Thursday, June 10, 2010

Story vs. Gameplay - A Quick Look at 'Final Fantasy XIII'

By Paul Steven Brown

Back in the early days of video games, story was an afterthought, if even a thought at all. It was all concept and gameplay. Pac-Man ate pellets in an attempt to clear the board while being chased by brightly colored ghosts. Mario climbed scaffolding to rescue the damsel in distress from Donkey Kong. As games moved towards the home system, stories began to flesh out a little more. Usually, there was some form of introductory text that set up the reason for the hero's journey, whether it was Mega Man or Link.

Once role-playing games caught on, more embellishment was added to help give more scope to the story in which the player participated in. Usually this was little more than being set on a quest to save the kingdom which led to a series of tasks. Some minor political drama or romance might have surfaced, but on a very basic level. As the home gaming systems grew more complex and powerful, so did the development of plot in video games.

In the past decade, the idea of a deeper story grew beyond the RPG. Espionage games like 'Metal Gear Solid' and the 'Splinter Cell' series contained winding narratives. Even first person shooters now contain engaging stories. 'Bioshock' was a great new take on the FPS, but it was the art design and its extremely enticing plot that made it one of the best games that I have ever played. However, sometimes the creators try a little too hard and their stories land outside the realm of comprehension.

A good example of this is the 'Xenosaga' series. It's an RPG trilogy of games with too many opposing factions and overcooked religious allegories. There's a cast of dozens whose motivations are cloudy and confusing. It's bad enough that some of the cinematic cut scenes ran over twenty minutes. I enjoyed the gameplay, but after undertaking the first two entries in the 'Xenosaga' franchise, I couldn't bring myself to delve into the third and final installment.

This brings me to the current game I have in my Xbox 360, 'Final Fantasy XIII'. The 'Final Fantasy' series has always looked great, ever since 'Final Fantasy VII', the first Playstation installment of the franchise came out in 1997. Also, there has been a constant reworking of the battle system and character ability progression to keep things fresh. However, the one thing that usually hampers these games is the plots. Some are clunkier than the others and the current 'Final Fantasy' is one of the biggest offenders.

I'm all for joining a story in media res, but 'Final Fantasy XIII' certainly would have benefitted from some sort of introductory prologue. I'm on the second disc of the game and I'm still unsure which faction hates who and why. Also, the nature of the branding gets confusing due to the similar names. What the difference between the fal'Cie and the l'Cie? How about PSIcom and Guardian Corps? What is the relation of Cocoon to Pulse? Is one the other's moon? And, because I just have to ask, why does Serah look like a fourteen year old girl, complete with school girl plaid skirt? She's engaged to Snow, who is looks to be in his twenties and is twice her size, causing every time that they embrace to look especially creepy.

In addition, the whole l'Cie transformation and the idea of the characters needing to find their 'focus' is really sketchy. While causing the characters to constantly question their motivations is a nice idea, it would help if their conflicting goals were explained a bit more clearly. There is an attempt to illuminate the characters with various, out of sequence flashbacks, but Lost this ain't.

It's not all bad. The gameplay is really fun and I'm enjoying the character progression aspects. Some of the voice acting is decent enough, particular that of Sazh. He's also the one character that I feel any amount in investment towards due to concepts that are actually understandable. He's a father that is trying to save his infant son from a potentially bad fate. I can wrap my head around that.

Since 'Final Fantasy XII' is fun and looks great, I will most likely stick with it until completion. Maybe the story will make some since once all the pieces have been revealed and the characters have completed their journeys. However, at the pace this game is moving, I seriously doubt that will happen.

I think that one of the reasons for these overly involved plots, especially in RPGs, is that the creators make the scope too big. There's always some sort of planetary or galactic danger that threatens ALL LIFE AS WE KNOW IT!!! Great science fiction and fantasy usually has some form or relatable aspects built in. The shock and awe lures us in, but the characters and their stories keep us around. I'm not asking for something pedestrian when it comes to the next 'Final Fantasy' game, just a story that is more refined.

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