One of the things I’ve been paying attention to in my recent games of VIII and IX is their use of pre-rendered backgrounds – a stylistic choice which seems to largely be abandoned these days. As the name implies, pre-rendered backgrounds are simply a static image depicting the area from a particular point of view. Although they’ve mainly been used by PC adventure games (I think Myst is the first instance), some console games made use of them in the early 3D era, the PS1 Final Fantasies being a notable example.
There are downsides to this: for one, a static image is, well, static, and it can sometimes look weird when you start placing polygonal figures on them. FFVII was particularly egregious in this regard; the rather low-res, blocky characters stick out painfully in the environment they’ve been dropped into. And from a gameplay perspective, it can be difficult to get your geographical bearings when you’re moving through a bunch of static shots with different POVs.
But, well, look at the screenshot above. The use of pre-rendered backgrounds allowed them to cram in a level of detail and artistry which still looks impressive compared to what 3D engines are capable of now. IX’s architecture and locales are almost always gorgeous to look at, and my mind is blown away by the fact that people had to render every. single. shot.
If there is a reason why this isn’t done much these days, my guess is that it simply involves too much time, effort and money.
Anyway, all the pretty pictures would be for naught if IX’s world weren’t particularly well put together. But Gaia is one of the more impressively designed fantasy worlds I’ve seen in a game.
The key words are coherence and continuity.
VIII never felt like a coherent world to me; sure, there was a world map with locations on them, but very little sense of how things hang together. Edea has a house in the middle of an uninhabited continent, and it makes no difference. One continent is divided into three different nations, but outside of purposes of the plot, they could all be the same.
In IX, most of civilization is located on the Mist Continent – so called because of a layer of mist that permeates it. The mist having magical properties, it generates monsters in the areas it covers. So most of the population lives at a high elevation. The four major kingdoms are sectioned off by their own unique borders.
The world outside of the Mist Continent has a few settlements – a town here or there, a religious shrine, an enclave of scholars, and a lot of abandoned, ancient structures. You feel like you’re away from civilization when you explore them.
So geography matters in IX; it affects both the story and the tone.
And, as I suggested in part 1, IX does a good job of depicting a world going on around you. Unimportant characters and random NPCs are given a lot of detail, and often have their own story arcs progressing in the background. The locations themselves undergo change: Lindblum, on your first arrival, impresses you as this massive steampunk citadel. The second time you show up, it has been decimated by Alexandrian forces and is under occupation. Even later in the game you find it beginning to rebuild itself.
So, the impression is that this is a living world. And even though the worldbuilding isn’t nearly on par with a well-done fantasy novel, there’s enough detail and character in Gaia to make you care about it.
But then, Gaia isn’t the only place in IX. Late in the game, the player finds out that Kuja and Zidane are genomes from planet Terra. Terra having undergone some vague catastrophe, its inhabitants have gone to sleep while Garland oversees the harvesting of life on other worlds in order to restore his own.
While this may seem a weird turn for an epic fantasy to take, it’s something of a Final Fantasy tradition to start throwing sci-fi tropes into the latter portions of the plot. Actually, IX’s Terrans are really just a more sinister version of IV’s Lunarians.
Still, it’s a worthwhile question to ask whether the story would have been tighter if it kept its focus on national conflict and away from all that other stuff. While the answer is likely yes, I find that the latter part of the game puts its weird stuff to good effect.
In order to put this into better relief, it’s worth looking at the themes of the surrounding entries. VIII is just too much of a mess to extract anything philosophical out of, but VII flirts heavily with some anti-human animism. The game raises the question of whether the world would be better off without us, and (at least until the expanded universe arrived) the ending kept the question of whether humans survived in suspense. X, alternately, features a goofy water-polo athelete who liberates a world from the shackles of tradition and religion.
The trajectory of VII and X, two of the most popular entries, is towards different kinds of disillusionment. VII in particular arguably goes further in its desire to deconstruct its own “badass” protagonist.
IX’s heroes, on the other hand, are neither the subject of deconstruction nor trying to be revolutionary. They’re simply trying to protect the world that they live in, and the people they love.
