1P Missions

Narrative Design Analysis: Final Fantasy XV

The Boys of Final Fantasy XV enjoying a group selfie over a scenic background.

It’s getting close to a year since the release of Final Fantasy XVI, and I enjoyed my time with the game’s focused narrative presentation and tight, explosive combat. The level of polish on these two fronts strikes me as a direct response to criticisms thrown at predecessor Final Fantasy XV for its scatterbrained storytelling approach and frankly wonky battle system. But there’s also a soulful level of care that FFXV put into its central party dynamic, and how it’s supported through the core gameplay loop, that FFXVI (and really most RPGs since) are uninterested in or unable to replicate. This analysis will attempt to unravel the soul underlying FFXV’s janky exterior as it manifests in the game’s organic representation of its characters, its unique party mechanics, and the unusual structure that loosely holds it all together. FFXV is far from a perfect game, but time has only further cemented it as a remarkably daring and special one.

A Brat and His Boys

Final Fantasy XV takes significant structural and gameplay risks. Some of these risks feel unsuccessful or incomplete, but the way it uses nuanced AI to portray the dynamics between its main characters brings out a kind of narrative meaning different to that developed through cutscenes or lore text. Instead of just showing or telling us points regarding themes like the value of friendship as one matures into adulthood, or the way loved ones can both support and complicate how one deals with their own individual responsibilities, we can feel them as we play through the game. The “power of friendship” that so many JRPGs try to represent has never felt so tangible.

Noctis, Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus driving the Regalia through Duscae.
Final Fantasy XV’s road trip vibe is its beating heart.

Final Fantasy XV’s open world fuses mythical fantasy, Americana, and slick techno-modern aesthetics for a bizarre but entirely unique setting. We get one heck of a flashy car to customize and drive (or be chauffeured) around in while undertaking quests from NPCs that have us fetch items, explore dungeons, and kill monsters. Pretty standard MMO-derived design. What makes this content a little more compelling in FFXV is that the impressively named main character, Noctis Lucis Caelum—the young crown prince of a magic kingdom—is accompanied by three retainers/childhood friends (“The Boys”) who constantly color the gameplay experience with spontaneous dialogue that makes the group dynamic feel authentically alive. Oh, yeah, and being able to blast classic FF tunes in our regal whip certainly adds some personality to the fetch-questing.

The crew is made up of Gladio (i.e. Raphael), Noctis’ bodyguard who also helps find useful items in the wilderness and sets up camp for the group to rest; Ignis (i.e. Donatello), Noctis’ tutor who chauffeurs the group’s car and cooks for them to provide stat boosts; and Prompto (i.e. Michelangelo), Noctis’ high-school best friend who takes photos of the player’s experiences that can then be viewed before resting every night. As far as male character tropes go, you could do a lot worse than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The presence of Noctis’ Boys is felt throughout all aspects of the gameplay. They aid in combat with detailed animations, banter contextually about any given situation, and enable how the player exists in the open world through the game’s systems. Interestingly (at least in the initial release), the player never gets direct control over them. This limitation works to the benefit of Final Fantasy XV’s themes. As players, we are only allowed to experience the world from Noctis’ point of view, but we learn to care for and appreciate our companions as fictional characters because they act autonomously. It’s little details, such as having The Boys react with irritation if you run into them, or watching them do their thing in combat, that encourage the player to perceive them less as game objects and more as virtual people. Through bonding with them, we also feel more immersed in our role as the (at least initially) hopelessly dependent Noctis.

A battle sequence showing each member of the group operating in their own way.
In proper boy band fashion, there’s outstanding detail in the choreography of the group’s battle animations.

The magic here is that the naturalistic behavior of The Boys’ AI can make performing even menial tasks in the open world fun and flavorful. Sometimes, when camping for instance, one of The Boys will reach out to Noctis to do an activity together. This might include going on a run with Gladio, cooking a meal with Ignis, or taking a special photo with Prompto. The appeal of these tasks isn’t that they provide particularly engaging gameplay, but that we get a chance to hang out with the character and feel Noctis’ growth as an individual and not just a vessel of stats and abilities. For what they lack in complex mechanics, these sequences feel meaningful in how they develop our perception of Noctis’ relationship with his friends. It’s a surprisingly intimate narrative design trick—one that I wish FFXVI had adapted to its own ends.

