Friday, August 18, 2017

Playing with Time in The Zodiac Age

By Stefan Greenfield-Casas

When playing a Final Fantasy game, there are a few things that generally remain consistent between games: a character named Cid, a spectacular world with a crystal-centric mythos, and an epic storyline that (depending on players’ agendas) can span anywhere from 10-100+ hours to complete. Final Fantasy XII (Square Enix, 2006; hereafter FFXII), originally released for the PlayStation 2, was no different in this regard. Now eleven years later, the game has been remastered and rereleased for the PlayStation 4 under the title Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (Square Enix, 2017; hereafter The Zodiac Age).

While many players of The Zodiac Age are likely to focus their attention on the game’s revamped job system and its newly remastered HD graphics, the game also boasts a number of other noteworthy changes from the original release of FFXII.[1] These changes include a reorchestrated and rerecorded version of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s musical score (a selling point since it was first announced at E3 in 2016) and the ability to play the game in “Turbo Mode” (i.e. at either 2x or 4x the game’s normative speed).[2] It is on the (musical) experience of playing the game in this Turbo Mode that I wish to focus on for the duration of this essay.

The decision to add the Turbo Mode feature was made in order to help facilitate traversing the game’s sprawling world of Ivalice, however it is also a useful tool for quick level grinding (the act of continually battling weaker foes in a set area to quickly raise characters’ levels).[3] While all diegetic events (inclusive of footsteps, the sounds of battle, and other sound effects) that players control are sped up in Turbo Mode, the game’s (nondiegetic) score continues at the same speed. In many ways, this makes perfect sense: not only is the music nondiegetic (and thus unaffected by the speed change within the diegesis), but the inclusion of a sped-up score would more than likely create too cheesy and gimmicky a tone for the high fantasy world of the game.

The topic of temporality within ludomusicological discourse has not gone unexplored. Julianne Grasso has discussed the matter of temporality vis-à-vis Final Fantasy IV’s (Square Enix, 1991) Active Time Battle (ATB) system and Nobuo Uematsu’s score, arguing that the music “projects its own affective temporality, steeping the player if not in ‘the flow of time of the game,’ then in some sort of musically mediated experience of it.”[4] Following Grasso’s discussion of this musical flow of time, Jesse Kinne recently extended her analysis to a turn-based game series, Heroes of Might and Magic (various, 1995-present), rooting his analysis in theories of groove to suggest that “the music is comprised of numerous overlapping rhythms, and players will experience any given series of ludic or diegetic events as falling into alignment with the meter and nestling into that dense network of musical rhythms.”[5]

The Zodiac Age, however, employs an Active Dimensional Battle (ADB) system wherein players preemptively prescribe actions characters will carry out under a variety of circumstances (akin to a quasi-“if-then” code; see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Example of The Zodiac Age’s gambit system. Screen capture by author.
While there is no shortage of strategy needed to piece together the correct gambits to take on varying foes, utilizing them essentially removes players’ direct control over characters when in the thick of battle (arguably the main reason it is possible to partake in these battles at 4x speed). In the case of level grinding, this may be a welcome relief—battling dozens (or even hundreds!) of easily-beaten foes is a menial task at best.[6] In contrast to Grasso’s “flow of time” and Kinne’s groove networks—both of which account for players participation in the battle during the battle—then, the game’s ADB system creates a temporal space where players can sit back, relax, and enjoy the game’s soundtrack during battles, listening to the accompanying music in its entirety without worrying about the battle taking place. While this is all well and good whilst grinding or traversing Ivalice, there is one particular scenario that musically suffers in Turbo Mode: boss battles.

