Retrospectives are a tricky thing, and sometimes, they stray too close to the dangerous territory of Look At This Pretty Thing We All Remember. Not exactly interesting journalism. I aim to write them in a way that, hopefully, provokes discussion, encourages healthy guffaws, and allows readers to think about the importance of retro games in today’s gaming world. And I figured a good place to start would be with one particular entry from Staub’s fabulous, ongoing list.
There I was, a nine-year-old sitting on an old, grey carpet, and while my mother was downstairs feeding the dogs, and my father was on the phone, making sales like a champion, I was desperately trying to rout a group of nefarious mercenaries who, at the behest of a dastardly duke, had kidnapped the princess, the rightful heir to the throne of Ivalice.
“You are a fool,” said the mercenary commander, an intimidating fellow in dark armor. “What is the life of one girl weighed against the greater good?”
I’d be lying if I said I knew how to answer that question. As a third grader, I had spent the previous day attempting to analyze the plot of Old Yeller, arriving after many hours spent combing the text that the death of the titular dog was, in fact, very sad. Still, the question stuck with me, and every time I replayed this game, this and other questions really struck some deep, emotional chord.
I’d be lying if I said I quoted the above question perfectly. The game I’m referring to is Final Fantasy Tactics which, as all fans will remember, suffered from a script localization that is famously garbled, as though a random programmer in Japan had been asked to translate the script to English, and his words were transcribed verbatim. But while the localization added charm- still does, really- it did work, the end result being that a generation of game-playing youngsters were allowed a glimpse of a story of truly epic proportions.
The release of Tactics was not exactly an earth-shattering affair. It had the misfortune of being released on the few months after Final Fantasy VII was dropped on the populace like a bomb full of fun. FFVII was as much a brilliant piece of advertising for PlayStation as it was a beautifully made game. “Look!” Sony seemed to be saying, “Do you see how powerful our system is? Look at the polygons! The polygons, people!” And they were right. Thought it looks today like a weird off-shoot of the Lego franchise, the graphics in FFVII, as well as the gameplay, were the start of an RPG revolution. No longer were fantastical stories confined to 2D backdrops, in front of which little sprites ran around, begging for your empathy. This was as close to real as an electronic fantasy story had ever come. It seemed almost cruel to release a less flashy, more old-school game following this juggernaut. “Oh yeah…” those same Sony people seemed to say in January 1998. “Squaresoft also made this. Play it, y’know, if you want.”
And play it we did. I could tell you how many hours my friends and I spent plumbing the depths of this isometric gem, but frankly I’m embarrassed. Rest assured, it was a lot. I may or may not have drawn diagrams in my awkward handwriting which weighed the pros and cons of certain Job System features, and which explained, according to my tireless research, which spell did the most damage to what enemy. (Not that I would ever admit to doing something so silly.)
It sounds like a lot of work just to play a game, and it was, but this was the level of detail that had gone into this game. The subtitle Tactics, one discovered immediately, was there because unlike turn-based games, which flooded the market in subsequent years, the tactical role-playing subgenre held strategy in the highest regard. There were your characters, arranged on a grid reminiscent of chess or go, and your job was to be the master tactician that would propel a motley crew of young soldiers to ultimate victory over the forces of evil.
Did I say evil? I don’t just mean that vague, blanket term too often applied to things we do not understand. This game was positively Shakespearean in its complexity. Two dukes, attempting to fill a vacancy for the throne, go against one another with all the cunning of royals vying for supremacy. Of course, there is also a national church full of deliciously corrupt officials which eventually brands the main character a heretic, and a subplot early on about a growing rebellion of ordinary citizens, disgruntled at being shunted aside by the elites following their service in the previous terrible war.
Did I understand all of these, very heavy themes as a nine-year-old? Of course not, but I wanted to. That’s really the point of this little article- that a game released by Squaresoft seemingly as an afterthought, a little throwback to the days before the RPG revolution they helped to usher in, ended up being so immersive that it sparked a fascination with the intricacies of storytelling. It’s no surprise that, when I finally cracked open the texts of the Bard’s histories, I was prepared for the labyrinthine plots, the devastating battles, the betrayals. Tactics introduced me, and countless other kids, to the idea that, if a story is big and beautiful enough, the medium simply does not matter. FFVII and the flashy games that followed were cool, and very important to games as an art form, but they weren’t the end all, be all. It told us that a game being, on occasion, brutally difficult was a good thing. It did not talk down to its audience, but seemed to say, “Here’s a challenge. You’re smart enough to figure it out. Now go, and for the love of god do not guns in this game, because they never work.”
In recent years, there has been a mini resurgence in the popularity of tactical role-playing games. Coming mostly on handheld systems, there are some original titles, and a host of remakes. Tactics itself was remade as War of the Lions for PsP, (and then for smartphones, which was welcome but weird) complete with gorgeous animated cut scenes, and a brilliant new localization by Japanese scholar and translator Jay Rubin which allows the complex plot to once and for all make total sense. (Side note: Rubin is also the primary English language translator of the works of Haruki Murakami, and if you haven’t read his work, stop what you’re doing and head to a bookstore right now.) What this mini resurgence says to me is that there exist many people who still value epic stories, and genuine challenges to the intellect.
And maybe that sometimes, in order to be swept up by a work of art, all that’s necessary is one, admittedly garbled line about the value of human life.