Final Fantasy is a game I’ve been drawn to inexplicably throughout my life. It’s not something that evokes strong emotions. I’d describe my relationship with the game as meditative and contemplative. There’s a naturalism distilled in the way Final Fantasy presents itself, in the way it exists. I want to attribute it to the directness and simplicity of the game, but I fear that’s my own conceit. The game inhabits a strange reality between understood ideas of realism and impossible space. There’s something willingly unnatural in the design of Final Fantasy in how it presents literal ideas in an abstract form. Through the organic beats and pulses of its shifting landscape it betrays the complex relationship between the function of aggressive space and the resulting expression.
On the Inside
The Cavern of Earth in Final Fantasy exists without the logic of a cave or the conceit of a maze. Room openings cascade into eachother; every room begins the construction of another, withouth a beginning or an ending. The flowing nature of the cave instills a sense of in betweenness. Each step is doubled and uncomfortable because it isn’t owned by any singular space. Never, in any room, are you able to feel whole, until you chance upon a door. Yet within these dark spaces, the ownership of the space is still unclear, as other formations still intrude.
Our perception of earth is this massive thing we exist on. Yet, it is also an infinite amount of existences, encroaching and invading one another. Such is this procession, or so I infer. With the earth being drained at its core, it is translative that these rooms have no center. Each space on each floor being intimately part of a whole, until they convalesce at the whole point — reaching the dead center.
Stepping into the eye of the Gurgu Volcano and it surrounds, it encompasses, and it engulfs the wary. It is a roiling, living thing. Its symmetry belies no entrance or weakness, conveys an unwavering, unchanging force of nature. No rejection, no invitation, yet I’m not wanted in this place. This is where I’m taught that the volcano burns. Traveling through lava is finite and challenged with each step on the boiling tiles occurring damage for the heroes of light. Yet, whether they burn or not, the eye is unconcerned.
Responding to my desire to traverse, the volcano twists and morphs. The Gurgu Volcano won’t accommodate me, but it won’t oppose me. This is the ego, the conceit, of fire.
The emptiness of these halls are poignant. A room like this should reward or encourage exploration. That is what the school of ‘good design’ would want. Yet, instead, the rooms fulfill nothing more than existence. Unburdened with decoration or reward, there comes a situation of a place that exists, instead of a place that is willed to be.
These rooms still burn. Each is shaped consciously, differently, and effectively to convey the struggle of distance. The inside space is tapered off by jutting negative space. Opening out, and thinning, then opening out again, reflects the trepidatious relationship my party has with the volcano. At every turn, as it closes, I hope for an escape. Instead, at each juncture, the volcano opens back up. Since I am already burning, it invites me further, to understand it completely.
The bottom of the Gurgu Volcano is the formation of ultimate conceit. The ego of this space is bare and complete. All is connected, every possible path has an outcome, and a place to stay. In allowing for every cardinal direction, the overwhelming, and encompassing feeling of the volcano is embodied and typified. There is a price to be paid, through the roiling lava, no matter what the destination, but it is just a step. In a sense, it is a greeting.
In here the heroes burn the least. If fire is understood to be energy, then this room is the result of energy. Energy drives and connects results. Possibility comes from every direction, even such a directed impulse as picking where to go. Here, when the heroes are at last connected to the volcano’s energy, they reinvigorate the connections to their world.
That the Temple of Fiends is clean and symmetrical, that it is concerned with walkways and spaces, it proves not to be evil in its construction. The formations are not haphazard, they are not disgusted with those who would look upon them. Final Fantasy represents hazardous spaces by impulsive, primal urges.
The temple’s cleanness holds true. There are no fiends and this temple is for nothing, other than relatively harmless wildlife that has made ruins their home. Garland resides here, but he does of necessity. He was slighted, somehow, somewhere, and at the climax of his life he is grasping. It is a coincidence and it is irony that he is enthroned in the temple of fiends.
This room has no clear parameters, no beginning or ending. It is cluttered and crowded, it expects spatial adjustment from somewhere incomprehensible. Garland is enthroned this time in a place he chose.
Such becomes the transformation of Garland’s patheticism. He chose to live for his pain, to let it take over every facet of his life. Overcome with his centuries held grudge, he created a monument to it. Only in the violent past could the Temple of Fiends exist, yet, it was the fiends that made the past violent.
Garland’s slight could not have been simple. It must have been that his whole existence was challenged, again and again, throughout his pained life. With no ties to such an existence, and being punished for his final act of desperation, he took his pain to his undeath. This room displays this cycle of hate, this revenge he amassed. This place is a monument to being unable to let go.
