Feels like it's been forever, eh? (Just pretend.) I've been kind of burnt out and uninspired when it comes to blogging this past week after an unusually productive February in that regard. (Not to mention a rather messy GRE day last week.)
Like most nerds, I've been in a state of mourning of sorts as well - a very special tired tabletop gaming kind of mourning. Last week, geeks of the world lost one of the greats, the influential creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax.
Yes, ever since his death, everyone's been beating those failed saving throw jokes into the ground - including myself. But I'm not going to do that here. For this is a serious blog, and I am a serious blogger. (I'm seriously trying to keep a straight face here, if that counts for anything.)
Of course, beyond that he was a king amongst nerds, there's not much else to be said about Gygax (At least, that's my excuse for not focusing on his personal life here.), but that he was a great influence on the "thinking nerd's" favorite genre of game - the role-playing game. (The kind with lots of character statistics and dice when playing a tabletop one - not the kind of "role-playing" when your ex-husband wanted to keep dressing up like a giant baby in the bedroom. What was wrong with that guy?) This genre is often referred to - particularly among computer and video gamers - as an "RPG." (No, not the gun. How are you not getting this?)
Dungeons & Dragons was Gygax's gaming offspring, taking over nerds' lives upon first launching in 1974, and filling parents with dread. Little Johnny's becoming a satanist! Again! This was a common train of thought back in the 1970s, in part due to the fear of Communism the government had verbally beaten into Americans back then, and in part due to the fact that everybody was still doing acid all the time back then. (They hadn't put enough distance between themselves and the '60s yet.) Gygax left the gaming company he'd co-founded, TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) in 1985 during a management shakeup while he was involved in the production of the mid-80s Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. TSR would go on to create all sorts of abortions (And I'll admit it, I actually own this game, VHS and everything.) of the franchise before they were bought out by Wizards of the Coast in 1997 and they opted to update (See: Butcher) Dungeons & Dragons' core rules for the sake of making the game more accessible to new generations of geeks. What do you mean we don't have THAC0 anymore!?
Inspired by tabletop RPGs, in 1980, Richard Garriott brought the genre to PCs with the original Ultima, his long-running series of adventures in the fantasy world of Britannia, starring the Avatar. (A blatant intentional analogue for the player, a trend we would continue to see in RPGs on the PC and video game consoles/portables, which has taken something of a downturn in recent years.)
Ultima, in turn, would lead to Japanese game director Yuji Horii of Enix to create his own take on the genre, working with composer Koichi Sugiyama and artist Akira Toriyama. (Best known for his Dragon Ball comics and animated series, now being hilariously made into a doubtlessly terrible Hollywood film slated for a 2009 release, with a now white protagonist! ... Stephen Chow, what the hell have you agreed to produce?) This series, Dragon Quest, would launch on the MSX and NES in Japan in 1986 - and later in the west in 1989 as Dragon Warrior. The series continues even today, with its 9th installment slated for a release on the Nintendo DS this year, and a first person spin-off, Dragon Quest Swords, having hit the Wii just last month. Of course, the greatest accomplishment made in this series - beyond introducing RPG video games to Japan - was the creation of one of the greatest gaming mascot characters of all time - Slime. Bow before Slime. He will be your friend. (And you will inevitably spend the first few hours of every game in the series killing lots of them.)
Following the many Dragon Quest clones other companies released in Japan in the '80s, Squaresoft, a game developer failing after an over-investment in Nintendo's unsuccessful Famicom Disk System, released what was to be their swan song in 1987 - Final Fantasy. The game was a hit and reversed Square's fortunes, ultimately becoming nearly synonymous with the RPG genre by the early 1990s. They were enjoyed for their imaginative universes, intriguing casts of characters, and battle system that bucked the Dragon Quest trend, displaying the player's party of characters on screen during battle. Polished by translator and localizer Ted Woolsey, Final Fantasy VI on the Super Nintendo proved to be the series' shining gem, with a cast of (Mostly) well-developed three-dimensional characters and storylines that touched on real world issues - such as teen pregnancy and genocide.
Then Square decided they wanted to take the series mainstream during the shift from the Super Nintendo to the Playstation as the dominant console in the late 1990s. This is where everything went to hell. RPGs had been long enjoyed on game machines largely by a minority of geeks who enjoyed the slower-paced, deeper gameplay that required us to think our way through the game and immerse ourselves in a brilliant new world with new adventures to be had. Final Fantasy VII exploded onto the Playstation scene to ridiculous -and in many cases bankrolled - amounts of praise. (The greatest game ever made, my ass.) The game was a smash hit, bringing the genre to its first mainstream success - without truly making the genre mainstream, as every RPG that didn't have Final Fantasy in its title "sucked" by default to the new generation of kids the game introduced to RPG video games. The gameplay was shallow, the story was nearly incoherent, and the translation was abysmal, Ted Woolsey having departed prior to its localization. Rather than telling an interesting story with compelling characters, it was time to appeal to a new generation of gamers - with attitude. The game's design largely focused around trying to be much "darker" than before. (Which largely amounted to a well designed dystopic city where the game began, and the story falling apart shortly after leaving it several hours in, with the rest of the game's massive world a bland, forgettable place, seemingly an afterthought. The story itself was painful cliche to its core, and its characters amongst the worst gaming has seen - setting a depressing trend. From then on, Final Fantasy was all about moody, effeminate young men for its protagonists, who are neither sympathetic nor likable, yet still played up by fans as some sort of ultimate badasses. Every protagonist from then on would be more of the same. The supporting cast? Two female romantic interests - one who receives little development and is summarily killed off in an effort to provoke an emotional response in the player (At which they fail, horribly.), and another who exists to essentially be a pair of giant breasts - a borderline racist stereotype, a couple of talking animals, and a couple of extra optional characters who add nothing to the story whatsoever. The dialogue? Poorly translated teen angst.) In a matter of a couple of years, Final Fantasy went from intelligent, enthralling fantasy to F-grade teen drama. Ever since, any RPG that features a silent protagonist intended to act as an analogue for the player is immediately berated - why not have an angsty pretty boy whine at us for 50 hours instead? And now, what Final Fantasy stands for - at least in its newest numbered releases, the spin-offs capture at least some of the imagination and adventure of the old days - is just depressing. They're overhyped cinematic messes that have largely abandoned their genre roots in lieu of delivering a shallow, style-over-substance experience for today's ADD gaming generation. Truly disheartening for those of us who grew up enjoying the series when it actually held some redeeming value.
I kind of got off topic as usual, but all these games are, ultimately, a part of Gygax's legacy in many regards. He created the RPG that kicked off the genre before we were even playing games on computers, and decades later, many of us still play in our parents' basements and local comic and game stores.
Farewell, Mr. Gygax. You will be missed, and certainly not forgotten.
Yes, this was the entry in which I inevitably outed myself as the ultra-geek that I am. I feel kind of dirty. In my defense, I haven't played any tabletop RPGs in at least a decade now. (Though granted, that's mostly for a lack of opportunity.)