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From a mass of yellow clouds, the living fortress Alexander emerges. He is made up of many circular towers. The image is cast in yellows and greys, except for the bright red sigils that seem to radiate from within him.

Hello, Old Friend

On Recognition and Reinterpretation

The Evolution of a Game

My friend June asked me at some point last year what I thought Final Fantasy is as a franchise. Like if I had to describe it to someone totally unfamiliar, how would I?

This is a challenge because the games have changed form beyond recognition over the years. A series that started off with a few Wizardry/D&D inspired adventure games with overworld travel and turn-based combat has evolved to recently headline what is arguably a spectacle fighter. There isn’t much that could be considered quintessential to the experience after all this time, so how do you even begin to describe it? After some worming around the idea, I landed here:

“Final Fantasy is a series of self-contained operatic fantasies with familiar motifs woven between them.”

When I say motifs here I’m referring to the MANY elements of a final fantasy game that will be familiar to anyone who has played a couple of the titles in the franchise, even if those titles were wildly different games. Across the franchise you will find things like:

  • Magic crystals and the Warriors of Light
  • Summoners and their summons — Shiva, Bahamut, Leviathan, et. al
  • Colour-coded mages, the Dark Knight, the Dragoon, and other jobs
  • Riding/Racing/Breeding Chocobos
  • Bombs, Sahagin, Ceourls, and other strange fauna
  • Esuna, Firaga, Holy, and other spells
  • A 9999 damage limit and the ability to “Limit Break”
  • The catastrophic Ultima Weapon and Meteor
  • gil as the universal currency
  • Moogles, Cactaurs, and other horrid little mascot characters
  • And many many many more!

Transformation

In each entry, the specific iteration of these motifs is a bit different from the other times it appears in the series — sometimes startlingly so — while retaining an air of familiarity. This echoes the titles in the franchise as a whole, which despite all their changes, retain some recognizable qualities each time.

For instance, the Red Mage is one of the most iconic jobs in the series, beginning all the way back in the original Final Fantasy. At its core, it is a hybrid job, capable of using both black magic (usually to deal damage and inflict status effects) and white magic (usually to heal allies and bestow boons) with a dash of weapon proficiency on the side. They are usually depicted in a crimson musketeer-like getup with a big feathered hat and a dueling sword.

The specifics, however, did change over time. Early on in the series, in games like FFIII, the red mage was a “jack of all trades, master of none,” losing out on some efficacy or access to weapons and spells in exchange for their unparalleled versatility. In later titles the red mage carved out a niche for itself with access to some unique spells and abilities, like the “dualcast” ability in FFV or the unique school of “arcane magic” in FFXII: The Zodiac Age.

An illustration of the red mage. She looks directly at the viewer, floating on a white background. She wears a bright red hat with a white feather in it, a red longcoat, and thigh high boots. She's holding a rapier with a red crystal on its pommel, assembled into the shape of a staff.
Concept art for the Red Mage for Final Fantasy XIV, by Yoshitaka Amano

One of my favourite motif transformations in recent memory was with the summon Alexander in his depiction in FF Type-0. Since Final Fantasy VI, Alexander has been depicted as a kind of living holy fortress with its iconic “judgement” ability. Type-0 retained these core features but turned Alexander into a pivotal part of the story by taking the idea of “living holy fortress” to its logical limits and making Alexander a kind of cosmic horror.

As I’ve said elsewhere, FF Type-0 is a flawed, rough game that nevertheless thematically contemplates fear and cognizance of mortality. As part of its thematics, summons — known here as eidolons — are depicted as potent weapons of warfare which require the sacrifice of life to use. What’s a little loss of life on our side of the conflict to inflict far more on theirs, after all? For your protagonists, however, this isn’t a problem because your mother and her sexy little cigarette have some mysterious method of resurrecting you, so throughout the game you can employ various summons at the low low cost of killing one of your 14 playable characters until the mission is over.

Alexander, however, is different. He’s what’s known as a “verboten eidolon,” one which requires a far greater magnitude of sacrifice, including hundreds of ordinary lives and the life of one of those chosen and empowered by this game’s crystals. He is the only verboten eidolon deployed in the game, and his impact is incalculable.

An incomprehensible floating fortress in the sky, obscured by clouds, hovers above the battlefield. Those he is summoned against simply shatter into pieces as they see him. As he departs he leaves a canyon-sized gash in the world map, which remains for the rest of the game. This is his judgement.

And what an impression this depiction left on me. Alexander is easily among my favourite summons now.

