Final Frustration

One of the things I’ve decided to do this year, in light of finally getting a diagnosis and treatment for ADD, is to try things that I’ve always decided just weren’t for me, for one reason or another. It’s an interesting process, reevaluating one’s tastes in light of new information. There are a lot of things that I’ve just written off because I just couldn’t get myself to understand the appeal; it’s natural now to wonder if that lack of interest was legitimately because it’s something I don’t like, or if it’s something that ADD has kept me from being able to focus on enough to enjoy.

Whenever you start something like this, it’s natural to try to tackle the biggest rocks first, so I went for something that’s always been a huge blind spot for me, gaming-wise: Japanese role playing games (JRPGs). More specifically, Final Fantasy games.

I’ve never considered myself a Final Fantasy person, which is the gaming equivalent of saying you don’t like The Beatles. (Side note: I also don’t like The Beatles.) I played the first one on the NES because everyone did, but that was the last one I played through. For starters, I never had either an SNES or an original PlayStation at the time they were first out; I’ve caught up to the former largely through emulation and the Virtual Console, and the latter through whatever discs I could find to run on the PS2 until that eventually got banished to the basement. Even despite that, I could never really see the appeal of wandering around looking for the next dungeon to explore; the games always seemed too difficult with not enough reward to justify the effort.

I did try both Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XIII when they came out, but I didn’t stick with either for more than a couple of hours apiece. The games were more linear at this point, but the systems were inscrutable to me. It felt like the games were complex for complexity’s sake. Add to that XIII’s first ten hours or so being more or less a glorified tutorial, and I was out.

So since I made up my mind that I’m going on this journey, I decided to do things the right way. I have a Vita now, which removes the issue of the game being too long to monopolize the television for, which is the other main issue with playing these types of games in this stage of my life, what with having a full time job and three kids. To make sure I wasn’t going to pick the wrong game, I refused to let my Isometric co-hosts off the Skype call one night after recording until they agreed on what Final Fantasy game was best for me to play. So I bought Final Fantasy VI and went about figuring out if there was a Final Fantasy person locked inside me or not.

I’ll say this: Final Fantasy VI is a pretty compelling game. I’m only maybe 3 hours in as of when I’m writing this post, but the story is really engaging, and just the small tweak to the battle system to have each character attack according to their speed stat as opposed to each side inputting all their commands at once does add a bit more strategy to the battles, even if it does make them slightly more stressful. I’ve stuck with it and felt myself wanting to come back to it after putting it down, even if the reason for putting it down was that I was stuck at a particularly frustrating part. (The battle with Vargas probably took me an hour to clear that’s not reflected in my overall play time because I kept dying without saving; for whatever reason I couldn’t figure out how to press the buttons for the Blitz command the way that the game expected me to.) It’s early, but I’m liking the game a lot, and I think I could conceivably overcome my perception that I’m not a Final Fantasy person.

That said, playing Final Fantasy VI now has led me to believe that I’ve figured out what’s gotten in the way of me enjoying these types of games: The random encounters.

If you’ve never played a game like this, the general flow of the game is that, unless you’re in an area like a town that’s safe, you move your party around on a map, and every so often the screen freezes randomly, and the game shifts to a battle. It’s kind of like playing musical chairs as a kid; everything’s calm for a while and then the music stops and there’s a mad scramble. This is supposed to represent the danger of the environment; your party is wandering through the wilderness, and every so often, monsters jump out and attack them. The party then defeats the monsters and continues along their path.

Turns out this has been what’s been keeping me from enjoying JRPGs all this time. Here’s the thing: Some of these dungeons are really complex. They often have multiple branches, and it can be very easy to get lost and forget where you’ve been and where you’re going. That’s under normal circumstances. Now imagine that you’re easily distractible to begin with, and now to try to keep track of a complicated dungeon like that while every 30-45 seconds you’re getting interrupted by a battle that can last several minutes, only to be thrown back to the world map to try to remember where you were going before that happened. More than once while playing Final Fantasy VI, I finished a lengthy battle and ended up walking back in the direction I came from, which was both frustrating and then ended up generating even more random battles because I was taking steps that I didn’t need to take. Worse, even while benefitting from the medication to help my focus, there were points where I got so turned around that I was totally lost, and got increasingly frustrated as I got continually attacked while trying to regain my bearings. There’s a point where that stops being fun and starts being irritating, and I think that’s what ultimately made me decide that Final Fantasy wasn’t for me. To a person with ADD, getting lost in an area with frequent random encounters can feel like walking in quicksand.

