Final Fantasy 1 and Alienation

Thu, 09/16/2004 — Fasteriskhead

The most fundamental goal of a human being is his own self-actualization, which he achieves through labor. He acts upon the world and then looks at what he has created, altered, or done as his, as a revitalizing expression of self and personal nature. What he does creates who he is, and it gives him pride to look upon a thing and know that he was its source. The alienation that comes as a result of the divison of man from his labor or from his personal qualities (both of which constitues his very nature) is sometimes a necessary result of social development, but it is nevertheless important to identify it when it occurs and to find what has been lost, lest one becomes a hopeless wretch existing without pride or personal identity. Beginning with this as a base, it is a fact beyond any sort of doubt that man alienates himself from his nature by playing late-'80s NES RPGs. Moreover, he does so in more than one way, and he does it as a fundamental aspect of the gameplay.

First he is obliged to select a series of avatars for himself; he may select the fighter (upon whom he projects his bravery and personal might), the black belt (who receives his inner strength and frugality), the red mage (his versatility), the white mage (his generosity, kindness, and piety), the black mage (his capacity to realize in the world wide-ranging and spectacular changes), and the thief (his uh, ability to run away really well). And ,after giving away all of his better qualities to these six idealized figures, the player is left with practically nothing to call his own. He degrades himself even as he exalts them; with their practically superhuman examples looking down at him, he imagines himself as weak, petty, unlikable, deceitful, cowardly, and frequently out of shape, and soon begins to treat himself as such. All his good qualities exist only upon the television set, since that is where he removed them to, and as a result the player degenerates into what one can only term a "nerd."

But the nightmare does not end there. Now the player identifies himself with the characters he controls; their victories are now his victories, since he no longer has anything to call his own. His initial intent when he began playing was to have fun, to achieve a self-actualizaton, and yet as he puts more and more of himself into the game, less and less of him remains behind to actually enjoy any of it. Despite the fact that he is the base, the very cause of everything that occurs, he himself has only become an accessory, a tool to be used to move the game along

And so his party of small dieties move around the map completing adventures, and in the process they fight monsters. Soon the player learns that his avatars are quite vulnerable to attack and easily killed. The solution is to enhance them somehow, to empower them so that the monsters they encounter no longer endanger the party and, through them, endanger the player's already-alienated better qualities. The methods of enhancement are twofold. First, by gaining gold (through killing monsters) the player may purchase better equipment and spells for his characters, improving them to a degree. Second, and more importantly as the game proceeds, the characters themselves may gain experience points (also through killing monsters) from which they "level up" and become stronger. The player struggles at first; he kills a few monsters, through that the characters gain new equipment and new levels, and now those same monsters become easy prey. But from there, the game continues; the party moves to a new area, with tougher monsters than before, and the player is again placed in a position of difficulty up until these monsters have been surpassed, and so on and so on.

The pattern this creates is clear. Through his avatars the player seeks to "conquer" the game, to make them so strong that no monster can possibly support any kind of threat. However alienated his avatars may be from him, he yet seeks a self-actualization through their achievement of invulnerability and "godhood." This changes his view of the game completely. Whereas at first he went on the adventures and fought the monsters for fun, for his own personal satisfaction, now he does it in order to strengthen his characters, and to that end he views monsters et al not for how fun they are to fight but for how much experience they will grant him. His actions and those of his adventurers are now even further alienated from him, as every single activity in the game can now be viewed solely in terms of how much experience will be gained should the task be completed. Experience becomes a golden calf, and even moreso it becomes a cruel ruler separating the player from his in-game activities by basing those actions' value only on the Almighty EXP.

Through EXP the characters become infinitely more powerful and the player gives even more of himself to them, and yet the game, by its very nature, can never allow them their godhood, thus denying the player the satisfaction that he seeks. In each succeeding area the monsters are tougher and the party humbled anew; the player uses all his power just to keep these nonexistant beings in his party afloat, seeking an apotheosis that can never come. Even should he spend countless hours leveling them up to the point where they can take on Warmech without breaking a sweat, tear a swath through the Temple of Fiends, and win the game with ease, the player still cannot be satisfied because the game itself is ultimately still in control. The characters are never gods, they remain only puppets with stronger weapons. Their stats are impossibly high, yet they remain at Square's mercy: had the programmers wished, they could have added a monster somewhere that could crush these "invincible" avatars like ants. That is to say, when the player and his characters win, it is only because the game wants them to. It smirks at them and throws the match, letting the player know that no matter how hard he tries, he can only be victorious if the system allows it.

And this is how the player is left after the game is over. He has "won," and yet even after all of his effort he has left no imprint, no actualization, upon the game itself. He has merely been run through the machine and spit out. The party members he has identified himself with simply cease to be, taking all of his good qualities with them and leaving behind a broken husk. Nowhere in the process was he allowed to become himself, to act in a creative way that the game would not allow him to, as every action he has performed has been controlled, anticipated, and finally allowed by an electronic board of approval. In this manner the created object (the late-'80s NES RPG) exerts an extraordinary power over the human being, and as a result he is enchained and made a mere shade of his possible self. His inner nature is gone, and he himself withers on the vine.

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