Tag Archive | Final Fantasy Tactics

Broadening Your Gaming Horizons

I’ve been out of college for five years now, and contrary to my mother’s constant predictions throughout my youth, I’ve yet to “grow out of” gaming. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, the medium has grown up, too, and each year brings new and fascinating explorations of player agency and interactive storytelling.

As I’ve matured, however, so have my tastes in games–and as I come to see myself more and more as a critical and academic appreciator of the medium as a whole, I’ve made a conscious effort to try games that, once upon a time, would have been outside of my wheelhouse. Part of this endeavor has meant going back to play the classic games that passed me by as a youth, but part of it has simply been pushing myself to play games that I might otherwise have overlooked because of genre preferences.

This process may have begun as early as the late nineties, when I came home from the mall with a game which was way outside the aesthetic that I usually preferred: Metal Gear Solid.

This was a little too real for me.

I had read an article in the latest issue of the now-defunct gaming mag “Next Generation” about how The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was unquestionably the “game of the century,” which was immediately followed by a review for MGS which stated that if you were one of the unfortunates who happened not to have an N64, then this new Hideo Kojima joint was probably the best that you could hope for. (Of course, even at the tender age of fourteen, I could tell with reasonable certainty that I had already played the greatest game of all time, and it was definitely a PlayStation exclusive.)

As you may recall, I was one of those unfortunates who had picked the PSX over the N64, and I was determined to play this “last, greatest PSX title.”

The only problem was: Metal Gear was scary as hell. You had to sneak around, and your weapons were exceptionally limited, and there was a very loud alarm sound every time someone detected you! The visual aesthetic and tone of the game were realistic, somber, and dramatic–even to someone whose favorite series was a certain anime-flavored, melodramatic epic, the stakes were raised considerably.

Actually, this was about more my speed at the time.

Eventually, of course, I grew accustomed to Metal Gear’s high-tension thrills, and I’ll be among the first to champion it as one of the greatest games of all time. I am certainly among the ranks of those who got a little shiver at hearing Psycho Mantis describe their love of Castlevania.

So–my aesthetic horizons as a gamer had been broadened, and I was better for it.

Several years later, I embarked on a campaign to familiarize myself with a new genre–one with which I had extremely limited experience–the first-person shooter. How was it that I made it through fifteen-plus years of gaming without seriously investing time in an FPS? Well, my family had never had a PC capable of running top-of-the-line games, and as a result I stuck mostly to consoles. Glance quickly at my console ownership history, and… well. Name an FPS worth playing on the Genesis or the PSX.

Yeah? That’s what I thought.

Oh? Yeah? Was that… a thing? Huh. I missed that one.

So, when my buddies and I gathered at our esteemed colleague’s house for a night of Halo, I was that guy. We couldn’t play 2-on-2 matches, because someone would have to get stuck with me. People hunted me down in deathmatch because I was an easy kill, like a tiny flightless bird in a very small pen. I excused myself from the challenges in Perfect Dark because, well, I wanted them to have a chance at victory.

Eventually, just after graduating from college, I decided that I’d had quite enough of that and embarked on a quest to play through the campaigns of the entire Halo trilogy in an attempt to hone my skills. My good friend Sebastian and I teamed up to do it cooperatively, and we became so wrapped up in the challenge that by the time we got to Halo 3, we decided we’d invite some of our other buddies in to join us, and maybe crank the difficulty up to Legendary. You know, for funsies.

Afterwards, I noticed that whenever we played multiplayer, I was no longer at the bottom of the standings! I wasn’t exactly dominating, of course, but I was holding my own. I had expanded my horizons as a gamer yet again–this time, into a genre I’d not been comfortable with. If I hadn’t pressed myself to engage with first-person shooters, I never would have played the first Call of Duty–or Bioshock–or Borderlands! There are so many superb shooters in the medium, and I would have missed them if I hadn’t stepped outside my comfort zone as a gamer.

Aww… I can’t imagine my life without these guys!

Over the last couple of weeks, however, I realized that there may well be limits to how far and how fast we can push ourselves as gamers. As part of my continual effort to engage with classic games of all genres, I picked up a copy of the original Gran Turismo at a flea market. I was immediately impressed with the depth of the customization system, the wealth of authentic cars, and the RPG-like progression that fueled the “simulation mode.” And that’s not mentioning its graphics! It may not look like much these days, but it’s obvious even now that Gran Turismo pushes the PSX hardware pretty heavily.

