Monday, June 1, 2015

Final Fantasy XIII- Catholic review and analysis

As generally a retro gamer, it has taken me a long time to get around to playing FFXIII, and I just completed it earlier this week. My younger brother finished this game back when it was first released and from conversations with him, as well as with other Catholics, I could see that the game had a lot in its plot and underlying philosophy that was worth thinking about in the light of Catholic truth.

I've got to say I wasn't wild about a lot of the aspects of this game's gameplay- I lamented the loss of towns, NPCs, puzzles, and, overall, the presence of gameplay elements beyond fighting or watching cut-scenes! The game is clearly more ordered to a world that is dominated by FPS games and a lot of people enjoyed the movement of the series into new avenues. I thought the battle system was well crafted and whilst the crystarium system was a bit tedious to constantly update, it allowed for serious gamers to craft out clever strategies and characters with interesting stats. The upgrading of weapons and accessories worked fairly well, but it unfortunately made gil (money) farming through repeated battles a major necessity if you wanted to fully upgrade everything.

30 hours in the game and you can finally explore!

Anyway, my reviews aren't really on that kind of thing and I've probably written too much on those aspects of the game! What I really want to talk about is, can we see Christ in this game? Can we learn of Almighty God in a parable form? Do we find a worldview expounded by the characters that resembles a Christian philosophy? Does playing the game make me want to strive towards virtue and sacrifice? Do I fear hell and offending Almighty God, do I desire to pursue His will above all things? Let's have a look via the usual categories.


Character and identity

So, here we are considering, does the game acknowledge the way in which character is formed by acts of the will, making him, as a result, either good or evil. We are also considering whether the game supports a worldview of 'vocation'- that each one of us has a certain 'telos' or end written into our souls an end we need to reach in order to fully flourish in this life and to reach the beatitude of heaven. For Christians we understand that this telos or vocation is a reflection of a particular attribute of Almighty God, which we are called to embody. Bound up in embodying this attribute of God will mean 'becoming who I was born to be'.


Final Fantasy XIII features a set of demi-gods who give characters a "focus". a mission they need to fulfill, in order to achieve eternal rest and, which if they fail, leads them to transform into a zombie-like creature.

Now, this whole focus business could have been a really interesting Christian parallel, a bit like being given a vocation by Almighty God. However, the game makes it clear that having a focus, a definite mission given by these demi-gods is a cruel form of slavery and that the paradise of completing the focus is really just being frozen in a crystalised stasis.
Of course, Crystalised Serah is completely naked
(even though she had clothes on when she was changed into a crystal.)
The game therefore takes up as its main refrain "we are free, we have choice, we will not be bound by destiny or by a mission given to us by a higher power". Of course, in the case of XIII, the higher power is, in fact, in some way malevolent, but the refrain is seriously anti-Catholic in its tone. Certainly, we are uniquely endowed with freewill, but for humans free will only leads to flourishing when we use freedom in a way that accords with our fixed human nature and the fixed ultimate telos that God has given to each of us. 

But perhaps underneath the focus that the demi-gods give the characters, they recognise a more fundamental vocation? In some sense that is true, they decide among themselves that they must save Cocoon, the world they inhabit, and rescue certain friends of theirs that have been 'enslaved' in the eternal rest of crystalisation, and in particular, a girl called Serah. But the problem is their mission to save Cocoon is depicted throughout as their choice, their defiance against destiny, the triumph of their free will over a quasi-divine order (even though in this case the divine order is malevolent). Hope Estheim seems to be the main voice of the game's philosophy throughout and it is he that cries out to the demi-god "We'll decide our own destiny".

Fang- anti feminine. 
In terms of battle system, there are some positive elements for characterisation insofar as there are characters which are clearly ordered to one fighting style over another (basically like the job system in earlier ffs). However, it seemed to me slightly odd that two of the young female characters are physically the strongest, this contradicts the God given order of femininity. In RPGs female characters should ideally be most suited towards a healer/white mage/summoner role rather than the knight or sentinel. In some sense the game promotes therefore an anti-women ideology that opposes true femininity. The female lead character of Lightning is particularly cold and unfeeling, she is a little like a female Squall but without a Rinoa to soften her edges. In many ways she is an anti-woman, and another party member, Fang, is also very masculine in personality. Female characters are also generally depicted as dressed immodestly, so they are basically male personalities with immodestly revealing clothing and long hair. This situation isn't completely true as Vanille certainly has more feminine personality qualities, but then again we have a bizarre situation with Hope's parents where his mother has taken the role as a gun-wielding rebel while his dad seems to be 'mr. sensitive stay at home dad'. So, in sum, a lot of the characters present a distorted image of gender roles in a way which doesn't reflect the general reality of the created order established by Almighty God.
    

