Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Much Ado About “…”

It’s a little hard to pin down what didn’t work about Final Fantasy XIII. I have plenty of thoughts about the macro-management combat system, but in general I found it to be a fun and original take on RPG fighting. That the game was so firmly set on rails was initially a bit off-putting, but once I got into the flow, I found this to be a mostly forgivable flaw—particularly when I thought back to the exquisite (and very fixed) Midgar chapters that were easily my favorite part of FFVII. It certainly didn’t hurt that FFXIII was such a visual and sonic feast—the game’s beautifully rendered characters and environments went a long way toward making the story pop.

Or did they? The sights and sounds of Final Fantasy XIII were certainly capable of stimulating the senses, but why did I have such difficulty relating to the cast, or even understanding their most basic motivations and likely outcomes of any given interaction? Why was I so lost to know what was happening that I was forced to return again and again to the Datalog in order to understand what had happened in the game’s many (many) cut scenes?

Searching for clues, I looked back to a few of the series’s prior installments—most notably FFIV and FFVI (which I played on the SNES as parts II and III), whose characters were rendered as plainly as anything else from the 16-bit generation. Pixel for pixel, there wasn’t much separating FFIV’s Dark Knight protagonist Cecil from late-game addition Edge, but Cecil’s struggle to satisfy his guilty conscience after unwittingly razing a defenseless village and Edge’s anguish upon discovering that his parents had been turned into monsters—narratives that unfold across text blocks and without voice acting—are easily more gripping than anything that takes place in FFXIII.

The interesting thing to me is that it doesn’t seem to be a problem of narrative. Although the game’s localization team could have been a lot gentler with overlapping jargon (L’Cie + Cie’th x Fal’Cie = barf), the storyline of XIII could hardly be interpreted as a lack of compelling material. Between the first-act death of Hope’s mother, the xenophobia and condemnation facing the party of newly branded L’Cie (Is that the plural form? L’Cies? L’Ciae, maybe?), and enough loved ones locked in crystal stasis to start a cryonics facility, the narrative arc should have been enough to satisfy.

There was a simple trick of dialog present in previous Final Fantasy games that I like to call it the “dot-dot-dot,” and if you’ve played an earlier installment for more than 15 minutes, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. After Cecil defies his orders, and best friend Kain agrees to fight by his side (before totally flaking out), Cecil responds the only way he can: “. . .” In FFVI, when words aren’t sufficient to describe Celes’s grief over being left alone at the end of the world, she says, simply, “. . .” This sometimes-abusive use of the ellipse is really just the most extreme example of one thing that the older volumes did so well: they allowed players enough room to absorb the story and fill in the blanks left by earlier-gen graphics and sound with their own imaginations.

FFXIII never really gives its audience this chance. The game tries its very best to present its cast in such vivid detail that we can check interpretation at the door. The resulting parade of cut scenes actually gave me an unsettling feeling that I’ve taken to calling “emotional colorblindness,” the experience of watching a drama play out while feeling unable to discern between shock, love, familiarity, guilt, and a handful of other emotions. It took me several chapters to parse the nature of Hope’s animosity toward Snow, or to wrap my head around the continuum of Vanille’s guilt/joy/acquiescence (all of those squeaks just sound so similar!). We’re left in the dark about why hard-hearted warrior Lightning has such a chip on her shoulder, and her transformation into a caring friend and team player is equally ambiguous. Perhaps worst of all, the episode in which Sazh grapples with Vanille-icide (so close!) was so poorly delivered that I actually found myself laughing in disbelief—even pushed to the brink, nothing that we know of Sazh, good-natured party elder and chocobo shepherd, indicates that he would respond to Vanille’s tearful confession with reflexive murderous rage. Mix in a super-weird endgame performance from Fang—even in retrospect I’m not exactly sure what happened there—and it becomes a bit clearer why FFXIII made me feel like I’d been freshly lobotomized

In each of these scenarios, it is clear that FFXIII’s plot is attempting to turn on an axis constructed from the feelings and motivations of its characters (as it should!) but the fact that these drives are so hard to interpret ultimately causes the entire story to feel hollow. I accept that the videogame medium, with tech that has only recently permitted its characters to be so fully realized as both visual and sonic objects, may not currently be advanced enough to allow those same characters the complexity of emotion available in, say, a well-acted piece of cinema or theater. (I’ll offer that, at least in FFXIII’s case, this is often as much a creative shortcoming as it is a technological one.)

What’s interesting to me is that these advances in presentation actually took the Final Fantasy cannon a few Eidolon-sized steps backward. That it was a disappointment speaks highly about just how well “less is more” worked for the series for such a long time. That’s not at all to suggest that Lightning & Co. should drag their way back to text blocks and polygons—but maybe it’s possible that they weren’t completely ready to push themselves forward.

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