Does Final Fantasy VII Belong in the Video Game Canon?

The following is the first entry in Featured Author Dan Hughes‘ series, “Now Loading… The Video Game Canon!”

Welcome to the Polygonal World of Final Fantasy!

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and the fourth kind, welcome one and all to the first installment of “Now Loading…The Video Game Canon!” In this, our virgin installment, we will be taking a look at a game that has had more critical acclaim, more cultural impact, and more salacious fan art drawn of it than quite possibly anything to come out of the Japanese video game market. A bold stance, I know, but consider the source in that we will be looking at Final Fantasy VII! I wanted to start this series off strong, and figured there was no more interesting candidate than the game that introduced an entire generation of gamers not only to the Final Fantasy series, but also to Japanese Role-Playing Games and the broader RPG genre as a whole. I don’t want to make assumptions and say that a large swath of you have been to comic book, video game, or anime conventions, but I’m going to do just that and then assert that even if you haven’t even touched this game, then you have still at least seen someone dressed up as a Cloud or a Sephiroth in your travels through the Nerdsphere. You may have been fortunate enough to see your friend pop this game into his PlayStation, or perhaps unfortunate enough to have seen your friend pop the movie, Advent Children, into her PSP. Regardless of your exposure, this blockbuster of a game has permeated so many facets of video game culture that it would be a crime not to examine it as a candidate for the canon.

Released in 1997 for the Sony PlayStation, Final Fantasy VII marked the series’ jump to three dimensions. Square Enix, then called Squaresoft, were lauded for the (then) smooth transition from 16-bit sprites and painted backgrounds to beautiful polygonal character models and gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds. The story, though vague and at times confusing, was praised as being both a welcome addition to the then fairly sizable Final Fantasy library, and also a landmark in video game storytelling in general. The world of Final Fantasy VII is vast and complex, with intricate plot details and character summaries woven together to build a universe that truly felt lived in and believable. If The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was Nintendo’s opus for the Nintendo 64, then Final Fantasy VII was Sony’s assertion that the PlayStation was a contender in the console wars.

It’s difficult to go into more detail without cutting into the other sections, so let’s waste no further time and examine Final Fantasy VII!

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Story and Characters: A Rogue SOLDIER and a Dying Planet

As any fan—or friend of a fan unfortunate enough to hear “Just sit down and let me explain it to you”—knows, the story of Final Fantasy VII is something of a confused mess when you get down to its particulars. I chalk this up to an uncharacteristically poor localization resulting in a number of confusing typos, and the always slightly confusing storytelling of the Squaresoft writers. For your edification, I will provide an abridged version of the story that has been broken down to its bare essential plot elements and themes. Then, for your enjoyment, I will do my best to recount all the insanity that is this game’s story.

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Pictured: An Incredibly Succinct Metaphor for Death.

IN JUST A FEW SENTENCES OR LESS, SQUARESOFT, GOOD LORD

At its core, Final Fantasy VII is the story of Cloud Strife, a man who, due to a number of violent tragedies in his past, deludes himself into believing he is someone else. This ultimately reveals itself when a maniac known as Sephiroth tries to destroy the Planet, and is only made worse when someone Cloud swore to protect dies before his eyes. Cloud then has to work through his feelings of guilt, remorse, and borderline PTSD, all while the world is literally coming to an end around him. Ultimately, these battles, one on the outside and one in the confines of Cloud’s mind, come together when he embraces a mystical, Planet-binding force called the Lifestream, which is essentially the collective conscious of every single being to ever live. The Planet is saved, and Cloud understands that even when someone dies, they are never truly gone, and to hold onto the grief of losing someone would to do a disservice to oneself and the memory of the dead.

Fundamentally, Final Fantasy VII is a beautiful story about loss, grief, and learning to move on from tragedy. These themes are made even more poignant when one realizes that the concept of the Lifestream and the general themes for the game were the brainchild of genius series director Hironobu Sakaguchi after experiencing a tragedy of his own. After Sakaguchi’s mother died, he struggled for a long while with her death and the nature of oblivion in general. Through a lot of introspection, he was eventually comforted by the thought of a vital, living essence that composes all things and flows through the very Earth itself. This concept later became the Lifestream, and Final Fantasy VII ultimately became a tool through which Sakaguchi moved past his grief.

That, to me, is what you essentially need to know about the game’s plot and themes to understand how wonderful and timeless the game truly is. Based on this simple breakdown, the story is worth canonizing.

