Final Fantasy and Philosophy: The Spiky-Haired Mercenary vs. The French Narrative Theorist

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.

12 thoughts on “Final Fantasy and Philosophy: The Spiky-Haired Mercenary vs. The French Narrative Theorist”

  1. “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.”

    Yeah, that’s semiotics for you: words don’t have a single, fixed meaning, they are an evolving bundle of associations that point, imprecisely, to arbitrarily assigned concepts. The correlation between a certain signifier and the concept it is pointing you at varies based on time, culture, etc. Semiotics is the study of that interplay, both between signifier and signified and between a single sign as it changes through time due to new contexts. Since the attachment between signifier and signified is arbitrary, semioticians like to yoink regular words to mean new things, which you can only understand by knowing several other new definitions of other words in their pet theory.

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    1. The attachment between signifier and signified is non-arbitrary in one important respect: Signifier-signified relationships which are confusing or otherwise hard to use get phased out in favor of ones that aren’t. The only reasons to redefine existing words in ways that aren’t clear is either out of pure laziness, using the first words that come to mind without bothering to try and come up with something more clear (here’s an easy one: “story-driven player” and “mechanics-driven player,” shortened to story-player and mechanics-player), or else intentionally making an essay harder to understand because Kant was hard to understand so clearly the secret to brilliant philosophy is to be obfuscationary.

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      1. “Signifier-signified relationships which are confusing or otherwise hard to use get phased out in favor of ones that aren’t.”

        Citation needed. The causality could flow exactly the other way: all signifier-signified relationships are initially arbitrary, but as social forces spread some and not others, those relationships that are widely adopted for external reasons become less confusing because they are familiar and effective day-to-day.

        But more importantly I think your criticism is unfair for another reason: philosophy essays aren’t written for a general audience, they’re meant to be a conversation between philosophers (or at least those who are putting on a philosopher hat for the duration of the conversation). So assigning philosophical meaning to “player” and “gamer” which don’t have philosophical connotations in general usage isn’t really a sin any more than using the names of Darths & Droids characters to represent player types is.

        It’s possible I’m being too generous to Chandler here, and that his definition of player and gamer really weren’t for philosophical purposes and he was just trying to shoe-horn in his preference for story-players over mechanics-players with a semiotic coat of paint, but in general I don’t think it is an affront to communication to use existing words to refer to different things in a specific context. The context might make those terms confusing, but the act itself does not.

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      2. I can’t directly reply to Stubbazubba’s reply, so I’m gonna reply to my own comment and hope it appears in the proper order.

        >Citation needed.

        The trend of rebooting video games and movies with the same title as their original has organically given rise to the convention of “Robocop 2014” and “Tomb Raider 2013” and so on. The language near-instantly and contrary to direction from above has adapted itself to distinguish between two concepts that were initially introduced as being referred to with the same signifier as one another. The player/gamer distinction is the same way: By Chandler’s definition, both of those groups are a sub-category of the common definition of player as meaning “one who plays.” Having the same word refer to both a category and something in the category naturally leads to the desire to distinguish the two signifiers to make it clear which concept is being referred to in conversation.

        You can see exactly this phenomenon of category confusion happen in the Guild Wars community prior to the release of the sequel as “Tyria (continent)” and “Tyria (world)” entered into the lexicon. With the sequel taking place entirely on the continent of Tyria, the need to distinguish between the two has become less prominent and you’re more likely to see people just refer to “Tyria” without specification.

        Likewise, “Jim” the category of player I invented is named as such because they resemble the character Jim from Darths and Droids, as distinct from Pete, Annie, etc. etc. If I used “Jim” to refer to a category that contained both Jim and Pete, that would indeed be confusing.

        >But more importantly I think your criticism is unfair for another reason: philosophy essays aren’t written for a general audience, they’re meant to be a conversation between philosophers (or at least those who are putting on a philosopher hat for the duration of the conversation).

