Written in the Land

Blood and Bone

After finishing Final Fantasy XV the first time, I wrote that I thought there was ‘a story written in the bones of this landscape‘. The thought wasn’t entirely figurative; the most obvious icon of the land of Eos is the great stone arches vaulting across the hills of Duscae like the exposed ribs of a decaying corpse. It’s not subtle – little about this game is, really – and yet so much symbolism seems to have gone unnoticed here.

Decline pervades the world of FFXV. The lands immediately surrounding Insomnia, Noctis’ home city and the capital of Lucis, are a barren desert. Further afield, lush growth survives, as if the vast and untouchable city is leeching the life from its domain. The desert is even bordered by miles of pipes, apparently oil-bearing.

In a game where driving is central, gas is essential, but it is also a scar on the landscape. The roads, rest stops and scattered towns are Noctis’ and the Lucians’ rightful place; to the land they are alien, parasitic.

This impression is reinforced whenever you stop to visit any settlement not directly connected to the road network. These places are styled after a completely different century to Insomnia, all big wooden barns, low white stone walls and oldsmobiles. The divide between the king and his subjects is clear.

Iconography of America is everywhere, perhaps nowhere more obviously than in the Daisy Duke-like figure of Cindy, the mechanic who keeps Noctis and friends on the road. Her character design has come in for substantial criticism:

My biggest negative from my time so far with FFXVis Cindy. She was in the Duscae demo, attired as she is here, a single loose thread away from indignity. I remember back then thinking: surely, surely, Square will see how people react to the girl’s lack of sensible coverage … and respond accordingly. But nope. (Waypoint)

It’s 2015, we’re starting to talk openly and often about race and gender stereotypes in games, and yet Square Enix thinks it’s totally cool here to wrestle a Barbie-proportions female mechanic … into a preposterous outfit…. What impeccably poor timing, when the game industry is at this inflection point in regards to examining and rethinking how women are portrayed in games, for Square Enix to roll out this ridiculously tone-deaf walking cleavage texture Cindy – and as the only female character in the demo? (Wired, discussing 2015’s Episode Duscae demo)

There are other similar remarks (Kotaku called Cindy ‘a personalityless mechanic who dresses like a stripper’, for example), but these two passages are particularly good examples of the finger-wagging some have directed at Square Enix. The games industry is supposed to be past this, the tone suggests, why are Square so backward?

Final Fantasy XV definitely has problems with its representation of women, but it must be acknowledged that apart from Cindy, the female character designs are ‘past this’. Luna is a model of contemporary grace. Iris’ outfit looks comfy as hell and is incredibly cute. Even the obvious cosplay-bait, Aranea, has nothing more egregious than a low neckline.

Cindy’s design is not just the most comically hypersexualised in the game, it’s also the most obviously American. Sexualised women are part of the iconography of American (and, more generally, western) car culture. Yes, things are better than they used to be, but ‘grid girls’ are still part of the tradition of every major motorsport event.

None of this is an argument to forgive the designers the indulgence of Cindy’s design (though it didn’t bother me nearly as much as it seems to have bothered the men quoted above). It’s the hypocrisy of sneering at Square Enix for representing things as they are in American culture that I object to. This is a game about America, and where that leads it into content or symbols that are repulsive, it is critically irresponsible to ignore how this reflects ways in which America is repulsive.

The much-celebrated ‘male intimacy’ of the central cast is relevant here, too. Please, if the conduct of Noctis, Gladio, Ignis and Prompto reminds you of your close friends, get better friends. Better yet, call them out for being such terrible assholes. The four protagonists could almost be a catalogue of western toxic masculinity.

Noctis is the sullen stoic. Coddled from birth, he has no mental resources to deal with grief and loss, no ability to communicate his inner life to others. He perhaps has the excuse of grief – his reaction to the destruction of his home city and the sequential loss of his loved ones is more convincing than his comrades’ – but more often he comes across as petulantly entitled.

