Editor’s note: Japanese role-playing games receive criticism for being stuck in the past. But when one dares try something different, like Final Fantasy 13, it receives criticism for not following the formula orthodoxy. Sarah suggests that gamers should applaud developers who break genre conventions instead of adhering to them. -Jason
I wrote about the little-known role-playing game Infinite Undiscovery several months back. While that analysis came across as a much more glowing endorsement of the game than I intended, it focused on the argument that Japanese RPG developers now face a textbook catch-22 when they create a game. Should the game mimic the storytelling techniques and gameplay mechanics of the countless RPGs that have trod that well-worn path, it's brushed aside as derivative and archaic, which was the predominant reaction to Infinite Undiscovery.
Now, nearly a year later, the pitchfork-wielding masses have taken the liberty of proving the other side my catch-22, declaring that when an RPG dares to stray from that predetermined path, it's condemned for not adhering to the decades-old standards that have single-mindedly become associated with the genre.
Case in point: Final Fantasy 13.
I count myself among the camp in favor of Final Fantasy 13. Detractors complain that the game's streamlined, mass-appeal approach damages the experience and sets a poor precedent for the genre because it removes more from the original formula than it adds. While that may be true from a purely mathematical stance, these critics overlook the value of addition by subtraction, a phenomenon witnessed frequently in daily life. You see this when a sports team trades a good player who happens to be a complete prima donna, and the team then shocks everyone by winning more consistently in his absence. Simply put, "more" does not equate to "superior." More often than not, it simply overcomplicates the matter.
It's as true in games as it is in life; by removing outdated elements of the RPG genre, most of which were only implemented in the first place because of technological restrictions, Square Enix crafted Final Fantasy 13 into a much more refined experience. While the execution fell short in some places, we should applaud the developers for their daring approach to what RPGs can offer over what they should offer. While games like Infinite Undiscovery, Star Ocean: The Last Hope, Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon, and Tales of Vesperia may have their redeeming qualities, none of them contributed anything to the genre, and that’s precisely what will kill it.
The irony is that we've all been down this road before. For better or for worse, my favorite Final Fantasy is Final Fantasy 8. While playing Final Fantasy 13 and pondering some of the criticisms it has received, I couldn't shake the feeling that FF13 reminded me far more of FF8 than any other game in the series. In terms of storytelling and gameplay alone, Final Fantasy 8 and Final Fantasy 13 share absolutely no common ground.
But the spirit of the two games, influenced by the overall design direction of each game, couldn’t be more similar, even if the intentions behind them are different. Final Fantasy 8 is arguably the first game in the series to challenge the norms of the RPG genre, since the developers didn't want it to grow in Final Fantasy 7’s shadow. Aside from their storylines and character-development systems, the first Final Fantasys 1-3 and Final Fantasys 4-6 share very similar gameplay experiences. FF7 gets all of the attention because it took the first steps toward the cinematic style that’s been since associated with the series, but in terms of gameplay, FF7 had very little that we hadn’t seen before.
While many of its ideas were interesting conceptually but failed in execution, FF8 was the first game that braved the unknown in a genre where familiarity breeds satisfaction. As a result, the game became one of the more polarizing entries in the series, mostly due to fans who’d jumped on the bandwagon with FF7 slamming it because they convinced themselves it should look and play more like FF7. Those who appreciated FF8 were willing to view the game as an independent entity and take it completely on its own terms, rather than comparing it to what it should’ve been.
About 11 years later, FF13’s in the same situation. Even though most of its reviews present the same statements with different phrasing, some praise the game for its approach while others stomp it into the ground. I eventually noticed that most of the negative reviews of the game often couched their biting remarks with qualifications of what a Final Fantasy game or an RPG should do.
While we all have different ideas of what those requirements might be, the fact remains that, like FF8, the people who gained absolutely nothing from playing FF13 are those who wanted it to be a certain way instead of letting it be the game it was designed to be. While it isn't perfect (show me a game that is), I think FF13 is far more successful in the execution of its ideas that FF8. In fact, it's probably the first time Square Enix has sincerely questioned the RPG formula since FF8 — and that’s likely because of the backlash that game ignited.
While I don’t suggest that room no longer exists for traditional RPGs (just look at Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey), the genre is long past due for a makeover. If it continues to cater to the wishes of one group of fans and insist upon clinging to genre tropes that are older than I am, it will not survive.
In addition to the catch-22 presented to Japanese RPG developers, I also see hints of a double standard. Since the onset of this console generation, many have labeled JRPGs as insipid and derivative while hailing Western RPGs as the pioneers of originality. Sure, games like Blue Dragon certainly don't have much going for them, and I love Mass Effect 2 as much as the next person, but "insipid" and "derivative" are two words I would never use to describe FF13. And yet, when Mass Effect 2 came out, critics and fans alike began throwing around the phrases "best RPG of 2010" and "game of the year" like snowballs at a fat kid, precisely because the game streamlined the experience to the point that it was Gears of War with moral choices. Looting, character customization, nonlinear maps, and other common features of RPGs were either trimmed down to a stub or sliced off completely.
Ultimately, FF13 takes the same approach; it cuts all the fat to give players a streamlined adventure that focuses on getting the two most critical elements of any RPG right: story and combat. In my opinion, it succeeded, but many would disagree with me. Yes, some fundamental differences exist between Mass Effect 2 and FF13, but those differences are rendered negligible when you consider that both games shared the same goal. So, why is Mass Effect 2 the golden-haired child and FF13 is the red-haired stepchild? Are only Western RPGs permitted to innovate and shake up the formula because that’s what they're supposed to do? By extension, does that mean it isn't permissible for Japanese developers to do the same thing to improve their segment of the genre, because that's not what they're supposed to do? When you hold a game like FF13 against such conditions and limitations, how can it win?
I’m a woman of simple tastes, so the only two things I truly care about in an RPG, Japanese and Western alike, are storytelling and combat. As long as a game presents those two features well, everything else is gravy. In fact, I liked FF13 because it only focused on story and combat without relying on other aspects of the genre that are often used as crutches. Maybe this explains why I appreciated FF13 as much as I did, but the game is strong enough to stand on its own merits. The developers crafted a thoughtful, character-driven story set in a fantastic world, giving the characters very tangible human personalities as they struggle to salvage some tiny vestige of hope in a seemingly impossible situation. Keeping the story together is a frenetic but tactically driven battle system that adds a fun twist to the class system from previous games. The system challenges to player to figure out the most effective approach to battle, since spamming the attack option only takes them so far.
FF13’s not designed to conform to expectations of what an RPG should be but rather presents a proposal for one of the many things an RPG can be, given the fluidity of the genre. That fact alone should be enough for gamers not to dismiss it outright.
Just let the game show you what it can do, and you might walk away pleasantly surprised.