Keep It Simple, Cecil
This week, we had an On The Level entry from Zack Handlen about the treacherous Sealed Cave of Final Fantasy IV. Down in the comments, readers praised the classic game and aired personal memories. For Kolya, FF4 and its characters represent a timeless, comforting ur-fantasy:
Final Fantasy IV is the game that made me fall in love with the fantasy genre when I was a wee child, and it’s undoubtedly the reason I’m gushing about video games on the internet at this very moment.
The classic hero’s journey you undertake might not have broken any new ground, but the way each party member perfectly inhabits their given archetype makes FF4 the perfect, nostalgic comfort fantasy. Kain’s betrayal still angers up my blood every time I replay it. You can’t say “white mage” or “paladin” to me without my mind conjuring Rosa and Cecil.
Shinigami Apple Merchant had more to say about how Square made use of those typical fantasy characters:
I grew up with the Gold Box Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and Cecil is the quintessential Paladin archetype for me. “The desire to do good and the wish to cast aside your darker impulses and face yourself” sells it. He earned his title, and that’s what makes it stick with me to this day. Rosa, the white mage, shows her healing spirit through her support of Cecil, her endurance when captured by Golbez, and her compassion. She must endure the darkness, and it’s not just something you can cast Cure I at.
Square took these archetypes and did their best to breathe life into them while still holding on to those conventions of the past. The game is still a world of “Welcome to our town!” NPCs, but it’s slowly becoming so much more than that. In a lot of ways, FF4, Dragon Quest IV, and Earthbound are the template for what would become the modern RPG Maker game. The triggers, the sound editing, the cutscenes—it’s all from a very similar foundation. So hats off to the original pioneers here, who themselves took inspiration from Wizardry, Ultima and other ‘80s classics.
Koyla posits that an important part of that characterization comes from locking the character’s growth and skills into a predetermined path, unlike most modern games that give you the freedom to pick and choose their abilities as you go. DL thinks this is a significant change:
The way we are allowed to carefully shape, direct, and craft each character’s progress, skills, and jobs takes away from what would make that character “alive” and independent. They become dolls that we dress up and direct until they pull the string to spew dialogue that is supposed to give them personality, despite us poring over every other detail as if they were our own avatar.
I believe one of the things that makes online co-op so compelling for me is not the “social” aspect of experience, but the fact that our partners are beyond our direct control—that there’s intelligence behind them and they can assist us without intervention. Certainly there should be games that allow us to be control freaks—XCOM is much about our ability to craft a combat squad, for example—but in other cases, I want to feel like I’m a part of a bigger world, and that my presence in it is influential, yet unnecessary on a global scale. I want to make a difference, but I want the game to make a difference for me, too.
Returning to Shinigami Apple Merchant’s point about Cecil being the “quintessential paladin,” Jakeoti explored the character’s arc and motivations:
Part of what makes Cecil’s turnaround so impactful is that he genuinely knew what he was doing, for the most part. He conquered, he trampled, he represented evil. He questioned doing so, but he nevertheless continued to do it. It wasn’t until after he was betrayed that he truly turned against Baron. Not only that, but in killing Rydia’s mother, he paid a terrible price for his willingness to go along with the king’s plans. It wasn’t an intentional killing, but often times, the worst thing a person can do isn’t planned.
And that’s where Cecil becomes one of the best FF protagonists. Lots of the series’ heroes have had to come to grips with darkness within them, but it’s rarely the case that they’ve actually harmed others. Cloud, Squall, and Tidus all had to deal with insecurities. Zidane dealt with his untapped potential to be evil. The closest is Terra, who had harmed people and furthered the Empire’s plans, but that was not of her own will. And Bartz—well, we love Bartz.
And Merlin The Tuna returned to that Dungeons & Dragons comparison:
That also makes Cecil an interesting reflection of D&D’s concept of the paladin.
D&D, until Fourth Edition in 2008, always connected paladin-hood to a vaguely defined “be a good guy” code. If you failed to uphold the code (whatever that meant) or failed to be lawful-good enough (whatever that meant), you lost all of your abilities and had the option of turning to the dark side to become a blackguard/anti-paladin/whatever.
As a result of that, there’s always been a weird fascination with what exactly causes a D&D paladin to fall, and thousands of nerds have bickered deep into thousands of nights about where the line is. Killing babies is out, but what if they’re goblin babies? Baby Hitlers? What if your king/god/authority figure ordered you to kill them? What if they were standing on each others’ shoulders in a trench coat and you didn’t realize they were actually babies? It goes on and on.
FF4 is a clever inversion of that, with Cecil starting as the equivalent evil class, loyally following orders until he’s complicit in a violent catastrophe and using that tragedy as a springboard toward improving himself.
Hurts So Good
After weeks of nerve-wracking adventures, our old buddy Drew Toal checked in with a review of Darkest Dungeon. Down in the comments, our old buddy Fluka tried to figure out why a game this demanding and dour has become her go-to for a relaxing escape:
After years of spiritual torment and post-traumatic stress (read: academia), it feels weird that this is the game that I’m playing now that I’m in a good place, job-and-sanity wise. But I am, and I’m finding it quite…relaxing? The threat of death and damnation is so omnipresent that it ceases to be a worry. Some of your plague doctors or grave robbers are going to come back from the depths with an acute case of Paranoia or Masochism or some unspeakable disease. It happens. Just in a day’s work. If you’re lucky, though, they’ll come back with a Virtue. Both you and the game know that you’re going to fail frequently and spectacularly, so stop sweating it and get on with the drinks and carousing and self-flagellation.
Also, the art is fantastic, and I think I’ll start naming the poor damned adventurers after my former coworkers.
Duwease thinks Fluka’s fascination isn’t all that surprising:
Actually, I think it makes more sense that these sorts of games are what you’re drawn to now. There are studies that suggest human willpower is a limited asset, drained throughout the day any time you fight the urge to have a smoke or a sweet, try to keep focused on a task, what have you. Whenever you have to tell yourself to persevere because the reward is worth it, you burn some of that, and if you’re all out, you give up.
I remember I tried Bloodborne a while back. I loved Dark Souls—got every achievement, tried every option—so I was really looking forward to it. However, at the time, things were incredibly stressful in my life, and try as I might I just kept giving up. I knew it’d be a blast once I mastered it, but I couldn’t make it to that point. I kept asking myself why I was adding more stress to an already stressful day.
However, in a better period, those sorts of intense games are like nothing else. When you have the perseverance leftover, the engagement these kinds of games elicit and the feeling you get from success are far more powerful than going through the motions to accomplish simple tasks. So it makes total sense to me that, now free from the daily beatings of academia, you’d seek them out.
And that’s exactly why I’ve given up on trying to play more of The Witness any time soon. Well, that’ll do it for this week, Gameologinauts. Thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week.