Final Fantasy XV is, for many reasons, a breaking point for the beloved game series that gave goosebumps to millions of players around the world. The potential was there to let it be many things; here, we try to examine what went wrong in the process.
This article may come a little late for the conventionally lightning-fast times of the Internet, but I surely hope it will find its own way and identity, through all the present, past, and future sayings on the matter.
If you are a video games enthusiast like I am, chances are you played Final Fantasy XV as I did. If you are a fan of the popular JRPG series that gives it its name, you most likely felt the need to buy it as soon as it was *finally* released on the market, on that chilly 29th November, 2016. After ten years of dragged development and hopeless anticipation.
With that last statement in mind, now that I think of it, maybe this article was just destined to come out this late. I also want to take my own times to process stuff, dammit.
When we finally could put our hands onto the much waited Square Enix’s monumental work, however… Deep down, some of us felt that something was off, missing, lost someway among the unforgiving lines of code. Some of us loved it, and saw nothing wrong with it – and I would like to invite them to speak up in the comments section. Intuitively enough, I am between the ones who have something to say – but in the other direction entirely.
This article will be a piece of an ongoing experiment started with Sunless Sea and the Beauty of Video Game Writing (which I really invite you to read, if you haven’t already): my intent is to provide a series of “Game Writing Reviews“, deep reflexions on the narrative techniques of the video games that surprised me the most – both in a positive and a negative way.
Video games are a complex matter. This series will aim to explore their deepest narrative secrets, by analyzing the storytelling techniques and the wonderful ideas behind their stories. By also making sure that the whole picture is efficiently intertwined with a solid gameplay structure.
Enough with the fancy words, and straight to the point: Final Fantasy XV is a bittersweet case of wasted potential. Why?
Bear in mind: there will be spoilers.
Final Fantasy XV: Art & Video Game Writing
One thing needs to be clarified from the start: Final Fantasy XV may have its flaws, but it is a sweet melody to the eyes and a joy for the senses – occasionally. I’m not here to question its artistic beauty, the care behind the soundtrack’s composition, or its environmental design. Instead, I will leave just a simple picture here that will clearly speak for itself.
There’s no denying how beautiful Final Fantasy XV can be. Its deeply evocative environments, the choreographic combat system (profoundly improved by the introduction of character switching), even the monsters know how to be beautiful in their own way. The fight against the Midgardsormr at the waterfall (which is a norse name, by the way – but that’s a matter for another article) showcases an incredible consciousness of the craft of animation with just a few attacks of the giant snake, all embellished by a hardly-forgettable background music. There’s just too much to say for a single paragraph, here.
Final Fantasy XV‘s biggest problem doesn’t lie in its art design, and even gameplay-wise it can be enjoyable, to an extent. It is when you look at the main plot that you tend to shrink your eyes in surprise, instinctively trying to make out what could have been done to avoid an endless series of internal coherence issues.
Simply put, Final Fantasy XV fails to deliver interesting characters in a complex plot. It lacks coherency from the very start, when Prince Noctis and the others are required by plain logic to hide from the Empire – and will instead go all over Eos to help anybody in need, without even blinking or worrying about being spotted or recognised.
Furthermore, the foursome never stops for a moment questioning Ardyn‘s motives, and yet is surprised when *SPOILER ALERT* he reveals his true nature of doppelganger hypocrite, as if we – players – couldn’t see it coming from the start. And these are just two examples in a plethora (fancy word here) of other, similarly embarassing and illogical situations.
And yet, the story shows good potential right towards the end, when it unleashes a tiny slice of its beauty in the last two chapters. The post-Crystal world has deep roots in an agonising, apocalyptic design that tries its best to work, although it is not explained nor told the way it should’ve, and the ending itself is a wonderful epilogue for the story of Noctis, rightful heir of Lucis.
Alas, that is not enough to make up for a lack of character background, a number of embarassing or pointless dialogues, and generally the absence of a common, solid ground where the game wishes to put its basis. FFXV could have been a masterpiece, with proper design and possibly just two more years of development behind its back.
FFXV‘s main plot is not bad nor awfully conceived, and, to some extent, it’s not even badly designed; the foundations to make it a great story were there all along – but the developers supposedly decided to make an utterly questionable choice in terms of storytelling: pretend that the characters could come out on their own.
