You Did It Again

World of Final Fantasy is a better critical reflection on the Final Fantasy brand than any thinkpiece I’ve ever read on that topic. It’s Square Enix’s clearest statement yet of the frustrations of developing for such a contradictory audience. It’s also a much more self-aware game than a branding exercise like this might be expected to be (compare, for example, Ni No Kuni).

That awareness is in every aspect of the game’s design, so please excuse my taking longer than normal to describe it in detail; there’s a lot to cover. Full spoilers for the game’s plot follow, though I’m personally convinced that none of the plot’s turns are supposed to surprise the player – if anything, their impact relies on you seeing them coming.

World of Final Fantasy is the story of Reynn and Lann, siblings who at the start of the game live in a kind of fugue state in a pocket reality which looks like a generic modern city. They are woken from this half-life by Enna Kros, a woman who claims to be God, and find that they lack memories of their past and family.

Enna Kros sends the twins to Grymoire, a magical world populated by tiny, bobble-headed Lilikin and a cornucopia of ‘mirages’, monsters the twins can use special powers to capture, train and fight with. The twins are ‘mirage keepers’, and if they collect enough mirages, says Enna Kros, they will recover their memories and find hints of the whereabouts of their mother, who is or was somewhere in Grymoire.

Exploring Grymoire, the twins find themselves playing out the events of a prophecy, which says two giants will collect four keys and open a gateway to paradise. The prophecy is the dogma of a cult associated with the evil, or at least dark and spiky, Bahamutian Federation, who are slowly conquering Grymoire, and there are rumours of another, older prophecy which might be less sinister.

Still, the twins stumble their way into fulfilling the prophecy because this is what heroes do. Instead of opening to heaven, the Ultima Gate admits a horde of terrible, mechanised monsters, the Cogna, to Grymoire, just as the Bahamutians planned. Worse yet, the twins discover that they opened the gate once before; this is how Brandelis, the Bahamutian leader, arrived in Grymoire, and also what caused the loss of their family and their sealing in the pocket dimension.

Horrified at what they’ve done, the twins break into the Bahamutian fortress and confront Brandelis, and Lann sacrifices himself to win the final battle. It’s too late to save Grymoire, though; the world is overrun by the Cogna, and the twins can’t even save their parents. Reynn returns to the pocket reality, alone and devastated, and the credits roll.

Load your file after this (as far as I could tell, the game only allows a single local save at any one time), and your guide, a servant of Enna Kros named Tama, offers to give up her nine lives to rewind time – a power previously used to explain why you don’t game over when you die – far enough to give Reynn a chance to change the course of the story and save Lann.

Taking this chance opens up a slightly confusing cluster of sidequests which allow the twins to formulate a new plan. They return to the gate and set it to reverse, sucking all the Cogna out of Grymoire. When the Bahamutian leaders show up to stop them, the twins beat them up and then follow them out through the gate, leaving Grymoire to its own devices.

The other systems of the game are a similar mix of convention and twist. Combat is effectively a classic ATB system, though presented in Grandia‘s style, with all the combatants displayed charging along a single bar. Equipment is simplified to ability-granting gems, ‘mirajewels’, with each of the twins having a number of slots for these set by their level.

Progression is linear for the twins, just a fixed stat gain with every level increase. Captured mirages get that, but every level also grants a point to be spent on the mirage’s ‘mirage board’, a miniature version of Final Fantasy X‘s sphere grid which can yield new abilities, stat boosts and occasionally mirajewels for use by the twins.

The game is explored as a sequence of towns and dungeons, with occasional small field areas linking them. There’s a world map and an airship, even, though not in their conventional forms – more on this later. Most encounters are the traditional random kind; encounter markers are not visible to the player except for bosses and certain set-pieces.

There are four broad categories of ‘optional’ content. NPCs in towns will occasionally give grindy quests – usually to kill a number of rare monsters or collect particular loot. Most dungeons have a secret area with a rare, more powerful mirage to be captured. There’s a coliseum with further, largely formulaic, setpiece fights.

And there’s a peculiar space known in-game as ‘The Girl’s Tea-Room’. Accessed from the twins’ pocket dimension (which you can return to whenever you want from special gates strewn across Grymoire), it’s a dark void containing a grandfather clock, a table set for tea for three, and a mysterious white-haired girl who has forgotten her name.

