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The Glamour Issue: Looking Back On RPGs

How often is it that we look back on a game we once enjoyed, only to find ourselves suddenly disillusioned with it? Or on a title we once reviled, only to find that a second look reveals a better game than we remember?

There's always a degree of glamour or distaste when we invest in a new experience. Our expectations dictate how we receive the game - or if we receive it at all. Reception and usage are two different things. The first refers to an attitude of exploration; a willingness to put aside one's expectations and personal tastes in order to properly evaluate the experience. Usage, on the other hand, is the fulfilment of one's expectations; the attitude that the product should satisfy the user's demands.

Glamour often stems from the usage of a brand. For instance, "Final Fantasy" is a very powerful brand in RPGs, and from it a person may derive certain expectations. These include an epic scope, a cast of familiar archetypes, and respect for the larger mythology the brand is known for (ie: Chocobos, Moogles, people or things named Cid). As such, when an iteration of the franchise changes things dramatically, opinions shift hurriedly about in order to reconcile expectations with reality.

In some cases, this has been easy: Final Fantasy X did nothing to dramatically uproot franchise staples. Its most grievous crime against expectations was its Sphere Grid, a bonus-earning system that seemed different at first, but was quickly recognized as being basic and grind-oriented.

Standing in sharp contrast was Final Fantasy VIII. It featured a redesigned magic system, introduced a complex bonus-earning system tied directly to summoned beings (called Guardian Forces or GFs), and reversed the general principle that higher levels meant easier fights. By and large, keeping one's levels low and instead stocking up on magic while training one's GF's was the key to an easier game.

With its complexity, Final Fantasy VIII betrayed the expectations of its fanbase. It was far more complex than any of its predecessors (or even its descendants), and it featured a story that often required the player to have some sophisticated tastes to understand. It had many subtleties that younger audiences were not prepared to pick up on.

Given these facts, it's easy to see why Final Fantasy X was a more favoured game. It met many expectations and betrayed very few. Whether or not it was a better game is controversial. It was certainly a simpler game, treading well within its borders. As such, anyone "using" the iteration was pleased, but it does very little for those wanting to "receive" it.

My personal experience with Final Fantasy VIII reads like this:
At sixteen, playing the game for the first time, I grew increasingly frustrated with it, disliked the characters, hated the story, and promptly made it my mission to tell everyone how absolutely horrid the game was.

At twenty, playing the game again, I was less repulsed by the story, but still had it in for the gameplay. I simply couldn't stand how much effort and time it demanded.

At twenty-one I started playing more complex PC games and returned to the world of tabletop roleplaying. I invested in Shadowrun, Dungeons & Dragons, and so on, learning how to DM/GM as well as play.

At twenty-six, I finally decided to play Final Fantasy VIII one more time. This time, the characters were more engaging, the story's subtleties sprang to the foreground, and I genuinely enjoyed a game of Triple Triad. The whole idea of spreading some rules and cancelling others excited me. The GF junctioning system actually made a lot of sense, and now stands as one of my all-time favourite apparatuses for skill-building.

Suffice to say, glamour and distaste had finally worn off, and I was able to receive the game more sufficiently. One of the keys to that process (for me anyway) is broadening one's horizons. Thinking crosses over between applications, and going from a tabletop, world-building environment back to a console game gave me a new perspective on things.

That isn't to say there shouldn't be standards when "receiving." There is such a thing as a bad concept, or at least a poorly executed one. Final Fantasy X's Blitzball, despite being interesting on paper, is a clumsy beast when it comes to application. The name of Final Fantasy V's protagonist, "Butz," will always be a genuinely poor one. Using stumpy 3D sprites in Final Fantasy IV has done that title's dramatic qualities no favours. There are bad ideas.

The task of course, is to differentiate between bad ideas and those that are different, but good. There's a dramatic difference between Final Fantasy II and VIII's ideas about levelling. Where II's fights against the player's sense of self-preservation by requiring that a character take damage to earn experience, VIII's merely inverts the usual grind, trading it for an easier and less time-consuming concept in stocking magic.

Because of glamour and distaste, critiquing a game fairly can be difficult. They're especially potent while playing and shortly after completing an RPG. I always recommend going back to a game six months or even a year later and trying it again, since it generally provides a person with the mental space required for a proper assessment.

But how to faster overcome the effects of glamour? How to "receive" instead of "use" by default? Reviewers and people invested in zeitgeist don't have six months or a year to consider things before reporting them. Perhaps it's a matter of putting aside expectations as a rule. Be it with food, with games, with the way we face the day; putting aside expectations may be the key to better understanding how something works.

- Mark P. Tjan



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