The True King?

This brings me to Final Fantasy XV’s central narrative, and its rather experimental approach to RPG storytelling. Very early in the game, Noctis’ kingdom of Insomnia is invaded and taken over while he is on the way to his royal wedding. He learns his father, the king, has been killed in the invasion. This places a massive responsibility on Noctis that drives the rest of the game’s plot: to reclaim Insomnia and his place as the land’s True King.

However, the player will already have picked up the sense that Noctis (who is only 20 years old) is not prepared for this undertaking. Although he clearly has a good heart, he’s initially portrayed as socially awkward and spoiled. Throughout the game, however, the player is allowed to help tend to Noctis’ growth through dialogue choices.

We understand that Noctis’ maturity is a key plot device, and this inevitably affects how we approach these choices. Through the context of the story, the player is influenced to make decisions that would be fit for a king rather than an indecisive youth. We’re invited to act as Noctis’ guiding influence in place of his deceased father through our actions. Noctis’ initial vulnerability, paired with his world-saving responsibility, calls the player to choose dialogue options that show him maturing rather than playing him as a self-insert avatar. Unlike in most Dungeons and Dragons-influenced Western RPGs, the function of these dialogue choices isn’t about granting the player a sense of agency as they shape their own character. It gives us opportunities to participate in the linear trajectory of Noctis’ growth.

A dialogue tree showing responsible and immature options for Noctis.
Oh, oh, pick the one on the right! That’s obviously what the game wants.

To simulate the need for a proper king to act decisively, these choices have a timer of about five seconds. If the player doesn’t select an option before the timer runs out one will be selected at random, risking an (often amusing) awkward or entitled response from Noctis. It’s important that we see these embarrassingly misinformed options floating around in Noctis’ head. They show us his struggle to easily empathize with or relate to people as a result of his spoiled upbringing. Sometimes, one of the dialogue options allows Noctis to deflect the issue to one of The Boys. But if the player chooses this option, then the experience reward for successfully conversing will go to The Boy rather than Noctis. These minor tweaks personalize the otherwise generic and trivial dialogue system to reflect the circumstances of Noctis’ story, which strikes me as an effective tool to promote compassion towards and understanding of a game’s protagonist.

A Tale of Two Styles

Final Fantasy XV‘s main story proceeds in chapters that come in two structural varieties: open-world chapters that allow the player to undertake side quests and explore the game’s map at their own pace, and linear chapters that drive the story forward by pushing the player through significant events in particular locations. The former take up the bulk of the overall play time, while the latter are there to push key events forward and make sure the plot retains a degree of momentum. The events of the linear chapters vary from forgettable to quite cool (the Titan encounter), but it’s the open-world bits where Final Fantasy XV’s greatest strengths are most apparent.   

The bounds of FFXV’s open world usually expand after completing one of the linear chapters. This allows the developers to control our exposure to the space, offering a healthy mix of slowly giving the player quest options and space to get lost in without completely derailing the narrative flow. All the game’s secrets, side quests, and optional dungeons are to be discovered in these open-world chapters.  

The Boys sit around a campfire at the end of a day.
Peak videogames right here.

FFXV’s open world operates around a day/night cycle. What gives this cycle more significance than your average RPG is that nighttime brings about a bunch of intimidating, overpowered monsters called daemons. As dusk passes, the audio cues up some spooky ambiance that tells us to go find safety, fast. We do so through campsites interspersed throughout the world. If there’s one thing almost everyone remembers fondly about FFXV, it’s camping with The Boys. Some calming acoustic guitar plays as Gladio sets up everyone’s tents, we get to select from a menu of meals Ignis can cook up with the ingredients on hand, and Prompto shares the pictures he took that day before we all hit the hay.

