Retrogamer: I, Fanboy

The first story I ever wrote was fan fiction. It was a mostly faithful transcribing of Final Fantasy 2 (or Final Fantasy IV, going by the Japanese numbering convention), with the additions of inner thoughts, classic Adam West-inspired onomatopoeia (THWANG! ZING! POW!), and dialogue very clearly written by a ten-year-old boy, which is exactly what I was. Handwritten, 40-some pages long, it’s a treasured memento for my mother and a story I’m totally proud of.

Is my fanfiction good? Of course not. Does it matter that it’s terrible? Also: of course not. Am I embarrassed that I wrote a character, named Tageran, who appears ¾ of the way through and is suddenly the most powerful of all characters, with the most remaining lines? No: I was 10.

Not long after I wrote my treatise on Final Fantasy (inventively titled Final Fantasy), I wrote my second masterpiece, my own Infinity War, starring all of my favorite Marvel comics characters. Also handwritten—we didn’t own a computer until I was 14—this magnum opus spanned perhaps thirty pages and showed a complete evolution in writing. No onomatopoeia, no sudden introduction of self-named heroes, and quite a bit of death and destruction. If I recall correctly, it ended with the dissolution of the Marvel universe and four surviving heroes (Archangel, Hulk, Quasar, and Speedball) walking slowly in four different directions, into four distinct sunsets.

Sadly, the Infinity War is lost to time. Unlike Final Fantasy, my mother did not know of its existence and so didn’t save it. Oh well.

In college, I had some pretensions to writing, but did very little actual composition, so little that it dwindled to nothing for nearly a decade. But, while I wrote little original material, I was a frequent lurker and eventual contributor to two online forums: Planet Namek and, where I wrote several lost-in-time Dragon Ball Z and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan stories.

I wish I could find those stories. There might have been something good in there.

In 2006, I came across a fan film that blew me away. And not for any ironic reasons, either. It was a film that was done purely out of love and looked fantastic. Sure there was groan-worthy dialogue, sure the plot was, at times, thin, but it was a labor of joy that inspired me. Of course, it was also a property that I adored. It was Star Wars: Revelations, and I downloaded it over one of the last dial-up modems I ever had. It’s stayed with me ever since.

(I’ve also kept abreast of the developers of Revelations. Some of them are doing quite well. Perhaps the jump from fan-work to actual work isn’t as large as it sometimes appears.)

Watching Revelations was one of the key moments that led me back to writing and the arts: publishing, acting, even organizing theme nights at clubs and bars. Because even though it was within a property owned by someone else, there was such care and professionalism involved. It was the simple act of creating that inspired me. The venue of creation is irrelevant.

Fan fiction and fan development has long had a place in my heart. While I don’t tend to write specifically fan-based original stories anymore, to deny that I use my own fandom as a source in my writing would be a silly lie. Consider this story I wrote several years ago while I was playing Jade Empire. The setting: a magical land based on Eastern myths and tropes. The plot and protagonist might be entirely removed, but the influence is apparent. And my appreciation of fan work never goes away. In fact, I seek it out (the book linked there contains a mashup of Star Trek and Ramona, as well as the best Law and Order: SVU fanfiction I’ve ever read).

Of course, the whole time I was watching fan films and reading fan stories, I was aware that there was an entire field of fan work that I never delved into. Fan hacks and remakes and balances of video games. Sure, I encountered fan hacks of video games (LAN parties in college of Quake 2, notably), but I never did more than dip my toe in. Call it trepidation or laziness or fear of viruses on my computer. Whatever the reason, I never bothered.

That is, until my friend Brian told me about Final Fantasy VI: Brave New World. I was dubious at first: Final Fantasy VI (or 3, depending on naming convention) was one of the first games I ever loved. It was, despite its age, almost a perfect game. “But,” Brian told me, “the people who hacked it fixed everything in it. They fixed the difficulty curve, the character-sameness, the broken AI, the broken spells. They even re-translated a lot of the dialogue.”

Final Fantasy VI debuted on the Super Nintendo in 1994 and blew me, and the rest of the role-playing world, away. It featured a larger cast, unprecedented customization of characters, non-linear gameplay, and a new steampunk world at a time when a North American audience did not expect such things (Japanese audiences were perhaps a bit more prepared). The story is both grand—an amnesiac woman with magical power is being chased by a malignant empire—and personal. Of the twelve main characters, each one is given a backstory and their moment in the spotlight, their own time to grow and move forward.

I spent hundreds of hours my sophomore and junior years of high school playing the hell out of it, exploring the world, poking my avatar’s heads into every nook and cranny. I remember the first time I found the Ancient Castle underneath the ground or the first time I beat Doom Gaze, the wandering monster. I remember the thrill of mastering the final Blitz, Bum Rush, or finding the Water Rondo, recruiting the two hidden characters (one obtainable only by allowing the party to be literally eaten). I mastered all of the mechanics and discovered literally every secret.

Every secret, but not every glitch.

As I said before, FFVI is an almost-perfect game. It has style, story, gameplay. The only mitigating factor in its perfectness is how broken it is. And it’s very broken. There are glitches everywhere, from walking through walls to beat minor quests, to exploiting bugs that play off each other to wipe out bosses with one-hit spells (Vanish/X-Zone), to making a character never stop attacking (the Psycho-Cyan glitch). There are programmed formulas that are nearly or entirely non-working (some of the stats, like Vigor or Evade, do very little) and special attacks that crash the game (like one of protagonist’s special commands, Sketch). It’s very, very easy to glitch the FFVI beyond recognition.