Prince Who of What?
If, as Kate Leys once said to a class of writers during a workshop, “A story is made by the strength of its characters“, we could even turn a blind eye on the main plot and its flaws – provided we had interestingly written characters all along the way. Instead, Final Fantasy XV‘s biggest narrative issue resides precisely in its characters. As I tried to hint before, the story of the game is not even badly conceived – it’s just plainly bad told.
Noctis is meant to look like an immature prince slowly reaching out to his true nature, but his evolution doesn’t even start until the end of Chapter 13, when he suddenly (too suddenly) becomes the opposite of what he had been before. Overall, his growth willingly ignores a coherent evolution of a character, and skips many phases that would have otherwise made him one of the most interesting and mature heroes in the history of Final Fantasy.
As for Gladio, Prompto and Ignis, the three of them are just reduced to much less than a shade of a flat sidekick for most of the game, with a spark of good writing in Ignis only by the end of the adventure. Gladio’s intent to push Noctis forward becomes annoying at some point, as the two of them are little more than children arguing in a bitchy way. And Prompto… Well, do I really need to say what’s wrong with Prompto?
The real issue, here, is that the idea was there all along, but it was poorly executed throughout the whole game.
During the late stages of the main story, we can easily guess how the developers had a precise idea of what Noctis and his friends should’ve been: Ignis’ final condition speaks for itself (although it is fully explained exclusively in his dedicated DLC), Gladio was meant to be the one who pushes Noctis forward in his choices, and Prompto definitely has more to his story than we could ever imagine. Shamefully enough, their background will be expanded in their respective DLCs – which, unfortunately, are equally not that great in terms of the quality of writing, with a few due exceptions.
Overall, the game fails to assign a true background to his protagonists: all the character involved are just mere avatars on screen, and the player doesn’t even have the chance to empathise with them. The same happens with Lunafreya, who *SPOILER ALERT* fades away before we can really get to know her and love her enough to care; but the game later delivers a long sequence of flashbacks meant to shed light on the relationship between her and Noctis, and the player starts to understand a little more of the characters in-game. The issue, here, is that these scenes are delivered too late, or at the wrong time to actually mean something for the player.
Instead, the player is just asked to follow Noctis and his friends in their journey, knowing little of their motivations, their background, or their most inner wishes, needs, and desires. This is not how you build a character-player relationship – in fact, it is not even close to a good relationship with a general viewer. Cinema and literature have gone a long way to show us just that.
It is true that there is an expanded universe behind Final Fantasy XV, built on the movie Kingsglaive, a comic book, a manga and such. But that doesn’t matter, when the game doesn’t even try to make them count in the whole narrative discourse of its plot.
Ardyn’s Hidden Potential
And then, the character of Ardyn deserves, perhaps, a whole sub-chapter of its own. Some interesting theories around the Internet see Ardyn as the true hero of the story – but I personally believe that would be too much to ask of Final Fantasy XV. By bearing in mind what my critiques have been for the rest of the game’s story, it looks more like a lucky shot from the developers, and possibly too far from the actual truth: Ardyn, a good man turned evil by the circumstances, is blindly led to revenge by deep hatred towards his ancestors, and is possibly a mad man awaiting for his final judgement.
On these grounds, to see him as the true hero of the game sounds like a shot in the dark; what definitely is true, however, is that his potential as a character is at least as suppressed as all the others in the game: Ardyn could, indeed, have been the “true hero” of the game, this way basically subverting most of the classical Final Fantasy storytelling principles, based on a simple “hero” and “villain” plot.
We players, obviously, love it that way and would never complain to a “conventional” way of telling Final Fantasy‘s stories. Still, if effectively employed and written, such idea could have been a blazing fire in the quiet of a dark night. Alas, it is not.
Not only that: Ardyn is technically corrupted by a dark energy within, which is also the source of many of his past issues with Gods and Kings at once. And yet, his true power is never unleashed – not even during the final battle –, and overall it looks like he’s almost holding something back, something that could have been majestic in too many ways. This works towards the explanation of Ardyn as the “true hero” – but also, if we wish to be extremely malicious, towards the lack of time the developers had to develop the game.
