Archive for May, 2011

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.