Going for Baroque

I’ve adored the Final Fantasy series since I was young. I never skipped a beat to get the latest addition to the series or collecting the latest remake. As of 2011, Final Fantasy IV (1991) has seven remakes and one sequel, FFIV: The After Years (2009). Partially I purchase these remakes out of nostalgia, since I associate playing FFIV and FFVI (1994) with growing up.

Why return to a game I’ve already played, one with the same story and only slightly updated graphics and modified gameplay? I’m not alone in my obsession; many remakes of films and games have been released in the past few years. It seems as though our era is fascinated with watching a familiar story with updated graphics.

However, this obsession with remakes reminds me of the 17th century, the Baroque period in art history. I’m not the first to suggest that similarity; theorists such as Omar Calabrese and Angela Ndalianis have written on how 20th- and 21st-century entertainments have taken to a Baroque aesthetic, and have the similar capitalist and globalized economic drive that started in the Baroque period.

The word Baroque is based on the Spanish word barroco, for rough and imperfect pearls. Baroque was used as a derogative term to describe the excessive redundancy of ornamentation and details in architecture and eventually music. Baroque’s ornamentation was contrasted to the clarity of Renaissance rationality. The Baroque period was one of the furthest-stretching art movements, with variations in Spain, Russia, France, England, and several other countries. It is consistently described as the “styleless style,” since no single technique dominated Baroque art, architecture, music, or literature but a few key themes: a fascination with violence and gore, illusion, polycentricity, and seriality— subjects that I will touch on in a few columns, beginning with seriality.

Seriality is the quality of extending a narrative outside its original confines. It is the expansion of a single medium through various formats and repetition. In the Baroque era there are many paintings, sculptures, frescos, etc. retelling the life of Christ; sometimes these retellings would be set in the contemporary era rather than Christ’s own time. The Baroque era was the beginning of capitalism and globalization, which slowly changed art into a plethora of media formats allowing for the expansion of the message.

Neo-Baroque seriality in contemporary entertainment consists of: action figures, books, comics, stuffed animals, online content, and any spin-off that will extend the economic drive of the original. A similar expansion happens in videogames. Players will buy the same game because they know it and are curious to experience an updated version.

The repetition of remakes does not make the videogame less original or inferior; instead, it extends the lifespan of the original game into multiples that further the almost endless combinations offered by the game. Remakes allow for new and returning players to experience or re-experience the game. It is an aesthetic of repetition.

Getting back to FFIV, why do I keep buying them? There is always a slight variation; for example, in the later gameplay of the Game Boy Advance version I could choose my party from all the protagonists, rather than the characters that were scripted to engage in the final battle. It allowed for characters that were previously incapacitated to be included in narrative events that had not been written for them. Consistently Square Enix promises that it has “improved” the dialogue, therefore elaborating on a favorite narrative. It’s a safety net: I know the game is going to be good because I’ve finished it, and can get all the goodies I missed the first time.

Each remake alludes to the “original” version and refers back to the entire Final Fantasy franchise. The latest remakes and additions to the series reproduce and extend the consistent Final Fantasy archetypes (fighter, healer, mage, girl with unusual powers, etc.) and narrative themes (technology versus religion, quest for godhood). Characters, graphics, and certain narrative themes change. However, the core idea of a party led by a single strong but tormented personality, going on an adventure and eventually uncovering some type of “end of the world” injustice, is the same throughout the entire series.

The remakes of FFIV place the series in constant motion. Seriality is expressed with every update and additional piece of merchandise, since every possible innovation is explored to modify the videogame and change the player’s opinion and knowledge about familiar characters, narratives, and visuals.

It’s not simply that I like Final Fantasy IV—I enjoy the narrative and aesthetic structure of the Final Fantasy series, referenced throughout every new game and remake. This serialization allows us to enjoy a variety of incarnations, even though we are essentially playing the first Final Fantasy.


Image from The Adoration of the Magi by Peter Paul Rubens, photographed by Martin Beek