The Girl offers two services; she sells medals which allow the twins to summon classic Final Fantasy heroes in battle (usually a hero will become available after their first major role in the story, though not all the FF characters in-game have medals), and there’s a catalogue of around 40 small adventures, most of which are simply a cutscene, followed by a boss fight, followed by another cutscene.

I want to start (if, again, you’ll forgive my taking a thousand words to get started) here, because the twins’ participation in these episodes is not as protagonists. The cutscenes concern other characters; The Girl simply parachutes the twins in to fight the boss, then pulls them back out afterwards, leaving the story’s actual characters to wrap things up, almost completely ignorant of the twins’ involvement.

‘Welcome to where fantasy meets reality’ is one of The Girl’s generic greeting lines when you open her menu. When she’s introduced, her explanation of what she can do for the player characters is clear on the voyeurism of this relationship. Reynn and Lann can vicariously fight the heroes’ battles, but they can’t actually shape, or perform the virtues of, the heroes’ stories.

Some of the best writing in the game is reserved for those stories, too. The opening ten to fifteen hours of the main story are pretty bland. The twins are reduced by their amnesia to little more than blank slates and their comedic roles. Their actions in the plot are formulaic. It’s funny and lighthearted, but very shallow.

Meanwhile The Girl’s adventures, because they deploy familiar characters with histories available, to varying extents, to popular culture, can engage with the iconography of Final Fantasy much more thoroughly. FFX’s Rikku and FFV‘s Bartz join forces to raid Ifrit’s cave for treasure. The Tonberry who runs the coliseum calls on his old friends, a Moogle and a Cactuar (who runs Grymoire’s train network), to help round up some loose monsters. Gilgamesh, who pops up throughout the game in pursuit of Bartz, runs into FFXIII‘s Snow and FFVI‘s Celes and mistakes the former for his nemesis.

The stories are generally playful, a kind of joyous fanfiction, rather than slavish recapitulations of Final Fantasy canon. There’s a bit of the latter; an episode where Snow and Lightning cross paths and have a row, one where Cloud and Tifa battle a version of Ultima Weapon, another where Tidus tries teaching Yuna to whistle. But the details of the games from which these relationships are drawn are left tacit.

In fact, the episodes that draw in this more specific way on the brand’s history tend to be less characterful, to the point that on a sentence-by-sentence level, the writing quality seems inversely proportional to the familiarity of the scenario. When it’s something as niche as a Rikku/Bartz crossover, it feels like the work of a writer who loved those specific characters, knew how they might fit together and just wanted to see it brought to life.

For Cloud and Tifa fighting yet another, even bigger, Weapon, though? FFVII‘s heroes barely acknowledge each other as humans at all, and the fight is a miserable grind. ‘Supraltima Weapon’, as the boss is called, has a total of three abilities and a monstrous health pool. So indomitable is the creature that after a while, a message pops up in-battle saying ‘and the fight went on…’, and the twins are returned to the void of the Tea Room. Restart the story, and you watch the same (skippable) intro cutscene, but the boss starts with its health bar exactly where you left off, so after half a dozen attempts you can finally finish the quest and see the equally bland closing scene.

The repetition, devoid of any of the sophistication that characterised Cloud’s relationship with Tifa in FFVII itself, cannot be an accident. World of Final Fantasy exists to challenge the idea that this kind of recreation is a tribute to, or celebration of, Final Fantasy. So much of this brand’s cultural presence in the west is constituted by its most vocal fans demanding repetition of its ‘greatest hits’; World of Final Fantasy argues for space for creativity and an understanding of everything between the highlights and famous scenes.

More broadly, World of Final Fantasy never allows one to forget for long that it is a game, that its environment and story are an indulgent fiction rather than a simulation (even an incomplete one) of a world. The twins’ relationship to the characters in The Girl’s stories is exactly that of the player to those same characters in their original games; ‘real’ outsiders, reaching into the fiction to participate in the combat, but never the subjects of the story.

Other reminders abound. Characters who know about the pocket dimension – Enna Kros, the twins and their two guides Tama and Serafie – flirt alternately with breaching the fourth wall and scolding each other for doing so. Descriptions of captured mirages often refer almost directly to the games that are their source material.

