Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Final Fantasy Series's Old School Vs. New School Arguments

Thanks to good sir Jolt for giving this a look-over to resolve some concerns I had with it.

Old Vs. New, the eternal debate. Which was better, the original Batman movie by Tim Burton or the new ones? Which did you prefer, The Real Ghostbusters cartoon from the 80s, or the 90s Extreme Ghostbusters? Which is more annoying, a heavy-handed dose of guilt ineptly dumped on you by a rapping, psychotic bat, or by a blue cat alien thing?*

The question of whether things were better in the old days or are better now is one which even the relatively new video game industry is besieged with, and that definitely includes the RPG genre. Although there are plenty of examples of this, the RPG Old Vs. New argument I hear most often is about the Final Fantasy series. And good God, it is getting tiring.

The first problem I have with it is the way people argue it. Regardless of what camp they're on, they seem to believe that ALL games that fit into their school must be good simply because of the time they were made. They're always making blanket statements, like "The old games were better because they didn't let graphics distract them from characters and plot!" and "The new games look better and are more creative!" The problem here is that the blanket statements are just never entirely true. You can't say that the old school games had superior plot and character focus when the old school of Final Fantasy features the bland and generic Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, and the boring and outright stupid Final Fantasy 5. Nor can you say that the new games necessarily look better--the sprites and backgrounds may be slightly more advanced in Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Advance 1 than in the SNES titles, but it's not by much, and in the end it's still super-deformed little blocks marching around on a simplistic background--or are more creative, given the insanely dull Final Fantasy 12, whose few plot twists are just old devices taken from other rubbish (really, Basch? You're going to pull the soap opera "My Evil Twin Did It" thing?).

It's not that I don't think some installments in the series shouldn't be compared and contrasted with others (or even RPGs outside the FF series). It's just that the people who make these Old vs. New arguments about Final Fantasy never seem to be interested in actually debating the merits of the games, nearly always make the stupid generalizations I mentioned above, and just appear to want to find something to be negative about without actually thinking about whether the negativity is justified.

The next problem I have is how the devil you even qualify what constitutes Final Fantasy Old School from New School. Traditionally, Old School is everything made before Final Fantasy 7, and Final Fantasy 7 begins the New School. Well, this might have been a fair distinction to make back in 2002 when FF10 was brand new, but at this point in time, Final Fantasy 7 is over 10 years old. Not only that, but it was the first game on the Playstation 1, a console from 2 system generations ago. You can say that FF7 took the series in a totally different direction, but most FFs are departed from the rest of the series in their styles, and that original FF style has returned for several titles since FF7's release--FFT, FFTA1, FF Crystal Chronicles, FF9, and so on. Hell, I'd say that FF12 took the series in a new direction far more drastically than FF7, creating a strongly different hybrid of fantasy and technology that was totally different from all previous games' mild mixes of the two--not just that, but FF12 also added a heavy dose of MMORPG style with its battle system, a greater step beyond previous installments in the series (save FF11, which IS an MMORPG) than FF7 was from FFs 1-6.

So if it's not accurate to judge a game over a decade old as being the turning point between old and new, where DOES the line fall with the series? FFT, a distinctly medieval-style game akin to the traditional idea of "old school," came out soon after FF7. FF8, another of the traditional "new school," is also over 10 years old. FF9 can't possibly count because it deliberately molded itself to fit the old Final Fantasy style. So is FF10, first Playstation 2 Final Fantasy, the turning point now? Because then things seem really off--the Old School will include FF7 and 8, which are radically different from the rest of the Old School, the New School will be composed of only 3 (soon to be 4) all-important numbered titles to the Old School's 9, and practically half of the New School's Final Fantasies are spin-offs of Old School titles (FF7, most notably). Not only that, but with FF11 being an online RPG, and FF12 being a mix of Star Wars, online RPGs, and Final Fantasy Tactics, making it, as I mentioned, more drastically different from practically every other FF than even FF7 was from its predecessors, the entirety of New School is a confused jumble of dissimilar styles and directions.

