This article was originally written for The Gamer Studio. Since then, my feelings pretty much stand unchanged. I probably won’t be getting the humorously titled Lighting Returns: FFXII. Seriously Square: never, ever focus test your game titles.
While Final Fantasy was once considered one of the most respected franchises in gaming, Western support for the series has eroded away over the last ten years. What happened? There was a time when gamers counted down the days to the next FF adventure. Now it’s more like something that we accept is going to happen, whether we care or not. At the same time, free-roaming western RPGs like Oblivion, Skyrim, and Fallout have exploded in mainstream popularity, seemingly taking with it some people who gave up on Final Fantasy.
Was there a single event that marked the decline of the series in popularity? Or was it a gradual slide? Before we can get into that, we need to take a quick look at how we got here.
When Final Fantasy as a series began, it was about as close to the traditional role playing game as you could get. The player controlled a team of four character, whose class, names, and abilities were determined by the player. The player was released into an open world with some idea of a final goal, but little direction as to how to go about this. New bits of story were mostly stumbled upon, and wandering the overworld was the main way of experiencing the game. The second game introduced a set cast of characters and gave them personalities of their own, but their names and development as fighters were still largely determined by the player. With each game bringing some refinement, this formula continued all throughout the single digit entries in the series. By the time Final Fantasy X was released, all that had been whittled and narrowed down to a single point.
The tenth entry in the main series put players essentially on a single track from the beginning to the final boss. While the dungeons give the player an opportunity to look around for the occasional secret bauble hidden away where the camera won’t go, exploration was mostly a thing of the past. All the areas of the game were connected like a corridor, and never did the camera pull out to reveal a massive, sprawling world. The series had trim its fat to the point of being a stick figure. The world that remained was beautiful, certainly, but it lacked the depth of past entries. Like a ride at Disneyland, there was a wondrous world around you, but if you could stop for a moment and take a closer look, you see it’s all a rigid, robotic show, the same every time.
Maybe the most telling element of this change in the series is the fact that the protagonist is such a hollow shell. You have the opportunity to name him, yes, but no character in the game ever addresses him by name, since the voice actors clearly couldn’t prepare for that contingency. Not even his love interest addresses him by name. The saddest thing of all is, it’s not clear if any of the other characters even asked! It’s hard form a bond with characters who don’t seem to care about each other. “Hey, uh… you. Help me out here!”
The ability to name the player here is player interaction in the simplest form. You can slap a new layer of paint on an unoccupied home, but there’s still nobody in there.
But really, the games had begun moving in that direction long since before X. Even looking at fan favorite Final Fantasy VI, you see that the player is generally funneled toward the single important event that will move the story along, even if there’s a few optional sidequests on the way. Given the direction the series was taking, this development was natural; more and more was put into a story, and of course the game designers wanted you to experience every bit of story they crafted.
When Final Fantasy XII arrived, the world was opened up a bit, but something else critical was streamlined: the fighting. Characters could now be pre-programmed prior to entering battle with commands, essentially eliminating the need for player input in battle. As long as you prepare yourself well before entering a fight in FFXII, the game will play itself. If this were coupled with the last game’s exploration, you’d have a gamer that was nothing more than a CG movie that asks you to press forward occasionally!
(For the sake of this argument, we won’t even get into the massively-multiplayer entries, XI and XIV. That’s a whole ‘nother bag o’ problems.)
Another thing happened as the series drifted into a guided experience. It became increasingly cinematic, placing more and more effort into making beautifully designed characters and environments, leaving less time and manpower to craft a more expansive world. From around the time Tetsuya Nomura took over on character design for the series, characters became teenagers with perfect hair and intricately detailed clothing, dropping the “fantasy” aesthetic of Final Fantasy almost entirely.
Now consider all this in comparison to The Elder Scrolls series, which while evolving technically, has not strayed far from its original premise of exploration. The Elder Scrolls games, even now with Skyrim, have a short introduction and then turn you loose into a massive, open world, where you can happen upon an adventure while not necessarily forwarding the main story. Contrast that with Final Fantasy XIII’s 25 hour tutorial.
There’s little direction given when playing Elder Scrolls. Players are encouraged to take in the world at their leisure. That is a stark comparison with Final Fantasy X and XIII’s neverending story tunnels.
In the Elder Scrolls, building your character is completely up to you–you can choose your own build, and decide how you develop. Far from having stylish clothes or flashy hair, the character design is completely up to you.
So the question remains: Which one is more fun? The open world, or the intricate story? Gamers seem to be leaning more toward the freedom of the Western RPG more and more.
To be fair, the open world is not without its price. The expansive world provided by The Elder Scrolls comes with countless bugs, some of them significant affecting the game experience. Classic Final Fantasies were the same way: Certain exploits could break the difficulty or playability of the game entirely. Modern Final Fantasy has been polished to a mirror sheen: Far fewer bugs are to be found. But it’s a game that makes a beautiful landscape, and then tells you not to touch it.
To put it simply, Final Fantasy stopped trusting in the players to make the game fun for themselves. It regressed into a hold-holding, cinematic tour of a convoluted story, without giving the player agency to significantly affect their world. The Elder Scrolls shugs and says, “Go out there and see the world for yourself.” You can guess which approach has the lasting appeal.
It seems the newest game, Final Fantasy XIII-2, tries to backpedal on a very critical reception the last game received. It reincorporates exploration, towns, and shops for a less linear experience. But it may be too little too late. Many players have defected from their fandom, or given up on JRPGs entirely due to the declining return on fun in FF.
To become relevant, to become a trendsetter again, the series famous for reinventing itself needs another drastic reinvention, a fresh infusion of new ideas. Square-Enix would do well to embrace the freedom offered by its western conterparts, while not entirely retreading its steps.
We need the fantasy back in Final Fantasy.