Things nobody tells you about living in Tokyo

Number one: Bring your favorite hand sanitizer.

It’s not that Japan is dirty, or anything–it’s not. They have crews of street cleaners in Tokyo whose job is to go around town with brooms, sweeping up dead leaves as they fall. If there’s a broken bottle on the sidewalk, it will be gone by the next day because of these guys. Does YOUR city have a team of dudes with rakes clearing off every sidewalk? I’ll bet not.

And while big cities like Tokyo might look a little rough around the edges, sort of like Detroit with fewer broken windows, it’s not actually dirty. Several buildings and houses I walk past every day on my way to the train station look like the sort of buildings that might have meth labs or illegal chop shops inside, but each one is a well-lived in home with three generations living there, or a busy repair shop. Japan just isn’t as concerned with exterior aesthetics–or rather, they are, but in a different way. America wants to keep everything looking brand new, so we repaint our houses frequently, make sure we hire illegal immigrants to do landscaping work, and clean graffiti off of everything. Japan has the unique aesthetic tradition of wabi-sabi, where something is more unique and meaningful if it is less than perfect, old, or broken. So replacing the big sliding door on a building isn’t necessary if the paint starts flaking or a little rust starts to build up, it lends character. And even if the paint is old, or the exterior is a little rusty, it’s STILL so clean you could perform surgery there. Taking off your shoes when you enter a building is more of a formality, given how clean the streets are. Many people regularly hose down their driveways or the street they live on to make sure the outdoors is as clean as their kitchens.

Overall, Japan is super clean. This idea of cleanliness extends to the expectation, however, that you won’t pee on your own hands when going to the bathroom. Japanese restrooms rarely have hand soap in them, and they also rarely have paper towels (a waste of paper), or electric hand dryers (a waste of electricity). Moreover, since the earthquake and tsunami, a lot of establishments that HAVE electric dryers have turned them off to help save electricity (lots of businesses and establishments are trying to reduce electricity consumption due to the ongoing problems with the Fukushima reactor. There are signs up all over Tokyo about saving power, and lots of train stations and metro tunnels are pretty dark these days).

It’s common for Japanese people to carry around a little hand towel or hankie that they can use to dry off their hands after they use the bathroom, but the lack of hand soap will likely still bother Americans. My advice is to always carry a little bottle of hand sanitizer with you while you’re out and about, just in case you need to go to the bathroom and don’t want to be wiping your wet hands on your pants as you leave.

Number two: You never ever ever EVER need to buy facial tissues.

In Japan, they like to hit the streets with advertising. Instead of just handing out leaflets and flyers, most Japanese people handing out ads on the street will be giving you something sort of useful. On hot days, they’ll hand out fans with ads printed on them, for instance. One of the most common mediums for advertisements in Japan, though, is tissues.

In one day of walking around Tokyo, I picked up 5 packs of tissues with ads printed on the back. They’re pretty nice tissues, too. The point is, there is no reason you would ever need to go to the store and buy tissues if you’re in Tokyo.

Strangely enough, though, I don’t think I’ve picked up any tissue ads in Akihabara or Kabuki-cho. Hmm…

Number three: Tokyo is always awake, but that doesn’t mean the trains are.

Last night, I went to a nomihoudai (a sort of all-you-can-eat buffet, but replace ‘eat’ with ‘drink’ and replace ‘buffet’ with ‘cocktails and 10-yen beer draws) and got to drink and enjoy general merriment with about 15 of my classmates. I was the first to leave (I skipped out at 11 after only two and a half drinks), and STILL barely managed to catch my last train.  Every train line stops running at different times, and the last few trains of the night are ridiculously packed with inebriated businessmen. It’s like a tin of sardines, packed in beer.

Some lines run until well after midnight–others, like mine, send their final train off at 11:30.

Taxis, however, are always running, but compared to American taxis, they’re kind of pricey–you can’t hop in on one side of Tokyo, have them drive you to the next ward and toss them $25 and be on your way. A trip that would cost $25 in New York or Chicago will cost you about $80 in Tokyo, and surprise surprise, the taxi fares go up 30% after 10:00–when the trains start shutting down. (The Tokyo fares start at 710 yen–about $9.25–then go up 80 yen every 275 meters. That works out to about a dollar every 6th of a mile. And again, that’s before 10 PM.) A trip to Narita Airport will cost you several hundred dollars. You also pretty much have to be able to tell the driver how to get to where you’re going–Japanese street addresses aren’t laid out in any logical order. The buildings are numbered in the order they are built, so you can have building 1 next to 18 next to 5 on the same street. (Of course, if they have a TomTom in their cab, then you just have to have the address so they can punch it in and let satellites drive for them…but you’ve gotta have that address, unless you want to pay for sitting in the cab while your driver looks up where you want to go on giant maps of Tokyo.)

The number of 24-hour establishments in Tokyo, however, means that you would only have to divide your time between 3 or 4 Starbucks or McDonald’s restaurants before the trains started running again at 5 am, if you miss your last train. And then there will at least be bright lights and colorful things to distract you from the realization that you are stranded in the biggest city in the world and you have 5 hours before the trains start rolling through the station again.

Number four: Conversion rates suck–don’t think about them.