Gladio is macho posturing made flesh. On a charitable reading, he is a man who believes that kings and those who serve them surrender their autonomy – that their duties supersede their rights as humans. This still leads him to two outright assaults on Noctis as the prince grieves. Putting that aside, Gladio bullies the slighter Noctis and Prompto constantly about their physiques and urbane lifestyles.

Ignis’ vice is intellectual austerity. Mechanically he’s far and away the most useful party member, responsible for keeping you informed of and able to exploit enemy weaknesses as well as feeding everyone. He pecks at the other boys like a mother hen, though, and is particularly cruel in policing Prompto’s eating habits, providing constant reminders of the latter’s struggles with his weight and body image.

In turn, the nasty side of Prompto is his attitude to women. He is possessively infatuated with Cindy, at one point in a sidequest snapping at Gladio for even mentioning the mechanic’s attractiveness. The game makes no attempt to play this as wholesome affection, though; as soon as Aranea appears, Prompto takes up her case as well, agonising over which woman he prefers without any mind for whether either of them would give him the time of day.

Having grown up among boys, all four archetypes ring true. Privileged teenage boys are not nice people, and at times it was painful to follow a story that captured this so well. In a way it’s worse than the formulaic, prepackaged TV relationships of a Persona game – the cringe factor of a Junpei or Yosuke at least comes with a layer of insulation from reality.

That Final Fantasy XV‘s use of American iconography is not an accident or superficial becomes clearest when its overarching plot is properly understood. Extracting the relevant details from the game is a bit tricky – most of them are found on bits of paper lying around in the nooks and crannies of the thirteenth chaper, and some are easy to miss – but again, it’s not really subtle.

One of the game’s cleverest touches is that, as you proceed further through the plot, the hours of daylight grow shorter. At first I thought I was imagining it, then I wondered if it might be a surviving remnant of a cut seasonal system, but it dovetails quite well with another gimmick; at night, the animals and monsters of Eos’ landscape go to roost, and demons emerge. There are well-defined differences between the two kinds of enemy; not only do demons look more obviously supernatural, but they do an additional kind of damage that requires different items to heal.

What chapter 13 reveals, though, is that this is not necessarily magic at work. Eos is suffering a plague, a parasitic microorganism (or possibly a virus) that preys on humans, transforming them into demons. The microorganism is damaged by sunlight, but secretes a particle that absorbs light and tends to accumulate in the upper atmosphere – thus causing the shortening of the days and the eventual onset of perpetual night.

A motif through the early chapters of the game, if one leaves the road to explore on foot, are abandoned settlements, neat wooden houses with no-one around, sawmills with fresh-cut tree trunks but no loggers or trucks and so on. It feels unfinished, but actually the people have just been consumed by the darkness. It’s clear that the rural culture of Eos is doomed – only where there’s enough power to keep the lights on can the demons be kept at bay.

The pseudo-sciencey explanation of FFXV‘s apocalypse robs it of a lot of its fantasy and wonder. It feels mundane, depressing because it sits a little too close to reality. There are lethal viruses and bacteria advancing inexorably across our world at the moment.

But there’s more. While the origin of the infection is unknown, it is revealed that when it first emerged several centuries before the game’s events, a human was gifted with the power to fight it, only to be killed by a jealous king. That king was then cursed to immortality, and goes on to become Ardyn, the final boss. In the same chapter where the truth about the demons emerges, Ardyn reveals that he is Noctis’ ancestor, even though he now serves as Chancellor of Niflheim, the nation invading Lucis.

Noctis’ destiny and the apocalypse he must avert are the legacy of his own family. And like the people of his walled-off capital city, Noctis has been oblivious to the consumption of the world by the fruits of his ancestors’ evil. No-one in Insomnia, either in the game or the tie-in movie Kingsglaive, seems to have any idea what is happening in the lands outside the city wall.

This is America viewed from the outside; conceited, decrepit and deadly dangerous[1]. For this game to have arrived, after a 10-year development journey, only three weeks after the election of Donald Trump, seems an almost magical coincidence. Its fatalism, and the dreary nature of its ultimate danger, fit the tone of the moment too well.