What if Ardyn had some troubled, but well-written, identity issues regarding his true nature? What if he were constantly fighting for the light, rather than straight-forwardly succumb to the darkness? Unoriginally, he could have been another Cloud Strife – but also a better Sephiroth.
Or he could have had his own, original identity, which would have been much better than all these things combined.
None of this happens in the game: Ardyn is ambiguous, a doppelganger hypocrite who clearly likes to play with people, but his character is never developed after a certain point, and some truths about him are simply taken for granted. The developers promised a “Episode Ardyn” to give the players some more information about him – but is that really the way we want to go for future games?
If the path we are walking on is the one of cut content, flat characters and remote-future fixes – then I’d much rather wait for a few more years before a game comes out, if that helps experiencing a better written story.
But the gameplay, although not extremely deep if compared to other chapters of the series, can be surprisingly fun, choreographic, and more than enjoyable to watch. Based solely on these grounds, we may be convinced to turn a blind eye on the main plot, or even on the poor characterisation of Noctis and almost every character revolving around him. A video game is first of all interactive: does it really matter if it’s not excellent, story-wise?
Some might argue that yes, it does matter. We are “storytelling animals” after all, as Jonathan Gottschall likes to remind us: we yearn for stories in our every-day life, we would easily sit around a fire to listen to a storyteller, and even at the dawn of times mankind has always felt the need to tell stories somehow, be it orally or on the walls of a deep cave.
But video games are not entirely about stories, although, recently, they enjoy telling them in even extremely mature ways. They are about how our in-game actions intertwine with that story, and how we can potentially influence its outcome, if given the choice. So, I can totally understand players who wouldn’t bother about Final Fantasy XV‘s plotholes, or about its evident writing problems. But how does the game stand, given these premises?
The problem, here, is that Final Fantasy XV is not even a well-designed interactive story.
The player has almost no power in the way the events unfold, and every apparent “choice” is ultimately pointless to him and the characters involved. It doesn’t matter how you decide to reply to Luna’s messages in Umbra’s journal – the outcome will always be the same. The player has no way of influencing the story itself, and, instead, is given the choice to make choices that have no real meaning, if not an apparent feeling of power over the story itself. A power that, except in one situation (the dialogue with the Prime Minister of Altissia, to be precise), will never show its true potential.
There’s nothing wrong in leading the player by his hand – the recent God of War does it, and in a surprisingly brilliant way. Choices are reduced to a minimum, and there’s no way the player can influence Kratos’ evolution or his relationship with Atreus. However, in Final Fantasy XV, the developers willingly decided to give the players a chance to “roleplay” Noctis with a few dialogue choices; most of which will just allow the player to listen to a different line of dialogue, and nothing more than that.
There is no karma variable, no relationship with Luna, Gladio, Ignis or Prompto, no indicator on screen that suggests an evolving relationship with any of the main characters – and, indeed, nothing really meaningful happens, regardless of the choice made.
Final Fantasy XV gives you an illusion of power, willfully limiting its potential interactivity and immersivity to mere action-RPG gameplay mechanics. Noctis’ story will remain the same, regardless of your actions and choices.
It doesn’t need to be different than this, however: a video game doesn’t need to have branching narrative or interactive plot-choices to be consistent. But, if you give me the chance to roleplay as the character of my choice, I expect there to be a plan behind your choice. Otherwise, it’s just a meaningless illusion. And we have plenty of other, gigantic RPG games showing how beautiful it can be when things go the way they should.
Not least, the astonishing amount of freedom that The Witcher 3 can give to the player, in letting him shape his own story.
As we approach the end of the story, we realise that Final Fantasy XV‘s main issue resides in his ambition. It could have been so many things, and the concept to make it great was there all along – but it wasn’t pursued until the very end, due to poor planning or possibly a lack of physical time.
And it is with shredded heart that I say all this, as Final Fantasy is easily one of my favorite video game series of all time.
My hope is that, with Kingdom Hearts III, Square-Enix will finally remind us who they really are: extremely talented storytellers and universe-builders, capable of making our eyes and senses stick to their stories for hours and hours of imaginative gameplay.