Coddling fantasy

The Internet has loudly expressed its heartache over the fact that Final Fantasy XIII is an incredibly linear game… even though this is only really true for its first half. My clear time for the game was about 52 hours; at somewhere around the 20- or 25-hour mark, I hit the part where the whole thing opens up considerably. From that point, you travel through a number of much larger environments, which include a vast savannah where the main open-ended content is set (reminiscent in many, many ways of Final Fantasy XII) as well as the final “dungeon,” which is one of the most intricate settings ever featured in a Final Fantasy game — it’s eclipsed by the extensive series of underground caves spanning the breadth of Ivalice in FFXII, sure, but it’s easily on par with any other series dungeon you care to name. In between these two areas, you travel through locales that remind me for all the world of something from Half-Life 2 — packed with setpieces, fairly linear, but offering multiple routes to each objective, and dotted with NPCs who add a splash of life and scale to the world. The second half of the game is also where the Crystarium skill-building system opens up, and with it comes the availability of better items and cash for weapon- and accessory-crafting, so you’re fully allowed to build your characters to your own specs. In other words, FFXIII eventually becomes almost exactly what people generally expect from a Final Fantasy game.

Given the completely unsurprising nerd-rage over how that opening half plays out, I have to wonder why the developers were so slow to unlock the “real” game. I’m pretty sure the answer comes down to sales pressure and the need to appeal to a huge range of players.

Look at your average action game, your Resident Evil or God of War or Halo. Games like these offer a single-player experience that runs about 8-15 hours. Even an outlier like Assassin’s Creed II can be played to near-100% completion in 25 hours. The FFXIII team has stated they were “inspired” by games like Modern Warfare 2, which most people have taken to be some ridiculous hallucination on the creative staff’s about how they think FFXIII plays like some delusional outsider’s vision of a first-person shooter. What they really mean is that FFXIII opens with a 20-hour guided experience, mingling narrative and action in equal parts, with no room for straying, and thus no possibility that players will wander off-track and become lost, thereby killing the game’s forward momentum. Pretty much like Half-Life 2! Or Modern Warfare! Or about any modern action game you care to name.

Surely it’s no coincidence that the introductory portion of the game lasts for almost exactly as long as the single-player mode of a fairly substantial action title. The first half of FFXIII actually offers a fairly complete narrative arc in its own right, to be honest, and I’m fairly certain this is by design. The party members are thrust together, go their own separate ways, and are inexorably drawn together again. Once they join up again, the “real” game begins in that you start to figure out the main story, explore more open level designs, are forced to devise your own party and Paradigm formations, and experience your first truly challenging boss encounter.

I suspect this was intended as the dividing line between “dedicated” and “casual” players: Those who just want to take a cursory tour of a big-name game will see a lot of great graphics, get a taste of combat, and see all the heroes team up in one big happy party before shelving it. The “tourist” sections net a body as much play time from FFXIII as they’d see in any other action game, so they can put the disc back on their shelves, content in having seen the shiniest, fluffiest gaming experience $60 can buy. They get to see much of the characters’ tales, take a good look at the nuances of the game mechanics, see everyone come together, and can tune out before they have to deal with the larger plot. Those who actually get into the game, on the other hand, can stick around to finally enjoy making full use of all the interesting game systems that until that point have mostly been broadly hinted at.

I am not defending this element of the game, or this particular design philosophy in general for that matter, because — as an RPG fan — I would prefer not to have my hand held for 20 hours. The prospect of replaying FFXIII doesn’t really appeal to me too terribly much, because in my ideal world the more open, player-driven portions would appear about 15 hours sooner. I do, however, accept this approach to design as an inescapable reality of modern games. Look at Assassin’s Creed II, ostensibly the poster child for freedom in modern games; in reality, it slowly doles out skills and options throughout the entire course of the game. It’s not until the final chapter that you’re finally given free rein to play as you truly like, anywhere you want.

