Friday, May 22, 2015

Final Fantasy Type-0: A Story Retrospective, Part I - The First Opening Cinematic

[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introductionThis article only talks about the game's opening; therefore I don't consider any of its contents to be spoilers.]

I long assumed Final Fantasy Type-0 to be a game that I'd never play.  Released in Japan for the PSP back in 2009, it was never announced for release in the West.  And that was okay, since I half-suspected the game to be a third-rate cash grab.

That all changed when I saw the opening cinematic.

Thereafter it became the game I had to play someday, the game I might even learn Japanese for.  Thankfully, Square decided to release it in the West after all, and I was spared a flashback to the humiliations of my high school language classes.

The Opening

I'm going to narrate my impressions of the opening cinematic below.


00:00 - 01:54: Okay, this part is definitely skippable.  It lays the foundations of the world of Final Fantasy Type-0, but does so by using incomprehensible words while barraging us with bizarre names - not a good recipe for understanding.  That's okay; it's not the game's world-building that impresses me.

I will say that melding each of the four nation's symbolic animals with their flags is very cool.

01:55 - 02:42: This narration is much better.  It clearly establishes the key conflict of the story - the Militesi Empire's invasion of the Kingdom of Rubrum - and zooms in on a specific event - a sneak attack on Rubrum's capital.  So much less confusing than what came before!

The documentary affectations - the naming of specific dates, the newsreel filter applied over the cinematic, the dispassionate voice of the narrator - also lend the cinematic an interesting ambience.  It gives the audience some distance from the proceedings, while simultaneously giving the event the weight of history.

Incidentally I think that this initial 'distance' is an important narrative trick, one that helps enhance the theme of the game.

02:43 - 03:21: The neutral narration continues as the violence begins.  We have the faceless troopers of the invading Milites against magic-wielding teenagers and their powerful summons.  In the real world this result in horrific tragedy; in a video game, sure, it's fine.  The plucky kids and their magic always win.

03:22 - 03:35: Okay, maybe the kids will suffer a minor setback, but...

03:36 - 03:37: !!

03:38 - 04:32: This slaughter is one of the most horrifying scenes I've witnessed in a video game.  It's bloody and unrelenting and cruel and unfair.  Sword-wielding cadets are gunned down; the wounded are executed; cries for mercy are unheeded.  And in the background the narrator continues his unrelenting catalog of events, refusing to judge what the audience is seeing as if to say, This is simply what happened; this is just the way the world is.

04:33 - 04:43: I think a scene like this - a prayer to forces unknown and unseen -  can only work if the audience feels the desperation behind it.  And all I can say is that it worked for me.

04:44 - 04:49: The music turns, promising that not all hope is lost.  The narration disappears, not to be heard again for the rest of the cinematic.  The audience is drawn closer to whatever happens next.

04:50 - 05:03: This part of the cinematic is witnessed through the invaders eyes.  This shift invites the audience to understand, and maybe even empathize, with the fear of the Militesi soldiers as a mysterious blade plunges out of the heavens and into their midst.  And it reminds the audience that the powers being wielded here are not only wondrous; they're terrifying as well.

05:04 - 05:13: It's okay if you don't think this part is cool.  If you don't, show it to some children, watch their faces, and maybe you'll remember what it's like to live in a world of wonders.

05:14 - 05:47: Do we immediately identify with this stranger?  I think we do.  Why?  Because the cinematic thus far has been cleverly designed to push the audience to a point where they're aching to find someone with the power to destroy the Militesi invaders.  And because of that...

05:48 - 06:02: ... his words, which can reasonably be said to be laughably devoid of meaning, instead become imbued with an almost mystical weight...

06:03 - 06:22: ... and the final reveal of Class Zero becomes an iconic "F-ck yeah!" moment rather than a "Why the hell are they posing on a battlefield?" moment.

This opening cinematic ends on an incredibly heroic note.  The next cinematic, which plays once you actually start the game...

Monday, May 11, 2015

Selling Your Soul for Nothing

I can be a bit of a snob (I can hear my friends gasping: nooooo), and one thing that I'm snobby about is audio books.  I can't help but think: books are meant to be read, not listened to!  This despite the fact that many people I respect enjoy audio books.