Obviously, if you’re only going to be spending a short time in Tokyo, you should probably pay more attention to conversion rates–work out a budget for yourself, and stick to it. Really think about how many dollars you are spending, because you’ll be spending dollars again, soon. If you CAN buy it back in the States, DO. (For example, the price of the new PS Vita coming out this winter is $250, but 24,980 Yen–that works out to over $300 to buy the same product in Japan. Just buy the damn game system in America; it’s not region locked or anything, so just buy it there. I plan to, and I’m not going to be in America for another 10 months.)

I, however, will be here for a year. If I spend all of my time thinking ‘How many dollars is that?’, then I’ll never buy food or clothes–things I’ll NEED in the next year. With the dollar weakening and the yen growing stronger, conversion rates hover somewhere around 75 yen to the dollar–so the 100 Yen Store is really more like a $1.25 Store. If something costs 1000 Yen, that’s about $13. Couple the strength of the yen with the fact that a city the size of Tokyo is expensive to live in no matter what, and you’ll be cringing at the cost of a cup of coffee. I spent 360 Yen on a Chocolatte at Tully’s yesterday. The cheapest Red Bull I’ve seen is 180 yen from the vending machines on campus. A one-way metro ride from my house to campus is 490 yen–a three-month commuter pass was 35,000 yen–over $450. I was reimbursed 4800 yen for my travel to and from campus for the first two weeks I was here–I spent over $60 going back and forth from school for five days, and it would have been more, if the typhoon hadn’t hit and gotten the day’s activities cancelled.

One plus to having had such an expensive daily commute is now that I have my commuter pass, all of my independent travel costs look insanely cheap. I can ride back and forth from Shibuya or Akihabara for less than what one way of my daily commute used to cost. One downside is that this leads me to travel around Tokyo a lot, and you can really burn through your cash that way.

A lot of people still keep to the ’100 yen = $1′ conversion rate in their heads when trying to determine if it’s worth it to buy this or that. I stick to the ‘Okay, I have a 10,000 yen bill in my wallet, and I don’t want to break it’ rule, myself.

That’s another thing…

Number five: Japan hates plastic.

Well, okay, not all of Japan, and not all plastic–just you and your damn American debit cards. Apparently, I’m the lucky one of my group, as every ATM I have used in Japan has worked just fine for me. If you carry $100 on you in America, you might never really end up using it, since credit and debit cards are so prevalent in our society. I hate carrying cash, and almost always pay with my debit card in the states.

Not so in Japan.

In Japan, people don’t really use credit cards so much. People routinely carry several man en notes (10,000 Yen) on their person. The closest you get to the ubiquitousness of Visa and MasterCard in the States is the ability to use your train/subway pass card all over the place. You can use your Suica/Pasmo train passes to buy soda from a vending machine in most stations–just wave your card in front of the machine, and it tells you your balance, and what you can afford out of the machine, then make your choice and wave the card again. Ta-da. A lot of other little stands and stalls in train stations accept your commuter pass, too. Buses will also accept Suica/Pasmo cards in lieu of paying cash for your fare. You can even get an app on your smart phone that turns your phone into your train pass.

But nobody really uses credit cards. It’s odd.

I remember going to the Square-Enix Store the other day, and was surprised to see that they accepted credit cards. Most places don’t even have the option.

My advice is this: Make sure your damn ATM card will work in Japan, and always be ready to pop in to 7-11 when you start getting down to about 5,000 yen in your wallet. You’ll be shocked at how quickly you actually spend money when you have to watch bills leave your wallet instead of just swiping your magical little charge card and leaving the store with a trunk full of groceries.

Why I roll my eyes whenever someone says motion-sensing controllers are the future of gaming

So I’ll bet nobody is reading this, now that the school year is long over, but I still have thoughts about video games in between my sessions of playing video games, so every now and then, when I’ve had a few daquiris, I decide someone might care and come looking at my blog, so I might as well post something.

A few weeks ago, my friend told me she was going to buy the Special Edition Star Wars Xbox 360 that looks like R2D2 and comes with a C-3PO controller and a white Kinect.

God, why can't they at least match? Ceramic white controllers are so nice...

She was really dang excited about the Kinect for some reason. Aside from the fact that pretty much the best game for the Kinect right now is either Kinect Sports or that game where you play with baby animals, I don’t really see the appeal. Sure, the Kinect is a really impressive piece of technology, and it’s one step closer to that ever-elusive ‘full immersion virtual reality’ Holy Grail that everyone else seems to be chasing, but I don’t see anything more than a casual application for it.

Now granted, I mostly play JRPGs, so what does Microsoft care about me, but I don’t see how the Kinect could offer a worthwhile gaming experience for hardcore Halo players, either.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to play a more casual game, like with Kinect Adventures, or wanting to game with friends for an instant party, like with Rock Band, and the Kinect is perfect for that sort of thing. But any game that requires the character to move independently in any direction is going to be a problem. In real life, if we needed to move from point A to point B, we would walk there. However, you have to stay 6 feet away from the Kinect, outside of its personal bubble, or else it stops talking to you as if you’re the creepy kid on the playground. What do I do if I’m playing a game and I have to run from a giant boulder? Jog in place? If I wanted to do that, then I would have bought a Wii Fit, morons.

