Sunday, November 24, 2013

WA5, FFVII, Empty Space, Some News

Dive into the Heart: A Short Essay Comparing the Use of Exploring the Subconscious in Final Fantasy VII and Wild Arms 5

By: Austin C. Howe

Disclaimer: This entire essay comes tagged with a gigantic spoiler warning obviously. If you haven’t played either of these games, you should probably play both frankly. Final Fantasy VII is the best game ever made and Wild Arms 5 has got a bitchin’ battle system if nothing else. (It’s got a lot else, but it’s a complicated issue. Tim Rogers’ review of thegame is almost complete bullshit, but what else is new?)

Both Final Fantasy VII and Wild Arms 5 feature a section where we dive into the subconscious memories of a character. They are worth comparing because both games do them for the same plot-advancing purpose: both characters have some degree of amnesia and other characters are jumping into their subconscious for the purpose or re-connecting those memories to the conscious person.

Personally, I believe that Wild Arms 5’s use of the trope is much less effective than in Final Fantasy VII[1] because by comparison, the latter game uses the trope with much greater justification, much greater finesse, and to an end that does more to move the story forward, both sequentially and thematically.

To begin, I’m going to start with the less interesting questions of when these tropes occur in the sequence of their respective game’s narrative, and the narrative mechanics by which the games take us inside the minds of the characters involved, and then move onto the more rewarding topics of whose minds we jump into, where we go inside their mind, and what we do and what we learn when we get there.


The matter of when is simple because both games get it right. Neither occurrence comes across as sudden or unexpected because they are placed at points within the plot of their respective games where they are absolutely necessary to move forward the story and the character arcs.


            In Final Fantasy VII, Tifa and Cloud are in the town of Mideel while Cloud is incapacitated, fighting off Mako poisoning from being caught in the Lifestream after the events of the Northern Crater. When a crater opens up, Tifa and Cloud are caught in the Lifestream and jump into Cloud’s subconscious. Mako poisoning is established as a mental illness as opposed to a physical problem so the metaphor feels continuous. Also, we are jumping into three sets of memories that Cloud and Tifa share, therefore we don’t run into the logistical problems of having one character jump into another’s mind. It’s called Cloud’s subconscious, but it’s actually, for the most part, a shared memory.

In Wild Arms 5, the jump into the subconscious is a result of a classic deus ex machina: the Mediums connect the user to the earth and allow the user to summon the powers of nature to assist them in battle. (Much like Materia.) The game then essentially bends that “connect with the earth” into “connect with each other”. Basically there’s no way I can explain it that makes it makes sense.

FFVII uses its established metaphysics to set up the jump into Cloud’s subconscious: WA5 just comes out of nowhere frankly. In shorter terms: Final Fantasy VII’s dive into the subconscious is not a plot hole. Wild Arms 5 dive into the subconscious is a plot hole.

But plot holes are plot holes, and frankly, I don’t care much about plot holes. The real reason this trope isn't as effective in Wild Arms 5 in comparison to Final Fantasy VII is because it happens to the wrong character, where we go simply isn't that interesting, and what we learn and what we do are both ultimately not very interesting.


            This is where we first run into truly serious problems when considering the two examples of this trope in comparison. Avril vent Fleur is ultimately a side character in Wild Arms 5, whereas Cloud is the protagonist of Final Fantasy VII.

            Having a sub-conscious exploration for a side character is not a bad idea, but the problem is that the dramatic stakes aren’t high enough for it to feel absolutely necessary.[2]

            Cloud is the only character who can defeat Sephiroth. Final Fantasy VII implies as much when Sephiroth refuses to die until Cloud faces him alone. Thus, that he comes to terms with the truth about his past is something that has to happen for both the story to move forward, and for the heroes to emerge triumphant.

            This is not the case in Wild Arms 5 which the game admits outright: when we travel into Avril’s mind, we are trying to make her accept the memories of the infamous “ice queen” that she supposedly once was without regaining the vengeful and murderous personality. However, it is noted that if they fail, they will have to kill her. At no point does this imply that the party will not be able to defeat Volsung and his crew. Thus, when it occurs it feels more like a dramatic roadblock than a necessary landmark on the way to the end. 

            It’s also worth noting that in Wild Arms 5, the entire supporting cast jumps into Avril’s mind, which I can only assume was mostly for design reasons (see “WHAT” below). And while I understand the design logic behind it, it creates the problem that there’s all these extra characters hanging around achieving basically zero narrative purpose, while Dean, the character with the most intimate connection to Avril, helps her talk through her stuff with her subconscious and shit.

            Final Fantasy VII avoids this by having the only other character that goes inside Cloud’s mind Tifa, a character who shares a similar intimate connection that has the opportunity to be both more honest and more tender because of the characters’ kinship, and their privacy.


            When we arrive in Avril’s mind in Wild Arms 5, all we find are random icy roads (I guess because she was the “ice queen”) in a swirling, abstract black abyss. That really is it, we don’t actually see anything more interesting. In other words, we don’t visit the past, where we see Avril as the ice queen, and we essentially don’t learn anything new about where she came from. This would be an especially good opportunity since it would give us an opportunity to go place we haven’t seen yet, which would actually give it a leg up on Final Fantasy VII in terms of sheer visual variety.

            But in comparison, where we go in Final Fantasy VII, Niebelheim, at various points in Cloud’s life, is almost automatically more interesting as a result because we’re seeing a place that is important to the characters involved at important and dramatically interesting points in their lives. We see the incident as a child that drives Cloud’s heroic complexes, we see the burning of Niebelheim, and the Niebelheim reactor where Cloud first “kills” Sephiroth.