This makes them close to the characters of VI, except that Zidane et. al. have to deal with the particularly philosophical threat that is Garland.
Garland resides in a castle called Pandemonium – which is one of the more fitting uses of that word in pop culture. Although it’s often taken as a synonym for chaos, the word was coined by John Milton to refer to the palace which Satan constructs in Paradise Lost (it literally means, “all of the demons.”) Garland’s castle looks as sinister and Eldridge as the name suggests.
Anyway, Garland himself resembles one of C.S. Lewis’ men without chests. He exists outside of human morality in order to shape civilization as he sees fit. Terrans are to be molded into some sort of unfathomable overmen, and the genomes are created as their caretakers, and to manipulate affairs on Gaia so as to facilitate this. Because we never meet an actual Terran, it’s uncertain as to how much of this expresses what they really want. But the fact of the matter is that their entire species now exists at the mercy of a self styled philosopher king.
Garland represents in extreme form an all too common temptation: to suspend morality in some localized fashion in order to serve some form of greater good or higher purpose. But many goods are so incommensurable so as to make it difficult, if not impossible, to rank them in a manner that is non-arbitrary. It reflects more of what the individual (or society) subjectively wants, than what is objectively right. The Nietzschean who places will above morality and truth is really just a more honest and straightforward consequentialist.
IX’s response to this is not exactly Chestertonian: the heroes give voice to the usual vague existentialism which is often presented by JRPGs as The Answer. But its heart is in the right place: Zidane rejects what Garland represents because his time on Gaia has made him enter into the experiences of humanity and to see it as intrinsically good and worth fighting for. He triumphs against the philosopher-king because he is actually a pretty ordinary guy, which is very Chestertonian.
I suppose it would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention anything about how IX actually plays.
As I mentioned in a recent post, IX is simple, straightforward and doesn’t veer too much from the JRPG formula. You explore around, you have random encounters with enemies that produce a whooshing effect as the battle screen loads; your characters all stand in a row, waiting for their ATB gauges to fill up; when it does you get to input a command, rinse and repeat…
You have eight main characters who belong to seven distinctive classes. Zidane, being a thief, can steal from enemies, Vivi, being a black mage, can use offensive magic, etc. However, their skillsets don’t move along a linear path: characters learn new abilities by wearing equipment and gaining Ability Points from battle. So, say, if you want Garnet to learn something that requires 20 AP, then she’ll have to wear the equipment the skill is affixed to for as long as it takes for her to gain it. On the one hand, this sometimes forces you to use sub-optimal equipment in order to get the abilities you want. On the other hand, you can use your new abilities as soon as you put them on – getting the AP only makes the ability permanent – so it’s always possible to do a try and see approach.
For the first half of the game, who you have in your party at any given time is mostly dictated by the plot, forcing you to get used to working with various different combinations of classes. The latter half is more interested in making you think strategically about who you take with you, especially one devious part where the characters have to divide into two different parties to and tackle two dungeons simultaneously.
There is a problem with this, in that characters whom the plot keeps away from you wind up being underleveled when you need them again. This is irksome. But overall IX handles itself pretty well in terms of fun and balanced party mechanics.
Combat is usually exciting and keeps me on my toes. The same cannot be said for VIII, where you’re supposed to find fun and strategy in tinkering around with the Junction system. While I’m weird enough to enjoy VIII’s brokenness, IX is just more thoughtfully designed and respectful of decent people who just want to have fun.
The game has broken elements: the Trance system, wherein your characters can occasionally go all Super Saiyan and and deal out the pain, is so poorly implemented so as to be practically useless. Also, the developers evidently wanted to make stealing a more in depth battle command this time around, but they did it by giving every boss a rare item with an extremely low steal rate. Thus its easy to find yourself artificially prolonging a boss fight for quite some time while you try to nab that helmet. Too much depends on dice rolls that are loaded against you.
But these are otherwise small gripes in a game that I enjoyed so much that I completed it in less than a month. I rarely even did that with RPG games as a kid.
The Crystal Cosmological Argument
I remember the tagline for Final Fantasy IX being, “The Crystal Comes Back.” You see, the first five Final Fantasies were fond of using four magic crystal macguffins that represented the four elements. As IX was specifically designed to be a nostalgic throwback to those games, the idea of there being crystals in the game was hyped up. Don’t ask me how that can somehow be an exciting selling point for a game; it was.
