At face value, a review for this game should be easy. Ask yourself one question: would you consider yourself a Final Fantasy fan? Or have you never touched one of the 15+ main series’ titles in your life?
If you fit into the latter category, rest assured World of Final Fantasy offers little to convince anyone this is a good starting point. This is unashamedly a Final Fantasy title for the fans, of which there are many. So I’ll continue on assuming that anyone reading beyond this point has at least a passing interest in the series.
To set some context here, I’m the type whose introduction to this series was during its initial PlayStation run (I wasn’t yet born when it began), more specifically Final Fantasy VIII. I’ve played every title since, apart from exclusively online titles XI and XIV, and even ventured back to sample earlier games IV, V, and VI. I think it’s fair to say, then, that I belong around the middle of the spectrum, not quite a hardcore fan who’s played every title to completion, but someone with a good working knowledge of the series and proficient knowledge of those titles I have played. In other words, I’m enough of a fan overall to appreciate many of the references included in World of Final Fantasy, though a few did admittedly fly over my head.
At its core that’s essentially what this game is: fan service, in its self-referential nature, gameplay style, and characteristic meandering plot. Initially it feels rather like 2000’s Final Fantasy IX, itself seen as a romantic title harking back to the series’ earlier days before it moved on to the ‘new’ era with Final Fantasy X on the PS2. This is most obvious in its retro-feeling visual style, which is undeniably charming and, in its own way, beautiful.
Character models verge between cartoonish, child-like and disproportionate (a slight nod back to the 2D era of gaming when every character’s head was as big as the rest of their body) to more realistic and evenly proportioned. This is worked into the story, as the two main characters you control during this game, Reynn and Lann, can transform between the former (known here as ‘Lilikins’) and the latter (known as ‘Jiants’).
While your party is, on the surface, restricted to these two characters for the entire game, this gives way to arguably this game’s best attribute, at least in the earlier stages. That is its battling, which revolves around catching ‘mirages’ (basically, monsters with a name that won’t put children off) and stacking them within your party.
Every mirage has different strengths, and they’re split into three different sizes – small, medium and large – which naturally leads to multiple playing styles and tactics you can employ. Will you stack mirages with similar strengths, or try to balance out their weaknesses? Fans will enjoy the nostalgic designs; being able to get on top of a Malboro’s head in battle is just one of the small joys this game offers. The return of turn-based battles, random encounters and the ‘active time battle’ system from earlier titles is also strangely refreshing, while levelling up occurs on a board similar to the method used in Final Fantasy X and XIII.
The system is not perfect, though. As every mirage begins at level 1 from the moment you catch it, you’re going to have an issue if you find one in the late-game that you wish to add to your party. In my case I had a few different stack selections I was happy with relatively early on, and didn’t vary them much beyond the half-way stage of the game. On the flip side, battle difficulty also appears to wane slightly as you get further on and your team becomes more powerful, when traditionally the opposite is true of RPGs and even other Final Fantasy games. This may be due to the game trying to appeal more to kids and not wanting to be too hard for them to get through it, though it is still interesting enough overall to appeal to more mature players – if not those who prefer a hardcore challenge.
While the gameplay represents World of Final Fantasy’s most addictive aspect, the characters you’re playing with represent something else entirely. Brother/sister duo Lann and Reynn are generic and stereotypical, the former filling the role of an ‘annoying brat’ and his big sister being the typical know-it-all. But far and away the most irritating aspect of this game is their companion (i.e. mascot) Tama, an overly cutesy mirage who places ‘the-’ in front of random objectives every other sentence (she’ll regularly say stuff like “we have to the-run” or “time to the-catch the mirage”). Thankfully there’s an option to skip dialogue, and I wouldn’t blame you for doing that every time Tama starts talking. Even the average 10-year-old I doubt would find it enjoyable.