However, two small paragraphs does not a three-disc game make, now, does it, Square? Here’s that same synopsis with just a touch more detail.

I’VE HEARD OF WORLD-BUILDING, BUT THIS IS RIDICULOUS

Final Fantasy VII is the story of Cloud Strife, a formerly high-ranking member of a corporate military group known as SOLDIER. He is recruited by Barret and an environmentalist/eco-terrorist group called AVALANCHE to destroy the Shinra Electric Power Corporation’s nuclear reactor type power plants because they are sucking Mako energy, or the lifeblood of the planet, out of the Earth to fuel technological advancement. Cloud couldn’t give two figs about Mako energy and the dying planet, though, and only wants his money for the job he just literally killed hundreds and hundreds of people completing. And though Cloud, Barrett, and now Cloud’s childhood friend Tifa are off to destroy another Mako reactor literally one day after destroying the first one, they somehow didn’t plan on Shinra not being too keen on having that happen again. Cloud falls off a ledge and lands in a church where he meets Aerith, a flower girl with spooky old-world powers.

While Cloud is flirting hardcore with Aerith, Barret and Tifa get wind of a Shinra plot, and decide (mutually, I assume?) that Tifa will go after the local gadabout/pimp/gay icon? to squeeze some information out of him one way or another. Aerith and Cloud see Tifa going to this brothel, one thing leads to another, and Cloud is dressed in drag to infiltrate the pimp’s mansion. You know, I recently replayed this game and forgot how quickly this all happens… It’s like the first hour of the game.

Yada yada yada, Shinra blows up an entire slum because it turns out you shouldn’t blow up 1/8th of a mega corporation’s power supply/work force, the gang takes revenge in what little way it can, and then leaves for the bigger world to chase after Sephiroth, a man with vague intentions and even vaguer explanations for those intentions. Also the Sephiroth that they’re chasing isn’t actually the real Sephiroth, but something called a Remnant (as they are later referred in one of the umpteen spinoffs this game has,) which is basically just some random person with a bit of Sephiroth’s crazy DNA wrapped up inside them. Oh, and it eventually turns out Cloud is also one of those Remnants, but can’t quite remember why or how, and ends up giving Sephiroth the means to blow up the Planet because of this tenuous and, frankly, very poorly explained connection to him and another guy who eventually got an entire game of his own, Zack Fair…..

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Anyone see the plot? I lost it here someplace.

I’m going to be honest with you folks, I thought it would be fun to type out all the inanity behind Final Fantasy VII’s plot, but it would just take up all the document space in the world. Not to mention it was way less fun than I thought it might be, but hey, you take your chances, am I right?

The complex and sometimes confusing aspects of the game’s story are definitely a negative when it comes to canonization. The core of loss and grief is so strong, but I must admit that the amount of effort that goes into explaining a lot of crucial plot details smacks of poor writing. I can’t blame the poor localization there, either, because these crazy plot inconsistencies exist in the Japanese version as well. However, I, like many other people who play this game, tend to let that slide because of how strong the central theme of the game is. It also helps that the cast of characters is well-fleshed out with clear motivations and strong personalities.

I would say the strongest praise that can be given to the main cast in this game is that they are at once complex enough to be interesting and simple enough to know exactly who they are. Cloud is the strong, silent type who doesn’t fancy himself a hero due to his tragic past. Barret, while outwardly tough and ready to die for his cause, is also a loving father who really just wants the Planet to be safe for his daughter. Tifa is a bit of a femme fatale, but she cares deeply for her childhood friend and believes in saving the world. And of course that’s not even mentioning Cid, Red XIII, Aerith, Cait Sith, and the optional Vincent and Yuffie characters. Within moments of seeing these people on screen, you know who they are and what they are about. You know how they will interact with each other, and how they will react to events taking place around them. Good characters are characters who can be summed up simply, and Final Fantasy VII pulls that off flawlessly.

In short, though the story of Final Fantasy VII is at times complex, confusing, and downright poorly written, the heart of the game and the characters within it are enough to forgive a little confusion.