So the School arguments don't work because their respective games don't have enough in common regarding quality to qualify for blanket statements, and because there's no logical spot to draw the line between Old and New. But that's not even the most important reason this heated debate makes no sense! The biggest reason is that the quality of games on each side is all over the place. Seriously, how can anyone say that New School is better than Old School when newer FF games include the lethally boring Final Fantasy 12 and the unspeakably repulsive FF10-2? How can you seriously say that Old School is boring when you have the imaginative, brisk storytelling of Final Fantasy 6? How can you say that the writing for the New School always sucks when it has the deep and dynamic characters of Tidus and Yuna, and the great themes of FF9?

I mean, I know I've said SquareEnix sucks lately, and I'll stick by that statement, but I'm not saying that the games are bad because they're new or all conform to certain new trends--they're bad because they're bad on an individual basis. Being new or old has no bearing on whether the game is good or not. When (or maybe I should say if) SquareEnix makes a good new Final Fantasy, I'll be happy to remark upon it as such--hell, I actually quite enjoyed the recent Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, so there must be SOMEONE in the company still who has some talent. But dismissing a Final Fantasy (or any other RPG) because of the year it was made? That's ridiculous.

Old School Vs. New School with the Final Fantasy series is stupid, or at least the people debating it are, along with their rationales. I've got a visual aid here that, I feel, properly and mathematically describes this situation, borrowed courtesy of good lady Iris Amergin, or Hezul, or Zionga, or whatever she calls herself (woman changes screen names way too often), and altered just a bit. I feel that it is as proper a close to this rant as is possible.

* And while we're at it, which is a more evolutionarily unsound creature: a lizard that sings loudly to all its potential prey within hearing distance about how it's hungry, or a bug whose escape mechanism is to jump up and spin around while glowing neon pink against a predominantly dark blue forest background?**

** Yeah, yeah, I know. You've probably heard about a million jabs at Avatar for being Ferngully meets Disney's Pocahontas meets a million other times you've seen the same story played out. So sue me; I don't feel bad. Millions and MILLIONS of dollars were spent on Avatar that could have gone to worthy causes--at the very least, better movies--and what's the finished product? A movie with a plot so unoriginal and hackneyed, characters so shallow and stereotypical, and a romance so generic and unexamined, that comparing Avatar to Ferngully and Pocahontas is an insult to THEM, not it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fallout 3 AMV: Land of Confusion

I've mentioned before that Fallout 3 makes for a good AMV subject. It's got lots of strong visuals, lots of good, varied content in its plot and characters, a ton of freedom since you can get an editor program for it for free that lets you tinker with it as you please, and the general feel of the game is dark, gritty, and powerful, which makes it work well with songs of the same style--something most RPGs, which come from Japan, don't share the spirit of as well. So expect quite a few of these AMV rants to be about offerings for Fallout 3--I've had one before, today's is another, and I've got a third on standby for a later rant, too.

Today's AMV is actually 2 in 1. Basically, a creative bloke by the name of Joylock made an AMV for Fallout 3 to the song Land of Confusion, by Genesis, a mid-1980s rock song. Joylock also, however, copied the visual sequence of the AMV he'd made and put it to the recent remake of Land of Confusion, redone by Disturbed. While the general tone of the music is much different for the Disturbed version, turning the song to a louder, heavier rock, the lyrics and pace of it is identical to the original Genesis version, so each AMV is virtually identical. So I figured, why not just post'em both and review them together?

And be warned twice over (or is it 4 times over, given that I'm giving 2 warnings for 2 videos?): 1. The content of this AMV requires some discussion of minor bits of the plot of Fallout 3, so Spoilers, and 2. Fallout 3's a pretty gory game, and although the AMVs don't really emphasize it one way or another, there IS some blood-and-guts content in there.

Fallout 3: Land of Confusion (Genesis):
Fallout 3: Land of Confusion (Disturbed):

Poetry in Motion: The visual component to this AMV is...well, it's pretty great. I mean, yes, the zooms and general movement of the camera is at times slightly jerky, but it's in-game footage. It's forgivable, and so small that it's barely worth even mentioning.

