I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to a new friend from Japan, and we immediately hit it off over our love of manga and video games. As a nerd stranded in the world of ‘grown-ups’, I rarely get the chance to have deep conversations about these favourite topics of mine, and took advantage of it.
It turned out we had a shared love of the Final Fantasy video games. Final Fantasy is a series of story-based roleplaying games, typically involving very strong storylines and characters. Often lasting longer than 40 hours from beginning to end, the gamer has more opportunity to be immersed in the fictional fantasy world of the game and come to know the protagonists in ways that aren’t often possible in films, or even novels. Because the series – which has 15 main titles and dozens of spin-offs, expansions and remakes – has been constantly reinvented since the first title in 1987, it has the benefit of each new generation of gaming technology and has drastically changed in terms of visual and musical style, as well as modes of storytelling and gameplay. The series’ incredible score, produced by Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu, has entries in the ClassicFM Hall of Fame and there are several orchestral concerts around the world celebrating his great talent. The franchise also includes a couple of feature films, animated series and the usual marketing fluff.
Graphical evolution – 1987 to 2015
Because of the dramatic shift in technological capability, the series has advanced from extremely simple, cartoonish games to high-powered, cinema-quality visuals. As such, there has been a growing emphasis on the visual design of the characters, incorporating not only realistic object textures and facial expressions, but intricate costume design and idiosyncratic body language.
The discussions with my Japanese friend revolved around whether it was a good thing that characters could be so realistically represented on-screen, and whether this was a distraction from the core purpose of a video game: the fun and accessibility of its gameplay.
My friend argued that the owner of the Final Fantasy franchise, Square Enix, should concentrate less on dramatic video-style cut-scenes like this:
…and return to its roots with simplistic graphics. Her reasoning was that the emphasis on visuals had diluted the gameplay, turning the games into merely interactive cinema experiences, but more significantly promoting ‘idol worship’.
In Asia, idol worship is a problem amongst young people whose lives are driven by pressure to study, qualify for a good job, earn a high salary and marry well. In fact, issues such as internet and gaming addiction are so prevalent that teenagers have died from playing video games for several days straight. In China, there are camps for youngsters who need to be ‘re-educated’ in how to detach themselves from technology and live more in the real (albeit stressful) world. Idol worship is a connected phenomenon where companies such as Square Enix are idolised for providing powerful entertainment franchises and are seen as being able to do no wrong. This is particularly striking in the ‘geek culture’ which is often characterised by extreme polarised views and almost obsessive loyalty and fandom.
Final Fantasy has boasted a cast of strong protagonists who are also the subjects of fan worship. Perhaps the most revered is Cloud, the hero of Final Fantasy VII, who is a heroic but troubled soldier. Epitomising many admirable qualities, such as loyalty, bravery and strength, Cloud is also casual and cool despite his significant past traumas. It is perhaps needless to say that Cloud’s moody demeanour, coupled with his heroic traits, are particularly appealing to male teenaged gamers.
Cloud was so popular that he was emulated in a later game in the series by the designers of Lightning, the female hero of Final Fantasy XIII who shares many of his qualities (she and her allies can be seen in the Youtube clip earlier in this post).
Characters are important to more storytelling genres that just video games, of course, and so the issue of characterisation is wider reaching. My friend asserted that the advancements of computer graphics means that more attention is paid to the visual design of characters, strengthening their superficial qualities whilst weakening the game. I held that strong characters are integral to a strong story, and should never be overlooked.
In Final Fantasy VII, Cloud occasionally serves as a bland protagonist on whom gamers can imprint their own personality, an effective tactic from earlier games in which some protagonists never speak at all (early first person shooters and RPGs are prime examples). He rarely speaks and his thoughts are hidden from the gamer. Much like protagonists in (bad) first person literature, he is the focal point for events that happen, rather than a character who drives the plot forward, and much of the story’s strong characterisation is embodied by the characters who accompany him. The game encourages players to speculate on Cloud’s inner workings – a necessary device to build up to a major plot twist later in the story. However, would the story’s famous twists and surprises be as emotionally powerful without characterisation?
A story can only be as strong as its characters, and if the reader (or viewer/player) cares little for the fate of those characters, then all dramatic tension is lost. It is true that characters in a visual medium are often defined by their visual appearance and style, which is a superficial method that does not create the best protagonists.
Originality is a key issue in characterisation, the neglect of which writers of crime thrillers and fantasy fiction are particularly guilty. One way of overcoming that is a striking visual appearance, but this should not overshadow the development of the character’s mental and emotional state, motivations and desires. It’s possible that characters are idolised in certain genres, but this is nothing new: action heroes in films and moral exemplars in literature have always been around (the recent furore over the retroactive characterisation of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s ‘new’ book is of note). Should this mean that characters should be less defined, or that superficial qualities should be abandoned? I feel that the answer is obvious, and that fiction is weaker, possibly broken, without those factors.
I do encourage debate on these questions, particularly on whether idolisation of characters could ever be a negative thing. Who are your favourite characters in fiction, and why?