The Breakup...January's editorial: Rob breaks up with Japan for Poland.01.31.11 - 8:04 AM
It's no secret that I hate Final Fantasy XIII. I've had numerous opportunities to blast the game on our podcast and on the forums, and the conversation usually devolves into an argument over the game's core features. Some enjoy the extreme linearity, while others yearn for a return to a more conventional battle system. Supporters bring attention to the fantastic presentation, while detractors cringe at the anime-influenced aesthetics and characters. Wherever you stand on the great FF13 debate, you can probably agree that the game is controversial. After all, we're still debating this oddity of a game nearly a year after the North American release. I've certainly been leading the charge against it, but I find myself wondering what I would have done if I had been given the opportunity to review the game. After careful thought and consideration, I find I would have been forced to abstain from reviewing it.
A curious declaration, you're probably thinking. Why wouldn't I enjoy beating the living stupid out of Square-Enix's latest with my keyboard and word processing software of choice? The simple reason is that I don't care enough about FF13 to play it to completion. I played the game for eight hours, took it out of my console and haven't looked back. I have no desire to return to the world of Cocoon and see the adventures of various kooky characters named after meteorological phenomena. Saying that I "hate" FF13 is simply too strong of an emotion to paint on a game that I am generally indifferent to. Does that make Final Fantasy XIII a bad game? No. Expressing ennui towards a title doesn't make it bad. In fact, this emotion says more about me as a gamer than anything else.
I was madly in love with the Final Fantasy franchise in my youth. I still remember watching my friends play the demo of FF7 that came packed with Tobal No. 1. I managed to borrow a copy of FF6 so I could learn more about the franchise before 7's eventual release in the states. I tore through the adventures of Terra, Locke, Celes, and the rest of the gang and found myself with a newfound love for the RPG genre. More JRPGs followed during my early education (or should that be indoctrination). I quickly found myself a bona fide JRPG fanboy, and I would have probably dressed up like Cloud or Vincent if given the opportunity.
What I loved so much about the early Final Fantasy games was the grand feeling of adventure. Thrusting out into the world after the dingy oppression of Midgar felt like walking straight out of Plato's Cave. Each game had a (somewhat) simple goal and a narrative punctuated by characters I could identify with and care about. The sense of place and purpose in the world of these Final Fantasy games was and still is clearly apparent: The World of Ruin begs for reunification in 6, Meteor hangs hauntingly overhead in 7, and Sin looms ominously in the key cut scenes of 10. Despite their grand nature and bizarre worlds, I always felt a connection to people and places in Final Fantasy.
During the long (...long) period of time between 12 and 13, I was forced to get my RPG fix from other titles. I found myself forced to play Western RPGs because there were few JRPG releases for the current generation of consoles. That's when something changed in me as a gamer. Playing open world games like Grand Theft Auto gave me a sense of freedom, but I wanted to change the world. I wanted to participate in the world created by the developers. Rather than play through a movie, I wanted to experience the video game equivalent to a game of Dungeons and Dragons. This revelation has led me to games like The Witcher, a game that couldn't be further away from Final Fantasy XIII on the gaming spectrum if it tried.
The Witcher is the yin to FF13's yang. Where 13 is vibrant, colorful, and grand, The Witcher is cold, dark, and almost distant. The inhabitants of Vizima wear tattered clothes and seem caked with mud, while the citizens of Cocoon couldn't be dressed more garishly if they tried. But comparing FF13 and The Witcher aesthetically is almost unfair. The key difference between the two games is the structure and nature of the role playing experience for the player. FF13 plays out like a movie: the linear path to your objective blinks garishly on your radar, and the environments seem more like sets than actual gameplay areas. The "worlds" of Cocoon and Pulse are plastered on the sides of the environments, far from the player's grasp. I don't feel like I am a part of this world, but like I'm on a rollercoaster track traveling to my next destination. For many, this proves no problem, but I found myself bored with this world that I cannot interact with. The Witcher stands as the polar opposite to FF13 in this regard. The environments teem with life and things to do, quests directly impact your relationship with NPCs, and your decisions during key events shape the dialogue and more importantly, the actual narrative of the game. The Witcher may not be as pretty and glamorous as Final Fantasy 13, but I find Geralt's world far more interesting, because I feel like a real participant.
