I am new to the Final Fantasy scene. When I was a kid, I played the original Final Fantasy about 80,000 times. I was obsessed with it. But I never advanced along in the series; we got a Genesis instead of a Super Nintendo, and a 64 instead of a PlayStation. It wasn't until high school that I played Final Fantasy II and III, and it wasn't until college that I played IV, V and VI. One day during August of 2010, I sat down to start Final Fantasy VII. I had heard only the greatest of great things from people, and was very excited to start. After being amazed by the opening FMV, I was extremely puzzled. I stopped the game, took the disc out and examined it more closely. It still read "Final Fantasy VII - Disc 1." Just to make sure, I went online to look at screenshots from the game. As I stared at them in disbelief, I thought to myself, "THIS is the game that everyone went nuts over? Seriously? These guys look like freakin' Popeye. No, they look like the cartoons that Popeye watched." I am not someone who puts a lot of emphasis on graphics; if anything, I go out of my way not to do that. But I know that a lot of people judge games almost solely by the quality of their graphics, and it really shocked me that Final Fantasy VII seemed to win people over despite its cartoonish character models.
After finishing the game, I was pretty overwhelmed. I really wanted to start Final Fantasy VIII, but was a little wary; it doesn't exactly have the greatest reputation among RPG fans. After finishing it, I couldn't believe how far the series had fallen after only one installment. I watched Final Fantasy completely reinvent itself in each installment, constantly honing and refining its system. Then when it finally struck mainstream gold, it stopped. Sure, VIII has a lot of innovations, but most of them are superficial. Solely by playing the game and doing no other research, it is very obvious that during VIII's development, the higher-ups at SquareSoft saw how successful VII was and demanded that VIII do everything it can to cash in on that success, rather than pave its own way. Ultimately, VIII is Square's half-assed attempt at remaking VII.
Final Fantasy IX came and went. There are things to like about it, but it constantly trips over itself, and seems to have no idea what kind of game it wants to be. One thing I noticed about IX was that its intentionally traditional storyline and characters didn't bother me until they tried to add some VII and VIII-like elements to it near the end. There is no question that VII has the better story, but I really enjoyed what was happening during the first half of IX. Was it specifically because it was an old-school type of story that the nostalgia center of my brain so desperately craves? No. I realized that it's because the developers didn't take it seriously at all. A wacky storyline can't be taken seriously, and when the game tries to do that, the player's experience suffers.
This got me thinking about Final Fantasy VIII. You would be hard-pressed to find a more nonsensical and ridiculous story in a game where the story is about all that matters, yet the developers took it so damn seriously. These grown men really thought that this was great storytelling that they were doing. I don't completely blame the developers for the way it turned out, because if there ever was an example of an incomplete game, Final Fantasy VIII is it. It is achingly obvious that the developers were scrambling to meet their deadline and still failed anyway, so they had to sloppily patch up the gaping holes that were left. This is where the lessons I learned from IX come into play. IX succeeded when it didn't take itself seriously, but failed miserably when it did. VIII's story was a little too ridiculous to be completely redeemed by not taking it seriously, but it would have certainly softened the blow.
Naturally, the next game to which I applied this lesson was Final Fantasy VII. It has a great story that's taken quite seriously, and the combination of those two factors is, for the most part, what made VII such a success. But was it really that simple? Even without close examination, VII has some pretty wacky parts. But it never stops taking itself seriously, so why don't we hold these parts against it? Is our mind too clouded by nostalgic fog for us to give a shit? I don't think so. There's something going on in our subconscious that makes it okay, and it's an effect that the developers almost surely had no idea they were inserting into the game.