There’s an instinctive authenticity to this daily routine. Days are for adventuring, banter, and possibly the best fishing minigame in an RPG. Nights are for cozy refuge, eating delicious-looking meals, and reflecting on the events of the day. There’s a natural ebb and flow to this cycle that makes even the game’s blandly written side quests feel like an important aspect of the overall design. In this way, Final Fantasy XV felt more like a lived experience than almost any other game I’ve played.

A basic mini-game where Noctis can cook in Ignis' place by rotating the control stick.
Damn it, Ignis. Why did I agree to this?!

The two styles of chapter have their individual issues, but they complement each other by controlling the pace of the story and offering structural variety. If I became bored from hunting monsters, fishing, and undertaking bargain-bin side quests in one of the sandbox-style chapters, I’d crave more story and progress the game. Then, in these linear segments, I’d miss the simplicity of hanging out in the open world. The narrative stakes progressively escalate with each set of chapters—until they reach a climactic breaking point.

A Defense of Chapters 9-13

The rest of this article contains Major Spoilers for Final Fantasy XV.

Final Fantasy XV’s ninth chapter kickstarts a series of events that shift the world and The Boys to a state of no return. At this moment, the player gets cut off from freely exploring the open world and pursuing side quests. The rest of the game takes you through a series of linear and experimental chapters that each offer a gameplay twist to set up the conclusion. It’s well known that these chapters come off as unfinished, but there’s a lot more to say about them than that.

Chapter 9 takes place entirely in a new city, Altissia. The integration of Altissia is an anomaly of narrative design. It’s the most beautiful and vibrant locale in the entire game: a dream-like fantasy Venice surrounded by crystalline waters that you can ride gondolas through. The city can be deeply explored, has its own set of side quests to pursue, shops with unique items, and a monster betting arena I spent way too many hours gambling in and winning prizes. In-game days and nights cycled by as I got caught up in what the city had to offer.

The party rides in a gondola through Altissia's canals.
Enjoy the beauty of Altissia… while you can.

After what felt like the most fun My Boys and I have had together yet, I finally turned back to the main quest. Color me surprised when the events that followed led to the obliteration of Altissia and the death of Lunafreya, Noctis’ fiancé. Did these developers really just permanently destroy the most impressive locale they’d built for the game after a chapter the player could choose to speed through in 30 minutes, and kill off the main love interest? They sure did—and it felt like a genuinely (virtual) traumatic experience.

Chapter 10 then portrays the group of friends in an understandable state of tension. Noctis is mourning the death of his fiancé, Gladio is frustrated by Noctis’ lack of leadership, Ignis has become blind from a battle, and the gameplay undergoes a significant tonal shift as a result. Those days and nights spent fishing, camping, and blasting classic FF tunes in the Regalia felt melancholically distant.

During Chapter 10’s one dungeon, the player must keep close to Ignis as he pathetically stumbles through terrain and battle or else be chastised by Gladio for Noctis’ self-centered behavior. Here, the game sacrifices its own playability to simulate the fractured state of the group. It asks us to put a fictional character’s needs above our own convenience as players. With this daring move, what could have just been a solid late-game dungeon instead draws the player into the fictional reality of The Boys. The narrative doesn’t just show us that the group is undergoing serious conflict; it makes us experience it.

An image from Chapter 10 where the player is given a prompt not to leave Ignis behind as he is slowed from his recent blindness.
Boy, am I sure glad I agreed to cook with Ignis earlier.

The remaining chapters are also experimental, with similarly interesting—but admittedly less impressive—results. Chapter 12 portrays the falling action of the plot, the internal collapse of the Evil Empire, as a mere backdrop experienced only from a distance and by word of mouth. The player is not let into this exciting action. Instead, we witness the burning of a foreign city from afar as Noctis learns more about his role in the world as he listens to the griefs of the city’s refugees. It’s a chapter of passive listening rather than action. It doesn’t make for particularly exciting gameplay or spectacle, but I still appreciate Final Fantasy XV’s commitment to showing the world from only Noctis’ perspective. From a design standpoint, it feels worth letting the player perform these small interactions rather than have us watch a disembodied cutscene.

