Final Fantasy Tactics, or, What Are the Real Monsters?

I just finished watching an LP of Final Fantasy Tactics. I had heard many good things about it, but could never get far in it when it came out, because the actual game is an overdesigned kudzu of a slot machine. But that’s besides the point.

The beginning lives up to the hype. Nothing else does. This is because it’s a bait-and-switch I have grown to become familiar with in fantasy video games, particularly Final Fantasy.

In the first arc of the game, you are a knight-apprentice and the youngest son of a powerful noble family, House Beoulve. You have an adopted brother and sister, both commoners, who were accepted into your family by your open-minded father but still face disdain from your noble peers. Following the end of a fifty-year war, the nobility have decided to be selfish pricks and screw their conscripts out of their pensions; in response, the former soldiers have formed a Robin Hood-like band of brigands who are terrorizing the countryside. Your family tells you to earn your knighthood rooting them out, and off you go.

However, the brigands are amazingly well-characterized and present very valid reasons for their anger. The hero, Ramza, is a good person who is willing to hear them out, and experiences a crisis of faith over whether his actions are just. As the story progresses, each fight becomes a heartrending tragedy as Ramza begs for peaceful resolution only for the brigands to spit in his face because the aristocracy’s cruelty has convinced them any sympathy from a highborn could only possibly be a trick. This culminates in a climax where Ramza’s adopted commoner sister is abducted by the brigands, who think they have a valuable highborn hostage; instead, when they try to negotiate, Ramza’s older brother says, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” and shoots her dead. Ramza and his adopted brother flip out and turn on their own order in avengeance. The final boss of the arc is one of your own party members, who you rescued earlier in the chapter only for him to reveal himself here as a classist scumbag who sneers at you for claiming kinship with a peasant.

Wow, I said! This is just like A Song of Ice and Fire! Politics! Classism! Shocking betrayals! I’m pumped to see where it goes from here!

But where it goes from there is that we completely forget about the political plot so Ramza can wander around the countryside fighting boringly evil demons with no personality.

And it’s so baffling. The political plot is clearly something the writer was interested in, and he’s good at it. But it’s like he just got bored of it. We occasionally cut back to the political actors and the war plot, but they may as well have prefaced every scene with, “Meanwhile, in a completely different story…” for all the impact it has on the main plot. The end result is an incoherent mess. The main plot is incredibly dull, and the interesting side plots become so hacked down they can’t be done justice. What exactly was Dycedarg hoping to accomplish? How much of the Church’s schemes were the Pope and how much was the Templarate? What was going through Ovelia’s mind throughout the whole thing, why did she do any of the things she did? There’s the kernel of an interesting story here, but it’s the kind of story that needs a lot of time and detail to make any sense.

And it got me thinking that this is something I see a lot, especially in video games. A story will start off with interesting, nuanced, human plots and then suddenly say okay, now fight these big monsters instead. And I just cannot wrap my head around what kind of thought process could be motivating that decision. There’s spectacle in it, obviously — monsters are fun to design, look cool in promotional materials, and look more impressive to take down — but I just can’t help but feel disappointed every time it happens. Is the formula really that popular? It feels so repetitive. Don’t people ever get bored of this?

This was something that occurred to me in Fullmetal Alchemist as well; the original is a textbook case of this bait-and-switch, while the divergent adaptation leans hard into “Humans are the real monsters.” People love to argue whether Father or Dante is the better villain and of course everyone always says Father because he has the higher power level, but that’s completely missing the point. From a narrative standpoint, Father is as weak as a wet noodle; he’s nothing but an obstacle to overcome. Dante is the one who has more narrative power, because as a human her actions, beliefs, and motivations matter; they make us ask questions about ourselves and the people around us. “Defeating” Dante means defeating her not in battle but in philosophical argument, and truthfully I think that’s far harder than withstanding any of Father’s lightshows.

…And yet Brotherhood is overwhelmingly the more popular adaptation, so what do I know.

Still. Argath was a more intense confrontation than any of the Zodiac Braves, and fighting Meredith in Dragon Age 2 filled me with far more passion and excitement than fighting the Archdemon in Origins. It’s worth reevaluating our tropes and assumptions and asking ourselves why we’re really including them. So much of fantasy in particular consists of repeating ancient tropes without any understanding of their original context or true meaning, and it results inevitably in these messy, watered-down narratives.

You know what Final Fantasy did actually pull this off? Final Fantasy X, with Sin. Those writers understood what makes monster villains actually work: when they are a force of nature so unknowable and beyond your power you can do naught but cower before them. But of course that kind of opponent is antithetical to the power fantasy, so we so rarely get to see a monster built up to the level of kaiju in video games. Every other time, I’m just left with the feeling that humans are the real monsters, and deserve to be recognized as such.

(Yet another reason why everyone needs to play Last Scenario. Do it, it’s awesome.)

20 Comments

  1. Act says:

    At this point the tagline of this blog should be, “We have tepid feelings about Final Fantasy. “

    1. Not until you get cracking on the rest! We’ve reviewed less than half of the series!

      (I am actually genuinely curious to see if you’ll like X. It’s my favorite in the series and I think it still holds up pretty well.)

      1. Roarke says:

        I’ve never played a single Final Fantasy game to completion. It’s a ding in my nerd cred.

        Edit: Actually, I did beat Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, but that somehow feels like it doesn’t count. It’s a spinoff of a spinoff.

        1. Act says:

          I… don’t think I have, either. While I played 6 til the end, I technically never finished it, since I didn’t have the initiative to grind for the final boss.