A Japanese man demonstrating how to run from a hoard of zombies on your Wii

If I’m taking heavy enemy fire, do I have to dive behind my couch to make my character take cover behind a waist-high wall? Then the Kinect can’t see me furiously going through the real-life motions of reloading an M-16, and when I pop up from behind my cover, I’ll still be out of ammo.

Worst of all, how the hell am I supposed to play Assassin’s Creed Revelations with a Kinect? I don’t know about you, but I am not a traceuse. I cannot do parkour. And even if I could, I couldn’t do it while standing a constant 6 feet away from the TV in my living room. How am I supposed to ride my horse, or climb up the face of a building, or perform a leap of faith or air assassinate somebody if I’m stuck using my pudgy 5’3″ body to control Ezio? There’s a reason I play Assassin’s Creed: I CAN’T DO THE THINGS EZIO AND ALTAIR DO. If I could climb vertical surfaces and survive 100-foot falls, do you think I would be spending my time sitting on my ass watching simulated people do it? No! I’d be out there climbing buildings and leaping from roof to roof like Batman.

In a world where everyone is a traceur, Assassin's Creed is the equivalent of the world's greatest physicists playing Cookie's Counting Carnival.

You know, once upon a time, I had a really nice DDR mat. I plugged it in to my Playstation, and attempted to use it to play Final Fantasy IX. All of the face buttons were present on the pad in each corner, obviously I had my up-down-left-right D-pad arrows, and I even had Select and Start–all of the buttons I needed to play FFIX. I could not play the game with that controller, though. When the controller is in your hand, it’s intuitive based on past experience with games that use controllers. What I missed most of all, however, was my inability to MOVE. I had to stand on arrows to get my character to walk, and then, Zidane could only WALK, not run, and would only move in a straight line. I couldn’t make turns, I couldn’t maneuver, I couldn’t cross the world map…I was crippled because I lacked a joystick to move with. It was a little bit like someone taking your computer mouse away and telling you to go about your daily computer activities. Yes, there are shortcuts on the keyboard for everything, but some things are significantly easier with a mouse.

The Wii and the Playstation Move both seem to be aware of this. Both of these devices have handheld controllers that the system tracks, and the handheld controllers feature face buttons and, most importantly, a JOYSTICK OPTION. The Wii Nunchuck is pretty much only a joystick, and the Move features a Navigation Controller, which is essentially the left half of a Playstation controller on a stick. The point, however, is that it is possible to use traditional controls in harmony with the motion sensing technology. You could theoretically play non-Move compatible games on your PS3 using the Move controllers, and you can play all sorts of non-Wii Nintendo games on the Wii (Gamecube, Gameboy Advance and DS games are all compatible with the Wii, although you do need a Gamecube controller for Gamecube functionality), if you had the wild hair to do so. But the Kinect cannot offer that sort of backwards compatibility, or even that sort of current (lateral?) compatibility with other Xbox games.

As far as I can see it, the Kinect is just a $100 controller you need if you want to play a puppy petting simulation game. You can save that $100 and go pet a real puppy for free.

What is a ‘serious gamer’, anyway?

These days, with the Wii, Facebook games and Angry Birds on every phone in this sector of the galaxy, almost anyone can be considered a ‘gamer’. My grandmother is an avid online Scrabble and Mahjong player, for instance, and as my grandparents both enjoy bowling, I keep dropping subtle hints that if they were to purchase a Wii, they would be the envy of all the old folks on the block. It’d be like they were kids again. (In addition, it would provide a game for my grandmother to play that would get her up and moving again, since she always complains about her old age weight gain, but isn’t exactly in the sort of shape one should be in to start taking a spinning class, or train for a triathlon to lose weight.)

My stepdad used to play Starcraft on his N64 and all manner of wrestling games on his Xbox, but now dedicates most of his free time to playing various Facebook games, like Cityville and the like. He builds some pretty impressive-looking cities, and one has to just stare and wonder about how many hours went into it.

And then there’s me. My game shelf consists of a collection of JRPGs and I’ve logged several hundred hours on my PS3. I think I’m qualified to fly one commercially now.

I, as a console gamer, would not consider my family to be ‘serious gamers’ in any sense of the word. After all, it’s something they just do in their free time, and they tend to play asynchronous games–grandma usually has to wait a while for her Scrabble partners to make their moves…so she plays Mahjong in the interim. My stepdad sits down to play Facebook games for a few solid hours, yes, but that’s because he gets caught up in Guild Chat, and pauses every now and then for smoke breaks, reading breaks, bathroom breaks, letting the dogs out breaks…and by then, whatever building he was upgrading should be ready to churn out strawberries like a champ. My mom doesn’t even play games, despite my less-than-gentle urging that she at least play Portal, since it takes about as long as a decent movie to finish.

But of course, neither professional gamers (i.e. pro Halo players) nor PC gamers would consider me to be ‘serious’–after all, I only play single-player games on a console. I haven’t spent thousands of dollars building my own gaming rig from the ground up, overclocking my processors and building liquid cooling systems to keep my system from melting while I play Crysis. They do it for money/glory/Sparta, and I do it for the same reason my less serious gaming family does it: for fun.

