Story in Games: Final Fantasy VI

I’ve been thinking about story-telling a lot recently.  After all, we’re surrounded by stories; movies, television, books, and video games, not to mention the stories we tell each other every day.

What makes a story work? Ultimately, the answer differs from person to person, but it’s clear some stories work for a lot more people than others. Take Harry Potter – it’s something anyone, of any gender, of any age, can fall in love with. Others, like Twilight, have a more narrow appeal, but seem to really nail a couple particular groups.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about what should be a far simpler question – what makes a story work for me? Sure, I can point to what I like and don’t like and I can stack them in arbitrary (but still oddly satisfying) rankings, but none of that gets to the heart of the question.

In the interests of trying to work through this, I thought it’d be fun to go through some of my favorite video game stories, ones that have really stuck with me (and many others), and try to pin-point some of the qualities that give them that staying power.

Final Fantasy VI

Warning – the discussion below contains spoilers

IGN recently released a list of their top 100 RPG’s ever made. Topping it was Final Fantasy VI (originally released in the US as Final Fantasy III), a game released for the Super Nintendo in 1994.

I think I got it the following year for my 11th birthday. I haven’t played it in 16 years, yet I remember the plot, from beginning to end, every character, every scene, every battle. Terra,  being escorted through the snow by two soldiers. The dashing thief Locke who rescues her. Brothers and princes Sabin and Edgar (who now live on as my cats!) forced to abandon their kingdom to try to save the world. The general Celes who betrays her empire. The knight Cyan, who’s family was murdered by the emperor. The mysterious mercenary Shadow. The feral child Gau. Gambler and air-ship owner Setzer. The young magical-artist Relm and her grandfather Strago. And of course, Mog the moogle.

These are the characters who unite to try to save the world from the Empire, led by the power-hungry Gestahl and his insane advisor, the evil-jester-like Kefka, who want to use the power of the Espers to rule the world.

The game proceeds as one might expect, at first; Terra and Locke travel the world, gathering allies and preparing to battle the empire. They finally confront Kefka and Gestahl on a floating island, where the two are preparing a ritual that will ruin the balance of magic in the world.

They fail.

A year later, Celes wakes up alone on an island, in a ruined world. She searches among the few surviving towns and castles for her friends, and eventually they once again confront Kefka in his fortress. The final dungeon is one of the longest and most memorable in RPG history, with I believe thirteen unique boss fights, culminating in a final battle against Kefka, who’s transformed himself into some kind of grotesque fallen angel.

So, why does this story work so well, not just for me but for millions of video game fans around the world?

Structurally, I think there are two things going on here that I haven’t seen executed nearly as well anywhere else. The first is the large cast of characters. Though Terra is the protagonist, at various times she’s not even a member of your party.  Nearly all the characters are given a clear history and personality. Whereas many RPG”s focus on a single character’s personal journey, Final Fantasy VI feels much more like a multiple-point-of-view epic fantasy.

The second is the fact that the world ends about halfway through the game. Abrupt, unexpected twists like this are risky.  Epic fantasy stories carry the implicit promise that the heroes will succeed at saving the world in the end. Players may feel betrayed by this type of turn.

On the other hand, when they work, the story is usually seared into your brain. A more well known example of this unexpected turn of events is the death of a major character in George R. R. Martin’s game of thrones toward the end of the first book. For many people, that made the story more memorable. For a few, it ruined it. I wonder if the same is true of Final Fantasy VI.

I’m in the group where this choice worked. It elevated the story to a new level that I still don’t think I’ve come across. It’s very likely that rose-colored glasses are in play here, so I do want to distinguish between execution and impact  – I imagine if I sat down and nit-picked the game’s story, I’d find all sorts of flaws. But who cares about those, if the players are still happily remembering the story fifteen years later? I’ve played a number of games the last couple years where I thought the story was great, but now I have trouble recounting all the details. Yet I still remembered Figaro Castle, the bazillion floors of the stupid Mage’s tower, the secret time you had to put on the clock in Zozo to find Edward’s chainsaw,  the opera (yes, there was opera!).

It’s odd to me how far away from this type of storyline the more recent Final Fantasy games have gotten. Though there are some great characters and moments, most of them fall short, especially at the end. Final Fantasy XII and XIII, both of which I did enjoy, have absolutely befuddling weak climaxes to their story, almost as if they had to cut the story short to fit the game.

 

Once again this has gone on longer than I anticipated. I plan on doing this again in the future with some of my other favorite games. I think story in gaming is something with a lot of room to evolve and I look forward to see what designers come up with in the future, hoping one day something comes along that surpasses Final Fantasy VI.

 

 

 

 

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The Great Debate

One of the tough decisions new writers face is whether or not to self-publish.

