Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A game's story analysis

Lately, I have revisited a old video game published in 1998: "Final Fantasy Tactics". Recently, Square-Enix released a remake of the game for Sony's portable system, which includes a slight graphical face-lift, some extra features, but most importantly an improved translation of the story. The original game comes from a time when Square (a Japanese company) bought localization on the cheap, resulting in some of the most sadly hilarious "Engrish" foisted on American audiences.

But nevermind. One of the reasons I continue to play this ten-year-old game (besides being unable to afford newer ones) is that the story is a work of art. It has moral and spiritual implications worthy of a much more respected medium than it now occupies--moreso even than Square's other works, which are known for their headiness.

Here is a breakdown of the story. There is a 15th century-style kingdom called Ivalice; it's a confederation of competing duchies, all paying lip-service to unity and loyalty while still fighting for the biggest piece of the political pie.

You play Ramza, the youngest son of a noble warrior family who discovers gradually that the lofty ideals he was raised with have all but disappeared from a depraved post-war landscape. After a scrape with your duplicitous older brothers, you and your commoner-born best friend part ways. These two characters become emblems of two diverging struggles against the same overwhelming evil. By following two competing protagonists, the game is really examining the ancient question of how one lives well amid a time defined by corruption and cynicism.

In some ways, the story is simplistic--it is a game, after all. Although the story plays with the different shapes that evil can take, it rarely leaves a question as to which is which. At the beginning, the game tackles intolerance and arrogance in the shape of Algus, a platinum-blond-haired snot who tags along with your party until he becomes enemy #1 at the end of the first chapter.

But the real moral hub around which the story revolves is not equality (or equitable distribution of resources), nor peace, nor faith, nor many other issues which, in the end, wind up being red-herrings. Rather, the central issue becomes the question of honor and integrity, and the degree to which these are held (or compromised) in the pursuit of all the other goals.

Thus, while the game leaves no question as to who the "bad guy" is, it nevertheless gradually places ever loftier goals in the lips of those enemies. Thus you find yourself pitted against men and women fighting, now for equality, now for peace, now for even the right to live. The only common denominator in your opponents is their willingness to engage in self-contradiction as a means to achieve their ends.

This is the running theme up to a point. After a certain juncture, however, it becomes clear that there are now four distinct "camps" of morality. There is, of course, Ramza, who seems to have a very clear order of priorities: (1) his own honor and integrity; (2) the lives of those dear to him; (3) the honor and integrity of the ruling class; and lastly his own life. This makes Ramza a very simple and easy character to like.

Meanwhile, the game provides us with a camp that is very easy to hate: the "Lucavi", the demons who lurk behind the scenes of Ramza's other opposed parties. If Ramza is the only non-duplicitous good, they are the non-duplicitous evil, wholly unabashed in their love of suffering and death.

Of note is the story's implication that, though among human beings there is rarely pure evil, nevertheless even the most moderately selfish desires are a participation--a dipping of the toe--in supreme evil. Human beings in the game leave themselves open to the influence of (and possession by) devils in the degree that they allow their honor to be compromised. Notably, it is those with the greatest goals and the greatest genius who the devils choose to corrupt completely.

Between your honorable protagonist and the nefarious demons, however, there are yet two parties of note. The first, we might term the "pawns"--those who make up the vast majority of characters in the game, including most of the pitiable non-story characters you mow over from battle to battle. At one stage of the game, a lord tries to interfere in the greater struggle for personal gain; he is demolished by your enemies without you yourself even having to fight him. There is here expressed, I think, a commonly held disdain (held equally by those on the side of evil and righteousness) for those whose vision is so narrow that they can't help by be manipulated and tossed about by forces beyond their ken. There is even something vaguely scriptural in this sentiment--these are the luke warm, doomed to be spat out.

Yet I think it would be hasty to suggest that, by this story's reckoning, one must be a visionary to matter. On the contrary, it is an explicit part of Ramza's "honor code" that one should not need to be a "visionary"--to be privy to esoteric justifications for heinous evils--to have the right to live. Ramza has a moment of guilt after his troup is forced to kill, in self-defence, a band of desperate army deserters.

The key to the story's sense of justice, it seems, is that the more meager and beast-like one's motivations, the more likely one will fall into a meager category of people.

The last of these four "parties" is an individual: Delita, the commoner-born friend from the beginning of the story. Delita is a fascinating character study, and his presence in the story is what makes me sorry that it remains trapped in the obscurity of popular culture.

Delita is not as good a person as Ramza; that much is not left to question by the story. But neither is he sidelined into the ranks of your enemies or the pawns. Delita seems to be the writers' attempt to explore a question: is it really true that it is *always* wrong to lie, to assassinate, and to manipulate? What if one does so while having the breadth of vision to avoid being manipulated by others? What if one does so in only the subtlest of ways, so that history will declare them a righteous hero? What if one does so, at last, successfully toward the end of a peaceful, equal, righteous society?

It is in Delita that the story actually puts its own moralism to the test. It is as if the narrators are saying: "Yes, all of the 'bad guys' are falling at your feet. But here is someone who is not much different than they are; only he is your friend; he shares your goals; and he is supremely good at the bad things that he does. If he is successful, who could blame him?"

Most dramas, especially American-made dramas, obey strict laws of karma-inspired dramatic justice. The "bad guy" always loses. Even independent films are sometimes superficial in the way they try to contradict that tendency by sometimes letting the "bad guy" win.

This story goes a step further by challenging whether the "bad guy" is really bad, and but putting to question whether he has really "won" or "lost". At the end of the story, your own character disappears into obscurity, only to have his righteous deeds discovered in writing hundreds of years after his death. Delita, on the other hand, winds up the King of Ivalice--the ultimate "rags to riches" story; success in every sense of the word. And on top of it all, he is a really nice guy.

But the story, delightfully, takes even its own self-questioning to task. After the credits, King Delita's queen--the woman he fnagled onto the throne through intrigue and deception (and who he honestly loved)--attempted to kill him; and he, in turn, killed her. In a final moment of lucidity, he asks the wind, "Ramza, what did you get, on your end? I got this..."

[Little note: I recall reading in a 'fundamental theology' textbook that the deepest human desire is to be loved by the one I love. If that is true, Delita's fate here is all the more pathetic--to be murdered by the one he loved; and worse, to survive it, and so dwell on it.]

The grand finale puts a final, crowning twist on the game's thesis of the good life. Again it's final note is biblical: the wages of sin are death. There is an echo, too, of C.S. Lewis's "The Great Divorce" - there can be no felicitous marriage of good and evil; there can be no lasting harmony between the two. One cannot indefinitely escape the fruits of corruption, no matter how brilliant they are, how good their goals, or how successful their deceits.

The two diverging paths established early in the game end in two opposite ways: Ramza's life is only superficially tragic, though more deeply he achieves something like dramatic immortality. Delita's life is superficially sparkling, though his is the real tragedy.

No comments: