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Let's revisit Final Fantasy X! Anyone?

Games remember who we were when we played them. Leigh Alexander revisits Final Fantasy X -- and puzzles over the lost heyday of big Japanese roleplaying games.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

June 25, 2014

10 Min Read

I really don't want to open an article with how I cried when I saw Yuna again. Crying over video games is uncomfortable to talk about, and it's the mark of a "feelingsy" game critic, isn't it? It's not like I haven't done it before, weighed and measured tears as if they were a sign of something to do with the entertainment I consumed. Remember just a few years ago when "can a game make you cry" was a question that didn't make you laugh? For a moment there, it was like we thought we could mark the sophistication of an entire medium with a liquid measure. Of course, all kinds of people cry about all kinds of things. Just lately I cried during Nintendo's E3 presentation for Yoshi's Wooly World, because, like, it was so cute -- these older Japanese men tucking knit Yoshis into their suit jackets and talking about how they want to put smiles on people's faces, and oh, man, so cuuuute, help, et cetera. Who really cares if replaying Final Fantasy X in HD made me cry -- quite unexpectedly, as if encountering an old friend I'd wholly forgotten about and wasn't really expecting to see? It doesn't tell you anything important. Except maybe that games record our memories of the people we were when we played them, leave young ghosts in their infrastructure that will always be there. Or it tells you that maybe an entire genre, an entire age of Japanese console games swelled thanks only to the labile tendencies of our youth and died just because we grew up and don't feel like crying about such silly things anymore. Yuna is not the protagonist of FFX, but she's arguably the "main character," in that most things in the story are to do with her. She was maybe the first woman in video games that I cared for. Before that I had "liked" all kinds of others, sometimes dutifully borrowing lenses from the men's eyes through which most games were intended to be seen. I was usually attracted to women characters when I was supposed to be, and I was on board with "saving" them when the game told me to. Sometimes I liked them well enough as concepts, or thought I might want to "be" them. But Yuna, I cared for. Virtually the entire battle party of FFX is "there" to protect Yuna. The story is happening because everyone wants to protect and accompany Yuna. Not because Yuna is fragile, but because Yuna is lovable. She is "good", but not moralizing, charmingly uncertain but sometimes surprisingly bold, and dutiful, quietly noble, in the face of certain tragedy. Her recipe is not unique, and in fact it's unwelcome these days -- why is the only way we can care about a woman to be entrusted with the care of her, and all that -- but it worked on me when I was 19.

"For a teenager or young twenty-something, even the simple idea that there are people or values larger than yourself is revolutionary."

Probably because for a teenager or young twenty-something, even the simple idea that there are people or values larger than yourself is revolutionary. The thought that someone else's objectives might matter more than yours, and that you should make sacrifices, is one of those things that just comes as a revelation to most teens. I didn't do feminist analyses of game protagonists at that age. I was not a game critic. I was just an unhappy young person, then, and I wanted to go someplace beautiful. The good thing about Japanese role playing games of that time is they all took you someplace beautiful, or cool. The older ones were about leaving your small town, which was convenient because to leave our small towns was exactly what all of us playing them wanted. You say goodbye to your mother. You go to a shop, maybe. You head off into the woods and you find out you have a Destiny, a reason to matter, and an infrastructure for questioning the world and its laws. I forgot, actually, how beautful Final Fantasy X is. All of these mellow seasides, these small entrenched villages, lakes dotted with tiny lights, and the music, pretty and sad. It's a sad story: people trying to come to grips with the cruelty of the inevitable, trying to carry on traditions of hope even though it's all probably useless. The character of Yuna is an emblem of all of that: Steadfastness, sacrifice, hope. I don't think I noticed all of that before, the sadness. You, on the other hand, have to play as Tidus. Latter-day Final Fantasy heroes are famously unlikeable: Cloud, the mopey cipher, Squall, tight-lipped and sullen, or Zidane, shallow and smarmy, sporting a creepy monkey tail. These young men, so often named after changeable weather systems, brought illustrious quotations like "..." and "Whatever" into common parlance. Tidus is probably the worst of all of them, and not just because of his bizarre asymmetrical jorts, his blunt and frequent huh?!, his constantly-gaping mouth, teeth rendered in eerie detail. It's not just That Laugh: Tidus is arrogant, irreverent, disruptive, and selfish. During Yuna's sacred pilgrimage he yanks the attention onto himself at every opportunity -- he's shoehorned himself into this party's somber journey, interrupts its rituals, consistently demands answers to basic questions at the least convenient times. Tidus' only major talent is Blitzball, some kind of turn-based underwater FIFA variant. When somehow in the midst of all this global upheaval Tidus' new hosts' poor little team has to play in a tournament, we expect Tidus will at least be good for that, redeem himself for the nuisances he has applied. But the first Blitzball game of FFX mechanically sees the player greatly outmatched. Only the most committed players would reload and retry obsessively enough to eke out that slim victory. The vast majority of people who play FFX don't care that much, will take the loss. You aren't even devoted enough to do the one thing Tidus is supposed to be able to offer. Your Tidus is told time and again about Yuna's important, time-senstive pilgrimage. But your Tidus meanders, talking to everyone he meets along the way, hunting niches in the map in case there are treasure chests. A great battle occurs, and the casualties wash up on shore, and having been spared, Tidus checks each broken body in case they're still alive -- in case someone wants to give him something. Tidus roams the shattered village, opening the treasure chests inside the ruined shops. When you save before a big battle, you always have the option to PLAY BLITZBALL from the Save menu, as if this guy really would just go off and play sports at any time.