Of course, the feeling of directly impacting the narrative is an illusion. The developers can only offer the player so many possible choices. You live in a sandbox, but the playing area remains confined to a specific set of rules and standards. Your impact on the world only goes as far as the developers plan. Final Fantasy has always been a relatively linear experience, but there was at least an illusion of high adventure and direction from the player. The only town may lie to the north, but at least the terrain and means of conveyance allow for some player choice. Exploring towns and cities in Final Fantasy has never been a series high point, but it helped to flesh out the world. Likewise, Geralt can traipse into numerous houses and establishments, talk with characters, and feel like a real "actor" in the world of The Witcher. FF13, on the other hand, feels sterile and empty. I might as well be on a blue screen receiving direction from George Lucas.
I don't need narrative control to enjoy a game. I love the God of War series, and Red Dead Redemption allows for little in the way of actual manipulation events to my benefit. But at least I care about and empathize with the characters in these games. In recent years, my level of attachment to the casts of the Final Fantasy games seems to be following a downward spiral. I cannot bring myself to care about Lightning, Snow, or even Sazh. They appear to be empty shells, simply used to carry a storyline that is both bewildering and confusing to the outsider. Many Final Fantasy games feature a character that is learning about the world along with the player (Tidus in FF10, or even Vaan in FF12, for example). This allows for exposition and explanation to be directed towards the player without having to resort to lines of text that spell everything out like a college textbook. In contrast, I was left completely dumbstruck at the narrative of Final Fantasy XIII until I began to pore over the pages (and pages) of text in the game's labyrinthine Codex. The Witcher appears to fall prey to this problem as well, but the Codex is not necessary when it comes to the actual plot of the game. The Codex in The Witcher only serves to flesh out the world, not to explain key ideas and themes. The plot of The Witcher is intricate, but it exists in a fully fleshed out world. Most Final Fantasy games feature a story revolving around the world, rather than events taking place in the world, but I struggle to connect with FF13 because nothing is explained – everything is implied or simply held to be true. I feel a great disconnect between the plot and the actions on screen, and the exposition feels left on the Codex pages to be deciphered.
Many cite Final Fantasy XIII's combat system as the title's key strong point. People argue about the complexities of the battle system and the way that it rewards strategic planning, but I found myself even further removed from the events on screen than ever before. Rather than carefully planning out each move and action for my party, I watched meters refill, numbers fly all over the screen, and numerous Game Over screens as my feeble caveman-mind struggled to comprehend the nature of the carnage before my eyes. Attempting to issue commands to my party leader proved futile, because events transpire too quickly for there to be any strategic planning. The battle system requires careful planning of the party dynamic rather than the party's actions, which makes the game feel like driving an automatic car. That's not to say that FF13 lacks depth; I would just prefer to drive a manual car. I love to feel in complete control of the battlefield, which is probably why I haven't enjoyed a Final Fantasy combat system since FF10.
FF13's focus on an intricate battle system is another reason I have little interest in the franchise's latest entry. I always found combat in D&D to be the worst part of the role playing experience. I prefer to act out my character's interactions and actually affect the narrative. Combat served its purpose as an obstacle to be overcome, but I never found it to be the driving force for my actions. The quest always remained the most important thing to my character. Given my predilections towards character development and open ended gameplay, is it any wonder that I find little interest when the main focus of the RPG is the combat? I'm glad other people find pleasure in watching numbers fly off of characters and filling meters that give new skills and abilities, but FF13 feels far too automated and thus removes me from the experience. I know that the combat system features a vast amount of depth, but I cannot bring myself to care.
With respect, combat in The Witcher feels like an afterthought. Killing (RE: clicking) the simple enemy pallet swaps never holds my interest for long, and while the leveling system offers a great deal of customization, the focus is on status effects and boosts that barely seem present on the battlefield. But Geralt is more than just a fighter. He is a character that I am controlling as my representative in the world. His actions result from my decisions, which helps to immerse me in this dark fantasy setting. The combat doesn't have to be fully fleshed out because there is so much more for me to do in terms of actual role playing.
My tastes have changed over the years. What once held my interest for hours on end now feels boring and repetitive. Instead, the promise of weighty decisions and serious ramifications for my actions now represents a much more fulfilling experience for me as a gamer. I don't hold any ill will towards Final Fantasy XIII, despite my constant ramblings and good-natured ribbing. I would equate my lack of interest in FF13 to mutual breakup between lovers. Sometimes a relationship just ends because the people change. What was once exciting and thrilling may grow mundane or even boring. Desires and passions may also change, and lead to a new direction for the two companions. I have come to a crossroads with the Final Fantasy franchise, and I'm forced to look elsewhere due to my lack of satisfaction with the past few titles. Final Fantasy has been traveling this path towards linearity and spectacle for some time, so I'm not surprised with the latest iteration. I just no longer find any joy in this approach to RPGs. My tastes have changed, and it's time for me to move on and find a new "lover".