There is a new Final Fantasy game on the way. Depending on how you count, this is something that hasn’t happened for three months, six months, two years, six years, or 16 years. The discrepancy between these numbers tells you the most important fact about the Final Fantasy fandom: we’ll argue about absolutely anything.
As a card carrying member of said fandom, I want to first apologize for how incredibly annoying we are. We know. But this arises out of one of Final Fantasy’s core strengths: it is constantly shifting, experimenting in form and function, changing gameplay and narrative styles, with multiple overlapping and sometimes contradictory development lineages. This, combined with the fact that Square is theoretically a company that exists to make money and as such these shifts are driven as much by artistic interest as the need for corporate growth, leads approximately 97% of Final Fantasy fans at any given moment to feel like the “Real” Final Fantasy is dead, and the new game killed it.
Over time this tends towards equilibrium. Every game has its own fans, and once the passing of time frees it from being the load bearing face of the franchise, it no longer becomes worth hating, and everyone feels a little silly about calling Final Fantasy VIII gay and stupid. Everyone has their own definition of what Final Fantasy is, some core element that, when left behind by the series, feels like a betrayal. For some people it’s turn-based combat. Those people have not been having a good several decades. But that’s not the topic of this article. Watching the latest trailer for Final Fantasy XVI, I realized what I needed, and what might just be missing. I figured out what in my heart Final Fantasy is.
It’s simple. Final Fantasy is about Guys.
For over 30 years, Final Fantasy has been providing some of the best Guys around. Auron? That’s a Guy. Vivi? One of the all time Guys. Palom and Porom? Guys so good that Sakaguchi just used them again in Lost Odyssey. The casts of these games do not bat a thousand, but even when the plot ends up asking you to kill a god to break yourself from the chains of fate for the 50th fucking time, you usually walk away from a Final Fantasy with one or two party members that will resonate deeply and remain with you long after you’ve forgotten what an ‘Occuria’ is.
When I think about Final Fantasy IX, I don’t think about the parallel worlds. I have hand on heart completely forgotten what Necron even is. But I remember Quina and Vivi getting married to pass through Conde Petie, and I remember Steiner’s ridiculous misunderstanding over the love letter. When I think about FFVII, despite how important the game’s violent anti-corporate environmentalism was when I first played it, I mostly now think about Red XIII disguising himself as a human. Or Seto’s single tear falling down from his petrified form watching over Cosmo Canyon. Its moments of characterful comedy or melodrama, not the moments of profound statements or thematic ambition, that have truly come to define Final Fantasy to me.
But it’s more than just the cutscenes. Any individual line that Squall speaks in FFVIII is on some level less important to his character than his victory pose, turning away disinterested from the enemy. Auron is not just cool because he shows up in a CGI cutscene and rescues Tidus, he’s cool because he has incredibly damaging overdrives, with the button timer interrupting his sword swing right before impact. These are memorable characters often built out of fun, stock archetypes, whose personality is communicated through movesets and poses as much as it is through the script.
All of this is not to say that Final Fantasy XVI will not have Guys. I did not like the trailer because it was full of boring men in throne rooms saying interminable nonsense about evil imperial politics, but let’s be honest, every Final Fantasy game has at least 90 minutes of those scenes across its story. You could cut together similar trailers from every game I adore and make them look equally as self serious and boring. But one thing that is looking likely (though not entirely confirmed, as of yet) is that this could well be the first Final Fantasy without a traditional party of any kind.
Which is why I’ve been somewhat of a shitposter saying “Guys” (proper noun, capital G) in a serious published article like that means anything, and not just “Party Members.” Because there’s plenty of classic Guys in Final Fantasy who never even get close to your party. Maechen, for example. Or Shinra in FFX-2. He’s just a kid. The crucial part is that they exist outside of cutscenes, that they are contextualized within the world and the play. Shinra might not battle with you, but he’s a constant presence in the Celsius bridge. You don’t simply trigger a cutscene of Maechen telling you things about the world when it is time to hear them, you find him on the road, think oh hey that’s Maechen, and choose to talk to him: this triggers the cutscene.
What might just be a small distinction in context becomes the most important thing in the world when it’s taken away. Cid Raines, from FFXIII, is a ridiculous man with a fun and well executed tragic arc. But despite this, he enters the game in a cutscene and exits it in the same way, his character’s spectrum of expression in the playspace limited to a boss moveset and a few generic barks. Or the NPCs in FFVII Remake, whose often interesting banter and insight is distracting and either washes over you like it’s not there or grinds play to a halt as you stop and awkwardly listen to all of it. The added realism of the fully voiced and naturalistic NPCs creates an uncanny valley effect that used to be bridged with characterful abstraction.
When I was asked to write this piece, it was as a counterpoint to Dia Lacina’s argument that Final Fantasy is about Towns. Towns and Guys, the two forces at the heart of Final Fantasy—and JRPGs at large. The levels and the characters. But as I sat down to write this and walked myself through the argument I realized these weren’t different things at all. You can’t have Guys without Towns because then you’re just watching a movie. You can’t have Towns without Guys because then you’re just looking at buildings. It’s in the friction between the two where the magic happens, that turns these often generic stories with admittedly stock characters into Final Fantasy.
At least to me. Everyone’s got their thing. Spare a thought for the turn based combat guys. They have a point.
Jackson Tyler is an nb critic and podcaster at Abnormal Mapping. They’re always tweeting at @headfallsoff.