Chungking Espresso

Hills and Lines: Final Fantasy XIII

Posted in Game Analysis by Simon Ferrari on March 31, 2010

Games are numbers, but not every game is about numbers. Final Fantasy has always been about a group of dynamic, known mathematical values coming together in unexpected ways to tackle a static, unknown mathematical value. The former is the team of player characters, and the latter is the enemy. The major difference between Final Fantasy XIII and every past entry in the series is that XIII harbors no illusion that it is about anything else. Final Fantasy XIII is not a story about two worlds, Pulse and Cocoon, standing in opposition. It’s a process of blindly ascending hills, hills carefully placed one after the other in a line to make sure that the climber always has what she needs to make it to the top of the next in sequence. And I can tell you, as someone who lived most of his life in the foothills of Appalachia, that Final Fantasy XIII is as good as climbing hills gets.

Hills

There is a subtle difference in the play experiences arising from randomizing encounters and explicitly designing each one. Within the history of the Final Fantasy series, two constraints are placed on how random encounters work. First, zones in the world or dungeon map are delineated, and only certain enemies can spawn within those zones based on the probabilities of occurrence and volume—in the opening area of the first Final Fantasy I might have a fifty percent chance to run into 3-4 goblins, a thirty-five percent chance of two slightly stronger wolves, and a fifteen percent chance of a powerful but solitary nightmare. Second, these encounters can be limited by the size of the monster relative to the size of the combat screen or zone. Two dragon-type characters might take up enough room on the combat grid (in 2D and 2.5D) or circle (in 3D) to prevent the occurrence of any of other enemy.

Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t randomize encounters, and the player sees every threat on the map. Each encounter thus becomes a conscious choice to confront the enemy head on, to sneak up on the enemy for a preemptive strike, or to run past the enemy. What is the value of randomizing encounters over making threats visible on the map? Variety is the spice of virtual life, or so the thinking goes. The two constraints detailed above generate a modestly robust amount of difference. The downside of randomizing is that it becomes harder to account for the player’s skill level (in fact, it seems strange that more JRPGs don’t attempt to numerically gauge this somewhat intangible property). This means that a system initially set in place to provide variety often ends up creating a grinding experience—one trades the player’s time for greater configurability.

“Grind” has become a naughty word in the wake of the Everquest widow problem. Some Western roleplaying games have attempted to deal with this problem through adaptive difficulty. But this fix has its own pitfall: the elimination of any serious challenge to the player. In a Bethesda or BioWare game, enemies simply take longer to kill as the game wears on. The player is never pressured to develop novel strategies or skills. A new time sink appears to replace the old one, and, considering the amount of people who claim to enjoy the gentle massage of the grind, it is unclear where the moral high ground for designers might be. Final Fantasy XIII does away with these problems altogether by compelling its players through a tightly-designed obstacle course. Its literacy model is not built into the hundreds of tutorial and help screens; rather, it resides in the carefully staged progression of combat encounters.

Final Fantasy XIII’s “paradigm” system is a natural combination of the series’ earlier “outfit”-based systems in Final Fantasy V and X-2 and the “gambit” system of XII. The six combat roles are: Commando (primarily melee), Ravager (primarily magic), Medic (healer), Saboteur (debuffer), Synergist (buffer), and Sentinel (tank). The player only controls the team lead, while the two other active party members always take the optimal action given the party’s current state and known information about the enemy. Magic doesn’t cost mana, as it does in most games; it is simply an attack type, limited only by the time it takes to charge the action bar. Each party member is good at three roles, so there are around four viable party makeups (a combination of Fang, Lightning, and Hope being the most versatile). A paradigm is simply a script telling each of the three active party members what combat role to take at any given time. There are five slots for paradigms, which the player can customize in between battles. While in battle, the player can execute a “paradigm shift” to any of those five predetermined combinations.

The object of any battle is to “stagger” an enemy. When a Ravager inflicts damage, a yellow stagger bar slowly fills. Filling the bar both increases damage to the enemy and brings it closer to a stagger state, which makes it more vulnerable to afflictions and allows a Commando to launch it into the air (rendering it unable to attack or defend). Saboteurs and Commandos are the most important party members, because the stagger bar actually decreases over time. An attack from either of the two will slow down the speed at which the bar decreases. Many enemies, especially bosses, can only be significantly harmed while staggered. No battles actually require the use of a Sentinel, and the Synergist exists only to speed battles up. Many battles can be won without pausing to heal, but the Medic is almost always required for any key encounter.

Earlier I said Final Fantasy XIII is about climbing hills blindly. We’re now ready to understand what the two elements of this statement mean. First (“climbing hills”), the carefully staged progression of encounters steadily elevates challenge while teaching the player how to kill each enemy. A level will begin, say, with an encounter of two soldiers, then it will add a third soldier. Then the player will face, say, two slimes or a larger enemy such as a behemoth. After these smaller hills have been ascended, the final battle before a checkpoint will combine those enemy types: three soldiers and two slimes, or three slimes and a behemoth, etc. By slowly adding challenges and then combining different types of challenges, the game tests the tipping point where the player has to finally change her dominant strategy and develop a new cycle of paradigm shifts.

Second (“blindly”), every new enemy the player encounters has a data sheet explaining its strengths and weaknesses. This sheet always begins blank. When an enemy uses a special attack, one of its strengths gets entered into the data sheet. As the player damages the enemy with magic and melee, its weaknesses gradually become visible. Filling out the data sheet is vital, because AI teammates act on the best available information. The player can also spend a special, limited resource called “technical points” to use Libra. The player can only ever have five TP, and Libra costs one. These points are also used for summons and to revive the entire team in the event of catastrophic loss. Libra is a shortcut to the natural, gradual discovery process; it automatically tells the player most of the enemy’s weaknesses.

