I recently finished the storyline campaign of Final Fantasy XV.
I’m glad to have done so. It’s been a while for me. I’ve missed the last several entries in the series — I just never got around to XII (to my regret), I skipped XIII (which I don’t regret at all given what I’ve heard), and XI and XIV are MMORPGs that don’t count and clearly shouldn’t be in the main series in the first place. I haven’t played through a Final Fantasy game for the first time since Final Fantasy X in…God almighty, it was 2002.
And Final Fantasy is important to me. It’s been important to me since early childhood.
More than that: I’m willing to say that Final Fantasy is important in general. It’s got a bizarre kind of social and emotional traction. Anyone who fancies himself a culture-designer should want to understand it. It is on my shortlist of Games That Could Be Reverse-Engineered to Help Save the World.
So, in honor of the end of a 15-year hiatus: a little bit of talk about Final Fantasy and what makes it work.
But, first, a little bit of talk about what doesn’t make it work.
My last post, which laid out a tripartite model of media value, was specifically meant to lead into this one. Because, when you look at all of Final Fantasy’s success, it’s kind of amazing to realize how many things it does really badly.
It probably doesn’t need to be said that FF games don’t contain much in the way of (ahem) Literary Merit. The characters are mostly shallow and stereotypical, and their particular quirks mostly come pre-Flanderized — everything they say and do can be derived from a few simple keywords, except at a few moments of Great Drama, when they say and do whatever is necessary to advance the plot or the alleged character-development arc. The themes tend towards the maximally-cliche, like “love will find a way” or “courage and friendship are good” or “destroying the planet is bad.” As for the mechanics…well, in Ye Olden Days of Final Fantasy I they represented a clever way of having the player engage with a D&D-type story in video game form, but since then they haven’t done anything to provide a revelatory new experience for the player. All in all, your English professor will not be impressed.
More surprisingly, Final Fantasy games also mostly fail to be very Digestible.
I mean, they do all right with the standard RPG bag of tricks, finding various ways to string the player along with small achievable goals and irregular-but-frequent rewards. (Some of those tricks originated in Final Fantasy games.) They do manage to achieve a certain level of just-one-more-sidequest can’t-put-down-the-controller hypnosis, without which they probably couldn’t function at all. But it’s less than you’d think, given how popular the series is, and given the genre in which it’s working. Both the storytelling and the mechanics, rather than soothing, do an awful lot to grate.
Traditionally, the actual gameplay part of a Final Fantasy game consisted of mostly turn-based menu-driven battles. A lot of turn-based menu-driven battles. These are not particularly fun, or immersive, or engaging, or anything. When they’re easy, which they usually are, they boil down to “press X repeatedly until all the enemies die.” When they’re hard, they are simple spreadsheet management. Everyone who’s played the series knows the feeling of being driven totally batty by Yet Another Random Encounter and wishing that all the fighting would just fucking stop — despite the fact that the fighting is the core of what the game has to offer.
Recent installations have tried to mix up that model somewhat. FFXV gets you gameplay that consists of “not-quite-as-good Kingdom Hearts fighting, which is itself not-quite-as-good God of War fighting plus menu manipulation, as well as a few frustrating badly-implemented stealth sequences and a frustrating fishing minigame and similar out-of-genre inclusions.” FFXIII, as I hear tell, had an innovative “run down a linear hallway and hold down a single button to win battles” model of gameplay for its first 20 hours or so.
Point being, this is not the kind of fun that gets its hooks deep in you.
As for the story, well…there’s a reason that Final Fantasy has become a byword for nonsensical, hole-ridden, aggravating plot. Here are a few true statements about FFXV, which I promise you is one of the better and more focused Final Fantasies in terms of narrative:
- Long stretches of events are driven by motivations like “you have to find the One Rare Well-Guarded Piece of Metal that will allow you to fix your boat so you can travel to the major city across the sea.”
- You spend the bulk of the game on a long meandering journey, with story quests pulling you from breadcrumb to breadcrumb. Which is fine as far as it goes. But the actual purpose of this journey is unclear and constantly shifting; it seems to slide randomly between “visit all the royal tombs to acquire the power of your kingly ancestors,” “find all the gods and make pacts with them,” and “make it to the city where your fiancee is so that you can meet up with her.” At no point is it clearly established why you think that any of these things will help with the very major problems that you’re allegedly trying to solve.
- The villain — who is actually very well-written and well-acted on a micro level — is a smug-snake type who offers (aggravating and sketchy) assistance as often as he throws obstacles in your way. It’s the sort of behavior that would make sense as part of a complicated Xanatos Gambit where he needs the heroes to accomplish certain things for him. Turns out, nope, he just does whatever’s needed to get you to the next plot point, whether or not it makes a lick of sense.
- Your party members get into angry recriminatory fights for no real reason except “this is the part of the story where tension is generated by an angry recriminatory fight.” It would not have been hard to give the characters in question actual reasons to be mad at each other! But no, it’s all things like “you’re a selfish whiner for being sad that your loved ones keep getting murdered.”
Which is to say nothing of gems like FFVII’s “only you can fight the villain, even though the villain has already displayed the power to mind control you at will.” Or FFVIII’s “whoops, amnesia, we will now reveal that all your relationships and motivations are completely different from what you spent the last many hours thinking they were.” These are the kind of stories that make you want to throw your TV out the window.
When critics like Yahtzee say “this series is terrible, I don’t understand why anyone enjoys it” — it’s not like they’re pulling their arguments out of nowhere. Even fans like me can’t help nodding along.
Point being, this is not the kind of fun that gets its hooks deep in you.
Except that, demonstrably, it does. So what gives?
Given all the setup, the core of the answer is presumably obvious: Final Fantasy is distilled industrial-grade Stickiness. You keep on playing for hour upon hour, trudging through the dumb storytelling and the irritating battles, so that you can keep on being a part of the game world. Those half-baked shallow-as-a-puddle characters somehow matter enough to people that they inspire reams upon reams of fanfiction. No matter how dumb you think it all is, at least if you’re a certain sort of person, you can’t help caring.
That’s a power that I would really, really like to understand.