The Complexity of SeeD
Simpler games mean more money, put simply.
Complexity in games is certainly different from difficulty, the subject of this month’s omnitopic, though the two are often related. The earliest games were extremely difficult, but most featured two buttons and few had even the most rudimentary concepts of player progression and development. In Super Mario Brothers the only way to get better was through trial and error, and the tutorial was the first goomba, walking at you. In Final Fantasy, you improved by leveling up, but the concept of leveling up was not much more complex that killing enough monsters to get more hit points. It was Mario’s trial and error codified into a straight, simple progression, mostly because you couldn’t get much better at hitting the attack button. Contrast this to modern games, where tutorials are all consuming but the games themselves are easier than ever. In fact, they are designed so anyone can complete them.
During the Super Nintendo days, when all games came out of Japan, none of the truly complicated ones ever made it over to America. People look at me funny when I say the SNES had some brilliantly complicated games, and they remember Mario World, Super Metroid, and Final Fantasy VI*. My first reaction to this is always to claim Final Fantasy VI is secretly a very complicated game, with arcane, unexplained mechanics that allow you to completely break your party, but then they retort by saying they never understood any of them and still beat the game. Fine, I respond, and list off a string of titles: Final Fantasy V, Bahamut Lagoon, Romancing SaGa, Shin Megami Tensei. All very complicated games.
All very Japan only, too.
And now here we are, years later, with games back on the downswing towards simple and easy. What happened? Well, marketing happened. Games got more expensive. You needed every sale, now, to turn a profit on a high profile game, and some people were turned off by complex systems. Some people were turned off by difficulty. A difficult, complicated game had a smaller market than a simple, easy one with good production values, because the people who bought the difficult ones also bought the simple ones. This has led to innovations like letting the game play itself for you, auto aim, and the return to simpler times when you leveled up in a fairly linear fashion.
Of course, RPG elements are also hot, so now you level up in a fairly linear fashion in everything: RPGs, first person shooters, action games, adventure games, you name it, you can level up linearly in it. At the same time, RPGs do not allow you to level up nonlinearly, because that would be too complicated.
Some people see this as a triumph: RPG elements are fun, killing dudes is fun, being confused is not fun. But me, personally, I long for a more complicated time, when our comic books were filled with dystopian alternate realities, our men wore flannel shirts and sung about their feelings, and when children could go to a military school where they could be ritualistically brainwashed by ancient deities and then attach potentially dangerous, memory destroy magic to themselves to allow them to beat up sorceresses.
I speak, of course, of Final Fantasy VIII.
FFVIII’s Junction system gets shat on a lot. Put simply, it’s the logical progression of the much beloved Materia system from Final Fantasy VII. The Materia system let you place poisonous balls of magic on your equipment and then cast super awesome spells; they also subtlely influenced your statistics, so that someone with a lot of spells was also a weaker physical attacker. It allowed for some specialization, but it took a true wizard to create a Cloud much different from anyone else’s Cloud. It allowed customization, like FFVI’s Esper system (which had deities in the form of magic stones teach you magic and raise your stats; don’t Final Fantasy systems sound dumb when you break them down like this?), but it didn’t allow too much freedom. You were still using the same characters to do the same things, in general. In Barrett’s immortal words, there was no gettin’ off the train you were on.
In its sequel, however, you got a bit more of that old school PC RPG influence, the kind of influence that was crucial to the development of these Japanese games. FFVIII made everyone roughly equal* and then let you go to town, placing Guardian Forces on each character to completely customize them.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the tipping point. FFVIII’s system is utterly brilliant if you are like me, the type of person who delights in completely destroying games. Enemies scaled with your level, so if you didn’t level up they wouldn’t, either. Compound this with the fact that you could play cards to collect a million super powerful spells before you left Balamb, and suddenly the Junction system spoke to me, providing me the option to make party members with incredible powers. As a hardcore gamer, this was the height of fun in the late 90’s.
The problem was, for every person who loved the Junction systems complexity, there were ten who hated it. It’s fatal flaw was that it required mastery of the system to beat the game; if you just idly leveled up, you’d end up with a party as weak as a wet noodle. You had to be engaged, and you had to focus on specializing your characters into walking engines of destruction. It wasn’t completely obvious how to do this, so people would get stuck, somewhere in Disk 2, because they didn’t have a hundred Quake’s junctioned to their strength to make their characters death machines. They hadn’t even tried to research how to junction to stats. They’d let the game decide, and the game decided that GF Attack +10% was the way to go. They hadn’t read the tutorial because reading was for saps.
Simply put, the game wasn’t fun unless you made an effort to actively engage with it. Of course, we’d laugh at someone who thought a book or movie wasn’t great without actually trying to read or watch it, respectively. But a video game? You had to be able to succeed without trying.
Even more so than Final Fantasy VII, VIII has been monstrously influential, and it has been in the worst way. Final Fantasy VII taught everyone that their game had to be full of pretty, expensive cutscenes to make money; Final Fantasy VIII taught them that the game had to be able to pretty much play itself for anyone to care about it. And since VIII, with a couple exceptions, Japanese RPGs have been watered down, weak affairs. There are exceptions, the games that kind of followed in VIII’s footsteps, and those are the games we remember as brilliant experiences: Final Fantasy X (a little bit of XII, though XII had difficulties elsewhere), the Shin Megami Tensei series, Dark Cloud 2, Shadow Hearts: Covenant, Disgaea, et cetera. Games that weren’t afraid to challenge the player a little bit with their systems instead of just being straight grinding processionals backed by big budget cut scenes. The worst offender, naturally, has been Square Enix, who followed up these Final Fantasy’s with Kingdom Hearts, a game any moron could play without any systems remotely resembling complexity. You were given a choice of how you wanted to play the game (Offense, Defense, or Magic) and then the game made sure you were suitably powerful. Final Fantasy IX featured a system with some cool ideas but generally which just forced people who didn’t want to grind into keeping crappy weapons equipped for hours longer than they wanted. Now we have Final Fantasy XIII, a game with a potentially complicated collection of system (in fact, I would say at first blush they are extraordinarily complicated) that, underneath the fluff, are the simplest in the series since IV, at least for the first twenty hours of the title. Instead of making difficult character development choices, everyone can do everything, all the time! Isn’t that better?
So here’s to you, Final Fantasy VIII. You were, for all intents and purposes, the high water mark of video game complexity, the closest a complex brand of difficulty ever got to the mainstream. Every time a forum user throws you under the bus as a piece of shit, I die a little inside, because I know your intentions were pure, and all you wanted was a world where the hardcore could enjoy games with interesting systems. It’s not your fault that the world revolted and decided that all RPG elements must be simple, straight lines instead of glorious clusterfucks, but our own. And that’s the saddest part of all.
*except that, you know, the correct party was Squall, Rinoa, and Zell/Quistis because they had the best limit breaks, or, rather, that Irvine and Selphie’s sucked.