The Open and the Shut

The Open and the Shut

 
I finished playing Final Fantasy XIII. I was kind of reluctant to start it in the first place, mostly because a number of reviews weren't complementary, with a number of reviewers making a big deal about the linearity and about how this was the game's major failing. I have to say, I found myself really enjoying 'the boring part', and I didn't mind the linearity at all. After playing several open-world games, this sudden enforced path and pacing seemed really relaxing and somehow comforting. While I like the open world, those games always make me a little anxious. I remember leaving Vault 101 and just standing on that ridge, staring out into the world, feeling a vague sense of panic. Oblivion had that same sort of directionless feel to it; I walked out of the sewers and thought, "OK, now what?". Don't get me wrong, I love the open world, but in all those games I end up wandering aimlessly for a while, feeling adrift and a bit depressed. Wandering around and finding stuff is fun but in some cases there's no point to it other than to find stuff. On the other hand, I don't want to just stick to the story because I know I'll only be seeing half the game. At one time, all adventure/RPGs were entirely linear and story-driven, so FF13 felt like slipping into a warm bath or reconnecting with an old friend.

I also appreciated the linearity in terms of giving the story the importance it deserved. I always find it kind of laughable in games when you're told that the world is going to end unless you go kill Mr. BigAndEvil and your response is, "Wow, really? But this guy wants me to go shoo the rats out of his cellar. That's much more important than saving the world!" Mr. BigAndEvil then says, "Fine, I'll wait." There's no sense of urgency, no sense that the story matters. You could spend weeks of real-world time just futzing around with no in-game time apparently passing, even though you're doing lots of stuff. I love side quests just as much as the next person, but in many cases they just feel like what they are: filler. I know what the developers are trying to do; they're trying to make a static world feel more dynamic. However, I find that rather than making the experience more immersive it has the opposite effect and simply points up the artificiality of the thing.

Why was so much made about the linearity of FF13? Other games, the Uncharted games for example, are also very linear but nobody says boo about it. Is it because FF13 is an RPG? What is it about computer RPGs that side quests are mandatory? In a tabletop RPG, if I say, "No, I'd rather not go to the Temple of Orc Death right now, I'd really rather look for the shoes that guy lost" the DM is likely to say, "OK, you find the shoes, but while you were doing that the orcs overran the world and now everyone is dead. Do you wanna go get a pizza?" Is it simply because those hallways in FF13 were so very long and so very narrow? I agree, by the way, that the hallways were entirely too long; they could have been chopped by half without loss. Is it because it's a Final Fantasy game? Is it because, as the Japanese developers have stated, Westerners simply don't 'get' it?

In literature, the first-person voice is used, in part, to build sympathy for the character by forcing the reader to identify with that person. RPGs and adventure games are sort of first-person-voice++ since you're not only privy to the characters' thoughts but are also actively driving their interaction with the world. FF13 is as much a character study as it is a game, so in that respect I would agree with the developers. This is the story of (relatively) average people being capriciously given a death sentence and how they try to cope with it. It's not about the world, or what else may be going on in the world, it's about those people. The characters aren't given a choice and, as the person controlling them, neither are you. You're meant to identify with them, care about them, and feel their emotional struggles and I think to have made this an open-world game would have defeated that purpose.

Game developers are searching for new ways to tell character-driven stories and and make them immersive while also making them fun to play. Heavy Rain was an interesting storytelling/gaming experiment, and I think FF13 is as well. It's not entirely effective, mainly because I think it's a little too overwrought, takes too long to fully introduce the battle system, and, especially after you get to Pulse, goes on a bit too long. I think, though, that it's a sign that games are maturing as an artistic medium and it's only a matter of time before developers figure out how to use that medium to its' fullest potential. Take that, Roger Ebert!
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