The Warrior of Light vs. the Hero of Time (Final Fantasy Union)

final-fantasy-union

Over the last two weeks the excellent people at Final Fantasy Union graciously hosted a two-part case study I wrote, comparing the Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda franchises in terms of game design and narrative, dissecting each franchise’s approach to gameplay and story to see what each could learn from the other. If you missed these articles, you can read them here:

Part One

Part Two

(Final Fantasy Union is an excellent source for news on the franchise. In addition to their great monthly podcast and up-to-the-minute coverage, Lauren and Darryl have recently been interviewing the entire English cast of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD. Check out their site!)


Art by firebird97 on DeviantArt.com
Art by firebird97 on DeviantArt.com

I found this article very interesting to produce, from the original concept back in March to its publication this month. I cut my teeth on both franchises back on the NES; I took more to FF, but spent a lot of time with LOZ and its sequel as well. Since then I’ve devoured the entire main line of FF games and soaked up a lot of the Zelda series (Hyrule Warriors on Wii U has kept me enthralled since its launch, which is the longest I’ve played one game reliably in… ever).

The more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued by the difference in their approaches. I love the limit-breaking, nihilistic, brooding themes of FF; ambition is one of the series’ strongest traits, but I began to realize it was a downfall as well. Each game gambles, in a way. For example, Cloud’s broken psyche is a hallmark of the most popular game in the series, but the same trait didn’t necessarily score a win for Squall and Lightning to follow. Each game tries a lot of new ideas, which keeps things fresh and innovative, but ultimately each game has more to prove and lose.

I claim in the article that Legend of Zelda can be a little less inventive and more formulaic in some ways; I know this is a very broad stroke and reductionist, but I feel justified in making it. Most of the core games can be boiled down to the same general story arc (excluding black sheep like Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask). And yet, despite the slightly predictable trajectory, I feel the series has an impeccable reputation far and above Final Fantasy‘s. Perhaps fans know what to expect (is anyone ever truly surprised when Ganondorf is involved? Excluding Skyward Sword‘s implications, that is), but they eat it up gladly and come back for more.

(Calling the series “more formulaic” tends to sound like a bad thing, but somehow Nintendo has turned this trait into a strength. That the series can be so fresh and enthralling to so many while staying relatively close to its predecessors is truly an impressive feat. So many other franchises attempt to do this and fail horribly in the current market.)

Final Fantasy certainly has more to learn from Zelda than vice versa. Both embrace their legacies, but I feel the former does so predominately in an aesthetic way – throw in some visual callbacks, recycle some weapon names, and call it nostalgia. I want to keep seeing innovation, but in a more familiar way, if that makes sense – License boards and Paradigm Shifts are cool and all, but what was wrong with the Job System approach? Couldn’t Jobs have been used as a coat of paint on top of these new innovations? Look at Final Fantasy X-2: its Dresspheres were just Jobs in a (fairly sexist) disguise. In keeping with the “girl power” theme Square called a spade a club, and perhaps lost a chunk of its audience in the process.

Did they really *need* to be called dresspheres?
Did they really *need* to be called dresspheres?

And think about it: could Square-Enix make a silent protagonist as compelling and charming as Link?


Speaking of “the link” between player and game, Nintendo could learn the most from Square in this regard. Link is supposed to be our avatar in Hyrule, the connection/link between us and the virtual world – and yet we have very little connection to him. He’s a blank, silent state for us to impose our thoughts upon, sure, but this approach worked better in prior technological eras, when we didn’t have sophisticated means of bringing him to life. I don’t mean to suggest we should be able to customize his entire appearance, or that he should be fully voiced, but it would be fantastic if we could influence him a little bit. A system for influencing Link’s emotions and reactions, for instance. As I mention in the case study, he has a terrible fate or tremendous responsibility dropped on his shoulders but he never bats an eye. It’s a part of why I feel the games are formulaic: the wise sage tells Link he’s the Hero, Link (silently) says “k,” and off he goes with little more than the occasional tear.

Fans are clamouring now for a gender reversal – female Link, male Zelda, or some variation thereof. There have been some awesome propositions for how this might work. I want to see Link fail instead. Maybe he fails early on, either losing his life or being captured by Ganondorf/villain-du-jour as a consequence, and it’s up to Zelda to become the Hero. (Maybe her amazing representation in Hyrule Warriors is twisting my arm on this one, but man, would I love to play a proper game in the franchise where she explores Hyrule with rapier, baton, and rod.)

In Hyrule Warriors’ cast of badasses, Zelda stands out as one of the coolest.

Both games do so much right; I really believe their flaws are greatly overshadowed by their strengths. But both franchises are nearly thirty years old, and it seems they need to mind their pasts and futures in good proportion.

Romancing the Apostate: Love in Games & Dragon Age

I was a little tardy to the Dragon Age: Inquisition party last winter; my priorities were elsewhere, and while a couple of my friends were saving Thedas I was Smashing away. When I did finally dive in, I quickly understood why my friends were so insistent that I was missing out. Inquisition is a return to form for the series after the step back that was Dragon Age 2, and it’s great to be playing a true avatar of my choosing again.

