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Final Fantasy XIII: A series of tubes

Sparky Clarkson's picture

Final Fantasy XIII Screenshot

The worst reason to hate Final Fantasy XIII (FFXIII) is because of its linearity. Non-linearity doesn't necessarily improve a game, and following a constrained path doesn't necessarily make it worse. All Final Fantasy games, including the most highly praised ones, have been essentially linear in both story and world design, and FFXIII is not even unique in degree, given Final Fantasy X (FFX). A player's desire to break out of a constrained experience is usually not a result of linearity per se, but instead reflects a failure of the game's story to engage that player. "Failure" is a reasonably good description of FFXIII's story, which is surprising because Square-Enix had done so much of this stuff before.

Final Fantasy XIII concerns the plight of a planetoid called Cocoon that floats above a world called Gran Pulse. This "floating continent" motif should be familiar from Final Fantasy III, VI, and the more recent Revenant Wings. Cocoon is inhabited by millions of people and run by powerful, but limited beings called fal'Cie. The game's characters are turned into l'Cie, thralls of the fal'Cie who must complete a particular task and suffer the horrible fate of turning to crystal, or, should they fail or take too long, suffer the even more horrible fate of turning into a monster. The party's task is to transform into an unstoppable incarnation of rage called Ragnarok, and kill a fal'Cie called Orphan, who supplies all the energy that keeps Cocoon floating. For reasons that are too tedious to relate, both Cocoon and Pulse fal'Cie want this to happen, but fight the party at every turn anyway.

The story's terminology is unbearable and endlessly repeated, but the more serious flaw in this setup is that it contains no problems that the game's mechanics are equipped to solve. The fundamental problem of FFX, in contrast, matched the mechanics perfectly: the goal was to kill Sin, and here we had a party that was already pretty effective at killing things. The logic of the quest was evident from the beginning. Here, the goal was to not kill something, even though killing seems to be the only thing the party is competent at. The gameplay and larger story are completely at odds with one another.

Final Fantasy XIII Screenshot

The game never resolves this dissonance, but instead carries it into the final battle. Having traversed all of Cocoon and much of Gran Pulse in an effort to avoid killing Orphan, the party goes to Cocoon and... kills Orphan. Then, in a moment of deus ex machina the player has been given no reason to suspect is possible, Vanille and Fang transform into Ragnarok, and somehow repurpose the killing machine into a giant glove to catch Cocoon in its fall. Then all the other characters lose their l'Cie brands, turn back from crystal, and live happily ever after.

Pat, happy endings are hardly unusual in RPGs, but FFXIII's is especially untrue to the preceding story. From very early on, the game emphasizes that l'Cie cannot avoid a horrible fate. Success and failure at the appointed task both result in a horrifying living death. There's no happy ending to be had if you buy into that premise, so the developers simply sprung one that betrayed both the world they had built and the story they had told.

Once upon a time, the folks at Square had the guts to stay true to their stories. The logic of FFX's story didn't allow a happy ending, so it didn't have one, and was all the better for it. An unearned happy ending is not better than a logical, sad one.

When the larger plot isn't satisfactory, one hopes to at least enjoy the characters of an RPG, but this proved largely impossible. Nearly every member of FFXIII's cast was positively insufferable. Sazh was the exception, but I've seen better Danny Glover impersonations. While there are perfectly good reasons to hate everybody else in the cast (especially Vanille), my personal ire was for Snow. For reasons I have outlined before, I don't care for the noble idiot character, and Snow is a particularly egregious example — an enormously strong frat boy with the mentality of a five year old playing cops and robbers.

Of course, character development can't really happen without character flaws, but FFXIII has very little to see in this regard. Fang, Snow, and Sazh are completely static. Vanille doesn't really change over the course of the game either, although she had apparently changed since becoming crystal the first time. Lightning has an interesting arc where she tries to redeem herself for failing Serah by saving Hope, but this plot is dropped entirely almost as soon as it crystallizes, about a third of the way through the game.

Final Fantasy XIII Screenshot

That leaves Tidus, who hates a father figure he blames for his mother's death, but after a climactic confrontation, reconciles with the man and tries to make him proud. Or rather, I mean Hope, who shares essentially the same character arc. In Hope's case, however, the father figure is not his literal father, but instead is Snow, the character I found most irritating. Hope's transition from wimpy whiner to party cheerleader is plausible, if you remember how teenagers can be, but it treads no new ground, and involves him changing from a character I dislike into a character I dislike even more.

The only rewarding part of the storytelling is the relationship between the story and the local world structure. Simon Ferrari has articulated the view that the linear portions of the game represent the constrained existence of Cocoon while the open portions represent the wild freedom of Gran Pulse. As such, the interplay between the game's two main settings is encoded in the structure of its spaces.

