1. What’s the point?
The chances of anybody actually listening to anything I have to say about this game are, let’s face it, slim. Big new releases are always battlegrounds, but given the history of Final Fantasy, FFXV will be subjected to abnormal scrutiny. As I write, the game’s been out a week, and there have already been three distinct response cycles:
-Day 1: “It’s glitchy. Look at all these wacky screencaps! Square have done such a shoddy job of programming this thing!”
-Day 3-4ish: “I love exploring the world, but the plot doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.”
-Over the weekend, as people have started to reach the late-game: “It’s badly-paced and Square have basically released it unfinished.”
And sure, there is at least a grain of truth in each of those criticisms, though ‘it’s glitchy’ is pretty much the least interesting thing anyone can ever say about a game, except perhaps for complaints about length (which I assume are going to be the next cycle, as people who’ve mainly focussed on the core story finish the game and see their postgame save playtimes – at thirty hours, it might be the quickest I’ve ever finished a Final Fantasy game).
But the nature of the internet is such that any article about Final Fantasy XV which isn’t consonant with the current response cycle will be met with the derision of that cycle. If I’d tried to talk about the game being good last Tuesday, I’d have been barraged with ‘but it’s broken!’. A few days later, it’d be ‘sure, but what about the story?’
This happens particularly with Japanese RPGs. The obnoxious rando demands acknowledgement for his objection whenever it is not specifically being discussed. And objections to JRPGs get generalised more viciously than objections to western games; when FFXIII came out, suddenly every JRPG of the last decade had been ‘too linear’.
I spent Tuesday with my head full of visions of GAF threads, a couple of years from now, asking why Japanese games are so poorly-programmed. I now suspect that a more likely meme to take hold is that Japanese developers are bad at project management, but whatever the meme becomes, I expect to be hearing it in objection to any attempt to write about FFXV in-depth for several years to come.
2. I’m still mad.
One set of hot-takes that FFXV is definitely going to attract concern sexism – in fact, it’s been attracting criticisms on this for a while already. What’s really frustrating is that while the game definitely has problems in how it treats and represents women, most of the takes are likely to be distracted by surface stuff – the lack of ‘playable’ women characters, Cidney’s outfit, a particular cheap twist I’m not yet willing to share in detail.
Dread that there would be a cheap character-death twist for one of the female cast did spoil a lengthy section of the game for me. Aerith’s legacy hangs over the Final Fantasy series, particularly in the age of Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin. I spent a chunk of the second half of my wacky roadtrip adventure expecting something heavy and tragic to fall on a character I really liked, and it didn’t half take the shine off.
But what really angered me, as I worked through to the end of the game, was that there are important, vital female characters in this world. The muted, redemptive finale of the plot is only made possible by the technical, emotional and political labour of women, all of whom pretty much vanish before the climax.
Of course, this is how the world works, and the game reflects this because it was made by people with a competent grasp of how to make a fictional world feel world-like. But set against the last fifteen years of Final Fantasy writing, FFXV‘s failure to examine this fact, and the callous disrespect with which it treats its female heroes, is a disappointing regression.
And while I, like many long-term series fans, clung to the idea that in exchange for the lack of female characters we might get a rare glimpse of an alternative masculinity, a more sensitive, emotional way for men to relate to one another, FFXV doesn’t really deliver there either. The relationships among the four protagonists are just as full of bravado, posturing and poor communication skills as any western game’s characters.
Nowhere is this felt more than in the ‘night before the final battle’ scene, where the brothers-in-arms make one last camp. Noctis spends a good minute and a half struggling to express his feelings for his comrades, only to settle on a strangled ‘You guys are the best!’ Perhaps the Japanese is more nuanced, but the translation is tragic for all the wrong reasons.
3. It’s Too Soon
When Devon was setting up what became Dead Genre Chronicles, he came out with a line (in a now-depublished article) which has stuck with me ever since: “Just like starlight, the value of a game will not reach us instantly, and so we must study the space from which it comes.”
It took me five years to really get my head around FFXII, and a (slightly overlapping) five years to get FFXIII, too. I had to learn a lot else to develop that understanding – what was going on within Square Enix during development, how the relationship between the Japanese industry and the Western market shifted over time, even just how to read a game as representative of its context of production. Hopefully some of that will carry over, but I’ve still got a lot of work to do.
I finished FFXV in thirty hours across three and a half days (I managed to schedule almost an entire week off in which to play it because, sorry, I’m that kind of person), but that meant skipping a lot of sidequests and focussing only on the ‘story’. Based on the bits of side content I did do, it’s easy to imagine I left at least forty hours on the table.
Perhaps it’s all make-work. Certainly there’s little effort to contextualise the 102 hunts in the game, and many of the other objectives are just fetch quests. I’ve started a new file and plan on doing my best to do everything over the next couple of months, and maybe I’ll spend all of that running around the landscape searching for map waypoints.
But there is a story written in the bones of this landscape. It has very little to do with a sulky prince’s destiny. It is a story about the end of an era very like our own, a story of what happens when the land is tired and cities are the only sources of light, of wooden shacks in the shadow of vast concrete fortresses.
Not long after Noctis had learned of the death of his father, opening the way to the game’s most ‘open-worldy’ chapters, I decided to go for a drive to get the lay of the land. It started to rain as I circled the crater at the centre of Duscae, and ‘Dust to Dust’, the music for Oerba in FFXIII, came on the car’s stereo. It was, and this is the only word I can find that fits, gutwrenching. I gasped out loud.
It will be a long time before I can say more about that feeling than I have already, but that is the FFXV I hope to find. It doesn’t matter whether my journeys across its landscape have meaningful destinations, only that they give me reason to be and to move there.
 Yes, I know A Game of Thrones predates FFVII; I’m thinking more of the reach and influence of the TV show.