Or do I?

I consider myself a serious gamer, but not in the same way that a Korean playing Starcraft in a tournament is a ‘serious gamer’. They are a professional, after all, pitting their skills against other professionals. They’re serious in the same way that a professional painter is a ‘serious artist’–they do what they do because it puts dinner on the table.

I play games in the same way an English major reads books, or the way a film critic watches movies–even when they’re not being paid or graded on their assessment of this work, they still look at books and movies in a certain way. This is partially because I consider games to be works of art, and so I see no reason NOT to analyze them the same way I would analyze a good book or painting.

The games on my shelves all come to me recommended, either by magazine reviews, internet buzz, or friends whose judgement I trust in these matters (i.e. not many of my male friends). In fact, only one game in my collection was purchased solely based on a magazine article published before the game even came out in Japan, and that’s White Knight Chronicles. (Still on my list of ‘games I need to actually start getting their moneys worth out of’.) I’ve played most of them to completion, and those I haven’t, I played a significant portion of before getting distracted by the newest shiny. All of these games have at least one unique thing to offer, and the best of the bunch have many unique things to offer.

I could talk for hours about the philosophical implications and symbology of Final Fantasy VII. I could do the same with Kingdom Hearts. I play games for their historical value. I’m working my way through FFVI out of a loyalty to the series, and in order to compare and contrast it with the other entries in the series. One of the few game series I’m willing to buy at release is Assassin’s Creed, because I KNOW it will be worth my $60 on its artistic merits alone (as well as the fact that I’ll get to kill people up close and personal for about 30 or 40 hours while jumping off of very tall and very realistic buildings). I approach games very much like one might approach a piece of literature–I’m looking at not only the story, but the symbols contained within, the references to other works, the historical context of the piece, etc. In longer series, like Kingdom Hearts, I could happily while away the hours making flowcharts and character analyses detailing the progression of the series over various titles, and I often do with various series that I enjoy.

This makes me a particularly tough customer when it comes to fan-produced works. For instance, I can barely stomach a lot of fan-fiction, because it tends to be written by people who care nothing for the original story and character relations–which is fine, if you are any good at coming up with original scenarios. If you can write a compelling story where the characters of Kingdom Hearts step into the oversized shoes of the Knights of the Round Table, and Lancelot!Riku runs off with Guinevere!Kairi, then I’ll be happy to read it. But if your story is just ‘I don’t like Sora, so I’m going to make Kairi fall in love with Riku instead’, or ‘I don’t like Kairi, so I’m going to kill her off and neither Sora nor Riku cares–especially when I introduce myself as a Mary-Sue character’, then we are going to have a problem. It takes a firm understanding of the rules before you can bend and break them properly–which is why most fan-fiction falls flat on its fan-face. (Even though I am currently co-authoring an AU Kingdom Hearts tale myself, I steer clear of a lot of AU fan-fic, because if most fan-fic authors can’t grasp the full rules of the original source material, how can I expect them to construct their own world and rules?)

After all, games are more than mindless entertainment. They do, in fact, contain stories and characters, and they deserve respect for that.

I guess in closing, when I say I’m a ‘serious gamer’, I mean it in the same way that a reviewer is a ‘serious reader’ of books, or a ‘serious viewer’ of films. Perhaps in that case, I should be fully termed a ‘serious player of games’…but that’s overly clunky. And ‘I take games seriously’ also doesn’t seem to communicate how I experience the medium. ‘I play games in a serious manner’ makes me sound like I never have fun. And although I analyze games, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t actually make me a ‘game analyst’ (as that term implies game industry analysis). My closest analogue in the realm of ‘real art’ would be art/book/film critics or connoisseurs, I suppose.

Maybe that will be my new descriptor. ‘Video game connoisseur’. At least that way, people probably won’t be as quick to assume that I spend all hours of the day playing Starcraft in Korea.

Being a Girl Gamer Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Penis Envy

Gah, I always get around to posting my blog updates so late, they’re almost not relevant anymore. Still, as someone who plays exactly the sort of games Consalvo discusses in our latest article of hers to be read, I feel the need to weigh in.

It’s tough being a girl gamer sometimes. The gaming community expects a certain character of each member of our little microcosm, such that boys are generally expected to play FPS games, or other titles featuring a significant amount of bloodshed, and girls are typically seen as playing casual games, and maybe some adventure titles, but generally, nothing more hardcore than Kingdom Hearts. This issue converges directly over the site Gamecrush.com, but that’s the subject of another blog post.

Of the 36 games currently on my shelf, 25 of them are JRPGs, and a further 13 of those are Final Fantasy titles. Of those 13 games, my favorite by far is Final Fantasy IX. Since Consalvo did the world the honor of writing about what is, in my opinion, the most under-appreciated Final Fantasy of the Sony era, I wish to return the honor and write in response. Mostly because she’s sort of wrong.

Not completely wrong, mind you, but, from where I stand, at least somewhat wrong-ish.