Generic and annoying main characters aside, others you meet on your journey around the land of Grymoire – basically an amalgamation of various regions from past Final Fantasy titles – help keep the experience fresh. These include famous protagonists from the series’ history such as Cloud (VII), Squall (VIII), Tidus and Yuna (X), Lightning and Snow (XIII), as well as several older characters who I didn’t initially recognise (though the first ‘summon’ you get in this game is a wonderful throwback to the original Final Fantasy; even I could appreciate that).
The game has a surprisingly clever sense of humour and regularly pokes fun at itself – including THAT unbearably awkward laughing scene from Final Fantasy X when you visit the region of Besaid from that game. Every time you catch a new mirage, you’re given a short description that may reference the monster’s past in other games, and the subtle jokes inserted in there never failed to make me chuckle. It is in this aspect that I think the game appeals to more mature players, as there’s no way kids are going to get the humour in most of the references. I certainly enjoyed this element of the game immensely.
Unfortunately, the backdrop to these wonderful references and nostalgia trips is a rather uninspiring plot that becomes unnecessarily convoluted the further you go in the game. This, like the annoyance one feels toward the central characters, exposes World of Final Fantasy’s weakness: its original elements (i.e. when it isn’t relying on nostalgia, borrowed characters and ideas) are utterly forgettable.
But for most fans, I daresay that won’t be a problem. It certainly didn’t stop me enjoying the overall experience for what it was. In fact, there came a clear emotional point in this game for me in which I couldn’t help but react with the kind of pure nostalgic joy that I haven’t felt since revisiting Shadow Moses in Metal Gear Solid 4. Obviously I won’t spoil it here, but I will say it was upon visiting a well-known location from my personal favourite game in this series, Final Fantasy VIII, at a pivotal point in the story. Yes, it was a joyful fanboy moment, and I have few of those.
So naturally I will be grading this title on a curve, the caveat being that those who aren’t quite as big a fan of Final Fantasy may very well find their overall enjoyment of World of Final Fantasy affected by that. Technically this is a game with a few glaring flaws, but one that has the priceless value of nostalgia thanks to the extensive back catalogue the Final Fantasy series has built up over its 30-year history. Catching and battling with mirages admittedly has the air of Pokemon about it as well; you can even ‘transfigure’ them into larger mirages when you level them up or obtain certain items. For completionists, there is an unmistakable joy to be found in discovering them all. For the rest of you, you may just be left wondering what all the fuss was about.
December 17, 1987. The release date of the original Final Fantasy, a humble role-playing game intended by video game designer Hironobu Sakaguchi to be his final attempt at success in the industry. Had the game failed financially, he planned to leave Square – themselves a humble computer software company only formed one year earlier and reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy – and return to university in preparation for a change of career.
Needless to say, the game is now remembered for anything but financial failure. Developed by a core team of seven staff members (including Sakaguchi himself) within Square, Final Fantasy introduced many elements that would serve as the groundwork for its numerous sequels, including an overworld map, towns and dungeons, a battle screen and the infamous random encounter system. While these fundamentals had appeared in some form in previous RPG games, where Final Fantasy set itself apart was in two key areas, those being its plot (a mature, winding story with the occasional surprise twist) and a memorable soundtrack composed by Nobuo Uematsu.
Inspired by the games unexpected success and resulting financial boost for the company, Square initiated development of a sequel almost immediately. Final Fantasy II was released exactly a year after its predecessor and established certain staples of the series. Chocobos made their first appearance, appearing in every subsequent main title, as well as a character named Cid. These two recurring elements have tied each game since loosely together when almost everything else changes. The games story, world, characters and certain gameplay mechanics were completely fresh and new, a rule that would be adhered to until future generations decided differently.
Development and release of the early games in the series continued at a fast pace with Final Fantasy III (1990), IV (1991) and V (1992), with the series transitioning from the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) to the upgraded SNES (‘Super’ NES) between III and IV. This first generation of Final Fantasy titles hit their peak in 1994 with Final Fantasy VI, the final title released for the SNES.
