Who Am I? (Final Fantasy XIII Edition)

So I’ve been thinking about avatars a little more than usual of late, because I mean to write a little essay on them (tentatively titled “Me and My Shadow”) in the near future. As a way in, I thought I might consider my most recent avatars to see what our relationship has been. And so, here are some thoughts on my Final Fantasy XIII avatars.

FFXIII is the most current game I’m playing. There are a number of characters you end up playing us, depending on what the game decides for you. There’s the cynical warrior, the comedy “what did I get mixed up in?” guy; the overly sensitive young boy; the overconfident hero; and the bizarre girly girl with a squeaky Australian accent. None of these characters are people I particularly identify with or find a lot in common with, but they’re all vaguely sympathetic in their ways.

In the game to this point I have three basic relationships to my avatar. The most direct one is that I navigate the avatar through linear space. That’s not at all uncommon (see: many, many FPSes), but it somehow feels more linear in FFXIII than in other games. I suspect it could be the sheer irrelevance of the space you’re in, other than that it looks (extremely) pretty. Even in the linear spaces of a FPS like Half-Life 2, it’s still the case that the landscape matters because you need to survive in and around it. In FFXIII the space is so unimportant that when you fight (your major form of agency), it’s often not even literally in the place where you encountered the monster, but in a kind of themed arena.

The second relationship with the avatar is the all-important customization we have in RPGs and hybrids. To this point I’ve customized the avatars’ basic statistics (health points, strength, etc.) and also their equipment, both in terms of what they carry and in terms of upgrading the equipment. I haven’t established much of a connection to either process other than wanting all their statistics to be as good as possible.

The final relationship is the combat system. If there were any aspect of agency likely to draw me into a closer connection with the avatars, I’d assume it would be this, since it’s theoretically the most “expressive” of the interactive possibilities. But, no. The combat is unusual (to me) because it operates at a couple of levels. At the most general level, you determine how your whole team of characters will generally fight (they call this setting a “paradigm”). More specifically, you can direct what the avatar you’re currently controlling is going to do – as in, which spells they cast, or whether they whack away at a monster with their sword/gun/whatever. All fine and good, pretty interactive, and the battles are certainly the most involving aspect of the game for me – they’ve even become more enjoyable over time.

But the combat still leaves me feeling quite estranged from my avatar. It feels a little bit like the relationship I might have with the units in a Civilization title. You tell them what to do, and they go and do it. There’s not a sense that you are that unit, only that they obey your every command unquestioningly. It’s the same thing in FFXIII – the battle system makes it pretty clear that I am not the avatar, but almost that the avatar is someone who very much respects and requires my advice during a fight.

I guess I’m kind of like their cornerman.

27 September 2010
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