Despite the increasing visibility of alternate video games and the diverse people making them, there is still an emphasis on escapist simulacrum in popular criticism and marketing. Studios and firms sell experiences that feel “real,” beyond the artificial worlds of games past. They may not be talking about pure polygon counts, as an embarrassing David Cage did in 2013, but they are talking about dynamic breathing, realistic kissing, rope physics, and motion capture. All things to make games better, more emotional, more thrilling. Video games vanish, kill, and stop time. Every game is a single moment, a continuous, immersive reality to be swept up in. They are more real, more able to make us escape, than ever before.
This is a bald-faced lie of capital. That lie has only become more hollow as the leap from console generation to console generation has become less dramatic and as exploitative labor practices continue to permeate the industry. But it’s always been a lie. All you had to do to prove it wrong is play older games, especially in their flaws, unrealities, and inconveniences. For example, Final Fantasy is largely remembered as a first stab at a series that wouldn’t really find its identity until FF4. The most reductive way to describe it is: “what if Dragon Quest had four protagonists instead of one?” It establishes the warriors of light, the sacred crystals, and evil elementals that would become stables of future entries in the series. It’s a classic JRPG, worth revisiting for the curious, but best left alone by most players. None of this is unfair or inaccurate, but Final Fantasy subverts expectations. It’s a game that speaks to the heart of the medium’s ability to make something beyond its code and beyond the material.
In premise, and in its opening moments, Final Fantasy is straightforward. Four warriors of prophecy – named and given a role, like warrior or mage, by the player – have appeared to end the corruption that sweeps the world. The evil knight Garland, the game’s first boss, was only a sign of the evil to come. Four elementals have corrupted water, wind, earth, and fire. The warriors are destined to fight and defeat them. The video game happens.
Even from the beginning, though, strangeness seeps out from the margins of Final Fantasy. Its world is a stagnant place. Its wounds do not heal, even as the party stops the infection. Villages cursed with famine and plague remain barren and sickly. Robots wander long dead halls, repeating the same lines over and over. As the game progresses, you wander from unchanging serf villages to long dead ruins of technological empires. Things have changed, but they aren’t changing anymore. Even the remnants of life in these places feel dead.
Additionally, the player characters are flat and artificial. The crystal warriors emerge from the sea, like Venus, born from myth, from necessity. They come into the world bare, carrying only the macguffins that gave them their name. They exist only as figments of the player, baring the names they gave them, taking the roles they granted. Final Fantasy’s party is made up of shells of being, stats and names with the barest of flavor text.
Granted, this is just video games to some degree. The endless march of technology’s advancement has been, in some way, a fight against the static nature of code. Everything from dynamic breathing and ray tracing to idle animations and NPC schedules serve to make the worlds feel more cohesive. Still, we see NPCs walk through walls or clip through the ground. We see systems clash in unintended ways. Games’ simulacra is a constant fight against their inherent unreality. Final Fantasy leans into its stagnant world by making its structure the entire plot. Final Fantasy II has similar technological limitations, but makes gestures towards a naturally changing world. As the game’s evil empire bombs villages, the player can return to their ruins. Final Fantasy I’s mythical, stagnant world is in part created by the same technical limitations, but the game also works within and with those limitations to make something beautiful.
To summarize, after the party defeats the four elementals, they must end the source of corruption at its origin point, 2000 years in the past. Through an ancient portal, the party travels back to find the source of evil: the knight Garland once more. After the party defeated him at the beginning of the game, the four elementals sent Garland back into the past, so that he, in turn, could ensure the elementals’ power in the future. Garland’s plan is like a cartridge, a closed system with a fixed set of numerical possibilities. He has become a god, and such godhood is akin to video games. The structure of the game is about whiling away the hours, holding death at bay. It’s a closed loop, that ensures the maintenance of power, a fixed set of variables that ensure immortality. Fittingly, Final Fantasy only ends when you kill Garland and end the loop. Thereby, you ensure that the elementals never corrupted the world and that you’ve been forgotten. All your heroic deeds never could have happened. But you, the player, remember them. The only thing that’s real is your own experience.
Even the most emergent of games have hard limits. The possibilities might seem endless, but they are set in code. Our ability to see variance is a side effect of limited human experience. Final Fantasy understands this, but it also understands that a game is not what is encoded on a cart or disc or set of files; a game is something that happens in the space between play and the player. The game lampshades this by directly addressing the players before the closing credits. It proclaims that “[the warrior of light] was YOU!” in the NES version and “you are the warrior that crossed time” in the PSP port. Corny as it is, the fact the Final Fantasy reaches through the screen and acknowledges the player’s presence is deeply moving. Distanced through code and UI and digital marketplaces are other human beings, typing on keyboards or thumbing controllers. Beyond the screen is another body.
Video games are not empathy machines, they don’t help you understand or know someone else, but they are still a form of communication. Though they never happened, they stretch across time and make something new. Though video game marketing often wants us to lose ourselves in an immersive world, games are at their best when they draw attention to their artifice and thereby our identities, our bodies, and our memories. Final Fantasy I’s simple fantasy story blows out to become about the beauty and reality of personal, subjective experience. That is more real than any attempt at pure simulacrum could be.
Video games do, they mean, they make meaning. They always have. While we might look for some future where things are better, more real, more cohesive, or even just more representative of the world around us, those days will never be found in the cold code of corporate offices or video games past or present. It can be found in that space between play and player, in our own memories, and in the things we make for ourselves. Final Fantasy is, of course, as compromised by code and capital as anything else. But also understands that once the experience has been had, it belongs to those who had it. Material reality cannot be ignored, but neither can subjectivity and what it can do to shape the world. If we are ever to divest from the video game industry, to make something freeing and beautiful, we must recognize our own value, the value of our history and our limitations, and free ourselves from the expectations of canon and market. For a moment, for which I am grateful, Final Fantasy showed me what a better world of criticism could look like. I smiled back at it, aware of my hands holding the controller, aware of my heartbeat, and aware of what I could do with them.