Until the earlier portion of last decade the Final Fantasy series had been a series renowned for having scenarios which are a cut above the contemporary JRPG fare. Sometimes they feel a little flat like FFVIII, but at the very least they made for an engaging experience, if not a timeless adventure. Recently however, something has gone terribly wrong.
When confronted by the nascent, stillborn abomination that is Final Fantasy XIII’s narrative, it is initially far more intuitive to criticise it for what it is, rather than to lambast it for everything it is not. The game’s narrative elements present much that immediately sours in the mouth; an in-media-res opening bandying about jargon as though gibberish were our mother tongue, a cast of characters which one would gladly trade for a party of silent protagonists, and a main plot which differs very little over the course of dozens of hours. Yet I do not necessarily think that FFXIII’s most fatal narrative weakness is anything quite so visible.
The barrage of jargon sans context is an irritant to be sure, but an irritant is all that it is. Excessive jargon could be forgiven in an otherwise competent tale; it only becomes a defining factor in the face of the dearth of redeeming characteristics available in FFXIII. Similarly, the cast of characters offends discerning sensibilities without exception, yet a strong narrative is often enough to carry weak or irritating personalities. Finally, FFXIII’s plot unwinds like molasses, but then few if any Final Fantasy plots progress at a mile a minute if you really think about it. FFVII’s pursuit of Sephiroth plot did have a scant few extra twists and turns than did FFXIII’s run away from the bad soldiers and turn into crystals scenario, it is true, but then XIII’s overarching narrative is probably the rough equivalent to FFX’s journey to Zanarkand plot. So what then sets FFXIII’s insipid plot apart from that of its brethren?
Allow me to answer this question with a roundabout observation, and a refutation of idiocy. Anyone who has spent more than a fleeting moment in the Cat Fancy forums (especially within any of the FFXIII threads) will immediately be able to list off three or four occasions wherein they have observed mad slavering arseclowns claiming that the only function of towns is shopping, and that by making shopping available through savepoints the forward thinking and refined game design of FFXIII has in effect rendered towns irrelevant (and what would Fallout/Mass Effect be without towns I ask you?). Such people are clearly deranged, and should be spat on if encountered in the street. Towns in and of themselves offer the unique and integral gameplay experience of environmental exploration, NPC interaction and immersion in the various cultures one encounters in the game world.
For the longest time I had figured that it was only because of the loss of this integral source of interaction that FFXIII’s removal of towns irked me, yet I came to view this decision in another light several days ago. I was playing FFIX at the time, participating in the Lindblum hunt to be precise, and came to the realisation that it is the immediate plights of specific localities within the game’s world which constitute the vast bulk of narrative in all good Final Fantasies. The overarching narrative is always kept at arm’s length by necessity, while relying on the immediate locations to shape most plot points, and padding out the gamer’s minute to minute experiences.
Is the Midgar section of FFVII (along with lower Junon) about pursuing Shinra/Sephiroth, or is it about experienceing the daily anecdotes and philosophies of an oppressed but optimistic people? Is Don Corneo’s manor about finding the Shinra mole, or is it about experiencing the bumbling machinations of a self-important little man who thinks that he owns the Midgar slums? Is Fort Condor about stopping Shinra/Sephiroth, or is it about protecting the natural world? Is Rocket Town about the pursuit of Sephiroth, or is it about stealing the Tiny Bronco and space exploration?
An overarching narrative is very important to the structure and cohesion of a good RPG, but if you look at narrative in terms of the amount of screen-time it is allocated, then one is forced to conclude that the main plot is the very least part of the scenario in most cases. FFXIII’s plot is certainly one of the slower and weaker ones of the series, yet had proceedings been driven by the local events of intermittently placed towns, then the plot could have been serviceable or even memorable depending on the quality of the town cultures. Failing this, the main plot (and terrible character development) is all that FFXIII has to drive game events. The game is determined to have loads of cut-scenes, but the plot elements change very little from one minute to the next, and so we end up with scenes which either retread old ground, or feature very little in the way of substance.
Feel free to disagree with me on this, but it is my contention that it was Final Fantasy XIII’s lack of towns which ruined the game’s narrative along with its gameplay.
The Answer to a Question Nobody Asked ….
Of course the relevance of this post-mortem, and the elephant in the room so to speak, is Final Fantasy XIII-2. Square Enix’s conglomeration of turds have, in their extraordinary hubris, decided to produce a sequel to the worst JRPG ever created, and so if my conjecture is correct then the proof will be in the eating this time next winter (Yankee time). Make no mistake this game will not be high art, as father of lies Motomu Toriyama is almost certain to once again ineptly write the script, yet by my RECKONING it should be much more palatable this time around. Or at least it will be if his lip-service to including towns and interaction holds true. Such features are key elements of JRPG storytelling, and the narrative is bound to be immeasurably improved by their inclusion.
The game may well be horrid, and I will likely hold off for a time before I even consider purchasing it, yet the world of FFXIII is now possessed of the faintest of hopes that it will someday be of worth to people other than Luis Vasquez and Lusipurr.