An Intimate Fan’s Retrospective: The Final Fantasy Series—-Where I got started and an Ode to Loved Ones Lost

RPGs were not something I had great familiarity with early on in my life. At one point my parents rented Super Mario RPG for the SNES when I was eight or nine. I expected your usual Mario game of jumping for power-ups, using warp tubes to find secret levels and just platforming (not that I knew what that was at the time) in general. Finding a turn based RPG with leveling mechanics just felt weird to me, so I barely played it. Would love to now though.

At that stage in my life my video-games never got much more advanced and in depth than Zelda. At least on the console. On the PC I loved games like Privateer, Warcraft, Civilization (I have played many, many hours on Civ 2, a lot of them creating maps and scenarios. Even did one for Middle-Earth at one point) Wing Commander, the Crusader series and even Aliens Vs Predator, the first game that forced me to install one of those newfangled GPUs everyone was talking about at that time.

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Nothing got you more pumped to smite Retros than hearing that stupid “Die by the very weapons you adore!” line a hundred times per dogfight. God I miss the innocence of youth, playing Privateer and being awed at its pixel art and fully voiced cast as if these were the holy grail of gaming.

So in general, except for some RPG-esque elements from game to game, I came late to the genre. It didn’t help that I was a solitary boy who had no friends for quite some time. I filled my days building and mapping and fighting my battles on computer screens (One childhood dream of mine was to be a soldier, unfulfilled for different reasons, but one that kept me coming back to strategy games).

And here’s where I start getting emotional (a trait my mother and the subject of this segue both possessed in abundance). This is my grandma Patty,

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She lived an hour from our house growing up, and when her last husband passed my mother and I would visit her  more often (the whole family come thanksgiving, and always a day I cry remembering just how much I miss her on it). Now being a young shit-for-brains, I often got bored not having my usual creative outlets at hand, not knowing this loving, sweet and giving woman wasn’t going to be with us forever. I regret that, but I’ll never forget her being the one responsible for giving me a glimpse of one of my most beloved franchises and art forms.

One hot day at Grandma Patty’s house, we went out to the local Blockbuster (we still had those at the time, before you young-uns with your Netflix and Hulu), where she let me rent a Playstation 1 and a game. Seeing Final Fantasy VIII on the rack, I had heard of it and seen trailers here and there, decided to give it a shot.

I didn’t sleep for the next three days. I was hooked. The art. The combat. Those amazing GF summons (still great looking to this day), the story, the characters (brooding youth with aspirations to serve in a military gets to play brooding youth serving in an elite unit—perfect fit for me at the time) and to appease the burgeoning romantic in me following my discovery of girls, a love story that still brings tears to my eyes.

And the Card Game….oh my god, the Card Game. I could play for hours, and did…and suddenly discovered I could pretty much make my characters into walking death machines well before the end of the first disc thanks to it. Triple Triad, you rule.

Grandma never complained about the noise, never pestered me to go outside and get some sun. She let me have my fun, and all she needed was a hug and to tell me she loved me.

To this day I tear up missing her. The little mobile home in a retirement park. The smell of something cooking, free reign to watch MST3K with her last husband whenever I came over (he loved me for always adding my vote to which channel we watched). And gifts—big and small. Love can’t be measured in material exchange, but these gifts changed and enriched me as a person, and what greater expression of love can you find than that?

I was reading Dune from about age 9 much to my teacher’s chagrin (some racy content in the Dune series, particularly later), and Grandma Patty got me a copy of the new Dune prequel book House Harkonnen. She wrote a message in the jacket and signed it—and this book will never be forgotten, never be lost, never be sold or passed on—except to my children.

Back on topic, Grandma Patty was reponsible for my second foray into the Final Fantasy universe—-and to this day, the game from which I derive the most simple and palpable joy playing—-Final Fantasy IX. Like House Harkonnen I will never not have this game, never lose or trade or sell it. These two, I shall pass on.

I can’t remember the last time I physically saw my Grandma Patty. But I remember vividly the night of her death. It was dark, I was sitting in my beanbag chair playing on the PS1. My sister told me with tears in her eyes that Grandma Patty had passed away in the hospital, complications from a blood clot or infection…I can’t remember.

I was shell-shocked, speechless. I don’t recall saying anything but “She’s gone?” to my sister. It didn’t seem possible, a world without Grandma Patty in it. We’d recently even quarreled over a stupid comment I made in exhaustion during a family trip. God how I wished I’d know better then. Known better not to fight, just to cherish the time I got with her.

My sister left and I sat there, controller in hand. And you know what I was playing?

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I don’t go looking for miracles, signs, portents or anomalies. I believe in a God. I’m agnostic about the details.

If anyone could merit the definition of a decent human being, it was my Grandma Patty in spades. And in that moment, playing that game, I didn’t feel empty. I felt love pass inside me, felt memory and sensation merging with feeling.

I was playing a living record of a grandmother trying to alleviate the boredom of a young boy. When I read House Harkonnen or replay Final Fantasy IX, still as joyous an experience as the day I first played it, she’s alive in my heart. And even if I cry come Thanksgiving, for 364 days a year I’m blessed.

I get to play two of the greatest games ever made, read an excellent prequel and relive cherished memories of a lost loved one.

And in her honor, I’ve decided to review the series from my perspective, in the order I played it.

With the love of a grandson tempered by age and regret, the love a mother burning bright as the sun in the sky and the love of a family who might not be whole, but—even as agnostic about details as I am—I firmly believe will be made whole once again, I dedicate these to you.

