Final Fantasy XIII is Heathcliff and Other Tortured Analogies

In which Heathcliff is Final Fantasy X, Catherine is Final Fantasy XIII and Nelly is, I don’t know, Chocobo Mysterious Dungeon or Final Fantasy Mystic Quest or something. This is the end of the literary analogies. (Ehrgeiz is Isabella)

Almost three years after its initial release the received fan criticism of Final Fantasy XIII has never really abated. As is the manner of rose-tinted nostalgia, it is still viewed as a milestone marking a plummet in quality for the series by game players of a certain age, much in the same manner Final Fantasy II/III/IV/V/VI/VII/VIII/IX/X/XI/XII/XIV was the beginning of the end for the once always glorious series (hint: it never was that glorious). Isn’t it time for a reevaluation?

I admit, in my haste, I too wrote off Final Fantasy XIII. In my usual nuanced analysis, I used the Caffeine-Fueled forums to state “It’s just shit.” As criticism of a game title goes it’s about as poorly thought out and meaningless as it gets without me calling the people who did enjoy it blind fanboys who want to marry “Squeenix” (you see that’s not the company’s name so it’s very cutting to call them that, much like typing “Micro$oft” instead of “Microsoft”) and give birth to a multi-headed hydra consisting of belt buckles, Dragon Ball Z character designs and characters called Edge Maverick and Fayt Leingod.

Replaying the title earlier this month, however, allowed me to see plainly what this game is. It’s Final Fantasy X, pretty much. It’s all pretty simple and I know I’m not the first person to say it but here we are.

If you’re considered a beauty, it’s hard to be accepted doing anything but standing around.” – Cybill Shepard

“The prettiest corridor scroller you’ll ever see” is the backhanded compliment used to smack around the title. It condenses every stereotype about the series into one implication: Yeah, it looks pretty but it’s coasting on legacy and FMVs. Playing just to see the next rendered movie as if it’s still 1998. Some of the charges stick to some titles better than others. I don’t think it really applies to either of the games I’m discussing here.

The same charges were once laid at Final Fantasy X’s feet and the aesthetic similarities between the games is quite startling. From the frozen lakes featured in both titles to the blue glow tinted forests in Spira and Cocoon, the linearity of the titles weighs second to the physical similarities. Even the aesthetic of the “remnant buildings” in both titles, the cloisters of Final Fantasy X and the Pulse Vestiges of Final Fantasy XIII, is eerily similar.

Concept art for Final Fantasy XIII’s Lake Bresha (left) and Final Fantasy X’s Lake Macalania (right) show one of the many design similarities between the two titles.

You traverse linear paths through exotic locations for most of the game, eventually stumble into some settlements for further plot advancement and around about the final third or so of the game, you come into the game’s big open area; the Calm Lands in Spira and the plains of Gran Pulse.

Of course, all this matters only if you harbour some sort of fondness (or burning hatred works too) for Final Fantasy X. Still, the functional similarities are striking. Even the way NPCs and cities are designed and interacted with feels similar. Functionally, there’s little real difference between putting a shop option at every save point and plonking down O’aka XXIII down regardless of plot relevance beside the save beacon, unless you feel that O’aka and Wantz’s go-nowhere backstory about their sister is the very heart and soul of Final Fantasy X.

You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you.” – Leon Trotsky

I think it’s pretty clear that Final Fantasy XIII’s Crystarium System is inspired by the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X. If not, here it is: Final Fantasy XIII’s Crystarium System is inspired by the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X. It constricts the field considerably in order to avoid overpowered characters for most of the game but the idea of buying stat upgrades and abilities on nodes through accumulated ability points in the absence of traditional level ups is something we’re familiar with by now.

The battle system, on the other hand, owes more to Final Fantasy X-2, which is the James Arnold Taylor fake fake laughter to Final Fantasy X’s slightly less-annoying James Arnold Taylor real fake laughter. Both games feature a focus on rapid role/job switching in mid-battle within a battle field that places some vague, and mostly uncontrollable, importance on positioning and chaining.

Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system is not a mess. It has clear boundaries and definitions, much like Final Fantasy XII’s that will, inevitably, chafe against the received wisdom of what an ATB system should do. Taping the confirm button won’t be enough to get you through a lot of random battles. This is a good thing. The downside is that the lack of job versatility allowed to the player shackles the chance for any real experimentation with the battle system.