These plot-advancing battles that occur in the narrative, what Mikhail Bakhtin might identify as the “then suddenly” encounter chronotope, have their own epic battle music.[7]

Yet in turbo-time the music associated with these encounters is lost amidst the sounds of battle within the diegesis. While grinding, players will intermittently hear the battle cries of their party and the sounds of various attacks connecting with foes. Because these battles against weaker adversaries pass by as quickly as they do when in Turbo Mode, the game’s score remains relatively unaffected—at least in the grand scheme of things.[8] However, because bosses are considerably stronger and have more stamina than normal foes, the battle cries that normally take only a second or two are instead littered across the entirety of the sound track, obscuring the marked boss battle music.[9]

If we as players or scholars (or both) are to assume that the music for boss battles should have a similar level of importance to the game as these narrative encounters, then toying with the game’s temporal landscape seems disingenuous to the previously prescribed phenomenological and narrative experience of the game as set by the original FFXII—even if Turbo Mode is a perfectly valid ludic option in The Zodiac Age. Especially with the remaster’s attention to the musical score (going so far as to offer a copy of the soundtrack as incentive for players to buy the collector’s edition of the game), diminishing the importance of the epic boss battle music by way of a newly added feature to The Zodiac Age seems counterintuitive at best and counterproductive at worst: counterintuitive in that this advertised soundtrack is potentially glossed over in the context of the game itself; counterproductive in that, without the the epic music to elevate these crucial battles, the experience of the boss battle is reduced down to nothing more than the sounds of battle. This latter point is troubling in that it musico-narratively prioritizes unmarked battles over marked ones.

As I hope to have shown, meddling with time in The Zodiac Age (the Time Battlemage job class aside) has unusual and perhaps unexpected consequences for the game’s musical soundtrack. While unaffected in terms of tempi, playing the game in Turbo Mode reduces the prominence of what should be the marked “then suddenly” music (such as the Boss Battle music) in favor of the diegetic sounds of battle. In direct contrast to this, unmarked “normal” battles over the course of the game pass by quickly enough that the accompanying music is comparatively uninterrupted by the party’s battle cries. This is particularly true when players are grinding in a set area with its own distinct musical territory. While the entirety of the game was not necessarily intended to be played in Turbo Mode, accounting for the musical consequences that do occur when playing in it offers an interesting musico-narrative reasoning as to why players should avoid abusing their newfound mastery over time in The Zodiac Age.

Stefan Greenfield-Casas recently completed his MM in music theory at The University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include the relationship between music and epics, ludomusicology, and critical theory. He has presented on these topics and others at a number of conferences, including meetings of the Texas Society for Music Theory, Music and the Moving Image, and the North American Conference on Video Game Music. Stefan will begin his PhD in music theory and cognition at Northwestern this fall.

[1] “Jobs” in ludic discourse refer to a class a character belongs to, as well as the abilities and equipment that are associated with this class (e.g., an archer would be able to use a bow and arrow and might have an ability to raise their accuracy while a mage might instead equip robes and use various magics).
[2] See Kate Mancey’s frequency analysis of FFXII’s original score versus The Zodiac Age’s remastered version of the score in her forthcoming contribution to this series.
[3] See Ryan Thompson’s recent take on why Ivalice is as large as it is in his post and Lee Hartman’s extended discussion of grinding in his forthcoming essay.
[4] Julianne Grasso, “Music in the Time of Video Games,” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Society for Music Theory, St. Louis, Missouri, October, 2015).
[5] Jesse Kinne, “Groove Mediates Ludo and Diegetic Temporalities in Heroes of Might,” (paper presented at the twelfth Music and the Moving Image Conference, New York University, New York, May, 2017).
[6] For instance, in my own playthrough I spent one two-hour (plus) gaming session level grinding in a region called the Dalmasca Westersand.
[7] Mikhail Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 92.
[8] Other sounds, such as items being picked up-post battle, may further (briefly) distract from the game’s score, however I maintain that because each area’s music is looped, players that spend any extended period in an area will hear the track in its entirety.
[9] For reference, most of the boss battles I have played through in Turbo Mode were over in less than 30 seconds; normal battles are generally completed within 1-5 seconds depending on the number of foes the party is engaging. It should also be noted that one strategy for defeating bosses relies on “Quickening Chains,” a series of special attacks that can be linked together to deal massive amounts of damage to enemies (and thus particularly conductive to boss battles). While these Quickenings are not performed in turbo-time, they are driven by players’ reaction times to selecting a series of onscreen prompts within a four-second timespan (thus still forcing players’ attention away from the score). Furthermore, with each successive Quickening there is a corresponding explosion that further obscures the score, thus still redirecting players’ attention away from the music.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Quick Takes Meets Ludomusicology

Today, Musicology Now's "Quick Takes" series explores the sonic world of gaming with a series of four essays on the role-playing video game, Final Fantasy XII.  The series opens with today's post by Ryan Thompson, with additional essays by Stefan Greenfield-Casas, Kate Mancey, and Lee Hartman following over the next week.  We hope readers enjoy Musicology Now's expansion of discussions of music and the moving image to include video games, the scores that accompany them, and the role of sound in players' experience.