The series’ sixth instalment was as epic a game as you could find on the SNES; the greatest achievement of the time for such limited hardware. Retaining and perfecting the aforementioned elements from previous titles, VI also boasted fourteen unique playable characters, the most of any game in the series before or since. Its setting paralleled that of the 19th century, featuring opera, fine arts, railroads and steam ships; to step into the game was almost to step into the time period of the Second Industrial Revolution. During the course of the story, the geography and landscape around you would change according to plot developments. Visually it was more impressive than gamers raised on current console generations can possibly appreciate.
Without a doubt, Final Fantasy VI was a fine artistic and technological feat. But historically, it would (perhaps unfortunately) be overshadowed by what was to come next.
It was a long time coming, but in 1997, ten years after the series’ first humble instalment, Final Fantasy VII was released for Sony’s PlayStation (Square having realised, with the SNES now becoming outdated, that the CD-Rom had more storage capacity and potential than the Nintendo 64’s cartridges), helping to popularize the JRPG genre outside of its home market. Western interest in the series skyrocketed. This was due not only to the switch over to a more powerful console, but also the ambitious changes that VII introduced.
One of the most obvious changes was in how the game looked. Although the main locations and environments consisted of 2D pre-rendered backgrounds through which you guide your 3D character model – it wouldn’t be until the PS2 era that these would become fully 3D also – the overworld map, along with battle screens, were now in glorious 3D and made the game feel more realistic than any previous instalment. This represented the biggest visual jump of the series; beyond this would only be incremental improvements, despite further jumps to the PS2 and PS3 consoles to come.
This graphical realism helped to give fans some of their most memorable characters and moments of the entire series. I am referring of course to Cloud Strife, with his oversized sword and hair style; Sephiroth, the main villain who everyone loves to hate; and that one scene mid-way through the game, which cemented its plot as an all-time favourite in the minds of many a gamer. Few stories, even in cinema, are able to create such emotional resonance with their audience as Final Fantasy VII achieved here.
Yet I would argue that these sentimental attachments lead people to over-rate Final Fantasy VII slightly. Taking it as a whole, I struggle to see, aside from great visual improvements, a game superior to its immediate predecessor. Then again, a similar accusation could be hurled at me for saying the next instalment, Final Fantasy VIII, is my favourite in the series – it was, after all, the first one I played.
I have already talked about VIII and IX. The former took great strides towards additional realism and revolutionised certain gameplay mechanics – substituting magic points for the ‘junction’ system included – for one game only. It is, I would argue, the best game for sceptics of the series to start on (highlighted further by the fact that so many fans were upset by it). IX was an amalgamation of all the best elements from the previous eight games, and could be summed up in one word: nostalgia.
From here the series changes further. It is hard to believe that in the space of seven years we go from Final Fantasy VI (1994) on the SNES to Final Fantasy X (2001) – complete with voice acting for the first time and fully 3D rendered in-game environments – on the PlayStation 2. But that was the nature of the fast-paced gaming industry when I was growing up. It has since slowed down significantly in terms of technological advancement.
As has Square’s output as a company. VII, VIII, IX and X were all released within five years of each other. It would be another five before we got the next main console game in the series: FinalFantasy XII. This can be attributed to numerous factors, including the box office failure of The Spirits Within (2001) and the departure of Executive Vice President Hironobu Sakaguchi – with whom we started this article – from the company.
Sakaguchi’s story is a fascinating one, and it is fitting that we should bring this retrospective back to him. He had started as a part-time employee at Square back in 1986. During the development of the original Final Fantasy, his small team’s project was dismissed even from within the company. Its success saved both them and his career in the industry; four years after this (1991) he was appointed to the EVP position that he held until his departure.
With that, Square changed, and so did the series that was beloved by many. Whether for better or worse is something I will consider tomorrow, as we bring this story back into the present.
Last month (Valentine’s Day to be precise) saw the release of a new game called Lightning Returns. This game is part of a series that has been close to my heart for as long as I’ve been passionate about the gaming industry, and there are many others who can say the same. Having now played it extensively, I’ll be reviewing it at the end of this week.
