Being a series that never repeats a character or world, the enduring conflict in the Final Fantasy series is between technological determinism and artistic vision. Its arguably finest moment, Final Fantasy VII, resolves the two seamlessly: a game of unheralded beauty and scope that could have only been made with the affordances of the CD ROM over cartridges. The question of whether the game was made for the PlayStation, or whether the platform gave the developers the tools they needed for uninhibited creative expression can be argued either way, although it seems obvious that both are the case. For the past two decades however the picture has been one of negotiation: what in the mid nineties seemed like expressive opportunity quickly revealed itself as a contract for tech fetish show-reels, the game as an advertisement for the platform. This has put the series in a strange position where it has had to both embody and warn against the popular narrative of graphical (mimetic) progress leading to better art. Across the post-VII titles we see a variety of ways to use spectacle to artistic ends, to deny spectacle for artistic emphasis, to reconstitute notions of beauty and playability. The series’ last moment of optimism was Final Fantasy X, a consciously next gen looking game that wanted to tell the most moving Final Fantasy story yet. It succeeded, but beneath this was a subversive meta-commentary on tech determinism and numbing blockbusters, resistance as affection, and the radicals salvaging and repurposing retrograde technologies jettisoned in the name of progress.
This decade’s entry however (and would-be platform advertisement), Final Fantasy XIII was met with scorn from players and critics alike for delivering on impressive cut-scenes but falling short as a game and a dramatic work. Although it seemed at the time upsetting that a once unimpeachable series could suddenly be faulted, this failure highlighted a widespread public rejection of tech determinism in favour of a more sophisticated standard for games, and game aesthetics. Game aesthetics, it was agreed, are not simply surface textures but the way the game moves, the way the player feels grounded or groundless in its environments, the rules of the game (what can and can’t be done), confrontations in and around the game’s embedded narrative, and the way that these things flow into one another. It is with this in mind that we come to Final Fantasy XV: the most joyously bizarre and infuriating big profile game released this lifetime. In series fashion it’s a heavily reflexive work, but unlike the consciously cinematic X it lays out and explores its themes with a clarity only activated by free-form play. Where favourites in the series force the player through tens of hours of storytelling before opening up as a reward, XV reverses the formula such that it begins as an ‘open world’ and it is up to the player to decide when to move things along in a dramatically meaningful way. Every day then is the sum of what the player explored, of the hangouts with the central friend group, of the pictures taken for the memories. The time of the open world is actually time-less, variable in weather events, but effectively a kind of influence-free dreamstate from which we choose to or not to, awaken.
Its curious approach to time and time-keeping is explored through the friction between storytelling and gameplay, and as such simply running around forces the player to examine notions of entertainment, time-wasting, escapism, and responsibility. The game’s master-stroke is that it all registers emotionally as well as thematically. What immediately sets it apart from the rest of the series is that its broad narrative takes place at a distance: where we typically expect spectacular cut-scenes to establish dramatic stakes, Final Fantasy XV begins with silent stares and disappointed glances. The game actually starts when we walk out of the story at hand, and there we remain on the perimeter, with the nobodies. When macro context is required later on, we receive short flashbacks or fragments of action happening from afar. We might be personally curious about what’s happening, but Noctis has decided that these things do not matter because they are not directly impacting him and his endless summer. We remember back to those disappointed glances and realise that to the standards of everyone outside of our friend group (those engaged in what looks like a conventional RPG), we are failures.
Critics have pointed out that the bland repetition of the game’s sidequests make it feel as grindy as an MMO, and indeed this is not helped by the anti-spectacle of the way that we receive the central narrative. This is all by design; we are both supposed to enjoy and not enjoy fucking around. The reasons framing our activities underscore their lack of purpose, but the actual doing is a desperately fun mess. The combat builds on the gravity-defying kinetics and squad-based noise of Kingdom Hearts to the point that it is difficult to tell whether you are terrible or super good at the game. For those who struggle with spontaneous chaos there is the option to slow things down and change it into a more conventional turn-based RPG, but one does get the feeling that we’re supposed to run into everything in real-time, sloppily, crashing into existence, and realising a bit too late that we need to pack our shit and run for the hills. What is important is that nobody is forcing us to do these additional pointless things. The central game can be completed in a matter of hours, but there’s so much to do that means so very little! Where else do we get to hear the four friends talking shit? Where else do we get to launch into frantic combat half by accident only to come across spine-tingling vistas which we then photograph and review over a beer in the evening? Director Hajime Tabata knows that it is all meaningless, but the game is for those who find profundity in aimlessness-
Oh, the alcoholic afternoons
When we sat in your rooms
They meant more to me
Than any, than any living thing on earth
As we play through the batshit fights and race the sunshine to the lakeside campground, we come across people who all make a point of asking Isn’t there something else you should be doing?. Early in the game this feels like the kind of bland dialogue so often encountered in open world games with too many NPCS for meaningful scripting, but before long it registers in two ways. First, we feel guilty that we’re not moving things forward and accepting responsibility as the game’s ‘hero’, and second, an expiry date is put on this utopia- we become acutely aware that this is a fragile state that must at some point come to an end. Like that last summer between finishing high school and deciding what’s next, before people grow up and change and move to different cities, XV is full of pointless diversions, ecstatic highs, and the bitter feeling that the sun is setting on an endless summer. We feel the tipping point coming at about Chapter 9 and from there it’s a free-fall into adult responsibility, mortality, and the dissolution of friendship. Tabata allows us to travel between this new dramatically active present and the useless past, but he does this in a strange and moving way- where in the present people are maimed and friends become enemies, in the past everything is still sun-drenched and golden- an eternity of youth and forever-friendships. I openly admit to welling up multiple times at the goodwill and happiness of the game’s nostalgic utopia, as the present by contrast becomes so cold and unforgiving.