Reality of Objective Moral laws.
Does the game ultimately accept that there is a moral order and that if a character violates it he or she damages himself in some way? That's hard to say. The characters are certainly driven by the desire to do good, but what is the good for them? Hope says at one point "There's no way of knowing what's right. All we can do believe on ourselves.... I might not make all the right choices. But as long as I'm the one who decided what to do, there's nothing regret." That seems to be the message of the game regarding moral laws- so long as you are the one who decides for yourself and you do so with the right intention, that's all that matters. Ultimately, we are dealing with a very shaky grounds for a morality here that brings everything back to a fuzy feeling and the sacrosanct nature of individual autonomy. 

Snow the determined hero
The best lived out lesson in morality is in the part of the story when Hope attempts to kill Snow. In this section we see the silencing of Hope's conscience in a way that is clearly irrational and disordered, this is presented well for the audience and they are made to see how revenge is not the route to human flourishing and that hatred perverts an individual's character. Snow throughout wishes to protect Hope and even after Hope has tried to kill him remains a model of forgiveness and of being faithful to a vow he has made to keep him from harm. 

Interior Struggle to pursue the good.
So, are the characters depicted as having to overcome evils within themselves and even to go against their own advantage in order to pursue what is fundamentally good for themselves and others? In one sense the characters are going through great difficulties in order to rescue Serah, this is most evident in Snow, who is perhaps the game's most traditionally heroic character. He clearly has a deep affection for his Fiance and when she is crystalised he is completely fixed on rescuing her, he protests to Lightning saying "Serah's my bride-to-be. I promised to be her's forever.I don't care how long I have to wait".(In an early cut-scene we watch Snow and Serah engaging in a mortal sin of a romantic kiss proper only to those who a married, so maybe that whole "don't care how long I have to wait" isn't completely literal, for Snow is already taking more than he has a right to under God's law.)

There is another instance which depicts the struggle to pursue the good even when it is not followed, this is in Vanille's continued struggle to reveal to Sazh how she was responsible in part for leading his son to be turned into a crystal. She doesn't own up but we catch a glimpse of the struggle. We see a triumph over the struggle when Sazh makes the choice not to take his own life in despair but to continue onwards to help others.

Divine Providence working through free will.
FFXIII is a game which seriously opposes providence, fate, vocation and destiny with free will. The game repeats a refrain that there is no such thing as purpose, and no grand design, only free choice. A Christian philosophy would always show how evil destroys itself by it's own disordered choices, we don't really get this coming across in XIII. The Christian philosophy acknowledges that Almighty God can and does include miracles as a part of His providential unfolding of His plan for the universe, FFXIII mocks the concept of miracles, we hear Vanille saying "Miracles are things we make for ourselves", and again " Wishes can come true, but not if you wait for miracles".

Self Sacrifice for others
As has already been mentioned, we get a glimpse in Snow of a character who is willing to sacrifice himself for others. The greatest point of self sacrifice is at the end of the game when Vanille and Fang allow themselves to complete their focus and begin to destory the world only so as to become crystal and preserve it from falling out of the sky and being utterly destroyed. Their self sacrifice however is lessened however given the fact that they aren't actually sacrificing their lives, they will be crystal for some time, but it is pretty obvious that in their case they will return to normal after some time. Even so, perhaps being held in crystal for a few hundred years isn't exactly fun!

Basic Christian Theodicy- Monotheism, Goodness of creation, understanding of eternal reward/punishment based on moral behaviour.

