain Sephiroth, who was cool and soft-spoken and terrifying, by the artwork in the game’s manual which I tried to copy in my sketchbook and draw pictures of. I even drew little figures of Cloud and Sephiroth in battle, holding their swords, and I cut them out of the book and made the two little flat drawings fight one another.

Andy bought an unofficial strategy guide which I used to gleefully look through, looking at the pictures from the game and the incredible illustrations of items and materia, which I thought looked so beautiful and real. And even to this day, I think that the pre-rendered backgrounds of Final Fantasy VII are beautiful. Some of them hold up better than others, but the decision to put the game on pre-rendered backgrounds filled with lush forests, barren snowscapes, and brilliant skylines was a great one, and it’s caused Final Fantasy VII’s environment to age significantly better than, say, Tomb Raider, which looks like a pixelated polygonal mess now.

Andy beat the game, and then some. He did all the sidequests, he spent a long time breeding and racing chocobos. One day he was racing chocobos all day, and during that day he made us lunch, a huge pot filled with barbecue sauce, spices, and cut up hot dogs, which was so incredibly hot and spicy that I had to drain an entire glass of Sun Drop with every bite. It was a bright day, there was a sliding-glass door in the living room, and everything was perfect and bright and happy. I was so happy watching Andy play Final Fantasy VII. Everything in my life just came into focus when he was playing that game.

He wouldn’t let me play the game on my own because he was afraid I would overwrite his save file. I know he restarted the game many times, and I remember one time he restarted the game and gave the characters funny names, which he and his best friend, our next-door neighbor, found amusing to no end. It was kind of funny to see the characters all calling Cloud “Asshole,” Barret “Dr. Dre,” and Tifa “Bitch.” I mean, it was juvenile, but we were literally juveniles. Me much more so than them.

I remember one night I was watching television and I heard the opening music of Final Fantasy VII in the other room, and immediately bolted into the living room to watch Andy play. My older brother did actually come to visit once, and while Andy was away we played his Playstation (which I was EXPRESSLY forbidden to do when he wasn’t home, and I was PARTICULARLY not supposed to play Final Fantasy VII because I might scratch up the game disc or mess his Playstation up in some way). My brother and I played through the opening section in Mako Reactor No. 1, although I think I did most of the playing, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only was I doing well, I actually beat the guard scorpion, the game’s first boss. Andy found out about this and got really angry, because from that point on, his disc 1 would always lock up at the FMV scene where the bridge breaks on Mt. Nibel in Cloud’s Nibelheim flashback. He blamed this on me mishandling the disc.

It didn’t really matter that I rarely got to play though, because I loved watching Andy play so much. He did manage to do everything there was to do in the game: bred a golden chocobo, got the master materia, and beat both Emerald and Ruby Weapon (Ruby Weapon was a long process of trial and error, and I happened to be out of the room when it happened but I remember Andy’s exuberant jubilation).

There are so many parts of that game that recall certain memories. I loved the music of Cosmo Canyon, I remember watching Andy battle these clowns that draw cards from a deck that have different effects, I remember the first time I saw Andy fight the final boss, Safer Sephiroth, and was stunned to hear that there was actual choral singing, in the music. I was stunned: people were really talking, IN A VIDEO GAME! There were actual voices.

I could probably go on for much longer about watching Andy play Final Fantasy VII. Suffice it to say, it became everything to me. When I was alone, I played pretend games of FF7 with myself, being Cloud or Sephiroth, turning sticks in the yard into swords and standing in place until my “attack” or “magic” command was selected from an imaginary menu, and then I would rush forward and slash my sword, then jump back into place to wait for my next turn. I also played the opponents usually too. I know it’s a common sight to see a little boy holding a stick and pretending it’s a sword, jumping around and swinging the stick through the air shouting like he’s fighting monsters, but it must have been a strange sight to see a little boy standing in place, assuming a battle pose, waiting for a command that came from himself, then rushing forward to slash and jumping back into place to wait for the next command.

Andy was playing Final Fantasy VII, fighting the red dragon in the Temple of the Ancients, on the day that my mom called me into the kitchen and, along with her aunt who was there, told me that I was going to be staying at a mental health center in the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation that my therapist had recommended, and that she couldn’t come with me and I’d have to sleep there and be away from my family. I was terrified buy they gave me a teddy bear, and I made everyone hug the teddy bear several times, so that if I got lonely, I could ask my teddy bear for a hug from Andy, or from Mommy, or from one of my cousins, and he would relay the hug to me.

It’s sad, I know. The experience at the mental health center (which was actually just a floor of the hospital) was horrifying, but it’s another story for another time. When I came back, I was anxious to see what I’d missed in Final Fantasy VII.

This is how it started. Final Fantasy became important to me, and changed my life. It made me creative. It inspired everything I did from that moment on. I wanted to create my own fantasy stories, I loved magic and swords, I wanted to make my own stories like Final Fantasy, I wanted to be a video game designer and work for Squaresoft, the company that made Final Fantasy. I read all the video game magazines and loved anything mentioning Final Fantasy. I resented Final Fantasy VIII when it was released because it wasn’t a direct sequel to VII, and how could anything be better than VII? I did eventually come to love every entry in the series, though.

