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Analysis: The Conundrum of  Final Fantasy XIII

Analysis: The Conundrum of Final Fantasy XIII Exclusive

January 8, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

[Gamasutra features director Christian Nutt predicts Final Fantasy XIII will be one of the most polarizing games of 2010 -- in this column, he explores what's left when "RPG elements" are removed from an RPG.]

It's an established tenet of game development these days that you can add "RPG elements" to a game to bring extra depth and stickiness. In fact, you could call it a cliche.

"RPG elements" are a big part of what separated and elevated Castlevania: Symphony of the Night from its predecessors in 1997. On the other hand, cinematic presentation is what attracted a huge number of gamers to Final Fantasy VII that same year -- gamers who would never have dreamed of playing an RPG otherwise.

But when you start subtracting RPG elements from a game that people think of as an RPG, what does that get you? That's the question that Final Fantasy XIII raises, and is likely to be why it's one of the most polarizing games of 2010 when it's released in the Western market.

There's a perfect storm of circumstances. The last game in the series, FFXII, was beloved by critics and fans but, for better or worse, is an evolutionary dead end -- it was made by a different team than XIII, one unlikely to be reassembled. Of course, this is the first current-generation entry into the series, and it's arriving more than a little late.

And, perhaps most importantly, this is the first console generation where the PC RPG ideals of the West have really been allowed to flower -- role playing, freedom and nonlinearity have finally been brought to consoles.

Final Fantasy XIII, even more so than its predecessors, doesn't hold truck with any of that stuff. The designers, instead, have applied control to every aspect of the experience. Recently, I appeared on 1UP's RPG podcast, Active Time Babble, to discuss just what an "RPG" is. The consensus we arrived at is that the question doesn't really matter, because all of the things it can, could, should, or will be are represented by different games. But Final Fantasy XIII can't sidestep that question as easily as we did.

Several years ago, I had dinner with a group of developers -- guys with a PC background. The subject of Final Fantasy came up. A developer said, truly bewildered, "I just don't get those games." His bafflement puzzled me. A longtime fan of the series, and a lifelong console gamer, I didn't think the appeal was that hard to understand.

The games are engrossing -- they have interesting and complicated stories and characters, are incredibly gorgeous, and have addictive gameplay systems. Others, however, see a lack of freedom, style over substance, and, probably most critically, can locate no "role playing" in what's called an RPG, and back away confused and frustrated.

Some Context

Square Enix released Final Fantasy XIII in Japan on December 17, 2009. I've played the game for a little over 10 hours so far -- at most a quarter of its critical-path game content -- and aside from simply taking my own pleasure in the experience, I've been thinking a lot about what the developers are attempting.

The release hasn't been met with universal adulation. While Famitsu gave the game three 10/10s and a 9/10 (for a total score of 39/40, or one point from the top, and one point lower than FFXII), user reviews on -- quickly becoming the most popular way to know what real Japanese gamers think about a title -- are more split. The game, as of this writing, has 1,392 user reviews and an aggregate score of three out of five stars. The spread is almost even -- 353 are five star reviews, 259 are one star reviews, and four, three, and two number 283, 229, and 268 respectively.

The series has always been more highly variable than others, I'd argue. Long before Infinity Ward and Treyarch traded off development duties between Call of Duty titles, Square was forced to take the same approach.

Final Fantasy IV (SNES, 1991) introduced the Active Time Battle realtime/turn-based hybrid battle system -- and shifted the series' focus to character-based melodrama, just as importantly. But Final Fantasy V (SNES, 1992) toned down the story and focused on the meaty gameplay of the class-switching Job System. Final Fantasy VIII (PlayStation, 1999) featured the bizarre Junction system and unparalleled concentration on time-shifting melodrama. But Final Fantasy IX (PlayStation, 2000) was a fanboy-baiting throwback to older days.

I've been a fan of the series for years, but I've skipped out on entire entries; I count some as my favorite games of all time while actively disliking others. Other fans feel the exact opposite way about the games I hate and venerate. This time, however, everybody who thinks they care is going to have their eyes on Final Fantasy XIII because of the circumstances of its release.

So what did the developers put together this time?

The Essence of Final Fantasy

The design of Final Fantasy XIII is already gaining notoriety on the net -- something it deserves. Kotaku posted a story that got some attention shortly after the game was released. Entitled "Just How Straight Are FFXIII's First Five~Six Hours?", it was a report on a Japanese blog which put together a map of the first few hours of the game, showing that it was more or less a literal, straight path to walk down. The internet may not actually be a series of tubes, but Final Fantasy XIII might as well be.