As frustrating as this market-conscious approach to game design is to me as a player, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to the developers. Some of these guys have been in the business of making games for 20 years, and surely they’re eager to build on their prior experience… only to be told by someone in a suit that, no, you really ought to tone it down, because you can’t assume the player is interested or intelligent enough to appreciate the complexity of the systems you’re offering. If anything, I’m grateful that some “blockbuster” games are occasionally allowed to become more intricate in their back halves, because that isn’t always the case. (The aforementioned ACII ceases to even resemble a challenge after about 10 hours, and the final portions of the game are hilariously easy.) Wading through FFXIII’s final dungeon, battling mobs that were far deadlier than the final boss gauntlet, I couldn’t help but think how daunting some of those battles and the required strategies for surviving them must be for people who aren’t really familiar with the RPG genre… but then I realized it probably doesn’t matter, because they probably lost interest around the time they hit the savannah I mentioned earlier.

I’m certainly not being critical of people who don’t find interest in the deeper mechanics that FFXIII lays bare in its late hours. Different strokes and all that; RPGs aren’t for everyone. Unfortunately, FFXIII is victim of the fact that it’s an RPG that does have to be for everyone — and in three different international regions, at that. While many fans are lamenting the things it sacrifices in the process, having finished the game I’m more inclined to marvel at the things it managed to retain. The fact of the matter is that for every single forum post I’ve read in which someone expresses their fury over FFXIII’s linearity, I see another post in which someone says, “Huh, suddenly I’m interested in this game.” And given the fact that people on the Internet are a lot more likely to vocalize anger than satisfaction, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the silent majority will find the game’s structure to be a boon. So who’s to say which perspective is wrong?

In the end, all of this simply reinforces my relief at the existence of portable games, where small development budgets offer creators the freedom to drill down and really cater to niche audiences. Yeah, that’s right. The Nintendo DS is the last haven of the hardcore gamer. And don’t you forget it.

25 thoughts on “Coddling fantasy

  1. So… the short version of what you’re saying here is: People who want an engaging game have to wait 20 hours, on the assumption that that’s enough time for the people who just want to watch a movie to get bored and wander off? That strikes me as a lose-lose proposition really.

  2. I can’t play FF13. That blond chick that appears on the promo pics looks exactly like my sister. It would feel like I’m playing with my sister. Oh no no no.

  3. Well… the last FF game to open up at the halfway point was one of the best games in the series, so I guess optimism is called for?

  4. I was cynical about FFXIII at first, but after learning more about it and remembering that some of my favorite RPGs have taken a crap on standard conventions, I became more optimistic. 20 hours is a pretty big gap before things really open up, but I put up with such linearity in Final Fantasy X for about that same amount of time, give or take. I can put up with it here as well.

  5. “Yeah, that’s right. The Nintendo DS is the last haven of the hardcore gamer”

    Dont forget the PC, sir, where teams as small as one developer and budgets as low as zero dollars allow games of any style or goal to be released

  6. As a mild RPG fan and infrequent RPG player, I do not really look forward to complete linearity in theory, but I do like the hand-holding to show me the mechanics. I think severing these two elements would be extraordinarily difficult. OK, maybe all of that shouldn’t last 25 hours, but I’m going to give it a go.

  7. I’m not really looking forward to the hand-holding, but that’s never really upset me too much in RPG’s before. I’m just really happy that the game eventually opens up a bit.

  8. In some ways, I think FFXIII is like a weird alternate reality version of FFXII: instead of taking some inspiration from a BioWare game or even Western MMORPG, it takes some inspiration from character-based action games like Devil May Cry as well as the linear style of modern, post-Half Life FPS’s. Since I loved FFXII, and loved how much further BioWare went with the “it’s like Gears Of War but with RPG elements and dialogue trees!”-ness of Mass Effect for the sequel, I’m beginning to wonder if I might just love FFXIII…

  9. I have probably overstated the hand-holding, to be honest. Having played through the opening hours of the game several times for previews, demo impressions, and reviews on two platforms, I’m a little tired of it! I think the introductory portions could be more effectively compacted to about 12-15 hours instead of 20-25, but questions of length aside they do a really good job of introducing you to every item in the game’s sandbox before setting you free to play with them on your own. I’d have had a much more difficult time with later bosses if the one section that saddles you with characters who specialize as Sentinel/Synergist hadn’t been there to demonstrate how to make use of those roles most effectively.

    As of Twilight Princess, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that any adventure/RPG-style game slated to sell more than a million copies is going to be slow to start up. It’s just an unavoidable fact of the industry now.