What is so unexpected is that we anticipate a hero’s journey from Noctis, but the game is made jagged by its subversions. Noctis must learn what he can to make things better, but also understand the implications of his shirking. He’ll be the first to tell you that he will never be the hero the world needs, but it’s more complicated than just walking away and letting someone else take over. The game is sympathetic to the teenage myopia of why should I? I never asked for this– like Donnie Darko’s self-martyrdom, his ultimate expression of selflessness must come through a selfish framework. And like Donnie Darko there’s a kind of empathy involved therein. We receive flashes of his betrothed, Lunafreya, but neither party seem interested in ever meeting. Luna has fully embraced her role as healer and oracle, orchestrating the events of Final Fantasy XV as its sole hero, the one person who genuinely cares about, and can therefore positively influence how things will go. She deserves better, or different, but she’s stuck with this, and whatever Noctis deserves, he’s not up to what must follow. It’s difficult to account for why Noctis and not Luna is the one we follow, although we can argue that Noctis is defined by the qualities he lacks compared to a) the brave and altruistic Lunafreya, and b) his friends who form a composite hero. We fuck around as Noctis, able to get by through the efforts made by others, and the realisation we come to is not unlike that of K in Blade Runner 2049. Final Fantasy XV is not the game we get to play; it’s everything that we miss.
Tonally Final Fantasy XV strikes a perfect balance between knowing and spontaneous weirdness, which means that it frequently pushes itself into the domain of Deadly Premonition-esque uncanny horror. At its most pointed it uses this unease to take a stab at big budget games mimicking the surfaces of the physical world without considering how they’ll appear in the context of an animation, and this otherwise underscores the cognitive dissonance involved in playing games whose narrative beats are out of sync with the way we play them. We’ll receive bad news, witness something frightening, or just shit talk about frogs, and before we know it we’re stumbling off into images of stunning grace and elegance. An ongoing issue with open world games is whether developers can make them feel alive, as vast emptiness makes for ghost towns and hyperactivity makes for claustrophobia, but Final Fantasy XV has a mixture of regional sameness and atmospheric dynamics that mean its landforms never stop exciting, especially when viewed from the motorways that have us gliding through the sublime. Towns and cities are brought to life with immense detail and have us stumbling through at night like drunks, not realising that we’ve been here already. Travelling at night means we’re perpetually in need of a place to crash and restock, which means that settlements rarely feel redundant or deserted.
As a conventional narrative work it is unfulfilling by nature, because the onus is on the player to discover what matters and what doesn’t on the narrative periphery. The real narrative is the memories made and reflected on at the end of every day through Prompto’s viewfinder. When things come together they do so with a processional sadness that feels like a splash of cold water to the face. Even with closure, the game actively denies the player catharsis. The work concerns itself with ennui, responsibility, and the passage of time, and it liberates itself from the expensive demonstration of these themes by having the player work through them instead. As I have said, the Final Fantasy series has frustratedly been arguing for a complicated game aesthetics for over two decades, from its position as the leader of shiny new surfaces. In many ways the consciously retrograde Final Fantasy IX predicted (and encouraged) the rise in indie games as a response to regurgitative AAA titles, and Final Fantasy XII demonstrated the series’ ambitions: an artistic digital patina; an emphasis on flow, freedom, and experimentation; a ground-view, decentralised view of a greater narrative.
A more truthful, more constructive view of the series is not one of self-contained masterpieces, but as a masterful network of ideas about play, about storytelling, about art, which as time goes on increasingly learn from and challenge one another, resulting in works both disastrously and wonderfully broken. The series has always been progressive, even when it’s retrograde, and sound even when it’s scrappy. Final Fantasy XV is a perfect disaster, and an indication that rather than playing it safe, these things are only going to get stranger in pursuit of new highs and impossible resolutions.