Why I Think Final Fantasy 13 Failed
(A little while ago I ended up talking to Xander Davis about ways Square Enix could go about saving the Final Fantasy Series and it led me to writing this post)
Final Fantasy over the last ten years has gone through some VAST transformations. Everyone on the planet has a different game in the series that they deem to be the strongest ( I still say 8) but most fans have agreed that the latest installments have lost the “spark” that has kept people captivated over the last decade. Some believe it’s because they spent too much time in Invalice, others believe it’s because the great talent that led the team to victory has more or less moved on, and others believe it’s because JRPG’s are “dying”(utter nonsense). I personally believe some truth exists in each of the arguments( except that last one), but the real issues that Square Enix is facing are a bit more complicated.
For the purposes of this article I will be sticking with Final Fantasy 13 and 13 only ( it’s the only one I was able to beat in the recent lineup without rage quitting entirely). The subject material of the plot line purely on its own was absolutely fantastic. One lone girl that has been cursed and from that curse made into an enemy of the state, Others that know and care for that girl then vow to find a way to save her even if it means making themselves cursed in the process. The concept had love, racism, perseverance, a tiny tinge of madness, and left the designers room to let the characters grow / change while fighting for survival. These are all elements that we like to see existing in any video game and we always celebrate the endings because either they will triumph over their obstacles to find a truth or die horribly while trying. So what happened with 13? Why did a great concept that has made many successful franchises over the centuries fall apart while under their wings? Because they were copying the epic “feel” of a story without having the groundings of a true story.
Let’s take a look at the style of Shakespeare or anyone that has written an excellent novel. We can pinpoint who the main character of the story is, at some point within the story we can also distinguish characteristics of this main character while also learning characteristics about everyone else involved with the play or story. Before we are halfway through the story we usually see something happen that is the main reason or the “focus” (as my old English professors like to call it) as to why this story is being told to begin with. If it were something like Romeo and Juliet I’d say it was them expressing their love for each other while in other works like say Harry Potter I’d say it would be one of the Horcruxes (if you have no idea what I’m talking about then dear god you need to read some books… it’ll do wonders). Now I know not everyone will agree with me about those things being the “focus” of those works but the point I’m making about Final Fantasy 13 is that we can’t determine a focus.
Every character in Final Fantasy 13 is not actually a character, they are more in line with a poorly crafted mold. We have the leaders ( Lightning and Snow), the ornery sidekicks ( Sazh and Vanille) , the wronged avenger (Hope) and a whole bunch of character types that we only ever see in terribly written Anime. You know what? That’s exactly what I think Square Enix did, they look at anime’s that they themselves liked and decided to just copy them when making the game. Much like an poorly written anime they took a concept, stretched the concept to fit the length of their game , then tried to make sure scenes that they felt were important would only happen at certain parts. The difference between good anime and bad anime is usually the length. if going for 12 episodes to 26 then the show might have a shot at gaining traction as long as it continuously kept people entertained without too much “filler” ( random stuff that has nothing to do with the plot) . For other shows however like say Naruto they bit themselves on the ass painfully by taking a really endearing idea but dragging it out for 300+ episodes. The idea starts out great, but when its stretched out too much we start noticing all kinds of flaws that wouldn’t happen if things were kept short. Shorter style anime’s usually tend to have a focus in each episode as well. Whether it be learning about a side character, someone in the group gaining some great power, or them realizing something about themselves.It’s a style of presentation that has been happening in plays for centuries ( Act1,2,3,4) and in Final Fantasy 13 it all happens haphazardly.
We can find ourselves learning about Snow in one scene, next finding ourselves with Hope in another. These two characters were never together until very very late in the game. So the game would tease you a little with one character, then right before you think ” hey, I’m finally starting to sort of understand them” you were yanked away to somewhere else. You were lucky to have any feeling for that character left by the time you actually saw them again and usually they weren’t where they had left off from before.
So what does this mean for anyone trying to learn from Final Fantasy while making a game? Learn how to make an enthralling concept but do not in any way copy what they did. If I had to come up with a game script for 13 I would try to keep the group together but keep important details hidden until I had the right moment ( the art of building suspense). We don’t need to know Snow’s incompetence killed Hope’s mother at the beginning of the game. I would prefer to have an entire team exploring the world ( maybe hunting down leads on Serah?) while occasionally accomplishing side quests that help explain some of the angst we see earlier in the game. Somewhere around the midway point I would like each character to finally be unlocking their summoning as they deal with whatever personal issue that has been holding them back as we head closer to the ending. For the ending itself I would probably have everyone but Lightning achieving their summoning while some crazy plan has been hatched, planned, and properly funded through side quests. They put the plan in motion, whoever incarcerated Serah should now be facing Lightning and somewhere within the volumes of that fight we see Lightning finally reaching her full potential.
Why did I choose a set up like this? Because it’s a lot of what I grew up with. Hundreds of classic anime’s have lived off similar story planning, it when critiqued would be considered a variation of the Hero’s path ( which early Final Fantasy games made a living off of), and personally I believe that the basics must first be touched before we truly see anyone create anything exciting or new (plus Atlus is quickly becoming a figure of the game industry for doing things like this). Lots of great video games ( like Lunar, and Star Ocean) while many incredible anime ( Crest Of The Stars) had so much life to them not because they weren’t rushing through the feelings or jumping around places frantically, but because they took their time. Everything was given a moment, every person may very well have had their own special episode, the world itself was filled with vibrant things, and we never once ever had to rely on nostalgia to understand whatever it was that the game makers were trying to say. People that grew up with this stuff will always remember the beginnings, the middles, and the ends. People always remembered what their worlds were called, who the heavy hitters were, how the towns were broken up , what of interest was happening at each locale and what the team ( the focus of the story usually) had done while visiting.
These are all things we can’t do in Final Fantasy 13. We never had a full idea that we were inside a world, who the characters were, what their purpose was, we hardly ever met anyone else that could be seen as important ( I’ve met background actors in racing games that had more appeal then 13) and we never once felt like any character in this group was on an actual journey. They all felt like melodramatic actors sitting on a bad anime set after finally completing their 7th season. No one really wants to pay 60 dollars for that kind of feeling.