Recently I was faced with driving to Atlantic City, a drive that takes six hours either way.  I had made a similar commute a few weeks ago, and the monotony of the road was a hard beast to face - by the end I was slapping myself in the face to keep awake.

So I decided to bite the bullet: a few days before my trip, I swallowed by pride, went to the library and checked out some audio books.  Was I a bit ashamed?  You bet!  Why?  Because I'm a snob!

And in the end it was all for naught: it turns out that the CD player in my car is just a facade.  There's a labelled opening on the dashboard, but after spending ten minutes trying to jam a disc in, I discovered that it's pure metal underneath.

I slapped myself all the way to Atlantic City and back :(

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Too Many Cooks

It turns out I may have something against cooks.

Let me back up a bit: a few months ago, my daughter decided that it was time to switch up our car adventures; we would now be ninjas.  Tragic ones, of course (I had told her a heavily, heavily, HEAVILY edited version of the anime Basilisk).

We picked different powers.  I had 'whisper powers', used to disorient foes and communicate long distances.  She could, uh, cut herself and create blood constructs (like dragons, or dragons, or... actually, her constructs were always dragons).  We belonged to different clans, and due to events of a suspicious nature, our clans fought each other to near extinction.

Of course a third party was involved, and as the last surviving members of our clan, it was our duty to hunt down those responsible and terminate them.  In order to do so we had to destroy four competing ninja clans: a wind clan, a water clan, an earth clan, and a fire clan.

We started with the water clan, whose stronghold was located within the hollows of twin rocks jutting out of the sea.  Carefully swimming to the entrance (which was located near the bottom of the ocean), we made our way up to the peak of the rock... only to have an alarm sound.

With little options, we ducked into a nearby room.  This was the kitchen.  There was a ninja cook inside.  And my daughter TOOK CARE OF BUSINESS ("you know what that means," she said).

After we finished off the water clan, we started hunting the earth clan.  They were located, well, below the earth.  So even though we knew the general location of their hideout, it was impossible to find the way in... that is, until we thought to survey the skies on the back of her, uh, blood dragon.  From there we were able to spot a thin plume of smoke seeping out of the ground.  It was a tiny chimney, one that we used to gain entrance through the use of explosives, and once the hole was big enough we jumped into a kitchen, only to have...

"Wait," my daughter interrupted.  "Are we fighting another ninja cook?"

"Oh.  Uh.  Yes.  Yes, we are."

"Do you not like cooks or something?"

"I like them fine!  It's just that..."  I trailed off, unable to give a satisfactory answer as to why we kept murdering ninja cooks, and the next day we switched to a different game.

I still don't know why my mind kept getting drawn to ninja cooks.  I can say that creating adventures on the fly in the car is a situation that does not always lend itself to inspired creativity.  Either that, or I really do have something against cooks.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII: A Story Retrospective

[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introductionThe first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]

Final Fantasy XIII-2 was surprisingly excellent, considering how much I disliked Final Fantasy XIII.  Another surprise was realizing just how much I wanted to enjoy Final Fantasy games, like a jilted lover who secretly desires a reunion.

Which is all to say that I was fully back on board the Final Fantasy fan-train by the time Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII was announced.  Sure, there were reasons for trepidation, the biggest being that the game featured, well, Lightning, and seemed more like a direct continuation of Final Fantasy XIII rather than Final Fantasy XIII-2.

Still, as I said - I wanted to enjoy the Final Fantasy series, and thus found it very easy to ignore my misgivings.  And thus I ensured that Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII was in my hands on the very day it was released.

The Opening

It's true that the opening cinematic has its flaws.


Like the other games in the Final Fantasy XIII series, it doesn't provide much explanation about what's going on.  Lightning was last seen frozen in crystal; Snow has seemingly changed from a good-natured brawler to a cynical gang boss; there's no sign of Noel or Serah from Final Fantasy XIII-2; and who the hell is Lumina?

That being said, my confusion wasn't as thorough as when I sat through the beginning of Final Fantasy XIII.  Why?  One simple reason: this is clearly Lightning's story.  Having a character to follow is reassuring to the audience, engendering confidence that a guide that will lead us through the twists of plot up ahead.

Is it ideal that I came out of this opening in a state of befuddled optimism?  Probably not, but there are worse feelings to endure.

