It’s the Nostalgia that’s Dying, not Final Fantasy

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Earlier this year, Kotaku’s Jason Schreier wrote about the “excruciatingly slow demise of Final Fantasy.” Now, according to Wired’s Chris Kohler, the painful wait is over: “Final Fantasy is dead.”

When exactly was the time of death? According to Kohler it was “some point during the last decade.” But that’s not what occasioned his short article. Rather, Kohler’s aim is to shine the spot light on those who are currently “defiling the corpse.” Specifically, he means Nobuhiro Goto and Motomu Toriyama, who in a recent Q&A session announced that they would be boosting the cup size of Lighting Returns’ titular character.

While Kohler claims to believe that “there is room to create and play a whole wide variety of things,” his reaction to the series’ continued evolution and mainstreaming suggests otherwise. In light of comments suggesting that Lightning will be further sexualized, Kohler argues that the series has lost any claim it may once have had to “mainstream respectability.”

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But this begs the inevitable question, when was Final Fantasy ever mainstream or respectable? And what does Kohler even mean when he says that the obvious, if gross and idiotic, move to sexualize a leading protagonist is akin to “defiling” the series’ legacy?

Todd Harper rejects Kohler’s diagnosis though, and explains what those ringing the death knell for Final Fantasy are really saying,

“But seriously, this article of Kohler’s is basically my problem with gaming culture and nostalgia, especially as it relates to “beloved” franchises, in text form. Kohler claims that FF is “dead” because there was a press conference where they talked about Lightning’s breast size, and it used to be the pinnacle of console gaming’s vision of Respectability™.”

“…Maybe Final Fantasy isn’t dead. Maybe it’s just not for you anymore.”

I came to a similar conclusion when Schreier lamented the series demise earlier this year (a position he’s somewhat reversed since the announcement of Final Fantasy XV). As much as I love particular entries in the series more than others, what I’ve ff13-visualsalways loved most about Final Fantasy is its penchant for experimentation.

In recent years, this has meant trying to incorporate elements of the series (summons, magic, turn-based fights) into the more action-based, linear structures established by successful FPSs like Halo (discrete missions with limited roaming and a more contained narrative). Many, including Kohler and Schreier, saw this experiment as a disaster, but others, including Harper, found Final Fantasy XIII to be relatable and interestingly subversive. Indeed, even though I find much of it to be horribly cliché and clumsily contrived, there are also parts of the game (its environments, musical score, enemy designs, and story structure) that I think are absolutely gorgeous and worthwhile.

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Back to Harper’s point though, I understand that plenty of people who pine for earlier entries in the series simply have no love for FF 13, let alone interest in its (decidedly much more traditional) spin-offs, or another FF MMO (despite praise for FF XIV’s redesign: A Realm Reborn). But a lack of interest is not the same as the “fall from grace” narrative that many Final Fantasy nostalgics are peddling.

Kohler claims that the series has lost its credibility as the “ne plus ultra of console videogames.” But his only evidence that Final Fantasy ever aspired to fine art to begin with rests on the existence of orchestral arrangements and Yoshitaka Amano art galleries. Surely what he finds disappointing in the new games aren’t either of those things though. Musically and graphically the games have never been more sophisticated or challenging.

In fact, a look back at older Final Fantasys suggests that Kohler took them more seriously than they ever took themselves. For every operatic scene in VI there were countless others in which characters traded bad puns with a giant octopus. Kafka was a merciless sociopathic maniac, but his psychosis was no more deep than the average Batman villain, and tyrannical impulses were less tragic than melodramatic. VII’s Sephiroth remains a standout in the history of video game rogue galleries, but many of the things surrounding the player’s quest to defeat him, including a robotic cat riding a giant plush toy, an incompetent, lecherous pimp, and a side-kick that can transform into Frankenstein, were not intended to be taken nearly as seriously.

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And then there’s the troubling issue of Lightning’s cup size. Like Kohler, and many others, I find the move to increase the prominence and buoyancy of her breasts demeaning and sick. But I can hardly limit that disgust to Lightning’s Return, and refuse to let a franchise that continues to be a dominate innovative force in the non-Western RPG space, be defined by one offensive, commercial decision.

As Julian Titus noted on Twitter, where exactly was the accusation of “defiling” when BioWare ratcheted up the bust sizes of Mass Effect’s Liara T’Soni and Ashley Williams? Is it alright that one of the major selling points of Bayonetta is the protagonist’s hyper-sex appeal, simply because that was always “part of her character?” Should Grand Theft Auto get a pass because you don’t actually play as any of the objectified and exploited women which inhabit its worlds?