Gameplay, Music, and Visuals: Like a Fine Wine

Though the story may fall flat in some parts, there is nothing but praise to be given to the overall aesthetic of the game. When compared to previous Final Fantasy games, VII doesn’t necessarily break the mold when it comes to gameplay and mechanics. Instead, it takes the tried-and-true, turn-based combat system from other games and perfects it, giving players the option to customize magic, summons, and equipment such that they can truly play a role. For example, due to Aerith’s quiet and gentle nature, I always build her as I would a white magic user. She typically becomes the healer, and if push comes to shove she can send out an army of Materia summons for the offense. Likewise, Cloud always struck me as a brute force kind of character, so I would focus less on healing magic and more on strength or defensive buffs and the like. That being said, the way the game is built allows you to fill any role with any character. It’s a versatile enough roster that you can see the character’s inherent strengths and weaknesses, but flexible enough that you can play by your own rules if you’d like. For example, a mechanic that in later Final Fantasy installments that was over-complicated or ditched altogether in favor of crystal hallways, namely that of boosting your stats with different equipped Materia, adds an interesting dimension to character customization. Certain types of Materia come with boosts to certain stats, so you could theoretically load up a character with spells and abilities that you won’t even have them use in order to just buff up their strength or defense. It may not be the best in terms of strategy, but it offers the player choice in every aspect of gameplay. Who you use in battles, who you team them with, how you equip them, what spells you want them to use, all of these choices are yours and have a number of different meaningful and noticeable impacts on the way you play the game. This flexibility is indicative of an element that is sorely lacking in modern Final Fantasy titles: meaningful choice. An entire essay could be written on the bleak deterministic nature of later games in the series, but luckily this title makes you feel like your decisions matter.

The music is composed by Final Fantasy series regular, Nobou Uematsu, and in my humble opinion is some of his best work to date, if not his very best work. Each piece—from the iconic battle themes, to the character songs, to even the simple background music that greets you upon entering a town—is immediately recognizable to anyone who has played the game. Though not the most technically impressive, every piece of music serves the world of the game, and truly envelops you within it. And of course, something must be said of a soundtrack with one of the most popular final boss themes in all of video games. “One-Winged Angel” still makes concert halls go insane; look it up.

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Throw him onto Tetsuo’s motorcycle and you have the most famous anime still in recorded history.

By today’s standards, the hard-jutting polygonal character models are laughably incompetent. I find it a boring argument to come to the graphics’ aid by saying “it was revolutionary at the time,” or “it was a product of the PlayStation’s limitations.” Rather, I give the choppy character models a pass because the visual world itself is so distinct that few games have been able to replicate it richness. The pre-rendered backgrounds from Midgar to the Great Northern Cave help to set the somewhat bleak and sad tone of the game. When you visit the slums of Midgar or the dying town of Corel, you feel not only that this world is real, but also that it is dying. The character models are undeniably hilarious, and are the butt of a possibly infinite number of jokes, but the full aesthetic of the world fits with the strange models in a strange way.

Though noticeably dated in some ways, the game is so distinct in these three aspects that it stands the test of time. Had the gameplay, music, or visuals been bland or inseparable from other games at the time, I imagine this game wouldn’t have left such a clear mark on so many people’s memories.

Impact on Video Gaming and Culture: Movies, Spin-offs, Remakes, Oh My!

The impact of Final Fantasy VII—not only video game culture, but on culture in general—is undeniable. This game was released at what many fans consider the peak of the Final Fantasy series, and the impressive visuals, memorable characters, and fun gameplay, combined with the time at which it came out, launched this game to an almost surreal level of fame. For many American gamers, it was an introduction to Final Fantasy and JRPGs, making the previous titles so popular that they were eventually remade and ported over to the PlayStation from Nintendo consoles. In just a few years, Square Enix made Final Fantasy: Advent Children, a CGI movie sequel to the game; this sequel was released and re-released in numerous iterations and formats. The impact of the movie alone was enough to influence anime for years to follow, making its way into innumerable Japanese toy stores to the point that Akihabara should basically just relent and have a storefront exclusively for Final Fantasy VII.

Final Fantasy VII would go on to influence how RPGs looked, felt, and even sounded, to the point that one could argue that all modern JRPGs find many of their roots in the game. It also shaped the future of the Final Fantasy series, for better or worse. The games that followed clearly took a great many cues from Cloud Strife and gang, and slowly began devolving into, ironically, games that seemed like remnants of a once-great story. But the condemnation of recent Final Fantasy games is a diatribe for another day.

Between spin-off games starring Zack Fair and Vincent Valentine, and a strange Japanese mobile phone game that was popular for a baffling amount of time, it is not surprising that we have now been promised a complete remake of the original Final Fantasy VII for the PS4. The amount of attention and importance placed on this game is undeniable: without Final Fantasy VII, there’s a good chance we would be without a huge swath of our gaming libraries today.