I don’t think I’ve seen a single review of the game that so much as mentioned this. Some commented on the aesthetic of Americana, but no-one seemed to make the connection. This would be a fitting-enough comment on the theme of our obliviousness, and there’s a lot to be said on that front alone, but when it comes to specifically discussing theming in Japanese RPGs, it makes FFXV a perfect example of an endemic problem.

See That Mountain? You Can’t Climb It

Something that has attracted a lot of comment with FFXV is the game’s ‘open world’. After western gamers castigated FFXIII for being ‘linear’, it’s easy to construct a narrative of Square Enix swinging back towards the opposite extreme and embracing the structure that typefies western RPGs. Some remarks by director Hajime Tabata, and the incorporation of western feedback into the development process, have also suggested a westward turn[2].

If it’s possible to generalise that western games are more ‘realistic’ and Japanese games more ‘abstract’, then I’ll concede the point that FFXV at least looks western at first glance. Much was made – including a lovely video for the IGN launch event – of the fact that the dev team actually went camping and climbing and potholing during development, and that experience shows in the inch-by-inch design of the environments.

But the world map is… not very open:

For clarity, this is the world map as it appeared in-game at the end of my 70-hour second playthrough. I did my best to go to the boundary of every explorable area (I’m missing one tiny bit at the left-hand side because I couldn’t for the life of me land the flying car on the Pitioss landing strip – more on this later); the lit-up areas indicate where the map has been revealed by exploration, and in almost all cases the highlights spread beyond the boundary of where you can walk or drive.

Every space you can explore in the ‘open’ world is the verge of a stretch of road. Occasionally two verges will overlap. The further west you go, the less the spaces between roads are filled in, even though those environments are clearly designed to be wilder. Apart from dungeons, there are very few areas that aren’t visible from a road.

I’ve already noted that settlements that don’t directly serve the road network are very different to those that do; part of this is architectural design, but it’s also partly mechanical/systemic. There is nothing for you to do in these offroad hamlets. You can’t talk to the people, there are no quests to pick up, only the occasional blue sparkles of items to collect, just like everywhere out in the wilderness. These settlements are just more landscape.

And the landscape of FFXV is designed to be looked at and driven past, not explored. Exploration is something you do by following roads you haven’t followed before, not by leaving the road to wander beyond civilisation. When you do explore on foot, you may find items (seldom rare ones) or enemies, but no new scenes or vistas, no people or plot development.

Perhaps a better term would be ‘open-road game’, though even there, the roads aren’t that open – the longest straight-line distance in the explorable part of the game world is about 7.5 miles, as far as I can tell. Including later plot areas, the furthest Noctis ever gets from home might be about 40 miles. There’s good evidence the game’s world was intended to be much larger, but based on what is fully-realised in-game, I doubt any other area would have been more open.

I don’t play a lot of open-world games, but I can’t really understand how you’d apply the word ‘open’ to the play area of FFXV. It’s like nothing so much as the ‘routes’ that make up a Pokemon game, a network of linear areas with a little bit of space to each side for finding odds and ends and random encounters.

This is an environment-structure approach that’s been growing more and more common over the last couple of generations, as the development costs of world maps with contemporary-standard graphics have risen. It was particularly noticeable in Tales of Xillia, for example, where every named location was separated from its neighbours by a nondescript box canyon full of loot spots and monsters. These kinds of environment perform the same pacing function as passages of world-map travel without committing the devs to building whole worlds.

Functionally, we’re talking about the same phenomenon in all these cases. The world maps of the SNES era, if you trace how the boundaries were drawn, ultimately boiled down to paths from one place to the next, it’s just that more than one path was laid out on the same ‘map’. In this light, FFXV‘s ‘open world’ isn’t a lean towards western design at all but a return to an older, deeper understanding of how Japanese RPGs have always presented their worlds.

As if to emphasise the point, this is the first Final Fantasy in a decade and a half to give the player direct control over the airship while in flight. And just as airships were never quite as freeing as you wanted them to be, so it is here; in fact, FFXV has maybe the most useless airship ever in a JRPG.