This is where the game really scores badly, while it doesn't necessarily come across in the game, the lore around the game tells us that the universe the game exists in has a multiplicity of gods, and gods of the manner of ancient pagan deities that are at war with each other, that give birth, and that can be destroyed by humans! It should be obvious that a harmonious and law governed universe such as that which the characters of FFXIII inhabit doesn't reflect or support a polytheistic universe which, far from being harmonious, would be driven this way and that by the caprice of these conflicting deities.
The Primarch= The Pope= Bad Guy
The main bad guy of the game is the equivalent of the pope, the leader of the worship of the gods. We don't actually see any places of worship in the game or anyone actually engaging in worship of the gods, so what he actually does on a day to day basis isn't clear, what is clear though is the message religious authority= secret evil controlling despot. We don't get any glimpses of eternal life or eternal punishment in hell, which is deeply lamentable and so there is no sense in which wicked acts have eternally damaging consequences for their actors. 

Conclusion

Final Fantasy XIII as an RPG is alright, the gameplay, for me, never reaches the battle and strategy heights of X, nor the side-quest and exploring heights of VII, nor the freedom of VI. The game seemed way too linear and the story, for all its philosophical flaws, was fundamentally dull and uninspiring. 

As an embodiment of the Christian worldview it fails even more dramatically. In many ways the refrain is similar to that of X. I'm not sure which is more harmful to the faith, X is poisonous in it's de-construction of a religious and objectively moral society into a complete farce, vindicating freedom above morality. XIII makes similar points but comes at them from a different angle, with XIII there is an absolute glorification of a false understanding of human freedom cut off from human nature- as if humans could find fulfillment and flourishing by asserting themselves over the divine order, as if human free-will was the true source of what men of the past considered miracles.

X is certainly a better game and its story is told in a much more engaging manner, I think that probably makes it more dangerous. XIII never grips the player in the way that X does and never really makes the player reflect too much on his own life and world. So it isn't a great game, but in fact, from our standpoint, that might in fact be its saving grace.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The gift of Knowledge and Video Games

The gift of the Holy Spirit called the gift of knowledge is the gift by which our intellect is illuminated to find truths about God present in creation around us.

So it is the gift of knowledge that enables you, when you look at the vastness of the ocean, to think- wow! How great must God be to have made all this. Or again, you take a cold shower on a freezing cold morning and think to yourself, "my goodness, hell must be truly awful". Or again, you think of how much your mother loves you when she goes out of your way to pick you up from somewhere, and you realise, "My Lord and Saviour loves me to a degree miles greater than this".

Well it's entirely possible for us to see and appreciate aspects of Almighty God's plan of salvation when we play video games.

I think a lot of my posts on this blog are about this really.

Let's pray for the gift of knowledge when we play video games, that we will move from them to appreciate the eternal truths about God, and that way even playing games can help at our sanctification.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Why are some priests against videogames?

There was an article not too long ago at Catholic Household entitled "What do 10 Priests say about Video Games". I can't say I was that surprised about the responses but I really think that most of their points were not that well thought through and were pretty fallacious. I thought I'd just list and respond to some of them.


1) Video Games absorb up your time and your life.

This could be said about any recreation- watching films, playing football, going running, building train spotting, painting, fishing, shooting. The point about all of these is the same- moderation. I personally think for a single man about an hour a day should be the limit. If you have a wife and children it should be less, more like 30 mins a day and really it should be the kind of thing some of your children can participate in in some way. St. Thomas Aquinas actually puts "play" or "recreation" as an necessary element of the virtuous life, no life should be without some recreation otherwise that individual becomes intolerable to live with.

2) Video Games are a form of alternate reality and entering an alternate reality is evil. 

This is a weird argument that can be made about reading any novel, watching any film or participating in any drama production. I think that if within this alternate reality you play as a character whose role is to perform intrinsic evils (such as GTA5 or certain FPS games) then there could be a problem, but generally speaking it isn't the case. Certainly the idea that playing Zelda II for the NES or a car racing game on the PS4 are being sucked into another life where anything goes simply is ridiculous.

3) Video games are full of satanic influences and these are infectious.

Again, we are dealing with a tiny number of games that have satanic elements. I turned off the Persona IV for PS1 because I thought it was satanic. I think that possession and diabolic assault generally requires the viewer/participate to will the evil and to be open to diabolic influence, a Catholic who is going to regular confession and who turns off something that seems to be glorifying satanism would be perfectly safe.

4) Ultimately these games lead to mass shootings in schools.