FFVII_Tifa_FMVAnd why wasn’t Final Fantasy going down the tubes back when Square decided to tantalize players with repeatable cutscenes of the nearly disrobed Shiva blasting enemies with her ice magic? Or did this downward trend start earlier, when Terra Branford and Celes Chere were forced to fight in frivolous leotards, or later with Sorceress Edea, or even later with the black magic user Lulu? (Also: Tifa!)

luluThe point isn’t that Lightning’s transformation from XIII to XIII-3 isn’t troubling, but that its troubling for the same reason that lots of other video games, and indeed the entire culture surrounding video games, is troubling, and shouldn’t be cherry picked as evidence for how other people are destroying something you use to love just because it turns out a beloved franchise isn’t as innocent as you once thought.

Let’s face it, Final Fantasy has always been a bit weird, and kinky, and esoteric. Kefka torments the world in drag. Cloud is pouty and androgynous and one of the most bad-ass characters ever. It was never “mainstream,” and has only become increasingly less so as the rest of video games move in that direction (a buxom heroine is, unfortunately, one of the few things that keeps it more in-line with mainstream culture). The bigger issue for some, it seems, is not that Final Fantasy is exploiting the sexuality of its characters, but rather that the rest of the series is content to experiment on the fringes of video games conventional center. Now that the “ne plus ultra of console videogames” has been redefined by a largely Western audience to mean titles like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us, the eccentricities of Final Fantasy have been passed over in favor of tough, serious men growling at young girls while they gun down all the obstacles in their path.

  • Tom Auxier

    Can someone make a Last of Us parody that features Ultros the Octupus? I would play that all the way to the bank. “God, these zombie dudes are killing me, I hope the next room has–” “DON’T FEED THE OCTOPUS, KIDS! HA. HA. HA.”

  • Stealth

    I am not sure if I agree 100% with this but its some good thinking.

    I love ff

    • ethangach

      Thanks Stealth–curious, what’s your take?

      • Stealth

        I have loved 10+ FF games in the last years

        many spinoffs, I dont ignore those like tactics advance 2, 4 heroes of light, crisis core, ect.

        have bad decisions increased? yes.

        But to say its dead? thats too far

  • MJ

    I disagree strongly with these tiring trends towards whining about sexualized characters in games. Its all in good fun and you are overreacting more than a little when you refer to Lightnings (subtle) boob job as “demeaning and sick”. Its silly.

    • ethangach

      MJ, what’s good or fun about it?
      Does it make Lightning a more compelling character, or a more ridiculous one?
      Would it be all in good fun if Batman had a giant crotch plate in his pants, or would it just be a lame mess like Batman and Robin the movie?

      • MJ

        It is all in the eye (or mind) of the beholder, so to speak, that’s the problem here. I’m not offended by a character in revealing clothing and I have no problems taking such a character seriously either. If Lightning was wearing a tutu and a water melon bra, then it would interfere with the story, but a stylish, sexy outfit like those they have revealed so far is fine by me. If this was a game with a ‘real world’ setting I would expect characters to dress accordingly, but it is an ‘out there’ fantasty realm where our ideas of proper/not proper dress dont apply. Like Cloud having a humongous sword. I buy it because it ain’t New York anno 1997, but some far off fantasy realm.
        Also of importance: Some people are offended by provocative designs, other find the cool, sexy and interesting. I’m the latter type of person.

    • Tony

      I totally agree with the whining about sexualized characters in games. Has anyone watched TV or Movies in the past… ummm forever? That is pretty much par for the course so why point it out in video games.

      With that said. the boob job in FFXIII-2 is supposedly far from subtle. As Chris Kholer tells it they put in a physics engine based on boob bounciness… An entire engine to make boobs bounce… Its pretty hard to rebuke that as subtle.

  • Orakio Rob

    Nice article! I’ve just now came to this blog via a Gamasutra article, and I’m already eager to read other posts.

    I’m a Final Fantasy fan, but not really a FFanatic. VI is one of my favorite games ever, and I also loved FF VII, VIII and IX (never got a chance to play X – XII, though). Being a retro-FF-lover, I thought I would hate FFXIII, but you know what? I bought it a few months ago for the Xbox 360, and absolutely loved it! I have no problems with a linear game when the pacing and the action are so good, and I guess it is a good idea to try something different every now and them. I didn’t particularly like the characters, but the way the circunstances work to keep them together makes the whole thing very interesting.

    I agree with most of what you wrote. The only major point where I’m not quite with you is about how increasing Lightnings boobs is demeaning and sick. To this regard, I agree with what MJ said here in the comments. But it’s a matter of opinion. Congratulations for such a good writing!

  • kuusou yume

    Great article.

  • Anthony Du

    it’s not about what they look like its about what a FF game reigns upon:Music.story.character.worldmap.battlesystem. Graphics will always be there