Years later, I started learning to play piano because I wanted to be able to play music from video games. The music from Final Fantasy VII, from Sonic the Hedgehog, from Kingdom Hearts. Kingdom Hearts is it’s own story. I went absolutely nuts when I found out Cloud was in the game, and he had a voice. I could HEAR Cloud’s voice. My brother played a mean prank on me once, by pretending that he was actually Cloud, that he’d traveled to another world, and that he could morph between my brother and Cloud. I completely, legitimately believed him. I was heartbroken when he revealed to me that it was a lie, and cried my eyes out. Incidentally, he also pretended to morph into several other Final Fantasy VII characters. It’s a pretty funny story. Apart from me being heartbroken, anyway.

I printed out the sheet music to the Final Fantasy VII battle theme and put it in front of my chorus teacher, asking if he could play it on piano. He did. It was the first time I’d heard Final Fantasy music played on a real instrument, not coming through the speakers of a television, and not in the form of those wonderful MIDI sounds that I loved so much, but here on a real instrument. It was a different sound, but it was magic. I was hooked from that moment. I had to learn to play this song.

And really, that’s how it all started. I started trying to write my first novel when I was twelve, and it was a story heavily influenced by Final Fantasy. I started learning to play piano because I wanted to play music from video games. To this day, I’m still playing Final Fantasy, and I’ve never stopped playing the games from the 90’s either (although admittedly I rarely play Final Fantasy VII anymore, it’s a bit boring to me now and I don’t find the battle system as fun or engaging as others in the series).

My story with video games continues from here, but I’ll stop there for now. There were other games that had a big impact on me, other games that helped me create beautiful memories, and there are plenty more memories associated with Final Fantasy VII and it’s profound effect on me. When I started experiencing depression and became reclusive and afraid, I hid inside the world of Final Fantasy VII. At one point I even believed Cloud was real, and I begged that he would come and rescue me from this world and take me to his. Final Fantasy gave me a safe place, a place that made sense to me, a place where the things I loved were, where I was special and cared about and had magical abilities, and could do the things I wanted.

I never stopped believing in that world. I don’t believe it’s real anymore, but when I was a teenager I had an ardent wish. There’s an area in Final Fantasy VII, an area outside Nibelheim, where the green land drops off in a cliff and the ocean stretches out. I know that in the game, it looks like a bunch of polygons and textures. But it didn’t look that way to me. It looked like real green grass on a real rocky surface, overlooking a real, beautiful sparkling blue ocean, lit by the sun, with the Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII playing in the background behind it.

And one day, when I was fourteen, standing outside in the cold morning and waiting for my bus to come and take me to school, I hoped that Heaven would be that place. That when I died, I’d go to a personal Heaven, where I could finally live in the world of Final Fantasy VII. Even now, the memory of that wish still lives in my heart, though now I’m ostensibly an atheist so I don’t know if I believe in anything after death, or in real transcendance anymore. But it didn’t matter then. All that mattered was that I loved this world, and that I found beauty and joy and happiness and safety and security there.

Final Fantasy VII gave me hope, and it still does. During a difficult childhood, it gave me something that made sense, something to love. And the thing is, it’s not like I just started developing a fondness for it out of a need to cope (although I completely believe that’s probably what happened), it’s that I fell in love with it INSTANTLY. I was hooked from that first day. I was spellbound by the characters, by the places, by the music.

And I’ve never stopped loving Final Fantasy, or fantasy itself. And right now, a fantasy story lives in my heart, a story with my own characters and my own places, all of whom borrow concepts and ideas from Final Fantasy, but which are mine. I don’t have to be ashamed to take from Final Fantasy because all art draws from all other art. I try not to outright copy the series, but in my mind I always see a future critic of my novel that hasn’t even been written, saying that it’s a blatant copy of Final Fantasy. But I know that my vision, even if it borrows heavily from Final Fantasy, is unique, and that it will become clearer the more I write, the more I try, and the more I explore. As time has gone on I’ve drawn inspiration from many more sources than just Final Fantasy, and I will continue to do so.

But Final Fantasy will always be special to me. It will always be that safe place, that place of numbers and menus and RPG mechanics that gave me something to focus on when I was feeling scared as a teenager and gave my time structure, that place of beautiful music and scenery and adventure that captivated me as a child and made me want to explore the fantasy realms in my mind, the place that I started writing fanfiction about as a teenager, creating my own stories with these characters, borrowing them and placing them in a world where I coexisted, creating my stories out of thin air as I danced barefoot through the wet grass in the morning, slashing a stick through the air, and adventuring with Cloud and the other Final Fantasy characters.

Why I Like Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII is undoubtedly the black sheep of the Final Fantasy series. And when I say black sheep, I mean that the majority of people, both casual fans and hardcore followers of the series alike, really hate it. And I mean they REALLY hate it.