Tales of Mythic Proportion

Like an oral story that changes with each retelling, reinterpretations of familiar motifs offer a space for imaginative transformation of elements of the series while offering a moment of joy in recognition for those who have seen them before. For Final Fantasy, this was definitely the result of a decades-long investment into storytelling that only a financially successful product could muster, but that recognition and reinterpretation is not exclusive to multibillion dollar franchises.

To make that point more clear, we can look at Hades.

Hades, the unreasonably popular game by Supergiant Games immerses the player in the world of ancient Greek mythos as Zagreus, the son of Hades, who is dead-set on escaping his father’s realm, the underworld. It’s near impossible to do it alone, however, and Zagreus enlists the help of the gods of Olympus to reach the surface. Along the way, he can receive boons from Zeus, Ares, Aphrodite, Hermes, and others to enhance his strength against legendary foes like the Furies, the Minotaur, and the Hydra (the last of whom has a little less skin than usual). In addition, Zagreus develops relationships with other figures like his pet dog Cerberus, his good friend Achilles, and his hunky stepbrother Thanatos.

Aside from compelling writing and a polished gameplay loop, Hades benefits from having what is, to many, an already familiar cast of characters. Ancient Greek mythology has historical roots in the western imperial consciousness and has been osmosed into children’s brains for decades thanks to pop culture interpretations like Disney’s Hercules. I feel like I would have a hard time finding someone in my city up here in the PNW who doesn’t have at least a passing knowledge of some these iconic mythological figures.

Beyond games, though, I’m reminded of the many ways in which we draw on our histories in this way; repeating a retelling the stories with creative liberty in ways that transform their shape while maintaining familiarity. I think, in part, of artefacts like tarot cards, which reinterpret the same iconography to create recognizable but fresh experiences in each new deck; or depictions of saints whose stories are carried through pastiches of old stained glass windows and oil paintings, now stickered onto dollar store prayer candles. This, of course, is a joy to many. I have yet to experience this moment, but I know that on the day I recognize my Nonno’s patron saint, St. Liberata, printed on a lighter somewhere, I will spend the couple of dollars to keep her in my pocket. I will receive her with love.¹

A small black picture frame contains a reproduction of a painting of Saint Liberata. She is crucified, wearing a long white tunic with a red sash wrapped over her shoulder. Three cherubs fly around her. A rosary is hung over the corner of the picture frame and a small ring rests beside it.
My picture of Saint Liberata, with my rosary and my grandfather’s bequeathed ring.

A New Look

I have been thinking about how these motifs crystalize over time and how, in some small way, my little games can form their own. I have compiled a list of a few different strategies below that I’m curious about. I think, based on past experiences, that these components in play help to fast-track the motif-making for an individual play group, further inviting transformation.

The Art of The Campaign

The most obvious and actually not-at-all-fast-tracked method of making motifs is to just spend a lot of time with a story. This is one of the reasons I’ve come to value long-term campaigns in RPGs: although they require a ton of commitment, they just have a tendency to age extremely well.

Story threads are naturally recursive, so characters, locations, and other elements that leave the perspective of the players and return at a later point will be fresher for having changed in their absence. One of my first and favourite RPG campaigns began as a two-person affair, with me GMing for a friend of mine. In order to keep things feeling like a party, I had a GM-PC², Wen, who supported my friend’s character, Toth.

As we picked up more players, it felt more encumbering for me to continue playing Wen, so I gradually turned him into an NPC and eventually his interests diverged and he left the party to follow an order of nomadic ascetics.

In the final stretch of the campaign, as the party arrived at the metropolis they had sought since the beginning, my friend and I swapped roles and he took over as GM and I became a player once again. Instead of coming up with a new character, I decided to bring back Wen, reclassed and now an initiate among the order. This was such a special moment for the two of us: a return to form, but reimagined an new, and our experience was all the richer for it.

The Art of The Time Skip

Have any of you watched Land of the Lustrous? I’ve been meaning to rewatch it now that it’s dubbed. The story is like anime Steven Universe with crystal lesbians protecting the cosmic order of things from extraterrestrial forces, albeit with a little bit more body horror.

Going into that show, I did not expect to experience a time skip in the back half of the season, and honestly it threw me for a loop.

The show follows Phos (short for Phosphophyllite) who is a pretty weak gem who’s eager to prove her usefulness. Throughout the season, Phos faces forces far more powerful than her and frequently gets shattered in the process. To grow more powerful, she gradually incorporates new material into her body, physically changing her shape but still retaining her distinctive teal crystal bobcut and plucky personality. Phos’ image is literally crystallized.

