Final Fantasy V: Separation of story and gameplay mechanics

Final Fantasy is something of a genre unto itself. Moreso, in my opinion, than most game franchises. There’s a significant number of people who play the Final Fantasy games and no other CRPGs. It has its own convetions and vocabulary, things that fans of the series understand from earlier games, making it easier for those in the know but harder for outsiders to get in — something that I’d argue is a big part of genre in any medium.

Often, genre in games is reinforced by things that don’t make sense, but which the player doesn’t question.

Usually it’s a matter of gameplay considerations trumping common sense, as is right and proper. In most first-person shooters, you can take multiple bullets to the chest without so much as slowing down, because the alternative would be a less enjoyable game. You can make in-game excuses for it, declare that the player is wearing power armor or something, but you don’t really need to, because most of the players understand the conventions of the genre.

Or consider healing items, potions and medikits and so forth that instantly remove damage when used. One of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen in a noninteractive cutscene was a moment in the final boss battle of Prince of Persia 3D — not The Sands of Time, but the largely-forgotten one from several years before. In it, the baddie you’re fighting (some kind of anthropomorphic tiger), badly beaten, takes a moment to pull out a vial of orange fluid, uncork it, and gulp it down, restoring him enough to begin the next stage of the fight. It’s not at all unusual in games for players to do this sort of thing, but the presentation here makes it seem like part of the story rather than part of the game, and that draws attention to the absurdity of the idea.

Final Fantasy has healing potions, which can be used in combat. It also has a number of status effects which can be cured with specific items: “Antidote” for poisoned characters, “Soft” for petrified ones, “Cornucopia” for those artificially aged by magical aging effects — not all of the effects are obvious, but since they’re mostly the same from game to game, you learn them. Or, if you have enough mana, you can cure any status effect with the spell Esuna, a nonsense word that doesn’t seem to mean anything in Japanese either, but which players of the series will recognize immediately.

But if you’re really low on mana, you should stay at an inn, which heals the entire party, recovers mana, and removes status ailments all at once. If you’re not near an inn, there are tents and cottages, which are like small, portable inns. (Based on the graphics, “cottage” is probably a mistranslation. It looks like a larger tent.) The animation that results from using a tent or cottage makes it clear that you’re staying in it overnight, although it only takes a few seconds of real time. Unlike potions, you can’t use them during combat — in fact, you can only use it in places where you can save the game, which is to say, anyplace outdoors plus save points in dungeons. But like potions, tents and cottages are single-use items. That’s their first violation of common sense. It reminds me a little of the keys in early Ultimas, which were more like single-use lockpicks.

The second violation is something that I don’t think really came up in FF1, but which I’ve just had a fairly big dose of in FF5. There are portions of this game where it tries to create a sense of urgency in the story that isn’t actually present in gameplay. At one point, for example, you infiltrate the tower that’s projecting the force field around X-Death’s castle. While you climb to the tower’s peak, Zeza the Dawn Warrior goes to the basement to where the bulk of the machinery is housed and waits for you, first reminding you to hurry, because you don’t have much time before X-Death’s forces overwhelm you. You battle your way up through the tower, and just before the top, hey! A save point! Let’s pitch camp.

My point isn’t that this is unrealistic. My point is that it actually took me a day or so to remember this. The mission is part of the plot, and the tent is part of the game, and seldom the twain shall meet.