I resent having to write this column. I resent being on a train on the way a conference that I also resent. I resent the pretty song that’s playing on my phone. I resent the way the sun is breaking through the clouds. I resent the nice second breakfast I’ll be enjoying in an hour, I resent all the nice people I’m about to meet and all the interesting conversations I’m about to have. Sod the lot of you. I could be at home playing Final Fantasy XII.
This is not rational. For once, I’ve already played FFXII. Twice, in fact – once in Japanese and once in American. Pretty much the same stuff happened each time. And while it’s always a pretty place to be, the way I’m playing it now – running it through a PS3 so I can be wireless – means that it’s letterboxed and smeared across a fraction of my telly’s unco-operative screen. There are dozens of newer games I could – should – be playing instead.
And more than rational, it’s downright dangerous. I love FFXII with a fierceness which would daunt a nursing lioness, but the more time I spend with it, the more opportunities there are to notice its few shortcomings.
The puzzles really are dreadful, it will surprise no-one to hear. The story occasionally fractures under the strain of obeying simple logic, let alone credible character arcs. The more you ogle the cut-scenes, the more you are infected with creeping dread that Balthier might actually be wearing slingbacks. It gets harder and harder to ignore the oddly saurian ridges that fan out along Vaan’s spine.
The rest, though, is pure magic. Majestic and brave, Final Fantasy XII is operatic not just in its plot and setting, but in the way the game itself is a story of doomed defiance. It wasn’t opposing a controlling father, a disapproving church or a unscrupulous officer, but its spirited rejection of random battles, of the supremacy of leveling and of line-dancing combat was well worth an aria or two. Its characters, too – vivid, charismatic and mature – steered the series away from the pubescent angst that has so often been its stock in trade. It’s efforts were far from universally welcomed, but for those of us who had long felt that Final Fantasy was a series shackled, rather than supported, by its past, it was a revelation.
Surely, then, I’m being hard on myself to say it’s irrational to want to pull a sickie to spend the day in bed with an eight-foot bunny-girl and some steam-punk surfers? The thing is, Final Fantasy XII has a secret – a wonderful, but confusing secret: it plays itself.
One of its innovations is the Gambit system, a modular control mechanic which lets you set the conditions and priorities which define the behaviour of your team. If you like, you can set of them all to automatic and simply sit back and watch them spray pretty bouquets of laser death around them as they explore. So, madness. Why stay home to replay an old game that doesn’t even need me to be there?
Steam engines, that why. Steam engines and pipe organs. I don’t think anyone can stand next to something like that and not be struck with wonder and fascination. Simply getting to watch a complex and beautiful machine do its stuff is captivating. What FFXII does is give you the chance to build that machine, and then stand by like proud parent and watch it go. Tweaking Gambits lets you take incremental steps towards perfection. Each time you try a new technique or set a new priority you get closer to the ultimate goal of being a perpetual killing machine, a super-efficient, zero-emission, friction-free engine of domination.
This preparing, witnessing and fixing loop is one of the most compelling I’ve encountered in games, I think. It’s what gives FFXII the edge over other games that play themselves. Much as I love Progress Quest, there is a teensy limit on the amount of credit I can take for the successes I’ve had over the years.
Witnessing is crucial, too. I think one of the reasons that Duels never got its claws into me is that – especially in the bad old, pre-animation days – you never really got to sit back and bask in the glory of your own might. And I loved the idea of Forza‘s Drivatar, which could drive for you when you couldn’t be bothered, but there were no quick fixes there: if you wanted it to race better for you, you needed to get better yourself.
Conceive a plan, test it, amend it. The reason FFXII is so narcotic is that, at its heart, it’s basically the scientific method, dressed up in biker boots and a leather crop-top. And so, as its siren song lures me back, I shan’t resist. It’s not skiving. It’s learning.
[Margaret Robertson is the former editor of Edge magazine and now videogame consultant. One More Go is her regular Offworld column in which she explores the attractions of the games she just can't stop going back to.]
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