BONUS LEVEL: Opening, Bombing Mission

This is a massive game, and so a massive article naturally formed around it. But you’ve stuck with me this far, and I’m hoping you can stay with me a little longer before I render the verdict you have no doubt come to on your own.

There’s an adage when it comes to novels and short stories: the first and last lines are the most important. I tend to agree with that, and also think it can apply to video games. However, video games are largely a visual and auditory medium, so the opening shot, much like in a movie, acts as that crucial first line.

Final Fantasy VII opens on a prolonged view of the stars in the sky, lingering for just a moment longer than may be comfortable in order to emphasize the scope of the story you are about to witness. Without cutting, the camera falls away from the stars into darkness, where a woman’s face is lit up by a pale green light. She walks out of her quiet alleyway filled with flowers into a grimy, loud city street full of people and machines. She looks upwards, we zoom out, and see the sprawling, fetid city of Midgar. Midgar rejects the natural light of the stars above, instead radiating its own pale, sickly glow to show a gross dominance over the natural world. The title screen appears, the music changes, and we zoom in on one part of the city, on a train pulling into a station….

In less than five minutes and without one line of dialogue, Final Fantasy VII lets the audience know that it is story about natural forces against manmade forces on an epic scale. When two forces sit at odds with one another, something must change… Join us, won’t you?

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Let’s hope the remake can capture the glory of shots like these.

VERDICT: A Game for the Ages

If you have read this far, then you no doubt know that I absolutely place Final Fantasy VII in the canon of video games. Although its plot is confusing at times and its visuals may not have aged gracefully when compared with modern games, the themes, characters, and sheer impact this game has had on the world at large is enough to encourage people to not only play the game, but to study it as well. There are so many lessons about gameplay, storytelling, world-building, and longevity that Final Fantasy VII can impart, and to let it fall by the wayside would truly be a sin. So, welcome, Final Fantasy VII, to the Video Game Canon! Congratulations, and may the Lifestream guide you.

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Well done, lads.

The Tragic Irony of Final Fantasy XIII-2

Since the beginning of With a Terrible Fate, I’ve made passing comments about how deeply the storytelling of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy offended my sensibilities, both as a player and analyst of video games. On the first day of my three months analyzing Majora’s Mask, I discussed the Zelda game’s value by showing how it succeeded where Lightning Returns failed; when I discussed my fears about Square Enix dividing the Final Fantasy VII remake into multiple games, I cited the weak episodic storytelling of the XIII saga as prima facie reasons to worry about Square’s ability to tell one story across multiple games. Yet despite constantly using the XIII trilogy as fodder for broader critiques, I have never yet devoted an article to tackling the problems of the series head-on.

Well, with today at last marking the release of Final Fantasy XV, I found it a fitting occasion to turn my full attention to Final Fantasy XIII, as something of a personal reflection on why I was so let down by the trilogy. I do view the trilogy as a fantastic failure in storytelling, but the undertone of this critique is the quiet hope that Square learned its lesson and remembered how to tell stories. This, I think, is the core issue to keep in mind as FFXV finally enters the universe of game criticism in the coming weeks: remember that FFXIII also “looked pretty” and had a decent enough battle system; its colossal failure was one of storytelling, and I believe that storytelling is the measure by which FFXV will stand as a masterpiece or fall as an epic waste of time and resources.

Sadly, I could probably spend as long picking apart the FFXIII trilogy’s problems as I spent analyzing Majora’s Mask (but don’t challenge me on that–it wouldn’t be fun for anyone). So today, I’m just going to focus on Final Fantasy XIII-2. I’ve long thought that, of the three games in the trilogy, FFXIII-2 was the one with the most redeeming features and the greatest narrative potential. The problem is that FFXIII-2 is, in a surprising and sad sense, a very poignant story trapped inside of a very poorly composed story. The project of this article is to explain what I mean by that claim; in particular, I want to show you how the very structure of Final Fantasy XIII-2’s universe renders its narrative shortcomings tragically ironic, perhaps even in a way that can give disappointed players a new appreciation for a game that fails in an almost beautiful way. I’ll first argue that, sacrilegious though it may sound to say so, FFXIII-2 was poised to be the spiritual successor of the classic Chrono Trigger. After that, I’ll show how the overall framing of FFXIII-2‘s story destroyed what initial potential the game had–in fact, I’ll argue that it suffers from failures similar to those of Assassin’s Creed III, but suffers from those failures to an even greater extent than ACIII does. Lastly, I’ll combine these two strands of analysis to show how the game becomes a tragically ironic narrative failure. In the end, we’ll walk away with some lessons in how stories can fail–and, hopefully, how stories can succeed.