I can’t speak for others, but personally, I’ve kept hoping that at some point I’d be given some magical bit of insight which would make the decision easy. “David Farland has to know,” I thought, before I attended his workshop. I figured I’d know by the end of the week which route to go. On the last day, during the final moments of the workshop, Dave had us gather close, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “The secret,” he said, “is…”

Yeah, I know. In my dreams, etc.

In reality, Dave gave us a lot of information on the topic. So much, in fact, that I would say the decision is now considerably more difficult, not less. You’d think naïve-Tristan-of-last-month would have predicted that, but frankly he was a little slow. Brilliant-Tristan-of-today will never fall into that trap, I promise you that!

Honestly, I’ve been considering the problem for the last two years, devouring as many blog posts / forum threads / interviews on the topic as I can. Here’s where I stand on the two main options:

Traditional publishing

This means going to a publishing company and convincing them to buy my book. Of course, it’s not that simple. First, there’s the question of whether or not to get an agent. That’s hard too – there are arguments for and against agents. I’ve heard very intelligent people argue that you absolutely need to find an agent. Others vehemently believe you shouldn’t get one at all. I think dichotomies like that are a little absurd, as not all agents are created equal. I think if you can find the right agent, someone skilled who believes in your book and is aligned with your career goals, they’d be a big benefit. If you find the wrong agent, it could end up hurting you. How do you tell the difference? Heck if I know. Let’s table the agent discussion for now – I’ll likely continue it in a future post.

The benefits of traditional publishing as I see it is that you get the support of a company full of experts in the field. They’ll do your cover, your editing, your proof-reading. They’ll do some marketing (how much will vary considerably), and perhaps most importantly, they’ll use their existing network to distribute your book to bookstores.

In terms of money, although the royalty rates are low (about 10% on a hardcover, less on trade paperbacks), you get an advance, which means money up front. If you establish yourself with a few novels that sell well, you might get to the point where you get paid based on a proposal or outline rather than having to wait till after you’ve written the novel.

There are other drawbacks. Contracts for new authors are not friendly. You won’t be able to sign without giving up your e-rights, for one. Other unpleasant provisions you may run into have been covered in depth by Dean Wesley Smith – I’d refer you to his blog if you want to read more about such provisions.

You give up control on other things too, such as cover art. Dave told us some scary stories about covers and how damaging a bad cover can be. Brandon Sanderson’s first Mistborn book had a bad cover and underperformed for a while, till his agent forced the publisher to change it. Sales quadrupled.

Big publishing companies are big, slow corporations who have not reacted quickly (or, in my opinion, well) to the rapid changes in publishing brought on by e-books. By giving them your rights, in some sense you are beholden to their decisions, and if they make bad ones and go down, your books go down with them.

Self-Publishing

The clear benefit here (for me, anyway) is control. Without any big mean company telling you what to do, you get to make all the decisions yourself! Cover art, editing, proof-reading, formatting, marketing, even the decision as to when the novel is ready, all fall on your shoulders. Even better, if you publish through Amazon, you get a 70% royalty rate on everything you sell.

That sounds great – so great, in fact, that hundreds of thousands of novels will get self-published on Amazon this year.

Which means to succeed, you have to figure out how to make readers choose your novel out of that seemingly endless sea of books.

How do you do that? Some people think marketing is the key. Others argue that marketing isn’t nearly as useful as writing the next book. There is a lot of information, much of it contradictory. The only thing people can seem to agree on is that things are changing so quickly, that the situation may be completely different a year from now.

Another thing to consider is the lack of gate-keepers. On one hand, that means you don’t have to wait for an agent or editor to decide your book is ‘good enough’. On the other hand, this means a lot of self-published books aren’t very good. It’s created a stigma which hurts the self-published books which are as high quality as their traditional published counterparts. Breaking through that stigma is a challenge self-published authors have to face.

No Easy Answers

The real theme here is uncertainty, not just among newbies but among professionals. The authors at SuperStars all agreed that no one knew where publishing would be in five years. There’s a fear that print publishing may be going extinct, replaced almost entirely by e-publishing, but no one knows for certain, and print publishing has survived big changes in the past.

Now, with all this in mind, at the workshop Dave still recommended pursuing traditional publishing over self-publishing if you can get a sufficiently large advance (he threw out the number $40,000). Print sales are still going strong, and there’s still a lot of money to be made by getting your novel in book-stores all over the country. Not to say this is impossible via self-publishing, but you’ll have to figure out how to do it on your own.

As to my decision?

I’m leaning toward traditional publishing. With a full-time job, I’m not sure I want to commit the time to doing all the non-writing tasks self-publishing would demand.  Still, there’s a lot I like about the concept of self-publishing, so I’ll be keeping an open mind about it as the time to make my decision comes.