The ‘airship’ is an upgrade to your car; as such, you can only land it on the road (and doing so is surprisingly difficult; clip a lamp post, tree or roadside barrier and it’s an instant game over). The area in which flight is possible is a lumpy oval covering most but not all of the explorable ground area and sometimes spilling a little bit outside of it. There’s no flying to any of the overseas territories. You can’t even fly under the bridges that span the massive canyon between Cleigne and Duscae.

In this, there are shades of the tree- and mountain-covered continents of older games, late-game areas where the developers couldn’t afford to have the player just fly straight to their destination. FFXV‘s airship is, in terms of spectacle and the exhilerating feel of takeoff, the realisation of a decades-long dream of what flying around a world map could be, but ultimately it serves to emphasise just how artificial and compressed the world beneath actually is.

FFXV‘s ‘western-style open world’ is actually well-grounded in Japanese design traditions, and is much better understood as the latest development of a long history of incremental changes. There are, undeniably, western influences, especially at the level of surface visual style, but it is wrong to understand these as a rejection of a tradition which has always absorbed and transformed western ideas alongside its own.

Another part of the game that has attracted similar rhetoric is the dungeons. I’ve seen a few critics compare these to Uncharted games (of which I have no first-hand experience, but I gather the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot is similar). There’s certainly an attention to how bodies move that earlier generations of JRPG haven’t paid, and there are Zelda-like moments where you shimmy along ledges or crawl through small holes, but it’s a stretch to label that a ‘westernisation’.

Visually, the caves and thickets of Eos bear a stronger resemblance to natural features of our Earth than has been seen in older Japanese RPGs (I balk at calling this ‘realism‘). The dev team’s hiking adventures have clearly paid off in that respect – for once, the caves in an RPG feel like they were designed by someone who’s actually been in a cave. But scratch the surface, and again, long-standing design traditions lie beneath.

JRPG dungeons are generally mazes, spacial compositions built to deplete resources and create duration (which is not the same as ‘waste time’, though that’s how it’s often characterised). They are pacing structures, in some cases almost entirely without semantics or narrative content[3]. What matters is how long it takes the player to move through them, how progress is shaped, directed and resisted.

FFXV‘s dungeons are definitely mazes. Even where a path loops back on itself in a larger space, there’s often no way to shortcut from one section to another. There are no climbing or scrambling mechanics to let you get back on a ledge you’ve slipped off (or catch you before you slip off in the first place). The caves might look naturalistic, but the routes through them are deliberately, even oppressively, curated.

Some of the dungeons, especially the optional Costlemark Tower and Pitioss, even float in pitch-black subterranean voids which to me harked back to the black screenspace around any SNES-era cave dungeon. The dead space between walkable ground in the other dungeons – which often can’t even be warp-striked across except to specific points – is a direct descendant of those gaps.

One way in which progress through dungeons has often been moderated in JRPGs is with floor effects that either slow the player down or encourage them to move faster by inflicting damage at regular intervals. Both of these effects appear in FFXV, most notably in the Rock of Ravatogh dungeon which includes a literal ‘the floor is lava’ area (and yes, you probably can walk on lava, but you probably can’t hop around fighting set-piece battles against flocks of eagles). Poisonous pools of stagnant water in the Daurell Caverns function almost exactly the same way; the purpose is not to simulate any natural phenomenon but to induce the player to move in particular ways.

Combat also helps influence the player’s passage through a space, of course. FFXV‘s combat is poorly-conceived, poorly-implemented[4] and shallow, but it has its roots in Kingdom Hearts and Tabata’s Final Fantasy spinoffs, especially Type-0. That’s a lineage that has steadily streamlined its fundamentals, moving further and further away from reliance on menus, but FFXV carries it too far, simplifying out almost everything that would make the fights interesting. Only a couple of boss-fights, that make specific use of the warp-strike mechanic, really stand up.

