Discussing Narrative, Rules, and Linearity to define Final Fantasy XIII
Playing Final Fantasy XIII has gotten me thinking about several issues. However, before doing a full critical analysis on it (probably comparative with Final Fantasy X on many elements) Final Fantasy XIII should be looked at within the context of the narrative versus design debate and within the linearity versus open world debate.
For those unfamiliar with the narrative versus design debate, there are two major schools of thought regarding game design and storytelling. One school, ludologists, states that videogame content is a collection of the virtual world and the rules that govern it, and that videogames are all about systems of rules that govern virtual worlds and about player interaction with the world as experienced through the systems. To this school of thought narrative in videogames is largely a by-product of the medium. The second school, narratologists, see videogames as a new medium for storytelling. They argue that storytelling evolved from oral language to written language, then from text to film, and eventually from film to videogames, and that the interactive nature of videogames are a byproduct of a narrative theatrical tradition. One side argues that videogames are all about the experience of discovering the virtual worlds and the systems that govern them, the other argues that videogames are about discovering and actively participating in a digital drama.
In this debate both sides have a slice of the truth and in the arguments of both sides something has gone terribly wrong.
Oh no… Lunar…
If one looks at the history of narrative throughout history one will notice that the medium for narrative has indeed evolved. From oral tradition to text to film, narrative has successfully made a change into the next medium by providing a new element to the narrative. Likewise, the evolution of games moved from simple dice games to more complex battle simulations, wagers on outcomes of gladiator battles, and children games where kids hold hands and sing about the black plague. Most of these games to some extent presuppose a narrative. Although the first dice games did not presuppose any sort of plot or narrative or context of a story, chess, even in its early stages, presupposed a clash of two militias and ring around the rosie, of course, involves not only the story of someone who gets a “pocket full of posies”, sneezes, and kills everyone, but also includes the narrative of the black plague itself. Still, there is one game that explicitly involves narrative – the role play. We have all at some point said something along the lines of “now I get to be the cop” or “I’m the mommy and you have to drink tea”. It is obvious that these imaginary games involve narrative.
Now, if you look at videogames you will notice that they have not always had an underlying narrative. Spacewar!, the first videogame created, pit two spaceships against each other. As videogames grew their systems of rules evolved – two “pongs” passing a square back and forth, a “Pac-Man” eating ghosts, and so on. Space Invaders presented the first remote hint of a narrative. Just as Chess presupposes two armies fighting for some unknown reason, space invaders presupposes an alien invasion for some reason. Videogames evolved from Galaga and Mario Bros. to Donkey Kong, a game featuring a monkey who abducted a princess and a carpenter who had to rescue her, and Super Mario bros, a game where a giant lizard had kidnapped a princess and a carpenter turned plumber had to jump on turtles and eat mushrooms to rescue her. Now, it will be granted that a “plot” where a character eats flowers to shoot fire from its hands to easily defeat giant turtles makes for an odd “plot”, but it is the marking of early narrative.
In the same decade as Super Mario a game called Dragon Warrior was released – another marriage of narrative and game. Following the plot tradition of Zork and the visual and interface game elements that made other videogames popular, Dragon Quest span an enormous following worldwide and a series of similar story-games called Final Fantasy.
The eventual marriage of “game” and “narrative” had finally culminated into an interactive experience that allowed the player to experience a STORY that is set in a VIRTUAL WORLD governed by RULES. Story and rules had collided into a medium that is not entirely game or entirely narrative. From here on tracing the story of narrative and rules of games is only a Google search away.
What does this mean for our ludologist friends? It means that they are correct, videogames are about virtual worlds and rules that govern them. What does it mean for our narratologist friends? It means that they are also correct, as videogames are a medium for telling stories.
If one were to compare playing a game to reading a book, playing is similar to reading. The characters are characters in both texts, the game world would be the setting, and the rules of play would play a similar role to the narrator. The player interacting with the text is similar to the reader engaging with the story, and how the player decides to tackle the game is akin to how the reader decides to engage with the book (skimming, careful reading, etc).
And what does this have to do with Final Fantasy XIII? Everything. Let’s focus on Role Playing Games (RPGs) for a second. RPGs are a genre of videogames where the presence of narrative is noticed the most. Plot, quests, and character development are as much part of the integral gamer experience as battle systems, exploring, and leveling up.
