“The Best Stories I Ever Lived”: The Role of Roleplay in Final Fantasy

So what is roleplaying in Final Fantasy games, and in video games? Whose roles are we playing? And how do we play and experience those roles?

Final Fantasy I screencap:

Final Fantasy I (remake) screencap. Who are “you”: the character? the player? the author? an observer? Also, who defines/names the character? Who IS the character: a believable person, or just an avatar, a cursor?

FFXIII Screencap: Lightning asks Fang, "Who are you?"

Final Fantasy XIII screencap: Same questions, different answers. Also, notice who’s asking: in-game’s “you” is simultaneously an out-of-game “she” or “they.” Pronoun shift means a POV shift. The double-vision “you” of RPGs makes for a complex experience.

Roleplaying is, at its fundamental level, a giant game of “let’s pretend,” toying with the question, “Who are you?” Roleplaying games are systems that codify and expand our ability to define that “you.” At the same time, roleplaying games are about them: the characters we roleplay.

 Who Are You? The Tug-of-War Between Game Design and Player Autonomy

One huge change in video games is that characters have become more and more complex. At first, game characters had little or no development: they were empty vessels that fought monsters, cast spells and opened chests. Their personality and individuality were left entirely to our imaginations. Over successive releases, characters became  more distinctive and preset, blossoming into an integral part of the game and its story. In tandem with these changes, we become observers, puppetmasters, and/or passive participants, discovering what makes characters tick as individuals and coming to know them as fictional characters while acting out their adventures in their shoes.

Final Fantasy I Black Mage Red Mage Sprites

Black Mage, Red Mage, original Final Fantasy

Lenna, Galuf in Final Fantasy V

Lenna & Galuf, Final Fantasy V

This change happened gradually. In  Final Fantasy I, the protagonists didn’t speak at all, only the npcs (non-player characters), so characterization was reduced to generic archetypes like “fighter with jaunty red hat” and “weirdo with pointy hat and glowing eyes.” In later installments, party members spoke in dialog boxes (or, recently, voice acting with subtitles) and began to exhibit individual speech patterns and personalities. They began to converse with one another, instead of simply serving as the player’s window of interaction with the virtual world and its npc inhabitants. They acquired backstories and story arcs, character-specific graphic designs like “princess in a bikini” and “old guy with a beard” as opposed to generic “job” or “role” sprites. The characters’ context — the setting, world, plots, and npcs — followed a similar evolution.

Each step added more richness to the game but took away some player autonomy. It’s the same trade-off that storytelling has faced during the transition from the written word to radio to film, which takes away the reader’s freedom of imagination to visualize characters and imagine their voices, but provides us with an immersive experience in which the story comes to life for us more vividly and with more details than we could have imagined.

ffxii-screenshot-basch-larsa-vaan

FFXII Screenshot. Basch, Larsa and Vaan: Three characters of three different ages, personalities, nationalities, social classes, in-world reputations, and abilities, with dramatically different brothers as well.

I favor immersive-experience video games. I fell in love with MYST, its idea that one could place one’s hand on a magical book and be sucked into the world it describes. I have always been an “exploration and experience” seeker in video games, looking for the stories, the characters, the mythology, the themes and subtexts and rare moments of delectable dialog. Good games, for me, are “the best books I ever lived.”

The mental game of roleplaying adds to the immersive experience. On the one hand, I identify with and put myself in the headspace/POV of a character (maybe the lead, but often a side character like Lulu in Final Fantasy X). On the other, I experience the game like an author or director, guiding the characters through their stories. On the third hand, I experience them as “real” in the way that characters seem real while watching a film.

These are all different ways of playing the roles of the characters in our imaginations: as self-avatars, as puppets, or as fictional characters experienced from a disembodied point of view. In fact, our minds are amazingly adept at putting our conscious selves on hold and stepping into imagined reality: not only does it happen when we view a good film or show, but we also do it every night when we dream. Like dreams, roleplay is a subset of virtual reality.

We can track Final Fantasy’s shifting conception of “roleplaying” from avatar/alter ego to observer/puppetmaster by examining each game’s options for choosing characters’ names. In the beginning, we named everyone in the party: we were the puppetmaster, or else roleplaying all characters equally. In PS1-PS2 games, default character names were provided, and we could sometimes only name the main character and their summoned beasts, a way of “personalizing” those less-developed characters and helping us identify with them.  Choosing a character’s name let us self-identify with or feel personally attached to the character. Having a given character name presented to us, on the other hand, allowed us to feel the reality of that character more strongly as an individual, to sympathize with or hate or relate to as another person. We would have experienced Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice and Buffy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer differently if they had never been addressed by name, and were instead “insert your name here” characters.

