Dear Final Fantasy, What Happened To You, Man? (Part 1)
Dear Final Fantasy, What Happened To You, Man?
We all know that feeling. You’ve been feeling a little distant from one another. You start to see the cracks in the relationship. The pretty picture you once painted has gone Dorian Gray, and you strain to remember why you fell so deeply in love in the first place. And then comes the moment of realization: you have grown apart, and it’s time to move on.
I think I’ve reached that point with Final Fantasy. Recently, like so many of you, I played Final Fantasy XIII. I waited a long time. I didn’t like what I had heard – the linearity, lack of exploration, and unfortunate embracement of seemingly every shitty JRPG stereotype turned me way off – and so I can’t say that it was, despite the fact that the FF series contains some of my all time favorite games, a priority pre-order.
What happened to this once glorious series? FFX, despite doing a spectacular job on a technical and gameplay level, failed to excite me in the same way previous entries had; FFXI is a not terrible, but negligible entry in the MMORPG canon; FFXII, despite some convalescence, bounced back in the story and drama department – a big plus – but the gameplay felt like a chore; and FFXIV, which I admittedly have not played, seems to have been a failure from the word go. And in the middle of all that is FFXIII.
I’m not just going to whine about the aggravating design of FFXIII. I have a thesis that applies to many of the recent entries in the series: Final Fantasy has gotten overly complicated and overly simplified in all the wrong ways. I am going to (mostly) avoid the most persistent and obvious complaint about FFXIII – its linearity, which is not innately awful, but by no means a good design decision – and narrow my complaints down to three main areas: Story, Gameplay, and Presentation.
The other day I popped in FFIX – my personal favorite of the series – into the old PS3. It hasn’t exactly aged well, but if you loved it upon its release, it holds up beautifully. I was shocked at the drastic overhaul the series has had in just four installments. Almost everything that made most of the earlier FF installments so spectacular has been unceremoniously thrown out the window.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. I know that for many FF fans, the series has been chiefly about combat and exploration, but for me it’s always been the stories that struck the deepest chord.
Of course they’re ridiculous. I have come to expect a healthy level of convalescence in my video game stories. FF, Metal Gear Solid, God of War, Mass Effect, Bioshock, Fallout – all great series with great, completely batshit stories. I am willing to suspend a lot of disbelief for moments like Aeris’ fate in FFVII, the climax of Dead Space: Extraction, and the finale of Half Life 2: Episode 2. It’s hard for filmmakers to keep the intrigue and momentum of a story for two hours, so yes, I accept and expect that my even my most cherished video games will jump the shark over the course of their 8-to-100 hour playtime.
But not to the level of FFXIII.
Everything about FFXIII’s story should have been viciously rethought at a conceptual stage of production. Pulse, Cocoon, Fal’Cie, L’Cie – what the honest-to-goodness fuck was Square Enix thinking? It took me, no joke, ten hours to get the story straight. It’s poorly presented; it’s an absolute mess. I’m not even going to try and summarize it. Confusing terms, bizarre mythology, and absurd, underdeveloped prejudices drive the action – none of which would be such a problem if the script were able to properly convey it and develop it into anything meaningful, or even coherent. It feels as though it’s being made up as it goes along.
Contrast this with FFIX. The story is beautifully simple. A group of thieves, posing as actors in a theater troupe, attempt to kidnap a beautiful princess, only to discover that the princess wants to be kidnapped in order to escape her psychotic queen mother. There. One sentence. I can describe the first 3-5 hours of FFIX in one sentence. You need Cliff’s Notes to understand the first 20 minutes of FFXIII.
And I’m not just heaping blame on FFXIII. FFXII was similarly guilty. Its perplexing plot is made up of dozens of characters, a long, confusing back-story, and nebulous political relationships. And the funny thing is, when you boil it down, it’s basically just a ridiculously complicated retelling of Star Wars. (Right down to ad hoc Han Solo/Chewbacca characters.) FFX was a bit, but not much better.
And then there’s the drama. FF has gained quite a name for itself by producing some of the most heartbeat-skipping dramatic moments in video game history (e.g., Kefka’s success in FFVI, the death of Aeris in FFVII, Alexander vs. Bahamut in FFIX). The FFXIII writers took a page from the “Worst Habits of Hideo Kojima” book. Real drama and character development is awkwardly replaced by lots of monologuing about the importance of family and friends and fate and blah-fucking-blah. Expect to hear the themes of love and loss stated explicitly, then repeated ad nauseam. None of the characters really change over the course of FFXIII; they learn lessons and fall in love and learn to deal with loss, as well as other superficial shit, but none of them legitimately arc. Hear this, Squeenix: all you need is simple, well-written character development in order to create great dramatic moments. How could anyone expect the obese chamber drama of the sequence between Hope and his father to have the same emotional impact as, say, Vivi’s manning up against the Black Mages in FFIX? There was exactly one moment in FFXIII that came close to affecting me emotionally, and that was the scene in which Sazh discovers that Vanille was responsible for the fate of his son – but the creators had to go ruin it with a tacky climax which manipulates the player into believing that Sazh had killed himself. Imagine the impact that sequence would have had if Sazh actually had killed himself.
I believe I’ve discovered FFXIII’s hugest dramatic failing: the lack of antagonist. There are, of course, dozens of antagonists, most of whom you will face in battle over the course of the game. But FFXIII fails to produce a memorable Golbez/Kefka/Sephiroth/Ultimecia/Kuja-type enemy. Attempts at something like this, I believe, are made in the introduction of Barthandelus and Orphan, but they are weak, undeveloped characters, and they do not excite the plot in any significant way. In other words, they are more window dressing. For a narrative to work, its creator(s) must have dramatic push and pull on a macro (“big picture” level (e.g., Sephiroth or Kefka vs. Humanity) and dramatic push and pull on a micro (human) level (e.g., the personal [or is it?] relationship between Cloud and Sephiroth). FFXIII, for my money, has neither.
Part two of this article can be found here: