In life, there are seemingly endless choices of activities that one can fill one’s time with. Sure, work is fun (huh?) and socialising is enjoyable (well…) but there’s nothing quite like taking some time out to do something for yourself that you enjoy. You could go fishing! Or learn to play the flute, or make your own matured cheddar. Or knit a basketball… or something. You get the idea. The choice of hobbies available to us is near infinite; why, you could even make a hobby out of reading articles about how many hobbies you could choose from even though you’ve already picked this one. So we’ll move on.
Regardless of whichever hobby you choose, sooner or later you’ll come across certain expectations or obligations you must fulfill if you expect to be recognised as a bona fide enthusiast of your preferred pastime. If you like sports and support a certain team, you must own at least one questionably clashing piece of nylon clothing and dedicated 6.7% of your waking life complaining about said team’s recent shortcomings. If you like fashion, who would respect your opinion if you hadn’t at one time or another bought something because it seemed like a great idea at the time, only to try it on at home and realise that it makes you look like a plonker?
And if you like video games, who would respect your opinion if you hadn’t played at least one proper role-playing game in your life? Who would take you seriously if you hadn’t even had one epic adventure with summons and healers and elixirs and onion knights and dungeons and twelve piece armadas that move in turns and circles and layers and decks? No one, that’s who.
Obviously, I have failed as a gamer. My avoidance of the hardcore, Japanese strain of role-playing games has grown over time from simple ignorance into a cold-blooded terror at the mere mention of anything Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. Even people that aren’t particularly into gaming (in essence, they aren’t the Editor-in-Chief of a video game-centric website) are so completely into these kinds of games and I just stand there, making excuses and asking if anyone has heard of Chibi-Robo!. Even on a personal (rather mental) level, it feels like I tentatively walked up to the “Hardcorez Gamerz” registration desk and the elderly curmudgeon behind the desk takes one look at my application and exclaims “NO FINAL FANTASY 7?! FREAK! FREAK!” before incapacitating me with a Lv.9 sword.
Part of me blames the homogeneity of geekdom. As I’ve discussed before, the pressure of the collective nerd-herd to all experience the exact same things can be disturbingly powerful and more often than not, we just go along with what everyone else is doing. This “me too” culture has created a distinct polarization in the nature of gaming as the hardcore disassociate themselves with anyone not dedicated enough to their hobby to understand the brilliance of every single game they enjoy. It’s somewhat ironic that many people end up seriously getting into video games because they felt like outsiders during their adolescent years and the only thing waiting for them on the other side is even more pressure to conform. Who knew outcasts could be so cliquey?
While my peer pressure influenced me through the media of gaming journalism of the time over friends, peers and fellow gamers, it’s very much based on the same principle. We all feel this certain obligation to enjoy certain games universally (in this case, JRPGs) and there’s very little room for negotiation on the whole topic. “You’re a hardcore gamer, you have to enjoy this… unless you’re not one of us?” taunts the cruel, united voice of marketing, industry and contemporaries. Even though I came into gaming during an age where conventional RPGs weren’t in vogue (Crystal Chronicles wasn’t exactly Chrono Trigger now was it?) the pervading calls to adore old-school role-playing games still could be heard through my childhood and, arguably, still to this day.
So how do you remedy such a problem? How do you lose your RPG virginity at the ripe old age of nearly twenty? Much like the concept of attacking a pineapple with the intention of eating it, the question on your mind will likely be “Where do I begin?” My previous attempts to pop my spellcaster-cherry have failed, namely my purchase of Final Fantasy III on DS, as I soon learned that JRPG gameplay largely comprised of numbly tapping commands in turns as everyone stood still and then eventually the opponent died except when he didn’t and you lost and had to go back to the very beginning of the game. My brief time with the game seemed to lack charm, finesse or charisma; it just felt mindless.
You’re right, this is dull. I’m bored. I might actually go for a nap and finish slicing apart massive enemies later.
“What’s the big deal about Final Fantasy then?!” I exclaimed as the cartridge was hastily extracted from my handheld and replaced with something distinctly more Pokémon-encrusted. And then I wondered why I enjoyed somewhat “lesser” role-playing games such as Pokémon or (the somewhat Marmite-esque) Kingdom Hearts series. Why do I enjoy those series so much but the mere suggestion of anything more “hardcore” and I run for the monster-infested hills?
And then the distinction between the two struck me: I care about Pokémon and Kingdom Hearts. I feel involved with the characters, the narrative, the gameplay; I want to progress to see the outcome and realise the potential of both myself as a player and the limits of the game. And in the same breath, I don’t care about Final Fantasy at all (which, in retrospect, is perhaps the stupidest name for a long-running franchise ever conceived). There’s no instant correlation between me and the typically generic characters who lack any kind of real story for the first twenty hours or so. With lesser RPG series, I’m willing to put up with less-than-dazzling gameplay or convoluted management systems because the rewards of being part of a story that I truly care about make up for that.
And maybe that’s more a point of recognisability than well-written narrative. Sure, Pokémon has had me coming back game after game because I enjoy the experience every time but it was only Nintendo’s initial marketing onslaught that pulled me in. What eight year old would consider a game that complex without some kind of maddening obsession to help them coast through the dizzying confusion of raw information, combat rules and behavioural procedures? Similarly with Kingdom Hearts, the pull of Disney’s many candy-coloured worlds enticed me into a game that’s actually rather complex and demanding on a player. Like many other gamers my age, I would hedge my bets and say that the concept of fighting alongside Donald Duck and Goofy in the belly of Monstro was far more appealing than the micro-management of my magic meter, team structuring and the proposition of forty minute boss battles that redefined the concept of challenging for me.
See, now I’m having fun! So much fun that I appear to have lost my senses and ended up at a type disadvantange…
The Final Fantasy games never offered that to me and even when they tried to, it just wasn’t enough. I closely followed the coverage of Final Fantasy XIII and I was really impressed with the conceived world and the characters and the sheer astounding look of the game, but did it push me all the way to purchasing it? Of course it didn’t because every time I saw Lightning and her team fighting off a giant beast or combat forces with astounding attacks in glorious real time, I knew it was all an illusion. At its core, Final Fantasy XIII plays largely like most other JRPGs and involves characters standing in place and doing rehearsed movements in turn and I know I don’t enjoy that. I fail to see how wrapping up the same old cardboard box in increasingly attractive wrapping paper makes for a better experience and as the narrative and action becomes even richer in these types of games, all it does is remind me that the gameplay still leaves me as numb as a sad evening alone with own-brand vodka.
I’m not trying to detract from the enjoyment that fans of these series feel, I just refuse to suffer the subtle derision from fellow gamers that think I’m less of a video game enthusiast because I disagree. If you can’t offer up a true sense of emotional involvement or attachment then I don’t see where the fun could be had. If I’m not obliterating massive beasts with a keyblade or pummelling the Elite Four with my Wigglytuff, if there’s no branding or recognisabiltiy for me, no anime or figures to simulate the fun if it can’t be found in the game then I would argue that you’ve grossly failed in the primary goal of video games: to make me care.