One particular incident occurs as you traverse Grymoire’s version of FFV’s Big Bridge (which is also Grymoire’s version of the summon/esper/eidolon Alexander, watched over by FFIX‘s Eiko). Halfway up, Lann triggers a trap that spawns some iron-giant-ish monsters. The monsters in turn create a timed puzzle where they throw force blasts down the bridge at you and only specific pads on the floor allow you to jump over them; failing to time a jump correctly results in an encounter and being knocked back down the bridge.

On seeing this, Lann shouts ‘Ah! An abstraction!’ Reynn quickly corrects him, manzai-style, to ‘obstruction’, but abstraction is exactly what this scenario, like every other puzzle in a Final Fantasy dungeon ever, is. Dungeon puzzles are not meant to be taken literalistically (and quickly become ridiculous if interpreted this way); they exist to induce particular kinds of movement through a game space, specific durations and perspectives. Final Fantasy‘s designers, I suspect, have always understood this, while western writers have often complained about such things being ‘unrealistic’ or ‘arbitrary’.

These examples might be written off as jokes or incidental, nuggets of ‘for the parents’ content in a game apparently aimed at children and families, but the spine of the story is similarly reflective. It is a story about blindly following a heroic narrative in search of the catharsis of triumph, without pausing to examine the symbols and meanings that form the path. When the characters are forced into reflection by the disaster they caused, the simplistic fantasy structure dissolves, and only a much richer understanding of the game’s themes and concepts establishes a possibility of resolution.

The crucial moment comes when the twins reach the prophesied Ultima Gate. In front of the gate floats a cage of energy inside which a female figure is dimly visible. The twins assume this is their mother. Brandelis appears for a not-terribly-challenging boss fight.

The twins celebrate their victory, then turn their attention to freeing their mother. A mysterious figure, glimpsed a few times earlier in the game, turns up behind them and tells them they must open the gate; doing so will reward them with limitless power to break the cage.

For a moment, their suspicions are raised; they demand the stranger’s identity. She removes her mask, revealing a face which prompts a lost memory in Reynn; this is Hauyn, someone the twins knew from childhood as their ‘older sister’ (it’s implied this is not a blood relation, and Hauyn seems to have been an apprentice of the twins’ mother, but it’s not 100% clear).

Duly reassured, the twins open the gate, smashing the cube in the process. The woman inside falls to the ground, her face concealed by a deep hood. The twins rush to her, but when she pushes herself up, the face revealed is Hauyn’s. The mysterious figure smirks, then vanishes. Hauyn turns her back on the twins, looks up at the gate, and says bitterly ‘You did it again’.[1]

Then the Bahamutians – the real ones, rather than the earlier illusions – show up to gloat, stripping away the illusion that made the gate seem heavenly, revealing instead a structure like the muzzle of a giant rifle. The monstrous Cogna begin to stream into the world. The crimson prophecy, which the twins have unquestioningly brought to fulfilment, was a scheme of the Bahamutians all along.

Here, I think, lies the crux of World of Final Fantasy. It is a celebration of Final Fantasy, yes, but it is also a reaction – at times an angry, even vicious one – against the idea that repetition could ever celebrate so fluid and variable a brand as Final Fantasy. No two Final Fantasy games are very much alike, but every new instalment suffers vocal scorn for being unlike its predecessors.

To see all Final Fantasy games as alike is to see them as linear sequences of superficial cutscenes linked by movements that are only meaningful because of the chance they might bring another combat encounter. Approach World of Final Fantasy in this way – and you can, it even puts a little star on the minimap at all times to show you where to move to – and you get exactly what the twins get.

They arrive in Grymoire and conveniently stumble into a prophecy that fits them like a glove. Every time they must move to a new location, someone provides them with a convenient mode of transport. They set out to find the four keys of the prophecy, but three of them drop conveniently from bosses the twins encountered for other reasons, or without much searching.

Stories are not convenient. The stories of Final Fantasy have never been convenient; they have just been presented in a convenient way (in the same way that the majority of novels are ‘conveniently’ presented in well-formed sentences and paragraphs, with the pages and chapters in some intuitively intelligible order). Actually understanding their narrative power requires recognising that the player’s progression through the game cannot be conflated with the characters’ progression through the story; though the former is smooth, carefully paced, beautifully arranged, the latter is often nightmarish, fractious, and traumatic.