What is Final Fantasy? Let's really think about this. When people talk about the series they generally talk about characters -- say, Cloud and Sephiroth (Final Fantasy VII). They talk about story events -- say, going on the summoner's journey with Yuna to expunge Sin from Spira (Final Fantasy X). They talk about the battle and character growth systems -- Gambits (Final Fantasy XII), the Sphere Grid (Final Fantasy X), and Materia (Final Fantasy VII.) And they talk about the beautiful visuals -- memorable locations like Midgar (FFVII), the summoned monsters (all the games since VII), and of course the state-of-the-art cutscenes.

After having played Final Fantasy XIII for over 10 hours, I think the developers sat down and made some very deliberate decisions about what the series is, and what it is not, and is not going to be -- and honed in directly on their, and the series', strengths. The result is a highly linear, paced, and controlled experience that is very enjoyable but is another step forward from the series' top-down, 2D heritage, and also finally and fully jettisons the "role playing" implied by the acronym RPG.

What It Does

Unsurprisingly, then, Final Fantasy XIII hews to the strengths of the series I identified above. The characters look great, are well-defined, and empathetic. Each seems to slot into both a story function while being carefully designed to appeal to a specific segment of the audience. For example, cynical, older players can identify with quippy Sazh, while younger, more naive players will probably latch onto Vanille, who narrates the game's story with gentle foreboding. The game plays them as foils.

Of particular note, I think, is the relationship between Snow and Lightning via the vector of Sera, who's the former's fiance and the latter's sister. This creates obvious and understandable tension and adds humanity to a fantastical story of a theocratic techno-utopia and missions (and curses) handed down by strange gods. While it's a little hard to understand some of the concepts in a Final Fantasy story at first blush, the way the characters react sells it -- this is where many games stumble.

The story is paced a lot more deliberately than pretty much every RPG I've played, sharing more with action games -- a gate-and-trigger system, with tripwires for events and set enemy placement. This time around, story is delivered in-line as you explore, both through spoken asides (which don't interrupt your exploration) and through lots of short cutscenes.

In fact, the dungeon / boss / cutscene paradigm has been shattered into bits; regular battles are tougher, more engaging, and less frequent -- though there are still bosses -- and cutscenes come much more frequently but are typically much shorter than in the past, spreading out the three core concepts behind the FFXIII gameplay more evenly.

This is a nuance worth stopping and exploring: it seems designed to address gamer complaints about cutscene length, but still deliver the level of story Final Fantasy is known for. It's a subtle change but a shrewd one.

The battle system has also very much been pushed into a new shape -- to address the "just push X" criticisms the series has fielded for years, I think, and the result is very engaging.

If you ever stop and think about it, you inevitably realize, while playing an RPG, that the gameplay is repetitive and you're just following a ruleset. To stop you from having time to think about that, the developers have ratcheted the combat speed way up. Things fall into a kind of call-and-response; rather than formulate a strategy for each encounter, you've got an overarching strategy you're always pursuing (force the enemies into a "break" status, where they become more vulnerable to attacks) while dealing with what's happening from moment to moment.

Character growth and class systems feed into this -- you shift your entire party build on the fly by pushing the L1 button, a "Paradigm Shift" which changes the entire party's classes at once -- the Job System on speed. Managing growth outside of battle, of course, is slow, and is saved for when you have time to breathe.

And of course, visuals play a huge role. I think in some ways, enjoying the art direction for Final Fantasy is pretty much requisite to being a fan of the series (I'd be interested to hear if others agree.) The environments are both more gorgeous and wantonly unrealistic than they have ever been.

What It Doesn't

That's all great -- it's worth pointing out, but the series' strengths being represented is exactly what we expect from sequels. The more interesting question, when it comes to Final Fantasy XIII is, what doesn't it do, and why not?

There are plenty of things the game doesn't do -- and while these are rather deliberately chosen, weighing how important they are to the core experience is what counts in an analysis.

Most notably, Final Fantasy XIII does not have towns. These have long been an accepted reality of the RPG. Every prior game in the series has had them. As of 10 hours, I have not seen one. The game is a series of dungeons interlinked by transitional cutscenes -- for example, your party will reach the end of a dungeon, discover an aircraft, steal it, and then crash it and continue on foot. The only respite is the story. Save points handle shopping and equipment upgrades.

My question is: do I miss them? As a JRPG veteran, the answer is a surprising no, I think. It's a move I anticipated after playing the streamlined Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII on the PSP, though I did expect a hub (and I think it's forthcoming.)

