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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Trip: Wishing for Permanence

We took a tour of the Library of Congress. The tour itself was silly, but it was quite inspiring to see all those books in that one massive room, where anyone could read them. "But you don't read books!", Benjy interrupted. "I don't read books in practice;", I argued, "I like this place in principle." That started a little bit of an argument, because Benjy thought it was hypocritical to like an idea without wanting to follow it oneself. But I really did love the idea behind that place, my own dislike of reading notwithstanding. (If I'd realized then that there were comics there, I don't think his side of the argument could have held up.) I liked that anyone from the public could walk in there and start reading any book he could imagine. I liked that this library had an air of permanence to it, so that future generations could have access to all this. But most of all, I liked the idea that a person could potentially make this building into a fixture in his life, so that sources of art, entertainment and information would last the rest of his life. And in principle, I disliked that we were just tourists, coming to take a brief peek in at the room and leave. That's not what the building was made for.

We went to the wonderful New England Aquarium in Boston. It had so many interesting types of fish, and a special exhibit with the most gorgeous jellyfish, but the highlight was the big penguin tank in the center. There were some aquarium workers in the tank with the penguins, feeding them as they all got in line patiently and waited their turns. They knew all the names, how well which penguins got along, etc. All we knew was "Ooh! Penguins! How cute!". I got the distinct impression that we weren't getting the full experience here. The rest of the building was so big and filled that there was no way I could internalize all I was seeing. I ignored the science and just took in how pretty it all was, because I'm not a marine biologist who'd care about such things. Now, I can take quite a lot of prettiness, but at a certain point it just becomes overkill if you take it all in at once. I wondered what it would be like to see all that on a regular basis. I could imagine a fantasy world where everyone had penguins outside their door, and treated them the same as we treat cats. Or even in the real world, there must be someplace (Antarctica, maybe?) where that could happen. Now that would be cool. Them all bottled up in this big building where only a handful of people will see them regularly? That's not what animals were made for.

While we were there, we went to the on-site IMAX theater to see Sharks 3D. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was right up my alley- not a science-heavy documentary (as I'd expected) but just a succession of pretty pictures. Lovely. It makes you feel like you're one of these creatures who lives in the ocean, looking around at all the gorgeous things swimming around, of which sharks were only one of many species displayed. Now, nothing can really replicate the life of an underwater creature because they're permanently living in all this, but it gave us the next best thing by spending a lot of time on each animal. I can see how that might bore some people, but for me it was wonderful. Not least because this was an IMAX theater, not some tiny little Israeli theater. The special thing about IMAX isn't just that it's 3D- it's that the screen is enormous. I imagined a fantasy world in which I could watch every movie like that. Leaving the theater, I mentioned to Benjy that it would be so cool to be able to just go to an IMAX theater and watch, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey in 3D! That's what this sort of theater was made for!


Anyway, all this got me to thinking. If you take a large dose of some light entertainment once, you'll mildly enjoy it for the most part and possibly get a little dissatisfied. Why dissatisfied? Because it's overkill to have too much of a very subtle enjoyment all at once. But if you spread it out, taking small doses on a regular basis, it can enrich your life. For instance: A Sudoku puzzle is not exactly the most fun thing in the world. Spend an hour or two on such puzzles, and you'll be so bored you'll never want to do another such puzzle again. But if every morning you open the newspaper and do the Sudoku puzzle of the day, it can sharpen the mind. Same goes for crosswords, Kakuro, and all those handheld puzzle videogames of the kind (such as Polarium and Brain Age). And imagine how boring it would be to play Animal Crossing, a banal string of errands and smalltalk on the Gamecube, for hours at a time! But if you can integrate it into your life, working your real-life schedule around when events will be taking place in Animal Crossing, it's tremendous fun! And listening to a concert is the best way to appreciate music, but listening to the radio regularly has more of a positive effect on your life. I'm sure you can think of many more examples of your own.

There is a problem with aiming for such experiences- the whole time issue. If something takes a little bit of time every day, that's less time that you have for more sophisticated one-time experiences. Which means not only that each day is going to be fairly similar to the others (which is true of any sort of schedules), but that from a business perspective, there's less of a market for new things. Which is a problem for me as a person who would always like to see more diversity in art. Take online role-playing games, arguably the building blocks of future civilizations: They are so involving that the players not only neglect other games (The PC game market has been much smaller ever since World of Warcraft was released), but sometimes neglect the rest of their real-world lives! In order for such a game to be made responsibly, the gamists need to do more than just ensure the endless potential for growth. They need to design the game for short play sessions, which can be fit into standard schedules and not only the schedules of the obsessed.

But I admit all this reluctantly. Because I would like to imagine a fantasy world where everyone who wishes can and does read any book they ever want! Where anyone can walk right outside their doors and watch penguins in the cold. Where there is never a lack of pretty things to look at. Where any movie can be watched, at any time, in 3D on the finest IMAX screen. Where I can stay at Grandpa and Grandma's house, and where I can spend as much time as I want in a great art museum.




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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Trip: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

I brought four games with me on the trip, but in all the free time I had (of which there was much), I only ever got around to playing one: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.* (The long title, in case you're wondering, is because it was a tremendously simplified reworking -designed for the Game Boy Advance system- of the very difficult and inaccessible, story-driven and acclaimed Final Fantasy Tactics from 1997, itself a spin-off of the Final Fantasy RPG series.) It's a "tactical role-playing game", if that means anything to you. And it's by far the most addictive game I've ever played.