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I’m still waiting for a justification of why this Moogle was so crucial to the plot of XIII-2.

Not a Hallway Anymore: Temporal Overworlds

One of the most common criticisms of the first entry in the FFXIII trilogy–named simply Final Fantasy XIII–was that its world and story were overly linear, meaning that the game consisted in a singular path from the beginning to the end of its narrative with very little by way of exploration or divergence from that path. One of JonTron’s most popular video’s, criticizing precisely this aspect of the game, bore the fitting title “Final Hallway XIII” in reference to the game’s severe linearity. So, you might expect that the developers, in crafting a sequel to FFXIII, might compensate for this aspect of the original game by making the sequel substantially less linear, with a variety of different paths and narrative outcomes to explore.

And indeed, less linearity is exactly what we see in FFXIII-2; in fact, the structure of the game’s world and narrative is radically non-linear. What I mean by ‘radically non-linear’ is that, where the worlds of most games tend to be spatially organized, the world of FFXIII-2, at its highest level, is actually structured in terms of time. The player’s main interface with the game is the Historia Crux, a metaphysical space that allows them to access various moments across time–some of which occur in alternate timelines. The Historia Crux is analogous to the ‘world map’, or ‘overworld’, of many other games: the global space that contains all of the various locations to which the player can travel over the course of a game’s narrative. Yet instead of being a broad swath of space, the Historia Crux is a broad swath of time: we could justly call it a temporal overworld in the sense that it fundamentally structures the game’s narrative and locations based on time rather than on space.

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The Historia Crux matrix of gates to locations throughout time and timelines.

One might even say that the story of FFXIII is about linearity and non-linearity in narrative. The Historia Crux is made possible by a variety of paradoxes that corrupt time with impossible events following the end of FFXIII‘s narrative, when the goddess Etro intervened to save the player’s party of characters, thereby distorting the flow of history. One way of viewing the goal of FFXIII-2, then, is to travel through time resolving these paradoxes, trying to restore order to the timeline. One might actually see this as a clever response on the part of Square to the linearity criticisms about FFXIII: by resolving paradoxes in FFXIII-2, the player is able to travel to a variety of potential timelines and witness several paradoxical outcomes to the game’s history–yet all of this is done in service of restoring order and linearity to the storyline, ultimately reaching the game’s singular, canonical ending. It’s easy to interpret this as a metaphor for the tension in games between the need for games to present multiple possibilities on the one hand, and the need for games to tell a coherent story on the other hand: for players’ choices to matter in game narrative, multiple outcomes to events must be possible, and yet this increasing variability in the game seems to cut against the grain of a well-articulated story with fixed, carefully arranged events.

So far, so interesting. While I haven’t yet said much at all about the particular content of FFXIII-2‘s story, the form of its world certainly seems like an interesting basis for telling a tale that plays on the special features and constraints of video games as a medium. And it’s worth noting at this juncture that this isn’t a radically new idea: in fact, it picks up on some of the central mechanics and themes of a much older game of Square’s: Chrono Trigger.

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The Epoch’s time-traveling interface in Chrono Trigger.

Though it wasn’t structured around paradoxes, Chrono Trigger did gain fame for its time-travel narrative structure, complete with a wide variety of potential game outcomes depending on choices the player made, when the game’s ultimate enemy (Lavos) was defeated, and so on. Released in 1995, the game was ahead of its time–no pun intended–in the way it built a robust game narrative out of multiple possibilities and timelines for the player to explore. This is the tradition in which FFXIII-2 followed; you can even see echoes of the time-hopping interface of Chrono Trigger’s time machine, the Epoch, in the design of the Historia Crux.

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Caius with one of many ill-fated Yeuls.

