Posted By Austin Yorski about 8 months, 2 weeks ago
I usually use this column as a place to highlight the best storytelling video games have to offer. I’ve talked about the clever ways the medium has leveraged Jewish mythology, Saussurean semiotics, and even Freudian psychology. However, to get the fullest understanding of the literary conventions and ludonarrative techniques of interactive electronics, Pixelated Pretension must also take the occasional moment to reflect on how and why things go wrong. This brings us to Final Fantasy XIII.
To clarify, I don’t think that XIII is necessarily a bad game. I would say it’s about a 6 out of 10 on BT’s unforgiving scale, which is above average. However, I do think the flaws in Square Enix’s overambitious RPG are telling. I’m not even referring to its “supposed” detriments–namely, linearity and unlikable characters–as both of those issues are rather subjective, if they can even considered to be problems at all. No, I am here to discuss all of the missed opportunities in the world of Cocoon and Gran Pulse.
Although spoilers follow, an intensive knowledge of the plot is not required for this assessment. The elements dissected in this essay are given enough context to be understood by those who have not played the game. For those interested, a basic plot synopsis can be found here.
Final Fantasy XIII starts in media res, or “in the middle of things.” It’s a time-honored narrative device by which the audience can quickly become engrossed in the most exciting parts of a tale, circumventing tedious exposition. In the case of Motomu Toriyama’s sci-fi/fantasy epic, this technique quickly becomes alienating. It doesn’t help that the player is immediately assaulted with jargon–Pulse, Focus, Cocoon, fal’Cie, l’Cie, and more are all hurled at someone coming into a strange world for the first time. Plenty of other Final Fantasy games have esoteric terminology, but at least VII had the decency to ease you into the universe before introducing Jenova Cells, the Lifestream, and the Cetra.
I’ve heard it said that FF13‘s failure is evidenced by its in-game index. How can a game expect its audience to study a whole encyclopedia of lore just to understand what is going on? I won’t go so far as to agree with this sentiment (Mass Effect has a similar compendium, but few problems with pacing or exposition), but I do think it is indicative of the game’s mishandling of its setting. There is no establishing shot of life on Cocoon. You don’t know any of the people being “Purged” (exiled to certain death). There are no stakes in the first act, because you have no idea what is going on. A certain sense of coherence and enjoyment can be found in repeat play-throughs, but that is a tall order for a title on which many gamers gave up halfway through.
The biggest missed opportunity isn’t in the central premise itself, but in the implications of such a world. Take the above clip for example. In it, Lightning and Hope come across Carbuncle, the fal’Cie in charge of Cocoon’s food supply. The scene contains a supposedly stunning revelation that the giant mechanical creatures of the world see humans as pets, which is a huge deal to both the characters involved. Unfortunately, the player has no frame of reference for this discovery, never having got the chance to live as a normal citizen on Cocoon. Compare this to a similar plot twist in Final Fantasy X, in which Auron is revealed to have been dead all along. This is truly surprising to the audience because we had journeyed, talked with, and fought alongside the character for hours. Conversely, Carbuncle’s first and only appearance is one that answers questions we didn’t know we were even supposed to have.
This is the ultimate price of those rough introductory hours: a distance from everything that comes afterward. It’s actually a pretty big shame, since the idea of people living in a world controlled by benignly neglectful machines is a pretty compelling one, and their personal agendas and eventual betrayals sound like decent starting point for a science fiction story. Instead, we are left to catch up with a bunch of neologisms and blurry character motivations. In fact, the only narrative thrust left with any promise is unceremoniously discarded.