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.)