In past Final Fantasy games, Libra is a spell just like any other. I can distinctly remember never using it as a child playing Final Fantasy I-VII. If an enemy is aquatic, the player would assume that lightning spells worked best. If an enemy had a reflective barrier or can absorb fire damage, the player found that out naturally within the first few rounds of the battle. By making Libra a special ability, by separating it from all other spells, Final Fantasy XIII makes an argument about the essence of its system that was probably true of the series all along: the game is a matter of finding an enemy’s weakness and exploiting it. This isn’t a groundbreaking realization, and it isn’t a unique way to build a signature combat system. Final Fantasy XIII’s beauty lies not in innovation but in its minimalism and transparency. It recognizes its genealogy and invites the player to study it.

The purity of Final Fantasy XIII cannot be overstated. Absent are many traditions of the genre, such as conversation with NPCs, a world map, and villages to visit. Those subsystems that do remain—treasure hunting, weapon upgrading, and shopping—exist as options to help along players of lesser skill. They stand in for a difficulty slider and for the need to grind. A player who lets the game teach her how it works need not upgrade a single weapon or even open a single treasure chest. Experience points are still important for upgrading basic skills and attributes, but the player doesn’t need to stop at any point to harvest them. Summon spells, a staple of the series, have lost their ability to turn the tides of a battle. Instead, each character in the game must at some point confront the summon beast (called an Eidolon) within. These battles, perhaps the most difficult in the game, serve primarily to teach the player how to think about upcoming boss fights. The Eidolon are depicted as vehicles (horses, airplanes, motorcycles) for player characters within the game, while for the player they are vehicles for more nuanced knowledge about the battle system.

Final Fantasy XIII argues that no player should be left behind, that no hill should prove impossible to ascend assuming a modicum of critical thinking. In order to make good on its dedication to teaching the player, it features incredibly little “setback punishment.”[1] After each battle, the entire party regains full health. Whenever a player fails a battle, she will emerge with full health right in front of the encounter that felled her.  This is what Final Fantasy XIII (left) feels like compared to last year’s Demon’s Souls (right):

Black lines represent progress without death. Red lines indicate time spent on a failed attempt at any segment of the game. Final Fantasy XIII proves that “hard” is not “the new good.” Gentle games have just as much to offer us as brutal games do. Difficulty, like everything else about a game, serves a distinct expressive purpose. Painstakingly clawing one’s way up a mountain isn’t “better” than joyously bounding over a hill. They’re just different.

Lines

The first twenty hours of this game ask the player to follow a straight line toward a checkpoint. At intervals of fifty to one-hundred paces, a group of enemies awaits. Floating treasure chests await after every fourth or fifth group of enemies. This corridor, perhaps the longest unbroken span of narrow, unilinear space in videogame history, argues that we’ve  been running in a straight line for a long time now. Although treasure hunting was an ergodic exercise featuring palpable setback punishment in the earliest Final Fantasy games (we all remember the first cave containing enemies who can inflict Poison in Final Fantasy I), by Final Fantasy V the danger of exploration had given way to a culture of completion. The player is expected to find everything, so everything is easy to find. The decision to explore or not, represented in Final Fantasy XIII by the floating chests, has always become a matter of whether or not any given player is the kind of person who welcomes momentary distraction.

It has become increasingly common to see others criticize linear games for their linearity, without any effort to discern what the difference between good and bad linearity might be. An example of engaging linear space is the train-hopping sequence in Uncharted 2. The modularity of a train lends itself to constrained difference. The designer of the level has a few binary values to select for any given car: is it open or covered, is it a platforming challenge or a combat challenge (the latter being further divided between assault and stealth), is the arrangement of obstructions symmetrical or asymmetrical, and, if the car is covered, can its roof be reached and traversed?

Once each of these binary values has been determined for the individual car, one must arrange relationships between each car in the string. This creates a rhythm, which can be punctuated by unique scripted events—the helicopter, the “boss,” and the heavy gunner on the log. All of this goes into describing what amounts to nothing more than a line, and a line is in no way deprecated by the fact that games can, as computational works, support other lines (and an opportunity for the player to choose between them) if its designers want them to. One of the values of identifying core pleasures of a medium in the first place—agency, immersion, and transformation in Murray’s original account—is that the withholding of these pleasures can be used for the purposes of creating challenge, intrigue, variation, or expression.

Once one understands what a good line looks like, it becomes much easier to see why the first twenty hours of Final Fantasy XIII constitute a rather boring line—structurally speaking. There is no reason to create obstructions within, or alternate paths through, this space, because interacting with space isn’t a value or strength of the JRPG. Environmental puzzles have always felt strange within the genre, especially in games featuring random encounters. Nothing is worse than trying to figure out how to shove a boulder from one end of a cavern to another with enemies interrupting every five paces. Golden Sun might be seen as the peak of confused JRPG spatial design, with its absurd reliance on pillar-pushing puzzles and point-and-click adventure guesswork.

