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Analysis: FFXIII And The Aging RPG Gamer

Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander, accustomed to being sentimental about roleplaying games, investigates her surprising lack of emotional response toward Final Fantasy XIII's characters and game world.
[Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander, accustomed to being sentimental about roleplaying games, investigates her surprising lack of emotional response toward Final Fantasy XIII's characters and game world.] Of course it's silly that gamers and game-makers continually press the "can a game make you cry" question, as if tears were the ultimate judge of depth. Nonetheless, it seems that games used to make me cry a lot more than they do now. Granted, as a kid and young teen I was especially sentimental even for my age, easily hoodwinked by pretty imagery into loving two-dimensional characters. In other words, I was the textbook Final Fantasy franchise fan who cried when Aeris died, when Tifa was trying to save Cloud's memory, when Squall let Rinoa out of the Sorceress Memorial, when Garnet went tearing through the crowd to find Zidane -- y'know, you get the idea. I pretty much cried about everything. It wasn't just in Final Fantasy games, mind you. Anywhere there existed an even basically-drawn character with whom I could spend forty to sixty hours playing out a story, I'd latch on. And I'm sure I wasn't alone -- the nineties and the turn of the millennium were an era when just a brief trailer showing some winsome-looking, anime-influenced CG scenes could sell games, because we were all ready to transpose our imaginations onto these avatars. Before the era of real graphical richness, and before the advent of concepts of "depth" in game stories, we had a sprite and an objective and that was about it. Our imaginations were the only thing that could give our actions purpose and our characters meaning, so once games began to be able to offer us even a smidge of nuance with which to work, it's no surprise many of us young folks went over the moon. Growing Up Which is why it surprises me that today, I -- who once had a boundless wellspring of sentimental attachment even for the simplest, most derivative construct -- thus far feel zero attachment nor interest in the characters of Final Fantasy XIII. It's not like me, and it's made me think a good deal on the evolution of gamers and gaming. Caveat: I'm early on in the game, and everyone tells me that my sense of rote detachment will ebb away the more immersed I get in the story, and the more the gameplay evolves. But I can't shake the feeling that it shouldn't matter -- I remember being distracted in Science class, attempting to doodle pictures of FFVII characters I'd seen in a trailer, months away from the game's release. I couldn't wait to get to know them. Am I too old for this kind of enthusiasm now? Is the willingness to be creative, to invest the images onscreen with richness, life and fascination, a trait unique to youth? Does the "save the world" mandate lose its breathless luster once we've learned to see our world more pragmatically? Or have we, as gamers, just had to save it too many times for it to keep mattering? Have games changed, or have I? Probably both. Game-Changing The reason a game like FFVII was so thrilling is that, for many of us, it was the richest visualization RPG fans had yet gotten to have of their characters. Growing up, I remember feeling lucky to have even a character portrait beside my stats to lend depth to the map-marching sprites, and yet here were my heroes expressive and cinematically shot. Hence the heavy tolerance for CGI back in the day, hence the cut-scene boom. It was all so new and exciting we all just wanted to sit and look. It's old hat now, of course -- we can barely tolerate a loading screen, let alone a cut scene. Am I desensitized to technical achievements? Worse, have I begun allowing the expressivity of today's RPG characters to do the work of my own imagination, until I grew out of practice at it? Were games more effective and impactful when they were abstractions, not rich imitations? Have we accelerated realism at the expense of imagination? As gamers age, and as games grow up alongside them, our relationships to our favorite genres cannot help but change. I'd love to grab some young teens, sit them in front of FFXIII, and see if they'd turn out to be as awed and transported as I was by the best RPGs my teen years had to offer. It's a little bit sad, knowing I can't get those days back. But whether my aging or the evolution of gaming is responsible, I can't be entirely sure.

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