I do not generally consider myself to be a gamer. Sure, I can play “Freebird” on Guitar Hero, and I’m pretty mean with Kirby in Super Smash Bros. 64, but neither of those games have a real story to invest oneself in and do not require much commitment from the player. Then I came across Final Fantasy X, which is simply bursting with plots and characters. After only a few hours playing I’m beginning to see the strategies the game employs to create an engaging and interactive narrative.
The story itself is epic, for as far as I can tell, my quest is nothing short of vanquishing Sin from the world. Even in a fantasy world, this epic sense of what is at stake certainly helps motivate the player’s emotional investment in the game. If you are going to devote hours and hours to a project, it might as well be saving the world.
One aspect that surprised me was how Final Fantasy X blurs the boundary between video game and film. Many major story events or turning points are told through cut scenes that, while animated, are truly cinematic and beautiful. Also, some of them are long – five or six minutes – and evoke a sensation that I’m watching a film and not playing a game at all. In fact it often seems like my actions in the game fill in the gaps between these shorts, almost as if Final Fantasy X is not a video game at all but rather an interactive film.
A couple interesting notes about character. While the game certainly goes to great lengths to establish complex and “realistic” characters (with backstories, inner conflict, and complex motivations), it also seems to use simple and generic cues to place someone in “good” or “bad” category. Take, for example, this character Seymour (pictured below). Granted, he did save my butt when I was ambushed by Machina at the Blitzball Tournament, and yes, all the other characters love him, but I’m convinced he’s evil incarnate. Perhaps it is the hair style that vaguely resembles a pair of horns, or perhaps it’s because his voice sounds like Mr. Burns’ from The Simpsons, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to be trouble later on…
The point is, Seymour’s character illustrates some of the various methods that can be used to tip off the viewer/gamer as to one’s true identity. Building upon societal (let alone genre) conventions, Seymour’s devil-horn hair-do and serpentine voice belie a character that otherwise seems like swell guy. This also elicits a greater investment from the gamer, as it prompts me to keep playing to find out whether or not my instincts are correct, how he will show his treachery, etc.
Another facet of character in the game, and one that appears somewhat unique to Final Fantasy X (at least in my somewhat limited experience), is the notion of the “Sphere grid.” Throughout the game, your character finds and wins various “spheres” that can be used on the grid to make the different playable characters more powerful and learn new abilities. All seven characters that comprise my team have the ability to access all the spheres on the grid. This means that I can completely customize each character’s strengths, weaknesses, and abilities as I see fit. The same characters that are terrible at magic in one game file are incredibly powerful in another. The result, again, is that the player is more likely to be invested in the story as it involves characters they (the player) have helped to shape.
That’s all for now, but I can tell from my little in-game map that I have hours and hours still to play before I eradicate Sin from Spira (the fantasy world). Maybe I’ll be a gamer after all.