In the context of some JRPGs, environmental manipulation makes sense. These are almost always games with such a large cast of playable characters that splitting them into groups for solving interlocking puzzles in key dungeons provides an engaging diversion from standard play. This works in the case of Final Fantasy VI’s Phoenix Cave and final dungeon. The encounter rate on enemies was low enough, and the cast massive enough, that dividing the heroes into three parties to solve puzzles made sense. There was also a limited variety of puzzles that changed things up without being too confusing: the player could either push or pillar or pull a switch, which might trigger the shifting of a platform or the dispersal of lava. The same party-dividing conceit doesn’t work in the more contemporary Lost Odyssey, which features a smaller cast, only one party-dividing and puzzle-solving dungeon, and only has one puzzle type, which we might call “push the transporter over the cliff.” Final Fantasy XIII features a small cast of characters; it splits the party up for a while, but the player can’t switch back and forth between them; thus, environmental puzzles have no place in the game.

Final Fantasy XIII released in Japan at around the same time that Mass Effect 2 released worldwide. It should come as no surprise that both of these series transitioned from a previously multilinear level design to one of unilinear, non-interactive corridors. For years, the makers of this kind of game were told that they needed to embrace the computer’s ability to produce nonlinear game spaces. “Open” worlds of various quality proliferated, and players received hours and hours of “content” defined by the exploration of structureless, monotonous space. Everyone quickly realized that, perhaps, not every genre needs to maximize every affordance of the digital medium. This particular brand of stat-crunching, combat-focused game works just as well in a corridor as it does in a sandbox. It is also possible that many designers weren’t ready to leave the comfort of the line; designing a nonlinear space demands knowledge of the line in much the same way that abstract painting demands a grasp of representation.

And that’s the realization that the designers at BioWare ended with when they sat down to design Mass Effect 2. The designers of Final Fantasy XIII, on the other hand, took the realization one step further: the shape of their game spaces could be used as spatial allegories. In the melodrama tacked onto this brilliant game about blindly ascending hills, two worlds (and the two factions of demigods ruling over them) called Cocoon and Pulse exist in perfect opposition. Cocoon, ruled over by the Fal’cie of the Sanctum, is a bounded sphere where humans are simultaneously provided for and controlled in every conceivable way. Hannah Arendt would identify it as the ideal centripetal totalitarian state, one in which the government controls a populace by dominating rather than destroying its public space.

Pulse exists outside Cocoon, or below it, or around it—exactly what their spatial relationship to each other might be is vague, but Cocoon appears to be some sort of moon orbiting the planet of Pulse. The Pulse Fal’cie determined that their world would be a laissez-faire one. It is simultaneously beautiful and deadly, a place where human civilization collapsed while demigods and beasts roam free. Pulse’s absolute freedom, though, is a farce. The Fal’cie of Pulse exert a centrifugal totalitarian control, the manipulation of their human servants through the destruction of a shared public space. In the minds of Square Enix’s English localization team, this world connoted Australia. They probably did this because of Pulse’s geography and extreme wildlife. By doing so, they happened to connect the divine management of Pulse to the troubled history of British imperialism. Fang’s and Vanille’s brands become convict stains.

This story of two worlds is overwrought. One can only be thankful that it is only half-delivered by Final Fantasy XIII’s myriad cutscenes. The other half of the story must be gleaned from information files generated after each cutscene. Or, if the player is smart, it can all be ignored; every cutscene can be skipped, every data file left unread. Grasping the conflict between Cocoon and Pulse requires neither video nor text, because their respective spaces structure play in a way that lets us experience the difference between them firsthand.

Reviewers of Final Fantasy XIII remark that the game “gets better” or “truly begins to shine” when the player hits the 20-hour mark. That’s when the player transitions from Cocoon to Pulse. We trade a series of stifling hallways for a wide, open world driven by the kind of hunting quests that dominated Final Fantasy XII. In Pulse, it is somewhat difficult to find one’s way to a definite goal. Many enemies will instantly kill the player’s team on being engaged. The literacy model carefully constructed throughout the first half of the game flies out the window. Instead the player is left to fend for herself, to pick her battles and hope for the best. She has left a world where everything a human needs is provided by divine stewards, entering another where the demigods have decided to let natural selection reign. This is a conceptual map of the spatial difference between the two:

One can forgive reviewers for not communicating how carefully the distinction between the two worlds has been constructed. We are, after all, conditioned to make judgments about a game world through its story. In the case of the Final Fantasy series, we’ve come to expect that this story will be delivered through elaborate cutscenes. And the cutscenes in Final Fantasy XIII tell players little about these two worlds. We might ask a negative reviewer: how would you, without words, convey the feeling of living one’s entire life on a string? We can accept that it isn’t necessarily fun to be forced to endure twenty hours of running in a straight line just to have a fairly simple truth bestowed upon us, but we aren’t children anymore. That so many have complained about the game’s linearity is a sure sign of the design’s success. Life in Cocoon is something worth complaining about.

Conclusion

Final Fantasy XIII is a game about numbers. It asks the player to blindly ascend a sequence of hills, in a line, up until the point where it sets the player free. It does so for the expressive purpose of make the player experience firsthand the difference between total determination and complete freedom. Final Fantasy XIII teaches its player how to gauge the strengths and weakness of each type of enemy, then it asks them to adapt to various arrangements of different kinds of enemies. It argues that the Final Fantasy series has always been about this sensing process, the conflict between known, dynamic numerical values (the heroes) and a single, static number (the enemy). Final Fantasy XIII is a game that eschews grinding, adaptive difficulty, and a difficulty slider. Instead, it argues that the traditional subsystems of treasure hunting, weapon upgrading, and shopping should exist only to help players with lesser skill. Anyone who lets the game teach her how it works needs none of these. Its possibility space is narrow, as much a series of puzzles as it is a game. But it’s a good series of puzzles.