Before we get to that, let me set a little context about my relationship with the Final Fantasy series. It first came to my attention towards the end of that tough part of life known as primary school…
As I recall, it was around my tenth birthday when Final Fantasy VIII (1999) happened to fall into my possession as part of a birthday present. For the first six months or so I didn’t bother much with it – those who’ve played the eighth instalment will remember that it starts off at a slow, peaceful pace, contrasting with the typical ‘thrust into action’ sequences that we associate with the games before and since. I was not yet fully aware of the series’ international acclaim (not that I cared much at that age anyway) and as far as I was concerned it was some obscure title that bore no guarantee of raising the tempo at some point.
How wrong I would turn out to be; of all the games I have ever played, Final Fantasy VIII still holds my fondest memories. Had you been reading this blog around this time last year you would already know this, and would also be aware of some of my reasons why (read here). There is a saying amongst Final Fantasy fans that the first game you play in the series usually turns out to be your favourite. I couldn’t testify more to such an assertion. But back in my school days, it would be quite a while before I reached that level of affinity with it.
It was only when a close friend of mine found out that I owned the game (I’m assuming I had told him about it; either that or he’d seen it while visiting and was planning to steal it had I not been open to the suggestion he was about to make) that I started to pay a little more attention. As I wasn’t playing it at the time and he was interested in doing so, we came to a mutual agreement: I would let him borrow it, so he could then get back to me on whether or not the game was actually any good. If it turned out to be, maybe I would give it another chance.
He came back with glowing reports not long after that, and thankfully he soon came back with the game too. I therefore gave it more of a chance than I had before, my interest having now been piqued, and well, the rest is history.
By the time I had started to enjoy what would turn out to be my favourite PlayStation game, Final Fantasy IX (2000) had already hit platinum. Needless to say I also picked that one up during a routine visit to my local Game store. If VIII holds my fondest memories of the series, IX would turn out to be a very close second.
The two couldn’t have been more different. VIII bore resemblance to a Western movie in terms of its realistically proportioned characters and mature storytelling, and was by all accounts the most realistic looking of the series to date (gaping questions about plot holes aside). IX on the other hand, recalled the cartoonish elements of earlier games, complete with disproportionate character models and cute humour. It was generally considered a love letter to those fans who remembered the days before the series had went mainstream. Not primarily me then, but there’s little doubt even from my perspective that Final Fantasy IX was a lesson in how nostalgia should be done; the game oozed of it, even if you were not overly familiar with the series’ past.
Final Fantasy IX was a watershed moment for the series, and I think Square Enix (then simply ‘Squaresoft’) felt it too. The PlayStation 2 beckoned. With it came a world of new technical possibilities which, in certain ways, would actually prove to limit what Square had achieved in previous titles. New ground would be covered, but it was always going to be difficult – in the West at least – to maintain the popularity of a series that had to change and, in the process, leave behind a precious golden run on the PSOne that is unmatched by any other series on the console.
No more shall be said on the next generation for now. Let me take this time to wallow in the memories of a lost youth. Tomorrow I will move on, and give you a first-hand account of what it is like to buy a new game from a reputable retailer on a busy high street (I promise, more exciting than it initially sounds).
“Every time you see a great film, you find new things in it.”
As I was posting my last blog entry about beginnings on the 4th of April, the life of a respected film critic was going the other way. Roger Ebert, a name that anyone involved in the film industry will know regardless of their area of expertise, passed away on the same day. Now, if I was ever to enter the industry proper, I think (and I would like to think others would agree) that my area of expertise would be writing. Perhaps not necessarily film criticism, but writing in some form or other. For that reason, Roger Ebert’s style and opinions have held great interest for me in the past few years since I discovered him. No doubt this is the case for the next generation of film critics out there as well.
In a sort of ‘tribute’ to Mr Ebert, with a tongue-in-cheek twist that winks towards his opinion on video games, I’ve decided to give you my own top ten list… Or rather, my two top five lists. Through it I’ll hope to show what we agreed and disagreed on.