My friends – let’s call them Ned and Nyx – are particularly taken with the cast, and one party member in particular, Dorian. The player’s companions are arguably one of the best aspects of the franchise and Inquisition did not disappoint. Nyx was smitten with Dorian from the get-go and lamented that she could not seek a romance with him, living vicariously through Ned when his Inquisitor fell in love with the dashing mage

Dorian is one of the best game characters in recent memory. For one, he bears the honour of being the first truly homosexual male romance option in the series (if not all of gaming), alongside the bawdy Sera for female Inquisitors – to this point, romance options were hetero or vaguely bisexual, and it’s about time the representation was balanced, to see a character truly dealing with his sexuality in the fantasy world. Dorian feels like a very authentic representation. He hails from Tevinter, a place we’ve yet to visit in the franchise, from which most of the villainy in the game originates – so he has particularly useful insight, if you can keep other members of the Inquisition from despising him. Most of all, he’s just well-written; he’s charismatic and funny, and I found myself seeking him out for new conversations every time I returned to my home base after a mission, just as I did with Varric in DA2.

Funny, charming, powerful, with insight on your enemies - what's not to love?
Funny, charming, powerful, with insight on your enemies – what’s not to love?

My approach with the first playthrough of games like Dragon Age, generally, is to play close to my own personality, so in terms of romance I was left to choose between Cassandra, the stern Seeker, or Josephine, the Orlesian diplomat. After some flirting with Josephine (and Dorian – the flirting conversational options were just too fun to miss), I set my Inquisitor’s heart on Cassandra, which required some persistence and old-fashioned chivalric romance. Considering her conviction to murder me at the very start of the game and her no-nonsense personality, it was a bit of a challenge to open her heart – but I have experience doing this in the series.

Seeing Ned and Nyx so smitten with Dorian, her despair at complications in her own romance with Blackwall, and my pursuit of Cassandra, I was constantly reminded of Morrigan from Origins – and not just because I was anticipating her eventual arrival in Inquisition‘s story.

Whenever a game allows for love and marriage – games like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Fable, and so on – I always dedicate a little time to pursue a virtual love interest, partly for the inevitable Trophy for committing and partly for the benefits it might impart. My wife watched me wed and bed a different woman in each city in Fable III, for no other reason than because it was an amusing option that provided me a small boon when I returned to those homes, and rolled her eyes. I took partners in Skyrim mostly for the convenient store options, and the buff from sleeping at home.

Romance isn't fully developed in most games that include it.
Romance isn’t fully developed in most games that include it.

Dragon Age has always been different for me. I’m actually compelled by its characters; I genuinely enjoy the conversations and don’t exhaust the dialogue options just to unlock any possible quests or benefits. I don’t befriend or romance them just for the Trophies (though I still grin triumphantly when I earn them). I wanted to get Cassandra to open up, to put aside her righteous anger and show a little humanity, and the scene where she reveals her taste in literature was a great reward

The characters in Dragon Age are very well developed; you have to earn their trust and friendship, and they won’t put up with your shit if you keep choosing options that they don’t like. They gradually tell you more about themselves, revealing flaws and insecurities and troubled pasts. By successfully navigating conversations and completing the quests they entrust you with, you are rewarded with their true companionship. They’re some of the most well-rounded and realistic video game characters I’ve ever encountered.

This authenticity and depth is part of what drew me to Morrigan in Origins. It’s hard not to be drawn to her when you meet her near the start of the story. I found her conversations enlightening about the game world and my current quests, and entertaining to boot. My Warden saw the human beneath the mystique her mother laid upon her and wanted to help her break free of Flemeth’s yoke, to show her she could love. It took some dedication (and some shiny gifts) but in time Morrigan opened her heart to me, and it seemed a bigger victory than besting the Archdemon in the final battle. The inevitably sad conclusion to the romance in Origins and the Witch Hunt DLC was all the more powerful for my personal involvement – and I was determined to follow her wherever she ran in said epilogue. In the shoes of my Warden, I had a real connection with her.

Witch Hunt nearly broke my virtual heart again.
Witch Hunt nearly broke my virtual heart again.

Knowing Morrigan was set to return in Inquisition, I was eager to delve into the story after importing my past decisions via Dragon Age Keep – and was rewarded with a happier ending than I expected. I’ve only just encountered her and haven’t yet progressed any farther in the story, but in talking with her in the gardens of Skyhold I learned that the fate of my Warden and his love was not as bleak as Origins had painted it. That I could still be so invested in a character I played six years ago is a testament to the series’ craft and integrity – I’m not one to truly connect with video game characters on a personal level, outside of my literary engagement with the medium.

In hearing Nyx and Ned recount stories of encounters with Blackwall and Dorian, and getting genuinely invested in courting Cassandra, I realized what it is about the Dragon Age games that I love: truly roleplaying. RPGs are my favourite genre, but it’s in Dragon Age that I really put myself in my avatar’s shoes and get drawn into his interactions with the people and world around him. For me, the game is more about the conversations and decisions than the actual battle mechanics (which are good, don’t get me wrong, but if I go a whole session without drawing my weapon I’m not exactly disappointed).  It sets a bar of quality that more games should aspire to meet, that I’d like to meet in my own writing.