Distant Worlds Converge

Recently, Mr. N—- and I went to see Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh. Fun for the whole family! Video games for Mr. N—-, and getting out of the house for me.

The event was an elaborate fan service ritual: a full orchestra playing the themes from the Final Fantasyvideo game series with a huge screen behind them projecting game footage and cutscenes from the series. The conductor (Arnie Roth, who is obvious a huge FF fan, if nothing else than for the fact that it pays his bills) yukked it up between the pieces by calling for audience participation, paying homage to the composers, and alluding to everyone’s favorite moments in the series. Even for me–someone less familiar with the details of the series–it was awesome.

What made it awesome, however, wasn’t the orchestra (it was fine) or the venue (its 4700lb chandelier!) the pieces (which are beautiful and epic) or even the company (although N. was great, as always). It was the history of game animation that the performance projected. Juxtaposed with this spectacularly restored 1928 theater were the pixelly figures that captured the imagination of thousands of young Japanese and Americans beginning over 20 years ago.

As the images were projected thematically rather than linearly, we saw the technical feats of special effects, landscape, face and hair animation shift. Because Final Fantasy is such a long running series, the orchestra could draw on over two decades of video game animation history. It’s hard to believe that any other era or genre of art experienced that much change in a 20 year time span.





A new exhibit opening this weekend at the Smithsonian American Art Museum takes up that evolution: “The Art of Computer Games.” I was pleased to see my old favorite C64 game Sid Meier’s Pirates!  is featured. Indeed, those were some beautiful blue seas! There are two representatives from the Final Fantasy series–Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy Tactics. (the full list of featured games for the Atari to the Wii to the Playstation3 is on the Smithsonian’s exhibit page.)


Pirates! in 1987
Pirates! in 2004

As beautiful as they are, it’s not clear to me that the later images are superior. As the older pixellated characters were juxtaposed with the newer ones, with flowing hair and hipster-emo outfits, it strikes me that the older images were often more evocative than many of the newer ones. It may be my nostalgia for early games (although I never played the Final Fantasy series). But I think it was something more: the earlier images leave a lot to the imagination. The hipster-emo characters from more recent installments in the series look dramatic and distant and too cool and too young for me to want to spend much time with.

too hip for me (FFXII, image from IGN)

At any rate, Mr. N—- and I will have to make a trip to see the exhibit and marvel again at the changes in visual representation in games.

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