Playing Favourites

My favourite videogames, in no particular order, are Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy XIII and Tales of Vesperia. These are not the games that move me most, or that I would necessarily recommend to others – I could list things that aren’t real, Even The Ocean, Butterfly Soup, Queers in Love at the End of the World and probably others in those groups. Nor are they the games I’ve spent most time on (I write, glaring at World of Warcraft).

They are, of course, each in their way, very good games. Final Fantasy XIII is maybe the most tightly-tuned RPG ever made. Final Fantasy XII is the only game I’ve ever played that does for epic storytelling something that could not be better done in a novel. Tales of Vesperia is harder to exalt in superlatives or unique features but is nevertheless a slick system delivering nuanced moral storytelling through an effective play with genre expectations.

But there’s a difference between holding that a game is good and holding it as a favourite, even if you reject (as I do, to be clear) the idea that there’s some objective rubric of game quality. I’ve been worrying at the thread of this distinction for a long time, and I’m still not sure what I make of it, but I’m writing this in the hope of digging something out from the topic.

Of course, one difference between the two lists of games in my first paragraph above is that the first group belong to the section I’ve taken to referring to awkwardly as ‘commercial games’ while the latter are ‘independent’ in at least three different meanings of the word. Indeed, the two Final Fantasies are among the very small number of Japanese games that might be counted as blockbusters, per Vincent Kinian’s extremely useful definition; they are games that dominate discourses, that one is in relevant contexts expected to have an opinion on.

On the other hand, these are idiosyncratic choices; the opinion one is expected to have is negative. Or, to be more precise, if one has a positive opinion of these games, there is an expectation attached to that, that one is positioned a certain way relative to Video Games in general. In other media (my impression is that this is rarer in videogames), the phrase used to describe properties like this is cult classics. To declare a preference for them is to declare by implication membership in a community (a ‘cult’).

My declaration of favourites, then, is a symbolic gesture. It is a kind of self-making; my self is in part my social loyalties. I wonder at the internal mechanism that makes me say that commercial games are my favourites over the work of close friends and mutual supporters (it’s capitalism, I’m sorry).

But consider the difference between declaring FFXIII to be a favourite and, say, Super Mario World. That second term sits on a slider; move it and one finds, in sequence, A Link to the Past, Chrono Trigger and FFVI very close together, FFVII and FFX. How close can one get, historically and in commercial context, and preserve the contrast I’m poking at here?

I’m not sure. There is something unmistakeably contrarian about holding FFXIII as a favourite which is not shared by those other games, except in very narrow contexts. Is there a context in which counting A Link to the Past among one’s favourite games is contrarian? (PC gamers, but fuck them for the moment).

Maybe what’s going on here is that my declaration of favourites is more about who I differentiate myself from than who I ally myself with. Identifying myself with things that aren’t real and Butterfly Soup would distinguish me from basically the same majority of reactionary gamers (and in this, apart from the serious allegations of abuse against Anna Anthropy, the other games I mentioned above include and exclude exactly the same people).

There’s some sort of sweet spot, I think, between games that exclude too few and too many people, in which a ‘favourite’ game can be meaningful. This in itself is contextual – if most of the people I knew in real life were committed hardware-obsessed PC gamers, even Mario World might be enough to set me apart. It’s interesting – though too big a topic to go into here – how contingent this makes self on social location.

So I think the function of favouriting is social positioning, or the element of self-making that is most concerned with social positioning. Where have I placed myself?

Here, I want to offer a bit of a mea culpa. Over the last four years, I’ve written a huge amount about Final Fantasy and Square Enix (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12). And while there is something to be said for a western writer stepping up to criticise what other western writers have written about a non-western group of artists and their art, Square Enix is also now an international corporation, every bit as capable of the monstrosities of capitalism as Nintendo, Sony, Uber or Amazon. The corporation neither needs nor deserves defence.

I’ve definitely been rude or short with people for saying stupid stuff about Final Fantasy games. I’ve written aggressively. Some of the stuff I’ve responded to has deserved it; some of it not so much. There’s a big difference between some random dude on twitter dunking on FFXIII and an editor at one of the biggest (self-declared) progressive websites declaring Final Fantasy dead because a fanservicey outfit got added to Lightning Returns as dlc.

(Yes, that’s a thing that happened. No, I won’t sully myself by linking to it).

There are good reasons for writing a lot about squenix. Enix might have given us the JRPG originally, but it’s their endlessly relitigated merger with their upstart competitor which has been the lodestone for JRPG talk for the better part of two decades. Pretty soon the resulting corporation will be old enough to drive.

The western discourse around Square Enix combines all the worst elements of gamer technophilia, exoticising orientalism, and capitalist imperialism. When western writers crow about the death of the JRPG, they are realising the paranoid fantasy of Alex St. John’s ‘Manhattan Project’. Rhetorics of ‘anime bullshit’ infantilise Japanese writers while the tedious drivel about ‘literal translation’ positions Japan as some sort of nerd Brigadoon, untroubled by any taint of social justice.

ALL OF THIS IS BULLSHIT. STOP IT.

But equally, if there is a defence to be made, it needs to be separate from an emotional loyalty to corporate products (however much those corporate products and the discourse around them reflect exactly the tensions just described). My job is not marketing. Whatever follows on from the podcast here at DGC, this is an intellectual scruple I need to practice.

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