Part six in our ongoing retrospective letter series. An index of all letters can be found here.
From: Leigh Alexander
To: Kirk Hamilton
Subject: You've Got To Keep Your Promise
Psyched to know you are now tasked with dredging Cloud out of Mideel. I mean, because you can’t start renting Chocobo stables until you get him back. Nasty of ‘em, right? They open up the entire world to you, but the desire to explore and conquer and consume is at war with the fact your lead character is missing.
Your annoying, cocky, noncommital, vague and spaz-prone lead character. Wouldn’t it be kind of fun if it were like playing Chrono Trigger and you could just let him stay there? How do you feel about losing Cloud for a bit: Frustrated impatience, liberated relief, or a genuine sense of rift? If it makes you feel any better, this is Tifa’s Moment, so go save him. I almost feel like we can’t keep writing until you revisit old Nibelheim through the lens of Cloud and Tifa’s memories, anyway.
By the way, speaking of all the things I’m terrified you’d miss: When next you go to Tifa’s house, play the Highwind song on the piano. There’s sheet music there should you need it, but, like, you’re a musician, right? Just don’t miss it.
From there, things get interesting, once you have full access to the world. Well, almost. You’re getting there, but the airship certainly helps. This is something I thought a lot about while I was replaying; that “access to the world” was something I used to really eagerly crave in the world of older RPGs. The constraints of your travel were always really clearly delineated, and you’d see all these “what’s that over there?”-type intriguing zones that you would really patiently aim to ensure there was actually no way you could reach, enduring enemies and battles as, rather than move on to the next town or whatnot, you traced circles around some unreachable platform or walked a sprawling line you hoped would allow you to defy the bounds of nature and reach an inaccessible cave.
I mean, I’ve done that since the days of Zelda and Castlevania—exhaust all my exploration options and bang my head against the limitations of my current equipment until I have to concede, accept I’ll just need to come back later, trust I’ll get some new vehicle or ability that’ll allow me more latitude eventually.
I don’t actually play like that today. I’ve almost been trained out of it; I think of open-world games that allow you the ability to traverse miles of nothing—for no reason. Like, you can wander out into the wilderness or into the wasteland, but there’s really no game out there, and all you’ve really gotten out of it is that you’re now tedious long minutes away from your intended destination.
Sometimes, these days games even penalize you for exploring, letting monsters become dense and insurmountable as a way of keeping you on the path. Nobody uses invisible walls anymore, but they use things that are just about the same thing. It breeds an aversion to freedom and exploration. Modern RPGs give you the appearance of openness, but they’re really quest or mission-based. The narrative tells you where you’re supposed to go, and there’s rarely any benefit to ignoring that; you’re not going to find some new town packed with hidden prizes, some cave full of minigames. You might get to mess around with some side-character’s elaborate dialog tree and do some minor fetching for them, but it’s not the same.
Games like FFVII, and many that came before it—like the aforementioned Chrono Trigger, for example—took virtually the opposite approach. They relied on the player’s innate desire for discovery and often excused themselves from instruction. Generally you had a reason to set off in a certain direction, to seek a person, place or thing, but there was almost always something to do or see if your curiosity took you elsewhere. The game relied on you naturally coming upon it.
I think that’s one of the larger reasons why franchise fans reacted negatively to FFXIII, actually. It never let you “out” of its linear pipeline, which is something a Final Fantasy game has never done to us before. People speak of patiently investing some 20 hours or so in FFXIII in hopes of opening things up -- and then of gradually losing that hope, of feeling slowly let-down, as it becomes increasingly clear things never will open up.
So as I was playing FFVII again, I actually found it’s not in my nature anymore to just kind of wander around and see what I can do. I was relieved to be able to rely on my memory of what I can do when -- here’s when I get to go back to the Gold Saucer, here’s what I need to reach these areas now, here’s when I can reach those later, here’s when the Chocobo stables become available to rent. I don’t have that kind of patience for the arduous discovery process anymore, and that I think of it as “arduous” may suggest that this is one element of the format that it may be better we’ve left behind, at least as long as encounters are random and battles are repetitively turn-based. This is why people were so happy when games began showing enemies on the map and allowing you the option to engage them or not -- you could still run around, you just didn’t have to be interrupted every fifteen seconds when you didn’t want to battle.
But this is why I keep pestering you by going “did you do this” and “did you do that.” Because I wonder if it occurs to you anymore, that old-school exploration style that’s no longer innate to me either. I mean, you LEFT VINCENT IN NIBELHEIM until I bugged you about it. Like, you saw this dude who the game wants you to want; it wants to you figure out how you can get him and you just LEFT HIM THERE. How would you know that once you get Cloud back you’re supposed to return to the Chocobo stables and rent stalls when the game doesn’t actually give you a reason to go back there?
These old JRPGs don’t want you to just trust that they will deliver you everything eventually, the way we trust games today. They want you to say “screw your storyline, I’m gonna mess around in this frog forest and continue random archaeology experiments in Bone Village until I get something special. I am going to wander around this haunted ShinRa Mansion until I figure out the combination to this safe because there is a guy there and he is coming with me at my earliest possible opportunity simply because he is an unanswered question, an unfulfilled opportunity.”
The language of a newly-opened map is one we’ve totally forgotten, I think. When you get an airship—a notable rite of passage in most FF games (all? Help me out here, obsessive commenters)—there’s nothing these days that can match that sense of power, nor the appetite, the obsessive curiosity it engenders when there is still some spot you can’t see how to get to. I bet you could breeze through FFVII in 40 hours and still enjoy the story. But people spend 80, 100 hours on it for a reason. Because it’s just challenging you by existing to try and figure it out; that’s a game you make yourself.
Really want to know if it’s reminding your brain of that language. And I want to see if you can really do this -- it is not easy, cheap or brief to make a Gold Chocobo. Or to beat Emerald and Ruby Weapon. Or to get anyone’s level 4 Limit Break or their ultimate weapons. I mean, YOU LEFT VINCENT BEHIND. I’m worried about you. Not only do I want to see if you can do this stuff, but I am curious to see if you feel the urge to, or if it just feels pointlessly hardcore to you to be so completist in an era where games have removed from us the pressure to be completist.
Damn kids today. All soft.
PS: Did you realize that your characters have TWO limit breaks for each level, and you have to manually set it in the menu and use the first one a certain number of times before you can get the second one? The first time I played it, I didn’t realize this until I was late in the game and couldn’t understand why no one would learn their level fours.
PPS: I’ve never beaten Emerald Weapon myself. Scares me too much. You can take that as a challenge, if you want.