Love,

Your Grandson

A Song of Ice and Errors: Game of Thrones Season One, Part 2

So after the first five minutes of screentime, things looked up. Or rather didn’t seem as egregiously wrong as before.

Instead of explaining minutiae of the world I am going to assume that if you’re bothering to read a rant on Game of Thrones you have at least a passing familiarity with the characters, the world and general flow of the series (if not the books, which you should because they’re much more rewarding and rich in their experience).

Alright, that out of the way, things actually flow fairly well in line with the source material. Little character details are missing though, things where the writers felt the need to tell rather than show us aspects that would become important later.

For instance, Theon Greyjoy (also known by his aliases Reek or Walter Peck):

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Pictured Above: Theon before and after his stay at the Dreadfort

When Ned Stark beheads the Night’s Watch deserter with Jon Snow, Bran, Robb and Theon present, in the show its fairly sterile and straightforward, the emphasis mostly on Bran’s reaction to the grim business of passing sentence on lawbreakers in the world of Westeros. In the books this moment is used a bit more effectively in showing us character traits for everyone. There’s a moment in the book where Theon punts the head of the deserter like he’s kicking a soccer ball.

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Pictured Above: A comic retaining more faithful representation of the story than the show

It’s a perfect little encapsulation of his personality. He’s a Greyjoy, the Westerosi equivalent of a uber-viking who live on nothing but reaving. “We do not sow”—can’t get any more straightforward and definite words to describe than those. He’s lived for years a ward (read: post-war hostage) of the Starks, among them but not of them. This is pretty much his whole self-justification for betraying them later, that he wasn’t treated like another of the Stark boys.

He idolizes the Starks but there’s a foreign bloodlust to him that colors his actions, a real love of violence itself. The Starks kill because they must, the Greyjoys because they love to. Its interesting enough that the only people who see that are Jaime Lannister and Catelyn Stark, both ignored by those they tell.

Why was it not included? Because the writers decided it would be better to have everything about Theon explained in painfully stilted exposition, as if this was going to hook us into the arc of Theon Greyjoy better than say him punting a deserter’s head down a hill. The later bit with him shooting the Wildlings taking Bran hostage is perfect, spot on—but it still doesn’t excuse the sheer expository dead weight that came before.

That’s what this show became for me: a looming dread of future disappointment sprinkled with both brief flickers of hope and quality. I would make excuses for it, on the slim hope that maybe they would get it right eventually. Not anymore.

I have little else to say about the first few episodes. They’re solid, good characterizations for the most part, excellent visuals, Westeros actually feels like a huge continent as opposed to the very compressed and relatively lifeless world it becomes in later seasons.

It’s minute details like that early Theon scene, a missing line of dialogue here (“While all dwarves are bastards, not all bastards need be dwarves”), the oddly uniform and sterile design of the knights and soldiers of Westeros—-

—-Okay, big bitching segue coming: the medieval armies that are the direct inspiration for the armies of Westeros, were comprised of many landed knights with their retainers, each sporting devices of their houses in the form of banner or sigil to represent them on the field. A medieval army looked like a parade of iconography, each beautiful and individual even if they fought as a cohesive whole. The book details this so richly your imagination really goes wild picturing a vivid mix of colors, themes, icons and beautifully colored banners, barded horses and armor. The show on the other hand—partly due to the cost of making production armor most likely—just creates a “uniform” set of armor for each kingdom or major family. Read Jon Snow’s description of Stannis Baratheon’s army smashing Mance Rayder’s host: it’s brilliant in describing the multi-colored and bannered army of knights with their individual devices, all fighting under the much larger banner of the king. In the show they look like a video game army, all perfectly identical. Even Medieval Total War 2 did a better job of giving the armies more appropriate diversity in their look—–

Okay, take a breath, take your meds….

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Alright, so I’ll close out this segment with a really important aspect of these stories the show’s writers apparently either don’t know or don’t understand:

YOU CAN NEVER FULLY TRUST A POV CHARACTERS OPINION

Nope, not even Ned “Headless yet Honorable” Stark.

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Pictured Above: Not Ned Stark, also a wonderful literary example of a man whose actions would appear villainous to some (Samwise and Frodo) or heroic to others (Merry and Pippin).

Every single POV character is a fully fleshed out human being. And human beings come programmed with a lifetime of experiences, beliefs and tics that color how they perceive themselves or others.

Remember this whenever you think about these main characters: Jaime Lannister, Tyrion Lannister, Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre of Asshai (one of whom the author himself says more people misunderstand than any other).

Jaime is our Subject Zero for the untrustworthiness of POV character opinions (including their opinions of themselves). Ned sees them through the prism of his own biases and prejudice. The Lannisters seem to everyone like an archetypical arch-ambitious, rich, arrogant, vain and ruthless noble house—all qualities they themselves want everyone to believe about them. The Lannisters want people kowtowing to them or at least shitting their pants whenever the Rains of Castamere is played.

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“For you, the night the Rains of Castamere played and your whole family was slaughtered at their wedding feast was the most important night of your life. For me, it was Tuesday.”

But its not the whole story. Ned’s opinion, and events like Bran getting pushed out a tower upon witnessing Jaime and Cersei’s incest, color our opinion of him thereafter. It’s only later we realize just how much more there was to the man than Ned ever allowed himself to suspect, how truly heroic the (known) actions for which he is universally despised really were, the real stakes behind the relatively unknown actions we as readers despise him for, and just how much these have poisoned his soul over the years.

The redemption of Jaime Lannister, and the really dark and messed up turn Tyrion Lannister took, were not arcs you were expecting, but they happened—-in the books, the show fucked them up royally. Call it reason 2,391,131 I’m writing this.