Now let’s talk about something a little different. Final Fantasy V. Not very historical, you say. Well, not every post, or even the majority, is meant to be a history lesson. That’s one of the many services I offer here at Wondrous Windows. One, but not all.
You might ask, though, “Why FFV?” I’m playing it, is all. After buying it nearly a year ago and just barely getting past meeting Faris, I got up to the queen of Karnak in a day. So I think I’m enjoying it. And the Final Fantasy series can tell us a lot about fantasy.
If you haven’t played this particular FF, it’s one of many fantasy games with a “get the crystals” motif. The wind crystal has been destroyed, turns out, and when your party of heroes (a shiftless vagabond, a princess, an amnesiac-but-awesome old man, and a pirate captain) gets there, the remains give them the powers to take on the “jobs” of ancient heroes. This introduces the job class system. It’s the first FF to have such a thing, and the reason I wanted to play the game to begin with. The job class system allows any character to be any class, and the classes level up along with the characters. So the main character could be level 20, but only a level 10 knight, with 5 levels of black mage or thief. You get the idea. It leads to a lot of grinding, since most of us want our characters to be as awesome as possible, which means they need abilities from every class. I don’t think it’ll be as bad as in Final Fantasy Tactics or X-2, just because it limits how many abilities they can keep on at once.
It’s still early days at WW, though, so I’ll refrain from talking too much about the system itself. I’m setting a precedent here, a precedent about fantasy itself. So how is this game fantasy?
Well, duh. There’s no question here, like there is about Frankenstein or some such. No way. It’s got dragons and knights and wizards and princesses and chocobos and magic crystals and women dressing as men and dirty old men who think they might be gay and… uh. Well, a lot of stuff, all right? It’s definitely fantasy. It has that mix of fantasy and SF elements that mark out FF games for us. The first didn’t do that so far as I saw, but the fourth did. And from FF7 on? C’mon. So what?
Well, SF is a kind of fantasy, but fantasy is not a kind of SF. Think of it: fantasy is just stuff that couldn’t happen in the real world, or the “zero world” as some people call it. Think of Earth Prime in DC Comics – Earth Prime is where Superman met his editor once. So it makes a sort of sense for fantasy texts to have SF elements. Often enough, fantasy novels are structured like SF novels – exploring a “what if” scenario, just using magic instead of technology. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell explored “what if” magic had been real in Europe – what effect would that have had on history? SF stories tend to naturalize their fantasy elements. People might be able to read minds and see the future in a SF story, but they’re not witches or seers, they’re “telepathic” and “precognitive.”
That’s a little digression, I suppose. What does all that mean to FFV? Well, it’s not too weird, I guess. That’s not surprising for a Squaresoft (now Square Enix) game. They’re usually pretty conservative. That’s odd for a series that started with the business version of a drunken bet: Squaresoft was about to go out of business and let an internal developer make the game he really wanted to make, and they named it “Final Fantasy” because it was the last game they would ever make. That game single-handedly pulled Square away from bankruptcy, and they’ve never changed the name, despite the sequels, because they wanted to guarantee buyers were getting the same product they enjoyed before. So, from revolutionary to conservative in one sequel, basically. Square tends to experiment with the game system, not the story. But today, at least, I’m more interested in the story. Probably more about the system later, when I’m farther in the game.
The setting features four magical crystals, each tied to a Platonic element – Wind, Water, Earth, and Fire. Old fashioned scientific explanations are very popular in fantasy, because they’re not science, but they were regular enough to exploit for systematic purposes. Indeed, as I’m writing, in Team Fortress 2 one of the most popular weapons is the Phlogistinator, a flame thrower. That comes from the long-debunked scientific hypothesis of phlogiston, an element that left things when they burned. Fire was, basically, phlogiston leaving the body. That’s why things weighed less after they burned, because the phlogiston left. Of course, the current models says fire is a chemical reaction, and the item burning is fuel for the reaction.
So old Platonic idea in fantasy novel. These elements were supposed to be the building blocks of all reality. And while there’s a villain I have yet to meet at this point, what keeps showing up as our heroes run from town to town is that people are using machines to pull more power from the crystals and they’re shattering because of the strain. So, in the end, a very conservative idea has been couched in more radical language: our technological and scientific hubris has put us at odds with the natural world – but more specifically, with the natural world it is our duty to preserve. This is an odd mélange of political patter. What are we supposed to get out of all this? Some people have said that fantasy almost inherently pushes some kind of moral, just because the entire world is sympathetic – that is, the author or authors conceived of a world where everything can be read the way a human character could, and so going against nature is the same as going against a specifically-good character. Whereas in the zero world, here, you can’t even go against nature, as it has no motives.
The characters are running around desperately trying to save the world, but in this game it’s for some pretty selfish reasons. The main character (you can change the names, so I have no idea if yours are the same as mine) is bitter about his father’s sacrifice to the crystals in the past, but protects them for his sake. The princess is trying to find her father. The old man is trying to protect the princess and find out who he is. The pirate is pursuing a lead that might reveal the pirate’s family origin. They’re being framed in a huge plot far bigger than them, and being framed by the inherently-good force that protects the world. They’re being manipulated. They don’t ask for the power of the crystals, and don’t even know what happened when they’re given them. Our heroes have to work out what the hell just happened after the first crystal’s fragments settle on them.
I see an interesting thought inside the game that I really hadn’t thought of before, at least not in the context of all fantasies: fantasy might imply that free will is an illusion, at least within the fantasy’s world. If the entire world has will just like the heroes, then how can the heroes have their own will when everything that has ever shaped or moved them had will as well? So instead of the traditional question of free will, within a fantasy there might be another: does the dog you raise from a puppy have free will in its biggest decisions? Or does your Pavlovian training, meted out to serve your will, control more of the puppy’s life? I don’t suggest there’s a definite answer, but fantasies might ask that question all the time.
A reminder: I haven’t finished this game. Be kind in the comments! No spoilers!