Bizarre Beauty… in the Background: Video Game Nature in Final Fantasy XII
When you yearn for adventure, what do you look for? An epic hiking trip through dramatically different ecosystems, from desert to mountain to jungle? Encounters with dozens of dazzlingly-colored animal species you’ve never seen before? Many video games offer this—the chance to explore virtual environments, leading characters on a fantasy nature walk through the use of your game controller.
A handful of academics—including Alenda Y. Chang, Ian Bogost, Daniel Vella, Bernadette Flynn, and Ben Bunting—are beginning to analyze how video games depict nature. As with any popular aspect of culture, this art form deserves exploration. This inspires the environmental scholar in me to wonder: what might encounters with virtual environments mean to the players? How does (or doesn’t) gameplay depict virtual nature, and what relationship to that nature is a player expected to develop in a game scenario? I use a discussion of a role-playing fantasy game, 2006’s Final Fantasy XII (published by Square Enix) on the PlayStation 2, to begin an exploration of these questions, analyzing some of the main ways video games represent nature.
Online discussion of nature in video games (see examples from Treehugger, MakeUseOf.com, EcoGamer) has tended to overemphasize what might be called environmentalist video games, such as BBC Climate Challenge or WolfQuest. However, these games have mostly not been very popular. What I’d like to focus on instead are the types of depictions encountered by a large percentage of gamers. Final Fantasy XII (which has sold over five million copies, and is part of one of the biggest-selling video game series ever) is a representative example of what a player might encounter in a game where characters go on an adventure.
Much of the action in Final Fantasy XII takes place outdoors or in building ruins. The scenery takes advantage of the impressive graphics capacities of modern games, and is often striking: vistas with impressive mountains, deep forests, and the improbably vertical and diagonal cliffs of the Mosphoran Highwaste. Some of the charm resides in aspects that effectively mimic our world. But one is also impressed by the chance to see something new, to appreciate the visual creativity of the designers in presenting the fantastic. As Matt Gerardi suggests, games have “often wondrous sights, worthy of scrutiny and celebration.” However, “art design, especially environmental design, so often goes underappreciated.” Indeed, how much attention does this scenery attract, if it has little meaning in the game?
One knows the space of the game, the landscape, via movement along the paths one needs to travel. This game requires characters to walk extensively, much more than most players typically would. In many cases, there is some type of path through the territory that leads one between sites of action. In the image below, for instance, raised wood paths allow one to travel in the forest canopy of the Salikawood.
The game’s outdoor chapters are set in sharply defined climate zones—desert, snow, steppe, caverns, and so on. Yet even here, where nature appears so significant in defining differences between levels, it does not affect characters. The weather does not really alter mobility or action – and somewhat infamously, characters wear the same clothing regardless of weather.
However interesting scenery may be, it is not really part of the gameplay. I choose to play at a leisurely pace, and slowly observe the scenery, because to do so entertains me. But most of the landscape is not something that one can interact with, or that makes a difference in the game; it is just backdrop. As Alenda Y.Chang suggests, “Most games commit at least one if not all of the following missteps in their realization of in-game environments: relegating environment to background scenery, relying on stereotyped landscapes, and predicating player success on extraction and use of natural resources.” Thus, games marginalize the environment; what, instead, do they lead players to focus on?
Player focus is on gameplay, how players engage in solving problems which the designers place before them. A player gets immersed in the scenes that enable player choices, and the actions a player gets to take. Gamer comments online often focus on challenging combat situations, on the process of learning how to defeat a creature. Thus, a creature might be remembered for the effort required to defeat it. On the other hand, other aspects of games—beautiful visuals, cut-scenes that advance the story—provide material that gamers only might connect with. However carefully designed such aspects of games are, the structures of modern games lead players to direct their attention elsewhere.
Characters encounter a variety of creatures as they travel; but their interactions with them are largely limited to combat. To gain skills, experience, and treasure, characters kill many of the animals they encounter. After a creature is killed, it leaves behind body parts—wool, pelts, fangs, fruits, and more. These parts are useful; they can be sold to obtain money to purchase upgrades needed for success in the game, or traded to help accomplish quests and acquire special objects. This basic element of gameplay clearly involves a form of the resource extraction Chang mentions. After killing a certain number of a given creature, one also gains access to more information about it, which one can choose to view; but this knowledge does little to help the player succeed, so there is little incentive for players to view it as important.
In Final Fantasy XII, as in most role-playing games, there’s no real reason to quietly stalk a creature you are hunting, or to pay attention to the landscape—it is not relevant to battles. Players’ contact with animals, for the most part, is not one of learning about them (other than how to kill them) or appreciating them. Games could suggest how animals perceive the world differently, but they rarely do so; when one does converse with non-humans, their personalities are mostly human-like. The creative array of creatures entertains me: I particularly enjoy having the chance to do battle with plants-turned-monsters, tomatoes, pumpkins, adorable cacti, and more…! But it is unclear if players develop ‘animal appreciation’ within the context of the game.
The analysis of games can help us understand how popular visual culture shapes our perceptions of nature. Can nature educators, informed by an understanding of how gamers experience and appreciate nature, design programs to help gamers appreciate what the outdoors has to offer? How do different genres lead to different experiences? Shooters and open-world games provide different possibilities than Final Fantasy XII does. Can designers develop games that are engrossing as play, yet also help us to develop an appreciation for non-human nature? Perhaps Flower and Journey, which emphasize exploration and flow, demonstrate ways to realize this vision. Games can allow us to experience nature from unusual perspectives; I hope to see popular games take more advantage of the potential of the medium to explore how nature can become more a part of the action, not just the background. How do you experience the nature of games, and what would you like to experience in the future?
Jeff Filipiak teaches history at UW-Fox Valley and environmental studies at UW-Oshkosh. He earned his BA at UW-Madison, and his PhD at the University of Michigan with a dissertation titled “Learning from the Land: Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson on Knowledge and Nature.” He also works on John Denver, popular culture, sustainability, intellectual history, and food studies. Outside of school, he acts as an Ambassador of Snow. Blog. Contact.