by Ken Gagne

Between finding games to review, I got around to trying Final Fantasy Anthology. This PlayStation CD contains two role-playing games from the Super Nintendo era, including Final Fantasy V, which had never been released in America, and which I'd never played. 

I've had a hard time dedicating myself to any role-playing game since I invested 40 hours in the overwhelming Final Fantasy VII. But when I started playing Final Fantasy V, it all came back to me why I ever loved this genre, and how much the advent of the 32-bit game system changed it – and not for the better. I can only think how Square's RPG dynasty of Final Fantasy reflects the changes the entire genre has undergone because of the changes in gaming technology. 

As technology progressed, graphics became able to be either more realistic, or more fantastic. Final Fantasy has gone the former route, and with the realistic appearance of the game world, comes more realism to the characters and story. Instead of airships, dungeons, and dragons, we have hovercrafts, factories, and rampaging robots. 

The characters have also become more realistic. In appearance, they've grown from their deformed, big-headed stature to a more lifelike size. These are people who go to work, earn money, and generally don't like their world, themselves, or anyone else. 

Characters that don't look the same, cannot be expected to act the same. It would be disjointed for realistic-looking people to act in the manner characters were written five or ten years ago. The base emotions – heroism, selflessness, even libido — were throwbacks to simpler days. Now that more complicated stories can be enacted, those feelings have been replaced with delusion, alienation, and schizophrenia. The enemy is less often an evil tyrant than the heroes' own faults. 

If video games are a form of escape, why escape to a world that's becoming increasingly similar to our own? 

Why would I want to pretend to be someone worse off than I am? 

It's impossible for characters to change without the stories they tell being similarly affected. The increased storage capacity of CD-ROMs as opposed to cartridges has allowed developers the freedom to move from making games to creating works of art. 

The result is a production that is beautiful to look at and listen to – who hasn't dropped their jaws at a Final Fantasy lately — but fails to entertain. And that's what it should all be about, shouldn't it? When technology couldn't carry a game, developers had to rely on storytelling skills to capture an audience. Now, a good piece of eye candy will sell as many copies of a game as a good plot. 

Of course, there are exceptions to these rules. One of the best RPGs I've ever played was Panzer Dragoon Saga, on the 32-bit Sega Saturn. It had hours of digitized speech and full-motion video, and a world and battle system unlike any other RPG. These elements were woven together to create a compelling story and exotic, wonderful world. 

But another one of my favorite games is Lufia II, for the Super Nintendo. It's simple yet honest characters were characterized so well that, by the end of the story, it was hard not to cry when a friend returned from the dead, or a hero made the ultimate sacrifice. 

You just don't see that kind of storytelling these days. 

RPGs should be about stories and characters, with music and graphics playing supporting roles. But presentation has taken the center stage, while the stories have become darker, where even the "good guys" (and I now use the term loosely) don't always win. 

If I don't care about the characters, then I don't care what happens to them, and I won't play. 

And if that's the case, has technology's advance really improved RPGs? 

[The author would like to thank the members of Video Gaming Central on CompuServe for their contributions to this column.]

This article is copyright (c) 2000, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 03-Jul-00