Final Fantasy XIII is a departure in so many ways from the history of the series. There are times when the fact that it’s a Final Fantasy game is indiscernible. It was directed by a series newcomer, Motomu Toriyama, instead of series favorites Hironobu Sakaguchi and character designer Testuya Nomura. Legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu, who created nearly all of the music for the first eleven Final Fantasy installments, was no longer working with Final Fantasy at the time, and the music was handled by Uematsu collaborator Masashi Hamauzu, who had previously helped with some of the music on Final Fantasy X (his work is usually characterized by stacatto piano and violins, atop lush string arrangements, as opposed to Uematsu whose work feels a bit more like pop rock music in orchestral form). The story took on similar themes as previous installments: a group of ordinary characters fighting extraordinarily powerful forces they shouldn’t by any right be able to handle, characters who harness magic and summon powerful creatures, and as always, the ever present religious allegory and the final battle against god (no really, the final battle in most, if not all Final Fantasy games, is against either the god of that universe, a symbolic god, a literal god, or a character who has become a god or seeks to do so).

Battle concept from the E3 2007 trailer

Battle concept from the E3 2007 trailer

Final Fantasy XIII had a lot going for it before release: fans were excited about the new protagonist, Lightning, who was shown off in an E3 concept trailer that showed an early version of the battle system in which battle was entirely active, though still featured menus and magic commands like previous games. Initially, the story was going to be focused on Vanille, but after the positive response to Lightning, the developers switched focus to her. I think that was a good choice because Lightning is a fantastic character. I do often find myself a little aggravated when she is referred to as “the female Cloud Strife.” Despite the opening scenario bearing a lot of similarity to Cloud and Barret’s battle agaisnt the Guard Scorpion, and the fact that she’s an ex-soldier with a moody personality, I don’t actually see much resemblance between the two. Cloud was, in general, a pretty positive character, who actually had a lot of compassion for people’s problems, despite constantly shrugging his shoulders and flipping his hair. Lightning is steely-faced and determined, not at all emotionless but refusing to give in to her fear. Cloud stopped every few minutes to fall to his knees and spazz out with his hands shaking to hold his head still, whereas Lightning almost never loses her drive to push forward.

At any rate, fans liked Lightning and the developers went with it.

The story was written by director Motomu Toriyama, and suppoedly he’s notorious for creating plots that make very little sense. The story of Final Fantasy XIII is so convoluted and bogged down in it’s own terminology that even a dedicated fan who’s played the game several times finds they didn’t really have any clue what was happening on the first play through. Characters communicate with one another, but they seem to always be side-stepping what they’re actually talking about, and no one really gives any clear idea of what’s happening, aside from constantly repeating a few choice phrases (those phrases being, “We’re Pulse l’Cie, enemies of Cocoon,” “If we don’t fulfill our Focus, we’ll become C’ieth,” “Pulse is hell on earth,” “We’re puppets of the fal’Cie,” and “Serah wanted us to save Cocoon”).

Backstory is provided in sporadic chunks that don’t seem to form any clear narrative, and the premise of the final boss fight makes little sense at all. Basically, the villain WANTS the main characters to kill him, because if he dies, Cocoon will be destroyed and he will win. So their response is… to try and kill him. The party shouts about how they refuse to do what he asks, all while doing what he asks. Even weirder is that he fights BACK. His goal is to be killed, yet he attempts to defend himself. It’s a very strange thing. Lightning gives a speech about how they refuse to be bound by their fate, how they refuse to be puppets and do what they’re told, but then she does exactly what they’re told and kills the fal’Cie, with seemingly no idea of how to handle the consequences of what to do when Cocoon falls out of the sky.

The ending also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Throughout the story it’s explained that l’Cie who fulfill their focus become crystal for eternity, unless they’re awakened from crystal stasis by a fal’Cie who gives them a new focus. At the end of the game they fulfill their focus, which was to become Ragnorok and knock Cocoon out of the sky (despite the fact that they did save it), and they turn to crystal because… they did what they were told? Even weirder, it’s never explained how someone can be saved from crystal stasis unless called upon by a fal’Cie, but in the end the entire party turns to crystal and then, with the exception of the characters who held up Cocoon, they’re released fromc crystal with their brands gone, and receive no explanation. This will be half-heartedly explained in the sequels, but Final Fantasy XIII is a self-contained story, and doesn’t mention how this could be possible.

Then there’s Fabula Nova Crystalis.

You see, Final Fantasy XII takes place in a sub-series within the Final Fantasy series called Fabula Nova Crystalis. This is kind of like the Ivalice Alliance from earlier in the series, except that Final Fantasy Tactics wasn’t created with the intention of making a sub-series. Basically, Fabula Nova Crystalis games share the same lore about the creation of their universe, but… not much else. They contain similar themes, they contain fal’Cie, but apart from that they don’t seem to have much to do with one another. The gods serve different functions in different games within the subseries. For instance, the goddess Etro has a different function in Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Type-0, and Final Fantasy Versus XIII (we’ll come back to that in a moment). They don’t all actually happen in the same universe, they happen in different VERSIONS of the same universe. So Final Fantasy XIII and it’s direct sequels are a sub-series (The Lightning Saga) within another sub-series (Fabula Nova Crystalis), within a larger series (Final Fantasy).