To their credit, the twins, particularly Reynn, are not completely oblivious[2]. Every so often they notice something amiss. But there’s a star on the minimap, and no in-game opportunity for the player to make a material response to those doubts. Reynn allows Lann’s enthusiasm to overcome her concerns; the player is forced to follow suit.

This is why I said at the top that I don’t think spoilers spoil this game. You’re supposed to realise that things are too convenient, the story too simple. It shouldn’t at all be a surprise when the illusion falls away and the monsters pour in. If you’ve been paying attention to the story, and not just its delivery, all of this is obvious.

When Hauyn says ‘You did it again’, this is her bitterness. So much of what makes individual Final Fantasy games great is lost when they are considered as ‘Final Fantasy games’ first and separate texts second, when they are taken to be repeated instances of the same structure with a different sheet thrown over it each time.

This is how Cloud and Squall come to be remembered as cool, taciturn mercenaries and Tidus dismissed as a clown with a weird laugh. How people end up arguing over which male character was ‘going to be’ the hero of FFXII and accusing FFXIII of doing a bad job of introducing its protagonist.

[3]

The game isn’t finished yet, though. The twins understand that they have been tricked; they understand they have unleashed disaster; they do not learn the underlying lesson. Almost without pausing, they seek to pick up the thread of their own story, a quick answer for what to do next.

Hauyn, with her apparently intact memory of the twins’ past, seems like the key; they seek her out. The resulting conversation does not go as planned. Hauyn speaks in vague accusations and stinging tone. She tells Reynn to stop shortening her name (to ‘Wyn’) and calling her ‘sister’. At one point, she demands ‘And why should I bother to help you figure out the obvious?’

Eventually, frustrated by the lack of convenient answers, Reynn asks whether Hauyn is ‘one of the bad guys’ and Lann accuses her of being the masked illusion from the Ultima Gate. Hauyn’s patience runs out and she summons her familiar, Siren, to carry her away from the conversation.

Reynn: Wait! You can’t go! We still have so many questions!

Hauyn: You bring nothing to this world but pain and chaos! Leave now! Go back home, and never wake from your sleep again! Your mother and father… I’ll save them.

Without substantive answers about the past, the twins latch onto the one thing Hauyn did confirm; their parents are alive and in need of ‘saving’. Unfortunately, there’s no clarity about what they need saving from, and it’s this ambiguity that leads the twins to the Bahamutian headquarters, the confrontation with Brandelis and the disastrous dummy ending in which Hauyn, the twins’ parents, and Lann all die.

This final salvo of the game proceeds exactly as you’d expect from a Final Fantasy game. You get an airship (more on that in a moment), a set of quests, some optional and some mandatory, that revisit various locations from earlier in the game (albeit by means of The Girl’s Tea Room), and then the epic path to the final boss rush.

It’s only after the dummy ending, when Reynn is given a chance to reconsider this course of action, that things change. There’s still a set of triggers that have to be hit in order to unlock the ‘true’ ending, but they’re more spread out, occasionally harder to find. For example, one in particular requires remembering who Sherlotta (from Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time) is and where you encountered her early in the game.

If the first ending is the product of following a narrative that shares the convenience of its presentation, this postscript is a structure that shares the inconvenience of its narrative. The twins can no longer follow the obvious path; they know where that leads. Instead they must rely on their initiative and the specific details of their experiences to find some new solution. Repetition cannot be their only guide.

There’s a risk of hypocrisy here, since World of Final Fantasy inevitably repeats and reuses a great deal; ATB combat, various levelling systems, environment types, icons and even narrative structures. But there’s nuance in all of these things, too.

Among the repetitions that get demanded most with Final Fantasy games are world maps and airships. Ever since both were reduced to a menu in Final Fantasy X, the fanbase has complained bitterly about the loss. Well, World of Final Fantasy has both, but I doubt the complainers will be satisfied.

Grymoire is not a globe; its continents float in a rough stack one above another. This spatial discontinuity is reminiscent of Final Fantasy XIII‘s split world, and disorienting at first. It takes a long time to grasp that this isn’t a representational device but the literal content of the fiction; Grymoire is like that, and resists conventional understanding of what a ‘world’ is.

Furthermore, you only get one camera angle on this world, an awkward one zoomed too far out to reveal much landscape detail but too close in to grasp the whole structure. Even when flying the airship, the camera doesn’t come under player control. The result is that the airship itself has tank controls for horizontal movement and steering it in three dimensions takes a lot of getting used to.

