The Complexity of SeeD

The trend in gaming has been to simplify, simplify, simplify. If games are easier, more people will want to play them. If games are less complex, fewer people will quit them midway through, and the more people who beat games, the more people will play more games, more sequels.

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.

It wasn’t until the PSOne came along that we truly got to play games like those, intensely complicated affairs with so much more character progression than just leveling up. Of course, hardcore PC gamers were laughing all the while, because the games that influenced these Japanese titles were the delicious complex Wizardry and Ultima series, released in the late 80’s. These games found modern life in games such as Baldur’s Gate and Fallout, which took their promise and translated it into modern experiences.

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.


  1. FF8 has the best system hands down of the FF lineage. I love it to bits.

    It was a radical departure though, from the simplicity and ease-of-use that FF7 brought to the table. But it was that simplicity that turned me off.

    Who wants a game that plays itself? Bah! This is why I enjoy FF8, FF Tactics, Star Ocean Last Hope and right now I’m having a good bit of fun with Resonance of Fate.

    • It really does. Well, I like VI, too. VI’s is complicated but subtle. VIII is best, though, for sheer brokeness, besides Tactics, maybe. Wizard/Samurai or a character with junctions discs early are equally fun.

      And Resonance of Fate is on my list for the Summer, after I replay VIII (ironically), because I’ll have an HD TV to be able to read shit.

  2. Mason

    I still think FF8 was broken tbh. You had to tediously draw out all your spells, which was the worst for me. MP wasn’t a broken system, it didn’t need to be fixed.

    I don’t think it’s the complication of the junction system that bugged me, it was how the game didn’t do a good job of introducing it to you and that’s what gamers didn’t like it.

    FFT for example, while a very complicated game, introduces things slowly, within the main gameplay and doesn’t require you to read a bunch of side tutorials to fully understand it; It was a smooth transition within the game, something I feel FF8 didn’t do and why it’s one of the only FF games I haven’t beaten.

    • MP isn’t a broken system, but this doesn’t mean there can’t be other systems. And honestly, I never really drew from most enemies. I played a lot of cards, and made lots of items from that.

      VIII has a lot of tutorials, but I think they actually explain everything really well. My first playthrough I didn’t miss anything, and I was somewhere in my early teens then. The problem is that it was a complicated system where you needed to pay attention to the tutorial. This was obviously too much for a lot of people, and then even more couldn’t stomach drawing triples from bosses.

  3. Jared

    Though I hate to say it.. I’ve owned FF8 since it released back in (99?)…and I just got around to beating it this past Sunday. (When I bought it back in 99, I played to the 3rd disk and grinded til I got bored with it. Obviously I was a bit too young to appreciate the game…not to mention, at the time I felt like nothing was up to par with FFVII)..But a lots changed now, and since then I’ve completed FFV,FFVII,FFI,FFII,FFIV,FFV, FFVI, and have decided to start FFVIII from scratch to completion. I’m really glad I did. I still don’t feel that it’ll replace the love I have for FFVII, since that was the game that introduced me to the series. But I’ll admit it is my 2nd favorite FF game in the main series. Though the thought of ‘drawing’ magic felt displeasing at the surface, the perks of junctioning spells made the game really enjoyable. This is a great article and it really hit home, being that I finally beat the game less than a week ago. Needless to say it feels good to have this 12 yr old burden off my chest. =]

    • Jared

      Oops, didn’t realize I posted some of the games I completed twice. But either way, all I have left to beat is FFIX…and since FFIII didn’t make it to a Playstation platform, I’ll ignore that until it does. I own FFXI, but I’m not an online gamer…and technically since its an MMO-i dont know if its possible to ‘complete’ the game. So I’ll keep that on the shelf to collect dust. Same goes with FFXIV, whenever Squenix decides to release it. It’ll look good in my collection, but its just going to collect dust.

    • Holy cow, a 12 year old burden? Congrats!