Although holding more in common with its controversial sequel, battles in Final Fantasy XIII tend to strive for the sense of scale prevalent in Final Fantasy X.

If we accept that Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XIII share some similarities, we can at least arrive at the beginning of some sort of potentially constructive comparisons. It’s not so much that liking the earlier game while loathing its modern counterpart is hypocritical but it helps to demonstrate that even if Final Fantasy X is not universally beloved, neither is it treated as some Eldritch abomination that will drive normal RPG fans mad with the acknowledgment of its existence unlike its comparative partner. Although Final Fantasy could always use some more Lovecraftian references.

If you’ve heard this story before, don’t stop me, because I’d like to hear it again.” – Groucho Marx

The biggest difference between the two games is in their plot. Both have a very tenuous connection to the idea of distrust at a religious governments motivations to some slight pontificating on the cycle of death and life but here’s where Final Fantasy XIII really excels.

I’m trying not to say this in a negative way, but the reaction of the main cast in Final Fantasy X to revelations about Yevon, Sin, the Calm and so on is very JRPG in its nature. Your party kind of staggers for a few moments, someone is going to mutter “no, it can’t be…” under their breath and then 30 seconds later we’re all pumped up again to take down The Man. Fuck you, we won’t do what you tell us! It’s all very cathartic wish fulfillment I’m sure, but as a story that is ostensibly about six main characters and their interactions with a mainly monocultured fundamentalist theocracy it’s pretty lacking. The world is happening around these characters and they can manipulate it but it doesn’t manipulate them beyond pointing the way to the next story scene.

Final Fantasy XIII is different. Its soul-crushing government is tolerated and respected because of the security it ostensibly provides its citizens. The Sanctum’s temporal power does not exist just so as to provide a wall for bouncing concepts off.

The cast of Final Fantasy XIII react to each betrayal in a much more realistic manner. Yes, eventually some semblance of hope is restored because it’s a story but the characters still change. If Snow is chipper and self aggrandising, it’s because deflecting scrutiny of his half-molded personal code through purposeful hyperbole allows him to keep his dismay at bay. He’s not just the chipper character who takes everything in his stride. He can’t be. Snow’s pain, or Vanille’s pain, or Sazh’s pain isn’t there for the “deal with this character’s prerequisite” section of the game. It informs who they are, all the time.

Despite his whimsical design and rare use as a comedic character, Sazh Katzroy is one of the more emotionally developed, well presented black characters in the entirety of video games.

None of them can be the emotionally boisterous yet fundamentally well balanced and honest character archetype that infests JRPGs. Every party member in Final Fantasy XIII suffers from repeated betrayal, shattering their views and their concepts of morality and self. Betrayal from their government, from their pseudo-deities, from their armed forces, from their purported allies, from their fellow citizens and from each other, several times. The characters are still recognisable as the game continues, but the cracks are visible. The cracks in the masks that as human beings we all wear and change dozens of times every day to deal with different people and situations.

That is not to say that Final Fantasy X has no character development. Tidus, for all the knocks he takes, is a very different person at the end of the game than he was at the start. The other party members too go through growth, to varying degrees, albeit in a more traditional RPG manner wherein your party goes to the “Lulu place” and we get her development and next it’s the “Khimari place” and so on.

Final Fantasy XIII is more organic in its character growth. Yes, events happen to each of the characters and they react to them but they also talk in between them. They share information and show personality clashes and views that aren’t there necessarily to be the characters growth point or future Aesop. There are still big events, such as Hope’s return to Palumpolum but it’s different in that it isn’t “The Big Hope Development Segment.” Hope developed before that point and will continue to do so after his homecoming. The same goes for each member of your party. None of their stories is done until the end. When Tidus declares “This is my story.” it also (mostly correctly) implies that the other stories are over.

You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!” – Robot Devil

While Final Fantasy XIII tries something outside of its own comfort zone as regards narrative structure, it would be foolish to pretend that it accomplishes its goals perfectly. Concepts sometimes are not clearly defined and the facial animations are not yet accomplished enough to portray the kind of deep thought and emotional broadcast Square-Enix obviously wants the game to have.

