Editorial: Bringing the magic back to Final Fantasy

It's safe to say that for many fans, the Final Fantasy series has lost something special. A crucial bit of its DNA is missing, and the magic of the series has faded away. I'm among the fans -- it once easily ranked among my favorite video game series. The possible future of the franchise has been detailed in a stunning bit of sample footage, and it gave stark contrast to one vital element the series has been missing in the last few years. Final Fantasy needs to, quite literally, bring back the magic.

When used properly in a story, "magic" is not something easily understood or explained. It should not be detailed in the textbooks children read in school. It should not be as commonplace in their world as a toaster oven or a mobile phone is in ours. Magic should be difficult, and rare, and amazing to behold. The characters should be awe-struck by it. That's what lets us, as the audience, know that it's special.

In Final Fantasy IV, magic was practiced by a precious few characters. When some characters did learn magic, or enhance latent magical abilities, it was a part of their story arc. In Final Fantasy VI, magic was a mysterious power that had been exploited by technology. Each character could use it, but only by understanding and internalizing a race of demi-gods.

As we entered the 3D era, though, the series' treatment of these elements began to change. The game took a sharp turn towards science-fiction, and the fantastical received more detailed explanations. In recent titles, magic receives the dreaded "midi-chlorian" treatment from the Star Wars prequels. The game painstakingly over-explains plot elements that are more fun when they're left with a hint of mystery. Final Fantasy games have entered the habit of blending science-fiction and spirituality, but the rationale is delivered so straight-faced we have no reason to doubt or question it. The mystery is gone.

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That element, more than the technical prowess or visuals, is why the "next-gen" Final Fantasy teaser left me hopeful. Whether this sprung from the minds at Square or the partnership with Crystal Dynamics, who contributed art assets, I'm not sure. Either way, this looks to be along the right conceptual track.

In the "Agni's Philosophy" teaser, magic doesn't seem commonplace. It's practiced in dark hallways by creepy cultists. People are surprised and taken off-guard when the heroine reveals that she can perform magic -- and even more so when a dragon appears. The fantasy elements seem appropriately fantastical, and that is heartening.

Now, don't get me wrong. Contemporary Final Fantasy's problems are legion, and I hesitate to imply that merely making it more fantasy-focused will fix the issues entirely. But it will help. Square Enix was careful to note that the trailer isn't necessarily indicative of any particular project, so we may never see this culminate in anything at all. But it means that the company could be refocusing its direction, emphasizing the fantasy in Final Fantasy. Rhetorically speaking, Square Enix may just find that to bring back the magic, they simply need to bring back the magic.