Final Fantasy as Monolith, as Meme, and Walthros

Influence can be stringent and it can be traced. When I play a game I form imaginary lineages, a drafted patchwork of which and what canonical works, and even otherwise obscure designs, inspired the videogame in my hands. I know, I deeply know, that these roadmaps I make are more than likely not true. They are a way to contextualize, to reference, and to understand constructs at a rapid pace. I immediately understand a videogame as a predicated machine in conversation, a new chapter in a sprawling infinite, but I don’t believe important works of culture are as ubiquitously canonized as they are rather a product of effect. A canon, a monolith, is formed to promote certain values, many of which are maybe intuitively, or tacitly understood. Canons can be pushed and molded to reflect unfortunate power dynamics; still emotion is at capital, the immediacy of interpersonality cannot be overstated.

I believe that culture, that is especially human drama, is imitatiable. There is a common, rather ignorant argument, that gets casually passed around on these days. An expression: there are no new stories to tell, there are no new combinations of notes to play. An argument mired in pop detritus, a realization that only specific kinds of experiences are supported. Yet it is often set behind a complacency with the everlasting reinterpretations, an admission people are content with the same stories. Such declarations fall apart by virtue of experiments in art, but I find a little truth in the common perception. The demographics and targets of fascination run their course over a certain amount of time, and still, people are motivated by these broad, immediate interpretations and emotions. The binding factor is always that we are human.

***

Walthros is a videogame with elemental crystals, with evil empires, and with summoned monsters. At its climax, there is space travel to the moon, in which the entire foundation of the lived world is found adjacent to the appeal of cosmic powers, identical to Final Fantasy IV. There is a hopelessly large cast of characters, tied to various small politics, that recalls Final Fantasy VI. There is a summon, found on a hidden island, known as three kings, and that’s a real transparent nod to Final Fantasy VII’s Knights of the Round. I know Paul Harrington loves Final Fantasy because he laid it all out and I think he’s even aware of the intent. Walthros’ tagline: “Everyone’s lived the old RPG standard of gathering crystals and fighting mysterious monsters, but have you ever done it… as a fish?”

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It’s a ridiculous premise, I know, and he’s openly equating traditional with Final Fantasy, which isn’t really a point of contention. Even knowing that stated intent, I don’t think it’s true. I want to ignore the signs and declare Walthros original.

***

The closest analogue to Walthros is a parent telling their child a bedtime story. It feels made up on the spot, concerned with microstories solely constructed to impress and to hold attention. Its a story that involves shrines that preserve the elements, superhero dinosaurs fighting against a solitary technocrat, cleansing wells from great evil, participating in a neverending cycle of rebellion, traveling to the future and confronting an evil self, competing in a martial arts tournament, interdimensional travel, being soldiers in all out war, deciding to act under intrigue, and, of course, space travel. There is no internal logic, no grand thematic motivation for these happenstance. It’s gleeful interpretation, excess for the satisfaction, positing the eternal that cool justifies itself. Except Walthros is incredibly uncool.

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Every part of Walthros is messy. It’s made with the limiting and hard to use OHRRPGCE. Its midi stylings are atonal, have few parallel voices, and rarely harmonize on cue. Very few, if any, of its songs serve to texture a moment, or invoke any kind of theme. Attempts to texture the graphics in the game resulted in an off-color, asymmetrical mess. The glare and aggression of the art is arresting, yet I know it is unintentional. World and character design cruise past goofy into the inane with flying fish, winged seals, karate mice, tiny dinosaurs, and bionic worms. Animations are only a few frames, commonly being barely adjusted limbs, or superimposed scribbles. At just a cursory glance, I knew it cared nothing for jrpg aesthetic standards. Its a chaotic mess that’s hard to parse, the monster designs are blobbish, its graphical aspects are so much against the perfectionism inherently found in jrpgs. In Final Fantasy music and monsters are pedestaled, are integral, are carefully made, and are beautiful. This is what Final Fantasy values, the adversary, and the moment in time. I love Walthros because it disrespects those things. A carelessness that of course comes from just wanting to get the ideas down, to make a game, to be able to hold this thing. A crassness yet paired with ideas, with places that are wonderful to be in, with a childish whimsy hard to find in a traditional-leaning fantasy setting. Walthros isn’t a joke or a remix that stars a fish, but a very personal work, that happens to star a fish.