Even as a dedicated fan of the series, I’ll admit it’s all very contrived and pretentious.

Then of course, we have Tetsuya Nomura.

Nomura is the character designer for Final Fantasy. He works alongside Yoshitaka Amano who does almost all of the concept illustrations (you might recognize his style from the Final Fantasy logo illustrations, the art of Vampire Hunter D, or his collaboration with Neil Gaiman on a Sandman spinoff). Amano’s style is very unique, his characters tend to have angular pale faces with dark-colored lips and flowing garments that look like watercolor even when they’re pencil sketches. Nomura’s style is a bit more reminiscent of anime. His style has actually become something of an RPG trope.

Crisis Core

It’s become pretty common that if there’s an RPG, the main character will have some or all of the following characteristics: a tall, thin but slightly muscular male, with spikey or otherwise outrageous hair, usually blonde. His facial features will be somewhat androgynous, and regardless of his age he’ll look like he’s seventeen. He’ll probably be wearing a constant scowl and gazing longingly into the horizon, or moping in the rain. He’ll be carrying some kind of enormous weapon like a sword that looks like it’s a chunk of metal ripped from the side of a skyscraper, or something eqaully obstuse like a techno-sword or transforming gun. He’ll be wearing outlandish clothes, usually covered in belts that don’t serve much purpose, accesorized so much that you wonder how he can walk around without jangling like a set of house keys, he’ll probably have a pauldron on his left shoulder and the left side of his outfit will be far more decorated than the right side. He’ll also be wearing either combat boots or large sneakers, and if he’s done in the style of animated character, he’ll probably have giant hands and feet and a thin, lanky body.

Oh and also sometimes angel wings. Don’t ask me why.

If you recognize this archetype, you have Tetsuya Nomura to thank. I don’t mean to imply that he created Bishounen or the style of Doujinshi characters, but his influence on the video game world is pretty undeniable. Nomura was involved in the development of Final Fantasy XIII but only as far as character design, after that he stepped away and didn’t want to have anything else to do with it. In fact, he was so opposed to the game, that he started working on his own game, which he titled Final Fantasy Versus XIII, because it was created in direct opposition to Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy Versus XIII was a bad name, but it stuck, and for years, fans had only scraps of information and a few brief concept trailers relating to the game. No one really knew what it was like, who these characters were, what kind of game it would be. Information was so slim that after nearly a decade, fans began to wonder if it hadn’t been cancelled altogether. Then it was announced that Final Fantasy Versus XIII would be rebranded as Final Fantasy XV, and fans collectively lost their shit with excitement, especially those who felt put upon by the radical departure of Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t just different in it’s scenario design, it played unlike any in the series so far. One of the big complaints fans had for Final Fantasy X was it’s linearity, the fact that players mostly walked a (very pretty) straight line from end of the game to the other, and that any time the world opened up, it was really only the illusion of space. When an ariship was provided for exploration, it only allowed players to warp to previous locations in the game, since there hadn’t been an overworld since Final Fantasy IX. Final Fantasy XII attempted to remedy this problem by opening the game up so much that traversing the world map meant slogging through several screens of wide open land. Both of these approaches worked in some ways and failed in others. In Final Fantasy X, the focus remained on the story, while traveling the straight path allowed some time for random battles and character customization. The wide open areas of Final Fantasy XII meant a larger opportunity to grind for experience, money and items, but a longer wait for the next story segment.

Final Fantasy XIII decided to adapt the Final Fantasy X strategy and keep things linear. Very linear.

Very, VERY linear.

No really, the number one complaint about this game is that it’s virtually on rails. And the people who made that complaint are absolutely correct. It really is. The areas are breathtakingly beautiful, but most of the time the paths you travel are tight hallways or catwalks, overlooking a gorgeous landscape that you can’t explore. Many of the paths serve only as set pieces to highlight the beautiful surroundings, which you cannot experience up close. Rather than random battles, enemies prowl around in real time, but approaching them moves the game to a battle screen. This method has been used in plenty of RPG’s before and it works, but it’s ultimately up to the player to decide whether they prefer slogging through endless random battles or choosing which battles to partake in. I admit that if the developers had chosen to use random battles, the linear pathways would probably have been unbearable for me, and the huge surroundings would be barren and lifeless.

Battle

Battles themselves turn the RPG formula on it’s head. You still have the option of choosing commands from a menu, but it’s really only the illusion of choice. Most of the time you’ll be using an “auto-battle” function. Now, I know it seems ridiculous to even include an “auto-battle” option, but there is a reason for it. Final Fantasy XIII’s battles are not actually about choosing which individual abilities to use on which character, they’re actually about choosing which CHARACTERS are performing which KINDS of actions. Characters are given six roles: Commando, Ravager, Medic, Saboteur, Synergist, and Sentinel. What these ultimately equate to are: Tank, Offensive Mage, Healer, Debuff Mage, Protective Mage, and Damage Magnet. Different characters have different combinations of access to these roles, so constantly changing your style to fit the situation is a necessity. You then focus all your effort on one enemy at a time, attacking them and building up a Chain Gauge, which when filled entirely, will send the enemy into an incredibly weak “staggered” status, which allows your characters to do double, triple or more damage, launch foes into the air, hit them with debuffs they were previously resistant to, or in the case of some behemoth superbosses, knock them on their side so you can pound away at them or heal yourself.

