Alas, Poor ‘Final Fantasy’, I Knew You Well

There are certain conversations in games journalism and criticism that are recycled every few months. Among them is the status of JRPGs and by extension Final Fantasy. For those that grew up with avatars that possessed bright spiky hair and RPGs focused on turn-based combat, it’s a little sad that once widely appealing gaming conventions are becoming ever more burdened with clichés and stale design choices. Sad, maybe, but if this is the end of the world, then it’s a far more boring end than Final Fantasy had prepared me for. Perhaps it’s appropriate that such a gleefully melodramatic genre is so so often melodramatically declared “dead” (Chris Kohler, Final Fantasy isn’t Dying. It’s Already Dead”, Wired, 30 July 30 2013; Todd Harper, “You Knew This Was Coming If You Were Paying Any Attention”, Chaotic Blue, 31 July 2013; Ethan Gach, “It’s the Nostalgia that’s Dying, not Final Fantasy, Pixels or Death. 2 August 2013).

Of course, Final Fantasy isn’t dead. It isn’t unwell, out of shape, between jobs, or sexually frustrated either. It’s just there. It has always been “there” for many gamers of a certain age, and it’s going to be for quite some time. Its fans, critics, and detractors have solidified its seat in the gaming zeitgeist for some time to come. The chief complaint of the series’s most vocal mourners seems to be that it isn’t what it used to be. One of the greatest accomplishments of Final Fantasy, though, was in how much it transformed itself from one title to the next. The fourth in the series was a somber political opera. So naturally, the fifth was a lighthearted adventure featuring a tight-knit group of flamboyant madcaps. Each new installment reinvented itself, taking place in a whole new world with new rules and new themes. Every “fantasy” finalized itself and moved into new territory. To say that a deviation from form marks the series “death” is a bit myopic in terms of viewing the history of the series and its development.

The problem, though, isn’t that Final Fantasy has changed too much, nor is it that it hasn’t changed enough. The problem, as I understand it, is that the series, “just ain’t what it used to be.” All those ineffable qualities that tied the series together have fallen apart, and it has lost all the innovation that was once guaranteed with each installment. But on closer inspection, those qualities are still there in the series. It’s just that they don’t mean what they used to. Yes, the core creative team has moved on, and, yes, the Final Fantasy “brand” dictates the direction of the series. But since leaving, Square’s heavy hitters have not found extraordinary commercial success. This is not to say that Hironobu Sakaguchi or Yasumi Matsuno have been idle or even that they haven’t produced any noteworthy work — because they absolutely have — but their inadvertent murder of Final Fantasy has brought them a lot of success in their later careers. The creative team that made Final Fantasy what it is are still producing, but their work (arguably more imaginative than it has been in years) only has a niche appeal.

Furthermore, Final Fantasy has always been a brand that has paid dividends for a large and influential company. The series may be championed as a triumph of video game artistry (perhaps even rightfully so), but it is also marked by increasing budgets and returns of investment. In fact, many of the contemporary unsustainable financial policies of AAA developers can be traced back to the rampant pursuit of the “bigger and better” attitude endorsed by the philosophy of the developers of Final Fantasy. In either case, the series and the genre aren’t dead because its creative minds are gone or because its marketers have staged a coup against it. If anything, Final Fantasy isn’t dead at all.

Tracking down a title in the series isn’t hard. There are digital, mobile, PC, and console remakes of just about every entry in the main series as well as a number of new translations and updates for the non-numerical spinoffs. There’s also plenty of critical discussion, walkthroughs, let’s plays, and summaries of every Final Fantasy that’s ever been released. It’s one of the most recognizable institutions in video games because there’s been a concerted effort to keep the series relevant. For example, search “Final Fantasy” on this very site and you will find a good number of excellent articles related in some way to these games. In fact, Final Fantasy is in the extremely rare position (for video games at least) of being fully alive through availability and conversation.

If you missed Final Fantasy VII (or any of them) the first time around, there’s plenty of opportunity to be a part of the conversation even fifteen years since its initial release. If you missed, say, any of Kenji Eno’s work, you’re in far less luck (Mark Filipowich, “The Playstation is Dead. Long Live Playstation”, PopMatters, 5 March 2013). Most games are far too easily forgotten, but Final Fantasy is not among them. The secret recipe to JRPGs may be lost but that doesn’t mean it never existed. Nobody writes great sonnets or films many westerns anymore either but a quick Google search for Alexander Pope or Sergio Leone reveals a wealth on each genre and their histories. So it is with Final Fantasy.

Everything that is great about any given Final Fantasy was designed in a different time under different circumstances. Those circumstances don’t exist anymore and trying to recreate them can only ever be an homage. An homage can be great and it can reshape a genre, but it can’t ever hold mass cultural appeal on its own. It’s based on something that was and no longer is. Final Fantasy just isn’t trendy right now, and it may never be again. But being old hasn’t made Fistful of Dollars unwatchable or “An Essay on Criticism” unreadable. (Being unreadable has made “An Essay on Criticism” unreadable. Zing!). In exchange, games have moved into new territories to explore new trends — for better or for worse.

There could never be another Final Fantasy or even another JRPG released ever again and they’d still have a hell of a legacy. More games deserve the kind of “death” that Final Fantasy has apparently had: one where a dedicated effort is made to keep it available, preserved and talked about.