  10. Again, the thing I don’t get with the handholding trend is that explaining, at a very slow pace, in text no less, what you should be doing is less sophisticated AND less effective than the sort of thing Super Mario Bros. did: Here’s a monster. Did you let it walk into you? See, that killed you. Figure out a way around that. See? Jumping worked. Ooh, watch out though! Here’s a pit with two in it, going to be really hard to not land on one… oh hey, look! You slipped up, hit one, and it died! It’s subtly pushing you into learning how everything works, but it isn’t being condescending about it.

    The whole party splitting thing you mentioned FF13 doing IS totally a step in the right direction. The problem is in the rigid linear structuring. Wild ARMs, and to SOME extent DQ4 force you into getting to know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, but they let you breathe and explore while they do it. FF6 was pretty rigid about it, but it was presented as a quick set piece after a fair bit of doing your own thing in traditional fashion.

  11. Unfortunately, Jake, publishers have learned that there’s no money to be made in giving your customers credit for intelligence. Any game designed to sell in the millions is inevitably going to be simplified for the sake of “accessibility.” I hate it, but I’m also resigned to it; I’ve talked to enough developers to realize that this is just The Way Things Are.

    But hey, there are always the niche publishers like Atlus — Strange Journey does pretty much zero hand-holding. It’s going to sell a fraction of FFXIII’s numbers, but it’s also not a big-budget game, so Atlus can afford to make it unflinchingly tough.

    I wouldn’t complain if RPGs took a different clue from the FPS genre and started incorporating difficulty levels, but by and large they hate that concept and prefer to appease the hardcore player with optional high-challenge content.

  12. I like this much better than your review on 1up. I feel like I actually understand how you feel about the game now as someone who has spent extensive time with it. And I agree completely that it is a travesty that these game makers who have been doing this for so many years are forced to stick to the rising trends in gaming instead of being able to fully develop a game that they want to make. But unfortunately that does seem to be the going trend in this day and age of the Modern Warfare’s and Assassin Creed’s.

    But hey, if this gets those kinds of gamers into Final Fantasy, who knows what might happen? They might love it so much they embrace the JRPG and play a lot of the older games to fully appreciate it. This game has the chance to draw in a different audience and expose them to something they wouldn’t normally be used to. And that is certainly something I can support.

  13. Here’s my question. Okay fine, they want me to watch a 15-25 hour set of cutscenes and get into the story. Okay. I can get behind that, if, IF, they let me pause it during cutscenes. I know that may not seem like a big, important thing to most players, but I usually have to drop whatever I’m doing and help my father so I have to be able to pause on a dime. If you cannot pause during cutscenes, than I will not buy it simply because I will not be able to enjoy it.

    As an example of needing pause screens, is the Metal Gear Solid franchise, at least on the PS2. I’m on a bit of a MGS kick at the moment and am currently playing MGS2. So far one of the things that makes me loathe this particular game is not being able to pause during the cutscenes.

    I’m hoping FFXIII does not follow this trend, else I might have to consider getting a Wii and FF2(SneS) for a FF fix:).

  14. I just got done reading GamePro’s review on it and they are fairly damning in their statement. They claim that the game is 13 chapters. Chapter 1-10 are completely linear. Chapter 11 opens up into a game reminiscent of Final Fantasy and the final two throw you right back into the line.

    While I don’t give too much credibility to a single review, that is a pretty scathing claim. When every reviewer highlights linearity, its an issue. Unless a really good deal comes around I’m probably delaying my purchase for awhile til I just don’t care about anybody else’s opinion on linearity anymore.

  15. Whoops. Forgot to fill in a name. Too bad I can’t remember what I usually put in!

  16. “But hey, if this gets those kinds of gamers into Final Fantasy, who knows what might happen? They might love it so much they embrace the JRPG and play a lot of the older games to fully appreciate it.”

    No, I’m afraid the “best” you can hope for is the Final Fantasy 7 scenario, where it is Person X’s first exposure to the genre and thus expects the genre to conform to their first exposure, rather than taking it as first steps into a larger stranger world where they are clueless. Or perhaps the Halo/Goldeneye effect, wherein people unfamiliar with the genre assume that it is a pinnacle example of the genre because they are not aware that said title is “been there, done that, bigger and better” for experienced players.

