The Fall of Final Fantasy – Stories Worth Telling?
Final Fantasy started a quiet revolution on the NES and went on to become one of the most revered, genre-defining franchises the games industry has seen. Through its engaging stories and memorable characters it has enraptured fans for over ten years, having most recently released the second part of its thirteenth instalment. But it’s with these more recent titles that things seem to have taken a critical turn for the worst. Called out as melodramatic, confusing and unengaging, Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 left some fans cold. Now, for many, the expositional magic seems to have disappeared, perhaps to the point where even an Ether provides little remedy.
The fact is, to sustain twenty or more hours of gameplay, the narrative of a JRPG needs to be compelling but it would be foolish to suggest that the earliest games were epic odysseys. The original Final Fantasy involved personality-less heroes romping about, collecting crystals in order to quell an ancient evil – hardly book-club worthy material. Many would argue that Square only really started delivering elaborately conceived stories with IV and the tortured, reserved, shy, dark-knight, Cecil; his journey introduced some indisputably interesting characters and the first (kind of) convincing love story. But both IV and to a greater extent V still suffered from predictability and simplicity, the watershed in storytelling, for me, coming just before Cloud’s famous foray out of Midgar.
Final Fantasy VI in many ways hasn’t been matched as far as writing and characterisation is concerned. Terra stood not only as the first female protagonist but also as the original leading lady to be existentially torn and introverted. Due to her mysterious past, and time spent enslaved in the army, she brought a genuine sense of mystery to the role. In many ways this theme would be repeated ad nauseam throughout the series, with Final Fantasy VIII’s lead man Squall defined by flying the largest anxiety-ridden flag. Not only did VI’s many characters seem more comprehensively realised than the entire cast of I-V put together, the story also contained some authentically poignant moments that, despite the sprite-based art, were incredibly evocative.
A good example is a side-quest relating to pseudo-Old English speaking knight of the order, Cyan. Berated by nightmares regarding the failure to protect his wife and child, it in fact turns out a sinister beast, Wrexsoul, was tormenting his mind. The team enter Cyan’s soul, vanquish the beast, and reveal the forgiving memories of his family. Despite being incidental, it’s a touching and subtle moment, the likes of which are rarely (if ever) seen in this generation of JRPGs.
The PlayStation not only offered Square’s games a ‘distinctive’ visual style, but also bore witness to the most loved game of the series, Final Fantasy VII. Shifting away from a high-fantasy setting, VII is renowned for its confused protagonist and tear-inducing love story. The end game revelations were well thought out, Cloud’s twisted memory and alternate identity adding intrigue to the narrative. VIII had similarly engaging characters but was let down by its infamous ‘we all grew up in the same place but can’t remember cos magic’ strand. The relationship between Squall and Rinoa was however perhaps Square’s most human, with repressed feelings and inability to act popping up as recurring themes. IX reverted to a more traditional setting and form of storytelling but its characters bore all the depth and quality that was now associated with the brand. In all of these games, the relationships seemed tangible. As much focus was placed on the development of the characters as the unfolding story at large.
Final Fantasy X stands as something of an enigma. As Square’s first PlayStation 2 title, it came fully supported with graphics that actually had a passing resemblance to their source inspiration but some incredibly cheesy voice acting to help destroy all moments of poignancy. Despite this, I believe X’s plot, as far as characterisation is concerned, to be the best of the lot. All characters are distinct and diverse and the romance of Tidus and Yuna seems genuinely convincing. Yes it’s massively overplayed (the laughing scene being of particular note) but we witness the romance from its very beginning. It develops parallel to the journey they undertake. It doesn’t involve polarised lovers like Rhinoa and Squall, it doesn’t rely on an emotionally distant and confused male, like Cloud – it”s presented more simply with two people who just like each other and offer mutual support as friends.
It would be permissible to regard XII took somewhat of a step back. Like II, the focus of the story was often the politics; most of the characters, especially Vaan, seemed like meaningless figures. But it’s Final Fantasy XIII, and its more sprightly but equally as moronic offspring, Final Fantasy XIII-2, that seem not only to jump the shark but go on to arrogantly and maliciously insult the shark directly to its face (Yes, the idiom no longer makes sense). Almost instantaneously upon starting FFXIII, it was made abundantly clear that the only way Square-Enix was going to allude to depth was by throwing a selection of very similar sounding words that all mean massive, but also trivial, things into your face, introduce some characters who, somehow, are ignorant enough to grate on you, but not ignorant enough to ever explain what on earth is going on, and finally, contrive some emotional flashpoints so thin and unsubstantiated that the idea of being put in control of these people felt like a direct personal insult.
A core problem is that most of the characters’ relationships had already been formed pre-game, there was no progression, just digression. I consequently felt nothing for the engagement of Snow and Serah or even of the sisterly relationship between Lightning and Serah, mainly due to the fact that it felt like you were being thrown in at the deep end with both the politics and the relationships. The formula of previous titles had worked because many of the key players would start of strangers and form relationships over the game. Terra, and her rag-tag group of heroes are good examples, as are a lot of Cloud’s groupies. Yes, Cloud knew Tifa before, but their relationship was divulged in such a way that the player could witness it harmoniously with the current plot. In XIII the dialogue between characters is amongst the worst written of the lot. It can’t be easy to mangle characters around the convoluted plot points, granted, but the characters themselves were at best simply clichés, and at worst, soulless, high-pitched husks. Anyone who has played the game probably knows the worst offender was of course Vanille. A girl so infuriating and trite, it was actually nauseating.
Something that made Tidus (FFX) so engaging as a protagonist was the idea that he, like the player, was new to the game’s world, Spira. It was simple but as far as narrative conceits go it was expositional perfection. Everything could be explained to him simply, contextually and in a relatable way - Final Fantasy XIII on the other hand expects you to read its on-board encyclopaedia (I have incidentally). I’m all for lore, but if you can’t tell a compelling story via the medium of your characters, you have fundamentally failed as a writer.
But of course, as well all know, to fix confusing, not-worth-the-time, conceited nonsense, the best way – always – is… inexplicable time travel!
Final Fantasy XIII-2 fixed a vast array of gameplay issues its forebare brought to the table, but the story was possibly even poorer. It’s by distance the most abstract story Square has told, with time-hopping being the only means by which Noel and Serah can find the dimension Lighning is in (for some reason.) Every step of the way, the motivations of the dynamic duo were unexplainable beyond, ‘Lightning is in a different time’, ‘we must fix time’, ‘there better be no sexual tension, I is married y’know’. Indeed, the relationship between Serah and Noel, whilst being marginally superior to any in XIII, still lacked any actual anything. It benefitted from the Tidus-esque, fish-out-of-water concept, but failed almost universally in execution due to truly hammy writing and consistent and relentless melodrama.
The point to all this, if there really is one, is that something fundamental disappeared when Squaresoft became Square-Enix, but it’s not exclusively a Final Fantasy thing. The flaws of XIII speak to a general malaise within the JRPG genre. The stories aren’t as honest or as heart-warming as they once were perhaps because of a perceived withdrawal of need for it. They’re spectacles, sure, but contain no actual substance, which can’t be ignored when you’re asked to spend so much time with the cast. People aren’t clammering for a remade Final Fantasy VII because of its web of intrigue or stunning visuals, they just want to spend time with a group of interesting people in interesting places – concepts that, for whatever reason, these latest games lack profoundly.