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The Gamer’s Guide to Writing #4: Final Fantasy IX: The Princess and the Play

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Welcome back to the Gamer’s Guide to Writing!  Previously, we discovered that Tantalus, a gang of thieves, were hatching a plot to kidnap princess Garnet disguised as a troop of actors.  Today, we’ll see how their heist goes off.
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This sequence gives us a pair of very interesting contrasting viewpoints:  Steiner and Zidane.  While both are playable characters, they have opposing goals.  Steiner’s job as the head of the Knights of Pluto is to defend Princess Garnet, and Zidane’s job is to kidnap her.  Of course, Garnet has plans of her own.  The play begins with a spray of fireworks and trumpets, which delight Queen Brahne.  This will be an interesting little contrast to the end of this scene.  Tantalus plays their part, telling the story of a doomed romance between a warrior and a princess.  After a scene on stage in which the player controls a few swordfights in the midst of some pseudo-Shakespearian poetry.  There is also a mini-game in which you must press the correct sequence of buttons to wow the crowd.
Afterwards, you control Zidane as he sneaks into the castle and tries to abscond with the princess.  He in fact literally runs into her, disguised in a red-lined white hood that long-time fans of the franchise should recognize.  She leads him on a chase through the castle while the control shifts to Steiner, her protector who has noticed she is missing.  With news of the plot spreading though the palace, he has to rally his knights, all of whom aren’t terribly dedicated to the profession, and find her.  The action switches several times, from Steiner to Zidane as he chases the thief through the castle and the Buena Vista airship before ending up on the stage itself.
But in spite of Steiner’s noble dedication, not all is right in Alexandria Castle, and Garnet pleads with Zidane to kidnap her right away, to which he agrees.  On stage, Garnet tries to blend into the play, taking the role of the tragic princess in the story.  Her cover is blown when Vivi, pursued by guards after sneaking in, accidentally sets her hood ablaze with his magic.  With the jig up, Tantalus tries to make a quick exit, but Brahne launches a broadside of chain shot, and even a bomb at them.  Although damaged by the explosion, the Prima Vista limps out into the night and away from the castle.  Queen Brahne orders that they be followed, adding ominously that they “need her alive.”
This scene works really well on a variety of levels.  It draws the player in with a lot of action and things to do.  The castle is a huge area, and while a lot of it is unavailable, it does drop some tantalizing hints.  It also establishes the characters and conflicts that drive most of the first disc’s action.  The rivalry between Zidane and Steiner is a nice microcosm of the greater conflict between Garnet and her mother, which will be explored further.  It’s also a really fun, high-energy chase sequence.  It’s quite spirited and cartoonish, making Steiner the butt of a series of pratfalls and sight gags.  It’s a great contrast to “I Want to be your Canary,” the play Tantalus is performing, which is a classical tragedy.
The play-within-a-play, or in this case play-within-a-game, is a great technique for drawing parallels and establishing theme.  Probably the best known examples come from Shakespeare, who uses it to interesting effect in “Hamlet” to prove Claudius’s guilt, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where it serves as comic relief.  Here, the play is a plot point for getting Zidane and company in the door, but it does a hefty bit of world building and character development as well.  The theme of an impossible affair between a princess and a commoner echoes Zidane and Garnet’s relationship, and the play will come up several more times throughout the plot.
Next time, we’ll explore The Evil Forest and discuss worldbuilding!

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The Gamer’s Guide to Writing #3: Approaching Alexandria