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30 Responses

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  1. PASTRIES said, on April 1, 2010 at 11:05 am

    is there a difference between a good series of puzzles and a series of good puzzles?

    • Simon Ferrari said, on April 1, 2010 at 11:14 am

      Definitely! I would say that not every puzzle presented by FF13 is good. There’s a lot of filler there. But when you get to a difficult encounter, you’ll be glad that you went through the filler earlier. I think the game is strong as a sequence, but the set pieces could be seen as lacking. For instance, I never had to retry any single battle more than twice. But I’ve been reading comments all over the Internet that people have been stuck on Eidolon and boss battles for an hour or more. Then take into account the fact that I didn’t use any of the upgrading or shopping subsystems, and you see that the perception of the quality of an individual puzzle has just as much to do with the player as it does with the puzzle itself.

  2. Kirk Hamilton said, on April 1, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Simon, Sir! Wow, I enjoyed the hell out of this. Really well-put-together.

    I like how you visualize the game’s progression vs. that of Demon’s souls. I wrote a piece earlier in the week about just that – the stat-grinding of FFXIII vs. what I dubbed the “Skill Grinding” of Demon’s Souls. It’s on Gamer Melodico.

    In it, I raised a distinction that I don’t see addressed here, and I’m interested to know what you think. As I see it, Demon’s souls is far less of a numbers game than FFXIII. Victory in Demon’s Souls was (or certainly felt) more directly tied to my -own- physical and mental skills, and not just to the fact that I had enough HP and MP to beat the enemy in question. I had learned their attack patterns and mastered the fine art of the dodge, so I was able to overcome levels and foes because I had learned how to, not just because I had a high enough level.

    That’s not absent in FFXIII, but all the same, it is possible to learn all there is to know about an enemy with a use of Libra, and maybe a bit of combat experimentation. The pure math of it all wound up removing me from the experience quite a bit.

    I certainly didn’t hate FFXIII, and also don’t think that player immersion certainly should be the end goal of every designer. But all the same, the lack of immersion did detract from my enjoyment of the game.

    (editor’s note: adding a link so interlopers can see Kirk’s article)

    • Simon Ferrari said, on April 1, 2010 at 10:15 pm

      Hey Kirk! Thanks for stopping by. I just stopped by Melodico to check out the article (I still need to work you guys into my daily games reading cycle). Great piece!

      Demon’s Souls is a thorny issue for me, so pardon me if I come off a bit snobbish. I feel that DS received a bit of undue attention for its design, considering the history of far superior hack-and-slash games such as Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry. Yes, it was punishing—it features both high energy punishment (each individual enemy attack hurts a lot) and extreme setback punishment (a lot of your time is spent regaining ground after a death). The problem was that my skills from a past of playing other 3D action games made most of the combat kind of trivial. The answer is always to roll right after a telegraph. The annoying thing was that I had to slog through thirty minutes of a level to get to a boss fight (usually two or three times), just to figure out what the boss’s telegraphs were. The whole damn thing was so clunky and overwrought.

      That said, your point about immersion (though I’ll split it into something less vague: sensory immersion and mental engagement) is spot on. I enjoyed Demon’s Souls not for the skill-based element of combat, but for its exploration element. I think it shines in environment design, and only in environment design. The energy-sapping marsh with the faraway candlelight is currently one of my favorite levels in all of 3D gaming. Every first trip to a boss through a level segment was wonderful. Even the frequent deaths from traps and things were fun, because you were testing out a space. It almost felt like the bosses tacked onto the end of each level were a holdover from earlier game designs that they just didn’t know how to adapt properly to their exploration model.

      All this is to say, I wasn’t playing either of these games for challenge. I can say, though, that I think Final Fantasy XIII does more interesting things with linearity than Demon’s Souls does with multilinearity.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on April 1, 2010 at 10:18 pm

      I realized that I didn’t address the fact that you think all of FF13 is a grind while I think none of it is a grind. I’m going to have to think more about why we see it so radically differently before I can address that specifically. I do, however, agree that the proper replacement for a stats grind is a natural literacy model (I just think a “skill grind” is a hamfisted literacy model).

  3. Kirk Hamilton said, on April 2, 2010 at 1:10 am

    Oh, nice. Very interesting stuff here. The grind question is tough – it kinda requires stepping back and defining what is a “grind” in the first place. I can, of course, only speak personally, and I’ll admit to flying a bit by the seat of my pants, too. As usual. :)

    For me, grinding begins when a game places an objective in front of me then requires that I repeat an action/engagement multiple times in order to be able to access that objective. (Don’t worry, that’s not the entire definition. Since that describes pretty much every game ever.)

    What makes it a grind is when the necessary action doesn’t build on itself and has no sense of extrinsic progression, it’s merely a means to accumulating enough victories (experience points, CP, etc) to become “strong” enough to overcome the initial objective and progress. I use the quotation marks to highlight a distinction – grinding is about my -character’s- strength and not my own, since strength is measured by the game’s internal metrics and not by my ability, planning, or knowledge.

    In terms of that definition, the first ten chapters of FFXIII are indeed grind-free. Though they’re restrictive and (in my opinion) tiresome, they’re also compelling, with difficulties that ramp nicely, and they’re blessed with a sense of forward momentum. I never doubted that I had the tools necessary to defeat a given enemy, and so I learned all of the game’s systems in the order in which the designers intended.

