Murder and Betrayal in the Dark Ages of Ivalice

Final Fantasy Tactics didn’t create a new style of play that had never been seen before or push the limits of the original PlayStation hardware. Its story, complex but traditional, contented itself to convey an unspecific and not very uplifting pessimism about human nature and the harshness of the world. It originally came out in 1997, the same year that Final Fantasy VII, that intractable juggernaut of sales and mindshare, was unleashed upon the gaming masses. VII set the tone for most of the Final Fantasies to come after it: big and theatrical, a parade of set pieces and operatic extravagance. Tactics, on the other hand, was restrained— almost dignified— in the way it carried itself. It had some drama, but unlike VII, its primary purpose was not to be drama. Final Fantasy Tactics was, in story and gameplay both, about fighting.

As a genre, “tactics” games present the player a series of turn-based battles fought by a handful of combatants on each side, who move and act upon tile-based terrain. Over the years they have been relegated to low-budget affairs by and for fans as the mainstream sweep of the industry largely left them behind, but in 1997 the future of games was still up for grabs and the anatomy of a hit was murky. There was no rigorous user testing or much thinking about target market (it was “gamers,” just like every other game). So Final Fantasy Tactics came out as a major new release even though it was slow-paced and featured a level of complexity that could quickly overwhelm you if you actually tried to pay attention to it all: one day you would learn that each character actually had three different statistics that represented “evade,” each of which was influenced by different factors and which were relevant to certain attacks and not others, and you would be fine with that, since otherwise you would have put the game down in disgust or boredom a long time prior.

Even if you ignored much of the nuances of the combat system and just sank time into leveling up, the lazy but effective strategy I usually default to in such situations, the game was still unforgiving, especially in the light of modern tastes. You could get yourself into unrecoverable situations and waste half an hour or more if you went into a battle with the wrong characters or had the wrong skills equipped on them; worse, you could get stuck forever by saving just before a boss that you ended up being unable to defeat. The game was pretty far from what any designer would call balanced: some characters were extremely powerful, while others were fairly useless; pursuing one skill tree might have created a competent party member but another might have brought you into a cul-de-sac of impotence. And unless you employed a strategy guide, you’d never know these things until you tried them and found out the hard way. Remarkably, Tactics was specifically designed to be more accessible than previous games of its type.

For all its weaknesses, however (I didn’t even bother to mention the clunky party roster menu) Tactics engaged me deeply when it came out, and for a second time ten years later when it was re-released for the PlayStation Portable. In games like these, the mechanics of fighting represent a possibility space in which the basic building block of engagement (what Bungie’s Jaime Griesemer called a game’s “thirty seconds of fun”) is simply sizing up one character against another— deciding who shall attack whom and where and how. It’s the same pleasure that sports fans derive from discussing which team will win an upcoming game: the analysis, the projections of strengths versus weaknesses, the existence in an internal world of numbers complex enough to be interesting but still on a miniature and understandable scale when compared to real life.

Tying those thirty-second moments together over the arc of the game was an unusually mature plot dealing with politics and power during a particularly dark and violent episode of fantasy history (and the new version includes a much-improved translation— finally giving the game’s text the kind of formal atmosphere that it deserved). This is not to say that Tactics was a subtle, nuanced thing—it’s all knights and mages and demons— but the simple presentation prevented it from going overboard hamming things up; its small character sprites couldn’t call attention to their own grave seriousness. Supporting it was a production suffused with a passion for encyclopedic detail, for maps and lists and concrete specific ephemera that deepened and enriched the time you spent in its world, and a musical score that was a revelation for its day and one that remains some of the finest work of its composers Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata.

After I’d completed the re-release, I thought it might be interesting to compare the group of characters I had developed in 2008 to the group of 1998, imagining there might be some interesting differences. What I found instead was that I had played the game pretty much the same way as I had a decade ago: my parties were similar in arrangement and construction. In all the talk of games as an interactive medium we often lazily define the concept of choice as binary: save the little girl and get the good ending or kill her and get evil one. But a game like Tactics doesn’t present one big choice— it presents thousands of little ones. At the end, the party stands as a record of a player’s strategies, proclivities, maybe even his or her personality to a certain extent. In this way we might leave a mark on the games we play, just as they can leave a lasting impression upon us.