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Previously on “The Gamer’s Guide to Writing,” we looked at the title screen animation and character portraits of Final Fantasy IX.  Today, we’re pushing start and getting into the game itself with two contrasting views of Alexandria, and a heist about to unfold. As ever, spoilers ahead.
Like many games of its cycle, Final Fantasy IX begins with a video cutscene.  Much like the opening scene of a film, credits are superimposed above the action.  We start with a little boat in a storm.  Two figures struggle to keep afloat as waves toss and spin the vessel.  The camera zooms in on one of the figures, a small girl, and then the scene abruptly changes to Princess Garnet, who has fallen asleep in a chair.  She goes to an open window, and we pan to a wide shot of the Kingdom of Alexandria as white birds fly over the city in the light of a setting sun.
The camera follows the birds as they fly towards a massive airship.  It focuses on shots of the figurehead, a mermaid, and the propellers, which appear as stylized towers, before giving an establishing shot of the entire vessel.  This is the Prima Vista.  Onboard the ship, the camera follows Zidane down a ladder and through a door, then puts the player in control.
Zidane is there for a meeting of Tantalus, a group of thieves posing as a theatrical troupe.  As the gang gathers to plan their upcoming heist, they are suddenly attacked by a dragon-headed figure, who turns out to be Tantalus’s leader Baku in a costume.  After Baku cries uncle, the five thieves meet in a side room to go over the plan.
Tantalus is traveling to Alexandria ostensibly to perform the popular play “I want to be Your Canary” for Queen Brahne and Princess Garnet.  Their real objective is to kidnap the princess while everyone in the castle is distracted by the performance.
This establishing scene does a lot of good work world-building and establishing plot.  It also establishes gameplay, letting the player interact a bit with the environment, explore, and fight a brief battle.  The important thing about this scene is that it uses a light touch.  It is mostly exposition-free.  We don’t get a monologue about Baku’s long friendship with King Cid, or Alexandria and Lindblum’s long history.  We get exactly what we need to know that a heist is about to go down, and Zidane is a major part of it.
There is another cutscene of someone watching the airship dock at Alexandria castle.  As the airship glides majestically over the city to the castle, we see it reflected in a huge, mirrored crystal that stands atop the castle, and the credits end with the logo for Final Fantasy IX.
Now, we’re following the little black mage Vivi.  If we previously got a birds-eye view, now we are on the ground with Vivi as he attempts to wind his way through the huge city.  He somehow has a ticket to the performance, but is clearly overwhelmed by Alexandria.  He makes his way to the ticket booth, interacting with street urchins and working-class Alexandrians as he goes.  He even has the opportunity to play a few mini-games.  When he gets to the castle, though, he discovers his ticket is a fake!  If he wants to see the show, he’ll have to find another way in to the castle.
That’s when Vivi meets Puck, a rat-faced street urchin that can get him in, as long as he promises to be his slave.  Vivi, who is completely lacking in street wisdom, agrees, and the pair steal a ladder to make a daring rooftop entrance to the castle.  They sneak inside just as the play is about to start.
Vivi’s journey through Alexandria is first-rate game storytelling.  The player doesn’t get to fight anything, but there is plenty to explore, and doing so in the shoes of earnest and inexperienced Vivi is an excellent method.  As with the Prima Vista, we get dialog that serves both as world-building and character development as he makes his way through the Victorian city.  While the game is not quite so stark as Dickens’ London, we are introduced to a world of struggling shop owners, harried housekeepers, and thieving orphans, even if most of them are willing to stop and play a game of cards.
While the opening cutscene focused largely on the grandeur and majesty of the world, with a fantastic castle and a high-flying airship, the game contrasts this by starting off in a cramped cabin and following some of the least powerful Alexandrians.  This contrast between Nobility and the Working Class, between white marble and sooty cobblestones, is a theme that is established early and continues through the rest of the game in a variety of ways.
Next time: Tantalus puts on a play and the line between the actors and the audience blurs when their kidnapping heist doesn’t go as planned!

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The Gamer’s Guide to Writing: An Introduction

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IMG courtesy of Gamefaqs.com

IMG courtesy of Gamefaqs.com

Like many genre writers, I enjoy playing video games, and I often complain that my gaming addiction is taking time away from my writing, and vice-versa.  But I’ve found that in some ways, my love of gaming has had a great impact on my writing.  Even in a genre that is generally panned for its presentation of script and plot, an observant writer can still pick up pointers about what to do, and what to avoid.  This blog is a look at some of the lessons I’ve picked up in my many years behind a game pad.
A game I’d like to look at first is “Final Fantasy IX.”  Launched in the U.S. in November of 2000, it is often overlooked because of the timing of its release.  It came out at the tail end of the Sony Playstation’s lifecycle, a full month after the blockbusting premier of the Playstation 2.  Even though the game pushed the console to its limits, it was competing against more dazzling technology.  It also has an awkward place in the franchise, between the panned “Final Fantasy VIII” the next year’s revolutionary “Final Fantasy X” for the PS2.
None the less, FFIX is an excellent source for writers looking at plot, structure, character, and theme.  Over the next series of posts, I’ll be drilling deep into the plot of the game, examining the presentation and hunting for literary gold, as Dave Robision would say.  Think of this like a very different sort of walkthrough.  Instead of looking for secrets to success in the game, I’ll be looking for hints to improve writing craft.  Spoilers obviously will be a part of this project.  So if you have an old set of discs gathering dust, or a few bucks of Playstation Network credit lying around, come join me as we examine how a classic game tells a great story.
Next week, we’ll look at compact character introductions, and what we can learn from the title screen!
Final Fantasy IX was originally released for the Sony Playstation and is also available as a digital download on Playstation Network.
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