The infamous Chapter 13 then deprives Noctis of his companions as he pursues Ardyn, the game’s main villain, who taunts his apparent helplessness without friends at his aid. This section involves a clunky mix of stealth and a game-breaking piece of equipment that lets us explode any enemy we encounter. The oppressive, industrial corridors that make up the environment in this section offer a stark contrast to the freewheeling adventure of the game’s open-world sections. It’s unmistakable that things are coming to a close as Noctis’ power level is reaching his royal reputation, and we experience him learning to deal with responsibility on his own.

The execution of all these chapters is far from seamless, but they cleverly subvert player expectations and the familiarity of convention and predictable challenges to have us experience Noctis’ growth as an individual and leader interactively. The chapters build a rapport between the player and their character by having the tone of the gameplay and story complement each other. These design choices help give the gameplay a greater emotional palette.

The Boys, now old, return to Insomnia.
The Boys are back in town.

Then, in the final Chapter 14, the game flashes forward and we get to play as Old Noctis—now more bearded and more badass—to go reclaim Insomnia with The Old Boys. I would have loved to play through an expanded version of the Final Fantasy VI-style World of Ruin this chapter opens with, but even as just a final dungeon and conclusion it’s done with great emotional payoff.

They Reminisce Over You

The chaos of Final Fantasy XV’s pacing reflects the turmoil of Noctis’ life. As is often the case, we tend to learn about the value of our relationships best when they are abruptly torn away from us because we’re left to realize how much we were actually enjoying ourselves now that it’s too late to go back. Playing through the final chapters of FFXV one after the other can be exhausting, and as if anticipating this, the game’s designers include a feature that allows Noctis to travel back through his memories to temporarily return to the open-world portion of the game. Traveling to the past and creating more positive memories for Noctis is therefore built into the game’s progress, and remembrance emerges as a core narrative theme.

This type of sentimental engagement with memories is then best incorporated into the game’s conclusion. Before engaging in the final battle, Noctis asks to see the photos Prompto had taken throughout the playthrough. I can only speak for myself, but after having spent about 80 hours on the game and completing much of its content, scrolling through these photos had a profound effect. I became nostalgic both for earlier portions of the game and earlier periods of my life.

By successfully investing me in its story and characters, FFXV provoked me to reflect on my own friendships. The game asks us, as Noctis, to choose just one of the photos to take with him into the afterlife. When I encountered a group selfie of The Boys enjoying themselves on that night in Altissia when I spent 3+ hours on monster gambling, it was an easy selection. It’s not even a particularly nice photo (see below), but the memories associated with it mattered a lot more to me. I now see it as a microcosm of FFXV itself: janky and awkward on the outside, but containing a rich experience at its heart. The photo then appeared in the game’s final cutscene, adding a surprisingly personal and poetic effect to the ending.

A group selfie from Prompto taken during a fun night in Altissia.

I realized that the game didn’t have an emotional impact on me just because I became attached to Noctis and his companions, but because I can see parts of myself and my friends in each of their archetypal characterizations. While playing, I couldn’t help but reminisce on old times hanging out with my friends in my late teens and early 20s doing ‘open-world’ things like driving around aimlessly, wandering nature trails, and having meaningless banter. Now, I’m older and more mature, but more often alone. I don’t mean this in a negative way—just as a reality of having grown into my own personal responsibilities. But, as reflected in FFXV’s narrative structure, even though I can never reverse the course of my life, I can lose myself in memories of simpler days and consider how they made me what I am today.

Despite all of Final Fantasy XV’s apparent flaws, it was designed in such a way that these reflections and feelings emerged naturally at the conclusion. That’s something the most polished gameplay and production values can never achieve on their own.

Aleks Franiczek

Aleks Franiczek

Aleks is a Features writer and apparently likes videogames enough to be pursuing a PhD focused on narrative design and the philosophy of player experience. When not overthinking games he also enjoys playing them, and his favorite genre is “it’s got some issues, but it’s interesting!”