"We are playing as someone who has never thought about the world beyond what he can use it for, beyond his own immediate needs."

That our "heroes" often do dissonant things is normal for video games -- recall beloved little Link, plowing into a villager's home and smashing all the pots, opening the chests while the homeowner looks on beatifically. But it doesn't even feel dissonant to be Tidus: We are playing as someone who has never thought about the world beyond what he can use it for, beyond his own immediate needs. And when we were young fans of role playing games, we were someone like that, too. There's this one point where everyone gathers to wait for Yuna to come out of a temple; all your party members, her guardians, are standing at their posts. And you, the player, go and talk to everyone in turn, because that's all there is to do. They all tell you to just wait. Auron tells you to stop running around so much. But if the player actually makes Tidus stand and wait, nothing will ever happen. The game does not progress until the player gives up, has been told repeatedly by everyone to settle down, and attempts to exit the waiting room. It's like the game knows what kind of person it's dealing with: You don't care what Yuna is doing in there, you just want to move on to the next scene. Those old Japanese RPGs gave us infrastructures to practice being adults. Saving, investing, upgrading. Willingly tackling optional side quests. Taking care of each member of the party. Gaining control over the world, earning a vehicle and then an airship, traversing all its spaces with ever more knowledge and confidence. At the end, you fight God, some great force of injustice. Often it's something you once thought was righteous that has since betrayed you. A deified father figure, a monstrous stand-in for a parent, lawmaker, mentor, friend. You fight nonsense, you and your companions lined up on some twinkling outer plane, some space-age hellscape. You fight the very idea that there are things you can't control or predict.

"Games cut from this cloth used to be huge. For lots of people I know, they were the only games we played."

Games cut from this cloth used to be huge. For lots of people I know, they were the only games we played. The reason to look forward to E3 was there would be a new video, where pink sun-tinged landscapes, sighing water, twinkling eyelashes and lacy, outlandish costumes, a woman praying, the flash of an interesting-looking character from one corner of a screen to another. You'd just watch the trailer and notice the components -- A beautiful world, characters that made eye-contact, a flurry of piquant feathers or something -- and you'd go, I'm buying that. It's a shame there's something of a vacuum left, there. There are so few "blockbuster RPGs" of that sort anymore, so few peach skies and impossible gowns. You can play the Western kind, where you trundle across a gray land among hovering words and numbers and "grit," wondering how many more Plate Mails you can carry before you become Encumbered. Of course there's the Persona series, which took all the unspoken dissonance, all the cynical urges modern teens have to view people as resources and worlds as landscapes to be strip-mined for usable opportunities, and made that the game. As an adult I have more patience for Tidus. He's just a boy, and playing as him I want the things I'm supposed to: A better sword, more money, to conquer the map. And more time with Yuna. I see now -- everyone is an archetype. Like every JRPG, there is a world to save, a woman to protect, and power to attain. Probably the formula never really was that interesting. But I really must have loved this game back then, you know? All these little old feelings are coming unlocked, the way that muscle holds memories. I loved the lesson about the world being bigger than just what you're going to get next. About how you can meet someone and realize their needs are going to be more important than yours and that that's pretty much what loving feels like. A whole generation of teens used these games to model our growing-up. What do teens today have? "Minecraft," my boyfriend says. I admit I kind of wanted him to sit and take sappy turns playing FFX with me like the boyfriend that I had when I was nineteen did, but this one already played this game and it won't hold his attention now. Most of us are pretty "over it." I'm sure there are a few grown-ups left, waiting for a sparkly E3 trailer, some glittering glorified cinematic, to feel that way again.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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