Different roles have different staggering capabilities. Commandos basically don’t affect that chain gauge at all, and during my first play through of the game I somehow managed to completely miss this, often throwing three tanks at a single enemy and wondering why they just weren’t doing enough damage. Ravagers are the best at building chain gauges, but if you attack with only ravagers, the gauge will rapidly drop down to zero, so you need a Commando or a debuffing Saboteur to stabilize it so that it drops much slower. The entire battle system is built around monitoring your opponents chain gauge, buffing yourself and debuffing them, and keeping yourself healed while you wait for them to hit their stagger point and then go in for the kill.

Healing items basically don’t exist. You are given two healing items the entire game, a simple Potion, and an incredibly rare full-healing Elixir (there are something like five obtainable Elixirs in the entire game). The Potion is obsolete even by the third chapter or so, it only heals a set number of HP, and there are never any upgraded Potions available at any point during the game. It’s like they’re only there to taunt you. You absolutely HAVE to have a Medic in your party, healing you almost constantly, or you will go down quickly. This makes party customization (when it becomes available extremely late in the game) very difficult, because there are only two apt Medics in the entire game, Hope and Vanille, and they happen to be the characters with the lowest HP, particularly Hope, you will have to spend a good amount of your time either healing or bringing back to life with Phoenix Downs (luckily those are still pretty useful, if expensive).

Even though each character has a unique set of three roles available to them (ability to unlock other roles becomes accessible later, but the amount of experience required makes it nearly impossible, and even still, not all characters can excel in every role), there are essentially three presets: tank, mage, and all-rounder, and you are given two of each. In order to succeed, you basically need to have one of each kind in your party if you want to win. For example, the two all-rounders are Lightning and Sazh, the two mages/healers are Hope and Vanille, and the two tanks are Fang and Snow. This means that it’s almost impossible to have a successful party setup WITHOUT Hope or Vanille, and attempting to use both Sazh and Fang at the same time means you have to subtract Lightning, or if you want multiple tanks in your party your other character can’t be an all-rounder, they need to be a healer. This isn’t about Paradigm roles, it’s the way the characters are designed.

I personally like characters to have limited designs (for example: Vivi is the only black mage in Final Fantasy IX, and cannot be turned into a tank no matter how hard you try, whereas Zidane is a physical attacker and can’t learn magic whatsoever), it’s definitely preferable to the blank slates of Final Fantasy VII, where each character is an interchangeable carbon copy of one another and the ability to overpower characters with Materia makes the characters themselves inherently pointless with no noticeable stat differences. However, the battles are set up in such a way that you simply CANNOT survive without having an adept healer, so Lightning isn’t good enough, and if you unlock the Paradigm roles for them, neither are Sazh, Fang or Snow. Only Vanille and Hope can be counted on to reliably heal the party, so this means you HAVE to use one of the two of them at all times. I don’t mind these characters, in fact Vanille is one of my favorites, but you can see how this becomes limiting quickly. This preset character type also means that the only way to viably use Sazh in your party is to replace Lightning, in which case you have an all-rounder that can’t heal, or replace your tank, in which case you have to repurpose your all-rounder in a tank.

Odin

Characters level up through “CP,” or Crystogen Points, which you use to increase their stats and abilities in the Crystarium, which is more less a very limited version of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. The Crystarium actually caps at a certain point in each of the game’s thirteen chapters, and you don’t actually unlock the entirety of the Crystarium until after the game is completed. Grinding for crystogen points can be incredibly monotonous, particularly if you don’t have the Growth Egg accessory which doubles CP and is very difficult to acquire when it becomes first available. Though each character is eventually granted access to every role in the Crystarium, each Crystarium is different for each character, and no matter how much you grind, certain characters will never be able to excel at certain roles or obtain certain abilities. For instance, the healing ability Curaja is available to only two characters in the game, the dedicated healers Hope and Vanille. So, no matter how hard you try to make Sazh a capable healer, he will never have access to that spell, basically making your efforts to turn him into your parties dedicated healer useless unless your incredibly overpowered. Lightning and Hope both have unique versions of the Sentinel role which allow them to sidestep enemy attacks rather than take them with the damage mitigated, but you don’t really get the chance to use Lightning in this role until after the game’s completed and you’ve already got plenty of other capable Sentinels, and Hope manages to be a damage magnet with the lowest HP in the game even when he isn’t a Sentinel, so making him one would require incredibly careful repurposing of your other party members.