As I mentioned before, Final Fantasy constantly reinvented itself in its first seven installments. But as the 90's wore on, video games became more and more profitable, and following that, more and more expensive to create. The more money a company spends in developing a product, the fewer risks it is willing to take with it. As we all know, VII completely changed the game, so to speak. SquareSoft took a lot of risks with it, but they also spent a lot more money on it than they were used to spending. Obviously, I can't say what I'm about to say with any measure of certainty, because for some reason I wasn't a part of the game's development process, but I'm still confident that it is at least very near to the truth. In the first six Final Fantasy games, the characters are all shown in the super-deformed style with huge heads; they just look generally cartoonish. For VII, the developers had already rolled the dice by making the storyline the focus of the game, which was a pretty novel concept in 1997. It is my belief that executives at Square were not willing to change everything about the series at once, not only out of fear of alienating its fanbase, but also because of the tremendous risk of it being any good, which is why they insisted that the characters retain their signature cartoonish looks. I mean, what other explanation could there be? In a game with beautiful realistic pre-rendered backgrounds, why make the characters look as wacky as they do? It's not like it's any more difficult to model characters with small forearms; in fact, it's easier than adding the extra polygons necessary to give them bloated ones. The people in charge of the graphics unwittingly made the best decision of their lives when they settled on cartoonishly-deformed character models with solid colors instead of textures, because it essentially gave the game license to do whatever the hell it wanted.
So why does taking a crazy storyline seriously ruin a game? This may not seem like a question that even needs asking. I mean, it just seems like a bad idea, but that's not a good enough answer. To find the answer, let's look at Final Fantasy VIII again. There is something called "suspension of disbelief" that allows us to deal with outlandish situations. This will only take us so far, though; once the situation gets out of hand, we stop suspending our disbelief and start getting pissed. We can only overlook so much craziness. Final Fantasy VIII routinely goes too far. "Oh, so Squall and Zell grew up at the same orphanage. Interesting. Oh, and Seifer was there, too! And Selphie! And Irvine! And...Quistis? Uhh, ooookaaaay. So it was just a little game that they were playing among themselves, acting like they didn't know each other. I see. Oh, they really don't recognize each other. And it's because Guardian Forces live inside their heads and erase their memories. That's it, I'm out. You win, developers. I never would have thought that you could go too far in a fantasy game, but you guys are breaking new ground as usual." This is either the most or second-most ridiculous plot point from Final Fantasy VIII (although now that I really think about it, it could easily be fifth or sixth; there are just too many insane parts to mention), but that doesn't mean that another situation that is equally nonsensical would also prevent us from suspending our disbelief. What about the original Final Fantasy? The whole time-loop thing could not make less sense. It's a lot like the whole time compression thing from VIII. Even though they are roughly equal in terms of how illogical they are, one of them is remembered as arguably the worst villanous plot in the history of video games, and the other is remembered as a quaint little footnote from a great NES game. This is because standards change based on how seriously the developers take themselves.
But how do we know how seriously a game takes its story? You might say, "I don't know, you just do. You don't have to think about it. Just by playing it, you know." This is true, but it doesn't explain how. One of the more obvious ways that this is done is through dialog. It helps to establish the mood and tone of the game. Are the characters cracking jokes, or are they all very stoic? But video games are an audio-visual experience. The music and graphics can do just as much to establish the tone, if not more. Now as far as Final Fantasy games go, the musical tone doesn't really differ from game to game. Sure, each game does have its signature "sound" (especially Final Fantasy V), but for the most part they all establish a fairly serious tone overall. Graphics can affect the mood in very obvious ways (compare any Mario game to any Resident Evil game), but also in more subtle ways. The way that affects our experience of Final Fantasy games is the realism of its graphics.
Final Fantasy VIII was a game that strove for complete graphical realism. Given everything I've talked about so far, you may think I'm about to tell you why this was a mistake made by the developers, but that's not the case. Making graphics as realistic as possible is an approach that does have merit. When things look realistic, you can elicit some powerful responses from the player in fantasy games. For example, if the Lunatic Pandora hadn't been so obviously pulled out of the developer's asses that it was dripping with fecal matter, seeing the FMV where it floats over Esthar would have been pretty damn awesome. Deftly inserting fantastic things into a realistic setting can have really great effects. The problem that realistic graphics presents is that it limits a game's content to being mostly realistic. Just think about real life. Every once in a while, you see something that you've never seen before, and it's an amazing experience, but usually the things you see and experience are things that follow the rules of the world that you've created in your head. Realistic video games are no different. When a game like Final Fantasy VIII tries to visually mimic real life, all it's really doing is increasing its degree of difficulty with a disproportionally low potential reward. It's imposing upon itself the standard of real life, and if it doesn't approach that standard, it will fail miserably.