The Rest of the Story


The basic story of Lightning Returns is this: far off in the future the earth is dying.  Lightning is contracted by the god Bhunivelze to "save" human souls so that they can be used to re-populate a new world.  And so Lightning travels from place to place, solving problems and setting minds at ease so that they're in the proper state for this upcoming transcendence.

In this manner Lightning encounters former friends and allies - Snow, Noel, Sazh, Vanille, and Fang - and returns hope into their lives.  Just as in Final Fantasy XIII-2, this journey has the feel of a series of inter-connected short stories, and it's just as welcome here as it was there.

There is some disappointment, however; the true ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2 revealed that every event in the game was carefully manipulated by Caius, setting him up to be a grandmaster villain.  Lightning Returns shows him as just another patsy, and even though he maintains his arrogance, he somehow seems lesser because of it.

Fortunately, the true villain of Lightning Returns is a worthy one.

The events of Lightning Returns causes Lightning to realize just how much of mankind's history is manipulated by Bhunivelze, god of light and existence.  And in the re-making of the world, she sees an opportunity to free all of humanity from the gods' terrible influence.

The conversation before their final fight does an excellent job of portraying both of their points of view.

Bhunivelze isn't a traditional villain; he sees himself as a shepherd with mankind as his sheep.  He knows what's best for us, and the idea of being opposed is literally incomprehensible to him.  His attitude as Lightning rants and spews threats is that of parental indulgence, willing to bear miniscule abuse with the understanding that all will ultimately bow to his will.

This attitude is carried through in a final battle which is truly awe-inspiring in nature and scope.

Some highlights include:
  • 4:20: Bhunivelze ascends to the skies in truly bizarre fashion, allowing the audience to see just how truly connected he is with the world.  And what does he do?  His attack is called "Genethiliac Hymn": he is literally weaving a star with his hands, all so that he can drop it upon your head.
  • 6:30: "Resist no more. Come to your god. A new goddess is born!"  There is true joy in his voice; Lightning has passed his trials and now, surely, she must accept her place in his pantheon.
  • 10:55: His will defied, Bhunivelze warps the fabric of reality to destroy the impertinent.
I don't usually talk about gameplay here, but I will say this: this was a hard boss fight.  Hard, but somehow not unfair, not even when I initially got utterly destroyed in the first of the four stages.  Gradually improving try after try tells a story of its own; the difficulty of the battle was key in conveying the understanding that this was the confrontation to end all confrontations.

 Lightning Returns is not a perfect game, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  Its story is direct and, at its heart, uncomplicated, allowing the writers to crescendo to an impressive finish with the minimum of needless distraction.  Does it redeem the Final Fantasy XIII series as a whole?  Who knows, but in the end, I'll endure a bum game like Final Fantasy XIII if that's the cost for games like Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns.

Friday, May 1, 2015

TMoH #11: The Pony

And yet another edition of thirty minutes of hell!  Anyway if you don't know what I'm talking about, my introductory post on this topic provides a quick summary.

The writing prompt from NANO fiction is: Write a story about a character who receives a gift from a family member which changes how the character feels about that person.

The Pony

"Here she is," John said, his voice artificially cheerful.  He already knew he had made a mistake, but how was that possible?  Wasn't this what Patricia wanted, had always wanted since she was a little girl.

"It's nice," Patricia said in a neutral voice.  She made no move towards the stall though, where her new pony stood sedately, its brown spots on its white coat moving up and down as it patiently chewed on something in its mouth.

Then there was silence.  John glanced over at the stablehand, who had retreated to the far corner.  Was he stifling a laugh?  "What do you-" he began, and then started again.  "You can name it anything you want, you know."

Patricia rolled her eyes.  "I'm not six anymore, dad.  Seriously, what would I do with a pony?  I'm with mom most of the time."  She fired a parting shot as she walked away: "I do like bacon bits though."  And John said nothing and clenched his fists and watched her go.


Eh... nope, this story sucks.  Seriously, a pony?

I guess it's truthful in the sense that it reflects something I'm scared of - losing the connection between me and my daughter.  But frankly, I can't see me being as out of touch as John or my daughter being as biting as Patricia.  Maybe that's why this reads so much like a parody.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What's in the Box? (A Silent Hill Appreciation)

I read a gaming article recently that made me incredibly depressed: Silent Hills is cancelled.  The game had been surreptitiously announced through an anonymous game demo simply titled 'P.T.'.  And with the cancellation of the game, the demo was now due to be yanked from all distribution channels.