Either way, the decision isn’t clear cut, and that’s okay. There’s no easy paths in this industry, but the only true way to fail is to stop, and I’m determined to keep forging forth. Besides, if I stopped, Gare will be sad, and what type of horrible person would want a dog to cry?  🙂

Workshop Trip Report, Part Two

(Check out Part One here)

Tuesday,  8/28

Tuesday started with a lengthier discussion on editing and storytelling, before diving into another critique. The comments Dave made here mirrored the ones he gave me –more setting, more characterization. The need for a more developed setting ended up being a common theme throughout pretty much all the critiques.

That afternoon we critiqued an extremely well written YA urban fantasy with a fun main character and a type of magic I hadn’t seen before. I thought the writing was smooth and the story solid. One way the group suggested to help strengthen the main character’s conflict was to kill his mother – or, more precisely, to make it so his mother’s dead. That added an extra layer to the character’s tension with his father, which is what the first chapter centered on.

In the evening I sent Dave the scene I’d written the previous night where I’d try to apply some of his comments, and got back a thumbs up from him. I also worked on a dilemma scene (our assignment for the night), realizing that I had a couple good dilemma’s early on and hadn’t really fleshed either of them out.

Wednesday, 8/29

In the morning we read our Dilemma scenes, before moving into a discussion on storytelling. This was probably the most enlightening session of the entire workshop. It exposed another mental ‘mistake’ I was making, in imagining that the storytelling aspect of things was artistic magic. Apparently I just don’t learn – storytelling can be analyzed, broken down, and studied, just liked anything else. The main difference with storytelling and other things is so few people, even published authors, have tried to do so. Fortunately for us, Dave is an expert at doing exactly that. I’ll cover more about this topic in a future blog post.

Today’s critiques included an intricately plotted historical thriller / time-travel story and a very unique sci-fi novel. After class sessions I ended up chatting with people all afternoon till dinner. After dinner we came back to watch the Hunger Games as a group, with Dave offering analysis of the film both during and after.

One of the topics that we had discussed in the morning was the idea of resonance in stories. Things can resonate with you personally, or with other things in the genre. For example, in the Hunger Games, the capital city’s soldiers are dressed to remind the viewer of storm troopers; Katniss, with her bow and warrior-woman like persona reminds us of the Greek goddess Artemis; President Snow, with a snow white beard, conspiring with the Games director Seneca, with a red suit and sharp black goatee, remind us of God and the Devil.

Dave argues that resonance is one of the keys to making your novel or film blockbusters. It’s something I’d never thought of before, and will be considering both in my current story and future projects.

Thursday 8/30

Today we talked about editing passes and critiqued three novels; a fantasy about were-dragons, a science fiction piece about troops training to be admitted into an elite program; and a contemporary fantasy.  There was some discussion about character names in the first two pieces, which got me thinking what makes a good character name and not. One of the issues people had was with a main character named Del, cast as a young cadet. Del is considered an ‘old fashioned’ name by a lot of people, so a number of people argued it might be appropriate to find a ‘younger’ sounding name.

I admit to not thinking enough about my names, though when I asked the group they seemed okay with mine. Makes you wonder how much of a difference in reader enjoyment a name can make.

The evening’s assignment was to write an argument scene. I found one argument with Gare and Eonhar that I thought was kind of timid, and rewrote it so there ends up being a lot of unresolved tension in the end. The rewritten scene ends up being one of the favorite I’ve ever written – it really dug into the inner pain that both characters feel, in a way I hadn’t managed to reach before. My fingers were shaking while typing it, and my voice shook while reading it in class the next day. It’s pretty cool when you can manage an emotional response like that from yourself with your own writing.

Friday 8/31

The final day ended with some more talk of editing, the final two critiques (a fantasy inspired by the Cinderella tale and a really sweet urban fantasy that is kind of a lighter version of the Dresden files), and time for questions.  After that we gathered for a group photo, and that was that.

After the workshop ended a few of us gathered for dinner at a Hibachi grill. I’d never done one before, so that was a cool experience, and the food was very good.

Overall, I learned an enormous amount, not to mention made friendships and connections I hope will last a lifetime. I feel energized and ready to take my writing to the next level, and more certain than ever that one day I’ll be successful at it.

Workshop Trip Report, Part One

I got back home yesterday from David Farland’s Novel Revision workshop, where I spent a week with ten other writers in Saint George, Utah, critiquing each other’s stories and absorbing a truly gargantuan amount of knowledge.

For those unfamiliar, David Farland (real name David Wolverton) is the best-selling author of the Rune Lords series, plus a bunch of others. His recent YA novel Nightingale has won a bunch of awards. He’s been teaching writing and running workshops for over ten years, and taught authors like Brandon Sanderson and Stephanie Meyers when they were first starting out.

The focus of the workshop was to take our novels and improve them, even if they were already very good. Dave read and critiqued the first hundred pages and the outlines, while the entire class was given the first twenty pages and the outlines to do a group critique.

