Introduction: Those Chosen by the Crystal
With video games as popular as they are today, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that the industry actually went through a large financial recession in the 80’s. Thanks to the introduction of Nintendo, the Famicom, and its games, the dying entertainment medium was able to survive and proliferate. The prevailing game console in America during that era of financial difficulty was the arcade machine. Typically, the object of these games was just to get a high score, offering an addicting yet ultimately shallow and novel gaming experience. With a lack of creativity seemingly at the root of the problem, the attraction of these games began to die out in North America, and things were beginning to look grim. However, in the year 1985, the video game industry’s darkest hour, a heavenly wind blew from the East bringing with it Japan’s Famicom (or the NES as we know it). The games that came with it introduced characteristics that American games distinctly lacked at the time including identifiable characters, backstory, and a motivation to complete the game beyond simply gunning for a high score. The NES brought many successes to American shores, from Mario to Zelda, but the Final Fantasy series had a unique influence on the shaping of globalization, and eventual evolution, of video game culture.
Identification as a Method for Immersion
Final Fantasy, released in 1987 and imported to North America in 1990, had qualities that differentiated it from its contemporaries. Decidedly different from the likes of Space Invaders and Pac-Man, Final Fantasy actually had a storyline, albeit a simple one of four youths charged with the duty of world salvation. Final Fantasy even managed to separate itself from its fellow Japanese NES games. Unlike Super Mario Bros. or even The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy contained many different NPC’s with scripted lines of dialogue and hints of personalities, creating a level of interaction American gamers had most likely never experienced before. All the characters had a personality except for the four main playable characters, allowing for a virtually infinite number of possible identities to take on. This, I believe, is the fundamental root of the RPG genre’s appeal.
While it is certainly possible to relate to a character that has a set personality trait, as we see more often today in games, the clean slate method for character creation and customization was the original calling card for the RPG’s of old. By creating an entire fantasy world, but leaving the playable characters open to interpretation, Final Fantasy encouraged players to essentially tap into their own imaginations and project outward their own identities, allowing for a variety of different experiences amongst different people. This type of role play “is a ‘fluid’ one in which identity becomes a freely chosen game, a theatrical presentation of the self, in which one is able to present oneself in a variability of roles, images, and activities.” The freedom of expression and the ability of assuming various personae run deep in the core of ACG (Anime, comics, and gaming) culture, where the main appeal is the power to wistfully escape reality and the mundane. These facets were largely absent from the North American video game industry, which at the time was comprised of a plethora of programs disguised as games and were simply not engaging in the same way as the games that had Japan introduced.
Transnational Appeal of the Final Fantasy Series
The Final Fantasy series itself does not feel very Japanese at all, which could explain its ability to quickly undergo the transcultural osmosis and achieve popularity on such a global scale. As is the case with most anime-style illustrations, characters in the Final Fantasy series do not appear to have somatic traits of Japanese people. Instead, characters tend to represent a sort of hybrid of nationalities, borrowing aesthetic qualities from Caucasian, Asian, and self-created ethnicities. The indefinite, subjective, and fantastical nature of these characters bridges national boundaries, appealing to a global audience. Of course, Final Fantasy is not a culturally hermetic series existing in its own bubble, as there are many influences from real world mythologies and religions in the Final Fantasy series. For example, the series draws heavily on Norse, Hindu, and Japanese mythologies for many of its weapon and summon names, such as “Odin,” “Shiva,” and “Masamune,” respectively. Even overarching themes can find their roots from religion, such as the concept of reincarnation (the Lifestream in Final Fantasy VII), which greatly stems from Buddhist beliefs, to the importance of nature, which has presence in a variety of practices like Shintoism. In this way, Final Fantasy becomes a “multiplication of the centers of globalization,” allowing for a convergence of ideals and beliefs, through its use of mixed aesthetics and themes.
The Shift towards the “Cinematic Game”
As mentioned before, Final Fantasy proved the viability for a video game to forge an interesting tale that centralizes around the actions of the player. In addition, it and many of its Nintendo counterparts helped solidify the successful concept of having recognizable characters and themes (including musical ones). Prior to this standard, many American games simply utilized obscure groups of pixels to form a generic stickman or blocky spaceship. NES games, particularly Final Fantasy, employed attributes commonly found in other modes of storytelling, such as the novel or the film. This combined use of plot and easily identifiable and relatable characters not only allowed NES games to raise the bar for immersive gaming, but would also eventually bring about an even larger shift in the video game industry: the movement towards the “cinematic game.”
If this term came up thirty years ago, everyone would have blown off the concept as something completely ridiculous. However, in today’s gaming world we know that this idea has become a dogma that designers live by. Very rare is it for a game now to not contain an assortment of heavy dialogue, cut-scenes, and opening and ending credits. Sometimes, to the dismay of the gaming community, games will tend to produce an excess of them, with Final Fantasy XIII receiving much criticism for this. Regardless, video games are slowly becoming a more respectable and even artistic medium through which stories can be experienced, evident by the popularity of RPG’s and to a certain extent, the visual novel. Unlike conventional novels or even a film, video games offer an unparalleled level of interactivity and an experience that is genuinely different from any other existing form of visual entertainment.
Conclusion: The Neverending Fantasy
“Fantasy can provide concrete metaphors for human emotional states in ways that may have more impact than would a realistic portrayal.” To live life in the shoes of another, in a world not quite like our own, is an ideal that truly defines ACG culture, and the introduction of Final Fantasy to the United States bolstered this belief throughout the gaming population. It was able to fulfill a niche left vacant by the monochrome void of American games, globalize the RPG genre, and pave the way for the modern day “cinematic game.” Without it and Japanese innovation, the video game industry would still be trying to scrounge its way back up from the dark depths of financial purgatory. Thankfully for us, the developers from Japan, our chosen heroes of light, were able to restore the industry to a level far greater than anyone could have ever imagined. It is one that is ever expanding, ever evolving, and will carry on a fantasy that is anything but final.
 Susan J. Napier. “Differing Destinations: Cultural Identification, Orientalism, and ‘Soft Power’ in Twenty-First Century Anime Fandom,” in From Impressionism to Anime (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 190.
 Marco Pellitteri. “Cultural Politics of J-Culture and ‘Soft Power’: Tentative Remarks from a European Perspective,” in Mangatopia: Essays on Manga and Anime in the Modern World, ed. Perper, et al. (Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited, 2011), 218-219.
 Susan J. Napier. “Differing Destinations: Cultural Identification, Orientalism, and ‘Soft Power’ in Twenty-First Century Anime Fandom,” in From Impressionism to Anime (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 183.