    The true grind of FFXIII set in upon arrival on Pulse. All of the combat tools and systems are unlocked, and the game gives players an open map and side missions. It also gives a waypoint on the northern part of the map. However, my party couldn’t get to the waypoint because it was guarded by two enemies who were too powerful for me to beat at my current level. So, I had to do the missions, run around the world, and repeat a series of non-plot oriented monster-slaying tasks in order to get to where I could actually move closer to my goal. I wasn’t getting better at fighting, my characters were.

    The distinction is tricky, since it’s an entirely reasonable argument that they aren’t side missions at all – that players are intended to complete them one by one before progressing the plot, or even that the “plot” of the game is in fact mechanical and not story-based. In that sense, Pulse is as linear as the chapters proceeding it, and the entire narrative of the game is the series of hills that you so eloquently describe.

    But I can only speak to how it felt to me – I am interested in storytelling, in narrative progression, be it the narrative of the L’Cie and Pulse or the (perhaps stronger) narrative of the growth of the team-based combat system. I lost what interest I had once I reached Pulse, since the game ceased being a gradually unfolding series of paradigm combinations and started being a gradually increasing series of “If A is greater than B, then C” equations. My own involvement felt less necessary than it had.

    As for Demon’s Souls, I must confess that I’m pretty early in the game, so I don’t come from a place of deep knowledge or experience. I do agree that from what I’ve seen, the level design is brilliant, and that the pure mechanical design of the game’s fighting isn’t as rich or consistent as that of a Ninja Gaiden or Bayonetta. But I do see DS as being much more in the spirit of those types of games than of stat-grinders like most JRPGS, or of customizable western story-quests like Dragon Age or Mass Effect.

    What’s interesting is how DS has built repetition into its structure, as compared with those extreme Japanese fighting games – it really does feel like grinding, but of a different sort. It’s subtle, I guess, but Bayonetta and Gaiden don’t have the same persistence that DS has. Like, maybe my stats persist, but the world resets every time I die, and there isn’t that sense of it growing darker, of my souls getting left behind and of my being forced to use the skills and knowledge I got last time to regain the experience/currency that I lost. Both types of games require that players grind their own skills until they’re good enough to progress, but DS weaves that together with in-game currency (souls) in a way that I haven’t before encountered.

    Also, unrelated, but I think that the multiplayer aspect of Demon’s Souls is quite compelling, though perhaps more from an academic standpoint than from a gameplay standpoint. But as I said, I’m pretty early in the game. I share your urge to try to put aside all of the hyperbolic praise I’ve read, but despite its flaws, I’m quite taken with it.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on April 2, 2010 at 3:02 am

      I agree that Pulse is a tricky beast. Structurally the space appears primarily nonlinear (the huge field in the middle) with a bit of multilinear looped trails off the corners (even when the player progresses through the Mines toward Chapter 12, Cieth transporters let her loop back if she wants to). But, as you note, play within the space of Pulse isn’t nonlinear at all. The player can’t simply choose what to do in what order. There are a few options as to which direction to go in, but mostly you job is to find two or three viable paths that will lead you through quests that you can handle for the purposes of leveling up. So the space is 50% nonlinear and 50% multilinear, while play is around 50% multilinear and 50% linear. That’s confusing as hell, and I think that’s exactly what the designers wanted.

      As for whether it constitutes grinding… I can agree to your working definition, but I still don’t think that the Cieth missions fit the description. For one, I like how from 20-25 they’re integrated into the storyline proper. I also liked that they essentially helped the player cut through the space; they kept a constant flow that discouraged you from just stopping where you were and farming wolves until you were ready to enter the mines. They were also the few bits of text that I actually enjoyed reading in the game… the little thoughts the Cieth had before turning to stone reminded me a lot of the text stories in Lost Odyssey. That said, they certainly weren’t as well-developed or varied as the hunting quests in FFXII. Also, from a plausibility perspective, it does seem weird to have your adventurers-who-are-racing-against-imminent-death stop for 15 hours to do sidequests. I’m not arguing that it’s perfect, just that the whole thing fits nicely together.

  4. Kirk Hamilton said, on April 2, 2010 at 9:38 am

    I like the way you break down the shift between Pulse and Cocoon (both here and in the actual post). The abrupt change in structure seemed both immediately apparent and entirely intentional, and you’ve defined it with a particular clarity. Interestingly, a number of people with whom I’ve spoken about the game were turned -off- by the shift. Still, for some reason, the meta-narrative on the game’s critical reception is that most folks say that it gets better at the 20 hour mark. I haven’t read enough reviews to know if that’s actually the critical zeitgeist.

    As to why the Cieth missions felt like grind to me: As you say, they are indeed integrated into the storyline later on… but for the first long hours, they aren’t. That’s a lot of straight-up find-and-kill quests. They felt like busywork to me, and the only sense of growth I could glean from them was the increase in party CP.

    And as you also mention, it was confusing from a narrative perspective, too – so much of the story up until then hinged on this breakneck pace, a sprint for survival. As the cutscenes tell it, upon arrival on Pulse, the party became listless after spending a long while (off camera) futzing about on the plains, aimlessly killing beasts. Then Hope’s Eidolon visits, our heroes realize what they must do, time is short, so they charge off to… futz about on the plains for hours and hours, killing beasts. It seemed a classic case of an RPG breaking narrative momentum in order to pad its length, and it didn’t work for me.

