[ “Tell Me A Story” is a monthly column in which I examine the storytelling elements of specific video games.]
Final Fantasy XIII had a lot to live up to as a title in Square Enix’s beloved franchise. It’s reception was less than stellar across the board, critics lighting into the game’s storyline and deriding it for its linearity compared to previous Final Fantasy titles. Our own Chad Awkerman gave the game a 9 out of 10 but called the production “too interactive movie.” There is a lot going on in this game, and while the overarching saga still left players scratching their heads, there were a score of smaller things that worked extremely well. While its stop-and-go pacing and complex web of plot intrigue didn’t nearly do the concept justice, at its core Final Fantasy XIII tells — for those who are ready to do a little digging — a far more harrowing and heartwarming story below the “sugar and rainbows” coating of ATB tactics and Crystarium development.
Warning: Massive spoilers ahead.
The base storyline of XIII seems simple: save Serah, save the world. It’s actually not. There are gods and men in play here, and nothing is as easy to understand as it may look on paper. There are angel- or minor deity-like beings called Fal’Cie that keep the world turning, and they frequently recruit humans to do their dirty work for them. These humans, called l’Cie, are chosen without warning and almost always unwilling, and on Cocoon becoming a l’Cie gets you hunted down and executed. Both Pulse and Cocoon floating above it have Fal’Cie, and these two worlds hate each other. Serah becomes a Pulse l’Cie, then our heroes become Pulse l’Cie, and the task they are given is to either destroy or save Cocoon — they can’t seem to decipher which.
The problem with XIII‘s story is that it tries to get away with too much using too little. The complexity of the plot doesn’t necessarily add any depth to a story already struggling to be told. The game has no self-awareness, with characters flinging around terms like “Fal’Cie” and “l’Cie” as casually as one would “cake” or “pencil.” I have played this game twice, the second time through with company, and we had to pause every few minutes so I could backtrack and explain what was happening. It’s not that we weren’t paying attention; it’s that we were pay too close attention, keeping our eyes peeled for details that would never come. Too much jargon is left unexplained for too long, creating an unnecessarily convoluted plot that is thick not with rich details, but just too much stuff.
That being said, it is also unclear who the true villain is, right up until the very end. Are we fighting all the Fal’Cie? Is PSICOM the enemy? What role does the Pope (read: Barthandelus) play in the intrigue? Eleven chapters into the game, there is still no clear goal for our six PCs. Without a direction or enemy to pinpoint, the plot becomes erratic. Each rising action is met with a climatic moment that we think will be what defines the rest of our gameplay… But no, it’s another boss battle or dungeon to crawl through, another A-to-B scenario in which nothing fruitful happens and we must rack up EXP until it’s time for the next cutscene.
Final Fantasy XIII is painfully linear, and this is an argument that has been beaten to death. The game is a series of walkways from point A to B to C. There is no way to explore most of the environments (I was frustrated when I couldn’t go check out Titan up close or wander through the breathtakingly-designed Sunleth Waterscape) and besides battling and weapon customization, there was almost no way for the player to feel, or be, in control of the game. It simply lead you down its predetermined path and rewarded you for the jog with a cutscene.
Somewhere down the line, while plowing through Cie’th Stone mission after Cie’th Stone mission, I realized fatal flaw number one in how the game was written. Seventy percent of the backstory that matters, the origins of the Fal’Cie and l’Cie, the hatred and fear between Pulse and Cocoon, details on the ephemerally mentioned War of Transgression… All of these things are explained in the Analects, a collection of thirteen records that can be found in-game by completing hunt missions on Pulse, and in exactly two minutes of gameplay at the end of the party’s mission in Oerba.
Most of these missions are optional, and if you choose not to complete them then you will never see the Analects unless you Google them. (Two of these scraps of literature are attributed to a prophetess named Paddra Nsu Yeul — a main character in Final Fantasy XIII-2.) This is a terrible plot device, packing information that would shine much-needed clarity on in-game events into an optional side quest. Side quests, or deviations from the main plot, should enhance the story and make it richer by providing extra content. Under no circumstances should the secondary plot bear the burden of supporting the primary, which is what is happening with XIII.
For every player who goes the extra mile to complete every Cie’th Stone mission, there are three more who won’t bother, barreling down the pre-mapped tunnels straight to the game’s conclusion. These are the players that are truly missing out, but keeping in mind that these players make up a huge amount of the target audience, bonus content should not contain information necessary to understand the main plot. En media res is a great way to start off, but at some point game content should become aware of itself and fill in the information holes without the player having to spend another ten hours on optional quests.
With too much information vital to understanding the overarching plot stuffed into datalogs, gamers run the risk of missing the game’s big picture, especially since XIII signals no real benefits from reading the Analects. With such a stunning, gorgeously rendered game sitting in front of you, why bother sifting through all that extra text? The storytelling should be carried out in-game as play progresses, immersing us in the tale; taking the time out to rummage through menu screen effluvia or Google explanations means that an RPG is not doing its job. Contrast this with the Mass Effect universe’s use of its codex, which provides extra content that is not vital to the story but serves to enrich gameplay. The Analects should have been flagged as Supplementary reading from the get-go.
Coupled with the determination to remain cryptic, that bit of desperately needed clarity always dangling just out of reach, XIII was like a club sandwich of sudden, long cutscenes sandwiched between tediously linear bouts of gameplay. Running through the forest for an hour fighting the same repetitive handful of enemies is not best washed down with a ten-minute cutscene offering an explanation that only leads to more questions.
I understand the appeal of the slow reveal — which is how the game handles the revelations concerned Sazh’s son, Serah’s branding, Fang and Vanille’s awakaning, and pretty much everything else — but the trickle of information flowing through XIII is inconsistent. Players spend hours plodding through an area, and at the end are smattered with information in such a short span of time it’s hard to absorb completely. For example, on their way to Oerba, our six heroes must slog through the Archylte Steppe, the Yaschas Massif, Sulyya Springs (who named these?!), and dungeon-crawl up Taejin’s Tower. The only remarkable thing that happens in this span of time is Fang revealing that she has regained her memories of Ragnarok. That’s four gorgeous environments packed with enemies and EXP opportunities without any relevance to the story whatsoever. Some chapters feel like filler, flat-out unnecessary.
Between arriving on Pulse and leaving it, three of the six party members get their Eidolons. Lighting and Snow get theirs near the beginning of the game, Sazh sometime in the middle, and then the rest just crammed into the most convenient space of gameplay. The timing for the Eidolons was poor. Using them as Etro’s messengers was brilliant (which you would only know if you read the Analects), but it felt as though they were thrown in as after-thoughts, as though the designers got to Pulse and suddenly remember there were three characters still without them. This wouldn’t be the first time Final Fantasy XIII employs the slow-slow-quick method, providing expansive amounts of gameplay suddenly to have an information dump slap you in the face and pass as quickly as it appears.
The moment that XIII almost lost me — keyword “almost” — was when the party arrives at Oerba and none of them give the area a second thought. Vanille makes you find parts to fix her robot, still alive after five hundred-something years. Fang laments there are no more flowers. No one says a damn thing about the layer of crystal dust coating the town after they acknowledge it.
Allow me to elaborate. When a l’Cie completes their mission, they turn into crystal. Should they choose not to complete their mission, they become a creature called a Cie’th and are doomed to wander the earth until they lose the will to live and their remains fossilize into crystal. There are no people left in Oerba. Oerba is covered in crystal dust. See where I’m going?
The remainder of Oerba’s (and Pulse’s) population was wiped out by fal’Cie. Everyone was turned into l’Cie, or there were so many l’Cie the population had trouble maintaining itself. As l’Cie, either they dutifully did their Foci and turned into crystal, or they wandered the earth until they died and turned into crystal. Why do Fang and Vanille simply shrug it off, treating their abandoned former home like they would a television show they were mildly interested in that has just been canceled. I was shocked, and very disappointed. Why isn’t anyone else horrified?
Final Fantasy XIII, in the end, is not a story about Cocoon or Pulse — it’s about our six playable protagonists. The plot is driven almost entirely by character development. The actions of these six are what keep things moving forward, and it is evident that though the outside world keeps turning, its the internal growth of our heroes that we’re meant to care about. Lightning and Snow are both out to save Serah. Sazh wants to save his son. Vanille and Fang are fighting their own destiny and desperate to protect each other. Hope is a lost, distressed child forced to grow up in an instant. These six characters play off each other beautifully, like a symphony of dawning realization, strength, and persistent hope.