    That said! I have to laugh a bit at the “long hallway” comments, because world map does not equal freedom or nonlinearity. FF4, Cecil didn’t have much choice or other destination but to bomb the village, despite a world map. FF6, sure there was lots of nothing between Narshe and Figaro, and a cave or two that I could load into but not explore, but ultimately I am constrained to the plot device. FF7, after escaping the city…etc etc. I doubt that the world map was ever anything except what it obviously is:a technology limitation forcing. If developers could have shown me something gorgeous and hand made as I walked to Figaro on the SNES, I bet they would have, but it would simply be too much data for the tiny cartridge to have. World maps were a necessity, not an aesthetic. Having a world map to fly my airship over as opposed to a coordinate grid system like FF10 does not magically make content appear, I am still limited to visiting and discovering only what was put there.

    Ultimately I think a prime source for the “linearity” whining is nostalgia. I remember JRPGs as being THIS way, so that must be the way they’re supposed to be, right? Don’t think about the why of anything!

  17. FF6 has a linear first half and an open second half. And I’ve always liked the first half much better. The first half of FF6 feels like playing a story, whereas the second feels more like a game of ‘complete the checklist’.

    It’s always seemed to me that game writers have much more ability to add much deeper character development in the parts of games where they know exactly who is going to be in your party and what order the scenes are going to happen in. Chrono Trigger suffers from this too. Once the world opens up, the characters only ever have shallow reactions to the situations and people they meet, they lose the option of being deeply affected or moved in a story changing way.

    Remember when Magus confronted his mother on the Black Omen about how her lust for power nearly ruined his life? No? That’s because what could have been a very powerful and character defining moment didn’t get written. There was no guarantee that Magus would join your party, let alone be one of the three present for that particular boss-fight. Instead, everyone who might be in your party gets their own shallow and irrelevant one-liner to toss out in lieu of something substantive.

  18. In summary, I find that too much openness and freedom tends to kill, or at least cripple the story and character development in RPGs, which is a damn shame when I’m playing a game with characters and a story I actually like.

  19. The most reasonable, negative comments (though, still unnecessarily leveraged, and probably shouldn’t even be made) I’ve read stem from the fact that people who want to play this are concerned that the time investment is too great to get to the portion of the game that’s considered the most rewarding. But the argument that gamers are finding less time to devote to their chosen hobby is becoming more and more common now that those of us who grew up with it are entering our thirties (or comfortably nestled in them). I suppose arguing that it’s a value investment because you’re getting a whole lotta gaming for your money is sound enough, but when you’re saddled with a game that essentially holds your hand for 20 or so hours, you have to ask yourself, “is it worth it?”

    I love your writing, Jeremy. And because you do spend great amounts of prose to explain to us that there is more to gaming than just pressing buttons, I am interested in playing. However, I just don’t know if I can stay interested when I rarely have an hour to play each day. (Yes, portable gaming is the savior to my enjoyment of gaming).

  20. It seems to me that the structure you mention is typical of some of the most popular Final Fantasies like 6 and 7. World of Balance vs. World of Ruin; Midgar/pre-meteor vs. post-meteor. In any event Jeremy, the mountain of text you’ve written for FFXIII has gotten me very excited for the game. Thanks for all the good work!

  21. I got the game last nite at a midnight launch with my friend, played till pretty late and the linearity did not bother me as people were warning. The feeling I got was the game feels streamlined/edited but in a good way to make your experience better and get you back to action all the quicker.

  22. I agree with Josh, in that I, and most (RPG) gamers I know, just don’t have 15-20 hours to sink into a game before I get to the part I want to play. I don’t think I’m going to play FFXIII, it will be the first one I haven’t played, and I don’t mind. My friend is chomping at the bit to start playing it, even if he has to play an hour at a time, a couple times a week. I use that time to play DS or PSP.

    Still, Parish, thanks for all the content you’ve posted regarding FXIII. I enjoy reading about it regardless (I also enjoy reading manuals before using a product, I don’t know if that says something about me). You’ve almost swayed me, and if my little brother picks it up it will probably, eventually, find its way over here.

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