It is worth noticing that within this game-narrative marriage there is a sort of spectrum. Some games focus more on the experience and the series of rules, almost ruling out plot completely. On the other end of the spectrum are games that focus on narrative more than on rules. When a game focuses purely on rules or purely on narrative you might get awesome hit games like Tetris or horrible games like the Atari 2600 edition of Pac-Man. That videogames must contain both narrative AND systems of rules are a given in any modern game. However, the tricky part is figuring out how much story and how much interactions should designers implement in each.
Now, this brings us to the second underlying issue with Final Fantasy XIII – linearity. After playing Final Fantasy XIII, even some of my least academic friends have provided me with eloquent, well thought out arguments and commentaries such as “dude Final Fantasy XIII fucking sucks because it’s too linear” (a thought shared by all gamers) and “dude Final Fantasy XIII rules because it’s story driven gameplay” (a thought shared by all fanboys). Throughout the history of Role Playing Games they have allowed the player somewhat linear plots with options of exploration and alternate paths. By providing the player with open worlds, optional dungeons and side-quests, and in some instances the choice of choosing which goals to tackle first and last, these games would provide some degree of non-linearity and freedom within the greater “your goal is to save the world” linear plot. Gamers could experience the story at their own pace and decide to level or battle as much as they wanted. This is true even in games that seem overly linear like Shining Force, where the player guides his army through set battles. Battles don’t repeat and as “chapters” go by you are prevented access to previous areas. However, in Shining Force, the player has the choice to recruit or leave behind several characters, including the stalwart greatest axe wielding Viking dwarf in any videogame, Gort. Pelle, Domingo, the weird rhinoceros with a stove on his back, the old dude with the flying contraption, and the glorified rodent Yogurt are all optional characters. This ads options to the game’s linear plot. The fact that the worlds are open, the towns are relatively large and full of chests, and the ability to leave a town, roam the world map, and enter a town one is “not supposed to go into yet”, allow for an exploration element that includes an illusion of non-linearity. Furthermore, the ability to engage in battle, collect experience, withdraw from battle before completing it, and starting the battle again allows the player to experience the story at his own pace to the point that the second time I played through the game I managed to get Max, Hans, Tao, and Ken to a level three promotion in the first battle by killing goblins. (If you have played the game you will know what I mean by this, if you haven’t then get it on the Wii’s virtual console.) This illusion of linearity, as some have called it in various discussion groups, are integral to the RPG experience. A gamew here the player is simply forced to go from point A to point B and is then treated to a film that puts the player in another hallway, where there is no element of exploration, and where there is no element of owning the story and experiencing it at your own pace is not particularly good design, as it is leaving out an integral part of the game experience – the experience. This is what Final Fantasy XIII’s first hours does.
During the entire first disc of Final Fantasy XIII the player simply moves through a hallway with no deviations fighting a limited amount of numbers and reaching a level cap for each section until the player reaches a point where the story will take him to another hallway. This interaction then repeats. Hallway, story, hallway, story, hallway, story. As much as I would love to call this a videogame, I am hesitant to do so. This design approach, this “story driven gameplay” in which square has essentially eliminated gameplay and replaced it with an illusion of interaction is what makes Final Fantasy a horrible title. Sure, eventually the world “opens up” and you are free to “explore”, but most players will be tired with the systems of rules imposed on a virtually non-interactive world that serves as a backdrop for a mediocre story.
I remember “not playing” Snatcher for the Sega CD. I remember fondly clicking buttons and reading text and reading more text after I pressed some more buttons. I remember fondly clicking on links that would take me back and forth from the police station to my house until I eventually would discover a dead body and be treated to more text. This game focused 90% on narrative and 10% on the system of rules. However, it allowed me the illusion of non-linearity by allowing me to visit places and talk with people I did not have to and reading text for side quests. However, ten years from now I will not remember fondly pressing forward and seeing a movie only to press forward again, and I will always remember how much I hated square for taking away my towns and dungeons to explore or not explore and my side quests to complete or not carry out.
In the end, the point of this is that videogames are a spectrum where the narrative-rules scale intercrosses with the linear-open ended scale. While a game in the middle might be ideal (and games like Fallout 3 come dangerously close to a perfect balance) a game that is purely game or purely narrative is to be as much of a fail as a game that is purely linear or purely open. Even Fallout 3 and Oblivion, games praised for the openness of their worlds, provide a certain narrative to follow.
And where does Final Fantasy XIII lie? So far, it lies in the “purely linear and purely narrative” category, and that is a category no REAL game that wants the player to interact actively with the plot and the environment wants to be in – after all, if you wanted to read through a purely linear plot I would read a book.