Memory Versus the Machines

“Art is the signature of man,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man (1925). Chesterton was reflecting on cave paintings, in which he saw evidence of humanity’s primal impulse to reflect the world back at itself. As soon as there is this thing called a human, there is this thing called art—we know the one by virtue of the other. Man is, as Aristotle observed in his Poetics, the most mimetic of all animals: the one that by definition is compelled to reproduce and express what he sees and feels.

One of the reasons we make art is because we like to—because, as Chesterton also observed, it’s fun. Aristotle said something similar when he conjectured that Athenian tragedy must have developed out of festival songs that were originally autoschediastikos—a word meaning “offhand,” “improvised,” “spontaneous.” In our free time and on our holidays, from make-believe in the school playground to songs in the temples of the gods, we devise amusements for ourselves that have all the rudiments of art. Harmony and rhythm, structure and imitation, all in service of expression and depiction: these things come naturally to us when we play.

The art form known in video gaming circles as the JRPG, the Japanese Role Playing Game, has a lineage and a history of development that Aristotle would have killed to study. In 1974, when Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. first released a tabletop game called Dungeons & Dragons, video games were still in their infancy. D&D is a board game with dice and tokens like any other. But from the very start, it had a unique narrative power that transfixed its fans. With a few basic tools, players could inhabit story after story, imagining themselves as mages or swordsmen on dangerous quests. They couldn’t get enough. It was a prelude of what was to come.

As more traditional art forms dithered their way into abstraction and artificial social theorizing, the healthy old storytelling impulse had to find outlets elsewhere. High culture in the ’70s was on its way down into a trough of which we have still not reached the bottom. But the endlessly generative human psyche was still dreaming its great old dreams of adventure and heroism. If the stuff of legend was no longer to be found in concert halls and museums, it would have to be sought underground—in the basement.

The Player with a Thousand Faces

Games like Dungeons & Dragons invited people back into a tradition of myth and legend that has taken innumerable forms over innumerable centuries. It is a line of storytelling that stretches on from Homer and Virgil, through Roland and Gawain, into the Star Wars series and the detective stories of neo-Arthurians like Raymond Chandler. Joseph Campbell adumbrated the basic structural outline of these tales in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949). What Campbell called the “monomyth” is a story we tell again and again: a hero is called forth “from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder.” After winning a triumphal victory at great cost, he returns a changed man to his homeland and restores a new kind of peace.

But D&D made this hero legend first-person in an entirely new way. As the name implies, Role Playing Games require players to inhabit certain ancient archetypes and take on those archetypes’ roles as their own: Monk. Druid. Cleric. Paladin. It turned out people still wanted to hear about such figures—wanted even, in a certain sense, to be them.

As video games grew more advanced, the RPG increasingly moved from the table to the screen. Digital technology has helped to realize the astonishing potential of this new mythmaking. The tokens of D&D became pixelated 8-bit avatars moving across two-dimensional tiles in heavily text-driven narratives, then grew into realistic figurines with lifelike behaviors, elaborately maneuvered by players through advanced controllers.

In Japan, a distinctive style of Role Playing Game has gradually emerged which, by and large, emphasizes character and storytelling more than its American counterpart. The JRPG distinguished itself by humanizing its characters: players no longer simply imagined whatever personality they wanted for their avatars. Now the avatars came with names and developed psychological profiles, with personal histories and destinies. The vague outline of the archetype had become the developed personhood of the character, and with that an art form came into its own.

Not so Final

For almost 40 years, Hironobu Sakaguchi has been a driving force behind these developments. As he tells it, he was a dispirited young designer at the company Square (now Square Enix) when he tried his hand at an RPG which he thought might be his last. If it didn’t sell well, he would quit gaming altogether. The result appeared in 1987, a game for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) with a title that alluded to its nature as a last-ditch effort: Final Fantasy.

It wasn’t final. The game became a sensation, spawning sequel after sequel (the 16th entry in the series is on its way to release). Each installment in the Final Fantasy franchise tells its own story, but Sakaguchi’s influence is unmistakable in each one. Guided by his mentor, the manga publisher Kazuhiko Torishima, and inspired by high-fantasy epics like The Legend of Zelda (1986), Sakaguchi developed a kind of game to which, as he said recently in an interview, “storytelling and character development is integral.” His work has helped define JRPGs ever since.