    But I did enjoy the text on the stones, and certainly wasn’t ever really hating the game or anything. The combat has this nice rhythm, and however I may feel about the minimalism of the design, it is certainly not lazy.

    I only wish some of the SE team’s design chops had been turned towards allowing me to feel as though -I- factored a bit more into the game’s equation.

  5. Brendan Keogh said, on April 2, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    This is incredibly interesting and excellently well-written!

    I am still to play FFXIII. Mostly because I cannot afford the time or dollars at the moment, but also partly because of all the negative ‘linear’ reviews I have read of it. It is refreshing to read a different point-of-view on it.

    Your discussion on good and bad linearity was especially interesting, as was the Uncharted 2 example.

    Thanks for the Saturday morning reading :)

  6. Michael Abbott said, on April 4, 2010 at 9:08 am

    If a function of criticism is provoking curiosity in the reader to test the author’s contentions, then this is one wildly successful piece of criticism. My game playing time is severely limited at the moment, so I’ve pruned my playlist to a manageable handful of games until my schedule opens up in a couple of weeks. Needless to say, FFXIII isn’t on that list, and the reviews I’ve seen suggest I needn’t be in any hurry to get there.

    This piece, the only substantive analysis of FFXIII I’ve seen, makes me think I need to play this game *right now*, if only to compare my experience of hill climbing to the one you so vividly describe. That, and also to gather evidence for why you’re so wrong about Demon’s Souls. ;-)

    Terrific piece, Simon. Thanks for writing it.

  7. Padi said, on April 4, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Very nice article and overall very concise; I’ve been the requisite XIII apologist at work lately and unfortunately it always takes longer to describe the game’s successes than the elements that cause so many to instantly write it off. If Square can learn something from Naughty Dog or even Bioware, it’s how to “fake” agency more effectively- gamers will do whatever they’re told, as long as the commands aren’t entirely explicit. Being the kind of person who habitually picks apart games’ mechanics, XIII’s transparency basically strikes me as cutting out the BS (if the game is a series of battles and cutscenes,why pretend it isn’t?), but to many it is just too hard to suspend disbelief I think.

  8. Angelo said, on April 4, 2010 at 11:53 am

    I hardly have anything intelligent to say as this critical observation that you’ve written, Simon. I knew, since last week or so, that your post doesn’t contain any significant spoilers, but I deliberately waited until I have finished the game, so I can appreciate both the ups and downs, the “hills and lines” of Final Fantasy XIII more critically. Sure, I still have a solemn reservation regarding the game’s plot (though I did like the general premise and the sense of urgency it proveks) but that still didn’t hinder me from enjoying the robust aspects the game has introduced, in which you have pointed out so eloquently.

    Keep up the good work, and, hopefully , I’ll get to write a critical piece of criticism as good and succinct as this one in the near future :)

  9. Simon Ferrari said, on April 4, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    A note to interlopers: I’ll entertain pedantry from trolls, lurkers, and well-meaning cynics, but only if you provide me with your name, your email address, and some way to read published material by you elsewhere on the web (a link to your website, blog, or forum and the handle under which you publish). Anonymity is your right, but publishing your comments on my blog is my prerogative.

    Here’s a comment that I’m not publishing from the original IP, because I’m not in the business of greenlighting comments from people who I can’t transparently engage with:

    Lurker(er) wrote:
    “So you changed the ‘random encounters are not precise’ nonsense (which I pointed out) with something equally stupid: ‘There is a subtle difference in the play experiences arising from randomizing encounters and explicitly designing each one.’

    Why is it subtle? It’s totally different.”

    My reply is this: I apologize that the sentences following the one you’re highlighting don’t clarify my meaning to your satisfaction. I’m currently revising and expanding this post for publication elsewhere, and I’ll keep your criticism in mind while doing so. Thanks for reading.

    This is the last anonymous comment I’ll be replying to for the foreseeable future.

  10. Clemenstation said, on April 6, 2010 at 9:24 am

    “Final Fantasy XIII is a game that eschews grinding, adaptive difficulty, and a difficulty slider. Instead, it argues that the traditional subsystems of treasure hunting, weapon upgrading, and shopping should exist only to help players with lesser skill.”

    Have you finished the storyline and gone back to Pulse for the remainder of the missions? I assure you that “skill” will not save you from grinding platinum ingots in order to upgrade your weapons at this point, because there is no way you’ll be able to take down some of the tougher bosses otherwise.

    And if FF XIII is truly a game about numbers, these endgame encounters are really what the player is building towards; not the creampuff you face before the credits.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on April 6, 2010 at 1:25 pm

      Good point mate; this piece really is about Cocoon. I only kind of touch on Pulse before the end, and then I end kind of abruptly. But yeah, I’ve been told by a couple people to work on the commentary about numbers, and when I expand this piece I’ll include a third section just on how the endgame in Pulse works (and rewording bits like the one you note).

      Please include a link to one of your online profiles, the one you use the most, next time you leave a comment! Thanks Chris.

  11. robertuthomason said, on April 6, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Simon,

    You have taken a really original and intelligent approach to your analysis of this game. You’ve opened it up in ways I could not have imagined and made me cognizant of some nuances of the design which I believe I experienced without “knowing.”

    The game is currently on the back burner due to school, but I fully intend to dive into it again the next chance I get.

    I’ll surely direct some of my friends to this post because it sums up some of my views on a lot of the negativity this game has garnered from skeptics. My views were literally “Complaining about linearity in the FF franchise is like looking in the romantic comedy section and complaining that none of the movies look scary enough.” You’ve obviously taken a far more dynamic and nuanced approached, anchored in design (a background you know I wish I had!), than my attempt to compare everything to film.