I don't entirely agree, because Gran Pulse is also a series of tubes. Only the Archylte Steppe is open; tubes lead off from it in all directions into ruined cities, canyons, grottos, and mines. Thus, the freedom of the Archylte Steppe is atypical, even for Gran Pulse. This suggests that the design is not about showing a contrast between Cocoon and Pulse so much as revealing the party's state of mind. Here, for a moment, the characters lack a clear sense of purpose or idea of where to go. The vast, open Steppe reflects this indecision. Once the characters have a destination again, the game closes back down into tubes, carrying the party inexorably towards their fate once more.

Of course, this synergy is not a triumph of FFXIII's own design; like so much of the rest, it has been copied. The brief moment of openness between constrained paths, corresponding to a feeling of uncertainty, should be familiar to anyone who reached the Calm Lands in FFX.

There is little to admire in the fiction of Final Fantasy XIII and of those few things nearly all were drawn in part or whole from better, preceding entries in the series. FFXIII is an unsatisfying story about tedious people built on a thinly-conceived and largely boring mythology using worn-out tropes. The game is devoid of originality, compelling characters, or a plot that meaningfully relates to what the player is doing or even the virtual spaces in which he does it. It wasn't the tubes that made FFXIII bad, it was what was in them.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3  
Developer(s): Square Enix  
Key Creator(s): Yoshinori Kitase  
Series: Final Fantasy  
Genre(s): Role-Playing  
Articles: Editorials  

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Nope, not in FFX either

Actually, Square didn't have guts to stay "true" to FFX's story either. In FFX-2's good, complete ending Tidus can come back and you get that last scene with Tidus and Yuna talking amongst the ruins of Zanarkand

X-2 != X

As you note, this occurred in a separate game. The story of FFX ended as it should have.

Only kind of. They do show

Only kind of. They do show Tidus still around at the very end of FFX when he's "reborn" in the water and then swimming towards the surface (leaving it up to the player to determine that that actually means). X-2 then comes around and explains it as Tidus coming back to Besaid in time to reunite with pop star Yuna. The nice thing about Asian entertainment is that they're not afraid to give you the sad ending whereas American shows almost never do that and just leave it there. I guess Square wanted the happy ending after all. Personally I couldn't even finish X-2. It was just too silly for me.

General Linearity vs. Geographical Linearity

I disagree with you main point.

While geographical linearity (the fact that there is no exploration) is not in itself an issue and was laso present in FFX, it is the only comparable gameplay feature from those two games.

FFX was non linear in character progression. The additictive sphere grid was the opposite of the dull crystarium.

FFX was non linear with its side quest : you could revisit any place to find secret weapons and bosses instead of being limited to a small plain where 95% all all quests (which are all similar) are waiting for you, a small area that is supposed to represent the free roaming.

FFX was non linear in its gameplay styles. You were bored by combat: you could do monster collection, blitzball, chocobo races, etc.

Mainstream critics of the PS2 era criticized the mini games in the FF series for being flat and tedious, without realizing that it actually served an important purpose: breaking the repetitive gameplay, which may not be an issue in a 10h FPS but a more than welcome addition in a 80h+ RPG.

No, a better story would not have saved FFXIII. It's the general linearity of the gameplay that killed it : at each point of my game session, what different things can I do ? This is a staple of the RPG genre that made it popular in the first place. FFXIII plays like an arcade game, and that design choice, while allowing for a quicker developpement, ultimately falied.

A good story doesn't NEED blitzball

Most of this seems like YMMV stuff to me. I didn't think the Crystarium was significantly worse than the Sphere Grid, which had its own ways of being inflexible and boring. If you've ever gone grinding for key spheres, you know what I'm talking about. Could the Crystarium have been better? Sure, but it's still miles ahead of inflexible leveling and awful license system of FFXII.

I'm also not impressed by the argument that FFX's few optional dungeons and array of insipid activities in already-visited areas (go die in a fire, lightning-dodging) constitute an intrinsically more compelling set of sidequests than the combat problems posed by the l'Cie (barf) in Gran Pulse. Different strokes for different folks, and all. You do have a point with the minigames, at least to the extent that blitzball is essentially a whole second RPG enclosed within FFX, and you can easily get lost in it.

Yet, my first run through FFX I wasn't attracted to blitzball at all, because I was taken with the story. Admittedly, my second run through the game I got into it a lot, but that was in an effort to fully explore the game. If what you most desire from a narrative-focused game is something to distract you from its narrative, that's a sign that it's the storytelling that's the problem, not the linearity. It's great that FFX had blitzball, but it's a great game because it didn't need it.

I can't agree with any of this.

First, linearity in an rpg does make it worse. There is no role to play if you are sent down a one-way path.

I loved the story in FFX, but that didn't mean I wanted to go through the entire story without running off and doing something else on the outside. Which it often allowed me to do. FFXIII did not, until many hours into the game. I even liked the story quite a bit.The characters were odd though.