That is, until the winter rolls around and all of the crystal girlies enter hibernation, with Phos spending the whole winter as their guardian. I can’t remember the specifics of it, but around this time, Phos gets a crystal haircut and becomes depressed or something. When the rest of the girlies wake up, it’s a pretty stark contrast. Everyone around her has retained their form, but aside from her colour, at this point the protagonist is barely recognizable as the one we began with.

A similar to the art of the campaign can be achieved with a time skip. In most RPGs, you’re witnessing a story in a moment-to-moment kind of pace, maybe abstracting out short stretches of time, but when you break from that pace, you effectively crystalize what players have come to know, and invite an opportunity for a sharp, contrasting change. While Phos’ change in the winter time skip didn’t land particularly well with me, it was undoubtedly one of the most impactful moments as a viewer.

The Art of The Canon

One of the qualities that the aforementioned tarot cards and images of saints have is a well-defined canon. The instantly recognizable Saint Sebastian is recognizable as such regardless of his iteration because he has a core list of qualities that, for the most part, are present across depictions:

  1. naked boy
  2. tied up against something
  3. looking submissive and breedable
  4. shot to death with arrows

If you have these four qualities in an image, chances are people who are familiar with Saint Sebastian are going to say “ah, this is referencing Saint Sebastian” while stroking their chin intellectually, even if the image is completely subverted (a la the controversial Kent Monkman’s Study for Artist and Model).

So, my thought in short is establish a canon and either allow players to iterate on the image or provide multiple iterations of it on your own. One of the ways I’m hoping to do this in my current major project is by providing a few key elements of a job’s costume, much like my description of the red mage up above, and then have players draw what that costume looks like on their character. As a result, two characters from the same job will have very different costumes with a shared motif, allowing them to recognize their unique interpretations of the same job. In addition, they can then recognize others characters in the world with the same job too, allowing for functionally endless moments of reinterpretation throughout play.

The Art of The Unique

Finally, the last commonality I’ve been able to see across motifs is just a commitment and repetition of elements that are unique to their stories. There are many things which might arguably be considered motifs across Final Fantasy, but which lack the unique quality that make every iteration notable and joy-inducing.

Most players will never have a spark of recognition at seeing the knight job, for instance, because it is so ubiquitous across more than just final fantasy. The dark knight, however, despite being a variation on the knight, is the opposite, precisely because it provides a unique spin on the image and mechanics of the game by donning your character in villainous black armour and dealing more damage by sacrificing health.

I used to be the kind of storyteller who wanted to reduce everything to their fundamentals — boil away everything that made something stand out in order to find the universal, platonic image which could be reapplied to new things ad infinitum. Gradually, I have come around to value elements which are more bespoke. Those, after all, are the ones that will be remembered.


Notes

  1. This will be important later 😈
  2. GM-PC = Game Master Player Character — in many RPGs, there is a division between the Players, who control Player Characters (PCs) and the Game Master, who controls Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and the rest of the game world. The GM-PC functions as a hybrid approach, allowing the Game Master to play as both a protagonist in the story and as the world.

3 thoughts on “Hello, Old Friend”

  1. Another great essay! It’s always a delight to take part of your thoughts and words.

    A few thoughts:

    1. I actually own the original Final Fantasy I, but because of the 9999 damage limit I couldn’t get through the final superdungeon (the time travel castle thingy), thus being unable to defeat the final boss, and therefore unable to beat the game. But I’m not bitter or anything.

    2. “Land of the Lustrous” is amazing. Studio Orange never misses (a rare example of a Japanese CGI anime that truly works), and the score by Yoshiaki Fujisawa is one of my all-time favourites. A significant aspect of Phos’ time-skip transformation (the psychological part, not the physical(?) part) is Antarcticite and their fate.

    3. Now I can’t help imagining renaissance patrons shaking their heads in frustration, complaining to their hired artists: “He needs to be more submissive! Honestly, would you call that Saint Sebastian ‘breedable’? Well, would you? Do over, do better!”

    4. You mention a “current major project”. I can’t wait to see what it is! Following your journey to greatness and beyond is amazing!

    Reply
    • Ooooh thanks for the reminder about Antarcticite, I remember that now! Thanks Artur–and keep your eyes peeled for my major project in a post very soon 👀 synthesizing a lot of ideas explored on the blog so far

      Reply

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