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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.

Story

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:
http://jtmgames.com/2011/09/30/dear-final-fantasy-what-happened-to-you-man-part-2/

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Posted on September 23, 2011, in Opinions And Editorials and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Great article, so much true about the things that bothered my while playing FF13. Haha, yes the antagonist is one of the biggest weak points compared to previous titles, couldn’t agree more. Also really like the love you dedicate to FFIX, which still remains my favorite Final Fantasy ( my first as well). I’ve started to write a series of articles about FFIX, might publish the first one soon.

    I appreciate XIII attempt to establish characters that struggle with the choices but I think it was too little in depth.

    I loved the story of XII though, great political plot and Lamont is at some parts as good as Vivi if you ask me. Yes it borrows a lot of Star Wars, but Gabranth seemed to be a reasonable character at least compared to Barthandelus. What bothers me more about FF XII in retrospect are probably the Occuria. But I would say they are at least properly grounded in mythology of XII compared to Barthandelus again.

    But I see this is all about taste and opinion. XIII had its good parts too, love story between Serah and Snow, too little maybe! ^^ I think I could write about this more, but maybe I should keep this one post somewhat decent!

  2. I actually loved Final Fantasy VIII out of all of them because of the simple love story within the larger plot. Most successful classical stories all revolve around a good romance so why not do it for video games as well?

  3. I definitely enjoyed the story of FFXII in parts. It really nailed the operatic, epic vibe it was going for. I think I just found it unnecessarily complicated. I did, however, think that Vayne was a really good, surprisingly down to earth villain. (And then he becomes a weird dragon thing, but hey, I’m into it!)

    And Jan, I totally agree. Romance can really keep a plot grounded. I kept thinking FFXIII could’ve used a little love between one or more of its main characters. I definitely think that the Cloud-Tifa-Aeris love triangle is one of the best parts of FFVII’s plot and especially heartbreaking if you take Aeris on the Gold Saucer date.

  4. People will never cease to completely amuse me.
    First of all: More than 13 (incl spin offs) times they tried (successfully) to sell you the same game. And you are REALLY sad that the sugarcrust isn’t as fresh anymore? C’mon,.. you got a brain, you can do better than start ranting in the internet about how dull life has become for you because you’ve seen it all. No one is able to bring your days of childhood back. You are not as easily impressed now than you were 20 years ago. So: Is it really the mistake of the developpers that they are incapable of rehashing the impact the franchise gave you as a kid now that you are grown up (well, kind of)??
    The author lost me after his first sentence, because he gave away the conclusion: He indeed needs to move on and find other things in life. Because the gaming industry is pretty much dead after 30 years. Like the movie industrie and also the music industry. Everything has been said and done numerous times, but people are still waiting that santa claus will rise again…

    • if you’re saying there’s no more room for growth in the gaming industry, I would have to strongly disagree with you (respectfully of course). Things have definitely gotten stale as far as the big dev’s go. but with programs like double fines kickstarter and other indy devs getting more notice you’re already seeing drastic changes and new fresh ideas no one has seen or played yet. video games are only limited by the imagination of the creators and in some regards the players. sure you will most likely always have your call of duty carbon copy’s, jrpg clones, and third person cover based shooters, but in-between all of that if you look deep enough you’ll find your journey’s, rez, i am alive, and braids.

  5. Great article, I agree with you on most of this. FFIX is by far my favorite of the series, but I actually really enjoyed FFX as well, FFXII however, lacked all of the character development of the main characters, I didn’t finish the game because of just that, same thing goes for FFXIII, do you attribute this to Enix joining in with Square as well? You have to admit, alot of horrible stuff has happened since then. You could even line it up like this:

    Final Fantasy I – X Was done by square and were amazing, Final Fantasy XI and upwards was awful.

    Kingdom Hearts 1 was Square – Amazing. Kingdom Hearts 2 however, comparedly awful.

  6. Hey Chris, play nice! First, saying that the FF series — one that has become famous for complete design overhauls with each new installment — has been selling the same game to us for years is a very bold statement indeed. Second, I’m not some heroin addict, chasing nostalgia like a first fix. If I am indeed less easily impressed than I was as a child, why do other modern day games still involve, excite, and make me feel the way the FFs of yore used to? I think the problems with FF extend far beyond being unable to make me feel twelve again. But I’m thinking this discussion might be a lost cause; if you’re that cynical about the boundless artistic and storytelling opportunities presented by modern video games (not to mention films and music, a question for another blog), I doubt there’s any way we could relate.

    Yusuf: I have no idea whether or not to put the blame directly on Enix, but the merger between the two companies does seem to be the beginning of my displeasure with the FF games. However, I’m inclined to think it isn’t entire Enix’s fault. They had, after all, been publishing Square games — including the amazing Dragon Quest series — for many, many years before they merged. But who knows… My golden ticket to visit the magical inner workings of the Square Enix chocolate factory must have been lost in the mail…

  7. I just finished playing final fantasy xiii this morning. I never researched to see how good or bad this game was because I knew it wouldn’t matter because I would still buy it. I was so disapointed this morning that I decided to write a blog about it. Except I googled FFXIII reviews first and stumbled upon your blog. Well you pretty much summed up everything I felt about this game. So thank you for putting my own oppinion out there so I don’t have to get even more frustrated venting on a blog.