With that in mind, let's look at the character graphics; after all, they're the reason I'm writing this article. As we've already discussed, Final Fantasy VII's characters have cartoonish proportions with solid-colored polygons. This last point is extremely important; instead of assigning textures to the character models to give them detailed and realistic-looking clothing, they use blocks of plain colors. This is what changes the characters from cartoonish-looking to fully-fledged cartoon characters. Final Fantasy VIII's characters have realistic human proportions. The characters' polygons have textures, which allows the player to see that Squall is wearing a bomber jacket instead of just a brown blob. This makes the characters into real people, rather than cartoon characters, which imposes upon them the bounds of reality. This means that when they start talking about demons inside their head messing with their memories, our bullshit alarm goes off. If this plot point had been present in Final Fantasy VII, we would still have the same reaction, but it would be shrugged off for the most part. Just think what would happen if you took the characters and plot from Final Fantasy IV and gave them a graphical overhaul with realistic Final Fantasy VIII-like graphics. All of Kain's constant side-switching, Rydia going to the Land of Summons, going to the moon in the Big Whale, Golbez turning out to be Cecil's brother, and everything involving Zemus would not have sat well with players. Subconsciously, your expectations would have changed. When it's presented to you on the Super Nintendo with brightly-colored pixelated graphics and big-headed character sprites, your subconscious expectations drop, and the developers have license to present you with a more outlandish story.
Final Fantasy VII is a more interesting example, because it has both realistic and cartoonish graphics. The realistic backgrounds, combined with the more modern and (relatively) more believeable storyline with fewer instances of blatantly disregarding logic and cohesion give the game a truly unique feel, and are largely responsible for the game's stellar reputation, but it is the cartoonish character models that upgrade the game from absolutely fantastic to transcendent and legendary. After my first playthrough, I was under the impression that this game was perfect. It wasn't until I reflected upon the experience and broke it apart that I noticed the flaws, and even when I found them, I didn't really care. All games have flaws (well, except maybe Ocarina of Time, but that's just my opinion). You really can't make a game without tripping up here and there. How games deal with these mistakes has a huge effect on the way we feel about them. Final Fantasy VII (almost certainly unintentionally) gives itself license to go much farther than any other realistic-looking game. We gloss over everything it does wrong, which allows us to focus on everything it does right.
It is important to note that I'm not saying that Final Fantasy VIII's only problem was its realistic character models. That is far from the truth. I could write a book painstakingly detailing its laundry list of flaws. Moreover, after reading this far, you may be under the impression that I think that the lousiness of the Final Fantasy series during this millennium is due to its increasingly realistic graphics. This is not true either, though the graphics haven't helped. Somehow, the series' storytelling has gotten worse over the years, and the things it's doing today wouldn't have flown in the 90's either, but that's a story for another day.
I'm writing this for two reasons: One, it is really interesting to me that Final Fantasy VII's wacky graphics actually make the game better (by the way, this is only one of the many reasons that this game should not be remade), and Two, I'm wondering why people demand realistic graphics. I'm not here to lament the end of the 8-bit era (though I do lament it). 3D graphics have created many new possibilities for video games. For example, you can't make a game like GoldenEye without using 3D graphics. And when I say "3D graphics," I'm not talking about the more recent kind of "3D" that doesn't actually enhance the experience in any way or create any new gaming possibilities whatsoever. The problem that came with video games moving to the original kind of 3D was that 2D was considered obsolete and useless, which is just not the case. 2D games can do things that 3D ones can't. Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario 64 are completely different gaming experiences, both of which have merit, yet developers (the vast majority of them, anyway) only make games like Mario 3 for handheld systems because they're so limited in power. I guess my ultimate point here is that a game's graphics cannot be judged on a linear scale of how powerful the hardware must be to display them. Each game has different graphical needs, and if those needs look more primitive, you can't just write that game off. Centuries from now, some space kid will find an ancient PlayStation in a space dump somewhere. Inside will be disc 1 of some game called Final Fantasy VII. He goes back to his space home, plugs the console into his space tv and sees that the game has worse graphics than his space watch. Just ask yourself this question: How do you want him to react?