Towns have been a huge weakness of the genre; while they helped with pacing, they were also deadly dull to explore, particularly as games scaled up. Creating the assets for a town believable in the context of a current generation cast of characters is not a small undertaking. I'm sure that had a lot to do with the fact they're not here.

But just as importantly, I'm thinking towns were jettisoned because they get in the way of the designers' control of the narrative and pace of the game: and their removal is a symbolic lifting of the curtain. Final Fantasy XIII is surprisingly open about its control of the player's experience.

The Question of Player Control

This goes pretty much against the grain of conventional wisdom: player agency is reduced in favor of enhancing the game's story. At some point there was a very large decision made by the team. It is this: finely controlling player progression -- given a consistent walking speed, linear dungeons, and average battle length -- will provide a more cinematic and seamlessly story-driven game, and a more accessible one.

With dungeons lengthened, towns removed, and cutscenes scattered throughout the game rather than clumped up, suddenly you've got a smooth and consistent experience -- have I mentioned how polished this game is yet? But what has been traded is agency, and that's a faux pas in many current schools of thought for game design (though, notably, the Call of Duty series is big on controlling the player, so it's hardly a one-sided argument.)

The game also slowly and deliberately introduces new gameplay mechanics over its first several hours. The limiting factor in most RPGs, when it comes to gameplay, is the leveling system: you have highly basic versions of the sorts of abilities you'll have access to by the end of the game. In FFXIII, you can't even earn experience points for the first two or three hours, because the leveling system has yet to be introduced.

While that sounds awful, I know that I liked playing a game that gradually introduced new gameplay concepts over its first several hours for several reasons. The dreaded infodump tutorial was completely avoided. Instead, I retained the information that I learned gradually, and I felt like I was learning something new fairly often -- and I think learning is a strong motivator to keep playing games, even if the info is only useful within the context of the game itself.

The thing is, you never earn something new in the game. You're handed it at the point the developers think you're ready. It's pretty transparent. Would it be better if there was something -- maybe a point system -- covering that up? All designers decide when content is appropriate for players. Sometimes the games just bludgeon you to death (if you stumble on a dungeon that you're not ready for).

Sometimes content is locked behind broken bridges that coincidentally get repaired by the king when you've run out of quests in the town you're visiting. And sometimes, in Final Fantasy XIII, a text box will pop up when you cross an invisible line and tell you: it's time for something new.

But when the developers yank members in and out of your party based on the story's needs -- logical in a cinematic context, frustrating from a gameplay one -- this designer control may be too fine. This isn't a new move for JRPGs (characters leave and join all the time in other games) but Final Fantasy XIII found ways to play with my patience. The gamer must, in the end, get with the program: give up that agency. The reward is enjoying the experience.

The Breaking Point

The level of control the developers exert over the player is transparent to anyone who's paying attention. The question is whether this fine level of control is at odds with the game's core mission, or its enjoyability. For some -- maybe many, possibly most -- the answer is "yes".

I'm pretty sure that a big reason the developers structured the game this way is because the team is well aware that gamers who haven't touched the series in a long time will be back for this installment, and that new gamers who hadn't considered it before will be sucked in by the hype. FFXIII doesn't assume genre literacy. But for fans, it can be surprising -- and not always pleasant.

It's worth noting, again, that these impressions are birthed from just 10 hours of play. Every Final Fantasy inevitably reaches what I call "the breaking point" -- the juncture at which the game goes nonlinear and allows you to take it how you like it. Exactly when this happens varies wildly depending on which game in the series you're talking about. When it happens in FFXIII could go a long way toward mitigating the control thing.

On the other hand, developers all know most gamers don't finish the games they buy. Will Final Fantasy XIII's early design be a fatal turnoff, or a slick romp?

There's a gamble the developers continuously make with this series, and which backs away from something I think is becoming fairly well accepted in Western design: shy away from artifice. Final Fantasy XIII is a tower of artifice. It's a monument to polish, and maybe a bit to hubris. On the other hand, each game released, in any series, defines its own genre as much as the genre defines it. If Final Fantasy XIII is judged to not be RPG, it can be, instead, an SCS -- strolling, combat, and story.

My experience so far with it compels me to start all over again with the U.S. version in March; it also gives me respect for a team that has an eye toward addressing common complaints with the genre, the game's predecessors, and expanding its audience. The story is less chunky. The gameplay is better integrated and balanced further toward speed and interaction. The years of development delays weren't just the kinks of working out new technologies; there's a tremendous level of polish (near-flawless partner AI, for one notable example) on display.

But gearing an RPG toward simplicity and speed to some extent spits in the face of a genre more known for slow-paced complexity, and that is where Final Fantasy XIII will find its test.

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