There may be some links between teenagers in broken families playing endless hours of FPS games and games that reward vice like GTA and violent activities, or at least violent fantasies. The link is very very small though inasmuch as there have been very few of these mass shootings and yet millions of copies of these games sold. There is also a question of causality, perhaps messed up violent teenagers who had had really bad homes tend towards violent games as an outlet and perhaps in more extreme situations they choose to take real life violence as an outlet. So perhaps the real issue is with broken homes, poor parenting and ultimately a lack of relationship with the saviour Jesus Christ. Of course, even if we concede that there are a couple of game franchises that should be avoided insofar as they promote a vicious mentality this wouldn't rule out playing the vast majority of games that are, in moderation, either morally neutral or perhaps even morally good.

Legend of Zelda, the Christian past?

Not too long ago I started playing Legend of Zelda the Ocarina of Time by downloading it from the Virtual Console. I never owned an N64 as a boy so it has been interesting getting to know what all the fuss was about... more on that another time.

What I wanted to post was a link to an article by Chris Qu exploring how in the early Zelda games the world of Hyrule is Christian but that with the Ocarina of Time all of a sudden you get the religion of the three goddesses (who dress like prostitutes).

Nintendo made the decision in the mid 90s to move Link from being a kind of crusader knight character towards what we have today.

The article makes some really interesting observations, pointing out Christian artistic motifs in the early games as well as the fact that what is known in English versions as "spell book" is in Japanese referred to as "the bible". 

My absolute favourite piece of evidence is the great promotional artwork for "A Link to the Past" which shows Link in prayer before our Blessed Lord. Note he ain't a protestant either.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Priesthood as summoner

As I prepare for my ordination to the sacred priesthood, I have been thinking a little bit and drawing some spiritual fruits from seeing priesthood as in some ways analogous to the role of the summoner in ffx.


The summoner is set aside from the people, is called from among them in order to represent the people and to offer a sacrifice for them. The summoner's life is for others, that is, the summoner literally performs a summon that will bring about a period of peace for the people but it will be at the expense of his life.

The Catholic priesthood is a sharing in the sacrificial priesthood of Jesus Christ, His work is extended through time and space.

Sharing in Christ's priesthood means sharing in His victimhood because Christ only saves humanity by being a priestly victim.

So the Catholic priest sets His life aside, is willing to offer his life as a sacrifice in order to enable Christ's redemptive work to reach more souls.

When the hands are laid in you, it is like a mortal blow, a death sentence, as it was for the lamb about to be sacrificed. I embrace it for the salvation of souls and out of love of Jesus Christ the one high priest.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The easy ending and the good ending

A little while ago I played through Castlevania- Symphony of the Night which I bought from the Playstation Network.



The game is full of little secret areas, special items and optional bosses. In fact if you play through the game leisurely, and don't go out of your way to do more than is required you'll probably end up with "the easy ending"- like I did when I played through. When I got "the easy ending" I knew something wasn't right and I consulted a walkthrough guide online which revealed to me that I had missed out on SO MUCH in this game, but that if I wanted "the good ending" I would have to put in a lot more hours and a lot more effort.

The whole experience reminded me of the situation of mankind after the fall. The tragedy of Original Sin means that if we just go through life following the dictates of our flesh and what the world around us is suggesting we will end up with "the easy ending"- eternal damnation in the fires of hell. As a priest I know once said, "no one needs a manual to get to hell".

To get "the good ending", like in Castlevania, involves consulting the guidebook (the Church teaching and Sacred Scripture) or asking getting the advice from those who have already finished the game and achieved "the good ending" (the writings of the saints). "The good ending" requires effort, extra hours and much more discipline.

Most people will finish with the "easy ending" in difficult computer games, and in life Our Blessed Lord teaches it will be the same.

  "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Strive to get the "good ending". Put in the effort, resist the devil, the world and the flesh. Remain faithful to the teachings of the Church, and cling to Christ Who is the way.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Secret of Mana- some thoughts.





I recently finished playing Secret of Man from the Virtual Console for the Wii (in fact I finished it last summer, but never got round to posting about it). I really enjoyed the game, it has a whimsical, light-hearted quality that is lacking in modern day rpgs. There isn't much to review about the Catholic dimension of the game but I'm going to try and fill a few pages!