As I said so eloquently in my blog title, I’m a female gamer. Of all 36 titles on my shelf, only three have official female main characters (FFXIII, Xenosaga and Okami, though I have made the case that FFX and XII both feature true female main characters, rather than simply female leads acting in supporting roles to the male main character). The fact that the main characters of video games are almost always men has never bothered me, and I have never had a problem with identifying with the male characters in my games. I could connect with their personalities, or their strong, adventurous spirits quite easily. It was never necessary in my mind to connect with their penises, too. Sometimes, however, I would identify most closely not with the main characters, but with secondary characters or supporting cast members. In FFIX, I had the strongest connection with Garnet, for instance, a strong young woman longing to be independent and help those around her, but hampered by her inability to blend in with the crowd; she could always be picked out as the princess. I also felt a strong draw to the stalwart Burmecian knight Freya, for instance, and had an immense love for the shy and uncertain black mage Vivi; those two were almost always in my party, and were supported by either Garnet or Eiko. Though characters like Amarant could dish out more raw damage than Freya, and Steiner could perform magic-powered attacks in tandem with Vivi in addition to being a massive tank in general, I never felt the same connection with them, and so they often were left out of my party. Though I couldn’t actively play as them, I could spend more time with them during normal gameplay.

I LOVE THIS LITTLE MAN.

It’s not that I didn’t like Zidane or anything. His goofball antics and his swashbuckling attitude were very endearing, and his desire to help everyone around him meshed well with my play style (namely ‘help everyone–they’ll probably give you an awesome power-up if you do’). If my initial experience of the game is to be in any way similar to what Consalvo was writing about, I identified with Garnet, and played Zidane as a man trying to win my heart, not me as Zidane trying to win a woman. (My numerous save files from when I was 10 lay this out quite plainly–Garnet always had my name, and Zidane was named after boys I had crushes on.) I don’t think my way of playing is unique–I think many girls play Final Fantasy in a similar way. It’s part of the beauty of being able to name your characters in the earlier titles.

A similar situation arose while I played FFXIII. I often found myself with a party of Lightning, Fang and Hope; pound for pound, they were easily the biggest powerhouses of the main cast. All three had higher strength and magic scores than Sazh, and any spell that Vanille could cast could be covered by Hope (except for Death, of course, but it only works literally 1% of the time), and he would do it with a higher magic score. I also found myself more attached to these characters in general–though my heart broke for Sazh and his tale of woe, he just wasn’t useful to me in battle past about the halfway mark in the game, and I hated Snow right out of the gate–I never used him if I had the option.

Can you spot the deadweight in this picture?

Lightning was originally designed to literally be a female Cloud. The writing team went down to Nomura’s office during the character planning stages and said ‘野村先生、女のクラウドを書いて出来ますか?’ and Nomura said ‘あぁ、クラウドは女じゃなかいか?’, shrugged, and drew Lightning.

"Mr. Nomura, can you draw us a female Cloud?" "Wait, Cloud wasn't a woman?"

Therefore, her story as a tortured ex-soldier who is a puppet of the villain is familiar. Hope is the prototypical Final Fantasy boy, meaning he’s far too young to be involved in saving the world, and has less muscle mass than I do. Some players claimed he was ‘too whiny’, but considering that Hope’s mother died on screen with him watching the whole thing go down, and he is forced to travel with the man whom he holds responsible for his mother’s death (Snow), I’d say a little bit of whining is appropriate. It’s like saying the family of a soldier killed in action should ‘just get over it’, and that soldier is your mother, and she was killed in town square trying to fight against the government forces who were coming in to slaughter the undesirables living in your town, and they’re still coming after you to finish the job.

Except that if you're Hope, you then summon a giant laser-covered battle mech to wipe out huge swaths of your foes.

And I liked Fang most of all because she was brazen and bold, and was singularly driven by her task at hand, even though it often put her at odds with the rest of the cast. She also had a bitchin’ Australian accent, and giant tattoos; she was very much a wild woman, but with a tender heart. Her purpose in life as she saw it was to protect Vanille, creating a sort of dynamic reminiscent of the ‘Summoner and Guardian’ relationships seen in FFX. Her character was extremely colorful; moreso than most of the other cast members. Also, she could summon Bahamut, and was easily the biggest powerhouse in the cast, making her indispensable in battle. (The fact that her character was originally created as a man explains some of this; I don’t think there’s ever been a FF heroine quite like her.)

Flash 'em a bit of thigh, huh? How 'bout that?

Which brings us around to FFXII. If ever there was a game that demonstrated that Square Enix wants to make movies instead of video games, it was this one.

Wow, they pretty much do Star Wars better than George Lucas.

In early drafts of the story for XII, the main playable character was meant to be Basch (you can see his manly mug at 2:06), a Knight of Dalmasca who fought to restore his queen to the throne and, in the process, restore his good name; he had been branded a traitor after the assassination of King Raminas of Dalmasca at the signing of Dalmasca’s surrender to Archadia. And who doesn’t love a good story about redemption? When one considers the fact that Basch was meant to be the lead male character (who, shockingly, is never meant to get the girl–Queen Ashe, the lead female, is a widow, and is very much dedicated to the memory of her dead husband, Prince Rasler, who died a Basch’s side defending Dalmasca’s border), the plot of FFXII makes more sense.

