Book Review: The Sky: The Art of Final Fantasy

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There are few things that I adore as fervently as the Final Fantasy series. Regardless of your opinion of the current state of the franchise, there’s no denying that a series with over 25 years of history is a force to be contended with. In 1987, a nearly bankrupt game company by the name of the Squaresoft released what it thought would be it’s last game and, in what proved to be an ironic twist of fate, FINAL FANTASY became the first entry in Square’s wildly successful RPG franchise. Currently encompassing fourteen main entries (FINAL FANTASY I-XIV) and dozens of spin offs, remakes, and—in certain instances—pure cash cows (I’m looking at you, FINAL FANTASY: ALL THE BRAVEST), the name FINAL FANTASY is synonymous with the highest quality story, music and art that can be found throughout the medium.

FINAL FANTASY: A Series History in Logos

FINAL FANTASY: A Series History in Logos

For some people it’s Mario. For others it’s Link. For me, it’s all about Final Fantasy. If I had to name a favorite then, easily, I would choose FINAL FANTASY IX. Most people name-drop VII (with Cloud and Sephiroth and Meteor) as their favorite Final Fantasy, and while that’s fair, it’s simply not the best Final Fantasy. As far as translation quality, art direction, and musical execution go, FINAL FANTASY IX is superbly unmatched. As the swan-song Final Fantasy for the Playstation 1 era, it goes unrivaled even thirteen years after its release.

FINAL FANTASY IX Characters

FINAL FANTASY IX Characters

It’s only fitting in an ironically cruel sort of way, then, that I discovered THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY almost a month after it was published. After a particularly grueling week at work, I came to the conclusion that I deserved a treat for a job well done and this elaborate, beautifully slipcased edition was mine as soon as I found it on Amazon. As far as quality goes, I’ve owned a lot of “collector’s edition” memorabilia when it comes to the Final Fantasy series but this set of art books is the most stunning and impressive that I’ve ever owned. It outdoes, by sheer weight alone, the other contenders that come to mind. It shames the guide books for the games and derisively snorts at the art book that came with the collector’s edition of FINAL FANTASY XII.

FINAL FANTASY XII Collector's Edition

FINAL FANTASY XII Collector’s Edition

Where to begin, then, with THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY? Firstly, this box set is epic. I hate throwing that word around because of how devalued it has become as a result of the über-hype media machine that’s been built by my generation, but nothing else so perfectly describes the heft and weight of three respectable art books kept within a high quality slip cover. This “slip cover,” by the way, is more like a protective casing with an animated felt exterior. Nothing about the box feels cheap, but rather silky and ethereal as the artwork it contains.

THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY

THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY

Yoshitaka Amano, to any respectable Final Fantasy fan, is immediately recognizable as the artist responsible for the logos of each numbered installment in the main series—the exception being the logo of Final Fantasy IX, a logo that nobody wants to take credit for. Amano was the main illustrator for games I through VI, contributed promotional artwork for VII and VIII, and returned as the main illustrator for IX. Since Final Fantasy X his role in the series’ illustrations is largely a symbolic one; he creates the logos for each numbered game, contributes some artwork prints, but has otherwise been active in different fields ranging from novel illustrations to manga and comics.

However, that does not detract from the fact that Yoshitaka Amano’s fame is eclipsed, or perhaps only shared with, the pantheon of individuals who launched the FINAL FANTASY series to international acclaim, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu.

And so this box set is primarily aimed at series fans of games I through X. Book 1 details his illustrative contributions for games I through III; Book 2 contains his work on games IV through VI and is the thickest of the set, nearly the size of the first and third books combined. Given that IV, V, and VI were the first games to really try to tell stories that were unique to themselves—despite being numbered, each Final Fantasy game is wholly separate from its predecessors—and introduced iconic elements like chocobos, moogles, and Cid, that was to be expected. And fans of FINAL FANTASY VI, which is widely regarded as one of the best videogames in history, will not be disappointed. Book 3, thinnest of the bunch, contains art from VII to X and more than a third of it is dedicated to IX, much to my joy!

Book 1 is a treat, if only to see how Amano’s style began. His black and white drawings, often fearsome, are almost gothic.