Roger Ebert described his critical approach to films as “relative, not absolute”. This list should be considered the same way. What I’ve done here is picked my top five favourite films at the moment, and then my top five favourite video games (I say ‘at the moment’ because it would be foolish to think they aren’t going to continue changing over time, depending on what else I discover), while also bearing in mind that I don’t want to bore you. That would be counter-productive, wouldn’t it?
Phase One – Films.
5 – Superman II (1980).
It may have faced some strong competition lately from The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008), but Superman II is still arguably the greatest superhero movie Hollywood has ever produced. It’s not just because of the brilliant action sequences that involve Superman battling three ‘super villains’ with powers equal to his own, although these are great and the climactic ‘battle of Metropolis’ has been a clear influence on more recent comic book adaptations such as Avengers Assemble (Whedon, 2012), but also the heartfelt interactions between Clark Kent/ Superman and Lois Lane.
Lane gets the idea into her head that Kent is Superman and spends the first half of the movie trying to prove it; it’s up to Kent to conceal his identity (at great emotional pains to himself) while also juggling the responsibility of protecting others from danger as Superman. This eventually culminates by going down one dramatic route and then another, as we see Superman give up his powers before realising by doing so he has left the now-unprotected world at the mercy of three Kryptonians who had personal problems with his old man.
But for me, Superman II is best remembered for its subtle moments of humour. At one point the main villain, General Zod, breaks into the White House and forces the president to kneel before him. As the president gets down on his knees, as if in prayer, he utters the word ‘God’ under his breath, to which Zod corrects him; “Zod”. Later on, Lex Luther, who helps the villains find Superman in exchange for being made ‘ruler of Australia’, clearly gets more than he bargained for from the deal and expresses relief when his arch-enemy eventually turns up, saying “Superman, thank God…” This doesn’t stop him changing his mind again later in an effort to get the best outcome for himself, of course. Rather than continuing to reveal the best bits of the film, though, I’d recommend just seeing it for yourself. This is one ‘popcorn thriller’ that you don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying.
What did Ebert say? “From his earliest days in a comic book, Superman always has been an urban hero. He lived in a universe that was defined by screaming banner headlines and vast symbolic acts, and Superman II catches that flavour perfectly… the feeling of actuality makes Superman’s exploits more fun. It brings the fantastic into our everyday lives; it delights in showing us the reaction of the man on the street to Superman’s latest stunt.”
4 – Fight Club (1999).
I include this film because it does a very simple thing: it highlights many, if not all, of the things that are wrong with our society today, and the potentially dire consequences created by a consumerist-led culture. The main character, an unnamed man known only as ‘the narrator’ (for reasons revealed later), is tired with life, suffering from insomnia and trudging through a monotonous 9-to-5 existence. In order to find excitement, he begins attending support groups for people with terminal illnesses. It helps him get in touch with his subdued emotions and, you could say, gives him a reason to live (seeing people worse off than yourself will tend to do that). He meets Tyler Durden, a name that will be imprinted on your brain by the end of the film, with whom he forms ‘fight club’, an underground movement that starts out as a sort of ‘support group’ for men suffering from the same boring, unfulfilled life. Soon it becomes something quite different; less ‘support group’, more ‘terrorist group’. The club grows out of the narrator’s control and turns against the higher elements of society that epitomise consumerist exploitation, using violence as their means of primal expression.
What I liked most about the movie was its potentially ‘Christian’ theme. While God isn’t referred to directly, and the filmmakers certainly didn’t have this route in mind, without doubt the film is pointing towards our instinct to search for something more than what this life offers us. The thing that these men are lacking, the thing that turns them against a society that worships possessions and monotonous jobs that in turn allow you to buy more possessions, is God. Only they don’t know it. And the only thing left once you take God out of the picture, is chaos.
What did Ebert say? “Women, who have had a lifetime of practice at dealing with little-boy posturing, will instinctively see through it; men may get off on the testosterone rush. The fact that it is very well made and has a great first act certainly clouds the issue.”
3 – Pulp Fiction (1994).