          1. Roarke says:

            I think what it comes down to for me is that the FF games are my Ori and the Blind Forest. Games that are competently made and written, which I don’t necessarily hate, but don’t spark any strong emotion. Darkest Dungeon, which is basically a JRPG repackaged with Western/Lovecraftian aesthetics, is an even more annoying and unforgiving grind than any FF (it’s another post-Dark Souls game designed to be grimdark and punishing), but I hold it up as a piece of art with an extreme degree of cohesion. It’s hard for me to feel like FF games are trying to be anything but ‘the next FF’.

      2. Act says:

        10 and 13 are both on my to-do list rn! I’ve been on a jRPG kick lately so as soon as I can get my hands on them I’ll probs check them out.

        1. Ahaha… if you can’t get through VII, I’m morbidly curious to see how you’ll take XIIIXIII is really, really terrible.

          You might actually like XII, though. It’s by the same director as Tactics, but is better at following through on the political premise (at least to the point I tapped out, which I believe was more than halfway through at least). It’s much more of a wRPG than a jRPG, so I didn’t like it much at all, but if you’re into wRPGs you might have more fun with it.

          (So much grinding, though.)

          1. Act says:

            I honestly picked up 13 out of morbid curiosity because people have such extreme opinions on it.

            1. Oh, you may also want to check out II if you haven’t already. It’s by the same developer as the SaGa games, I believe.

              Reply
            2. Act says:

              Yeah, I should check out the NES ones at some point. I’m pretty sure in the mid/late 80s everything Square did was mostly the same people; it’d be interesting to see how the FF series and SaGa games differed. (DQ, incidentally, was Enix, so it was completely different people.)

              Reply
            3. SpoonyViking says:

              Urgh. I liked the story and characters well enough, but II had awful mechanics.

              Mind, people loved III and I think it’s also terrible. The only NES FF which was enjoyable to me was the first one.

              Reply
            4. I cannot understand how anyone likes III. Its only redeeming feature is the class-swapping mechanic, and every other FF did that way better.

              Reply
            5. SpoonyViking says:

              I’m guessing it’s a mix of the Job system being brand-new at the time, the higher difficulty, and the gimmicky dungeons and fights.

              Reply
            6. SpoonyViking says:

              Also, the Job system actually isn’t that widespread in older FF titles. It doesn’t exist in 4, 6 and 7 (and I think it doesn’t exist in 8, 9 and 10 either?), for instance.

              Reply
  2. Roarke says:

    FF Tactics is the one where the protagonist’s role in history is misremembered, right? I swear, time is making a ruin of my mind. I keep thinking the 90’s was ten years ago instead of fucking twenty. I said this about FF7 in Act’s post, but Tactics is another one of those games I couldn’t finish as a kid. It’s so weird, as someone who was reading above their level basically as soon as they could read, to look back and realize how many video games just sailed over my head.

    Last Scenario was good, but I didn’t finish it and read an LP for maybe the last third or so. I will say, the first third was great as a political-thriller-with-fantasy-backdrop. I just slowly lost interest as it shifted harder towards some weirdo conspiracy plot. I was starting to play Dishonored in bits and pieces, and it seems like it’s shaping up the same way, where the Loyalist group that hires you recognizes that their influence isn’t what they’d like and they’re going to need a very good killer to tip the scales. Actual political assassination gets surprisingly little play in video games.

    I’m going to plug Fire Emblem: Three Houses again just to say that it’s also great and ultimately about politics, but more specifically that I love the way the story is structured: in each route, you spend a year as a teacher getting to know the students of your chosen house, learning about the state of their country and family in addition to their own personal issues. Then the Big Plot Twist transitions the game into the second half, a Five Years Later sort of deal where all the simmering tensions have erupted and the continent is now at war. All of your students, as well as the students of the other houses, have picked sides. You’ll actually have to fight and kill people you knew from the school if you didn’t teach them personally. It was pretty dang harsh.

    1. I just slowly lost interest as it shifted harder towards some weirdo conspiracy plot.

      Ah, but that’s the cleverness: the conspiracy turns out to be irrelevant next to the personal drama that motivates it. The whys are what matter, not the whats. Lorenza and Ortas explicitly say this, even. It’s basically the exact opposite bait-and-switch as in Tactics.

      1. Roarke says:

        Yeah, that is true. I did like the final boss… Caspar? I think? I’m not so good at names. Nope, Castor. I was actually close. Anyway, anchoring all the drama and weight to his own personal traumas was a lot more effective than the usual nebulous conspiracy. I like it when the villains are people, and making the previous war the root of his trauma does make everything tie back nicely.

  3. SpoonyViking says:

    If I’m not mistaken, the writer (and also director?) for Tactics is the same guy who wrote (and maybe directed?) the earliest Ogre Battle games, and it seems those games had the same issue that what started as a story full of political intrigue and complex, but relatable motivations quickly became a bog-standard fight against dark gods.

    Mind, I’m going off secondhand accounts, but if so, it’s interesting that twice or thrice his games have suffered from that.

    I think the reason the RPG power fantasy tends to fall backward into rote ‘save the world’ plots is, at its heart, because feeling righteous is a good feeling. […] I think what power fantasies really are is the manifestation of a very human desire to be able to have a palpable, positive effect on the world.

    It’s also hella easier to write and design a game around those tropes, particularly when you’re worried about deadlines and profits.

    1. So I’ve heard, yes. I actually played Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together until the end of chapter 2 where the convoluted class build mechanics finally defeated me, but while I still remember how powerful the end of chapter 1 was, I can barely remember anything of chapter 2 at all. I’m not surprised if it ended up going the same way as Tactics.

  4. SpoonyViking says:

    I’m guessing it’s a mix of the Job system being brand-new at the time, the increased difficulty, and all the gimmicky dungeons and fights.

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