Final Fantasy I, XI and XIV: An Older Style of Roleplay Game

However, Final Fantasy I, uniquely in the franchise, predates set characters, party member dialog, and immersive backstory. It’s a game, with a basic fantasy story serving as scaffolding.

I have played “immersive story” video games for so long — primarily later Final Fantasy games — that I assumed its undeveloped characters would seem lacking. Therefore, when I decided to go back and discover the first game in the series, I adapted characters from another, later (but still old) video game to fill the shoes of Final Fantasy I’s cardboard characters that never speak and never have the slightest hint of character development.

In doing so, I forgot the original concept of roleplaying games, in the tabletop days of dice and painted figures and character sheets and manuals. Back then we created characters from scratch, lovingly designing them and choosing their abilities, quirks, backstories and heroic (or not so heroic) actions. The GM (game master) only provided us with the story and setting, save in very rare games where “character sheets” were provided for us as an unusual roleplaying challenge. In standard RPGs, the GM’s job was to referee the actions chosen by the players for their characters, provide a world and general plot, and shepherd the characters through the story with a nudge or nip as needed (a role now partly played by video game players).

I forgot how we used to act out our character’s lives, voicing their questions and responses to fictional situations as they happened, sometimes even participating in live action games where we physically acted out their adventures as much as possible, theater-style. (I was never comfortable in live action; I’m a writer). Later, in the early days of the web, I jumped aboard the first generation of massive multi-player RPGs, but those were text-based: we designed and submitted characters for approval, then wrote and described every aspect of character appearances, dialog, and actions, in freeform roleplay or in stories refereed by volunteer GMs.

I’ve forgotten how baffled I was, when I first heard of D&D-style video games being called “roleplaying games.” How could they call it roleplaying, when nearly every aspect of the characters came preset or was simply not developed?  How could that be defined as roleplaying, when we were playing all the party’s characters, instead of just one? Most importantly, how could it be roleplaying, if one was not pretending to be a fictional character in a gaming group with different people taking on different roles?

Final Fantasy I is a throwback (or, if you will, a bridge) to old tabletop roleplaying games, simplifying the process down to its most basic essentials. There is a very primitive “character design” process at the start when we choose the character’s name and class, which will be locked for the rest of the game. Then, while playing, we must imagine the characters’ dialog, appearances, backstories, reactions to the things happening to them within the game. We tell their stories. Also, since these early games are a lot less linear and have a lot less developed story, we have a lot more freedom to choose the sequence of their adventures and create the story ourselves. The more we add to the original Final Fantasy game with our imaginations, the richer the experience. In more recent Final Fantasy games, by contrast, our imagination is employed as it is when we watch a film: we imagine by experiencing rather than by embellishing the story as it’s presented.

Final Fantasy I gave us a taste of the roleplaying freedom we had in pre-computer roleplaying games. Ironically, that freedom has come full circle with Final Fantasy XI and XIV, since technology has finally advanced to the point that roleplayers can have a vast number of character customization choices, letting them chart their own story sequences and invent the dialog and actions of their characters freely. I have not played those games, as I no longer have time for that kind of roleplaying game, which requires longterm commitment and coordination of schedules with fellow players. But I salute those games. I think that they revive the concept of roleplaying last seen in the original Final Fantasy game that started the franchise. Moreover, thanks to multiplayer mechanics, they finally allow one to take on a role among other roleplayers, as we did in our dice-and-paper-sheet days.

Roleplaying as Fantasy

Roleplaying games embody both a new and old definition of the word “fantasy.” Nowadays we tend to use the word to mean a genre of fiction with dragons, swords and sorcery, and mythic themes. However, the older meaning of “fantasy” has more to do with the imagination, the willing suspension of disbelief. It derives from a few Greek roots: phainesthai “to appear,” which later came to be used for “to imagine,” phainein “to show, to bring to light,” and phos, phaos, simply, “light.” So fantasy has to do with imagination, vision, bringing to light. The Final, or latest, form of Fantasy is the act of using gaming as a collaborative tool between game designer and audience for bringing to light our imagination, just as earlier storytellers and audiences used oral performances, books, theater, radio and films. The product of that collaboration is they, the characters.

Again we are back to that double vision, that double “you” perspective which makes “you” both the character within the story and the “you” of the audience. “You” and “they,” the most fundamental of roles, profoundly change our experience of a story.

“Who are you?” Final Fantasy makes it a multiple choice question, for which the answer can be both A and B.

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Note: This is a revised, expanded version of an older post on the experience of roleplaying in Final Fantasy. You can read some good responses on the original Dreamwidth journal post.

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