Inheriting Ivalice: The Multiple Sonic Legacies of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age

By Ryan Thompson

Final Fantasy XII was originally released in 2006 for the Playstation 2, and a remastered edition was released in 2017 for the Playstation 4 under the title Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. It may seem strange for a remastered video game to be among the biggest releases of the summer season; by way of explanation, when the game was originally released, North American and European audiences received versions of the game lacking many additional features that would make their way into a Japanese special edition.[1] As a result, many players are experiencing the final version of the game for the first time. In addition to being part of the well-known Final Fantasy franchise (as popular in gaming as Star Wars is in the cinema), the game is the inheritor of two additional, important gaming legacies, each of which I’ll touch on briefly as I set the stage for essays to follow. Understanding all of these various influences upon Final Fantasy XII and its score is vital to understanding why the score for the game appears to depart from long-standing franchise traditions in myriad ways.

The first of these additional legacies carried by Final Fantasy XII is that it serves as the sequel to two different genres of video game. Before its release, the most recent entry in the franchise was Final Fantasy X-2, released in 2003.[2] Final Fantasy XI, released in 2002, was not a traditional Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) like the rest of the franchise, including X-2, but instead a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) in the vein of Everquest or World of Warcraft (which, two years later in 2004, would bring the genre into mainstream consciousness).[3] Without dedicating the remainder of the chapter to game mechanics, it’s crucial to know that the former is a story-driven, single-player experience, while the latter is a more gameplay-driven game played with thousands of participants online.[4]

Playing Final Fantasy XII reveals that despite a return to more traditional JRPG design, the game owes much to the MMORPG stylings of Final Fantasy XI.[5] Ivalice, the fictional world in which Final Fantasy XII takes place, is built on a massive scale compared to anything in FFX, and often feels like a conversion of an MMORPG back into a single player experience. Figure 1, below, shows the map of Rabanastre, the first city the player encounters (and one of the largest).[6] To give a firmer sense of the scale at hand, Figure 2 shows the player’s view from the location marked on the map (on the right side, in the city’s main shopping district). Rabanastre is populated (see Figure 2) with dozens of non-player characters (NPCs) that serve only to give the player the illusion of a bustling city, such as the towns in MMORPGs in which hundreds of players exist simultaneously.

Figure 1. Map of Rabanastre. Screen capture by author.

Figure 2. City of Rabanastre, market district. Screen capture by author.
This sense of scale holds true in the audio also, in which the melody line is passed among many different instruments – a rarity for town themes in the franchise that makes the player feel like they are only a single part of something much larger. By way of comparison, the largest town in Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2, Luca, is scored very differently. In both games the timbres change far less often and are far less varied, maintaining a focus on the player characters and their actions instead of the town itself.

Rabanastre’s music:

Contrasting Final Fantasy XII with Final Fantasy X and its direct sequel, Final Fantasy X-2 (so numbered because unlike most entries in the franchise, it contains the same characters and environments as FFX) serves as a reminder of the other legacy that Final Fantasy XII carries forth. It’s a sequel not merely to the mainline Final Fantasy franchise, but to a series of connected games that was re-branded as the “Ivalice Alliance” upon the release of Final Fantasy XII in 2006.[7] As previously mentioned, Ivalice is the fictional world in which the game takes place; the location was originally created as a fictional world for the fan-favorite Final Fantasy Tactics – a spinoff game from the main franchise that, without devolving to a discussion of game mechanics, was not a numbered entry because it is a “tactical RPG” more in common with franchises like Disgaea and Fire Emblem than JRPG staples such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.