Because of how limited the characters are, it’s incredibly difficult to choose a weapon. The weapon in system in Final Fantasy XIII is probably my favorite aspect of customization, despite how flawed it is. No weapon in the game is truly bad, they’re all just suited to different purposes, and each one has a catch. If the weapon has incredibly high strength growth, it’s probably at the expense of magic growth, and if it excels in both, it will probably come with the Stagger Lock property which prevents that specific character from being able to stagger enemies. Some weapons have great secondary bonus effects like improved healing or extension of buffs/debuffs/stagger time, but this usually comes at a cost of hugely cutting the weapons stats, to the point that you can’t rely on that weapon to increase your stats at all and you have to use accessories, of which you have a limited amount of slots.

Because you can’t really tell what the stat growth for each weapon is like upon receiving them, you’re basically forced to use a guide to tell which weapon will have the stats you need for the role you’re intending to use that character in, and if you make a wrong choice you can waste a LOT of resources leveling up a weapon that doesn’t suit your purposes, with no way to get back all that money you spent on it. And money is an incredibly limited resource in Final Fantasy XIII. LITERALLY the only way to get money is to sell items that you find in the field, usually weapons you aren’t using. This is frustrating if you’re attempting to get the Treasure Hunter achievement/trophy, which requires you to possess every single item in the game, and it’s upgraded form, at one time or another. Either you sell the equipment now and buy it back later to upgrade it for the achievement, or you give up on the achievement altogether. Ultimately it’s an achievement not truly worth breaking your back over, you don’t get any other in-game reward apart from the achievement itself, but for die-hards who want to unlock everything, it’s very frustrating.

So, put all of this together and you can see where the criticism comes from. Final Fantasy XIII is a game with a contrived plot, which takes place over several linear chapters where you travel on rails from point A to point B, fighting battles in which you’re forced to keep everyone in their boxes without much chance for customization, given incredibly little money or resources to upgrade your equipment or buy new items, a character growth system which provides only the illusion of customization (every character will cap out with the exact same stats every time you play the game) and level caps for each chapter, and a system in which truly excelling at battles isn’t permitted until after the game has been completed.

So… why do I like it so much?

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It’s hard to tell. I once had a friend who accused me of being in an abusive relationship with Lightning, that I had convinced myself the game was fun and stayed with it even though it was doing absolutely nothing for me. And I’ve actually wondered that a few times too. I see the games flaws, I’m not ignorant of them. I’ve sunk SO many hours into this game, replaying from the beginning many times, that I recognize these problems probably more than casual gamers who gave up on Final Fantasy XIII (and I have met a lot of people who said they gave up and never finished the game).

But there’s something very charming about it. The story is mostly nonsense, but it’s fun nonsense, and there are some worthwhile concepts being explored, even in Final Fantasy XIII’s obtuse way. The characters are fun, Lightning herself is an awesome heroin, Fang and Vanille provide the first example of an LGBT relationship in the Final Fantasy series, even if it’s entirely subtext. Snow annoys the hell out of me, but at least I get to see Lightning punch him and Hope call him out on being such a chummy douchebag. Sazh is one of the most well-rounded characters in Final Fantasy, humorous and emotional at once, with perhaps the most believable motivations in the game. The flashbacks are odious, and the game drags at several points, but there’s something about Final Fantasy XIII that makes me want to put in some headphones and listen to podcasts or an audiobook while I while away forty hours trying new things that I didn’t before. I’ve replayed the game many times, and I’ve been impressed by the versatility of the characters if you know what you’re doing and put it to good use. It’s possible to make Lightning a better tank than Fang, to have Sazh excel in either damage dealing or magic (he happens to have the best weapon/ability combination for building chain gauges in the game), to use Snow… at all.

No really, I would estimate that I’ve probably put a combined… three hundred to four hundred hours of my life into this game, and I only recently on this very last playthrough ever used Snow at all, for anything. Previously I had only used him as my human shield while Death-spamming the Ochu that gives you the Growth Egg. Fun fact about that, by the way: it usually takes me hours to get Death to work on it, this past attempt it worked on my FIRST try. Sorry, I just needed to share that.

Final Fantasy XIII, for all it’s limiting narrow linearity, actually has a fair amount of versatility. If you go into it wanting it to be Final Fantasy X, you’re going to be disappointing. But if you accept it for what it is: a deeply flawed but still fun game, with stunning visuals, a mostly excellent score (even if it is repetitive), and an immersive world, even a silly immersive world, then you can have fun with it. After my first time conquering the game, I thought maybe I’d be done with it, but found that I had much more fun in the post-game than I did during the story. The world DOES eventually open up, even if it opens up to the Archylte Steppe, a huge (gorgeous) sandbox filled with wolves and Adamantoise, and several hours worth of monster hunts.

Final Fantasy XIII will never be the open-ended, super customization adventure that most RPG’s attempt to be. But it wasn’t actually trying to be. It was trying to create a method of playing so streamlined that it felt like an interactive movie, where battles happen in the illusion of real time, the characters traversing narrow catwalks are actually experiencing this real journey on foot, and the story takes precedence over everything. It is riddled with flaws, and I wish that there could be a re-release of the game that just fixed a few choice issues: lack of customization in the Crystarium, lack of money, and better access to weapon customization materials. It isn’t the linearity that bothers me as a player, it’s the lack of ability to make each playthrough different from the last. It’s possible, but the differences are subtle.

