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.

XIII did a few things very right, to give it credit. Three of its characters, once you dig away the soot and plotting, were interesting, novel ideas for a JRPG. Lightning was a mature protagonist with human failings, Sazh had some especially interesting story to him, and Snow, despite his big, dumb exterior (not helped by his voice being Troy Baker, who only voices big, dumb characters), made very real choices.

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.


  1. Andrew McDonald

    XII was roundly hated? Could you give a few references for that? I have only heard moderate to high praise of that one.

    • I hated it 😀

      Of course I’m a nobody so I don’t really count.

    • Tom Auxier

      Considering it’s a Final Fantasy “moderate” praise is pretty much universal hatred. And I get nearly a million hits on google for Final Fantasy XIII sucks, while I get less for FFVII after years of hipster backlash.

      You’d also be hard pressed to find one non-fanboy, non-reviewer on the internet who’s opinion of the game is better than, “It’s not as bad as people say.”

      Yes, these are all anecdotal.

  2. One thing I still can’t get around is why we haven’t got a Final Fantasy game that plays like Kingdom Hearts or Dissidia. These types of characters are MADE to jump around and have airborne sword fights, yet I instead I get to navigate a menu to perform attacks and hope the lack of control over my character’s movement doesn’t lead to them all standing next to each other when a monster decides to use an AOE attack.

    Oh wait, Versus XIII appears to be just that. Can that game be released…ever?

  3. tanto

    Another loser who after 4 years of nothing but non stop rpgs, hes so insecure he needs to bring up an old game

    real rpg fans, and real square fans have moved on to other games like type zero, tactics ogre psp, rocket slime 3 ect

    • Tom Auxier

      Wow! Look at this, folks! It’s a real live reply from a time traveler from the future!

      Hey guy! How’s 2014? Did games like Type Zero really get confirmed for international release already? And how’s Versus XIII? Oh, they haven’t started it yet. I understand. It’s hard for video game companies to start games. So the whole Mayan calendar thing was a bust, huh? That’s unfortunate. I was looking forward to some good fire and brimstone.

      Umm…do you have flying cars? I’d love to get me one.

  4. red_core

    Um. XII (12) was critically very successful. It was a 90+ FF. “Roundly hated” is the near opposite of reality.

    Linearity was obviously a huge problem in XIII as well.

    • Tom Auxier

      I am terrible at determining whether it says “XII” or “XIII”.

      It had very high review scores, sure, XII (Twelve (12 (okay I’m clear on this))), but in terms of criticism it’s rarely a well thought of game (reviews and criticism not being equal). It’s usually referred to as a bloated single player MMO with no narrative.

      Both of those things I disagree with, btw. It’s my favorite FF outside of the brilliant VI – VII – Tactics run.

      • red_core

        Look, I don’t want to get into a silly flame war, but you can’t refer to a 90+ game (if I recall correctly, one of only TWO JRPGs to achieve this since 2005!) as “roundly panned” as “critics.” Critics => reviews.

        If you want to talk about the general attitude towards it, then yes, some people (some, not “usually”) dislike it, as is the case with any FF. Overall however it was a well received game. And in any case, the criticism towards 12 has always been largely with the story. Its relative non-linearity was very welcome.

        • red_core

          “Roundly hated” by “critics,” I mean. Damn typos.

        • Actually critics and reviewers are not *always* the same thing.

        • Tom Auxier

          First: yeah, critics and reviewers aren’t the same thing. Reviewers loved it. I loved it. Critics had a problem with it, as critics do with pretty much every game. That’s what we’re (usually not) paid to do: find faults, try to illuminate ways video games can be better.

          The problem they had was with the story, but the story’s problems largely came from the nonlinearity. I love the game to death, but it was a little too nonlinear for the story it was telling. This doesn’t change that talking about it has made me want to replay it, but we find faults in things because we love them (or we love their series, as is the case with FFXIII).

          I’ll admit “roundly hated” was a bit of hyperbole, but I am a hyperbole merchant. At some point you have to choose, as a writer, whether it’s better to mitigate for two lines or to just say something someone’s going to quibble with, then say in the comments, “It was hyperbole, the position is more nuanced but I sacrificed nuance for punch.” That’s what I’m saying.

      • Perhaps I didn’t get far enough into it, but my biggest issue with 12 was that I felt like the party I was controlling had no part in the narrative. There’s some neat political intrigue going on, but I’m hundreds of leagues away out in the goddamned desert getting murdered by Flans.

        • Tom Auxier

          That is 100% the problem with the game. The problem came when they introduced Vaan and Penelo to have characters we could relate to. They are, for all intents and purposes, fat, and there could have been one of them. Fran could also have been removed without effecting the plot at all.

          Which is bad. But I’m enough of a fan that I’m willing to overlook those and appreciate that it’s a game I loved enough to practically 100%.

  5. Smapdi

    Great analysis. I think you managed to articulate a lot of the issues that really bugged me about FFXIII that I often had problem communicating. One thing about the pacing of the plot that I took issue with was how the Eidolons (they were called Eidolons in this one, right? I can’t rightly recall) were implemented. For many of the characters, it seemed as though once they had their crisis moment and got their hands on their own personalized magical robot-transformer, they were swiftly brushed to the side. This was especially disappointing for me in the case of Sahz, who I really saw as one of the more compelling characters… but after riding around in his firecare/Norse hotrod, his troubles took a backseat to some of the far less interesting characters.

    Also, I’m glad to see someone else with an appreciation for FFXII. I recently got the chance to play the International version, and it made me fall in love with the game all over again.