Mar 242014

I spent the last weekend between two screens. On one, I was playing the HD reissue of Final Fantasy X. On the other, I was watching a particularly exciting edition of America’s annual exercise in basketball excess, the NCAA tournament. Every year the tournament becomes a point of conversation across the country as Cinderellas like Dayton outplay their reputations, traditional powers like Louisville live up to theirs, and upstarts like the almost-victorious Coastal Carolina try to do the seemingly impossible.

Final Fantasy X has a deep connection with sport. Protagonist Tidus and party member Wakka are both professional athletes, as was Tidus’ father (and major story influence) Jecht. Wakka even attacks with a blitzball — the key piece of equipment in the aquatic sport Spira is mad for. Every major faction in the world has its own blitzball team, and a tournament between them all serves as the backdrop to a major episode early in the plot that introduces several of the game’s secondary antagonists. This sequence also introduces FFX‘s sports RPG-in-an-RPG centered around blitzball, which must be mastered in order to obtain certain high-level weapons. The game of blitzball is so important to Spira that somehow performing its ancient victory sign has become the world’s prayer ritual.

FFX’s main battle system seems to lack this broad connection to sport. After all, when Tidus and friends go to fight, they end up in a turn-based world where enemies line up on one side of the screen and allies occupy the other. Action and strategic positioning, so important to many athletic pursuits, don’t seem to have any place there. But FFX’s battles do have one aspect that connects them to the world of sport: strategic substitution. Very shortly after the game begins, Tidus’ party grows larger than the three people who can take part in battle at any time. The characters waiting in the wings cannot be harmed but also cannot act. However, on any character’s turn e can be swapped out for another non-active member of the party. If, for instance, Wakka gets poisoned, he can be swapped out for a healthy Auron.

The strategy involved, however, goes beyond status effects and health. Although their progression all takes place, in principle, on the same Sphere Grid, until very late in the game the characters in FFX have tightly-defined capabilities. Only Wakka has the accuracy necessary to reliably hit flying enemies, Lulu is the only one with magic that can bypass high defenses, and only Yuna has powerful healing at the start. With the exception of Kimahri, who can explore another path fairly early on, each of the characters has a specific strength that is useful in particular situations. A basketball analyst would call them “role players”.

The system can get even more subtle than this, because even after their skills cross over the characters may still have different strategic purposes. Kimahri, for instance, can quickly learn much of Lulu’s magic, but taking him down this road makes him very slow. If he’s in the combat group when small, quick enemies attack, they may get several strikes in before he can act. In contrast, the character Rikku has much less potential to cause damage but acts very quickly. If she is in the combat group she is likely to act very early in battle. When her turn comes up, however, she can be swapped for Kimahri, who thereby gains the benefit of her speed. In this way characters with complementary abilities can compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

The strategic incentive to bring in a particular party member in response to a specific situation is not the only reason to swap. For the most part, characters that don’t actually participate in a battle don’t earn any experience for it. So if a player can’t figure out what to do with Kimahri and ends up simply not using him, he won’t become stronger or more capable. This gives the player another reason to shuffle everyone on the team into combat, especially against bosses. If they’re not getting the minutes, these characters won’t develop, like anyone who constantly rides the pine in game situations.

Strategic substitutions are a major part of many sports. In basketball, a coach will often sub in from the bench in the middle of a half to keep key players fresh or to prevent them from getting in too much foul trouble. When e senses the opposing lineup has a defensive weakness, e may send new players out onto the court in order to exploit it. A group of small, quick perimeter shooters may be used if the other team has put tall, slow players out on the floor, for instance.

The Japanese creators of FFX, if they were thinking of sports when they developed this system, more likely had baseball in mind. It’s an appropriate analogue, because mid-stream substitutions take place there as well. Managers are famous for putting in pinch-hitters and new pitchers at key moments in a game as part of opposed strategic moves. The choice of when to take out the starter in favor of a reliever or closer has made and broken many a manager’s career. With its highly structured innings baseball also has some of the feel of a turn-based game, especially now that the chaos-inducing steal seems to be permanently on the decline.

I previously identified FFX’s style of combat as a director system: one in which the player chooses what action will be taken but has very little input into its outcome. In this particular case, though, perhaps a better term would be “coach” system. As a player, my concern is not only what will be done but who will be doing it, and unlike many RPGs FFX provides a way to quickly and seamlessly bring in the best character for the job. This connection between combat and sport is just one of the ways in which FFX is not only Tidus’ story, but also his game.

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