This got me thinking about the two JRPGs that I can remember enjoying: the Pokemon games and Bravely Default. Both of those games have the same large story, and both have similar turn-based battle systems to the Final Fantasy games. So why was I able to put 30-40 hours into those games and get turned off by other games?

In the case of Pokemon, there are random encounters to a degree, but once you’ve learned how the game works you can plan around them. In Pokemon, when traveling around the overworld, there are two types of battles that can happen: Trainer battles, where you fight against a trainer who has one or more Pokemon; and wild Pokemon encounters, where you fight against a single Pokemon with the goal of either defeating it for experience points or capturing it in a Poke Ball to add to your roster. Trainer battles aren’t random at all; you can see the trainers along the path and it’s clear when they see you that you’re going to battle. Furthermore, once you’ve defeated a trainer on a path he won’t challenge you again, so you can progress safely knowing you won’t be interrupted there. Wild Pokemon battles, on the other hand, only take place in specific areas like tall grass and some dungeons. There’s usually a path to avoid these encounters should you not want to gain XP or catch Pokemon, and even in larger dungeon type areas that do have more traditional random encounters, you can buy Repel items for relatively cheap early on that will stop the random encounters from happening temporarily. So even though Pokemon has these random encounters, being able to avoid them is both possible and encouraged, so I could do that if they were getting in the way.

Bravely Default is even more accommodating in this regard. Not only will it allow you to skip random encounters, there’s actually a setting in preferences to turn them off completely. It does warn you that doing that will end up biting you if you leave them turned off for too long, which is true; you need to battle monsters to gain enough experience to proceed at some point. But even then, the game has options also; you can both turn up the rate of encounters and the game speed, and preset a series of commands for each character to take to facilitate “grinding”, the act of searching for random encounters for a while to earn enough experience points to level up sufficiently to proceed, which can be extremely tedious and boring but ultimately necessary, anathema for some players with ADD. Bravely Default requires just as much grinding as other games in the genre, but these settings make it much less painful; upon hitting a point where I needed to grind, I could just put everything on autopilot and wander around a cave for a while as I watched television, only pausing every so often to replenish health and magic.

What both these games prove is that it really was the random encounters, and not anything else about the JRPG genre, that caused me to give up on Final Fantasy early on. Corroborating this is a game that came out in 2013 called Ni No Kuni, which I was extremely inclined to enjoy. The story and art was done by Studio Ghibli, which is responsible for several of the very few movies that I love, like My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Spirited Away. The battle system played more like an action-RPG than turn based. And yet, the dungeons were so thick with random encounters that it frustrated me in exactly the same way the Final Fantasy games did. So I put it down after a couple of hours and never picked it up again.

Ultimately I’m glad I did this experiment, even though it does prove that there must be something literally wrong with me for not liking Final Fantasy all this time. It’s reassuring to be able to point to a specific mechanic to determine whether I’m going to like a game or not, and know that if I’m in a state where my ADD is under control, I can probably get past that now. I should be sure to say that ADD is different for everyone; what serves as a roadblock for me likely won’t be for everyone with the disorder. After all, hyperfocus is still a factor that can kick in, and it’s hard to predict where that will happen; I’ve heard other people with ADD say that they loved Final Fantasy VI and hyperfocus carried them through, the same way I managed to learn to play Rock Band guitar on Expert difficulty despite my own struggles. That said, I’m hopeful given the popularity of Bravely Default that more designers will look at that particular mechanic and provide a way to work around it for those who do find it a challenge. After all, no one should have to go all their life without getting to ride a Chocobo. That’s no way to live.