Tarantino has split movie-goers in the past twenty years with a diverse array of films ranging from the bad (Death Proof – yeah, there’s a reason you haven’t heard of that one) to the ugly (Django Unchained was, at times, quite uncomfortable to watch), yet something that even the haters seem to be able to agree on is that he did make at least one good movie that you can’t help but enjoy. That movie is almost always named as Pulp Fiction.
There’s not much that I can add to your knowledge of this film; it’s probably the best known one on this list, which is a high compliment in itself to a director who was working in a video rental store until his late twenties. Oh, and this was only his second film. Some will say it was also his peak, but I think Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill (2003/4) are strong contenders for that label too. Undoubtedly, it has to be said, this one is still my favourite, and one of my ‘most watched’ movies.
What did Ebert say? “Dialogue drives Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction – dialogue of such high quality it deserves comparison with other masters of spare, hard-boiled prose… Like them, QT finds a way to make the words humourous without ever seeming to ask for a laugh. Like them, he combines utilitarian prose with flights of rough poetry and wicked fancy.”
2 – Memento (2000).
Chris Nolan is perhaps best known by contemporary film fans for his Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, but it was his first breakout hit that I believe is still his best. Memento is a story told backwards (quite literally, as we start at the end of the story, then reverse to find out what drove us to that conclusion) about Leonard, a man suffering from a form of short-term memory loss known as ‘anterograde amnesia’, which prevents him from creating new memories. He develops this condition after an attack that also kills his wife. Or is that really the case?
The great thing about this movie is that Leonard isn’t the typical trustworthy narrator, nor the typical ‘hero’ of the film. He is a man pushed forward only by his desire for avenging the death of his wife (whether he remembers it or not), and as time goes on you start to question, along with the other characters and perhaps even Leonard himself, just what kind of guy he is. There are little details about the film, sleights of hand by Nolan and red herrings that you may only begin to notice once you’ve seen the climactic twist at the movie’s end, but which give you the feeling that nothing can be taken for granted in this story, least of all our main protagonist. That is, of course, if you’re as committed to watching it several times as I have been, and then once more just because you loved it.
What did Ebert say? “I’ve seen it twice. The first time, I thought I’d need a second viewing to understand everything. The second time, I found that greater understanding helped on the plot level, but didn’t enrich the viewing experience. Once is right for this movie. Confusion is the state we are intended to be in.”
1 – Dr Strangelove (1964).
If I manage only to convince you of one film to see from this list, let it be this one. Dr Strangelove is, for me, the late Stanley Kubrick’s greatest film (in a list of great films to which his name is attached). A straight-faced Cold War satire that is hilarious without ever really trying to be, this film took the 1960s political climate (in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis and JFK’s assassination) and turned it on its head, embarrassingly highlighting – with comic effect, it has to be said – the potentially disastrous outcomes that wartime military ‘attitudes-without-a-leash’ can produce.
The impact of the movie’s genre can’t be emphasised enough. Would this film have come anywhere close to having the impact that it has done if it had chosen not to be funny about it? Not a chance. Dr Strangelove singlehandedly proves that humour is the best way for humanity to deal with its own stupidity, and its lesson is still resonating today through films like Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012). The difference between these two, of course, is that Strangelove was made in the midst of the very thing it was making fun of. It was a film way ahead of its time, and yet perfectly timed to make waves in the wartime culture of 1964. In the end you realise this turns it into a very rare breed that we refer to as ‘timeless’. Nowhere (in film) is that word more relevant than it is here. Was it controversial and outrageous? Absolutely, but anything that blatantly highlights our own undeniable faults always should be.
What did Ebert say? “…out of rudimentary physical props and a brilliant screenplay, Kubrick made what is arguably the best political satire of the century, a film that pulled the rug out from under the Cold War by arguing that if a ‘nuclear deterrent’ destroys all life on Earth, it is hard to say exactly what it has deterred.” – “Dr Strangelove’s humor is generated by a basic comic principle: People trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing. The laughs have to seem forced on unwilling characters by the logic of events.”