Except that there’s only one crystal in IX, and it only comes into play at the very end of the game. What a ripoff.
Except that I noticed this time around how the crystal is introduced in a manner that is weirdly analogous to the cosmological argument for the existence of God.
In order to explain this, you need to understand the final dungeon of the game. It’s this weird dimension called the Memoria, and it somehow embodies the memories of the universe or something like that. The further you progress in it, the further you go back in time, so you start out in scenery that looks like the present, and eventually go so far back that you enter into the time before the existence of Gaia, and finally the beginning of the universe itself. And there you find that the crystal is the source of all existence (which Kuja is trying to destroy). It’s all really trippy and cool to look at. My words don’t do justice to it.
Garland (who by this point has been reduced to an Obi-Wan style ghost who shows up to provide plot exposition) introduces the idea that, every thing having a cause, all causal chains must wind back to some ultimate origin, which exerts causal influence on everything that exists.
While there’s some truth to this, there’s a reason why a crystal – even a magic crystal – can’t be the ultimate source of existence.
We can rightly ask for a causal explanation of x if x is contingent: that is, if x is something that could conceivably be false. The fact that x could be false means that it is dependent on some other y being true for it to be true. x isn’t self-justifying; it depends on a particular previous state of affairs, y, for its own existence.
Because it is possible that I could not exist, it is reasonable to ask for an explanation for why I exist. But you can say this about anything in the universe/multiverse/whatever that exists. So what this means is that everything in the set of all existing things is at the tail end of a causal chain that can in theory be traced backwards.
Right of the bat: it is possible to conceive of a magic crystal not existing, so it is reasonable to ask why it exists. So at best, IX’s crystal is just another link in the chain. The same holds true for the singularity which scientists speculate that the universe emerged from.
So how do we understand the causal chain? There are three options which philosophers have taken:
1) The causal chain goes on an infinite regress backwards. There is no end of it. This is really just a way of saying that the existence of the chain is inexplicable.
2) It is illegitimate to ask the question. The existence of things is ultimately unintelligible to humans.
3) The causal chain terminates in something that necessarily exists; that is, something must exist, by self definition.
The variations of the cosmological argument typically take some form of 3).
But, of course, there is nothing in the set of everything that exists by self definition. The only thing that that could conceivably apply to is existence itself.
This seems more banal and anti-climactic than it is, because we often tend to think of existence in these terms: What is Josh? A human. What is a human? An animal. What is an animal? A living thing. What is a living thing?…..and so on, until we arrive at describing Josh as “an existing thing.”
Because the concept of existence covers everything, it appears to be an empty category that tells us nothing about the thing in question.
Except that, “Josh exists,” and, “Josh doesn’t exist,” do seem to tell us something about Josh. It just isn’t telling us what kind of thing Josh is. Rather, it tells us that, somehow, Josh is an actual thing, rather than a possible, or nonexistent thing. The use of categories like, “animal,” tell us something about the essence, or whatness of a thing, while the existence predicate tells us about the thatness of a thing.
This enables us to refine our initial statement about contingency and causal explanations: when we ask for the cause of x, we are asking how the whatness and the thatness came to be linked. We are asking for the state of affairs that moved x from a possible thing to an actual thing. And so on.
The causal chain would thus find its origin in some thing whose whatness was identical with its thatness. The existence of such a thing would be both intelligible and require no further explanation. Again, this is another way of saying that the origin is existence itself. But since everything in the universe/multiverse is a composite of essence and existence, this suggests that the origin is not just a historical one, but rather a current participatory one.
But note that, at this point, our language starts to fail us. Phrases like, “the existence of such a thing,” achieve at best an analogical rather than literal meaning, because the source of everything on this account wouldn’t just be a particular thing, or even a particular kind of thing.
A–and—-I’m rambling here.
The ending of IX is one of the best endings of anything ever; so good that I don’t even want to spoil it here. Go see it for yourself.
(Images courtesy of the Final Fantasy Wiki and Google Images)