Written by Stephen Patterson
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Leaving the safety of Final Fantasy VI’s opening gambit in a snowy mountain village, I am thrust onto a vast overworld map with little more than the name of my destination to guide my forward into the remainder of the game. There are no way points, signals or signs pointing me towards the desert castle which is ultimately my destination – the suggestion being that I am free to find my own way through the world. This sense of overwhelming wonder and discovery is a feature of the series and of games of the period. I want to feel physically lost, not guided by a rather visible helping hand.
When I decided to play through some of the numbered Final Fantasy titles this month which I missed growing up, my main goal was to recapture some of the wonder I experienced playing through Final Fantasy IX in 2001 on the eve of the PlayStation 2’s release. The sense of scale presented in that game was vast, but it’s debatable whether this can be attributed to my age at the time of playing or the actual content on offer. Upon trying out VI, the latter seems more appropriate. This is mainly because there is a distinct lack of support offered by the user interface: it’s easy to find yourself lost. I may be directed towards a city on the other side of the map to continue the drama, but how on earth do I get there? I might find myself traversing an icy pass, running into trouble and having to double back because the enemies are too powerful. No hand-holding means my experience becomes highly personalised.
Taking a look at Final Fantasy in particular, there’s a definite shift in approaches evident in that shift from the PlayStation to the PlayStation 2. Final Fantasy X suddenly dropped the overworld map, removing the ability to fly your airship here, there and everywhere in favour of cinematic set pieces, such as the fight with Evrae on board the airship. There’s wonder there because you’re beset upon by a tough boss battle when you least expect it, but you were led there by hand. Most of the cities and towns you visit are closed and impossible to leave until you’ve finished you experience: creating a more robust piece of drama which moves from beat to beat, but neglects the discovery of the earlier iterations of the game. Perhaps we can attribute this to a desire to increase the audience of Final Fantasy, moving onto what would end up being the most successful home console in history, selling over 150 million units. If we look at more modern action/adventure games (a broad genre, to say the least), especially those with major critical acclaim such as 2013’s Tomb Raider and 2016’s Uncharted 4, they have a specific style: powerful set pieces, tightly written dialogue and a somewhat claustrophobic linearity. In fact, many of these elements can be seen in the latest numbered Final Fantasy, XIII, which was lambasted for abandoning the free-form nature of earlier titles.
All of this leads back to a big picture question which has been raised in previous articles of mine on the site, that being querying the nature of games as escapism. The reason older titles in the Final Fantasy fold, and in the role playing game arena in general from the past decade or earlier, are regarded so highly is their ability to create experiences which are uniquely mystifying and engaging. There is something inherently engaging about being in control of your own destiny, and that of your in game persona, in comparison to being told in advance by a team of writers what your next action will be. In one instance, you are reading the storybook and have the power to switch to different chapters, of in fact a different book entirely, at a time of your choosing. In the other, you are the child unable to read who has someone read to him – no control, no influence. Defined directions.
Returning to Final Fantasy, the writers have always managed to blend an almost theatrical use of act and scene breaks in their story design which, at first glance, would seem to meld poorly with the lack of direction exhibited in portions of their game design. Sometimes as a player you find yourself searching for a specific NPC in the world who acts as a trigger for the next act to begin, which can quickly become frustrating when that person is difficult to find. However, look deeper at the design, and it becomes genius in hindsight: the game is encouraging you to talk to everyone around by not telling you who exactly is the key to the puzzle and thus providing narrative context, alternative viewpoints from sub characters and additional information which may be useful later on. Even when the game does return to a new scene sequence after an extended break, you have been furnished with a wealth of information to help you understand it more effectively. Modern games lead you by hand from scene to scene, without surrounding it with rich supplemental context.
A lot of modern mechanical design decisions made by writers and developers in modern video games contradict my desire to see a more hands-off approach: maps cluttered with quest markers and side objectives often distract from the scenery and dialogue in a way that enables you to become more of a passenger in the story vehicle as opposed to the driver. In many instances, I can ignore or skip dialogue because I don’t need to know where an important quest is located by being told, I can just check my map and travel straight to it. There’s little keeping me away from checking my phone during conversations between characters or grabbing a drink during downtime, because my ‘immersion’ is consistently and repeatedly broken by over-zealous user interface design. In many universes, it makes sense – especially those like Syndicate (2012) where the heads up display is actually something seen through the eyes of the character, but it feels most aggressive and undesirable in dungeon crawlers and expansive role playing experiences such as the Elder Scrolls series. In fact, many agree with me, to the point that a number of people play that game by restricting themselves to only travelling by horse or the in-game cart system, rather than teleporting between cities. I am by no means advocating a removal of these systems entirely or rolling back decades of quality of life improvements in virtual adventuring, just more emphasis being placed on that lost sense of discovery found in games like earlier Final Fantasy titles.
To conclude, there is a clear over-reliance in modern game design on way points, fixed objectives and linearity even to the point that open world games are filled with checklists to complete and markers to reach. I would like to see more games embrace the feeling of becoming lost, because it helps us discover things off the beaten path. Less of the MMORPG trappings of games such as Dragon Age Inquisition, more of the free-form open world of games like Fallout New Vegas, ideally. There’s definitely a desire from writers to make games more accessible to a wider audience or players, and many people find the experience less time intensive and structured when games are written to move quickly from beat to beat, but, as someone looking for more than just the story, there are parts of the immersive gameplay experience that seem to have been lost to time.