In comparison, the places we go in Final Fantasy VII when we enter Cloud’s sub-conscious are vastly more interesting than where we go in Wild Arms 5.


            We kind of already clarified this in the last section, but just to restate: Because we don’t actually “go” anywhere in Wild Arms 5 when we visit Avril’s mind, we don’t actually learn anything new about the character. She receives no new development.

            What we learn in Final Fantasy VII is hugely important: we learn that Cloud had been mixing his memories with Zack’s and that in his past he was not nearly the hero he was pretending to be. We learn a shameful truth, and by accepting that, by accepting the existential whole of himself, Cloud is able to regain control of himself and continue on with his journey.


            When we visit Avril’s mind, we do, essentially, what we already had been doing for most of Wild Arms 5: shooting barrels with nothing in them, following coin-marked trails, fighting regular enemies and bosses.

            Except wait: that doesn’t make any fucking sense

            Ok, ice roads because “ice queen,” that I can kinda wrap my head around, but what kinda metaphorical backflips and wall-running would I have to do to make sense of Avril’s mind being inhabited by monsters? It doesn’t make any sense to call any of them some sort of metaphor for something that happened to Avril in the past or some embodiment of her guilt a la Silent Hill 2 because we don’t ever actually learn anything about Avril’s past, there’s just monsters. Why are there monsters?

            Why are there monsters? Why are there Avril ghosts with swords that make me fight something and then start over at the beginning of the area? Why are there pots that I can shoot and they explode and make noise, and more importantly, why isn’t there anything in them?

            Because this is a videogame I guess? Because you need something to do here?

            It’s becoming less and less “radical” to say this, but I disagree with that entirely.

            In Final Fantasy VII, when we visit Cloud’s mind, what do we do? Almost nothing. We walk, we talk, we learn. It’s worth noting that, though much of it is linear expository cutscenes, a fair bit of it is not. The game gains a simple, but incredible power by forcing the player to tell Cloud to walk down the stairs towards where Sephiroth is waiting in the basement of the Shinra Mansion, or to run hopelessly around the town as it burns. This is a simple instance where the player is given free roam in a virtual space to explore with only a few things to touch and investigate, and it is such a powerful way for a player to interact with the game world that it serves as the singular style of gameplay used in Gone Home. It works, and we desperately need more of it.

            I farted around with this a bit much, but I guess that says it all about as best as I can: When Wild Arms 5 takes us into the mind of a character, it goes for the same typical forms of engagement that it had already been offering, and that other games like it offer constantly, and suffers because the section is ultimately unimportant to the story the game is telling. Conversely, in Final Fantasy VII, the exploration of Cloud’s subconscious feels not only absolutely necessary (because it is), but it provides a minimal and powerful form of interaction with the game world that makes it, aside from necessary, unique, worthwhile and memorable.

Epilogue (Some random news/speculations about future posts)

            In fact, as I sit down now to publish this piece, I realize that Wild Arms 5 is more and more like Final Fantasy VII, and, unsurprisingly, the ways in which the game fails are all the ways in which it differs greatly from FFVII. I’d even go so far as to argue that the much lauded hex battle system, meticulously well-designed as it is, simply cannot beat the economy and tone of Final Fantasy VII’s combat.

            I can’t promise that I’ll actually sit down to write more comparative essays on this subject, but I think I’ll try and make a small series out of it. The most complained about aspect of JRPGs in my experience has been that they all use the exact same tropes, but whether they differ in mechanical or thematic purpose, or one is simply better executed than the other, but broadly speaking, no two stories will use the same tropes in the same way, and the same could be said of games in terms of both narrative and design, so I think an extended small series of side-by-side analytic comparisons could be a useful look into how that works and why it’s important.

In any case, the main problem with that is that I’m working on a huge analytic essay about Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix right now, so that idea might have to go on hold. (It’s already half the size of the Metal Gear Solid piece and I’m nowhere near done. Hype!) And truth be told, I was frankly, really disappointed with Wild Arms 5 so I’ll be more than happy to walk away from it for a while, play other stuff, write about Kingdom Hearts, and come back to it.

In any case, thanks again.
-Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2013


           The idea of “empty space” in video games was something I was thinking about while playing Wild Arms 5 briefly before I wrote this piece mostly thanks to twitter user Zolani Stewart (@Fengxii), so shoutouts to him. 

            He writes a GREAT blog about games called The Fengxi Box (featuring, among other things, a great piece about guns in video games as his most recent post) and he's launching a digital magazine called The Arcade Review that "publishes criticism on experimental games. Freeware and shareware games, oddities, obscure indie games, games rarely discussed, games outside of dense commercial spheres, games that challenge structure and our expectations of what games can do," and the first "issue" should be out early next year, and I'm really looking forward to it. His own piece is gonna be about Mortal Kombat 4! Don't you wanna read about Mortal Kombat 4? I sure as hell do.

[1] Yeah, a videogame that isn’t Final Fantasy VII is worse than Final Fantasy VII. What a shock.
[2] And Wild Arms 5 is frankly not a game with enough ambition to simply just have extended segments of character exploration that stop the forward movement of the plot just for its own sake. Exploring Cloud’s subconscious isn’t an example of this, since it is absolutely necessary, but Final Fantasy VII does actually have plenty of examples of this.

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