On the Outside
There is a kind of dichotomy I’ve noticed surrounding discourse of role-playing games. Essentializing this concept is the notion that a rpg can be a dungeon crawler. I’m not going to condemn the short-hand. There is a tonal difference between a game set within long stretches of aggressive space and a game that isn’t. There is yet a slight implication that dungeon crawlers are less expressive, that they don’t have the same kind of sights and story a traditional rpg would. It got me thinking about how we perceive and internalize space in a rpg, if that dichotomy is to be taken at face value. In the wake is two perceptions: space that accessorizes the experience of playing through a game’s story and space that exists to oppose and challenge the player. In Final Fantasy, the relationship between this perception blurs in a seemingly impossible way.
For the sake of argument, I want to break down the process of environment-as-prop in a story focused role-playing game. It is my perception that these locations strive for an actor-focus function. Being, place, and aesthetic form these locations. They are constructed symbiotically with player expectation, so it is easy to accept inhabiting the places. Space such as: the grassy, windswept plains in Eternal Sonata; the teeming forests in Chrono Trigger; the charming waste in Breath of Fire IV. The linear, focused view of environments found in Eternal Sonata, Chrono Trigger, and Breath of Fireform communicable and consumable information that defaults to sensory and forms a backdrop. Navigation hopes to transport the actor to a place of being, of unknown sensory delight and regard that comes from outside knowledge. A prop and setting is accepted because we know how these places are commonly idealized and these games strive to be an ideal, or at least idealized.
When location seeks to be self-serving, it comes to the actor’s detriment, it comes to exceptionalize the player’s ability. Dragon Quest contains representational, backdrop environments. Towns are cut of excess, presenting foremost their relevance in the actor’s task. These are inbetweens for the serious expenditures, tumultuous treks that haphazardly pace Dragon Quest into chapters. These spaces are caves seeping with a dark brown palette, yet they are mostly distanced from our idealization of what a cave is. False and pointless paths amid plain misdirection are the intention of these caves, what we know to be mazes, in Dragon Quest.
Pool of Radiance and Wizardry similarly revel in their mazework to the complete erasure of all else. Navigation in these crpgs is entirely interfaced, command based, with mazes being the only locations denoting existence. No path is presented without being sufficiently cramped. Yet these mazes are still ‘prop-based’. Though Wizardy takes place in a single dungeon, Pool of Radiance represents a myriad of derelict hovels and civilizations, alongside caves and castles. In these ‘dungeon crawlers’ the locations are interpreted as obstacles first and great pains are taken to map and understand them. Mazes are not an idealization, they’re a problem to solve.
Though I presented the dichotomy believably—that a role-playing game seeks to either immerse the actor or to challenge the player — this belief gives no credit the locations themselves. The common thread between locations in Pool of Radiance and Eternal Sonata are that these spaces exist. Accepting locations as representative of an ideal, or as things to explore, ignores the plainness of the image that can be perceived. Seeking to interpret self-serving functionality betrays that these locations are fundamentally complex. When I think to appraise existence itself, then textural meanings can come forth experientially, from the moment to moment of my play. The focus is not on the design of these spaces, if they ‘work’ or if they’re ‘well-designed’, but what they mean in relation to their existence. If environments are viewed with a design essentialized bias, then their potential ends at the admission. When a RPG is just a narrative construct, or just a challenge to overcome, it can no longer exist on its own terms. Space is all around us, it subsists, it is image and it is function, because it exists.
I am wary of idealization and stereotypes that are suggested by inhabiting particular places. As the image informs everything about the game, so too is such an image informed by its existence as part of a whole. Space exists and it informs through its context. Story and dungeon are not to be strictly defined. Final Fantasy, despite being essentially a dungeon crawler, has pure, evocative space. The kind of space in Final Fantasy is not common in RPGs to my knowledge. Both effortlessly expressive and unaware of a kind of auxiliary function, it is the kind of work that won’t be reproduced if space doesn’t seek to evoke feeling. The direct and straightforward constructs found in Final Fantasy II is a raw example found no less than a year later. Expression was lost as an auxiliary to gameplay fundamentals.
I do not want to make a definite conclusion. Space exists regardless of its intent and because of its intent. Existence is both the function and expression of an image. Stretching the intent into evocation, into a release, brings me closer to understanding the results all around me. Space in Final Fantasy imbued my perception of images as being meaningful in accordance to, and despite, their function. There is still a definite conclusion: these places exist.