Well, you know. This was 1998.

As I fooled around with it, however, I realized that despite all of its positive features, it just wasn’t getting its hooks in me. I could appreciate it thoroughly as an excellent game, but I wasn’t invested. I spent a lot of time wondering why it was that I could eagerly memorize half of the Final Fantasy Tactics Battle Mechanics Guide but couldn’t be bothered to look up which cars I should put money into in this “driving simulator.” Was it the fact that there was a huge time investment needed, and I am now a busy adult with (ugh) responsibilities? Was it the fact that I was reluctant to dive down a rabbit hole which was fourteen years old?

Or, I thought with dread, was it simply the fact that I was not into racing games?

Now, hold on, I reassured myself. You played Ridge Racer Revolution and Jet Moto when you were a kid. None of your friends will play you in Mario Kart: Double Dash because they think it’s a foregone conclusion. You’ve beaten every Grand Theft Auto– aren’t those sort of racing games?

Not really, as it turns out.

I wasn’t fooling myself. I knew that just because I liked arcade racers and gangster crime sagas, I didn’t have any real experience with the genre to which Gran Turismo belongs. It bills itself as a “racing simulator,” and though it certainly has an arcade mode, the real meat of the experience is in building a career as a racer, customizing your car, earning licenses, and pimping your ride. The pull of the game is in winning races to earn CarBux to buy sweeter wheels, so you can win more races and earn more CarBux.

And I just wasn’t into it. I doubt that I would be into it if I were to pick up 2 Gran 2 Turismo, or Gran Turismo 5: This Time It’s Personal.

So I’m going to put GT back on the shelf and let it stew for a while. Perhaps it’s simply too far, too fast. Maybe if I were to bridge that gap more gradually, maybe play some Burnout or Need for Speed, I could come to appreciate the greater complexities of the “driving simulator” series. I feel a certain obligation to– as a gamer, as a gaming scholar, as someone who strives to be “well played.” Because I know what wonderful things can come when you step outside your gaming comfort zone–and I hope that as long as I game, I never stop cultivating my tastes.

Achievement Guilt

Here is something that happened to me recently: Having completed Castlevania: Lords of Shadow not too long ago (an excellent title with a lot going for it, I recommend you give it a look), I went back to complete some of the game’s “trials.” This process involved playing through levels I had already beaten in an attempt to accomplish some arbitrary goals: kill a certain number of enemies with counter-attacks, complete a level without healing, beat a boss within a short time limit.

Really, an excellent combat system.

Shame there's not an achievement just for whippin' trolls. I could do that all day.

I was sort of having fun. It felt a little bit like a chore. I felt a little obliged to continue. The game’s combat system was enjoyable enough to keep me engaged, for the most part.

My wife plunked herself down next to me on the couch. “Didn’t you beat this?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, “but I’m not really finished with it.” I explained the trials.

“Why are you going back and doing these?” she asked.

It was at that point, once the question had been voiced, that I had to admit the truth to myself: I was doing it for the achievements because I felt like I wasn’t “done” with the game.

As a young gamer, I was not much of a completionist. There were only a handful of games in which I felt the urge to do absolutely everything–these were the games in which I found the mechanics so compelling, so alluring, that I absolutely had to seek out everything there was to do (and in many cases, manufacture some additional challenges for myself). As an example, take Final Fantasy Tactics: not only did I beat the game multiple times, recruit every additional character, acquire all of the rare equipment, and explore every corner of the optional dungeon, but I began to play the game using regulations that were entirely of my own making. I played it only allowing myself to use story characters. I played it without committing violence against any human beings (I invited them all into my party instead). I played it with a team of five male characters, all of whom were bards (my “boy band” playthrough).

Ramza's the serious one, Olan's the bad boy, Mustadio is the cute one...

So entranced was I with this game that I came up with patently absurd “themes” for additional trips through it, independent of any outside influence.

I don’t tend to pour that much time into a single game anymore. Mostly this has to do with my shift in self-perception as a gamer; I have aspirations of being “well-played” (a fact to which this budding blog is testament) and I play games in many more genres than I did when I was a teen. Partly this has to do with the fact that no game has come out which can compete with Final Fantasy Tactics. But I have been conscious of a palpable shift in my perception of what it means to be “done” with a game since the advent of achievements and trophies, and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to pinpoint exactly what that shift entails.