What makes no sense, then, is that there are a couple of random teenage ruffians who somehow manage to fall in with the Queen and her loyal warriors. Vaan and Penelo, the new main characters of FFXII, were created to be more in line with the target demographic of the Final Fantasy series: Japanese teenagers.

"Hmm, which one would our players rather be? A strong, but shamed warrior fighting to restore his honor and kingdom, or a wimpy, worthless teenager who really offers nothing to the Queen's resistance movement?"

Vaan is nominally the main character of FFXII, and appears on the box art in a prominent position and such, but throughout the story, he acts more as a fly on the wall, an observer of the history unfolding around him. Vaan doesn’t even narrate the story, like Tidus does in FFX; Marquis Ondore narrates FFXII through his memoirs. Vaan is, quite literally, just there; a blank slate. He’s the perfect image for the player to project themselves onto. But this comes at the expense of Vaan’s place in the story. If he is not clearly defined, then how can he be an important player character in a complex web of characters, especially if he never really takes on a central role in the action?

Halo’s Master Chief, while being a silent protagonist whose face we never see (another classic ‘blank slate’ character), manages to avoid Vaan’s problem by being pretty much the only main character of Halo, and thus is the center of the action. Halo has a story, yes, but it isn’t one in which complex character interactions are the main subject–killing aliens is. Final Fantasy XII is a story centering around complicated international relations (which is probably one reason people don’t seem to like it very much). Queen Ashe easily comes to the forefront when the party is involved in these events, while Vaan often isn’t even allowed in the same room. If we were to compare the main cast to the cast of the original Star Wars trilogy, then Ashe would be Leia, except she doesn’t actually fall in love with Balthier, who is Han Solo (and Chewbacca is way hotter), and Vaan would be Luke Skywalker if he lost his Jedi powers, had no piloting skills (and, indeed, had never flown so much as a kite), and wasn’t Darth Vader’s son.

Like Han Solo, Balthier gets all the ladies. (Also, to complete my comparison, imagine Luke Skywalker always being the Luke Skywalker in the image to the right, that is, less useful in a firefight than Chewie.)

In general, male and female Final Fantasy fans alike are more drawn to Cloud Strife of FFVII fame. For males, it’s because Cloud speaks to the disillusioned teen full of angst within us all, and he gets to chop things in half with a sword that’s wider than he is. For girls, it’s because Cloud is a bishounen; quite literally a ‘pretty boy’. It’s not the fact that he’s feminized and is thus easier to identify with, it’s the fact that he’s attractive, and girls like to fantasize about attractive men. Square also tends to make their villains into bishounen and biseinen (‘pretty man’, though biseinen usually get lumped in with bishounen for simplicity’s sake, despite there being an age difference between the two categories), just to have all of their bases covered; girls do love a bad boy.

Guilty.

Game companies seem to take the 007 approach to making their main characters; ‘women want him, and men want to be him’. And if game companies are banking on making the female love interests of their games worthwhile targets for their male players’ affection and desire, then they’re doing the exact same thing with the male main characters, hoping to make them worthwhile targets for their female players’ affection and desire, so their female players will spend hours upon hours staring at the main character’s handsome mug on the screen.

‘lol, that’s so ironic–*SMACK*’

Ugh, I hate it when people misuse the term ‘irony’. The first definition for ‘irony’ at Dictionary.com is this:

i·ro·ny

[ahy-ruh-nee, ahy-er-]

–noun, plural -nies.

1. the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning:  the irony of her reply, “How nice!” when I said I had to work all weekend.

That’s not technically what I would call ‘irony’ (insomuch as it’s also sarcastic, and in this case, there is irony in the sarcasm; it’s not that it isn’t ironic, there’s just another term to use for it–verbal irony and sarcasm are oft intertwined like this, so using verbal irony as an example of irony is difficult, because most verbal irony ends up termed as ‘sarcasm’ in casual conversation, etc.), but it’s a slippery slope from here down to saying ‘it figgers’ and spazzing out like Alanis Morissette.

THAT IS NOT IRONIC. THAT’S NOT EVEN SARCASTIC, LIKE DICTIONARY.COM. IT’S JUST A BUNCH OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. BEING STUCK IN TRAFFIC WHEN YOU’RE LATE ISN’T IRONIC UNLESS YOU ARE THE CITY ENGINEER WHO DESIGNED THE ROAD SYSTEM AND PROMISED THAT IT WOULD FOREVER ELIMINATE TRAFFIC JAMS, AND YOU ARE LATE TO A MEETING TO TALK ABOUT HOW THIS REVOLUTIONARY NEW ROAD SYSTEM WILL ELIMINATE TRAFFIC JAMS. THAT IS IRONIC. A RAINY DAY IS NOT IRONIC, NOT EVEN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY. IT IS NOT IRONIC.

*pant* *pant* Okay, now to move on to what I actually wanted to post.

This was mostly spurred by my perusal of the Final Fantasy Wikia page on Sephiroth. I was digging for the actual citation of where Yoshinori Kitase said that Sephiroth is stronger than God, since there is not a thing in the world that the Final Fantasy Wikia can tell me about Sephiroth that I didn’t already know.

