I’ve been sick for the last few days, and during some of my “lucid” moments, I’ve reacquainted myself with an old friend. Well, maybe not an old friend. An acquaintance. A buddy from a few years ago that was cool, but also, kind of douchey, and once we lost touch, it didn’t really matter that we weren’t around each other anymore. I’m talking about a game called Final Fantasy XIII. To many, the game broke the franchise, and for a while, I was on the bandwagon. After beginning a second play through, I don’t feel the same way.
When Final Fantasy XIII was announced back in 2006, it was presented as this sleek fighting game with RPG elements slapped around it, garnering much hatred early on. I wasn’t a hater yet. I thought the graphics were impressive, but to me, Final Fantasy has always been about the story, so I wasn’t bothered. But as the release date got closer, and beta testers and reviewers alike began saying how awful the game was, I became worried. Words like “linear” and “annoying characters” made me wonder if Square-Enix had finally dropped the ball. But as any good fan, win or lose, I stuck by my team.
On my first play through, all those years ago, I found myself beautifully thrust into a fantastic world. Perfect! The story was intriguing, the characters weren’t so annoying (and besides, screw the haters!), and the sleek, new ATB system was much more interactive than I first imagined. Still, I felt something hollow in my gut. The story was good, but something was missing. After several hours of playing, I figured it out.
I had no where to go but forward. There’s something poetic about that, but this concept was very unfamiliar for the Final Fantasy franchise. I’m fine with linear gameplay. Sometimes, that’s the only way to tell a story. But lines go two ways, forward and backward, but in FFXIII, they only go forward. During the first twelve hours of gameplay give or take, the main characters are stuck on Cocoon, a small planetoid floating just a couple miles about the surface of the planet. During this time, your only real options are to move forward. This isn’t a totally foreign concept. In Final Fantasy IV, you travel in a somewhat linear path, but at least you can travel back to a town or revisit locations later in the game. In FFXIII, you can NEVER go back once you leave a map. Once you leave behind those early stages and escape Cocoon, they’re gone for the duration of the game.
Why does this matter to the story? If I’m so damn interested in the story, why do I care if I can only move in one direction?
It’s because in every other Final Fantasy, the player controls the flow of the story. In FFXIII, the story is thrust upon you, tamped down your throat like a Redcoat loading his rifle. Not until much later in the game when you’re allowed onto the surface of Gran Pulse can you actually explore. You learn about the world and the story on your own terms.
I think I figured out why this is so important. When you’re reading a book, you imagine the world you’re reading about as you go. But in a video game, the imagination part is mostly done for you. The story can add inspiration and imagination, but the visuals and the sounds are presented for you. Exploration, even reexamination, are vital tools for imagination in a video game. It allows you to discover on your own, to imagine and inspire your own fantasies.
To me, this is the biggest flaw with Final Fantasy XIII. I refuse to call it simply linear. Like a ray, FFXIII can only move in one direction, so I guess, I’ll call it radiant. Sounds nice, but I’m not saying it’s a good thing.
UNTIL my second play through. What I discovered the second time astounded me. During those introductory hours, I found myself rolling my eyes and taking long breaks between areas, all the while just begging to get to Gran Pulse. When I finally got to Gran Pulse, not only was I relieved, but I found what I’d missed before.
The l’Cie, my main characters, are trapped in a fate they cannot escape. At first, they’re forced to run, and even upon discovering their purpose, they’re still funneled into a direction that only their fal’Cie overlords can understand. Only when they take matters into their own hands and challenge everything they’ve ever been told about Gran Pulse, are they opened up to exploration.
What a genius way to get the point across! Let your player go through what the characters are going through. It’s like the “show, don’t tell” rule, but applied to a video game. Suddenly, the past few hours struggling through Cocoon didn’t feel so wasted. I was connected to the characters on a new level. I truly understood the frustration of being l’Cie.
I’m not saying this redeems the flaw of radiant gameplay, but it does give some justification. It provides a brand new experience for an old time Final Fantasy player like myself. Unfortunately, too many people aren’t in it for the story.
I've been an avid fan of the Final Fantasy series since the first game on the NES. I've played most of the games, been impressed by all of them. Even today, they are my biggest sources of inspiration.
Thank you for reading!