Straight lines: Final Fantasy XIII and inefficiency
In the end, Final Fantasy XIII will join II, V, and IX as the only Final Fantasy games I’ve never beaten. It’s a title that experienced perhaps the quickest, most profound slingshot between its reviews (largely positive) and its criticism (wholly negative). In the history books it will go down with Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter as a game that changed too much, that tried to innovate too much into previous games’ designs.
I applaud it for what it tried, though. It tried to take a stale formula and make it sparkle; rather than accept its base audience, XIII tried to be a game that would appeal to newcomers. It backfired, of course, and now it’s the black sheep of the family (it’ll sit with II at holiday parties, throwing cake at the walls), but I appreciate what it tried.
We also have to realize that, compared with our impressions of Final Fantasy XIII-2, that the developers completely missed what made this game tank.
The battle system, too, worked. Not perfectly, of course, but it was a good stab at creating a different kind of game. Yes, they could have made The Same Game Again, but that wasn’t going to cut it for anyone except their diehard fan base; making Final Fantasy X again held little appeal to the gaming public. The linearity wasn’t a problem, either. It was one of the major complaints as critics tore into the game – “Everything’s a corridor!” – but the linearity fit: you were fugitives on the run from the law, so you couldn’t stop to explore towns and buy ice cream. And it was merely a symptom: sure, Final Fantasy XII was much more nonlinear, but critics also roundly hated XII (not this critic, who adored it, but that’s another show). XIII was about as linear as X was, for about as long. No, the linearity was good for the kind of story Square seems to want to tell: the big, overwrought emotional epic.
No, where the game failed was in its design.
Japanese design, at its most basic, is known for not throwing anything out. The focus is on raw creation and not on editing, and in this sense you get the impression that Final Fantasy XIII has been written by four people.
I mean, let’s consider Sazh, for a second. This is a man whose son was taken from him, whose prejudices would push him to hate the fal’cie (other reason it failed: fal’cie is a terrible fantasy mess of a word). Yet he spends the first two hours of the game following Lightning around as a Japanese caricature of Black Culture providing comic relief instead of, you know, being motivated by the revenge that would logically follow. He can be funny because he’s afraid, sure, but his character doesn’t mention his son until the game’s out of its third hour. And you think Snow would have a consistent character instead of oscillating between guilt over losing one woman in a massacre and wanting to save his girlfriend; you think any of them would react to the news that everyone they’d known over the past few days had been murdered in cold blood by the government.
It’s like the scenario writer hit all the right notes, and the character writer got them, too, but then the scene writer crumbled all those notes up into a ball and said, “Screw this! Let’s have explosions!” Replaying the opening two hour quest for the fal’cie is incredibly depressing with the knowledge of where things go. You have five characters who all have their own motivations heading towards an all-powerful being, all for different reasons, and instead we get…two of them. We know why Lightning and Snow are going, and much of that is still mystery. Additionally, the scenes from the past should have allowed for a very efficient story to be told: these flashbacks could have developed character or plot so that we didn’t have to do it in the present.
Written properly, this could have been a mystery of the highest order, characters with complex backstories heading towards an inevitable destiny. Deep, dark secrets could be foreshadowed–we could begin to care for the characters, or the world they live in.
Instead we get eight hours of two separate groups of characters winding through boring, faceless dungeons, stopping occasionally to have character exposition. Vanille is really the worst offender, by far: this is someone who not only isn’t as immature as she sounds, but also who has intimate, insider knowledge of the event of the first two hours. And yet her only trait is “bubbly” for about six, followed by vain attempts at foreshadowing in completely incongruous places about events that have already happened on screen. Why wouldn’t she react when she’s right there, with the fal’cie in question? Why would she wait until she’s off on a wacky adventure with Sazh, one that completely contradicts her purpose of going to the fal’cie? There isn’t even an attempt to wink and nod at the player, tell her that these characters have stories beyond the line they’re following. The linearity of it doesn’t particularly matter. What matters is the inefficiency accepted in favor of showing us lavish new locales.
Inefficiency is common to the JRPG, a genre that has long sold itself by the number of hours of playtime.. Play any JRPG, even the greats, and there’s plenty of sections that feel like they’ve been jammed into the game because they exist. Even Chrono Trigger has this: The Reptite Lair, after you beat Magus, feels like it exists only to make the game longer. Final Fantasy XIII is a monument to inefficiency: so many areas exist for no reason.
The central idea isn’t a terrible one, though: it’s an established tradition to have characters travel long distances, fight adversity, and grow as characters. It’s a good story structure. Demon’s Souls executes this to a T: there’s not particularly much plot, but you travel through difficult battles and learn about yourself. The problem is nothing in XIII is difficult, and furthermore there’s no unified threat to combat. There’s no antagonist for hours of game time, just faceless redshirts who hate you for no particular reason. These combine to emphasize the game’s linearity. Most games hide how linear they are behind lots of smoke and mirrors (Final Fantasy X let you run around in circles like an idiot before you found the one place you could go), but XIII goes the other way: it makes mistakes that emphasize how linear it is.
So all this leaves FFXIII-2 a worrisome prospect. By bringing back one of the more annoying characters from the original and pairing her with another child, it seems like the game is throwing out its interesting adult characters in favor of “fresh” youth. Meanwhile, making the game less linear won’t help with the central problem of inefficiency: you can go around in circles all you want, but if most scenes are not advancing the central plot then there’s something seriously wrong. From Jordan’s impressions of the demo it seems like the emphasis is still on the cool rather than the efficient, which could keep the game from telling an interesting story.
In total, I feel bad for Final Fantasy XIII. It feels like the first draft of a really brilliant story, and it needed someone to go in, trim the excess, and leave us with a fantastic twenty hour experience instead of a sprawling monstrosity that spends that much time teaching us how to play a pretty simple game. In the end, that is XIII‘s greatest failure, and it’s greatest disappointment: that it’s ruined a lot of good ideas that could have worked if they had been designed more conscientiously.