Sunday, February 6, 2011

Analysis: Final Fantasy Tactics

Probably the most serious and down-to-earth Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy Tactics is a thematically divided concept. On the one hand, it's a very grounded story about a civil war of succession tearing apart a country, with a side helping of religious corruption and intrigue. On the other hand, it's a Final Fantasy game with chocobos and mages and adorable noseless character sprites. Essentially, I think the development team did the best job they could with the tools they had, which is why FFT remains my favorite Final Fantasy game to this day.

Thematically, FFT can be divided into the "story" and the "game". These are not very different, as is the case for many other games, but it's still different enough to be noteworthy. In essence, both are considered to be part of the "canon", and this can cause some minor contradictions and issues.

Final Fantasy Tactics takes place in the Kingdom of Ivalice, which consists of multiple duchies not unlike a real kingdom. Ivalice's most important recent event is the Fifty Years' War against their neighbor Ordallia, which was costly to both sides. Following this, payment could not be delivered to the soldiers who had fought in the conflict (an event not dissimilar from the Shogunate's inability to pay samurai after the failed Mongol invasion of Japan). This led to rebellion and an increase in banditry throughout the kingdom.

This trouble came to a head when the weak and ineffectual King Ondoria Atkascha died, leaving the throne torn between his infant son-by-blood Prince Orinus and his adopted daughter / half-sister Princess Ovelia. This dispute, largely used as a way for nobles to gain power themselves, resulted in the War of the Lions. Behind the scenes, however, the state church of Ivalice has its own agenda, and is manipulating things to its advantage.

In essence, FFT's plot is largely political. The protagonist's actions deal not with these disputes, but instead with the dealings of the church, who are attempting to gather ancient stones and unlock a sealed demon. Everything  described above essentially exists in the background except where protagonists and their actions are concerned. In fact, most of the War of the Lions is only shown when it intersects with the "find all the macguffins" plot. I can see why they did this, but it also feels like a bit of a waste. Still, the fact that they don't really discuss either conflict in-depth allows the player to imagine what must have happened given the descriptions in the game's libraries.

The background is one major thing that I like about FFT. It's a war of kings and successions - the mundane nature of the strife makes it more believable. Even the "sealed demon" plot is a bit more mundane than most, connecting more into the intrigue and drama of a tangled social web rather than simply being "get all the stones, kill the demon, everything's fine". However, the actual low-key elements are ignored in favor of the comparatively high-fantasy, high-magic plot.

Unlike the later incarnations of Ivalice, the world of FFT holds humanity as the only "sentient" race. Monsters and other creatures still exist, but they are dealt with primarily in the form of random battles (i.e. they waylay travelers). Humans are the only species who have any sort of culture or infrastructure. To me, this gave it more of a direct historical bent. There were no wacky shoehorned races with a single defining characteristic - it's just human interaction.

FFT works on a sort of waypoint map system. It takes a day to travel between "waypoints", and a waypoint represents a general area - a forest, a marsh, a city, a castle, or whatever it needs to be. This suggests a great deal of distance, meaning that 99% of the game world isn't visible and can be assumed to hold farms, mines, and all the other necessary components of a functional society. This is further reinforced by the inclusion of "propositions", or mundane jobs like mining and salvage that your subordinates can be sent off to complete.

One thing that I don't feel is explored enough is the role of magic. In FFT, magic is fairly common - anyone can become a mage given enough practice, and the only restriction on spells is based on "MP" (no material costs and so on). However, there's no real sign of this being a big deal within the setting. For example, despite the presence of mages who can cast healing spells, the country's recent history includes a deadly plague that killed many people, including the parents of several protagonists. Still, there's no explicit detail given either, so it's possible that there were other issues at play.

For obvious reasons, the "party versus party" aspect of combat in Ivalice gets the most coverage. Each class is able to pull its weight fairly well, but like many other games the "normal" humans become unrealistic to make up for this, eventually becoming able to give and take far more punishment than a real person could. In essence, every class is equally "magical", and there's no normal humans within the gameplay. Larger scale combat is given much less attention. It is mentioned that the wars have produced many casualties, but other than that the details of warfare are left to the player's imagination. Still, the presence of magic users in both gameplay and cutscenes suggests that there is at least some level of mage-based warfare in addition to the standard medieval setup.