The gameplay goes something like this: You've got (within the context of the story the game's developers wanted to tell) a team of assorted types of fighters which you put together yourself. You decide what the job of each should be (ninja, archer, healer, sorceror, gunner, etc.), what abilities they should learn (immobilizing, healing, blinding, fire attack, reactive dodge, etc.), and essentially how you want them to work within the group. You are to develop each character from a useless shell into a unique fighter which can make practical contributions to the success of the missions you take, of which there are many to choose from. You take each "person" defined only by name and species, and give him purpose. Then you make use of them in practice, in relatively easy strategic battles, some of which are designed to push the story forward.

During all the time I played this game on the trip (of which there was much), I barely progressed through the story at all. Why bother? The more fun part is setting it all up, so I went only through the less meaningful battles, solely for the sake of giving my team experience I could work with. Besides, fights are fun for their own sake; I didn't need (or want) to be told why we were fighting.

The first time I ever played FFTA, it was on a "borrowed" copy. In fact, I played it twice from start to finish on that copy. The first time, I was figuring out the rules as I went along. The second time, I understood the basics, so I could finally appreciate the experience. And even by the end of the second playthrough (and it's not a particularly short game the way I play it), I'd barely scratched the surface of the potential in this game. So I resolved to buy my own copy. I bought one used copy off eBay, and it gave a very rare error message so I sent it back for a refund. Then I bought a used copy again, this time from Gamestop's website, and got exactly the same very rare error message. I suspect that it was in fact the very same cartridge I'd gotten rid of. So I bought it a third time, directly from a person I trusted.

That was the copy I was playing on.

You think that's excessive? Hm, maybe it is. But it sure was fun. During the boredom of waiting which seemed to go on forever, I appreciated being able to escape into this fantasy world where potential is so easily tapped, where (unlike other tactical RPGs) progress comes easy, where money is so easy to come by that the hard part is finding something new to use it on, and where every moment truly is what you make of it.

Not that the game is perfect. A few remnants of the Real World found their way in. Laws, for instance. What a nuisance. Every situation has its own arbitrary rules which must be obeyed, sometimes rules which completely block you from doing what ought to be done. Then there's the messy menu system, which makes all that lovely micromanagement a little harder to get at. And then there were the broken shoulder buttons on my Game Boy, which progressively got worse over the trip. By the time we were on the plane back, I couldn't play the game at all. Still, none of these factors prevented the game from being the best kind of escapism.

But the worst aspect of the game, by far, is the story. (And maybe now you'll see why I didn't want to progress through it!) It goes something like this: A bunch of small, unremarkable kids live miserably in the Real World in a small, unremarkable town called Ivalice. One is paralyzed, one is constantly teased, one is frequently beaten up by bullies, our hero (by the name of Marche) has lost a mother and rarely gets to see his father, and all four have to go to school. Their lives are completely meaningless, and they wish it were more like that video game series they like -"Final Fantasy"- with monsters and magic and epic quests and meaningful stories. Now, the kids happen to stumble across a standard-issue Magic Book™ and accidentally turn their town of Ivalice into the Kingdom of Ivalice, where all their fantasies can become reality. The player plays Marche, who for the entire course of the game is trying to destroy the fantasy Ivalice to get back to the real one.

And that's where they lose me. Basically, what the developers are saying is: "Hey kids! Escapism is bad! That miserable reality you live in? That's good!". So this boy Marche comes across as a bit of a moron. His friends try to reason with him, try to get him to appreciate all the countless ways in which the fantasy is better than reality and their lives are better for it. And he always counters with: "But it's just escapism! Don't you see it's wrong?". Yes, the main character in this game is actively trying to get the game to end.

And why should it? Why should I have to turn the game off and put it away? Why can't I just keep standing in place, pushing the characters to the limits of their potential and having fun? For that matter, why doesn't the game have expansion packs which add in new content to keep the game going? Or why couldn't it have been an online game, so that you never should run out of good (and bad) opponents and the developers can keep adding in new options for growth -new jobs, new abilities, new types of strategy, new storylines? Why can't I play this game for the rest of my life?

Magic book, take me too!



I'm going to go on the record here and spell out what was only implied in the post: I do think that FFTA is a much better game than its "parent", Final Fantasy Tactics. This is a very unpopular view among gamers. See, the original was created with much more love and care. But it's just not entertaining.
The difficulty level is ridiculous- even a very good player putting a lot into his team could find some of the earliest battles nearly impossible. And no, that is sadly not an exaggeration- the developers enjoyed making the player's team massively outnumbered and outclassed as often as possible.
And the much-lauded story, with all its twists and turns and characters and social conflicts, is as impenetrable and frustrating as any RPG I've ever played- the player is given absolutely nothing/no one to identify with, but is buried under a mountain of meaningless details.
The graphics are so detailed and respectable that little bits of artwork are constantly (as a rule) blocking the player's view of the battle.
And the micro-management itself is more complex and organized than Advance's, but there is no solid framework for playing the game outside of the difficult story-driven levels! What this means in practice is that the player doesn't feel like he's playing the battles to improve the characters- he's improving the characters so that when he goes back to attempt a piece of the story again for the twentieth time, they won't all be killed instantly.

I have other gripes about FFT, but I think you get my point. The more sophisticated and ambitious game is also the lesser game. Take that as you will.


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