The shift of this emotional content out of stilted dialogue is a welcome addition, even if vestiges still remain in the infrequent character narration segments. Due to the physical limitations of the characters, however, that content is increasingly shifted to the in-game summary of events. Lightning’s “I’m troubled that my well intentioned words have resulted in a dangerous situation” face is the same as her “contemplating eating a ham sandwich” face. Anger, happiness, sadness are all cromulently displayed but the nuances don’t always travel well and while taking such exposition out of the dialogue does wonders for the flow and naturalism of the script, shifting it into an in-game recap file is a stop-gap solution at best.

While easily rendering less subtle expressions such as rage or fear, true emotional subtlety is just beyond Final Fantasy XIII’s grasp when it comes to its facial models.

The fact still remains that well received or not, objective good or not, Final Fantasy XIII represents a tangible effort by Square-Enix to push the JRPG storytelling medium forward. Perhaps in incremental shifts such as learning Fira rather that some sort of Kefka-esque transformation from the World of Balance to the World of Ruin but it shows that right now, at least, Square-Enix is aware of problems affecting the JRPG market and is willing to leverage its overwhelming clout to shift things.

Final Fantasy XIII’s gameplay is not an abomination, or at least no worse than any other previous game . Its flaws are clear, yet its story provides real spark in a genre seemingly forever content to gnaw at whatever remains of its tail, an Ouroboros ground down to the nub. At this time, with the low prices you can find the game for, it may just be worth a shot if you’ve resisted until now.

10 thoughts on “Final Fantasy XIII is Heathcliff and Other Tortured Analogies”

  1. You couldn’t have picked a better Sazh screencap.

    I wonder if the attempt to rework JRPG storytelling techniques will have any effect in the long run. It’s hard to say 1) if anyone really paid attention, fans and developers alike, 2) if any of it got through the mixed critical response, and 3) if the genre is still even healthy enough for that progress to take place. Unless you count its own sequels, Final Fantasy XIII is kind of the last major JRPG release that I can think of.

    Sure, it’s only been three years, but it feels like the days of plenty for this genre have passed, or we’re at least in another big lull. The hilariously disastrous launch of FFXIV certainly didn’t help.

  2. In the process of exploring new storytelling paths for the RPG, which I admit was one of this game’s best features, I feel like we lost the sense of exploration and wonder that some (maybe most) games in the series have given the player.

    As games become more expensive to make in a never ending race to increase technology, I fear that money is being spent more and more on games being pretty and running at N FPS or whatever other technical crap. I’d rather time and effort be spent on bringing back a world to explore with the quirks that FFs of old had.

  3. @Delsaber

    The dearth of successful console RPGs doesn’t concern me too greatly. The market has always been small and I feel like it was artificially boosted during the 32-bit era due to various factors. Final Fantasy XIII sold well, of course, but I think I can safely say the plot had little to do with that. Ironically, I don’t think Final Fantasy can shift the market in the way it attempted because it’s so heavy on inertia. It can’t influence on that sort of scale any more, it can only direct things in more nebulous areas like atmosphere and graphical intensity. No one will particularly copy XIII’s plotting but they’ll try and copy the shiny graphics and backflips.

    @Kiki McDohl

    You’re right, Final Fantasy XIII is certainly not about exploration, even when compared to X. Which fits well with the plot of constantly needing to be on the move but doesn’t make for an absorbing experience in that respect. There isn’t really much of a quiet moment to even take in your immediate surroundings for at least half the game. RPGs, especially JRPGs, seem to be in an insecure place right now and pushing the budget to try and match the AAA titles seems to be the goal. That seems like it’s doomed to failure, personally. But I don’t really have a counter plan either besides “make good game that people will buy lots” and if I knew how to do that, I’d be a very rich man.

  4. I really like this, but I wish it would have gone into one thing people never seem to grasp about the game. FF13 is a game about fate,. It’s about dealing with your fate and overcoming its restrictions to forge a new one of your own choosing. The environments are meticulously designed to express this.