Other than that negligible flaw? Terrific. This visuals do everything they should, everything they're meant to, and do so in good quality. The video pretty much looks as good as the game itself does, and the various post-apocalyptic settings and characters of Fallout harmonize quite well with tone and ideas of the song playing. There are also many visual bells and whistles thrown in here that grab one's attention. Joylock multiple times fades from one scene to another using a central image to connect the scenes--as an example, early on you see this happen at 0:11, where a scene of the US flag changes to a view of a wall poster that has a soldier holding the flag aloft, then changes again to a different poster that has the flag in the background. This sort of thing is neat, and it's shown up in previous AMVs I've shown you all, but Joylock seems to do it with extra skill--using the example I just cited, the scenes go from showing the object (the flag) live and proud, then just proudly depicted, and finally only depicted in the background and in poor shape. Joylock's not only doing the connecting-scenes trick, but he's also using that trick to show the focused object (and all it symbolizes) decomposing. Quite neat, ties in well with the song (as I'll get into below)...and all within the first 15 seconds of the AMV. Other examples of this focal-point-scene-change-thingy: 0:32, where the Eyebot of the Enclave becomes the scene of the Enclave's computer president, 2:17, where you see avenues of various locations in Fallout 3's world, and particularly 2:24, where you see a montage of almost all of the characters who can follow you,* and each is centered and zoomed in on so that their faces are all occupying about the same spot on the screen. There's also the scene-change effect at 2:37 that goes to 2:46, which is a continually spinning shot of a playground where a person is standing on one of those turning playground things (dunno what they're called, actually) that changes from seeing an adult on it to seeing a kid on it, and goes from color to black and white to color again, which is neat, and leads to 2:49, which has some hokey little non-Fallout footage of a family dinner setting from the 50s, that shifts into a scene from the game so that the speaker in the 1950s clip becomes the Fallout 3 main character's father. And there are plenty more in there, but if I go over EVERY neat detail of this video, this rant will seriously just never end.

My favorite visual effect, though, has to be 2:58, where a side-scrolling scene of an idyllic neighborhood goes by a Speed Limit sign, which obscures the rest of the scene as it passes and, halfway through its passing by, changes to the dirty, washed-out Speed Limit sign of some ruins of the regular Fallout 3 setting, giving you a great before-and-after shot that transitions flawlessly. Damn cool.

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music: This is an AMV that is mostly centered around its song. The last AMV I reviewed, the Shadow Hearts 1 + 2 As the Warlock Said one, basically had a story to tell that it used its song for, but here, the opposite's true--the AMV is set up around the music, made to tell the story the song relates rather than have the song emphasize the video's purpose. And it works extremely well--Fallout 3 matches the tone of each version of Land of Confusion near perfectly, having both the disjointed, askew mysticism of the 80s rock in the Genesis version while also epitomizing the harsh, relentless chaos of the heavier Disturbed remake.

In addition to picking a great game for the song's mood, Joylock also matches the scenes shown to the music's lyrics and pitch masterfully. Almost every, if not just every single, lyric line has a scene that coordinates with it--showing various blackened skeletons to the words, "Been haunted by a million screams," showing the characters Gob and Nova listening to the news radio to the words "Did you read the news today," a scene of a far-off nuclear explosion to the words "Burning into the night," a zooming-out shot of one of the many desolate parts of the wasteland to the words "This is the world we live in," a scene of the defaced Lincoln monument to the words, "Superman, where are you now"...all of those are just in the first minute and a half, and I didn't even mention half of the examples from that opening period of the video that I could have. It all still has the feeling of the one component (Fallout 3) being made to work with the other part (the song), without feeling completely meshed and synchronized the way the last AMV I reviewed did, but the scenes and music are nonetheless perfectly coordinated from beginning to end.

But what does it all mean, Basil?: As I said, the feeling of this AMV is that the game was taken and matched to the music's ideas, rather than the other way around. This is usually a bad idea with AMVs, because it often results in a video that's just throwing a game's visuals in there without having them really tied to the message being conveyed in any particular way. Usually--but definitely not here. The ideas expressed in Land of Confusion are a perfect match to Fallout 3, the story of struggle to make the world a good place to live in, against overwhelming adversity. The very core of Fallout 3's plot is that of a few good people going to outstanding lengths to better their hellhole of a world for all who live in it, proactively trying to fix it rather than simply accept and be corrupted by it, even though it's filled from one end to the other with the evils of humanity that made it this way. And Joylock just...completely and utterly ties the song and game together by their shared theme and really gives the viewer something neat.

