Final Fantasy XIII takes place in Cocoon, a utopia in the sky. The game invites players to step into the imaginary world — and stay awhile. "It's the same way you can disappear into Star Wars or Tolkien's universe," explains Frank Lantz, director of the NYU game center. "It really rewards that kind of archaeological excavation."
Call it "disintermediation" or "cultural fragmentation," but American culture is sliced up in so many ways that what's popular with one group can go virtually unnoticed by another. NPR's Fractured Culture series explores how we came to live in "a culture of many cultures."
Most American households play video games, but gamers split up into a lot of different fractures, from Spider Solitaire addicts to Resident Evil fans. One of the biggest gaming subcultures is built around Final Fantasy. The franchise has been around for 23 years and has sold 97 million copies.
It's so compelling to gamer Alex DiStasi that, even though he's graduated from NYU, he still hangs out with the NYU game club to play. He comes in part because he likes the people who like Final Fantasy.
"Your Madden [Football] gamers or Call of Duty gamers, they're a bit more mainstream. They're your frat boys in college," he says.
Final Fantasy is a role-playing game (RPG), with origins in pen and paper games like Dungeons and Dragons. RPGs are all about heroic quests through richly drawn fantasy lands. There are battles to be waged, spells to be cast, complicated back stories to be negotiated.
"One thing that is consistent across the series is an epic scale and an operatic style to it," says Zeke Abuhoff, another NYU gamer.
Aesthetically, Final Fantasy XIII is a long way off from Dungeons and Dragons. Gamer Richard Rodriguez describes it as lots of metal and robots in a Victorian city. The Final Fantasy games are from Japan, so they look like Japanese animation.
Lightning (left) is the pink-haired protagonist of Final Fantasy XIII. She is on a quest to save her younger sister, Serah, along with Serah's fiancee, Snow Villiers (right).
Lightning (left) is the pink-haired protagonist of Final Fantasy XIII. She is on a quest to save her younger sister, Serah, along with Serah's fiancee, Snow Villiers (right). Square Enix
Final Fantasy XIII is set on the floating planet of Cocoon. The main character is Lightning, a pink-haired, sword-wielding young woman out to save her sister who is in danger of losing her soul forever. Beyond that, the plot is too intricate to even begin to explain.
"There's an element of world-building here," says Frank Lantz, director of the NYU game center. "It's the same way you can disappear into Star Wars or Tolkien's universe. It really rewards that kind of archaeological excavation, where I'm just going to go deeper and deeper into this culture."
The complexity of the game acts as a gatekeeper keeping out all but the most persistent. No one is born knowing the rules to Final Fantasy XIII. To be let into the world of Cocoon, to play as Lightning, you have to put in some work.
"It's so cool and seductive, the idea that there is this cryptic, mysterious, confusing thing," says Lantz. "You know that there's something going on there, and you don't know what it is, but if you make the effort you can unlock the secret."
The plotlines are complex and mysterious, but with time and effort, "you can unlock the secret," says Frank Lantz. Above, Serah's fiancee, Snow Villiers.
The plotlines are complex and mysterious, but with time and effort, "you can unlock the secret," says Frank Lantz. Above, Serah's fiancee, Snow Villiers. Square Enix
But Rodriguez is worried that the secret is being given away. New technologies like the Nintendo Wii motion control make it easier for anyone to play; you don't have to master a complicated set of buttons and joysticks. Rodriguez isn't thrilled about just opening the gates to the uninitiated.
"I personally liked that my mom didn't understand what buttons to press, and how she couldn't play the games," he explains. "It was something that I enjoyed that other people couldn't."
Then again, 67 percent of American households already play some kind of video game or another, so the days of games as a closed club may very well be over.