Can God make a rock so heavy, Sephiroth cant lift it? No. (citation needed)

At the end of the article, I found this little gem:

“His statement about not having a hometown when arriving at Nibelheim is slightly ironic, as Sephiroth was born in Nibelheim.”

That’s not SLIGHTLY ironic, that IS ironic. That’s something that we call ‘Dramatic Irony’, which is a situation in theatre where an action takes place on stage, but the audience knows more than the characters onstage, and thus the audience is aware that the character is about to make a mistake. This is exemplified in Oedipus Rex. The audience knows that the prophecy was made about little Oeddie and so his father (the king of Thebes) had him thrown onto a mountaintop (as was the Greek custom for infanticide), and so we know that he was adopted by a different king and queen (this time of Corinth), and so when Oeddie hears about this prophecy, he ends up leaving home to avoid killing his adoptive father and marrying his adoptive mother, and ends up killing his actual father and marrying his actual mother.

The audience is aware of all of this (that is, assuming they speak Greek), and so the play is ironic in the true Greek sense of the word. Likewise, when players play through Crisis Core and sees this scene…

…it is ironic (that is, assuming they have played FFVII). It’s ironic because the player (audience, whatever) not only knows about Sephiroth’s lineage, but they also know that he was born at Nibelheim, which is the town they just arrived at, where he is asking what it’s like to have a hometown. It’s not ironic to the characters, though, it’s ironic to the player. Moreover, it wasn’t ironic when we saw this same scene 14 years ago:

(Well, okay, this scene isn’t exactly what we saw 14 years ago–the scene we saw 14 years ago had much crappier graphics than even this video; though I’m sure we all remember it looking more like the above than it was in reality.)

It wasn’t ironic then because it was the first time any of us were experiencing Final Fantasy VII. However, with the bevy of prequels and sequels being released (in in-universe chronological order: Before Crisis, Crisis Core, Lost Order, the oft-dreamed of PS3 remake which will probably come out the same weekend as Duke Nukem Forever, all of the novellas, Advent Children, Dirge of Cerberus, all of the other novellas), our viewing and experience of each new entry increases the amount of irony we experience–especially in the telling of Sephiroth’s story.

As we reconstruct the story of the game’s main antagonist, we find a tragic hero who suffers a fall and never recovers from it (and draws more than a few comparisons to Oedipus). It all begins with an origin story that seems like it would either end up producing Batman or the Joker, and to some extent, ends up producing both. Much of Sephiroth’s life is left up to total speculation; we know for certain the events that led up to his birth and the immediate aftermath (detailed in DoC), and we know some of the events of his participation in the Wutai War and Shinra’s campaigns against AVALANCHE over 20 years later (BC and CC), but the only detail we know about his life between those two points is that he was already famous during his childhood, that he and his friends pass the time by William Tell-ing apples off of each other’s heads WITH THEIR SWORDS and he uses an entire bottle of shampoo and conditioner every time he washes his hair (tidbits we learn in CC).

We know that the turn of circumstances that led to his downfall was much earlier than the original FF7 lead us to believe. In the original, it appears that his madness was precipitated by a single event; namely learning about his true origins. But through the extended canon, we know that his battles against AVALANCHE leader Elfe years before Nibelheim instilled in Sephiroth the concept of fighting for something he believes in rather than just doing what he is told like an attack dog, and that his downfall was a slower, much more gradual process than our first experience with the game 14 years ago showed us. We have since learned that it was only after having all of his friends and even his illusion of family stripped away through madness and death that he reached the point where he could be broken (and though the number of people he counted as friends was a whopping two people, he was fiercely loyal to them; which could be counted as his character flaw (other than being totally batshit insane)). His breaking was similar to the process by which cults recruit members, which was the exact aim that Genesis had; to form an anti-Shinra faction and wage war against his oppressors using the very tools they had created. Sephiroth defected from Shinra in the end, but ended up declaring war against all of humanity and repeatedly attempted genocide against the entire population of the planet.

That’s a bit of a bigger target than Genesis had, and Sephiroth included Genesis in his crosshairs, all because Genesis called a spade a spade and said that Jenova was a monster.

"Mommy? ...Mommy?"

When the story is told in reverse, the audience has a different experience from the experience one has upon revisiting the story. When revisiting the story, the audience essentially becomes omniscient in regards to the events of the story; Aerith going to the City of the Ancients and dying isn’t ironic on my second playthrough of the story. However, with multiple prequel titles being released for FFVII, there are elements of a non-linear story making their way into the series, and since we have seen the result of the prior events, we have a different perception of the prior events themselves; playing Crisis Core is a very sad experience all the way through, because the player knows that Zack, who is a very happy-go-lucky and likable character, dies at the end in a very brutal and drawn-out manner…but he must die, because his death results in Cloud taking up Zack’s place. It’s also a very surreal experience engaging with characters that the player knows well in later points in their life; in Crisis Core, Cloud is still an optimistic teenager who always has a smile on his face, Aerith is a rather shy and introverted girl, and Sephiroth is not only sane, but is professional, wise and heroic.