    Bravo!

  12. [...] the thematic and story elements to the gameplay itself, as suggested by Simon Ferrari in his amazingly intelligent analysis of the game. I really want to get these characters to Pulse, to see how they react to the more wide-open spaces [...]

  13. Peter Vaughn said, on April 19, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    Hey Simon, just wanted to say thank you for writing such a concise and intelligent analysis of this game! More and more I find myself being lonely in a world of people who criticize this game solely for it’s flaws, without truly understanding the experience the developer’s and the game itself are trying to present.

    Like I’ve said in posts on other sites, exploring towns, playing mini-games and ransacking people’s houses under their noses in RPGs was never something I took for granted, and it’s not something I criticize this game for lacking. The developers took the traditional formula, trimmed away all the fat, and presented a streamlined and totally intentional piece of gaming. Nothing they did or that happens in this game is on accident, and I’m very glad that I found a “review” that not only shared my views (but I’m just not well-versed enough to put it as you have :) ) but solidified them. Linearity does not mean bad. It never has, because one thing that people fail to realize is that almost every FF game in the last 10 years or prior has been linear, they just did different things to shroud this fact. I am extremely glad that FFXIII did nothing to hide any of its purposes.

    The developers have been quoted many times as presenting the game in two very different stages, and quite intentionally: Cocoon – extremely story driven and focused on pushing the player to a specific end while acclimating them to the game’s systems; Pulse – throwing out the previous formula and introducing freedom of choice in where to go, what enemies to battle, how and when to ultimately proceed. All in all, I’m very impressed with this piece and I hope that you push to publish it in many more mediums and sites, as I think it’s something that can easily open the eyes of people who’ve dismissed this great game for it’s qualities that have been mistaken for flaws. It’s purposeful and exacting in it’s nature, and I enjoyed it very much. Still am! (75 hours and counting, 5 hours post game)

    • Simon Ferrari said, on April 21, 2010 at 8:55 pm

      Hey Peter, thank you for stopping by, and thank you for the kind words. I can only assume you’re one of the people defending me on the Final Fantasy forums I keep getting links from, and, if so, I’d also like to thank you for arguing for me there.

      A lot of the criticism I see of the game comes from these weird interpretations of poorly translated articles about internal strife at Square Enix. This seems a bit counterintuitive to me. I don’t really read previews or interviews or even reviews before I play most games, because I hate having my perception of the play experience affected by an external opinion. It seems to me that the people who like this game came into it with little more than the knowledge that the thing had been trimmed down, that it represented a major change. The average opinion from most reviews, I think, comes down to this: reviewers got their hands on it, they figured that fans of the series would uncritically laud every aspect of it, so they wrote unjustified slam pieces in an attempt to make their reviews stand out. Then it turned out they all said the same thing and failed to appreciate anything about the game that’s good (except for the graphics), which is in fact their job—even though they don’t know it.

      As you can tell, I don’t hold most game reviewers in high regard :P That said, I can appreciate that, from a consumer perspective, it’s good to warn people that this game might not be how they want to spend their monthly gaming fund. I just don’t write for consumers.

  14. Kevin said, on May 2, 2010 at 1:53 am

    I like a positive mention on linearity of the game for once.

    Personally, after playing the first few hours of MGS4, I realized FFXIII’s linearity wasn’t bad at all. That game gave you no direction from the get go, and as a long time Metal Gear fan, I was lost right away.

    The almost useless minimap in FFXIII was the only thing that hammered the linearity a bit too hard.

  15. [...] point is solid enough that the overall experience doesn’t suffer for it. In his fascinating Final Fantasy XIII review, Simon Ferrari asks of that game’s detractors, “how would you, without words, convey [...]

  16. Deep Fantasy | Free Video Games News said, on June 21, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    [...] there's much to be said about the game built around them. Simon Ferrari at Chungking Expresso says it far better than I ever could, and I strongly encourage you to read his studious take on "the purity" [...]

  17. Binary Swan » Personal Fantasy said, on June 23, 2010 at 2:51 am

    [...] elements of the game and the creation of some positive female lead characters. In doing so he cites Simon Ferrari’s analysis from Chungking Espresso to argue that the paring back of the game systems is what allowed the [...]

  18. Berfrois said, on June 30, 2010 at 5:40 am

    [...] Spatial allegory in Final Fantasy XIII [...]

  19. [...] to determine whether that’s mean disparagingly or not. It’s probably a neat companion piece to Simon Ferrari’s analysis of the FFXIII combat system. It’s certainly about as [...]

  20. FinalFantasyPlayer said, on October 12, 2010 at 10:56 am

    I would argue that Final Fantasy 13 is actually multi-linear during the entire first half, which means it’s both linear and non-linear.

    If the player is interested in exploring, they are going to do that and probably seek out other paths or fields to find the treasure chests & outside items.

    Great example is Chapter 2: The common player may run through this level in a straight line, engaging in fights as they go. But the player who wishes to explore might do some backtracking, using the ice-ledges to reach a nice assortment of optional areas — most of which contain treasure spheres and battles.

    Including the ice-cliffs area, the range of challenges in Chapter 2 for branching paths actually contains quite a number of choices. Only thing is if you do go backwards, just to travel to these areas, the fights you run into are punishing.