But FFXIII-2 goes beyond merely elaborating the structure of Chrono Trigger: in the details of its story–or rather, one of its storylines–it makes the game’s time-based narrative deeply poignant in a surprising way. The central antagonist of the game is Caius Ballad, a man who has been made immortal by being endowed with the heart of the goddess Etro–the Heart of Chaos. He is the designated guardian of Yeul, a Seeress with a double-edged gift: the young girl can see the future, but her lifespan shortens each time she does so, causing her to die young, only to be reincarnated thereafter. Thus the immortal Caius, knowledgeable of all time thanks to Yeul’s visions, has also had to watch countless Yeul’s die in his arms, “carving their pain on his heart” every time. Caius’ mission in the game is to kill the goddess Etro, from which time and history flow, in order to end time itself: he only wants to do this in order to end Yeul’s suffering by putting a stop to the cycle of her dying by degrees every time she sees the future.

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Noel and a dying Yeul.

On the other hand, we have the protagonist Noel: one of the player’s two characters, who gets wrapped up in a quest to change the future and resolve the timeline. Growing up, he knew both Caius and one incarnation of Yeul; he refused to become Yeul’s guardian when he learned that he had to kill Caius in order to do so. As he travels throughout time, he clashes with Caius and meets numerous other incarnations of Yeul; thus he comes to understand both the fate of Yeul and the pain endured by Caius as Yeul’s companion and protector. In the game’s final battle, Noel confronts Caius and challenges his views about Yeul: though Caius believes Yeul to have been cursed by Etro to die and be reborn countless times, always living a short life, Noel tells Caius that he knows Yeul wanted to come back because she loved Caius and wanted to be with him, time and again.

The closer you look at the story of Noel, Caius, and Yeul in relation to the overall architecture of FFXIII-2‘s narrative and world, the more poignant the story becomes. The very act of the player and Noel progressing through the story and constantly changing the future causes Yeul to have more visions, thereby shortening her life and killing her more quickly; Caius, the game’s final villain, wants Noel to be strong enough to kill him so that, by Caius dying, Etro will die too (since his heart is her heart) and Yeul will be free from seeing history. And as Noel continues in his journey, he comes to understand both Caius and Yeul, all the while unknowingly unwinding the coil of fate to the point where he is strong enough to kill Caius, and Caius forces him to do so. And on top of all this, perhaps most impressively, this narrative perfectly mirrors the act of playing the game: as the player explores and exhausts all the game’s narrative possibilities, she becomes more invested in and knowledgeable about the characters, all the while progressing the story to the point where the game reaches its conclusion, effectively ending the timeline of the game’s world and terminating the player’s interaction with the various timelines. This is a story shockingly rich with layered conceptions of time, sympathy, pathos, and the tension between possibility and fate.

I started out this article by claiming that FFXIII-2 was a game with tragically ironic narrative shortcomings, but thus far I seem to have been describing an incisive, acutely self-aware game with a moving narrative. So where’s the problem? Well, you might have noticed that I said above that Noel is one of the player’s two characters–and it’s the other one of these characters that makes trouble for the game.

Tragedy and Time

In a nutshell, the problem for Final Fantasy XIII-2 is that the story I just related to you above is relegated to the status of a sub-plot: Noel and his cohort are effectively supporting characters in service of the player’s other controllable character, Serah Farron. The game is principally conveyed through her perspective, and her goal–the primary impetus for the game’s overall narrative–is to effectively undo the world and story of Noel, Yeul, and Caius.

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Note here that Noel is backgrounded relative to Serah and Mog the Moogle, and that Serah is the one deciding that the party is ready to go. In these respects, this picture symbolizes pretty much every aspect of the problems I’m pointing out for the game.

Serah is the sister of Lightning, who was a major character in FFXIII and the primary protagonist (and only player character) of Lightning Returns, the last entry in the trilogy. She is engaged to Snow, another key character from the first game that gets downgraded to little more than “Serah’s fiancée” in FFXIII-2 and Lightning Returns. The overarching narrative of FFXIII-2 is that, as the time paradoxes began (following the events of FFXIII), Lightning was effectively erased from history, trapped in Valhalla, the realm where the goddess Etro dwells beyond time. Serah is the only one who remembers Lightning’s presence after the events of XIII-2, due to the paradoxes; Lightning, from Valhalla, sends Noel to join Serah on a journey to fix time, along with Mog, a Moogle who guides Noel and Serah through the world and time.