        Final Fantasy and Philosophy is a pop-philosophy book. It is written for a general audience. Even if it weren’t, though, naming a sub-category the same thing as its super-category in order to distinguish it from another sub-category in the same super-category makes the conversation confusing regardless of whether or not the people involved are both philosophers (as hobbyists if not professors – and if these books have demonstrated anything, it’s that being a professor of philosophy does not necessarily mean someone is particularly good at it). People use language to communicate concepts and if you tell them to use the same word to refer to two different and easily confused concepts, they will ignore you, either by inventing new words or by refusing to engage in conversation on the subject at all. With how niche a philosophical argument like the one presented in The Spiky Haired Mercenary is, the latter is far more likely.

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  2. “Interpreting the text is not the same thing as producing the text.”

    Except there’s a whole train of literary theory that says it is. Death of the Author is not a niche literary idea: the concept that the text only exists as the symbols on the page are interpreted by your mind (and thus colored by everything in your mind), and thus the reader reading is, in fact, producing the only text that anyone can actually experience, is not considered silly or illogical in literary theory circles.

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    1. Death of the author states that no interpretation of the text is more or less valid than any other, including the author’s own interpretation of the text. It does not state that the physical text on the page will rearrange itself by sheer will of the reader. It’s perfectly valid to say that the text cannot be directly experienced. It is not valid to then insist that we refer to the text and interpretation as the same thing, because that does nothing but impede clear communication. Note that you, yourself, refer to the text as “symbols on the page” immediately before claiming that the reader can produce the text from their own mind, hopping from one definition to another mid-sentence. This is clearly more confusing than simply referring to “text” and “interpretation” using those different words, since they are very obviously different concepts.

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  3. I did not refer to the text as the symbols on the page, I said the text doesn’t exist until the symbols on the page are read by a brain that interprets the signifiers: it is that interpretive act that creates the meaning of the words, and thus the text.

    I agree that is more confusing than the traditional literary definitions of text and interpretation, but just because something is confusing does not make it wrong or invalid. Death of the Author leads to interpretive communities, and interpretive communities + semiotics means there is no meaning until a work is experienced, and that experience is inseparable from interpretation, therefore there is no independent text–the “text” (mainstream definition) only exists when it is interpreted, so it is readers who produce it: writers just arrange signifiers in an attempt to suggest meaning, and because writers typically belong to mostly the same interpretive communities as their readers, those signifiers represent largely similar meanings. But in a world where the author is dead and semiotics tells us that words aren’t fixed representations of Platonic ideals but instead socially-constructed triggers arbitrarily assigned to things that are “real” (whether physical objects or mental concepts), a work’s meaning cannot exist independent of its audience’s interpretation of it, therefore that interpretation is the meaning. Insisting that “text” refers to the inherently meaningless signifiers in your pdf and “interpretation” means only meanings independent of the “text” is unworkable if we have already accepted the fundamental premises of Death of the Author and Semiotics.

    You don’t have to accept those premises. This is not mainstream literary theory for a reason. But there is a coherent chain of concepts that leads to the idea that readers produce the text as they interpret what the author put down. It is a weird way of looking at literature (and, moreover, the world), and I’m not endorsing it, but in an essay about Barthes, readers producing text is not an invalid thing to say.

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    1. >I agree that is more confusing than the traditional literary definitions of text and interpretation, but just because something is confusing does not make it wrong or invalid.

      It does when my criticism is specifically that the idea was communicated poorly. Here is my initial criticism:

      >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.

      And what you’re asserting here is that 1) Roland Barthes is the one at fault and 2) it’s the first one, he’s doing a poor job of explaining the concept. I wasn’t criticizing the concept of death of the author, I was criticizing phrasing it as “the reader produces the text” which is confusing as opposed to “it is impossible to parse the text without interpreting it,” which is clear.

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      1. Okay, sure. I acknowledged from the start that famous dead person Roland Barthes is potentially the culprit and that Benjamin Chandler may only be guilty of repeating terrible definitions. That doesn’t make the definitions any less terrible. There is an easy and straightforward way of phrasing this concept and also a confusing way of phrasing this concept, and regardless of who is responsible for landing on the latter instead of the former, it still obstructs understanding for no reason at all.

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