I received the other samples in early August. It was intimidating – they were all very good. Some seemed to me that they could pretty much be published as is. I started to ask myself if I was ready, if I was crazy to think I was at this level yet. That started a bit of a self-doubt cycle which hurt my writing this month.

It was nice to hear at the workshop that most other people had the same thing happen to them. It just serves as another reminder that most of the battles we fight when we’re doing stuff like this are internal. Self-doubt isn’t always a bad thing, but it should never interfere with your productivity.

Here’s the run-down:

Sunday, 8/26

I arrived at Saint George via a shuttle from the Las Vegas airport. The highway took us through the north-west corner of Arizona and wound through a beautiful canyon for about ten miles, before opening up as we hit Utah into red rocks and ridges, with just enough green to keep you from thinking you’re in the desert. It reminded me a lot of Flagstaff, though the hundred degree heat made enjoying the landscape a bit harder.

The shuttle deposited me at the Ramada Inn, where the workshop was to be held. After so many vacations to touristy places, it was nice to go somewhere more laid back. I grabbed dinner, then headed to my room to review the manuscripts and try to prepare myself – I was going to be the second person critiqued. I admit I didn’t sleep well that night.

Monday, 8/27

I grabbed breakfast at the hotel and met Nancy, a writer whom I’d previously met at SuperStars. It was nice to see a familiar face, so we chatted for a while before heading into the board room. The workshop started at 9. We spent the morning getting to know each other, then Dave talked briefly about the plan for the week. Right after that we headed into the first critique.

One of the reasons I was nervous about going second is I thought the person going first was the strongest writer in the group. Her urban fantasy story was wonderfully written, engaging, and did a nice job of putting a new twist on the standard Greek gods trope. The format of the group critique was each other attendee got three minutes to give their take, then Dave would give a longer critique. After the author was welcome to ask questions, which sometimes turned into discussions.

I was impressed by how professional everyone was, at both giving and receiving critiques. Even when they didn’t like something, it was clear that the comments were meant to be constructive. In the case of the first manuscript, much of the discussion turned to the short prologue, and whether it needed to be there. At first the group thought it could be cut, but after some ideas were tossed around, it was clear the prologue could be strengthened and add a lot to the story.

I was up after lunch, and as usual, my nervousness was unfounded. The comments were useful and constructive, and mostly centered around areas I knew were weak, namely the setting. The good news was most people really enjoyed my story and were eager to know what else was in store for Gare. One guy didn’t like the non-human PoV, but I knew going in I was going to lose a certain percentage of readers, and that was a good reminder that you can’t please everyone.

Dave’s critique, on the other hand, was revelatory.

He pointed out a bunch of things I already knew, but he made one over-arcing comment which shocked me (in a good way): he said the second fifty pages were substantially stronger than the first fifty.

It shocked me, because going in, I would have bet you money on it being the opposite. I was wrong, and the reason I was wrong is interesting. The second fifty pages were part of a section I’d been struggling on for months. I’m not even sure how many times I did full and partial iterations on those pages – probably at least six. I’ve got reams of discarded scenes that didn’t work. I struggled with it so much, that I simply assumed the result still had issues. Whereas, the first fifty pages, I’d done only two versions of. Not that I thought it was perfect – but I’d thought it was solid enough that I should focus my attention elsewhere.

The problem with my first fifty pages was that it was underwritten. I’d neglected a number of conflicts that I shouldn’t have, which would give the story itself far more depth. There were a few scenes I sketched out, in attempt to show time passing until the next big story event. At one point, I had Gare observe that he was bored. Dave kindly pointed out that when your main character is saying he’s bored, you as the writer need to seriously consider whether the reader will be bored as well.

I’d also neglected the setting (a known problem), and got some suggestions as to how to fix that. Setting ended up being a weakness for pretty much all of us at the workshop, so it was nice to get feedback there.

He also pointed out a number of smaller issues, and marked up the manuscript itself, showing me where I can cut words and where I can make the writing stronger.

Even with those issues, Dave  said he very much enjoyed the story, and as an editor, would want to see the full manuscript. Talking with the other’s afterward, I got the same impression from most of them.

It feels good that I was able to put something out that could be publishable – it feels great to know that I can make it a heck of a lot better. Publishable isn’t the end-all of quality.

I had a one-on-one dinner with Dave that night, where we talked more about the critiques, as well as what my goals were and my general plan. He gave me some pointers and told some awesome stories about a crazy friend of his, who got caught up in one of the end-of-the-world UFO cults.

That night, I spent a few hours writing, putting together a new scene that focused on bringing my setting and descriptions to life. By the time I got to bed, I was exhausted, but I went to sleep happy.

I’ll finish this up next week. Thanks for reading, all, and enjoy the long weekend!