The difference between a story purposefully told in reverse (reverse chronology, such as in Memento) and prequels, though, is that a reverse chronology is a device employed to tell the original story, while a prequel relies on the audience’s knowledge of the original story to complete the sequence of events which began in the prequel, but also relies on the fact that the audience does not know what events eventually resulted in the events of the original story; we know the effect, but not the cause. A story told in reverse chronology tells the original story backwards, while a prequel expects the audience to pick up everything it lays down due to their knowledge of later events. A comparative example: the Star Wars prequels lay out the events leading to the fall of the Senate and the rise of the Empire, while the trailer for Dead Island tells it’s epic 3 minute story in reverse.

I just love watching this. Pity the game probably won’t be half this good.

The unique aspects of FFVII’s story, however, is that the original game contains flashbacks and references to many of the events that take place in Crisis Core–we specifically see the events leading up to the Nibelheim massacre in the original game (both how Cloud tells it, and how Sephiroth recalls it). Crisis Core depicts the event how it actually happened, from start to finish, which (almost disturbingly) is exactly how Sephiroth represented it in the original game–the man is insane, but honest. An informed audience playing Crisis Core will pick up everything the game lays down, understanding each action’s significance withing the whole of the story’s fabric. Every bad decision Zack makes, the audience sees and understands, even when Zack doesn’t (which is most of the time).

Within the larger context of the Final Fantasy VII universe, Crisis Core is a tale of tragic irony–and when I say something is ‘ironic’, I really, truly mean it in the literary and dramatic sense.

Take THAT, Alanis Morissette.

I would stab someone in the face for this.

I collect odd Final Fantasy merch (with my niche being ‘Sephiroth fangirl’), and I’ve been aware of this stuff for a while now, but before now, I haven’t had an opportunity to buy any:

That is exactly what it looks like. It is Sephiroth-scented perfume. And I am bidding on a bottle. Considering I don’t wear perfume, one bottle of this stuff would last me my whole life, and considering the price on a bottle of this was ¥7140 when Square first sold it, I think the price pans out. At retail value, it would be like paying about $1.50 every year for the rest of my life for the honor of owning a bottle of Sephiroth musk. And damnit, I’m willing to pay for that honor.

There’s also a Sephiroth scented candle up for auction, but it would get confiscated during a room check, and $30-ish is way too much money to spend on a candle that is going to be taken by an RA. Still, I can’t resist the pull of Square’s off-the-wall tie-in merchandise (like the Potion drinks–though it disturbs me that there are still unopened ’10th Anniversary’ FFVII potions lying around, I still want to own one).

Ah, sounds

I sit here in the middle of the night, up way later than I should be on a school night (although to be fair, I usually don’t crawl into bed until around 2 or 3 anyway) trying to bring together all of the elements on my Game Design project and brainstorming on and off regarding my final project, and I keep getting distracted by the sound of the thunderstorm. It’s not as distracting as, say, the occasional flicker of my floor lamp, or when my roommate rolls over and smacks the sliding cardboard doors of her ‘cave’, but whenever I pause in typing, the soft sounds of outside filter in and prevent me from starting up typing again.

Real life has some pretty great sound design sometimes.

So often, every area in a video game has an accompanying background music track. In the games I normally play (mostly RPGs), music is a very important element to the gameplay experience. The idea that you’re going to spend a long time in each place necessitates an interesting musical theme, because most people would go insane sitting in a silent room playing a silent game silently. Then, when the game DOES go silent, it’s an important mark of what is happening in the game world.

(My roommate snores, the neighbor turns off his music, and the rain falls through the gutters. I wish I had some soda right now.)

For instance, in Final Fantasy IX, when you visit the Black Mage Village, a funky sort of tune plays everywhere you go, except at the cemetery (at 3:15).

Gah, what’s the point in playing FF9 if you’re not even going to read the text bubbles? Getting Excalibur II isn’t THAT important.

The music starts back up again without pause as soon as you leave the cemetery, a musical cue that life is continuing as normal outside of the graveyard.

Most area words in .hack//G.U. will result in an area with one of three or four songs being played (Dungeon, Shrine, Field and Plains in some key or another), but if you manage to create a Field area either at night or with a heavy thunderstorm, no music plays. Instead, the only sounds are those of the area and your own footfalls.

The soundtrack to a lot of video games will be several discs long (the Final Fantasy XII and XIII soundtracks are both 4 discs long, and even Dirge of Cerberus, a rather short and crappy game, has a 2-disc soundtrack), but Red Dead Redemption’s soundtrack is more on-par with a movie soundtrack length due to the fact that music isn’t always blaring. The occasional guitar twang  might sound, and music plays in saloons (of course), but there is no ‘Prairie Theme’ or ‘Mexico Theme’ to be seen–the game seeks to create a realistic representation of the Wild West, and since we all live in what was once the ‘Old West’, we know that (sadly) theme music doesn’t constantly play everywhere we walk in Texas.

(I turn off the Desktop theme from .hack//G.U. and crack my knuckles. I listen to the rain again for a few moments. The music carries on in my head.)

Plus, the ambient noises from the world around you are so important in Red Dead Redemption; you have no hope of hearing wolves sneaking up on you if some twangy guitar and down-home country fiddle is playing in the background (and you can forget about noticing mountain lions).

You never know they’re there until it’s too late.

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