Originally posted on my personal blog.
I've been simultaneously playing Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy Tactics, studying their magic and battle systems. While doing so, I figured it would be helpful to check around and see if any other games included similar magic systems, you know, to see what worked and what has been tested in other contexts. As such, I spent a good few hours perusing around the internetz, sifting through the opinions of fans and critics of each game's battle system.
My study got real interesting real fast! There were some crazy heated arguments about the benefits and downsides of the Materia system in FF:VII. Because I like it so much, I initially wanted to just ignore the criticism and move on... but, as I'll tell you below, I learned that with a little bit of drilling into the arguments (and the power of science) I have a new appreciation for one of the easiest to implement and powerful tools in the game developer's belt.
Players seem to really love or hate the Materia system in FF:VII. There's just not much in between (though that may just be the vocal few that actually post on forums to discuss something they actually have an opinion about). After sifting through a number of Materia debates, I began to notice a common theme. The argument was that the Materia system made all the characters feel generic. This argument against FF:VII is common enough that if you go Google reviews about FF:VII right now, it will most likely be included in the first negative review you come across.
Well that made blink a few times! Because in my mind, the characters in FF:VII are anything but generic. Not quite understanding where that (seemingly fairly common) thought could come from, I decided to go a bit deeper into the rabbit hole to see if I could spot some collective voices that would be articulate and self aware enough to expound on the subject for me. What I found was not as immediately helpful as I would have liked, but did end up helping tremendously in the long run. These Materia critics would repeatedly compare the FF:VII system to some other system that they themselves liked more. Most commonly (and somewhat coincidentally, considering I happen to be playing both at the same time), the system they referred to was FF:Tactics.
Which stymied me even more! Because I'm playing both games concurrently, I can see how truly generic the players actually are in FF:Tactics. Aside from a handful of plot important characters, literally every single additional character is generated procedurally. The game randomly assigns a gender, pulls from a list of names, slaps on a zodiac sign, assigns a job class.... and that's it! This is not to say that the procedural system is bad in any way, in fact I think it's great. But on the argument of characters' generic-ness? Really!?
Needless to say, I was a might bit confused. How could critics hate the Materia system because it made characters generic... then immediately offer FF:Tactics as a better (less generic) alternative? In the same sentence even.
It wasn't until I read this fantastic article by Tynan Sylvester on Gamasutra talking about apophenia and how designers could use it to let the player do some of the storytelling work in your game, that I made the connection! To quote his article directly:
Apophenia is seeing meaningful patterns in random or meaningless data. For example, look at this wall socket. What do you see? A face! And not just a face. But a face with a confused, perhaps pained expression. Why do you see that? There is no such personality here. But we perceive it all the same. It’s how we’re wired as human beings.
That ability to perceive personality and intent is a deep-seated human ability. It happens below conscious awareness, the same way you can look at a room and understand it as a 3D space without thinking about it. The only knowledge of the room you have is a 2D projection of it on your retinas. But some silent processor in your brain generates the perception of a 3D environment. In the same way, we effortlessly perceive minds and intentions. It’s why ancient peoples perceived spirits in rocks, water, sun and moon.
What these critics were attempting to say unsuccessfully was that they were experiencing a meaningful case of apophenia with their FF:Tactics characters. The generic FF:Tactics characters had become more real and unique after all the micro-adjustments inherent in the process of leveling up than the hand crafted FF:VII characters, even with no given plot.
Now this is really fascinating! The human brain is so powerful that it fills in all the emotional gaps left gaping due to a lack of "developer crafting." Our brain wants our characters to be real so badly, that when it does fill in those gaps the characters feel personal and intimate. So intimate in fact, that it's more preferable to let our minds do the dirty work than to have a character created for us from the ground up. In this specific case, we get the quality of a PSX era Square game where most of the characters are exactly who we want them to be. No fussing with emo Squalls or anything! All of the benefits, none of the downsides.
So what's the take away here? As a developer, it's very easy to want to craft something with a very strong fist. Tight control over the game's flow and story. Lengthy backstories and convoluted relationships. We make games to tell our stories! But that stuff takes an incredible amount of time and energy to create... and if FF:VII's apparently "generic" feeling characters are any indication... then maybe those hand crafted characters aren't going to be appreciated quite the same way we want them to be.
Games are in the unique position that the player can (and wants) to be involved in the creation of their characters' stories. Because the rest of the game is interactive, there's an inherent divide between hand crafted stories and the procedural gameplay. Maybe the best development path to follow is similar to what FF:Tactics has done. They created a world populated with a few hand crafted characters, and then let the remainder of them be whoever we wanted them to be. In one hand the developer still gets to tell the story they so desperately want to tell. And in the other, all those indispensable apophenia enhanced generic side characters flesh out the realism gaps within the story, down to the exact level of depth that the player wants. There's theoretically no limit to the imagination that the player can allocate to their characters... and therefore an unlimited supply of artifical (but more real) depth.
With development costs as high as they are, perhaps this is one gold-mine that truly can stare opportunity cost in the face and win.