videogame life lessons: The Sphere Grid, or you can take it with you.

My internet at home is still out. Even though I paid AT&T on the 17th (in other words, Friday), the DSL has yet to respawn. The customer service guy told me on the phone Friday afternoon that the delete account order and my payment crossed in their computer system like ships in the night (metaphor mine), and that he'd untangle it and get me my internet back asap.


In part because of non-webness, I finished Final Fantasy X yesterday. And the ending was exactly what I had deduced it would be after having played roughly nine-tenths of the game and then quit only to start over from the beginning nearly a year later, thank you very much. Nyah. I won't spoil it on the off-chance that someone reading this might eventually have the desire to play Final Fantasy X for the PS2 themselves. I beat it with relative ease after about 108 hours of play time. I think I've read elsewhere that it is possible to beat with around 70-80hrs of play. I know I goofed around a lot amusing myself, did a few things long way around instead of taking the game-provided fast ways, and only left one side-quest incomplete. (The one on Bikanel Island.) Oh, and I refused to play blitzball, period, with the exception of having to sit through the mandatory tutorial.

There is a mandatory tutorial for virtually every aspect of the game. Most of them are necessary, to be sure. Blitzball is a completely optional mini-game after the initial introduction, so on my second attempt at the game I felt that that time was absolutely wasted. However, the tutorials on the use of the Sphere Grid, weapon customization, and the menu in general could have been even more extensive and not done a disservice. (For example, I did not know that the party's inventory of weapons can be automatically sorted via the "Sort" option under the "Items" subscreen until my second attempt. One of the major reasons I actually completed the game this time, in fact.) The Sphere Grid is a massive, labyrinthine chart on which upgrades to every attribute, skill and ability are laid out like beads on a string. Each character starts at a different location on the grid. As the characters participate in battles, their experience points earn them "sphere levels", which you, the player, can spend to advance them along various pathways. Take a character in one direction, and they will eventually become a powerful spellcaster. Take them in another direction, and they will eventually gain powerful physical attacks instead.

The key word there, as anywhere in this game, is eventually. FFX is an extremely slow game. You do not sit down to play without at least forty minutes to an hour to spend on it. Ironically, this is especially true of the first half to a third of the game, where the cut scenes are numerous, unskippable, and lengthy. But even leaving cut scenes out of consideration, save points are generally set at opposite ends of large terrains within which you will be randomly attacked by enemies every few steps. (There are a couple of ways to ease this situation, but one is very clunky to use and the other doesn't become available until near the halfway point of the game.) However, if you do have that hour, and the patience to sit through the cut scenes, I believe you will come to appreciate something about the game that I find very interesting.

The Sphere Grid, rather than the actual battles, is the central arena of gameplay in FFX. I walked through every game area to the save point at the other end, walked back to the beginning, then walked forward again, fighting monsters all the way. I did this at least once in every area except for the Omega Dungeon and Inside Sin, where I did it in smaller chunks to avoid accientally Game Over-ing and ruining all my hard work since last save. For fun? Yes, partially. For stealing? That helped break up the monotony, yes. But really, it was for the sphere levels. The most exciting parts of the game for me were calling up that enormous chart of potential powers and attributes, plotting out which ones each character was going to acquire, and figuring out how I was going to get them there. When I opened up the Level 4 Locks around the Ultima ability and "just happened" to have my two best spellcasters within a few spheres of it at the time, it gave me a bigger feeling of accomplishment than when I defeated a major area boss.

By the time I beat the game, every character had all the basic skills of at least two other characters, and some had passed all the way through another character's area and gone on to the basic skills of a third. Which was lucky for me, since it made the last couple of bosses seem like pushovers. Everybody could do pretty much everything, so no one was left in the lurch just because someone else was temporarily incapacitated.

I'm like that with any game which gives me the option. Defeating successively more impressive baddie sprites is fun, sure enough. Having a large, shiny game-world to explore and at least partially tame is a must in its own right. But a game will lose me very quickly if it can't answer me this: How can I make my people more awesome?

I think this is a universal characteristic of games. Every main character of every game is far more badass at the end than at the beginning. Perhaps, like MegaMan, they merely gain the option of using different types of guns, trampolines, and/ or sleds. Or perhaps their very appearance can radically change as they shift from one type of skills and abilities to another. Can't think of a specific example, but I'm willing to bet there are games out there where that happens. Sometimes, as in Heroes of Might and Magic, the synergy of the abilities you choose for your heroes can unlock other abilities which would otherwise not have been possible for them to learn. Even the ancient and venerable Mario can rack up an impressive collection of coins, point and lives.

There is an element, I would say, of this self-improvement theme in any videogame you can mention. I will make a further assertion, which I am going to ask my more videogame-knowledgeable friends about as well. I think that as a game's plot becomes more ambitious and its characters more complex, there is an increasing tendency for success-related upgrades to take place inside the characters, in addition to the changes taking place outside them. In other words, a more complex character will change themselves; a less complex character will only change their equipment. Carl Johnson, for example, is still formidable at the various points in the game where he is stripped of all weapons, or everything but a knife. This is because his strength, driving skill, and other attributes have increased to the point where he can re-acquire the guns and ammo more easily on his own and use them more effectively when he has them.

I think there is a life lesson in this. The universe, the most complex and deeply formulated gaming environment ever conceived, is the model which all our invented worlds strive to outdo. But artifice can only overcome one aspect of nature by incorporating others--in this case, the nature of what draws humans into a quest. We do things, and get pleasure in doing them, for the warm glow of self-mastery as much as the heady tang of just victory.

I keep wishing, I kept wishing all through the game, that there was a Sphere Grid for real people. And that if there were, I wish I could see it.