    Also of interesting note: The player who seeks to explore more, will find that the items in these treasure spheres can immediately be used to upgrade their weapons or enhance their performance – even if they don’t do the job right then and there. When you later enter areas like Chapter 4, the non-linear / multi-linear aspect returns again. The weapon upgrades from these treasure spheres make the more punishing battles in that same area go a lot easier, usually by exploiting a weakness. Such as resist ice accessories, or a weapon that causes fire damage 30% on contact.

    This to me proves that the game design is even non-linear in the pre-game phase of the first chapters, because it intentionally places branching paths in areas common players aren’t likely going to wish to backtrack. Each path for some reason, always leads to an item or set of items which make those random battles easier.

    So if you were to truly explore Chapter 4, you could make the coming battles easier. But if you just run straight through, you could still do well, it will just be harder. Either way none of these rewards, except for maybe the Amulet, alter the game’s pace.

    Once you get to Fifth Ark, I would say this place is the first truly non-linear map. Players seeking to reach the end in the fastest time will run straight through. But players who wish to explore, will probably get lost quite a bit in its corridors….and what I would often find, are treasure chests / optional fights in those corridors.

    Again the items here would freely allow you to upgrade your weapon on the spot, and the upgrades performed would actually make the same area’s fights easier. I found that strange. Every single treasure sphere you had to work to locate, would give you upgrades that exploited the weaknesses of the enemies in that area.

    Square’s message appears to be: Run straight through, you’ll get through the game faster. But explore the world carefully, and you might get through the game easier.

    Many areas of the Fifth Ark exploit this religiously. You can backtrack to totally optional areas where tougher fights await. Choosing one path is not always ideal, choosing a different path allows you to perform a back attack on the enemy.

    Again the whole overall design of Fifth Ark seems to be an open book while still moving towards one goal. FF10 was linear in the same way, you could backtrack and doing so yielded better rewards but it got increasingly tough to choose other paths as there would be tougher fights blocking it.

    Arrival on Gran Pulse: This whole area is a massively non-linear world. You aren’t required to complete missions or unlock chocobos, yet you can.

    It directs you to raise your level, but you can choose how to do that. Fighting behemoths or other enemies might be the way to progress, then go through mah’Habara caves.

    Or another alternative way, might be to equip the Wind Charm which strangely eats all wind damage on a regular basis. This causes most of the wandering enemies near the cliff areas to be an easy fight, because the wind damage is absorbed by your armor. I also found it fascinating you can find the Wind Charm, being guarded by the wind elemental fiends in a huge circle. It’s as if Square said “The more you explore, the easier the game might be as you can exploit the enemy weaknesses.” but at the same time….they also said it’s all your choice. You don’t have to explore.

    You can kill the same pack of wolves or something nearly the cave entrance, then once at the proper level proceed through mah’Habara. Finally at Taejin’s Tower you can take the only required ci’eth stone missions and race to the ending.

    But, Square has also said that if you do explore….there might be better rewards that make things easier. Well they weren’t kidding, because if you kill a huge pack of those wolf beast type enemies you can obtain the Fire Charm. Again, this item absorbs fire damage by actually healing you!

    And what is it guarded by? Behemoth Kings. If I choose to, I can therefore win the Fire Charm and fight a roaming pack of Behemoth Beasts that will heal my party each time it uses the Fire attack. I can then upgrade my Crystals, and easily pass through mah’Habara without anymore worry.

    Then if I return to Gran Pulse, I can then assault all 60 of the optional missions….I can unlock Chocobos…..I can then obtain all the treasure spheres. Another interesting thing I found is the rewards from the side-quests: Getting a perfect score on Vile Peaks Pulse Armament game gives me a Spark Ring. This ring nearly halves/eliminates the lightning damage I’ll receive from the same boss and wandering enemy in this area.

    It also cuts it down significantly, when fighting Odin or the soldiers. Most players won’t even obtain this, as you have to kill all the soldiers while Hope is in the mech. So Square again is saying to players, exploration leads to helpful bonuses for the game.

    Another example from side-quests: Seizing the chocobo chick gives me feathers which when added to weapons/accessories boosts my speed & adds experience bonus. It makes things that cause you to go faster. It’s as if Square is saying, “run as fast as chocobos do and you might do better”

    And yet another one: The sheep game which takes a while to find. Each time you get the wool and change the weather, fights seem to get tougher and the wool changes again. When you combine the wools together, it adds a huge experience multiplier + damage reduction. Up to 200% experience boost can be gained. Its like Square once again saying “Graze with the sheep and you may gain their wisdom, along with their thick sturdy hides.”

    So I’m not sure anymore what Square was planning with this game. I think it is equally linear and non-linear, that’s about it though. Players who are after non-linear exploration seem to always be rewarded for doing it, with items that actually assist with the difficult battles. But at the same time, back-tracking in a dungeon when time is not on your side nets you fight after fight…..thus people who wish to get through fast are unlikely to have any desire to explore.

    Meaning even the earliest levels are deliberately as linear as the player wants them to be, though they can also be non-linear…varying by whoever holds the controller.

  21. [...] Talking Point Follow-up Article: An analysis on Final Fantasy XIII’s design choices in regards to Linear vs. [...]

  22. [...] to mention that I generally agree that FF XIII was nuanced with their treatment of characters, had very elegant game mechanics, and has quite possibly the most beautiful graphics of any game I’ve ever played (still true [...]

  23. […] the levels also reinforces the narrative. This approach would be reused for similar ends in FFXIII, as Simon Ferrari has pointed out. There, the narrowness of the world emphasizes how the characters are bound by fate. In Final […]


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