Walthros’ combat is effaced, it reflects the quirks of each party member and fleshes out their character in ways the narrative never can, but there’s no tension or strategy in any of the encounters. Healing is low cost and powerful, climactic fights are cleared easily using specific set-ups. It’s impressive that each of the dozen or so characters have wildly different movesets and styles of play, but their existence funnels only into self-expression. There is dissonance within the grand conflicts presented in the plot and the off the cuff, self-expressive styles within individual combat. A relaxing, toybox style of play, can’t fully handle the traditional narrative, even if it is extremely dry.

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There’s something really funny and boring in how Walthros frames dialogue. Main characters wind on exposition that reminds me of the language I’d use on a forum. It’s self-important and overwrought, but can’t dig at any point beyond the surface, and it can’t dig into myself. I feel it’s part of the spectacle. Walthros needs to say these things to be a jrpg, to be fantasy, it needs to hit certain notes and say it in a certain language, which no matter how dull, is the most important part of the game’s identity. Walthros ultimately is inspired by and desires to be that traditional fantasy rpg, while invoking its individual setting and world. It isn’t.

Handed to game culture at large, I could imagine the reaction to Walthros: “a rpg that gets everything wrong” or “another poorly made rpgmaker game.” I wish I could outmode this thinking. Not only should art be approached on its own terms, but I wish there was less of a push against ‘ugly’ and ‘wrong’ art in a wider discourse. Walthros is outsider art of the highest caliber. When approaching something like Dan Johnston’s music, when entering this kind of space, I feel overwhelmed to drop my preconceptions and expectations, in a way that even more abstract forms of art can’t reproduce. This kind of vulnerability and immediacy that comes from earnest communication, from within a separated and impossible perspective, cannot by virtue come from purposeful and beautiful art. Outsider art separates from pretentions, from theory, and from creative expectations. It is without our layers of art, language, and conversation, and it is still relatable. Despite everything we expect and take for granted, the human will shine through.

Final Fantasy will always represent an ideology, a politic, a painting, a symphony, but it won’t ever be able to capture a single person. I love Walthros because it mirrors the politic of Final Fantasy in intention, but without any of the necessitations of audience. Walthros was made selfishly, unironically, with every indulgence, and every excess. Walthros is a game made by its own terms and nothing else.

***

What is the politic of Final Fantasy? I invoke that with a conscious meaning. What meaning could that possibly be? Walthros isn’t like Final Fantasy, even if it uses active time battle, even with its incessant callbacks and references.

If the meaning of Final Fantasy is the game itself, then Final Fantasy is ineffably singular. If the meaning of Final Fantasy is its ludical constructions, then it is taking too much credit. If the meaning of Final Fantasy is a meme, is its tropes, is boiled to platitudes – and I know this is the answer – then I ask, why does Final Fantasy have a vicegrip on simple and common tropes?

Why is nearly every 2D rpg compared to Final Fantasy? Especially when considering the snes entries, which seem to own influence over every subsequent 2D rpg, which seem to cast a specter over any and all easily developed rpgs, what is so special about Final Fantasy? If we are supposed to acknowledge that Final Fantasy invoked its tropes first – it didn’t. Final Fantasy owns no claims to elemental magic, to rebellions, to fantasy, or to melodrama, when considering fiction, storytelling, and mythology, outside of the medium of videogames.

Ascribing the influence of Final Fantasy into the context of every rpg is not just ahistorical, but I believe, entirely wrong. Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI are neat, effective games, the latter being rather unique and individualistic, despite becoming reduced and memetic in modern discourse. Yet I do not believe Final Fantasy itself can be a descriptor, that it can be a monolith. Final Fantasy cannot hold melodrama, or theatrics all to itself. Final Fantasy did not alone develop and express conversation in an overhead perspective, in the jrpg container. Final Fantasy is not just knights, rebellions, and crystals. Final Fantasy can’t be the end-all source text for human drama in jrpgs.

Because if it is, Walthros is just bad Final Fantasy.

play walthros here. it’s a christening experience for understanding OHRRPGCE and is just trippy and fun on its own

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