Lately I spend my time venturing between two worlds. One familiar and comfortable, yet still captivating. The other, a fresh adventure. The first is a world torn by grief. Controlled by cycles of fleeting peace and inexplicable violence, people have accepted that this is simply the way of things. The new, recently explored world is, too, a troubed place. An evil queen has stolen the sun, moon and stars from the sky, and thrown her people into turmoil. Economies disturbed, entire populations transformed into birds, families separated – it has seen better times.
These two universes are similar in their struggles with conflict. Like many RPG worlds, they are no strangers to tribulation and pending destruction. But there is one that I find myself caring about more. Spira, that first world, is much better realized than the latter, Lemuria. Memories of Spira have lingered in my mind since I first experienced it over ten years ago. My adventures in Lemuria are already fading, just a few days after my departure.
When I initially read reviews for Child of Light, I was disappointed that many critics felt that it fell a little flat. I still decided to try it for myself. And Child of Light is a worthy game for the price. The watercolor scenery is stunning, the music beautiful, and the battle system fast paced – a refreshing reimagining of a JRPG active time battle system. I wanted to enjoy Child of Light as much as I enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy X. While I had fun playing it, it didn’t leave a lasting impression on me, where other games have woven strong memories. What caused such a disparity?
Perhaps first it’s worth examining where Final Fantasy X succeeds. We experience the world through Tidus’ eyes, who is thrown into a new world against his will. Tidus finds himself washed up on strange shores not once, but twice, in the early stages of the game. Tidus awakes to something familiar and comforting – Blitzball – only to find that everything is all wrong. Besaid is an idyllic pause before the real adventure begins. In this tiny backwater where everyone knows each other, people are generally happy with their small, no-frills life, despite the overshadowing threat of Sin. He is welcomed, even pitied, but remains the stranger imposing on a giant family. Tidus longs to go back to the big city and the noise and the shining lights of Zanarkand nights. Tidus’ alienation from Spira puts his expectations, and more importantly, the way this world works, into sharp focus. We begin to learn about the major players in Final Fantasy X and where these people fit into the space they inhabit, partly because we can so obviously see how Tidus does not.
Accustomed to the extravagant way of life in his Zanarkand, Tidus is thrown into a world that has abandoned technology out of fear and lives simply day to day, waiting for Sin’s next attack. Spira is a world ruled by the promise of impending death. People are highly religious, praying to their god, Yevon, regularly in the hopes that the new high summoner will defeat Sin and bring on the next ten years of fleeting peace.
One of the first characters Tidus meets, Wakka, is one such person. He has lost a brother to Sin, which feeds his religious zeal and desire to help Yuna (and even Tidus).
Yuna, too, lost family when her father sacrificed himself to kill Sin ten years ago. We don’t know the details at this point in the game, but we do see that Yuna is seriously devoted to her quest, dedicated to helping the people of Spira who are clearly in need. Even in the early moments of the game, Tidus, and ultimately, the player, are given a glimpse into what drives these people, and what frightens them. We see how the world they live in operates and are offered an early look at its history. We want to know more.
Child of Light’s Aurora, like Tidus, is thrown into an alien world. The fiery headed princess is entirely alone until she meets Igniculus, a blue firefly who offers his assistance. We learn of the evil queen’s designs to throw the world into disorder. And while Aurora makes many friends on her adventure through this land, there is an unshakable feeling of superficiality.
Aurora comes upon a jester who has been separated from her brother. But that’s about as far as we get into the life and times of Rubella. Why is she sad that she lost her brother? What is her connection to her family like? What does she hope to achieve in helping Aurora defeat Umbra? The same holds for the rest of the cast – we don’t really know them deep down. Why is Lemuria worth saving? What kind of place is this? What is its story? These people and places are mere (beautiful) silhouettes of what could have been truly interesting characters.
It feels like there is so much more to Lemuria and its people – that there’s a real history there with real struggle and triumph. Unfortunately, the game never digs through the surface to reach any true story telling potential.
Aurora herself has the makings of an outstanding heroine. What moved me most about this game was her gradual transformation into a fierce, sword-wielding warrior. Yet there wasn’t enough background story or character development, taking away from any real impact. I felt no emotional connection with the woman she was becoming or the world she was saving.
The most effective video game narratives need a fully realized world with equally three dimensional characters. This doesn’t mean that the game needs to be a hundred hours long to allow room for exposition. Storytelling can be much more subtle and economical (See Bastion, or Bioshock, or Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons).
Final Fantasy X, goofy genre tropes aside, feels like the story of a real place. Spira drives the characters’ beliefs and ambitions – everything is connected, and so it is a favorite of many. Child of Light never really achieves this. All of the key ingredients are there but it is a largely hollow experience. Looking at the two side-by-side, it’s easy to see how quality world-building serves one, while the other flounders without it.
It is this element that can make a huge difference in a player’s experience. I was disappointed because Child of Light could have been just what video games need right now. A narrative-driven game with a strong, un-objectified, female main character and largely female supporting cast. Ultimately, it failed to do anything that would leave any lasting impression. I’m sad that Child of Light was a disappointment in this regard, but I know that future video games will be able to do better. I’ll keep waiting for my epic sword-maiden fairy-tale RPG.
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