First let me say that I am no true “achievement hound.” My gamerscore is modest, and the string of numbers next to my gamertag is entirely divorced from any sort of meaning in my mind. The “points” that are connected to achievements carry no weight. My problem is that I cannot help but think of the achievements for a given game as being a list of accomplishments suggested by the game’s developers–a kind of “to-do list”–and this is where I get stuck.

Really reaching for an image to break up all the words, aren't I?

Pictured: Achievements.

Extra Credits did an episode on achievements a little while back, and they do an excellent job of dividing them into a couple of categories: story achievements, sidequest achievements, and achievements that require you to think of the game’s mechanics in new and interesting ways. Anybody who takes a look at the list of achievements for a game nowadays can see the distribution of these achievement types pretty easily.

I run into a fairly major difficulty here, however, because in the achievement system as it stands, there’s no formal distinction between these types of accomplishments. In my mind, that means that all of these achievement types have parity. This is extremely problematic for my concept of what it means to be “finished” with a game. If you were to ask me ten years ago when I’d “finished” Final Fantasy Tactics, I would have told you without hesitation that it was when I’d beaten the final boss and the end credits had rolled. I might have conceded that you couldn’t really claim to have done it all until you’d picked up Cloud, Beowulf, Worker 8, and the rest. But nowhere in my wildest dreams would I have suggested that you hadn’t done everything the game could offer unless you’d played through with a team of cadets using only the classes from the original Final Fantasy

(ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED — OLD SCHOOL (5G))

Boom! Suddenly the whimsy and the devotion isn’t earnest and intrinsic, it’s manufactured. It’s not that I mind developers having a venue for suggesting different ways of approaching their work. On the contrary, I appreciate it. The problem is that I finish a game like Lords of Shadow and I’ve earned 16 out of 40 achievements. Congratulations! You won’t be “done” with this game for a year. Because the story achievements are on the same “to-do” list as all of the extras, there’s an implied equality created here–where before I could have dismissed the sidequests, trials, and extras as material for the fervently devoted (and perhaps I might have counted myself among that number), I now feel an obligation… after all, only half of the to-do list is done!

I get achievement guilt. There are so many worthy games out there that I feel as though I’m doing a disservice to their developers if I don’t take all of the various paths that they lay at my feet. In a world where there are more good games to play than there are hours in which to play them, I have enough guilt about the games I don’t get around to (I’m sorry, Alan Wake! Forgive me, Human Revolution!) without having to worry about playing the games I do finish in the ways in which they could be played.

There are certain achievements which it’s easy to resign myself not to collecting. Playing the Endless Setlist in Rock Band? No, I’m never going to do that. Beating all of The Gunstringer on hard mode in one sitting without dying? Yeah, right. Getting to the highest level in multiplayer in Gears of War? No thank you.

And still I am nagged by my newly-grown sense of completionism. The handful of achievements left uncollected in each game taunts me. I’ve played Dead Space (and loved it!), but I never went back and played it on hard, or played through it using only the plasma cutter. I’ve played Bioshock 2, but I definitely missed the opportunity to smack the Andrew Ryan mannequin in the head with a telekinetically-wielded golf club (IRONY! — 5G). After briefly considering hooking up with Garrus in Mass Effect 2, I eventually decided that my Shepard wouldn’t betray the trust of her former partner Liara… and I missed an achievement for it! (The darn game didn’t even give it to me when I reconnected with her in the DLC!)

<3

Seriously. Could YOU betray this face for an achievement?

All of these achievements goad me because they’re out of my reach not because of my capabilities as a gamer, but because of my available time. I’m almost certain that I could beat all of those trials in Lords of Shadow if I invested a little bit of time. It wouldn’t be time wasted, exactly… the game is fun! But at some point one has to tear oneself away from a game one has beaten, even if one doesn’t feel that one is “done” with it.

Are there others out there like me, who are constantly called to by all of the tasks left undone in a game? Are there others who could have dismissed a sidequest or an optional boss in bygone times, but now feel as though they’re not being thorough? Are there players who pick up a game on the DS or PSP and think “Phew! No pressure here!”?

Maybe we can form some kind of support group.