Phase Two – Video Games.
5 – TimeSplitters 2 (2002) – PS2.
The words ‘first-person shooter’ probably makes you think of Call of Duty or Battlefield, but before the days of annual mass produced online death matches, there was another FPS that earned the title of ‘best multiplayer’ on PlayStation. For me it still hasn’t been surpassed.
TimeSplitters 2 was the sequel to TimeSplitters, a cult hit that was one of the maiden titles released along with the PS2 in 2000. The original was a fun multiplayer blast, but didn’t have much else to write home about. This sequel took what made it successful and expanded everything. There was an actual story mode this time. Multiplayer was improved further, with a co-op mode joining death match, ‘capture the flag’ and many other options. There were over 100 characters available to choose from.
Anyone who knows me knows that I was never the biggest fan of this type of multiplayer (when it comes to competitiveness, I prefer strategy), so the fact that a predominantly multiplayer FPS game gets into this list is a huge compliment to its design. If anything deserves an HD remake, it’s this. Whether or not the currently saturated industry would recognise its excellence is another matter.
4 – Fahrenheit (2005) – PS2.
Possibly one of the most important yet criminally underrated games of the PS2 era, Fahrenheit was a prelude to Heavy Rain (2010, PS3), and was the first major sign that ‘Quantic Dream’ had big things ahead of them in the gaming industry. Unfortunately not many people realised it at the time; the game got good but not outstanding reviews and sales figures struggled to break the top 20 for the year.
The game gave you control over four characters, including a man who you first meet just as he commits a murder in a New York diner, and the two detectives investigating the case. Which side you choose to be on will, to some extent, decide how the game proceeds. While this idea wasn’t fully realised at the time (obvious console limitations meant there were only so many possibilities, rather than limitless ones), it was an interesting premise that kept you guessing until the end, and then made you want to play again just to see what you could do differently.
It bore the look of an ambitious developer still finding their feet in the line of interactive cinema, but make no mistake: much of what people loved about Heavy Rain was fleshed out in this game. It also, for me, has a more interesting (if somewhat less emotionally affecting) plot than its big brother. It feels much more humble too; this game knows its place, whereas Heavy Rain was arguably a victim of its own hype. Anyone who’s played Fahrenheit will perhaps understand why.
3 – Silent Hill (1999) – PSOne.
The original Silent Hill is psychological horror at its best, and also the root of my interest in Japanese culture. It follows an ‘everyman’ (not a clichéd military-type, not a trained FBI agent, but someone you wouldn’t be surprised to see sitting behind a checkout at Tesco or selling you car insurance for Go Compare), Harry Mason, searching for his daughter in an isolated fictional American town known as ‘Silent Hill’, which is typical of any other isolated American town, aside from the fact that this one isn’t really isolated. Deformed creatures roam the town and want nothing more than to welcome you with open limbs; a city-wide siren signals regular shifts into an alternate dimension housing the town’s best selection of gleaming furniture and immaculate paintwork in what is a fine display of artistic design; the few other humans you meet seem more threatening than the monsters trying to eat you.
This game had all the things that a 1999 mainstream video game should not have had. Thematically bold and horrifically imaginative, I doubt we’ll ever see another one quite like it. Whether or not it was surpassed by its sequel is beside the point: anyone who’s played both knows that despite sharing the setting and game play, the games are quite different and (in as liberal a fashion as the word can be used) as enjoyable as each other. When it comes down to which one has had more of a lasting impact on the industry, though, it undoubtedly has to be this consistently frightening first game.
2 – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2005) – PS2.
Few developers could have ‘Snake Eater’ as the tagline for their game and still expect to be taken seriously. Especially when it’s there not for any symbolic or metaphorical reason, but because the main character, well, literally eats snakes. Yet, when Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was released in 2005, that’s exactly what series creator Hideo Kojima expected, and it’s exactly what he got.