    I have a nasty (sometimes very appreciated) habit of finishing anything I start. I mean I’m still going to buy versus and final fantasy XIV, because I’ve played them all and want to continue playing. I just don’t know how much of this torture I have to put myself through. X was the last one I enjoyed. I mean it’s got to get better then this soon right? Right? Someone please tell me its going to get better!

  8. I think I’m in the minority but I happened to find FF XII an immensely rewarding game to finish. The voice acting, relationship between the male and female leads, Penelo/Vaan, Ashe/Basch, and especially Fran/Balthier all resulted in a journey I was happy I stuck with until the end.

    I do admit that I had a bit of a slow start with the game. In fact, after about 10 hours or so into it I set it aside for nearly a year but then later came back to it and worked my way through. Initially I was turned off by the complexity of the combat system and the amount of futzing you had to do with it, but the combat system begins to really shine towards the end when you can command your characters to behave as if they’re good teammates in an MMO. At that point you can simply start to explore the depth of the environments and story (with side quests) while depending on your team to carry their own weight.

    Speaking of story, the complex relationships between the characters and their engaging back-stories (Balthier and Cid, Gabranth and Basch) really surprised me. Yes, at times you could say there was almost too much depth and political intrigue to keep track of but I’d take that any day over fluff. The game told a very mature story and did it with top notch voice actors playing their parts.

    If there was ever a Final Fantasy I’d want to see remade with HD graphics on a next generation console then Final Fantasy XII would be it (yes, even over Final Fantasy VII)

  9. Well, although this article is a bit dated compared to now, I finally caved and bought it (as a 20 dollar clearance I’ll add, waited because of all the letdown that has been happening lately.) I sat down with my wife, popped it in, and began playing. She has never played FF series pre X and up. I bluffed myself through the first character (Girl-Cloud) and then on through almost 1 hour of play, before it became similar to walking through a bog in flip flops with your hands duct-taped behind your back.. The second hour was just…. grueling. Eventually, I just couldn’t stomach anymore of it, and handed the controller to my wife, who has since played the game through as I sat idly by and watched for sake of story alone.

    I want to add into this whole conclusive mixture, how hard it has become to relate to the characters. I, like many others, lived the life of Cloud, I was there in the lifestream… I watched Squall fall in love with Rinoa, I even watched the ballroom scene over and over to learn the dance steps. I lived the life of Zidane, and watched in horror as Odin ripped that massive tree into pieces with the flick of a wrist. I even fought to uncover the mystery of the miasma in Crystal Chronicles, even though it wasn’t on my list of favorites. The first video game I ever played, was Final Fantasy on NES. So yes, I’m an old style fan. But I don’t hate the new, as even I am an absolute fan of XII. I even get my hair cut to match Gabranth’s. (Dunno, I just like the hair style.) I lived these lives and remember them. I was, for a period of time, THEM. I became so immersed in so good a story, that I would just become that person while playing. Most fans can say the same, about any game, or movie, etc. As for XIII… I haven’t been able to identify to any of the characters. I already lived Cloud’s life, in games and movies, and now I see Girl-Cloud Superstar Lightning dance around on the screen, and I find myself with a total lack of even any care for her. I just want that bitch to get crushed by a trans-eidolon for the way she is mucking up the version of Cloud I already know. (See the point here is that I feel like I’m trying to identify to a previous character, because this game, LITERALLY…… in all aspects…. lacks originality.) I didn’t even really apply myself to Snow, who I called Nickleback through the game because I just couldn’t accept the name Snow for some reason, it never seemed to fit the character. (And don’t say oh oh Ice and Shiva! No… those things fit to HIM, not the other way around… in the same way Shiva fits to Yufie, or Quistis casts an Ice spell.) I don’t know, maybe I’m just ranting about something simple, but in the end, it’s difficult to embrace a character who is directly derived from another character I’ve come to know and love. Especially when it shames them somehow.

    At any rate, even the wife, who does like the game very much, has expressed a certain level of dis-interest. In fact, as I type this, she is watching XIII-2 on youtube to see the story, because she doesn’t want to spend the money on another FF letdown. She heard it was better, then googled it, then decided to wait (like I have been since FFX…) until it ends up in the 19.99 bin at Meijer. I will probably not be buying many Square-Enix games after this. They just keep ruining it for me… I’ll stick to the awesome replay value of games that were so good the first time around, At least they didn’t NEED a -2-fixafuckup version.

    When the next games come out, and I see Mini-Tidus(Hope), Girl-Cloud(Die…), Skinny Barret with both hands(Sazh, mind you a chocobo lives on his head, and his afro shakes like it is full of liquid, and avian animals typically have liquid poo… you do the math…), or Laguna+Boobs… I’ll pass.

    (PS Square, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to shit on your hard work… I’m just helping to point out the turd in the punch bowl.)

  10. I know the guy who did Vaans voice over. He was also in a boy band at the time. Glad to hear you appreciated the voice overs cuz that’s what I liked alot too. And Fran. Loved her.

  1. Pingback: Final Fantasy XIII | Nerd dos Games

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