Not that you can use it for much. There are a few decontextualised setpiece encounters knocking around the world map space, but you can’t actually land at plot locations; if you want to land you have to bring up the menu, the same one that all the earlier fast-travel systems use. It’s the antithesis of the exhilarating rush of your first flight in FFVII‘s Highwind or FFVIII‘s Ragnarok.

This, again, is pointed. Every Final Fantasy game this century has had airships and world maps, after all, it’s just that some of them (all but FFIX and Type-0) haven’t used them in the way that the earlier games did. They haven’t – and I’d argue it’s for good reason – repeated the feeling of spatial mastery that those older games provide, and that is implicit in fan demands.

Mastery is the minefield of rpg design, the great liability of baking power into the fabric of a game and thus the physics of its fiction. As LeeRoy put it last year:

“When these numbers-as-abstractions are taken as abstractions-that-model, it can lead to some unsettling conclusions. Role-playing games model the purest meritocracy, the most awful gamification, the idea that labor can transfer 1:1 value.”

Generally the primary function of these systems isn’t to represent power at all, but to space out and pace out other kinds of event. They’re the page-turning of a story, not the words (though this, too, is oversimplification). Take them as symbols of mastery and they frequently conflict outright with storytelling.

Travel systems are not separate from the combat in an rpg; it’s partly the fact that they bypass certain chunks of combat that gives them their significance. The rest is phenomenology; the feeling of flight and speed, a soaring musical theme, the commanding camera angles that literally look down on a world once laboriously traversed.

There are absolutely stories and contexts where that kind of feeling is appropriate. There’s a reason, for example, that Skies of Arcadia is entirely airships (though it still has an ‘airship moment’ – in fact, several). But the Final Fantasy games of the last fifteen years have been a steadily-growing critique of mastery and power in heroism[4].

It would hardly suit World of Final Fantasy to give the twins this kind of mastery. They more than any previous Final Fantasy protagonists are player surrogates; the driving theme of the entire work is that the meaning of Final Fantasy is never reached through triumph over its combat. This is a game mastered through understanding and attentiveness, not power or the appearance of it.

World of Final Fantasy could have been bland, cynical, and lifelessly corporate. In fact, so could pretty much every Final Fantasy game since the blockbusting success of Final Fantasy VII. I’m still worried that Final Fantasy XV will do this, with its grotesque marketing and Ubisoft world structure. Instead, WoFF is a sophisticated response to the challenge of making art under the banner of a massive commercial brand.

It’s still cute, still joyous, funny and earnest; without its context it’s still a story about the importance of empathy and self-reflection. But it’s also an argument that the history of Final Fantasy can and should contain those things, should be recognised for those things. It’s an argument for Japanese RPGs against a sometimes-hostile, conservative foreign audience, and that, I hope, is something Square Enix will do again.

 

 

 

[1] At least, that’s the line as I remember it. In the English audio, it’s ‘How could you do this twice? You opened it again’, and I can’t find video of the Japanese audio subs (which is what I used), so I may have run a couple of sentences together, but it conveys the sense of the moment quite well.

[2] Reynn still doesn’t pay enough attention, though. Before beginning their ascent of the tower leading to the Ultima Gate, the twins discuss why so much of Grymoire has capitulated to the Bahamutians and embraced the cult of their prophecy. Reynn stops short of the word (if you can call it that) ‘sheeple’, but her tone is pretty condescending; this contempt itself is part of what allows the twins to be duped. They consider themselves smarter, separate from and above the world, but their ignorance of it is their undoing.

[3] As a sidebar, while I’m drafting this, this twitter thread is scrolling up Tweetdeck on my other monitor, and there’s no more straightforward expression of this problem than the difference between getting a player to poke at a map-marker and getting them to ‘really notice’ what’s going on.

[4] In the linked article I discuss gender alongside heroism, and while I don’t want to spend too much time on that here it ought to be noted that World of Final Fantasy continues the trend of female characters having to introduce nuance and clean up after rash male characters cause disasters. The game is also flat-out scathing of several of the classic male heroes it includes; the narcissism that underlies Squall’s sullen detachment is highlighted, and Edgar is rendered as an insufferable sleazeball, always viewed from the perspective of a female character he’s pestering.

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