Ivalice is an explicitly Western-European fictional world, a land of Arthurian swords and sorcery. When discussing individual themes above, I mentioned a variation of timbres – when we broaden our gaze to examine the soundtrack as a whole, we instead see a lack of variety in orchestration. Nearly every track is scored for orchestra, when in previous Final Fantasy games (I’ll again reference Final Fantasy X, but this holds true for much of the franchise) we tend to see at least two major instrumental groupings, one of which includes a rock ensemble. This lack of variation in the orchestration makes clear the deep dive into Western culture that Ivalice invites, especially when compared to the clearly faux-Okinawan setting of Final Fantasy X’s Spira or the Japanese pop-stylings of Final Fantasy X-2.

Similarly, this is reflected in the visual design of the game as well. Without spending significant time discussing the graphics, it bears mention that FFX features clearly Japanese / Okinawan characters and locales, while every character in FFXII features aspects of a European / Arthurian knight’s armor, and every location in Ivalice is some variant of Tolkienesque fantasy instead – with Ivalice’s viera substituting for Tolkien’s elves.

Players shouldn’t assume the soundtrack is disconnected from the franchise writ-large by any means – the final boss theme, “Struggle for Freedom,” quotes “A Presentiment” from the score to Final Fantasy V in dramatic fashion sure to raise the ears of players who recognize the quotation.[8]

Figure 3. Transcription of “Struggle for Freedom” quoting “A Presentiment” at 0:43 by author. Performance markings approximate rubato by conductor in recording.

Overall, the soundtrack to Final Fantasy XII is part of the legacy of the Ivalice Alliance much more than it is indebted to Nobuo Uematsu’s work on the first ten Final Fantasy games. It bears mention that this decision may have much to do with Uematsu’s departure from the franchise: with the exception of “Kiss Me Goodbye,” the song that plays over the end credits, Uematsu did not write any of the soundtrack to Final Fantasy XII, with compositional duties instead taken up by Hitoshi Sakimoto – by no coincidence, the composer for Final Fantasy Tactics, the first Ivalice Alliance game.

It’s possible to enjoy Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age without any of this knowledge, of course. Similarly, it’s easy to dismiss many of the steps away from the franchise’s established musical traditions as merely the result of a different composer. Knowing that the game functions not only as a sequel to Final Fantasy X, but also as both a conversion of the MMORPG experience to a single player format and a continuation of the mythos created for Final Fantasy Tactics, provides deeper context for why the soundtrack to the game differs so greatly from prior entries in the franchise.

Ryan Thompson is a Ph.D Candidate in Musicology at the University of Minnesota. His nearly-completed dissertation focuses on the interactions between game audio and gameplay; specifically, instances in which listening actively improves a player's ability to play a given game. He has presented at AMS Midwest, the North American Conference on Video Game Music, Music and the Moving Image, and the Game Developer's Conference, in addition to a variety of public-facing scholarship, including an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, a profile for Game Informer, and published articles commissioned for Polygon and The Rift Herald. He can be reached online at @BardicKnowledge.

[1] This was true of all of the big Square Enix titles on Playstation 2: Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy X-2, Kingdom Hearts, and Kingdom Hearts II in addition to Final Fantasy XII.
[2] This game bears the unusual ten-two name because it is a direct sequel to Final Fantasy X, with the same characters and the same fictional world -- at the time, a first for the franchise.
[3] It bears mention that because it’s so different from the others, Final Fantasy XI (and FFXIV, for the same reasons) is usually not counted in lists of Final Fantasy games, hence its special mention here.
[4] The JRPG genre has often been compared to cinema and theater. See an NPR interview with the author understanding Final Fantasy VI in terms of opera and theater here.
[5] This includes a number of the game’s mechanics surrounding combat, which I leave aside here. Forthcoming posts in this essay series will dive deeper into this topic.
[6] Figure 1 is comprised of two different screen captures edited together – the town is so large that even the map of it won’t fit on a single screen!
[7] Before the original release of Final Fantasy XII, this included Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story on the original Playstation, and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (not a port of FFT) on the Game Boy Advance.
[8] It bears mention here that “A Presentiment” is in Bb minor on the soundtrack to Final Fantasy V, and the quotation from FFXII is in C minor, as transcribed.