Sleeping Next to the Mirror

Final Fantasy XV is not, by any definition, a good game. It’s unstable, inconsistent and often turgid. Most of the things that make its interesting ideas interesting are buried, rushed or otherwise easy to completely miss. But it is also not the game being reported on, and this oversight is systemic.

The claim that FFXV is ‘westernised’ or even a ‘western-style RPG’ is grounded in some very superficial elements of the overall experience. Yes, the characters have marginally less outlandish outfits than we’re used to seeing in a Final Fantasy game. Yes, the world map gets a bit Ubisoft-y as the sidequests pile up. Yes, from a distance Eos looks wide and open.

But the core of the game – travel to a location, talk to some NPCs, enter a dungeon, fight a boss, repeat – is a formula that’s stood since Dragon Quest. The environmental structures that direct progress might be called modernisations of older Japanese forms, but it’s ridiculous to suggest that they constitute a wholesale abandonment of tradition (any more than it was when, say, FFVII traded 16-bit tile-based dungeons for free-roaming pseudo-3D prerendered backgrounds).

I’m not necessarily saying that the FFXV dev team deliberately set out to make a game devoted to developing and defending their traditions and background (as Square Enix definitely did with FFXIII). But under the severe pressure of FFXV‘s turbulent development, it’s clear that whatever attempts they made to emulate or adopt western styles still leaned heavily on what they knew and have always known.

Interviewed during one of the launch events, Hajime Tabata was asked what he thought made a game a Final Fantasy game. His answer was that it’s the continuity of the team that works on it; the overlapping chain of shared experiences that stretches back probably to before development even started on the first game. That’s certainly in evidence with FFXV, even where there may have been attempts to hide or get away from it.

The ‘westernised’ meme didn’t start in a vacuum, of course. FFXV‘s devs did make deliberate attempts to engage western audiences during development, with several demos, requests for feedback and regular ‘Active Time Report’ events to talk about how that feedback was being taken on board. This was perceived as an attempt to forestall the incredibly toxic and hostile public reception of FFXIII, reifying the idea that that game ‘failed’.

It had a whiff, too, of some of the rumours which cling to FFXII. Yasumi Matsuno’s entry in the series also had a troubled development and was taken over late-on by directors regarded as lesser talents. It’s also often claimed that ‘focus grouping’ led to changes that made the game blander for an international audience.

So it’s easy to construct a narrative about FFXV being the product of a desperate and fumbling developer, struggling to reclaim lost glories, reaching westward because there’s no money in the Japanese domestic market anymore. It’s easy to say, in the condescending way that so many thinkpiece writers do, that the Japanese industry is in trouble, or that Final Fantasy or JRPGs are dying.

This narrative misses a lot, though, and not just the actual features and design histories present in the game that I’ve already discussed. It misses, for example, the ongoing commercial successes of Square Enix games and Japanese RPGs in general (Pokemon, anyone?). Yes, Square Enix as a company had a couple of serious commercial blips – the first with The Spirits Within and the second with the original launch of Final Fantasy XIV – but by the absurdly rapid life-cycles of the games industry, these are generations in the past now.

It also misses that the ‘crisis‘ of the Japanese industry in the latter part of the last decade can’t be accounted for simply in terms of Japanese developers ‘losing their touch’. Part of it was that the increasing technological demands of game development strained the employments structures of the big Japanese development companies and publishers. Another part of it was a deliberate commercial attack by the west:

Alex St. John’s ‘Manhattan Project’ joke may be apocryphal, but there is a legacy of animosity in the west towards Japan. It surfaced again in another poor-taste joke just recently:

This is a violent and terrible history – on both sides – to be messing with, but it wouldn’t be the first time that games culture in the west has been fundamentally shaped by a failure to give violent and terrible history due respect. The vindictiveness of some ‘JRPGs are dead’ thinkpieces over the last decade betrays the same petty, small-minded spirit.