So I did what I suspect many other video game aficionados did as well: I ran downstairs, booted up my PS4, and downloaded the demo before it disappeared.  And now it sits on my console's hard drive, very likely to never be played.

Why?  Simply put: Silent Hill games are really f-cking scary.

We're not talking jump scares or zombie hordes; Silent Hill is nothing like Resident Evil.  Silent Hill is... well... check out the trailer for Silent Hill 4.

The other day I found myself trying to explain to my daughter what makes Silent Hill so scary (in very, very vague terms).  "Okay," I said.  "Silent Hill is a game where there's two worlds.  One is the normal world, just covered in fog.  Lots and lots of fog.  And the other world is this kind of ruined hellscape, where the ground is replaced by rusted grates and everything is broken and falling apart."

"Now, your character goes from one world to the other throughout the game.  And at one point, he comes to a locker which starts rattling from the inside.  And when you get open it... a cat jumps out.  It's just a cat."

"Then you return to the same place in the other world.  The locker starts rattling.  You get close, you open it, and this time..."

"... there's nothing."  (And yes, I left out any and all additional details about the trail of blood, etc.)

I'm not sure my daughter quite understood what I was getting at, but here it is: there's a lot of different ways to scare a person.  One way is a cheap jump scare: a zombie lurching out of the bushes or a killer bursting out of the closet.  It can be effective, but it can also be forgettable: it's a temporary moment of surprise.

Another way is to build tension: say, a long walk through a dark forest infested with beasts unknown.  The 'unknown' is pretty key here: put in such a moment, the mind will naturally assume that there's something bad lurking out there.  And with each passing moment, as the rustles quicken and the shadows grow longer, the mind will betray you and imagine something worse and worse.

At that point, the moment of revelation becomes a relief: you see the monster, and it's terrible, but at least you know what it is and what you have to deal with.  At least now you know you have to run.

But what happens if you take away that reveal?  What happens if you leave the audience with suspended dread?

Let me tell you.  I played the very first Silent Hill at a friend's dorm room while he was at class.  When he came back, all the lights were on, all the doors were wide open, and I was in a state of desperate terror.  I was scared of continuing on in the game, but I was more scared of not finishing it and leaving the story forever unresolved.  I was clutching the controller, huddled into myself as I fought to complete the game, and when my friend spoke to me I screamed.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Final Fantasy XIII-2: A Story Retrospective

[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introductionThe first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]

I rolled my eyes when Final Fantasy XIII-2 was announced.  Final Fantasy XIII had disappointed any desire to play another game in the series right out of me.  I was done with Final Fantasy.

Every incidental tidbit I learned about Final Fantasy XIII-2 confirmed my judgement.  The game featured Serah, Lightning's annoying and underdeveloped sister.  A moogle with a cartoon design and an annoyingly squeaky voice played an important role.  And the story had very little to do with Final Fantasy XIII, which probably meant that the writers were pulling strands of plot out of their... well, you know.

The release date for Final Fantasy XIII-2 came and went.  I ignored it.  Life continued on, and...

... and a year or two later, I quit World of Warcraft and was immediately bored.  Looking for something to do, I checked out the review for Final Fantasy XIII-2 and discovered that... they were not terrible.  Cautiously interested, I went to the local video game store and learned that the game was now heavily discounted.

All right then!  Why not.  Why not...

The Opening

The opening cinematic did not reassure me that my purchase was a good one.


The biggest issue with this opening?  We're supposedly continuing the story of Final Fantasy XIII, and yet this cinematic appears to take us completely away from that plot and throw us in media res into a new one.  That mismatch of expectations is disorienting, to say the least.

On the flip side?  This opening does an admirable job of focusing attention on the primary antagonist of the game, Caius Ballad.  His recognizable humanity, shown by the contrast between his tenderness as he lets Yeul go and his fury as he battles Lightning, is intriguing.  It hints at a story that is very personal in nature, and I think those are the stories that audiences respond to the strongest.