    During the beginning sequence, you run on single-file corridors. No chance to evade encounters, no path options, no hidden areas to discover. It’s linear. The choices are made for you. even in battle, you can really just attack. But then you become a l’cie, and you have a focus to fulfill. but you also have power. The game world opens a little. Now you can avoid the enemies, or hit them in new ways of your own choosing. As your power increases, you get access to new roles, new combinations, new strategy options. Essentially, the power of a l’cie rewards you with *choice*. And the game world opens further. Eventually, there are branching paths to your goals. Once you enter Gran Pulse, a funny thing happens. The characters have decided to fight against the sanctum, even if that means shattering the innocence of coccon and its people. Suddenly, and shockingly, you can go anywhere. The environments are wide open. Fight or don’t. Run away or sneak. Do whatever you want, it’s your choice now. But there’s a cost to that freedom. suddenly, the game becomes much, mush harder. The enemies are stronger, and some of them are outright impossible to kill. You have to learn your own limitations. Finally, upon returning to Coccoon, you are able to take alternate routes, skipping encounters entirely, metaphorically avoiding the sanctum’s plans for you as you fight towards the end.

    In essence, what people categorically dismissed as being stuck to the rails after a brief glimpse at the game turns out to be one of the most excellent uses of environmental storytelling in gaming history.

  5. @Austin

    You’ve hit the nail on the head and I think I touched on it in my above comment. The locations, and the nature of your interaction/lack of them, directly ties into the ideas the game is trying to express. Of course, to some people that doesn’t excuse the linearity, which is fine. But at least there’s a solid thematic reason for its premise.

    I don’t want to delve too much into later game stuff as the article is sort of a missive to get people who rejected the game to give it another shot but absolutely, the idea of these characters pushing against these artificial walls and eventually breaking through is a large portion of the game.

  6. This article is bullshit- FFXIII is nothing like FFX. The map may be similar- but that’s all that FFXIII holds to FFX. The storyline of FFX is touching- and it makes sense. The story of FFXIII is so confuddled and screwy. The Fighting System is turn based at it’s highest degree- The fighting system of FXIII is semi turn based with a side of bullshit, and wtf, considering the class changing mid game- if your character dies, so does the whole team.
    Final Fantasy was also well paced, unlike FFXII AND FFXIII, where you have to spend hours and hours grinding to make it anywhere. FFX was a pretty game for its era but so are all the FF’s that has absolutely nothing to do with whether a game is alike- Assassins creed is beautiful in detail does that make it like Final Fantasy XIII? No. FFXIII is a piece of crap that has been polished. I’m sorry, but FFX can stand alone and FFXIII can’t. End of story. Whoever wrote this crap needs to cut their wrists and die.

  7. @(sigh)suckadick

    I’m sorry that the story of Final Fantasy XIII befuddles you so. I realise with its linear narrative, flavoured with a small number of flashbacks and an in-game encyclopedia which (often painfully) spells out everything that’s happened so far in the game that this may be too intellectually taxing.

    I don’t believe the plot of Final Fantasy X is bad. Quite the opposite in fact but I do feel it adheres to conventions too strongly at times. That’s not to dispute my enjoyment of it. Although I feel that X encourages grinding just as much as XII or XIII, that’s not really something I covered in my article because as you shrewdly pointed out, not absolutely everything in both X and XIII are directly comparable in every way.

    You have a point. Party leader death equaling a game over can be frustrating but that’s the point of the paradigm system, allowing us to prevent this without accepting that the party assembled was inadequate and starting afresh. It’s not perfect and, frankly, I don’t like it as a conceit but it exists and I choose to deal with it.

    I would take on board your suggestion to “cut (my) wrists and die” (as opposed to cutting my wrists and then playing badminton, I suppose) but I’m afraid your mother swallowed all the razor blades around here when she realised you survived the abortion procedure.

  8. The difference between a measured comparison of two similar things and yet another trite “versus” article is pretty stark. A shame that distinction appears to go right over the heads of some folks.

    Reading comprehension, “those kids today”, etc.

    One quick point, though: anyone who complains about FFXIII’s leader death thing probably never played an SMT game.

    John, I might have to give it another chance now, specifically for the narrative themes you mentioned. I’ll just be sure to grab the PS3 version this time; the 360 port had some rather annoying technical issues.

