What you are reading is an emergency backup plan that should’ve been put into action eighteen hours before it actually was. This isn’t really the kind of thing I want to do while letting the LitRPG genre cool off, for two reasons: One, I think this blog would benefit from a new kind of content, and I did one of these books before, and two, a significant benefit of my reviews is that they force me to take a closer look at books in a genre I have at least some intention of writing in, and I don’t particularly plan to ever contribute to one of these books or start up a competitor series or whatever. But we’ve once again reached that point where I’m already behind schedule which means either I review Final Fantasy and Philosophy article-by-article in order to buy myself some time to figure out what I really want to do with my M/W/Th/Sa articles or else I just let those days lie completely fallow until I think of something. So welcome to the Chamomile review of Final Fantasy and Philosophy, where our motto is “at least it’s better than a blank page.”
Our first article is brought to us by one Benjamin Chandler, whom the contributors section at the back of the book informs is a creative writing PhD from Flinders University, Australia. Normally I try to dig up more information on these guys online, but with a lead that cold I’m not even gonna try. In any case, he falls firmly into the category of “not actually a professional philosopher,” so in context of this post, he basically exists solely to produce this one essay for Final Fantasy and Philosophy.
We get this paragraph towards the beginning of the essay:
The characters in FFVII possess two different types of signifiers. The first type is built into the characters by the game developers, so we might call them presets ; they are the fixed aspects of the characters: hair color, speech, age, and so on.
Cloud Strife is a spiky-haired badass, Aeris is an ill-fated Cetra, and so on.
So we can add Benjamin Chandler to the list of people who don’t get the point of Final Fantasy VII. Cloud Strife isn’t a badass, he’s a mook cosplaying a badass.
The essay is about Roland Barthes’ philosophy concerning “signifiers,” which I’m not directly familiar with, which means I have to go by this essay and Wikipedia for what he’s on about, because I don’t have time to properly research literary theorists. Here’s Barthes’ philosophy as summed up by the essay:
Barthes was interested in semiology, the study of signs — signifiers (things that signify) and signifieds (what they signify) — and he believed that writers should fill their texts with signifiers, allowing the readers, or consumers, to interpret these for themselves and so produce the text.
Maybe Roland Barthes is being poorly represented here, but someone, whether Barthes or Chandler, is either doing a poor job of explaining this concept or else believes something dumb. Interpreting the text is not the same thing as producing the text. In terms of literary interpretation, “the text” is very specifically the objectively real contents of a piece of media, as distinct from their subjective interpretations.
For example, my copy of Final Fantasy and Philosophy exists in the form of a series of open and closed logic gates which, when activated with electric current, cause my monitor to produce a pattern of light that forms letters and other formatting which I can interpret as corresponding to sounds which, in turn, correspond to specific English words and their associated concepts. The point of this overly mechanistic description of having a .pdf on my hard drive is that the hard drive is real, and its contents, though they may seem ephemeral due to how easily they can be overwritten or corrupted, are in fact also real. Though not a specific physical object, it is a specific configuration of a physical object, and it objectively exists and contains specific words. That quote up there is objectively correct as a quote in that it is objectively true that the .pdf contains those words exactly in its first chapter. That’s the text.
Interpretation is what I’m doing now, explaining what I think and feel about a text and what I think Benjamin Chandler was getting at and whether or not he was right. Using lots of symbolism and thus encouraging people to interpret for themselves what’s really going on Silent Hill-style is a defensible artistic choice and all, but the text is still the text, and interpretation is a different thing. That’s not a philosophical statement. That’s just what words mean.
In any case, the article goes on to talk about how allowing characters to be mechanically customized – having Cloud specialize in black magic instead of white or whatever – multiplies the number of signifiers in Final Fantasy VII. As near as I can tell, this is technically true, but is also about the shallowest way of going about that. Final Fantasy VII has a villain named after a central concept of Kabbalism who turns into a freaky angel monster, deals heavily with the concepts of identity and environmentalism (it was the 90s), and features no shortage of personal drama between its protagonists. There’s plenty of signifiers up to interpretation here, and settling on “my Cloud has different stats than someone else’s” is such a banal example to use as the centerpiece of the article that it makes me question whether I properly understood the concept of signifiers at all. The article’s description of interpretation as an act of customization of mechanical battle capabilities is so specific to video games, though, that I find it difficult to imagine that it’s actually a particularly good example of the literary theories of a guy who died in 1985, and again, Final Fantasy VII’s actual story contains significantly better examples of the kind of thing you’d expect someone commenting on books to actually be talking about. It has a plot and characters and Judeo-Christian symbolism that may or may not have any deeper meaning than Japanese developers tossing in exotic western concepts haphazardly because they seem different and cool. Books have those things. They do not have materia.