The idea that, at the largest commercial scale, Japanese developers only feel able to compete by ‘copying’ western developers (see also: almost every English word ever written about Dark Souls) must be very satisfying to people who think this way. The videogame industry of the 90s is one of the few domains and periods in modern history where a non-western nation has dominated over the west. So much of the response in the west as the balance has started to shift back westward has an undercurrent of people – and a whole culture – being ‘put back in their place’.

Meanwhile, of course, Japanese developers have continued to make a vast diversity of brilliant and sometimes-not-so-brilliant games, steeped in their own traditions and culture. FFXV, perhaps, does not deserve better than it’s got, either because it’s bad or because, as a work of media rather than a person, it doesn’t have rights. But the team behind it – and all the other teams for whom they inevitably stand proxy in the west – deserve at least an attempt on our part to engage with their history.

 

 

 

[1] It is, of course, the west in general viewed from the outside, not just America, and it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that. I focus on America because Square Enix stuck a bunch of large signs on this game screaming ‘LOOK, THIS IS AMERICA’ and the allegory still seems to have gone largely unnoticed.

[2] The sales figures also back this up – FFXV has apparently had the series’ best ever launch in the west, but its worst launch in generations in Japan. LeeRoy suggested on our Dragon Quest V cast that Square Enix see FF as their international export and Dragon Quest as their domestic brand; it will be interesting to see whether sales figures for Dragon Quest XI bear this out later this year.

[3] There are, of course, plenty of other ways for a dungeon’s design to be meaningful.

[4] There’s a combat encounter in Costlemark Tower which is far and away the worst encounter I’ve ever seen in a video game. It took well over twenty minutes to clear, because with so many enemies in so small a space, every time Noctis managed to get to his feet he was instantly knocked down again, usually taking enough damage to immediately need an elixir’s worth of healing.

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One thought on “Written in the Land

  1. Re: Insomnia as present-day America, I think it’s worth pointing out that the game also includes thematic concerns that are approximately 2,000 years older.

    Ardyn wasn’t a Lucian king who killed the man who could have fought the plague; he was a Lucian king who decided to absorb the plague instead of fulfilling his calling as “King of Light” and was ostracized and cursed as a result. His successors — including Regis and Noctis — were all well aware that a plague would eventually threaten to destroy the world, and both Regis and Noctis had known for years that Noctis was the “King of Kings” chosen to wipe it out once and for all. As such, while the Insomnia-dwellers’ understanding of what is happening outside is theoretical rather than experiential and it’s unclear how much even Regis knows of his ancestor’s responsibility for the state of the world, Noctis grew up knowing that his job was to stop the plague and Regis explicitly sacrificed Insomnia itself to protect Noctis until the time came for him to save the world.

    Complicating matters further is the fact that, while Noctis was allowed to remain ignorant about the fate of the “King of Kings,” Regis knew about the blood price all along. Far from being conceited and oblivious to the suffering of the world outside, the King of Lucis sent his own son to die for it.

    And therein lies the rub. Insomnia’s culture might reflect America, but Lucis is a theocratic monarchy whose royal line’s purpose is to produce the world’s savior. Noctis’ function isn’t merely to fix the problems caused by his own nation; it’s to purge an existential threat to the world by obediently subjecting himself to a sacrificial death at his father’s hands.

    Essentially, Eos is a world in tension. It merges the modern and the messianic, pursuing verisimilitude in ways that sometimes comfort and sometimes repulse depending on how we feel about the thing represented. It’s just Other enough that it shakes our complacency with regards to the shadowy parts of modern Western culture and the faith on which that culture was built; unfortunately, people tend to use that very Otherness as an excuse to avoid further reflection on things that would be uncomfortable to address in their original context.

    And, of course, the game’s take on America is subject to that — some of the less-savory aspects of America that the game imitates are projected onto the Japanese development team or even just the game’s setting and rejected violently without any meaningful self-awareness. On the other hand, there’s at least some recognition of obvious political allusions like immigration/”the Wall” and “fake news”/”alternative facts;” I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone besides myself point out the obvious implications of the title “King of Kings” or the ritualized sacrifice on which the game’s finale turns.

    Like

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