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Questioning the 'vision' behind  Final Fantasy XIII-2

Questioning the 'vision' behind Final Fantasy XIII-2 Exclusive

January 31, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

A while ago, I spent a weekend -- mostly while sick in bed -- devoted to watching Red Letter Media’s dissections of Star Wars Episode I, II, and III. These videos are narrated by fictional critic (and serial killer) Harry S. Plinkett. Despite his mental problems, he’s incredibly astute when it comes to movies. These aren’t simple reviews. They’re real criticism -- albeit cruel, sarcastic, and hilarious criticism.

They examine a question that few really thought to ask: why, precisely, do the three most recent Star Wars films suck so much? Sure, it’s widely accepted (including by the author of this editorial) that they do. But it’s so obvious, and the films are so dull, that it never seemed particularly interesting to think too hard about it.

That’s what I thought, anyway, before I spent about four hours watching Plinkett’s mushmouthed takedown of the whole mess.

The reviews scrutinize the source material -- including bonus content from the DVDs -- to meticulously explain every sin committed by the Star Wars prequels and, in many cases, provide a plausible explanation for why things went wrong. What you’d expect to be a simple hatchet job turns out to be nuanced critique.

After watching the reviews, I realized something. Final Fantasy XIII had eerily similar problems to the Star Wars prequels. This is a bit ironic. After all, the series winks and nods to the original trilogy’s (obvious and significant) influence by the recurrence of minor characters named Biggs and Wedge -- after Luke Skywalker’s wingmen.

The chief and most obvious similarity is not something you’d need Plinkett to identify, in either case: hubris. Both were developed by creators who were convinced that whatever they made would be good, that they didn’t address the fundamental flaws in their creative process. This, mixed with the complacency born of having become a pillar of their respective industries, did them in from the start.

But the parallels run much deeper than that.

Characters and Story

If you’ve both seen the Star Wars prequels and played Final Fantasy XIII, you already know that they also lack something fundamental: a coherent, logical story. Plinkett takes obvious joy in pointing out ways the prequels’ stories contradict themselves, bend over backwards to accommodate complex plot points that could have been resolved much more simply, and generally don’t hew to any sort of common sense when placed under the most cursory scrutiny.

So, too, is Final Fantasy XIII welded to its big ideas -- some of which were handed down, no doubt, during the planning of the ambitious but senseless “Fabula Nova Crystallis” meta-series, a cart-before-the-horse content strategy intended to comprise several games linked by shared aesthetics and themes, but neither worlds nor characters.

The fallout of illogical stories hinged on forced plot points is characters who lack believable motivation, and spend a lot of time justifying their senseless actions instead of getting on with things. Sound familiar?

One of Plinkett’s most damning criticisms of The Phantom Menace is that the film lacks a main character -- someone to relate to who might guide the viewer through its complicated, fantastic story. Obi-Wan doesn’t do much, Padme does less, and Anakin doesn’t show up for 45 minutes. Once he does, he doesn’t understand the events that surround him. “Without that, there’s no tension, no story. So the conclusion is that there isn’t one,” says Plinkett.

Final Fantasy XIII does a little better -- the characters have motivations. But though Lightning’s on the cover, she doesn’t have any sort of arc. She doesn’t even really struggle. Hope and Snow grow the most, and their rivalry is arguably at the center of the game’s events, but it’s also resolved halfway through the game. Whenever Final Fantasy XIII builds up tension, it soon lets it out with the wheeze of a balloon deflating.

Worse, the developers are content to shove the characters into situations that have nothing to do with the core story and force them to act in artificial or contradictory ways.

The actual core storytelling is, if anything, worse in Final Fantasy XIII-2, a new entry released in North America and Europe this week that was expressly aimed at addressing fan concerns with XIII. It’s also even more melodramatic and, as the premise is extremely high concept, the character interactions are made even shallower to try and compensate.

Form and Function

What possible motivation could the developers have for pushing characters into artificial situations?

The Star Wars prequels are full of things we recognize from the original trilogy, but divorced from any dramatic intent. For example, Plinkett astutely points out that light sabers are incredibly overused in the newer films, so much so that fights lose their uniqueness and tension -- the constant battles becoming simple, garish light shows. Moments from the original trilogy are deliberately referred to, but without any parallel in meaning, just in form.

