Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Judging the Art of Video Games

Alex Nuttall delivers this judgement mid-way through his essay:

Interesting characters, plots, and art design are found throughout the Final Fantasy series.

In his defense, he had no way of knowing at the time how Final Fantasy XIII would turn out.

This essay is an examination of Hume’s belief in an objective method of measuring the quality of art through the lens of the three status effects traditionally inflicted by the malboro monster in the Final Fantasy series: Sleep, Confusion, and Charm. The concept of an objective measure of art likely sounds immediately stupid, and it is. Hume was foolish to take his views to the extreme that he did. But that doesn’t mean he’s entirely wrong. Consider the fact that it is obviously true that some pieces of art are more popular than others, and also that it is much harder to make a work of art one way than another. In other words, that an objective level of technical proficiency can be demonstrated by an art piece even if technical proficiency isn’t the final say on the subjective quality of that art piece. And the popularity of an art piece is correlated fairly strongly to its technical proficiency. Sure, the most technically proficient art pieces are rarely very popular, and it’s often true that the most popular movie/game/whatever on the market right now doesn’t have much technical proficiency, but pay attention to the general trend instead of the extremes and the overall pattern is that higher amounts of technical proficiency do correlate to more popular art. People seem to enjoy an impressive performance.

And consider also how near-universal the opinion, even if subjective, that someone who’s seen a larger amount of art in a certain medium or genre is better qualified to judge the quality of that art as compared to someone who hasn’t seen much at all. Everyone agrees that art is subjective and it’s impossible to measure whether one work is better than another, and yet everyone also agrees that a judgement of a work’s quality will be more accurate when coming from someone who’s seen more than just one or two other works in the same medium. Sure, people deride critics for being out of touch, but they also deride people who gush about the quality of the one book they’ve read or the one horror movie they’ve seen. People who read lots of books or who watch lots of horror movies are held to be a better judge of a book or horror movie’s quality than people who’ve only read or seen one, and that statement is only ever controversial when paired with the mutually exclusive statement that art is subjective and can’t be “more accurately” judged at all.

Hume resolves this contradiction by declaring that art totally can be objectively judged, but if that’s true and Hume has the secret, then he should be able to show us objective measurements, a volume or a mass or a velocity or something, even something hard to keep track of like a statistical trend over time or a complex equation accurately describing the relationship between media and viewer or whatever. Hume never does this, he simply declares, in the myopic mode of the person who thinks their opinions are realer than everyone else’s, that art is objective because he has such strong feelings on the subject that surely they must correspond to measurable reality and people who feel differently are somehow wrong. Again, though, for something to be objective it must be measurable, at least in theory, and Hume has no proposition for how the quality of art might be objectively measured. He proposes criteria by which art can be considered higher quality, but never how we could pull out a yardstick and count the rising density of artions in the living room when the Godfather is playing.

So Hume’s attempt to resolve the contradiction by tossing one end of it out isn’t really grounded, but he does provide a set of criteria by which the other end can be measured that matches the intuition shared by an overwhelming majority of people. Hume declares, as mentioned earlier, that someone who has experienced more of a certain medium or genre is a better judge of the quality of individual works, and a huge majority of people agree that someone who’s only ever seen one superhero movie can’t reasonably judge whether that superhero movie is any good.

Hume declares that bias clouds judgement and that a good judge of art should not let a personal preference for (as the example is given) sword-wielding protagonists color their perception of how good or bad Final Fantasy games are.

Hume declares that a work must be considered in the context of the time it was created and the audience it was created for, and while the consensus on this is less overwhelming, it is still generally held to be true (even centuries after Hume wrote) that a work should be considered for the era it was created in, that the Wizard of Oz should be highly regarded for its use of color far ahead of its contemporaries even though it’s now so completely bog standard that not using color is a statement.

Hume also believed that any work which promoted something immoral should be dismissed out of hand, regardless of quality. This seems like it might be a place in which Hume breaks with popular consensus, and it’s definitely his criteria for the quality of art that is least universal, but it’s still not all that controversial to claim that we should dismiss out of hand the quality of, say, Birth of a Nation, the movie that depicted the American South and North putting aside their differences to fight the real enemy: Black people, and in which the Ku Klux Klan rides in a cavalry charge to save the day at the end, or Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda film. They’re both competently made movies, but it’s still commonly held that their open support of immoral beliefs should not only be counted against them, but counted against them so harshly as to make them not worth watching except to dedicated students of film – the sort who watch terrible movies in order to understand the lessons they have to teach about filmmaking. Hume’s belief that media promoting immorality should be dismissed out of hand fits in snug with his belief that art can be objectively measured, but it also fits in snug with the common consensus.

Also, the essay ties some of these to different specific status effects of the malboro, but I forget which is which and honestly the connection is kind of a stretch.

Hume definitely appeared to have been on to something, in that his opinions match those of the general consensus despite the intervening centuries. It’s not like Hume’s school of thought utterly dominated our culture to the point that even centuries later its influence is still felt. Neither during his life nor after did he ever become an overwhelming cultural juggernaut. It seems that he predicted, rather than caused, the correlation. He seems to have been onto something, I just don’t know what.

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