Final Fantasy VII (1997), available on PlayStation and PC, is rightly regarded as being among the masterpieces of the form to date. Its characters are indelible in the minds of those who know them—as is the love triangle around which the story revolves, a fraught romance between the taciturn soldier Cloud, the demure but mysterious sorceress Aerith, and the spunky freedom fighter Tifa. Cloud’s connection to both women deepens and evolves as he recovers lost memories over the course of the game. Sakaguchi expertly unfolds this personal drama alongside a more expansive tale of corporate greed and global war.

In 2004 Sakaguchi founded his own studio, Mistwalker, where he invented new titles like Blue Dragon (2006) and Lost Odyssey (2007) while the Final Fantasy series carried on without him. The structure of his games remains recognizable: part I typically leads players through a linear prelude in which characters are introduced and conflicts developed. Sakaguchi takes a firm narrative hand during this opening sequence, establishing just who these people are and what their quest is. We are not free to choose between an infinite range of storylines as in other titles like No Man’s Sky (2016).

Instead, Sakaguchi waits to set players loose until part II, which usually offers a vast array of “open-world” levels. These are regions of gameplay situated on a sprawling map across which players travel at will. We are left to uncover the world of the game in our own time, but we operate within the framework of constraints and consequences that Sakaguchi has already built in part I: the story can take a range of routes to its conclusion, but it can’t end up just anywhere. We are participants in, not creators of, the artist’s vision.

Back to Basics

Mistwalker’s latest release, Fantasian, is available exclusively on Apple devices. It is a self-conscious return to the traditional tropes of the JRPG, a lavish throwback that takes its heroes on a grand journey out of a small village to face a galactic threat. The score is by Nobuo Uematsu, a self-trained classical composer who also collaborated with Sakaguchi on Final Fantasy VII. From the opening title of Fantasian, players can recognize Uematsu’s sweeping melodic lines and lush crescendos, which lend his games an otherworldly sense of longing.

Fantasian may well be Sakaguchi’s last game, and it has all the marks of a mature artist making the capstone statement of his career. Comfortable and self-assured in his trademark style, he has chosen to build a highly advanced version of the golden-era ’90s RPG. “Whatever’s happening in the gaming industry… this is the type of game I am going to create,” he says, and he means it.

Recent RPGs (including 2016’s Final Fantasy XV and a 2020 remake of Final Fantasy VII) have moved away from rigid “turn-based fighting,” in which combatants exchange blows with enemies one-by-one according to a stylized formula. Turn-based combat is recognizably a legacy (some might say a relic) of the tabletop past. Modern games tend to be more fluid, allowing players to maneuver and battle in something like real time.

But Fantasian returns to the old D&D roots, with a highly structured fighting system that feels more like strategy than action. It’s aimed at hardcore gamers: by part II, the boss fights become so punishingly difficult that players will have to “grind” (fight routine battles to gather skills and items) for hours before crafting just the right procedure to get a chance at victory.

There are a few novelties here when it comes to gameplay—players can angle and maneuver their attacks, for instance, and choose when to fight their battles using a device called the “dimengeon.” But Fantasian’s originality is decisively not in its format. Rather, the RPG form has become for Sakaguchi what the sonnet or villanelle form is for a seasoned poet: it is the given, the set of rules within which he works to convey his message.

What’s really on offer here is craft: the designers have created more than 150 real-life dioramas which constitute the foundation of the game’s scenery. These are works of art in their own right, meticulously detailed models of everything from a peasant’s woodland hut to an interdimensional temple of darkness. Images of these sculptures are seamlessly blended with the game’s digital artwork, so that every landscape looks like something you can reach out and touch.

Through this rich environment moves Leo, a young man who has lost his memory and has to get it back—quick. His world is threatened by a kind of mechanical plague, a strange parasite called Mechteria which comes from a purely robotic dimension to suck the life out of everything that breathes. Eventually we learn that this is part of a plot to reduce the world to “zero,” wiping reality clean of its natural chaos and variety. With the help of his friends, Leo fights to save the human realm of memory and personhood from reduction by Mechteria to a sickeningly pristine singularity.