Speaking of, Hope Estheim is one of the more brilliantly developed characters in the series’, transforming from an indecisive, borderline-crazy teenager suffering PTSD in the wake of his mother’s death to a young hero who has accepted his lot in life and makes the conscious decision that it’s time to be a man. It is obvious that Hope’s newfound courage and determination comes from surrogate parents Lightning and Snow, both of whom have a profound impact on him along their journey. The plot thread following Hope’s desire to kill Snow is heartbreaking, the sentiment of which is briefly mirrored when Sazh turns a gun on Vanille. Nowhere else in the series do main characters hit such conflicted emotional heights that they face each other with the intent to kill.
Complaints about Hope all follow the same vein: he is “too whiny.” I counter that with the argument that he suddenly loses his mother in the first hour of the game — wouldn’t the thought consume you too? Hope, still a child, needs someone to blame. He chooses Snow and decide that beyond telling him how he feels, he’s going to take Snow’s life in exchange for his mother’s. Keep in mind that Hope is fourteen, in that awkward period between leaving childhood and accepting teenagerdom. Hope jumps to the extreme, and in the face of Snow’s admission that he is not a perfect man, Hope realizes that he is not a perfect one, either. Part of his learning experience is accepting that good people make bad mistakes, and bad things happen to people who don’t seem to deserve them. So Hope steels himself, and grows.
The core of the story’s conflict stems from the idea of family, and just how far these characters are willing to go for. Lighting begins the game as a hardened soldier in a emotionless shell. She knows going to Eden to save Serah is a suicide mission, and she is okay with this. Enter her soon-to-be-brother-in-law Snow and the antagonistic relationship they have. This kind of brother-and-sister-in-law relationship, which Square Enix once described as “unique,” has gone previously unexplored in the Final Fantasy universe.
Snow is a gentle giant, optimistic and determined, with just enough reckless abandon and overdramatic dialogue to make him look like a stubborn idiot. We all know someone like Snow. He always tries to do the right thing, the thing that will save everyone, and doesn’t realize until after he’s leaped that he is capable of making mistakes. Internalizing his anguish after the death of Nora, Snow braces himself to do the best he can to set things right and fight on. This cheery “I’m-the-hero” attitude annoys Lightning, who hates Snow because — and again, this is something players may have missed — his relationship with her little sister is why Serah decided not to go to college. Fancy that.
Snow and Lightning balance each other as the game unfolds, and as Lightning’s hard shell cracks, Snow stops playing the tough guy and accepts that he’s just a guy, a guy who is in a tight spot but can still fight to the end using everything he’s got. The first and only time we see Lightning drop her guard is in a cutscene on Cocoon where she sheds a single tear while talking with Snow. Lightning accepts that she, too, is just a single person, but by letting people into her heart she has the strength to be stronger and make a difference.
The character given the least amount of credit in XIII is Sazh. Sazh, like Barret from FFVII, is a single father hell-bent on protecting his child. Watching a group of twenty-somethings (Lighting, Snow, Fang) and teenagers (Vanille, Hope) develop and mature is one thing, but to see a grown man of thirty-five endure the rollercoaster of losing and finding and losing his son again, contemplate killing his companion and then himself, and then accept his fate as a l’Cie and carry out his Focus? That is entirely another. Pairing Sazh with Vanille for a significant stretch of the game was brilliant; crotchety old Sazh slips into the role of a stern parent, albeit reluctantly, and at times players watch him fight his instinct to continue on while repeatedly saying that he would take his own life if it mean freeing Dajh.
Sazh is the Everyman, the sane guy who gets swept up into the action and has nothing else to go on other than his own instincts. He’s not a “hero” like Snow, or a trained soldier like Lightning. He is simply Sazh, and throwing an ordinary man with a job and a family into the mix was a brilliant addition to the cast. Sazh makes the decision that we as non-game entities would make, and this is what makes him the most empathetic character in the game.
Final Fantasy XIII, in the end, is moving. The final hour of the game is chilling, almost frightening, and as the gang races through Orphan’s Cradle we are presented with the sense of frantic urgency inconsistent throughout the rest of the game. The pacing picks up, and everything begins to fall into place — your friends weren’t kidding when they told you the game “gets good 30 hours in.” In my opinion, it’s worth sitting through, because in these final moments you finally get the full story. The Fal’Cie motivations, the fate of Fang and Vanille, the idea that nothing is impossible and that human free will is the ultimate gift. While the plot suffers at the hands of poor pacing and execution, it’s the characters that grow under truly harrowing circumstance that drive the desire to continue.