I mentioned Final Fantasy XV back in my year in review, but I would like to spend a bit more time looking at one of the strangest video game experiences I have ever had. For those that don’t know the game, here’s the plot; you play as Noctis (the ultimate emo prince) who, along with his entourage of Ignis (British and likes to cook), Gladiolus (who has the muscles to back up that name), and Prompto (almost endearing in his hyperactivity), goes on a roadtrip to marry his fiance Lunafreya (there’s no joke here because we never get to know her). Shortly after starting that trip, Noctis’s home city, Insomnia, is taken over by their longtime enemies the Niflheim Empire and Noctis’s father, the king, is killed.
We learn of this invasion over a cell phone call.
Noctis and friends then continue their journey, now going after magical super-weapons and gaining the help of gods so Noctis can take the throne and save his people, and then when the real villain is revealed, save the world. For a while this works, despite the product placement Cup Noodles mission. Noctis and his friends are wonderfully drawn out and their relationship is the most functional thing in the whole game. Together you drive from place to place, never really going anywhere, fight monsters, complete missions, and prepare until you’re ready to go meet Lunafreya on another continent for help.
Then, after fighting an exhilarating boss fight, the game railroads you. Literally.
Railroading here refers to the action of putting a game on rails, forcing every player down the exact same linear path. It’s coined for making a game similar to riding a train, where there is only one route it can travel down. The irony is that when Final Fantasy XV puts you on rails, they literally put you on a train for the back third of the game.
This is where the game starts to fall apart, barely making it to the end. The story becomes loosely stitched together, with a lot of plot points happening off screen. It leaves you feeling confused more than anything else. Now the director of the game is planning new cutscenes to fill in those blanks and a few more dlc updates, which is a whole other post worth writing about. But I want to talk about those cutscenes.
A cutscene is when the game takes away all player control and treats them to a scene as if they were watching a movie. They’re not necessarily bad, they’re just not the best way for a video game to tell a story. Video games have the unique ability to tell us about a world and a person, not by simply telling us, but by having us discover it at our own pace. For example:
That’s from Bioshock Infinite, a game that opens with you taking a boat to a lighthouse and finding a flying contraption inside that takes you up to a floating city in the sky. You play through all of this. As you walk around this city you discover the people there revere the American founding fathers as if they were gods, and they carry with them the racial and gender politics of their time. So much so, that when you save a Black woman from being killed all hell breaks loose around you and the rest of the game is spent fighting for your life. And then traversing multiple realities. Which, yeah it’s weird, but you get to discover all of that as you run and fight across this incredibly designed city. I would argue the game would be better with far less of the running and gunning element, so I will offer two more examples from one of my favorite games from last year:
That’s from Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. There’s a large chunk of gameplay, far more than I expected, centered around how young Nathan Drake and his older brother Sam broke into a woman’s house to steal back some of their deceased mother’s possessions. Moving through the house is entirely exploration based, with a puzzle element here or there. But the real joy is entering this mansion and finding it full of incredible archeological items apparently found during the career of the old woman who lives there. As you continue you stumble across letters left behind by the woman’s husband and then her son. You learns her whole life story, how she married, how she left in pursuit of greater adventure, how her son hates her for it, so that when you eventually meet her you understand her. It’s great, so great that the game does it again in its own epilogue.
This time you play as Nathan’s daughter, Cassie, as you move through the house he built. For the player it’s magnificent to see everything Nathan has made of his life, and through the eyes of a girl who doesn’t know about his adventurous past we’ve spent four games playing through. It’s the best game epilogue there’s been in my opinion.
Which brings me back to Final Fantasy XV, a game that never lets you visit Insomnia until its 10 years on and the end of the world. So when the characters all reminisce about how it used to be, I have no context. The game should have started in Insomnia and let us explore it so we could feel that anguish when we came back. When we go to Niflheim, they should have built the whole country to we could see how different it is from Lucis, Noctis’s country. Which reminds me, they did:
It’s empty landscape, but imagining driving through those landscapes which are so different from any other we’ve seen just makes me sad we didn’t. Even Niflheim’s capital, which we do play through, is all empty hallways!
In the game they talk about how days are getting shorter and nights are getting longer and more dangerous. This is a game where a significant gameplay mechanic is finding places to rest at night because the monsters are too powerful. Imagine noticing that, incrementally, the days get shorter as the game goes on. I’m sure that was the original intention but because the game was forced out sooner than it was ready we’re left with someone relaying that information on a train.
The best example of explorative storytelling in the game is when you inexplicable jumpy forward in time by 10 years.
It’s night all the time, and you play through some early areas but now taken over by demons. A character you knew as a child picks you up in his car, where he’s kept the little cactus mementos you picked up for him. It hits you like a hammer as he drives you across the map and you see your whole country has been decimated by demons. It works like gangbusters, which is why I know the designers had the capability to get it right, they just didn’t have the time frame.
Still, this was a learning experience for me. I don’t think I would have had the capability to know how best to tell a video game story until I started filling in Final Fantasy XV’s blanks in my head. All the levels it needed to become something truly special. It’s a weird thing to say, but in this case its altogether true.
Is that a thing, learning through disappointment in something?
PS, outside of its storytelling I do think the game is solid, and I really like the combat system.