The major theme in this AMV, from what I gather, is to show the struggle between those whose evil ways perpetuate the hell of Fallout 3's world, and those individuals who throw themselves into their work to better the world, to make it, as the song says, "a world worth fighting for." The AMV starts by speaking of the fallen dreams of the past, showing us symbols of the United States of America, and then drops us into the reality that those dreams are nothing more than dreams with scenes of armed soldiers running through a town's street firing. The chorus, though, is where the real heart of the song and of the AMV lies. "Too many men, too many people," is accompanied each time it plays by the greatest villains of Fallout 3's wastelands--Tenpenny, a rich, deluded asshole who only offers protection in his tower from a world of horrific danger and violence to those who pay him and who is willing to nuke a nearby settlement of people because it obstructs his view, Eulogy Jones, the leader of the huge slaver operation in Fallout 3's area of the wastelands, the Vault 101 Overseeer, who shows that even a man with only a small amount of power can still be a tyrant if put in the proper setting, Ashur, whose good intentions paved the way to a hell of his own creation, a tyrannical society built off the brutalized backs of hundreds of slaves, and of course, the leaders of the Enclave, who want to kill all the people of the wastes to claim the land for themselves in their deluded attempt to resurrect a twisted form of the United States, among others. These villains are powerful symbols of human vice, the evils that caused the Fallout world's ruin in the first place.

At the same time, though, the AMV shows the people of the Fallout world who devote themselves utterly to making their world a place worth living in--Moira, who aims to write and distribute a book on how to survive in the wasteland, Dr. Lee, who works to improve the food and more importantly water of the wastes, Three Dog, who relentlessly spreads the truth across the wastes via his radio station, the guardians of the secret grove of trees to the north of the wasteland, who hope that the forest could one day spread far enough to cover the wastes with greenery and life, Sarah Lyons, the greatest warrior of the one group brave and good enough to take an open stand against the Enclave and Super Mutants that imperil every innocent inhabitant of the wastes, and various other individuals whose list of worthwhile causes range from simply defending a tiny town all by themselves to relentlessly protection of the Declaration of Independence, one of the greatest symbols of freedom and self-determination in history, to an old adventurer whose idealistic explorations in his youth provide a heroic example for next generation. Just as the villains of Fallout 3 embody our greatest vices, the people shown on the other side, working in their own ways to improve their world, embody our greatest virtues--truth, duty, honor, hope, selflessness, heroism, and so on.

The video shows these contrasting groups of people, and also shows the conflict between them, the battle for the future of this desolate world. You see the Joylock's version of the main character, the Lone Wanderer, defeating several of the purveyors of vice that are shown,** while also watching scenes of the battles between the evil Enclave and the virtuous Brotherhood of Steel, along with general fighting among the wastelands against mutants, the residents of Big Town learning how to defend themselves, and so on. You also see the conflict between evil and good in a less tangible sense, with the video contrasting the good and hopeful past with the desolate present, and then finally ending with a glimpse of what could be--a world where pure, non-radiated water flows plentiful, where the wastelands are being covered once again by grass and trees (all with the help of the Fallout 3 editor program; such scenes certainly don't exist normally within the game). The song is both dark and inspiring, speaking of a world full of vices while acknowledging the possibility that it could be turned around people working to make it better, and the AMV shows this perfectly, portraying Fallout 3's world and the conflicts within it that make it seem hopeless, but nonetheless showing the spark of hope that exists within it and ending with a hopeful vision of the future, and a shot of the 2 greatest heroes for the Capital Wasteland's future, Sarah Lyons and the Lone Wanderer, along with the Bible passage that started the game's major quest and struggle.

In all honesty, this is one of the greatest AMVs I've ever seen. Every time I watch it over again, I'm filled anew with respect for how well it's put together. Not a full 10 seconds go by at any part of it where the AMV's story isn't being perfectly told, and for anyone who's played Fallout 3, the AMV's relation to the actual events and people of the game are more than just accurate--they're insightful, making you look back on those aspects of the game with a new appreciation and/or interest in just how symbolic they actually are. It has a message, it portrays its message through unity of sight and sound excellently, it has serious skill in its execution, and it even gives new perspective to old content. I am genuinely impressed by this AMV.

