Monday, January 16, 2012

Cracking Final Fantasy XIII's Immersion Problem

Last week, in anticipation of Square-Enix’s upcoming Final Fantasy sequel-within-a-sequel (INCEPTION!), Jason Schreier wrote a piece for Joystiq titled, “Why Final Fantasy XIII Just Didn’t Work.”

It’s a fine title; Final Fantasy XIII absolutely did contain serious problems that took an immersion-breaking toll on the experience. Last year, I wrote a thing about where I felt the game’s storytelling had gone awry, but Schreier’s piece hits at a deeper issue—a player-experience problem entirely prior to character or story or setting:

Other Final Fantasy games create the illusion of choice, using techniques like sidequests, towns, world maps, vehicles, and even optional bosses to make you feel like you can actually veer from the script . . . You can’t progress until you do what the game wants you to do next, but you can see more than what it wants you to see. It feels like you're visiting the world of Final Fantasy VII, not just watching it.

And he’s really onto something! I’d add to Schreier's thoughts that it’s more than just the freedom to explore that creates that feeling of immersion. While the earlier games do involve the “illusion of choice” that he identifies, it’s more than just a narrative sleight-of-hand—it is the pivot point for the in-game challenges that have kept players buying ether potions for all of these years.

By not placing you on rails toward your next destination, earlier Final Fantasy games gave us a series of simple problems to solve—in particular, “Where do I go next?” Although this sounds more like an Easter egg hunt than a fantastic puzzler, this ambiguity tugs at the player throughout. By necessity, our intrepid heroes (a long line of attractive yet emotionally reclusive swordfighters pushing back against emerging imperialist forces) engaged townsfolk, gathered clues, and followed the compass rose in uncertain directions. The games’ gradual reveal and sense of freedom allow us the chance to experience the world just like our characters (who, in most cases, are also experiencing parts of the world for the first time). Our decisions, challenges, and victories are united, creating a genuine feeling of shared experience.

Was this exploration occasionally frustrating? Of course it was. Striking out from the safety of the village to follow a rumor along a vague northeasterly diagonal carried no guarantees and could easily prove hazardous to your party. This particular strain of questing promoted grind and gold farming (the former of which, some have argued, remains a problem in FFXIII). Particularly when coupled with the exhaustible resources that marked the earlier games, this provided a difficulty curve that was severely handicapped in XIII. These challenges (and rewards!) created a trustworthy relationship with the player that helped in part to dull the sense of grind. The predecessors demanded our attention, because without it, the games could not progress.

Despite or because of these issues, the opportunity to rise to the games’ challenges has traditionally been one of the most rewarding things about the Final Fantasy series. While the earlier games’ story and characters may be the selling points for many fans, I’d opine that the ability to forge our own paths—even within the confines of a script—is the vehicle toward participating more fully within that story, and that Schreier’s article is right on when it points to illusion of choice as the core difference between FFXIII and its predecessors. Head over to Joystiq and check out what he has to say, it’s a great read!

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Lead image was heartlessly pilfered from Siliconera's interview with Square-Enix’s Motomu Toriyama.
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