    • Dude, I totally understand that feeling. It took me probably 10 years to finally get over the hump with Chrono Cross and now it’s one of my favorite games.

      Also, FFVIII is actually only my fourth favorite game in the series. Which isn’t a knock on it, I just love VI, VII, and Tactics a whole hell of a lot. Actually, VI and VIII depend on the day of the week.

      • Jared

        Yeah, I can see the draw that people had for VI…and I know the FF O-Gs (yes..original gangstuhz! haha) swear that VI was the byfar the best. Thats the reason I went back to play through all of the older games, and I can definitely see the draw that VI had, however, it just didn’t appeal to me as much.

        I tried to adjust my mindest back to the era that these games were ment to be played, ignoring the graphics and what not, and thats not the problem. But after playing through VII-XIII before trying the older sprite based games, its just hard not to feel like there was an extra layer of depth… whether graphically, narritive(ly) or what have you.

        There was just points in the game where I felt like Terra, as the main character took the back seat a little too often. Which had its benefits, because all of the characters had more fleshed out stories and moments, but at the same time, since she was the main chracter, there shouldn’t have been any question about where she went or whats going on with her. I felt like forcing us to play without her during some of the important plot points was equivalent to not playing through cloud’s recovery/memory portion of the game in VII. Yeah I admit, it was probably the most boring part of VII. But it was pivotal to the story. And I feel like VI missed on some big opportunities to have the same pivotal moments. When Terra was out of the party, it felt reminescent of XII, where the main character wasn’t even the main character, he was just the proverbial ‘glue’ to tie the rest of the stories characters together. But then again, I’m playing the games in retrospect, so its not really right to fault the earlier games due to the progressions made from the latter games. But since I’ve been exposed to the newer ones first..its hard not to judge. Either way, as a late comer to the series (jumping on board with VII), I found a lot of self satisfaction in going back and “knowing my roots” by playing all of the older ones…even though personally they don’t hold a candle to the PSone era FF titles. And I agree Tactics was a wonderful game, one of these days when I’m comepletely caught up with my backlog, I’d like to replay Tactics via the PSP port: War of the Lions…

        Sorry so lengthy! =P

  4. Jared

    Yup…I still have to finish FFIX, thats working its way up there too. But’ I’ve got too big of a backlog to catch up… I just started AC: Brotherhood last night, and I’ve got 5 more PS3 games still in the shrink rap..its been a busy year. And at this rate it shows no signs of letting up. Haha.

  5. catduck

    i thought irvine’s limit was really good, with the right ammo you can do really good damage, selphies sucked though

    ff8 was a good game

  6. Jared

    Selphies wasn’t too bad, I was always reluctant on using magic and curative items, since it would force you to refine or draw that magic back at some point, so her full-cure was awesome. I din’t play much with Irvine, but I found just about everyone else pretty useful. Could never get Angelo Search to activate…but its ok I got most of the important and hard to find items via pocketstation.

  7. Graham

    What’s with all the Irvine hate? Irv kicks ass!

  8. Jared

    Personally I don’t care for characters whose weapons are ‘item dependent’ meaning that you have to acquire items (in this case ammo) take advantage of his abilities. Not only that but I feel like Irvine was FFVIII answer to Vincent (even though all they really have in common are the fact that they are both gunners..and guys.) I just felt like his role was the most superficial.

  9. Einlanzer

    I agree with this article. It took me three tries to beat this game after I got the Junction System down. This was when I was 12. FFVIII was my first FF and the third one to pass after FFVII and FFIX. The junction system was brilliant, to costume made your character like you wished and if you think about it, it was fun, including drawing and enemy dry for that spell thought I never had the courage to draw 100 Ultimas from Ultima Weapon. I just had to take that monster down and get Eden. It really wassint that complex. It all takes commons sense. Haste for Speed, Shell for Spirit, Protect for Vitality, Tornado or Quake for Strength, Full Life for HP. I play this game over and over again and I never get tired of it.