I found myself, on numerous occasions, just holding forward on the joystick and being guided down a VERY set path. That just isn't right, no matter what game it is. There was never any deviation, except the random treasure chest. And they were always close and visible, no searching involved.

I even liked the battle system, even though they don't give you enough to do with it for some time.

So, yes, the very strict linearity killed it for me. To say that FFX is as linear as FFXIII is just wrong. After the open-ness of XII, despite what you think of the combat or license board, XIII was way too constrained. That's the truth.

Linearity

I fully agree with Mousse Effect.
I hated FFXIII, but I consider FFX to be one of the best in the series (and yes, I've played ALL of the numbered FFs).

It is not the geographical linearity that bothers me, it's the fact that FFXIII gives you NOTHING to do until you're about 30 hours into the game, at which point you get a simple Monster Hunter system, which I enjoyed for what it was (i.e: a fresh break from the rest of the game) even if it wasn't terribly original.

By contrast, FFX gives you lots of tiny little things to do which helps to keep your mind off the fact that you are indeed just walking in a straight line.
It also didn't hurt that the cast was infinitely more likeable, the story was better (if still ridiculous) and the combat was more varied.

From what I've seen of FFXIII-2 though, it looks like SQEX listened and opened up the environments and threw in some additional gameplay elements, and it's actually looking like something I want to play now, even if the cast is probably going to get on my nerves again.

Oh, and you should all play Xenoblade if/when it comes out.
Now THAT is how RPGs should be done.

That Noble Idiot

I totally agree with you about the Noble Idiot archetype, but I felt like Snow's noble idiocy was generally portrayed as stupid.

Lightning didn't like it, Hope didn't like it, and everyone else largely ignored it. One of the best scenes in the game is in PalumPolum where snow chugs a soda and unselfconsciously belches. The intent of that moment seems clear to me.

Another reason why I feel like FFXIII had no love for the Noble Idiot is that he is not the main character. In fact, by the time the party reaches Pulse, he has basically been robbed of all plot significance. He went from being a reckless rebel leader to a mute follower.

Different memories show we need games with more options, not les

I do agree that this is a YMMV question, and that FFX story was much better than XIII.

But my issue here is that your personal experience of FFX does not in the least represent everyone else's. My hypothesis is that a great rpg's success (and the fond memories we all have afterwards) are due to the fact that these games give you a lot of options and a lot of different things to remember : you particularly enjoyed rushing to kill Sin, I enjoyed even more spending 200 hours maxing my characters to defeat those impressive black aeons with my own customized strategy, my brother enjoyed discovering secret areas and collecting monsters, a friend of mine enjoyed customizing each character the way he exactly wanted with the expert sphere grid (still, I don't see how it compares to the crystarium that gives you no option whatsoever) and so on.

The issue with a lot of JRPGs this gen (in my humble opinion) is that they tend to give you less and less options about your gameplay style. For example, the game that best answers your critics of XIII is Resonance of Fate. This game has awesome character developpement and a very unique story, but most people are bored by doing nothing but combat after combat and no one believed it was GOTY like FFX : if (like myself) you are not bored by grinding, then RoF is a great geame, but the genre will become more and more niche if it does nothing more that combat + story.

Perhaps you missed something

I've read and greatly enjoyed your two articles about what FFXIII did right, and what it did wrong, but I can't help but disagree with this one.

It was to my understanding that the game was trying to convey a message about the power of the human spirit, and overcoming the impossible through it. The game progresses through the dramatic development of each character, and many boss encounters are indeed the Eiodlons that come from the cast themselves. Most of the fighting the game serves you is a result of society out to exterminate you, and facing wildlife within your detours around civilization. Everything else is very much conflict between the characters themselves, and how they overcome their complete despair.

The Fal'Cie that fights you is an illusionist, he appears in the form of whatever he pleases in order to egg you on. He stirs the emotions of your party, and after Oerba village you are left with the inevitably of the world's destruction, whether through the beasts of Pulse tearing Cocoon apart, or you destroying Orphan and thus ending all life.

It's the idea that the characters pursue this fate anyways that makes the entire story rather powerful. What almost destroyed the world in that final confrontation was Fang -- your own party member, not some maniacal villain bent on world destruction, but a human being giving into despair. It is during Lightning's speech where we realize what was meant when the game described the power of humanity as infinite, and the ability of the Fal'Cie limited.

They fight and decide to use the power of Ragnarok for good instead of complete destruction -- because why not? This is the grand scheme of FFXIII, and personally I found the narrative both strong and creative, though some characters certainly dived into melodrama far too deeply to remain believable. Snow and Hope were the low points of this game, they just stood out as silly and unrealistic compared to the rest.

Thanks for the read, and I know I'm responding to something kind of old here but I hope you find time to respond!

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