(Oh yes, and as far as which version is better...I personally like the Genesis version of the song better, the Disturbed one being too loud and annoying for my tastes, but I think the Disturbed version might be a slightly better fit for Fallout 3. Like I said before, each has its merits and ties in with the game's world and events, but the harsher tone of the Disturbed version of Land of Confusion just harmonizes better with Fallout 3's chaotic, destructive world, and also better emphasizes the conflict between good and evil shown in the AMV).


** Including one where the Lone Wanderer punches Tenpenny's goon right off the tower. Now that is awesome.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Dragon Age 1's Sex Scene's Equality

Remember a little while back, say, a year ago to this day, when I made a rant about Mass Effect 1's sex scene's inequality, complaining about the fact that the game gives you the option to pursue a heterosexual or lesbian romance for main character Shepard, but does not allow for a gay male relationship? My statement, which I continue to stand behind, more or less was that it cheapens the entire thing to have one homosexual option but not the other, when the one you do include is the one that will be considered "hot" by more of your intended audience than the other option. Now, I ain't a squealing yaoi fangirl, and I preferred in ME1 to play as a female and liked Liara (the female character who will romance your protagonist regardless of gender) the best as a character out of the potential romancers, so I wouldn't really have taken advantage of a guy-guy romance option anyway. But there WERE a lot of people who would have and wanted it, and either way, not having the less marketable one for no reason save the obvious implication that it's not a selling point cheapens what options ARE there. Instead of being a step forward in RPGs for same-sex relationships, it just becomes stupid fanservice.

I fucking hate fanservice, particularly the crude, sexual kind, which it usually is. It cheapens everything around it that might have been worthwhile. It's a fucking blight on the gaming industry, and every other form of the entertainment industry.*

Mass Effect 1's creators, Bioware, must have taken some note of the many protests like mine, however, when making up the romantic possibilities for their newest RPG, Dragon Age Origins. For any given protagonist you make in DAO, you've got two heterosexual options and one homosexual one for initiating a romance, whether you're a girl OR a guy. Not only does this game give you 3 potential love stories for your protagonist over ME1's 2, but it also has made a REAL step forward for equality in love instead of ME1's careless half-step. A big thumbs-up to Bioware for correcting themselves in a worthwhile way, going for story-telling integrity over simple marketability.**

Of course, it does bear mentioning that the sex scenes in DAO are a ME1's PG-13-ish scene used nice camera work and lighting and whatnot to make the implied act and implied nudity believable and even tasteful, while DAO's approach to the whole thing is more direct--the participants are shown more clearly, and they avoid nudity not by implying-but-not-actually-showing it as in ME1, but rather by just having the characters wearing their underwear in each shot during the sex scene. This...well, it just seems awkward and less engaging in most cases, rather than smooth and elegant as ME1's scene was. And there's always the fact that the male character who can fall in love with your male protagonist is Zevran the Tolkien-esque elf jokes are already easy enough ever since Legolas hit the big screen; now they'll practically write themselves. I'm just saying, the game's bisexual girl character is a human who just comes off as a regular (albeit very cool, deep, and interesting) person...why did the bisexual guy have to be a pretty elf?

Regardless of these largely trivial quibbles, though, I'm very, very pleased by this development.*** Bioware's really done good by me on this issue with Dragon Age Origins, and I can only hope that the upcoming Mass Effect 2, should it continue Bioware's tradition of giving gamers varied romantic possibilities, will follow DAO's example of equality.

* With the exception, I guess, being outright porn. Kinda hard to cut fanservice out of the marketing decisions there.

** Not to say that I don't think they had some thought of what the fans wanted when they decided to give the option for a guy-guy love story, since, as I mentioned, there were many people who did complain. But that vocal minority wouldn't affect sales figures in a significant way; all Bioware would have needed for that was the girl-girl option. So I do think it's safe to say that this is an action involving some integrity.

*** Hell, I'd even have to say, having pursued all 4 possible love stories, that the sex scene seems at its most natural and believable when both the participants are guys. Not sure why (although I'd guess it's because the guys have fewer undergarments to wear during it and thus fewer articles of clothing that are there for the whole time, which is a bit odd and distracting), but that's how it seems.