Character and identity

There are 3 main characters in the game, none of which are particularly well developed, so much so, they default names are simply "boy", "girl" (who bears a striking resemblance to CT's Marle) and "Sprite" (some kind of imp, which we are not actually sure as to whether it is if male or female). If you are looking for a gripping, roller coaster of a story, you won't find it in SoM, but there are still a few minor plot-twists and there is enough to keep the player interested. The character of the boy and girl and both driven by noble quests, the boy, with the task of charging the mana-sword so as to defeat a wicked sorcerer, and the girl, with the desire to rescue her boyfriend, Dyluck, who is being used by the evil sorcerer as a host-body. The boy faces being rejected from his own town in pursuit of the good and the girl, even with the companionship of the brave boy, remains entirely committed to being re-united with Dyluck, she says at one point, when someone wonders whether she might be attracted to the boy says- "Knock it of, I'm Dyluck's girl!". The character of Sprite is rather uncertain, he is mischievous and even devious at times its not entirely certain why he joins you on the quest but towards the end of the game he shows himself capable of noble self-sacrifice. 

Reality of Objective Moral laws.

For the most part the game succeeds here. the bad guy is diabolically bad, and all forms of sorcery and witchcraft are displayed as evil. A very large number of enemies are clearly diabolical fiends. The problematic character is the "mana beast" a character that the mana tree summons up to destroy the sorcerer, but lamentably, this mana beast which the speaking tree summons is rather out of control and has to be killed as the final boss- a bit strange really. The mana tree is definitely good, mana seems to keep balance and harmony in the world, and the depletion of its power enables monsters to emerge. Why the threatened mana tree summons an uncontrollable wild beast to destroy everything is rather odd. 

In terms of purity and chastity, there isn't anything objectionable in this game. The violence is fairly sedate.

Interior Struggle to pursue the good.

There is very little introspection of the motivations behind characters' actions and so it is difficult to point this out. There are a few moments in the plot where characters are willing to face the prospect of their own death in order to save the world.

Divine Providence working through free will.

Very little on this point, only the fact that the boy himself is chosen by the mana tree to use the mana sword and save the world. We later discover that the tree is, or is perhaps inhabited by, the soul of his mother. A bit strange, but it isn't meant to be taken too seriously.

Basic Christian Theodicy- Monotheism, Goodness of creation, understanding of eternal reward/punishment based on moral behaviour.

 There are some rather strange ideas about souls in this game. I think this is linked to the Japanese view of Kamis, or spirits, inhabited inanimate objects. As mentioned, the tree is inhabited by a soul, but there are also moving treasure chests. 

Mana is also a non-Christian concept. The idea that there is a force out there holding all things in balance through the medium of mana crystals. The idea is present in some of the early FF games too. But maybe we could imagine Almighty God governing the world through these crystals and leaving humans the task of guarding them. The game doesn't oppose monotheism and I suppose that there is a sense in which creation is good insofar as its goodness is ensured by the well being of the crystals, monsters emerge where this balance is broken.

When characters die in battle they "see the reaper", but then can be resurrected, that is a pity, it is more Christian to have characters knocked out and then revived, as in most ff games.

The boy's father speaks to him as a ghost, so there is some continuance of souls after death although it is not clear that anyone goes to heaven or hell based on their lives.

Conclusion
  
In spite of all these theological flaws, I would still recommend the game to Catholics, why so? I think the essential reason is SoM is an RPG which is driven much more by gameplay than story or character development. The essential script within the game is very small (around 4000 words compared to Chrono Trigger's 20000) and whilst it sounds as if there is a lot of objectionable content, in fact, there is very little, because most of the game is dungeon crawling followed by curing and upgrading in the next town. The amazing musical score for the game is also one of the best of the 16bit era, in my opinion, second only to Chrono Trigger and highly enjoyable with a wide variety of moods and themes expressed. SoM doesn't aim to be the big block buster epic action RPG, I think it is satisfied with being a decent, enjoyable amusement between playing the FFVIIs and the Suikoden IIs. The game also seems to capture something of child-hood, at least it did for me, perhaps it was the soundtrack and the bight colours that evoked this. Overall the whole game carried an air of simplicity and whilst it isn't one of the greatest games of all time, it is a lot of fun and not too much hard work.