Recently I played a video game known as Final Fantasy VIII. What brought me to play it was an unsurpassed experience with an earlier member of the series (FF VII), and I was curious and hoping for a similar adventure when I embraced the eighth installment. Before I get started on my experience with the eighth game, though, I felt that I should introduce the clueless among us to what the Final Fantasy series is as a whole.
Final Fantasy is a Japanese-made series of games that approach James Bond movies with regard to the quantity that have been created (they are currently working on the fourteenth game). They are famed among video game enthusiasts for surprisingly deep, varied stories and gameplay. Each of them are role-playing games, where you control a number of characters who go through events and adventures that encompass epic stories of science fiction and fantasy.
Yet, surprisingly, each game is its own self-contained story and world. Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VIII have wildly different characters in drastically changed worlds. But this is pulled off brilliantly. From the viewpoint of the developers, they have leeway to try new game mechanics without anyone expecting too much continuity. From the viewpoint of the writers, they have expansive room to create an entirely new story, largely unrelated from one to another.
"So what do they all have in common?" you ask. My answer is simple.
The use of themes.
Life and Wonder
In every Final Fantasy, one gets the sense that life is to be cherished. Each game is made with the effort to get you to truly care about the world you are in, so you will react emotionally when things go wrong. Consequently, the games are made to look brilliant, both for visual effect and in service of the theme. Each world is full of life. Often your journey takes you through a multitude of wondrous locations that take many forms. You can walk among the haunting pearl ruins of the forgotten Ancients. You can stride through the broad stone halls of the proud martial men of Fabul. Your journey can force you to challenge your foe in the darkest recesses of the main character's mind, populated with shades of memory. The theme of wonder ties directly to the theme of life, as each Final Fantasy often ends with a climactic battle to decide the fate of the world, a beautiful, wondrous world in danger of absolute annihilation.
The theme of life can also be seen in how the stories play out. In Final Fantasy VII, when all hope seems lost and when the world is about to be destroyed by a titanic meteor, the world extends its very life force to push back the massive rock. Despite all the horrible things that have happened on the planet's surface because of the effrontery and greed of humans throughout the game, the planet comes forth regardless. The fact that the world rallies to the defense of itself and the humans who have exploited it is an inspiring, heartfelt moment. In man's darkest hour, Mother Nature herself stands forth between humanity and extinction. To preserve life, no matter what happened in the past.
Life is a theme seen in every game. In Final Fantasy IV, near the end of the game, your allies throw themselves into the thick of danger without a word of protest, culminating in a touching sequence of events where one by one they fall for you, just to give you a chance at saving the rest of the world. In Final Fantasy VIII, the characters travel through time itself in order to at least try to reverse the apocalypse foreseen to happen. Despite the horrible wasteland of the future, the characters remain determined and refuse to let the main character (who is basically you) feel overwhelmed or doomed. Friendship itself is a theme, for that matter, as every game focuses on making you feel attached to the virtual characters who fight, love, and sometimes die alongside you.
Self-Discovery and Growth
Growth is also a prominent theme touched upon again and again. Part of what makes Final Fantasy VII so compelling is the story of Cloud Strife's journey to discover who he is. This is made altogether more touching as you realize the sheer amount of awful things that have happened to him.
Here is a man who, as a child, was perpetually alone in a small countryside town where all the other children regarded him as an 'Other'. Here is a man who was run through by an eight-foot long katana (no joke) when he sought to save the life of his childhood love. A man who was then genetically toyed with under the scalpel of dozens of faceless, dispassionate scientists, all in the name of progress and the creation of an advanced form of humanity. And it goes on and on.
Later in the game, you discover that Cloud has been a puppet of the villain all along, and the realization proves to be too much for him. He has a massive breakdown, regards life as a pointless gratification of those who have power and those who don't. He becomes trapped in a hazy mist of memory, a dense fog that he has to delve through in order to discover who he is. And it is through that journey (assisted by a very close friend) that he snaps out of it, and realizes that not all is lost. He rallies forth and leads his comrades on to save the world, having overcome his fear and doubt.
Stories like these are prevalent in every Final Fantasy, and the examples are almost too many to list. But Cloud's journey is reminiscent of all the others, and through it we sympathize and find something in common with him, and perhaps learn something true about one's self as we do it.
Thus it is because of these themes and how they affect the story which helps make the Final Fantasy games so damn appealing to me. Along with often addicting gameplay to boot. Hopefully this gushing has helped those unfamiliar with the series understand why it is so loved and why there are so damn many of them. A wondrous world filled with extreme dangers, exotic settings, and detailed characters is hard to turn away from.