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As the series matured, along with the technology responsible for translating Amano’s craft to playable format, so too does Amano’s style. Color and definition play a more important function but his most striking work tends to be excruciatingly detailed in black and white, as we see in Book 3. Take, for instance, the logo of FINAL FANTASY X.

FINAL FANTASY X Logo

FINAL FANTASY X Logo

It’s an iteration of a massive print, originally done in black and white, of the protagonist character Yuna conducting a dance called “the sending” in which the souls of the dead are dispatched to the afterlife. Book 3 contains, across two massive pages, the immense masterpiece that the logo ultimately underserves. I snapped a square of Yuna alone, and I think it at least hints at the intricate beauty with which the image was crafted.

Yuna, FINAL FANTASY X

Yuna, FINAL FANTASY X

Where this set shines is when, as an avid fan, I was able to connect with the artwork for my favorite games. In particular, I found the artwork for IV, VI, and IX to be especially compelling. Absorbing art is always a silent and rather contemplative action, but in this instance it’s amplified by the knowledge that Amano directly impacted the evolution and visual style of my favorite entries. In a small and unimportant way, I participated in his artistic process. 

Adelbert Steiner, FINAL FANTASY IX

Adelbert Steiner, FINAL FANTASY IX

As soon as it arrived, THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY became one of my most treasured possessions. Dark Horse Comics, the publishers of this tome of artistic triumphs, has published a variety of other companion art books of high quality. At this year’s San Diego ComicCon, I perused their booth and took note of the art books they had for The Legend of Korra and was definitely impressed. THE SKY will assuredly join my copy of  HYRULE HISTORIA as testaments to the fact that videogames can be, and inherently are, works of artistic merit.

THE SKY: THE ART OF FINAL FANTASY is a nostalgic and powerful love letter to the fans of Final Fantasy, and is not to be missed.

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TED Talks Redux

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A few days ago I gave an extremely impromptu talk about my passion for writing to an audience that deserve a better speaker. After graduation, a promotion, and a flurry of family-related activities the talk was the furthest thing from my mind. I got up in front of 40ish people and rambled, though I’m told I ramble well. What I found as I spoke and answered questions was that three themes emerged. Now that I’ve had some time to think back on these themes I’ve compiled a better examination of them. If I’d prepared for the talk I gave about a week ago, this is what I would’ve said:

Contemplate Your Mortality

Mortality is a subject that I think every writer becomes obsessed with in one way or another. Two years ago my mother spent nearly two months in the hospital and has periodically returned there. A few months later my grandfather passed from complications related to surgery. Last December my 13-year old cousin Ian also passed away unexpectedly. These events have had a transformative effect on my writing and my outlook on life. I try to think that the changes have been for the better but there’re times when I wonder who I’m kidding.

When I was a senior in high school my English teacher, Mr. Caughey, once told me “If you ever really want to freak yourself out at night, just think about how you’re absolutely going to die. It’s a trip.” In the past few months this has become an unescapable nightly ritual for me. In those moments between the waking world and the ethereal realm of sleep I consider how much closer I am to the end. Life is spent preparing for death, though we hardly realize that. We grown, love, and lose—with increasing rapidity as we accelerate into adulthood.

It’s become something of a crutch that I use to remind myself that I’m still alive; that there’s so little time but, infuriatingly enough, so many opportunities. While many famous writers throughout history writers have allowed their mortality to drag them down to the bottom of booze bottles and cigarette cartons (here’s to looking at you, Joyce!), I’ve spun something of an optimistic approach on it all. And also I just don’t have the funds that constant drinking and smoking require. I equate mortality with scarcity; there’s not enough of it, and it can so suddenly disappear anyways, that it has become the spine of my motivation. I’m going to spend my life working. I’m going to spend my life writing.

I had a discussion with a mentor of mine the other day at dinner. She shared with me her growing desire to retire from teaching after decades of work in high school classrooms reminding America’s youth of this country’s checkered history. It was then that I admitted that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to retire. I can’t help but think that I’m going to be one of the poor fools who works until he dies. What’s the point of retirement? What’s the point of admitting that you’re coasting until you die? I know that just about any retired person would argue me on this. Time for travel, time to relax, time for family. But if you’ve spent your whole life putting those things off until the tail end of it; that you’ve boxed your desires into a twenty year span at the end of your life, how do you deserve them? How can you expect that you’ll accomplish them?