  9. I can see where you’re coming from with this, but I think you’re presenting the information in the wrong way. You spend too much time trying to convince us that FFXIII came about from the basis of FFX, which I think can be taken for obvious. Of course FFXIII evolved from FFX. While it doesn’t hurt to briefly restate the obvious, I feel that you should have put even more emphasis on the evolutions from X to XIII, rather than trying to backtrack from FFXIII to FFX.

    There are a few specific things I take issue with in the article, too:

    – You make the point that Yunalesca’s reveal is different from the Sanctum’s position by saying “Its soul-crushing government is tolerated and respected because of the security it ostensibly provides its citizens. The Sanctum’s temporal power does not exist just so as to provide a wall for bouncing concepts off,” which you say is different from FFX. I don’t really see the point you’re trying to make here, because from where I’m standing, Yunalesca’s secret is “tolerated and respected because of the security” it provides the people of Spira from Sin.

    The following point you make about the more realistic emotional responses from the cast of XIII is a great one, though, and one I don’t think the game gets enough credit for.

    – I simply disagree with the statement
    “The downside is that the lack of job versatility allowed to the player shackles the chance for any real experimentation with the battle system.”

    For the majority of the main story, you have access to 3 roles per character. Even if you use a static party of three characters throughout the game, that still gives you 27 different combinations of paradigms. That’s a hefty number, and it only grows if you start to consider switching in party members or the postgame where you have access to every role on every character. Adding more than that would probably start to get overwhelming.

    – Toward the end, you start to complain (for lack of a better word) about the limitations of the emotional expressivity of the technology. I implore you – if you want to make this point, DON’T use Lightning as your poster child. Her expressions are limited because she is a stoic character. Her facial expressions are similar not because the model doesn’t allow her to be expressive, but rather because her personality isn’t one filled with sunshine and rainbows, like our “almost made it main character status” Vanille appears to be.

    Sorry.. I didn’t really try to make this out to be like an article critique, but I already put in all that effort.

    1. @Kaden

      No, no, you bring up some very good points. Some I lean towards more than others but isn’t that always the way?

      The article is imbalanced in the focus on the Final Fantasy X/XIII connection, for sure. Possibly because I was writing it as a way of figuring out my own problems/likes about the title on my new playthrough. If there’s a point to it, and there may not be, it’s an attempt to “normalise” XIII rather than continuing to discuss it as if it were some sort of malignant lump on the side of the Final Fantasy series as many people still regard it as.

      Yunalesca, and the church of Yevon as a whole, in my opinion, takes on a more traditional JRPG role as the secretly evil religion whose god you worship is actually an asshole. Most of the common citizens, save for a single cultural group, buy into Yevon. Which is fine. I think my article kind of reads too much as trying to score points from X when it’s probably in my top three Final Fantasies. But I find that lacking in interest as opposed to the Sanctum, which not many people seem to truly believe in. People don’t trust the Sanctum, but they’re scared and figure the odds are they won’t be purged so they do their best to play the game. To me it’s slightly more nuanced.

      The problem I have with the paradigm system, and this may be a problem of my own creation, is that you need three: everyone hits people/shit, that hurt, heal heal heal/eidolons love when I tank. Sure, I can go RAV/MED/SEN or SAB/SAB/SAB or SEN/COM/SAB but they’re not as effective as flipping between more dedicated paradigms. Slotting in different people with the same techniques in the same roles doesn’t help.

      You’re right that Lightning is the stoic hero so I certainly wouldn’t use her as an example of “look at what this technology can do!” but the game seems to assume I can catch her subtleties. If Lightning’s advice gets wrongly construed and she regrets but can’t take it back and that worries her (according to the Datalog) and the way I’m supposed to get that is a five second close up of her blank face, I’m more inclined to chalk that up to the game, rather than the character.

      Vanille on the hand is incredibly expressive but enough so that it overflows into something approaching more conventional fare. Vanille’s underlying emotions are usually presented by her being REALLY sad and then perking up when someone notices. It’s not that Vanille, or Lightning, aren’t complex characters and their voice actors add some of the subtlety that I find lost on the faces, I just feel we’re just not at the level of detailed human expressions in a very human game. It certainly gets a lot closer that most others as well as, say, anime. Fang might be the closest to what I’d like to see in that regard as the technology develops.

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