A special note should go to the role of gender in the game. There doesn't seem to be a patriarchal or misogynist culture in Ivalice - women can take any job a man can (with the exception of Bard, because they become Dancers instead), and there are several prominent female characters like the royal knight Agrias and her subordinates. However, the "important" parts of the plot are largely carried out by men - i.e., most of the nobles and high priests are male. There's no point where gender is overtly an issue, but the undercurrent somehow remains.

Final Fantasy Tactics is the most "serious" Final Fantasy game in terms of its design, through the use of color, lighting, and costuming. This does not make it "realistic" - it's just less cartoony than, say, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (compare the black mages on the right to the black mage from FFTA). As discussed in the last update, the simple use of different palettes can radically affect the feel of a setting.

The armor of the setting is quasi-realistic, but nowhere near "actual" realism - look at the knights above and you'll notice that they basically have a small chestpiece and arm/leg armor. The difference between it and, say, Fire Emblem is in terms of perception, not of design. It's easy to notice Fire Emblem's armor issues, because they're bright and in-your-face. In contrast, FFT's armor design is more muted and thus less overtly ridiculous.

One thing the style does manage to accomplish is to make the materials feel more realistic. Look at the fur lining on the female wizard's coat, or the leather of the male wizard's boots and gloves. I would say that metal is the unfortunate exception to this, especially in the case of dragoons, whose armor doesn't really seem that solid (perhaps due to its coloration). For the most part, though, mundane materials like cloth are well represented. A problem arises when this can call attention to the sillier designs, such as the female squire or geomancer (aren't they cold?).

The part of Final Fantasy Tactics that really makes it my favorite Final Fantasy game is the "generic soldiers". These soldiers consist only of a name, statistics, and (in the original Japanese and re-released PSP update) a single quote connected to their name. However, their nature as dynamic participants in the gameplay means that they endeared to me more than their "unique character" counterparts. FFT does a pretty great job of taking the few lines they get and trying to take as much characterization as they can get from them. In addition to standard combat roles, generic characters can be sent out on missions (as described earlier), and when they return they offer a short report detailing their success or failure.

Generics are not simply the player's tools, however. They can be dismissed and will be upset by this, or they can leave on their own if they become too cowardly or too pious. Each of these possibilities has a set of quotes associated with it that I found to be fairly impressive (skip to "00quotes" on this FAQ):

Dismissal attempt: Won't you rethink this? We've come this far together.
Dismissal attempt: Are you certain about this? I'd thought us faster friends.
Dismissal attempt : I beg you, do not say such things! I'll prove my worth to you, I swear it!
Bravery threat: Fear gnaws ever at my heart. I do not wish to die!
Bravery threat: I...I'm afraid. I do not mean to be so craven, but...I am.
Bravery threat: I beg you, will you not send another in my place when next we face battle?
Faith threat: I've lost all faith in humanity. Are there none I can trust but the gods?
Faith desertion: I had rather obey the will of the gods than yours.

What I like about these quotes is that they illustrate a consciousness outside of the direct control of the player. These are not pawns to be used, although the gameplay would certainly have you think so. These are human beings who either support the protagonist's cause or value his coin. The player can lead them to their deaths if he so desires, but these simple quotes exist to illustrate that in both self-preservational and moral terms, these "generics" still have their own beliefs and desires. This makes them people, rather than tools, and it would have been interesting to me if the game had been able to expound more upon this.

Final Fantasy Tactics is, to me, a game where a lot of very small, finely detailed touches can change the larger influence of the game. The artistic choices make it feel more serious despite the clothing design not being entirely realistic, the political background makes it feel more plausible despite the main plot revolving around magic stones, and the minor quotes and personality traits of generic characters makes them feel more realistic than a standard "blank slate" character. Its virtues are centered largely around these very small details - the game itself is standard in a lot of ways, but the way it's presented is what it differentiates it. It should serve as a lesson to other games about how these simple-to-implement aspects can totally affect the feel of a setting.

To Sum Up:
1) FFT's "mundane" plot makes it feel a lot more plausible than the fantastic-but-disconnected plots of other Final Fantasy games.
2) While many aspects of FFT are industry-standard, their presentation makes it feel a lot more "serious" than comparable games.
3) The fact that so many of FFT's good qualities are found in subtle touches should serve as a message to people who want to design believable worlds.


  1. It's odd that the mundane is often far more exciting and dramatic than the fantastacal. I suppose the fantastical is only interesting until the novelty fades, at which point you're left with a very simple story whose very premise is difficult to relate to.

  2. This article really spoke to me. I'd always loved FFT the most out of the Final Fantasy series, but it was never clear to me why. This was a perfect (?) illustration. Thank you :)