Video Games

Final Fantasy Tactics and Its Extra-textual Materials

I finished playing Final Fantasy Tactics for the first time yesterday. I feel like I’ve accomplished something notable, yet I’m having a difficult time making sense of what I just experienced. What happened? What does it mean? Did I enjoy it?

If you’ll allow me, I’d like to take a few paragraphs to work through a few things.

As I write this post, I’m watching a video recap of the game’s story. Correct me if I’m wrong, but The War of the Lions pits opposing factions against one another in a battle for control of the nation of Ivalice (many generations after the events of Final Fantasy XII). These warring nobles throw soldiers at one another with little regard for the lives of commoners. Meanwhile the church pretends to be neutral as the the nobles slowly whittle their forces away, secretly being driven by a plot to summon a demon ruler back from the dead. Ramza, the protagonist of the game, seeks to end the conflict by revealing the demonic plot… while Delita, his childhood friend (a low-born commoner himself), wields trickery and manipulation to destroy both the church and the warring nobles from within.

And the game itself is a frame story. Final Fantasy Tactics is a history lesson, unearthed after hundreds of years of being suppressed by the church. The church couldn’t afford to undermine the trust placed in them by the low-born, so they placated them by obscuring the truth of Delita’s treachery. Instead the man was turned into a legend, a hero that rose above his station to guide Ivalice into an era of peace and prosperity.

This peace and prosperity enjoyed by millions of Ivalicians comes at the cost of thousands of lives. Tactics asks you to consider whether or not this end justifies the means. However, Delita being presented as a villain (perhaps with understandable motivation) doesn’t really leave much space for the player to give this question serious consideration. Instead, it introduces the supernatural good versus evil conflict, where Ramza is offered up as an embodiment of uncompromised heroism. It is actually Ramza’s triumph over demonic forces that ends the war, not Delita’s hard choices. This effectively trivializes the big question.

It’s a surprisingly sophisticated story for a video game… but I caught very little of this during my time with the game. I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the twists and turns of the plot if not for this extra-textual material.

In episode 259 of the Waypoint Radio podcast, host Austin Walker talked about how a playing a video game begins “the first time you hear about it and that that play continues indefinitely” as long as you’re thinking about the game. (Note: Austin Walker was citing John McGrath, who’s work I am unfamiliar with. I reached out to Walker via Twitter for more information on the source, but he wasn’t able to provide any further information).

If that’s the case, then there is much more to my experience with Final Fantasy Tactics than the 70 hours that I spent playing the moving characters around the battlefield. My experience includes a conversation I had during cabin weekend with a friend who played the game when he was younger, the episode of Retronauts that finally convinced me play the game, this chart on GameFaqs depicting the job system, and the aforementioned YouTube video that clarified the intricacies of the story that would otherwise have been lost on me. My experience with Final Fantasy Tactics is richer because of the fact that it extends beyond the game itself.

This raises a question as to the quality of the game itself. If the intent of a work is to stand alone, should the need for supplementary texts be seen as a weakness of the original work? I would argue that in the case of a game like Final Fantasy Tactics—where the authorial intent is for the player to both triumph over the challenge of battle and to appreciate the complexity of the narrative—anything that unlocks those characteristics is a valuable addition to the experience. And if Austin Walker is correct, it would be impossible to separate the playing of a video game from the experiences anyway. That is to say that all works are read (or played) through the lens of the reader’s (or player’s) experiences.

What do you think?

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