I genuinely don’t know why I learned to love this game, but I did. I see it’s flaws, and I enjoy it anyway. It is not as immediately fun to pick up as past Final Fantasies, but for some reason, when I want to binge on an RPG and mindlessly level up a character for hours while I’m listening to audiobooks, I tend to choose Final Fantasy XII.

This post was initially meant as an overview of why I like the entire Final Fantasy XIII sub-series, but it accidentally turned into a review of the game, which is fine because I attempted to review it once and made a huge mess. So, maybe sometime I’ll come back for “Why I Kind of Like Final Fantasy XIII-2” or “Why I Mostly Like Lightning Returns.”

 

Patron Blog #1: Creation

(The following is cross-posted from Patreon. If you don’t know what Patreon is, basically it’s like an interactive Kickstarter, except that instead of funding one big project, you pledge a certain amount per creation, as much as you’d like to give, to support artists who are creating anything you can imagine. I’m trying this out as a way of gaining feedback and motivation to write my novel, and hopefully get a taste of what it’s like to actually make money for my art. I’m not trying to make a living on Patreon – not yet at least – but this is a great starting place for me. If you like what I write, or you like my music, or you just want to support me creating something in any way, you can become a patron and get access to a lot of neat stuff.)

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I’ve always created stories.

As a child, the way I had fun was to wander around outside, on my own, using my imagination to create big adventures. My first inspiration was and continues to be video games, and I still remember when I was seven years old, running around the back yard with a stick in my hand that could be used either as a sword or a gun, whenever I needed it, and creating stories about my favorite video game characters.

The first game to ignite my imagination was Final Fantasy VII. I loved this game in a deep and profound way that can’t honestly be described. The music, the scenery, the vivid story hooked my attention and my imagination and never let go. I used to draw the characters on paper, then cut the pieces of paper out and use them as toys and have them battle. I would go outside and grab a stick, and sing the battle music and I executed turn-based combat all by myself, playing both the player character and the opponent, in what I’m sure was a hilarious sight to behold.

As I grew older I continued to play this way, and it’s the way I got out my creative energy. I never wrote down the stories that I made up, which started out as fanfiction, long before I knew that fanfiction existed, and even long before I knew that there were OTHER people who also loved Final Fantasy, Sonic the Hedgehog, Zelda and Mega Man the way I did. When I played with my toys, I created platformer video game style levels for them to hop around and pitted them against enemies in video game fashion. When I was thirteen, my method of play didn’t change, in fact it evolved. Now the stories I made up were a little more complex. There were villains with motivations, there were relationships between characters, and I even started to come up with stories that, even though they were heavily influenced by video games and television, were still my own.

At fifteen I continued to play this way by myself, only it was much more conspicuous to be seen waving a stick around and talking to yourself, especially with the emotion of someone acting a character on stage, so what I began to do was just go on long walks, and see the scenario in my mind, and speak the characters’ dialogue under my breath. When I was seventeen and started to enjoy listening to music, I would create dramatic music videos that often involved fight scenes between characters in the games I loved, or even my own characters.

I’m twenty six now, and I still come up with my stories this way. If I have an open space where no one can see me and a stick, I will indeed pick it up, use it as a sword, and engage in my own RPG style combat against imaginary enemies, create characters and soliloquize from the perspective of villains or protagonists. I also take copious notes and write a lot of scenes out of order, with the result being that many of those scenes no longer make sense in the stories the way they are now.

The first time I sat down to write one of my stories I was twelve. Well actually, technically the earliest story I can remember writing was a Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction when I was in second grade. My mother still has the paper. I also wrote one in third grade about James Bond, in the style of the Nintendo 64 game Goldeneye. But the first earnest attempt to write an actual book, a real cohesive story, was when I was twelve. It was a fantasy story, intended to be an epic in the style of Final Fantasy. The concept was that the story took place in a world which had once been devastated by a great flood akin to those in various religious mythologies (indeed, the first thing I sat down and wrote was a prologue that occurred during the Christian Biblical flood), and a certain demon who could take the form of a great leviathan had survived the flood, and was now out to kill a young man whose destiny it was to vanquish him.

Not the most novel idea, but I still say that it wasn’t bad for a twelve year old. I didn’t get very far with the story, but it stayed in my mind and continued to evolve. I created more characters as time went by, added subplots. The main character’s brother was killed in the opening scene, but when I started listening to My Chemical Romance’s Black Parade, I decided that he had faked his death to protect his brother. When I started listening to Queen, I added a scenario in which the main character was thrown into prison in a gladiatorial coliseum, and created a character named Dexter to help him out of the situation, and funnily enough Dexter actually survived and is now a character in the novel I’m writing. When I became interested in choral music I created a mournful scene in which Dexter lamented the death of his lover (no longer a part of Dexter’s character in the new novel, by the way).