Recurring Nightmare

As a narrative, Fantasian doesn’t quite reach the soaring heights of Final Fantasy VII. It feels a bit more rote, less fresh now that we’ve been through the same basic storyline a few times. But that fact alone bears consideration: it’s worth reflecting on why Sakaguchi, now nearing the end of his career, keeps returning to a few themes over and over again.

His main characters are frequently amnesiacs, led back to themselves by the gentle guidance of women. These women often have magical powers that somehow arise out of nature and the woods (in FFVII this is Aerith; in Fantasian it is Kina, whose name means “destiny”). This feminine link to organic life becomes increasingly important as, over the course of each game, our heroes come up against Faustian megalomaniacs plotting to bring the world to heel by the sheer force of industry and technology.

Usually the fight is won by uncovering artifacts and weapons assembled from far-flung corners of humanity’s mythic storehouse: characters wield swords with names ranging from Excalibur to Masamune (after Japan’s greatest medieval swordsmith). The race for humans to recover their personal and cultural memory, before machines drain all the color from the world, is the story that Hironobo Sakaguchi can’t get out of his head.  

It’s possible with a little reflection to see why this is. “Our future as masters of [our] machines, rather than their slaves, depends on remembering,” wrote my colleague James Poulos recently in the Claremont Review of Books. Poulos’s book, Human Forever, is a penetrating study of just what digital technology—the seemingly omnipresent force which David Bowie once called “an alien life form”—has done to our sense of ourselves as human beings. Suddenly machines are everywhere, they can do our work better than us, and they have insinuated themselves through smartphones and social media into every crevice of our psyches. Our own creation seems poised to render us obsolete.

To defend against this threat—and to rebuke power-drunk machinists like the World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab, who want to save the world by “resetting” it to a new kind of year zero—we must insist on the irreducible uniqueness of human consciousness. Our machines may be better than us at almost everything, but they can’t replace our humanity, our soulful perception of the world—without which nothing matters to begin with.

What philosophers call qualia—the qualitative experience of things in the world—cannot be reduced to mere material facts or recorded by any computer, no matter how powerful. Our desires, our virtues, our personal memories: these are the stuff of life, the essence of what we value about being human. It is impossible to convey them in terms of data or capture them by recording the kinds of things machines record. They are not a matter of “who did what at which time” or “how many milligrams of which hormone flooded which part of the body.”

Instead, the things that make our life worth talking about at all are best conveyed through depictions of experiences—that is, they are best captured in works of art. Since those old cave paintings, the point of all this art stuff has been to capture and record that qualitative experience, the ineradicable fact of what it is like and has been like to fight wars, fall in love, or make a home. Hironobo Sakaguchi is part of that tradition: his rich tapestries of imagery, music, and story make us feel some part of what it is to be human in the 21st century.

Specifically, Sakaguchi has spent his professional life dramatizing what it looks like for man to come to grips with the very truth I have just been gesturing toward—the truth of what makes us different from our machines. The effort to recover that truth will probably define my lifetime and that of the generation after me.

This is why Sakaguchi’s games are so riveting, why they captivate the heart despite their flaws. Again and again he insists that memory and relationships have an indispensable worth, that no mechanized utopia is worth winning at the cost of being human. “Your smell made me want to help you,” says Kina to Leo early in Fantasian. From then on, she anchors him in those felt connections and intuitive ways of knowing that resist categorization by machines. In affirming the ultimate failure of any perfect plan to mechanize the cosmos, Sakaguchi humanizes the very technology which threatens to eclipse our humanity. He is making digital art that reminds us of what can never be digitized.

Intuitively, in the way of the artist rather than the philosopher, Sakaguchi has grasped the root of what we are up against: an all-effacing army of machines that will unmake us unless we recover our personal and collective memory of ourselves as created, ensouled human beings—as the kind of creatures that make art. It is poignant to think that as Sakaguchi nears retirement, the generation raised on his work will have to fight in real life the kinds of battles he depicted allegorically on-screen. He has equipped us well.