FFXIII and High Concept Cinema

Final Fantasy XIII essentially told a simple story. I know this now because I had someone explain it to me. Reasonable accusations about my intelligence aside, the logical conclusion is that the developer failed to tell the story effectively. That is somewhat surprising considering just how many cutscenes there are in which the plot could have been conveyed in a comprehensible manner.

Pacing is one of the biggest issues. Square-Enix has dabbled in the movie realm before and no matter how much the sight of Cloud leaping 3000 feet in the air swinging a sword the size of a horse may make your legs tremble in erotic delight, it is hard to argue that either of the Final Fantasy films are actually good movies. The Spirits Within had an incredibly slow moving pace in which a metric ton information was thrown at the audience who were expected to retain it all in order to understand exactly what was going on in the occasional frantic action sequences. Obviously chastened by their inability to craft a decent plot, they dispensed with the notion altogether in Advent Children, instead opting to give the audience what they thought they wanted; a John Woo movie. If you hadn’t read a fan fiction retelling of Final Fantasy VII just prior to watching it, you simply had no hope of knowing what was happening.Final Fantasy XIII is an awkward combination of these two different philosophies but spread out over 50 hours. At times it will give a great deal of information about the world and the lore of the game, but once it does so it assumes that you are able to retain that information and relate it to the events. At other points it will show stunning action sequences but then not provide the context for why the events are taking place at all. Context is really what is missing from the game and so the scenes that are meant to be the most emotionally charged lose their impact. The audience isn’t clearly told why a revelation is as important as it is, so it doesn’t allow us to empathize with the characters. In fact the most relatable aspects of the story are the ones which are contained within the events of the game.

Take for example Hope’s revenge plot. At the beginning of the game we see the event that drives his thirst for revenge making his motivation clear. We then see how his feelings change due to moments in the game that cause him to re-evaluate his goal. Finally we see his realization that his rage was misplaced and he comes to terms with his anger. This plot all unfolds in chronological order and as such it is easier to connect with. While flashbacks are an established and at times effective method of story telling, multiple flashbacks spread throughout an experience not designed to be experienced in one sitting is an invitation for confusion. The use of the beach scene as a hub area in which all the characters are present for their separate flashbacks is certainly interesting. It at least gives a familiar anchor to the back stories of the characters and adds a sense of destiny to a disparate group. However the date stamp which appears at the start of these scenes only complicates the situation. Whilst the fireworks festival is clearly established as a significant and relatable time period, when the game leaps to other days around that event the audience is expected to extract the relevance of the new time period. Add to that the additional layer of separation with a narrator, suggesting that the story is being told in the past tense, and the sheer number of narrative devices and multiple flashback points all prove to be an unwelcome distraction.

Although there are exceptions, by and large the golden rule of high concept cinema, or to grossly simplify the term ‘mass market movies’, is to explain the stakes very clearly and simply to the audience, and then repeat them over and over again. In Armageddon we are told at the beginning that the meteor will destroy the Earth. We are shown a hint of what could happen. Then throughout the movie in action sequences, exposition and conversations, the characters will continually remind us that if they fail the world will be destroyed. Final Fantasy XIII on the other hand has a number of different stakes in play, and doesn’t do a good enough job of repeating them to the audience. Their desire to add elements of ambiguity and plot twists and shifts in character personalities does no favors to a story that is already confusing. If you want to turn your story into moral shades of grey, it needs to first be painted in vivid colors.

Another series that could be accused of being overly convoluted is the Metal Gear Solid series. Indeed Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty retains a degree of infamy for the fact that it took a further two games for the events to be made slightly more understandable. Unlike the Final Fantasy games which usually take place with entirely different casts or that are set in completely different universes, the Metal Gear series requires intimate and deep knowledge of the previous games in order to get the most out of them. However, what the series does do is always create a sense of purpose and thus dynamism and momentum to the game which Final Fantasy XIII lacks. Though the goals may change, you know what you are doing and where you are going. The colorful and eclectic boss characters provide structure, a focus and a sense of progression. Playing Final Fantasy XIII often leaves you without a clear sense of where you are, where you are going and why you are going there. The lack of traditional dungeons and towns was a bold decision, but one that made the game feel even more linear and didn’t help to give the world a more accurate sense of space. When wondering through the stunning locations, the location of those locations seems irrelevant. The sudden shift in Chapter 11 to a mapped out and explorable world, though liberating, is jarring when juxtaposed to the previous flow of the game. The lack of multiple towns, whilst accentuating the wild nature of Grand Pulse, makes it feel barren. At a point in which the game should have been creating a sense of urgency and reminding players of their motivation, it put the story on hold and left you to hunt monsters at a leisurely pace. Clearly a response for the innate need to grind in an RPG whose linear nature had provided few opportunities to do so, it changed the nature of the game in a confusing way.
After all the issues I have described it would be unfair to mention that in fact there is a great deal of clearer explanation within the game. The problem is that it is within the data log. In fact there are reams and reams of text which clarifies exactly what is happening and why. Even the brief paragraphs that sum up recent events on loading a save file does a better job of explaining the story than the cutscenes do. On more than one occasion I was surprised by what I read because it made what had just happened far more comprehensible. Supplemental reading materials are becoming common in RPGs now, but the key thing is that they should remain supplemental. If it is something key to understanding the basic events of the game, it should not be an optional extra. Mass Effect 2 does a far better job with its supplemental information. You can play through Mass Effect 2 with little confusion about the course of the narrative, but digging into the supplemental materials provides a greater density of context and a greater understand of the environment in which the events take place. Final Fantasy XIII treats important information that could clarify the plot as if it were of lesser value to the character drama.

If the comparison to movies seems harsh, I agree. Games are not movies and each genre and each developer has their own way of telling a story. However, FFXIII fails to explain its story clearly to the audience. Whether you liked it or hated it at least FFX, developed by the same team, told its story in a more comprehensible way. This time, ultimately, they managed to make a story that they couldn’t tell in 50 hours.

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Written by Stevie L.

Stevie Lim is a man in Japan.

2 comments

  1. Rikard /

    Having not actually played FFXIII I can’t argue your finer points, but I really enjoyed the article nonetheless. That is all for now.

  2. Pretty much completely agree with you here, the story is deceptively simple, they’ve just filled it with so much jargon (I felt sorry for every reviewer who had to explain what fal’cie and l’cie were) and told it in a wilfully confusing way that it gets completely lost. The only moments it works are in the melodramatic bits where human emotion are driving things forward, (Hope’s angst, Snows desire to do the right thing, Sazh dealing with his sons situation, Vanille’s feeling of guilt)the rest is confused and told poorly.

    Gran Pulse initially delighted me, but after spendng a few hours there it felt completely tacked on to the game. There is absolutely no justification in the context of the story for the characters to go off hunting and finishing those quests.

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