All of this played out in my head, very little was written down. And this is the way my stories have always been. Pages and pages of dialogue are improvised by me and most of the time I never write any of it down. It’s still the way I’m most comfortable writing, although now I’ve learned to either record myself speaking, or take notes as I’m talking.

Every idea spirals into a series of ideas, and eventually they start connecting to one another, and then there’s an entire story, complete with subplots and character arcs and relationships… but it’s all in my head. I speak the characters lines when I’m in the shower, when I fall into depression and I feel lonely I play a scene in my mind of two of my characters cuddling and falling asleep. These stories are a part of me, and they go with me wherever I go. These characters exist. And I want other people to see them.

Music is probably an important part of everyone’s life, in one way or another. But the funny thing is, I actually hated music (that is, pop/rock music, anything you might hear on the radio or on a CD) until I was a teenager. My mother actually commented to me how weird it was that I didn’t like music, and I did ultimately start getting CD’s (the first one was In The Zone by Britney Spears, the second war The Very Best of Cher), but I hadn’t developed any kind of passion for music yet. But over time I realized: I DID have a passion for music and I always had, it’s just that it was all video game music. Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, and theme songs to television shows, I LOVED that music.

I started learning to play piano when I was sixteen, because I wanted to learn how to play a song I really liked (it was Axel F from Beverly Hills Cop, as remixed by Crazy Frog). My chorus teacher taught me to play the song and I instantly wanted to learn to play others. The second thing I learned were the opening chords to Roxanne by The Police (simply because that was the nearest songbook on hand in the chorus room), and then of course one day I realized that Final Fantasy songs could be played on piano, so I brought him the sheet music to one of my favorites, the Final Fantasy VII battle theme, and watched him play it. I was amazed. I was really, truly hearing the music, in real life, coming out of a real instrument.

From that point there was no turning back. Video game music was why I learned to play piano, and as I grew up and discovered Tori Amos, Amanda Palmer, Imogen Heap, Amy Lee and other artists who use the piano to communicate their music, I learned to play their songs, and I learn more about how to play every time I play one of their songs.

And that’s the thing. I’ve always thought that I couldn’t be a writer or a musician because most of my ideas aren’t entirely original, they’re borrowed. I borrow my story ideas from Final Fantasy and Breath of Fire and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, I borrow my musical structure from Evanescence and Tori Amos. I’ve always thought to myself, “Well yeah I like to play music and write, but no one would pay for it, I can’t actually be a real artist, because everyone will see right through it to the sources from which I pulled.”

But I didn’t realize that everyone pulls from everyone else. No ideas are entirely new, and in fact most of the best stories are retelling of mythological stories and campfire adventures, with characters who are archetypes. Some of the best musical pieces in history are variations on themes from earlier times. Good artists create using borrowed ideas as well as their own ideas, and what comes out is something unique that no one else can create in exactly the same way as that artist created it.

Everyone’s voice is unique. Their vocal ability, the playing of their instrument, and the way they write their poetry and their stories, it’s unique to them. Neil Gaiman says, “Tell your story in the way that only you can tell it.” Every artist fights against directly copying their inspirations, and it’s terrifying to see something you’ve created and know that a part of it’s skeleton is borrowed from another artist. The bones holding together my stories come from more places than just my own imagination, and the chord used to keep my songs going don’t come from my mind alone.

But that’s okay.

What’s important is that the creation happens. What’s important is the warm, beaming pride I feel when I look at the screen and see the words that came from me. Their origins may have come from other places, the ideas and the concepts might have been borrowed, but those ideas were churned through my mind and I created something that only I can create. Sometimes it’s better than other times. That’s okay. Kesha says “You have to give yourself permission to suck.” And it’s true. No one becomes a great writer by starting out writing something brilliant, and no one becomes a great musician by composing their master work on day one. But the important thing is to KEEP CREATING.

So that’s why I’m here. I’m here to create. I’m here to write the novel that’s been growing and living inside of me. I’m here to write the songs that I sing to myself, and to recite the lyrics that I hurriedly copy down on sheets of papers, sticky notes, and the notepad of whatever device I’m holding.

I want to share it with you, and I want to know that you hear me. I want to hear your ideas about what I’m creating, I want to know what you think.

Everyone is going to die. Most of us are afraid of that. I certainly am. But it helps me to know that I can create something that will be here after I’m gone, a record of my thoughts. A story that talks about the things that are important to me. Characters who address the things I’m afraid of, the things I long for, the things I wish were true, and the things I hope will become true.

There is much work to be done. There are more details to go into and more specifics to explain. But this is where it begins.

The simple explanation is: I’m writing a fantasy novel. I write poetry, I write fiction, I want to write a nonfiction book about my experience with religion and maybe even an autobiographical book of stories from my life. I play piano. I sing. I write songs.

This is the first step.

If I keep going, I might be a real artist one day. Someone who wakes up in the morning and does what they love.

That is my dream. That is my wish, and my goal.

Thank you for being here with me. Thank you for helping me. Thank you for listening.

Let’s get started.