The Rest of the Story


Here's two ways to describe the story of Final Fantasy XIII-2:
  • All of existence is threatened by a megalomaniacal villain who seeks to crack time itself by traveling back into the past and creating paradoxes.
  • Inadvertently punished with immortality, our villain is forced to watch his love continually die and be reborn with no hope for her to find peace.  Driven nearly mad over eons of this cycle, he seeks to end this curse the only way he knows how.
Both are apt descriptions of the game, but I'm willing to bet that you find the second one more involving.  I certainly did.  And fortunately Final Fantasy XIII-2 doesn't make the mistake of losing focus of the latter in pursuit of the former.

What results is - simply put - incredible, a grand tale with epic sweep that never loses sight of the personal stakes involved.  It begins when Noel journeys back from the far future when he and Caius are the only humans left alive.  Foregoing his friendship with Caius, Noel joins Serah in a mad pursuit through time in an effort to fix the paradoxes that Caius has been instigating.

This quest device is interesting, as it essentially turns the game into a linked collection of short stories.  These smaller stories vary in tone, from saving a city from an invasion of demons to finding an extinct flower to place on the grave of a grieving father's child.  Each feels properly sized, with none overstaying their welcome.  And as Serah and Noel travel from time to time, they learn a bit more about the doomed history of Caius and Yeul.

A brief word about our heroes: they were nowhere near as annoying as I feared they might be.  Why not?  Simply put: because they're not whiners.  Serah and Noel and Caius all have clear purposes from which they do not deviate (which two exceptions, but these are presented as self-contained mini-stories with clear boundaries from the greater tale), and this clarity is extremely welcome.  If an audience is waiting for a climax where two trains to crash together, why slow their velocity with swerves that question whether the collision will happen at all?  Isn't it better to constantly increase their momentum?

And that final collision is grand indeed.  Here's the video; it spans the entire fight, so I'll talk about individual sections below.

00:00 - 13:30: Caius comes to destroy mankind's final hope in stabilizing time.  There's much here that will make no sense unless you've played the game, but what's neat is how various supporting characters are brought back to play a role in the finale.  It's always neat to have individual threads from the long story woven back together in the end.

13:31 - 15:49: A final confrontation between Noel and Caius.  Here Caius's controlled and calculating demeanor finally breaks, revealing the eons of pent up rage that drives his actions.  And here is when I realized the most incredible thing: I actually sympathized with Caius.  If I felt like the person I loved the most was cursed to suffer for a literal eternity, I think I might do everything in my power to free that person too.

The moment when Noel turns Caius's assumptions around is also chilling.

15:50 - 17:05: Lightning brings Noel and Serah back from the dead or something.  Okay, this part still makes no sense to me, but oddly enough - I don't mind.  Why?  Because I wanted Noel and Serah to come back and face Caius one final time.  If a story responds to the audience's desires, I think the audience will be more than willing to overlook any plot holes or other bits of nonsense.

17:06 - 25:35: The final boss fight against not one not two but three dragons!  This is a flippant comment, but in truth I was intimidated like hell when I realized what I'd have to face.  And the music that plays when the fight starts in earnest is still my favorite boss theme - dark, discordant, and full of rising power.

Note the little details as well: the red dragon fights with physical attacks, and when he appears he slams his claws against the platform.  The yellow dragons fights with magic, and he crosses his hands over his chest.  Minor details, sure, but I have much respect for the thought process that goes behind making everything just right.

25:36 - 29:25: The finale, where assumptions are turned on their heads as Caius begs Noel to kill him, and Noel refuses.  The words spoken are (generally) lean and to the point, without the overwrought excess that can sometimes haunt a story.  And Caius's final act... wow.

29:26 - 33:53: And I usually pretend the rest of the ending doesn't exist, as it goes full circle back to the opening cinematic - but only in the sense that it's disconnected from the rest of the story.  Oh well, nothing's perfect.

So, just in case you can't tell, let me say this unequivocally: I loved Final Fantasy XIII-2.  In some ways I think the game was helped by the negative reaction to Final Fantasy XIII, as it allowed the creators to forge something new for the series.  Its biggest flaw?  The cliffhanger ending that clearly indicates another sequel.  But that doesn't detract from the essentially self-contained story of the game.

And with my exceedingly positive reaction to Final Fantasy XIII-2, I found myself thinking: maybe a third game wouldn't be so bad after all...