Beyond the glitches, there’s also poorly thought-out consequences of normal gameplay. The magic system is fairly intuitive. There are gems that the characters equip called Magicite. Once equipped, the characters learn magic. Easy enough. Except some of the spells are so absurdly powerful (e.g. Quick and Ultima) that once they are learned, they wipe out every enemy in one or two hits. Since every character can learn every spell, the end boss dies in half-a-dozen turns, owned entirely by multiple blasts of speedy characters nuking him with Ultima after Ultima.

For such a perfect game, FFVI is also kind of shit. Especially for replays; someone like me, who grew up playing it, knows every trick, every turn, every strategy. It’s hard to unlearn that when it’s so ingrained. Once mastered, it’s kind of not fun to play anymore.

This is why Brave New World was such a breath of fresh air. It fixed everything that was broken. And why I was so thrilled, so fanboy-ish, to reach out to the masterminds behind the hack.

According to one of the two mavens behind Brave New World, a gentleman who goes by the nom de plume BTB, “[FFVI] was good in the sense that it had potential. If you ask someone who likes it to think back on it, they’re going to look at it through nostalgia goggles. They won’t see the broken pile of code that vanilla FFVI is, they’ll see the game they want to remember it as. And really, the heart of this project was [me and Synchsi] just trying to make FFVI actually be that cool game we know it could have been.”

He refers, of course, to the massive editing and hacking he and his partner made to FFVI. BTB continues: “Names of items, how much they cost, who can equip them, spell parameters, etc. Like, 90% of [modding] is staring at a hole in a text document or a spreadsheet of character stats and setups and wondering if this one spell needs a buff or if I should lower this character’s speed or whatever. I just constantly put myself in the place of the player, look at the options I’m giving them, and think to myself…what option would I pick here? Is there a clear, obvious choice?”

The biggest fix that BTB and partner made in Brave New World was in the characters: their growth, their abilities. In the original (“vanilla”) version of FFVI, the characters all start unique and useful (a mage, a thief, a monk, etc.) but swiftly become interchangeable due to the character development design and the broken stat formulas. In Brave New World, that is all different. Only certain characters can learn certain spells and stat gains are all different for each one. So players have fast but brittle characters, slow tanks, magic users, and physical warriors, all of which have been tweaked to be useful. The re-balance required me to think, to plan, to figure out how to best use my characters. It broke me out of my hidebound adherence to rules from 20 years past.

BTB also says, “One of the things about Brave New World that I am most proud of is how every character is legitimately useful. Everyone has at least some player out there saying that they’re the best character in the game, which is what I was shooting for…I want to give the player interesting choices and the freedom to make them.”

That freedom to make choices is at the heart of modding an original game. The question has to be asked, though: why in the world would one spend time on an existing property? Why not create something original?

BTB told me, “Obviously it is much more work to create something original than improve upon something else—this is a fact that people who disparage the modding community like to throw in our face. But it’s more than that. We mod existing games because we see the true potential in them and we feel the world needs to see it. We mod a game to be a better version of itself, not something else entirely.

“I want everything to be the best version of itself. So often I am confronted with a busted, almost-good or almost-perfect facsimile of what could be. Maybe more time is needed, or more money, more motivation. In the case of FFVI, while what was created became an exemplar for the future, there was so much detail that could have been enhanced and tweaked to become just a little bit better.

“As a modder, I sort of feel like a quality control editor for the development team of a game. Obviously, I’m not the one who made it, but on that same token, when you spend longer than the original development cycle of that game cleaning up messes, you tend to harbor a very deep resentment. And that is tied to the real amount of work that I have put into it.”

That resentment is part of why we get so bent out of shape about the media that we love, when it isn’t treated with proper care and attention. The Star Wars prequels are obviously examples (while that care and devotions are what made Revelations so refreshing, despite its DIY flaws). But countless games have broken mechanics, game-ending flaws, or even aesthetic eccentricities that seriously detract from enjoyment. What I loved so much about Brave New World was that it rebuilt something I had enjoyed but knew had weaknesses. It shored up those weaknesses.

I’m not sure if Final Fantasy VI is my favorite game. I don’t think it is, but it’s also not far from it. It’s in the top ten for certain, sometimes top five, depending on the day and my mood. But now that Brave New World is out, I don’t foresee going back and playing the original. Perhaps some people would, and I can’t blame them; there’s something to be said for canon and for adherence to a model. Me though? There’s a version that I think is superior, so why accept a substitute? It’s sort of like the song “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Even Prince admitted that Sinéad O’Connor’s version was better.

What I love most about fan versions of games (or anything) is that it takes the urge to create and refine art and uses it for sheer love. While there are occasions of fan art becoming mainstream (50 Shades, anyone?), generally speaking, it’s purely a labor without compensation.

I often wonder why I write about video games. I’m not getting paid, I’m not getting direct compensation from it, besides writing credit in a literary magazine. But that isn’t really the point. The point is that I love video games, and I love examining the whys and wherefores of games. I want to add to the mythology of games for others to hopefully nod their heads and be like, “Oh snap, I didn’t think of it that way.”

I’m not a coder, and I’m not a modder. I’m not really a fan-fiction writer anymore (though I do love the occasional fan story that crosses my path). But I am still a fan, and I’m going to add what I can.