I contemplate my mortality as a motivational tool, not a tactic of self-inflicted depression. I think that if more people were mindful of their impending deaths then we might, as a race, be happier with ourselves. Whole swaths of us might change professions. Might be more confident. It may be a rose outlook but it’s an outlook nonetheless. My advice is to think about it. To remember it. To accept that one day “you too shall grow old.”

The big question there, though, is how will you reflect on your life looking back?

Do What You’re Meant To Do.

I am lucky.

There’s no easier way to say it than that. I am lucky to have found my passion when I was fifteen years old. I’m lucky to have written something everyday since then, to have practiced and honed my craft to the point that I’m comfortable talking about and sharing my writing with others. I was stunned, during the presentations of the other artists last week, to see the sheer magnitude of passion evinced by other human beings.

Humans are a colorful, passionate race of contradictions and complexity. We aren’t meant to spend our lives doing things that make us miserable. When I think about my job I know I’m thinking about something that I’m good it. Working 9-5 is what I want to do. What I need to do in order to survive. Writing my books, staying up late and outlining the next chapter or story—that’s what I’m meant to do.

Not enough people discern this and spend lives laboring to be productive and fruitful, ultimately falling short of some grand goal. They realize they’ve spent years in the shadow of their one true passion. Coincidentally, our true passions are often the most useless things we’ve ever encountered. Painting doesn’t make the world a safer place. Taking photos doesn’t make it any more or less wretched. Writing doesn’t physically change a damned thing.

At my graduation ceremony retiring Professor Gerald Butler asked why the world questions and devalues the arts when it needs it most. He postulated that the act of sharing is what enriches the human experience, that the creative urges of mankind are what help us escape the eras of dark pragmatism and cruel budget cuts.

I agree. When things get tough humanity switches into survivalist mode. But this isn’t the preindustrial age anymore. We have our civilization, or so we’re taught, and with it we’re meant to achieve great things. Think about Leonardo da Vinci, El Greco, Boticelli—artists whose works continue to shine hundreds of years after their deaths. Each of them contributing to the legacy of humanity. At a certain point we need to back away from survivalism and reevaluate the inherent value of creative wealth we can generate.

We spend so much time doing what we’re told to do that we ignore the desire to discover and do what we’re meant to. I’m lucky to have discovered that I’m meant to be a writer. I’m meant to write my books and read unholy amounts of novels and lead a generally introverted lifestyle. The sooner that we each tap into that realization then the sooner we’ll each feel more fulfilled.

Respect Your Voice

The other night I said “to tamper with your voice is a crime.” That’s a position I maintain because of its authenticity. If you’re doing what you love to do and you tamper with your style then you’re only hurting yourself. I gladly accept edits and comments on my work but at the end of the day I alone decide whether or not to care, or even read, said feedback.

So there is an element of arrogance at work in how you treat your creative pursuits. You have to be arrogant enough to know when something will hurt your work rather than better it. You need to learn to see if you’re asking for feedback because you’re being polite or because you truly desire it.

At the end of the day, nobody gets to be renowned for bending to the desires of other. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was famously rejected twelve times before it was published and became a staple book of high school literature. J.K. Rowling’s The Sorcerer’s Stone was rejected eight times before it was published.

Not another living soul will defend your voice for you, because we’ve all seen how lonely and antagonistic the world can be when it sets itself against you. I assume, daily, that the only person who finds my writing any good is me. And, therefore, I alone retain absolute control over what stays and what goes—because I am, and was, my first fan.

I wished that I had prepare this that Sunday night instead of the dribble that I offered to such a polite crowd. What it boils down to is that your creative pursuits are the chance to set the tone for your life and your life’s work. Don’t neglect it, don’t put it off and expect it to disappear. Each wasted day is a wasted opportunity. In parting, I offer the following quote from Maurice Sendak:

“I’m clearing the decks for a simple death. You’re done with your work. You’re done with your life. And your life was your work.”