I lean towards the “Benjamin Chandler cannot properly explain ideas” interpretation rather than the “Roland Barthes’ literary theory is dumb” interpretation, because when he later needs to distinguish between players of the game whose goal is simply to complete the game and players who are here to experience a story, he refers to the former as “gamers” and the latter as “players.” This is a pointlessly confusing redefinition of terms that already mean things. “Players” encompasses literally everyone who has played a certain game. “Gamer” refers to a sub-culture of gaming enthusiasts. “Player” in particular is a word that is practically impossible not to use as its original definition of “one who plays a game” when that concept needs to be referred to, which means that the best word to describe the super-category of both “players” and “gamers” is also “players.” If you lost track of what the Hell I’m talking about in this paragraph, then I’m not surprised because Benjamin Chandler has redefined words to mean things completely different from what they’re commonly understood to mean, which makes it incredibly difficult to describe his work with any kind of clarity.
Side note: Final Fantasy and Philosophy was released in 2009, so if you suspect that casting “gamer” as “bizarre mutant who plays Final Fantasy games but doesn’t care about the story” is an effort to cast the term in a negative light in relation to the 2014 “Gamers Are Dead” spate of articles and subsequent brouhaha, the timeline on that doesn’t really work out.
I don’t want to talk about all the mistakes this essay makes in detail because we’d be here all day, but I am going to look at one paragraph in particular and just ask you to take my word for it that this is a perfectly typical example of the level of understanding Benjamin Chandler is working with:
The extent to which Aerith ’ s death upset players is evident in the numerous rumors that circulated over the Internet about the possibility of resurrecting her, as well as instructions for finding the glitch to see her ghost in Midgar. FFVII’s game developers were relying on players to be so invested in the game world that Aerith’s death would not stop them from completing the game. This required the players to identify with characters other than Aerith, allowing them to continue interacting and interpreting the game text through alternate bundles of signifiers. It was therefore essential for the game developers to allow multiple points of entry into their game environment. These multiple entry points make FFVII a writerly text.
Now, earlier on the definition of “a writerly text” was given as one which invites its reader to interpret the text. So, Dark Souls is particularly writerly because everything is vaguely hinted at, whereas any given Mario game tends to be more readerly because everything is pretty clearly spelled out. I object to the very concept because Mario was the most readerly example I could think of and you can still come up with weird interpretations, but let’s go ahead and assume that whether or not a text will be interpreted rather than taken completely at face value is an attribute of the text itself and not of the person reading it. Having multiple viewpoint characters affects the writerliness of Final Fantasy VII not at all. To the extent that it is writerly, it is because of the aforementioned questions it raises about identity and the vague Judeo-Christian symbolism which may or may not have had any deeper meaning than seeming interesting and exotic to Japanese developers. On the other hand, a story simply having multiple characters doesn’t require opening it up to interpretation at all. Adding Luigi and later Peach, Toad, etc. etc. as playable characters to the Mario series didn’t give it more depth and make it more open to interpretation. It just allowed for two-player content.
The idea that some texts invite interpretation more than others is not wholly without merit, in that extremely vague plotlines tend to invite a lot of speculation as to what’s really going on. Dark Souls and Silent Hill are like this. Final Fantasy VII is even like this, albeit to a lesser extent. But Benjamin Chandler claims that Final Fantasy VII invites (or even demands) interpretation because of things like materia builds and having multiple playable characters, commenting on Cloud’s identity crisis only long enough to mention that it might make players reevaluate their interpretation of the game, something which takes up only half a page and which appears to have been included primarily to highlight the differences between people who play Final Fantasy games for the story as opposed to those who play for the mechanics, a dichotomy that would more accurately be described as people who like Final Fantasy and people who don’t, respectively. Contrariwise, both materia builds and having multiple characters is something given entire multi-page sections. I haven’t read Roland Barthe, but it’s difficult to imagine how his literary theory could genuinely have considered “I specced Cloud for melee attacks” to be an act of interpreting the text beyond anything written works were capable of.