So, too, is Final Fantasy XIII filled with Final Fantasy Stuff -- most notably and stupidly, crystals -- and it’s clear that all of that junk is there because the developers assume that it has to be there, not because it enriches the world or the game’s play experience.

“The new films just borrow and recycle from the original ideas, as if there’s no way to create anything new,” says Plinkett. And that’s what hamstrings Final Fantasy XIII, too.

Hell, the game’s director, Motomu Toriayama, asked character designer Tetsuya Nomura for “someone like a female version of Cloud from FFVII.”

That is not vision.

And that’s what suggests that, for all of the ways in which it addresses the demands of disappointed fans, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an unsuitable solution to the fundamental problems with the series.

“Our ultimate goal is rectifying every single point in Final Fantasy XIII that has been criticized by the users,” Toriyama -- who also directed XIII-2 -- told me at last year’s E3. “We actually took those criticisms very seriously, and you'll notice that we tackled them completely and thoroughly.”

That is also not vision.

“But wait,” you say.”Didn’t BioWare do just this, and wasn’t the result one of the finest-crafted sequels of the generation?”

It’s true. Mass Effect 2 is the game it is because BioWare scrupulously identified, sorted, quantified, and then addressed the issues fans had with the original game. But was the original Mass Effect incoherent? Did it lack vision, or was it simply unpolished? I think you already know the answer. There is a vision, and this vision remains consistent across both games. User research is primarily a tool to deal with the software development side of games, not their creative foundations.

Innovation and Growth?

Yes, Final Fantasy XIII-2 offers dialogue choices, a first for the series -- inspired by BioWare, in fact, an insider told me -- but there’s a right answer for each dialogue option, and the reward is just some gear.

This superficial solution is emblematic of the kind of thinking that has lead to Final Fantasy XIII-2.

It seems to be a mishmash of shallow changes and quick fixes. It keeps a great deal of what was close at hand from the last game because it’s convenient, and paints over much of it with a thin veneer. It’s admirable, in all honesty, that the team was able to do this and reap an 80-ish Metacritic in the process, given the baked-in cynicism that is the original game’s legacy.

But does it really show a path forward for the series?

No. It can’t. It’s a cash-in, designed to scrape up the detritus left after a massive production that resulted in a lot of waste (including enough production art for a second game, and an expensive engine that the developer has already deemed all but useless) and do something with it.

But when you address software changes using a flawed framework and flawed assumptions about what actually forms the living, breathing core of your experience, you just end up with band-aids over deep gashes.

I was tempted to call Final Fantasy XIII-2 “an honest try.” There wasn’t a lot to work with, but the developers did what they could. But can it be the light that leads the series back to the path? There’s nothing whatsoever innovative about the game that I can see; the changes signal contrition, not creativity. Square Enix, now spooked, is scrambling to catch up.

“One of the criticisms that we received for XIII was that there weren't enough mini-games, for example, so we implemented more mini-games,” Toriyama told me last June.

Is that vision?

No. Mini-games add variety to a constrained design. Capturing and using monsters in battle adds variety and control for players that the last game, which forced the player to use a set party until very close to its conclusion, lacked. Neither, however, are original ideas, nor are they significantly tweaked from existing designs. And the addition of intermittent dialogue choices and Quick Time Events seem lazily calculated to appeal to Western gaming sensibilities.

If the problem with Final Fantasy XIII was that it was mechanistically created to be a Final Fantasy game, then shoveling more of that stuff into its sequel isn’t the answer. Are Chocolina and Mog welcome, helpful, or appropriate additions? Nope. They’re tacky and out of place.

They’re the team grasping at Final Fantasy-themed straws.

The only thing that gives me hope is that I doubt the creators are misguided enough to think that Final Fantasy XIII-2 will save the series. If they do, they’re in bigger trouble than we think.

As Plinkett ultimately argues, the blackest sin of the Star Wars prequels is that they lack a vision.

Square Enix still has a great deal to prove. While the creative minds behind its global flagship series may have stopped emulating George Lucas at his absolute worst, it seems unlikely, on this evidence, that they have yet found a way to truly touch inspiration.

That would require something much more radical: throwing it all away, and starting fresh.

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