Having found success with the cinematic Metal Gear Solid in 1998, and created arguably the first true ‘Hollywood blockbuster’ of the gaming industry with Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in 2001/2, Kojima decided to go back a little for the third instalment. Perhaps aware that the current generation’s graphical limits had already been reached with SoL, Snake Eater retained the cinematic feel of its predecessors – albeit with a different style to suit the game’s jungle setting and 1960s time period – while focusing on greatly improved game play, creating a more seamless experience than ever before.
As ‘Snake’ (yes, it’s a codename), you spend the entire game in an environment where you have to catch your own food if you wish to remain healthy, heal your own injuries, and sneak past guards without the help of the advanced Soliton radar system you had taken for granted in the previous games. The result is a game that can feel a lot harder to play until you get used to it (and that doesn’t happen immediately), but one that you know is more realistic than most others you’ve ever played. Add to that a James Bond-inspired theme tune played over the stylish opening title/ credits sequence, and you know you’re on to a winner.
1 – Final Fantasy 8 (1999) – PSOne.
My favourite game is certainly not the best game by mainstream standards, nor is it even the best game by Final Fantasy fan standards. This is because it gave them something quite different from what they were used to.
An evil sorceress travels back from the future to take control of a present sorceress through a form of mind control in order to travel further back in time and meld it all together with a view to creating a paradoxical universe in which only she can exist. This kind of twisted logic runs through the plot of many a Final Fantasy game; some considered this one to have more holes in it than usual. They’re probably right. Yet somehow, as you play through Final Fantasy 8, as you soon discover the characters are so well written and designed to the point where you start to genuinely care about them, you find everything starting to make a kind of perfect sense. You begin to care about saving the world. When you become immersed in this experience and give your imagination to its universe, potential plot holes lose significance. For you, the world is real, and no amount of critical thinking can pull you out until you finish it.
But the best thing about this game was its sheer diversity. Game play was vastly different from its predecessors, and any version since for that matter. It used a unique junction system that allowed you to get quite powerful early on, if you were willing to work at it. Equally, if you didn’t work at it, you would find yourself running into big problems as you got further into the game. This turned off some dedicated fans who were used to levelling up and getting better weapons as they naturally progressed, rather than having it depend on their own style of play.
I’m not going to deny it; this game, along with its genre, is not to everyone’s tastes. What it is, though, is the most personal one for me, being the first mature RPG I played (assuming we’re not counting the old Pokemon Red and Blue games in the ‘mature’ category). Many people would say it was number 7 for them, but I guess I was slightly late to the Western Final Fantasy party.
Phase Three – Films and Video Games.
So, what did Roger Ebert say about video games? Not a lot in fact, because he was a film critic. But he did have an interesting opinion on them as ‘art’. In a 2005 interview, he said this;
“I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”
Now, there is so much in that quote that I could spend a whole other blog entry on it, and maybe I will at some point. But the only thing I wish to highlight for now is the last line of it. Ebert emphasises that ‘for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured’. It is not hard to think of the types of games he is referring to here; I myself have been largely derogatory towards those series’ that release annual updates of themselves, because they’re not good for the progress of the medium as a whole (I say that knowing the irony of my favourite game actually being the eighth instalment of the longest running series in history). But I think if Ebert was to read this list, he would perhaps understand where I’m coming from in considering video games equal with films. I believe my top three, at least, have been important in developing my understanding of culture. And while those top three clearly borrowed from film (understandable as the latter is a much older form of entertainment), I would argue they also bring something to the table that a film never could. Silent Hill is the most frightening entertainment product I have ever experienced in either medium, precisely because it puts you in the shoes of a protagonist going through the events as they happen; a film feels more like it’s showing you events that have already happened, and there’s a sort of subconscious comfort in that.
Video games, in my opinion, have the potential to one day eclipse their older cousins. Unfortunately, they may be held back in that endeavour by the commercial-driven society in which we’re currently living.
All Ebert quotes were taken from the reviews on his website – www.rogerebert.com – and from the 2005 article “Why did the chicken cross the genders?”, which was written for the Chicago Sun-times and can also be found on his website.