A few days ago, I wrote about Square Enix's long fall from grace. Tonight, I was reliving happier times for the company, or at least for Square, by finishing the DS remake of Final Fantasy IV.
This is my favorite game in the Final Fantasy series, and is still my sentimental favorite game of all time (though Persona 4 edges it out just slightly as my absolute favorite these days). I first played FFIV when it was released on the SNES as Final Fantasy II, and the impact it made on me as a gamer was immeasurable. For years, I gave up playing anything but RPGs because of it. I had long conversations with friends about the future of gaming, in which I expected games to continue to look more or less like FFIV, but devote the ever-increasing storage capacity of cartridges and, later, CDs, to creating increasingly realistic worlds.
Of course things didn't turn out that way. The vision I had of a single player MMORPG that sacrificed graphical advances for story and player freedom is just now starting to be realized in games like Fallout 3, but it's still not much like I imagined it. What I had imagined was a kind of graphical Turing test, in which players could communicate with AI controlled NPCs and have more or less realistic conversations (with more or less realistic consequences). There would be an over-arching story, but the player would have as close to ultimate freedom in exploring it as possible.
Looking back on FFIV now, it's kind of amazing that it inspired that vision in me. The game is, by modern standards, aggressively linear. While it does at least give you access to an airship relatively early on, even that freedom is kind of illusory. Sure, you can fly anywhere in the overworld, but unless you've hit the right story triggers, you won't find much to do.
I suppose my desire for a maximally interactive FFIV came from the fact that (again, at the time) its characters were the most engaging I had encountered in a game, and I wanted more of that. Looking back now, it handles its more dramatic moments pretty ridiculously, but it still has some scenes that have scarcely been touched by subsequent games.
For example, I still love the scene in which Cecil, after having (inadvertently) destroyed Rydia's village and more or less kidnapped her in the aftermath, starts to win her over by turning on his own army to protect her. Rydia doesn't come around immediately, and Cecil doesn't pout when she fails to. He understands her anger and resentment, and gives her room to deal with it.
It's moments like that that have kept FFIV high on my list of favorite games, especially with American games becoming increasingly violent and misogynistic and Japanese games getting so lost in their own tropes that many of them have become self-parody. I think we'll see games that improve on those moments of realistic human interaction in the future, and I look forward to it. But in the meantime, I'd still be willing to play that JRPG Turing test that my friends and I dreamed up all those years ago.