Personally, Serah doesn’t strike me as a very interesting character–she seems to, for most of the game, have a generally bad time in the style of Sandra Bullock in Gravity, and to be generally two-dimensional besides this–but it’s not especially insightful to critique a character by saying tit isn’t one’s personal cup of tea. I think the more interesting problem with Serah is actually much deeper and harder to forgive than anything like her likability: the problem is that Serah’s epistemic perspective is directed outside of the game’s universe. The entire thrust of Serah’s storyline is that she remembers her sister when no one else does, and wants to restore time to the way she remembers it; in other words, she remembers the events of Final Fantasy XIII, and is trying to reestablish them in a world that is radically different. (Note, as an aside, that this is one of the reasons why it’s so challenging to make sense of the series’ overall consistency: the very premise of time paradoxes in FFXIII-2 effectively undoes many narratively central elements of FFXIII, and similar anti-plot devices bridge the gap between FFXIII-2 and Lightning Returns.) So the primary objective of the game’s narrative, as presented through the lens of its focal character, Serah, is to undo the world of the game by changing history to reinstate the world of the previous game. So Serah’s narrative isn’t simply a “distraction” from Noel, Caius, and Yeul’s narrative: it actually actively disqualifies it as relevant, since that narrative constitutes part of the world that Serah is aiming to undo. Indeed, even when Serah is identified as a Seeress who, like Yeul, can see the future at the cost of her life, this fact that could potentially unify the two narratives seems nevertheless to be something that Serah’s narrative tries to overpower and disqualify: she decides to continue trying to change the future despite the fact that it may cost her life. Thus when Serah does die at the end of the game as a cost of her visions, the death doesn’t beautifully tie her story and fate together with Noel’s–rather, it just puts a final emphasis on the bizarre fact that the game you just played forced you to focus on a player who never wanted to be in the world of the game.

This problem is deep and inescapable because the narrative of FFXIII-2 virtually always focuses on events through Serah’s perspective. This is important to note because there are multiple ways in which games can intermingle good and bad narratives, and these ways bring about different effects in the overall narrative. It’s useful in this regard to contrast FFXIII-2 with the case of Assassin’s Creed III.

The Animus

Desmond and the Animus of Assassin’s Creed.

Again, regulars to the site will know I’ve been harshly critical of ACIII in the past, mostly in virtue of what I see as a baseless use of an alien-like First Civilization dominating and confusing a narrative about Templars fighting with Assassins; I first detailed this in an article comparing the “aliens” of Assassin’s Creed to the “aliens” of Majora’s Mask. Roughly, my gripe against the game is that the imposition of the First Civilization discounts the value of any agency the player appeared to have within the world of the game, thereby undercutting the entire point of having played the game; this is especially clear when Desmond killed with little narrative justification or explanation at the end of ACIII. But it’s crucial in understanding ACIII to note that there are two layers to the narrative: we have Desmond working as an assassin in present time, and we also have him accessing and living out the memories of his ancestors in the past via the Animus. When engaged in the Animus, the broader storyline of Desmond, the First Civilization, etc., largely fade away: instead, we are left with a compelling narrative about a Native American ancestor, Ratonhnhaké:ton, taking part in the American Revolution, becoming an assassin, and undertaking a deeply personal quest for justice.

The key thing to notice about the above ACIII example is that the layered aspect of the narrative, with the Animus interface serving as a barrier between Desmond’s story and Connor’s story, allows us to effectively consider each narrative independently of the other, while still being able to consider them compositely if we so choose. Despite my qualms about the overall game and series, I quite enjoyed Ratonhnhaké:ton’s story in Assassin’s Creed, and the overall narrative structure allowed me to enjoy it without the overarching Desmond narrative severely impeding it. But this isn’t the case in FFXIII, because there is no Animus-like interface between Serah and Noel’s narratives: Serah is the player’s primary conduit to the entirety of the game’s world–the world she wants to undo. Even in the momentous final confrontation between Noel and Caius that I described above, we find Serah collapsed a few yards from them on the beach of Valhalla, being sad and generally having a bad time. We’re trapped in the perspective of someone who doesn’t belong or want to participate in the world in which we as players as participating, and that is the crux of FFXIII‘s failure.

Conclusion: A Tale of Tragic Irony

If you like irony, then there’s a silver lining for you in all this: even though the overall architecture of FFXIII-2 spoiled what could have been a moving and cerebral story, it does leave us with some tragic, dramatic irony in the way that Serah’s narrative interacts with the narrative of Noel, Caius and Yeul. Noel, Caius, and Yeul are deeply enmeshed in a universe rife with paradoxical possibilities and timelines, trying understand the best way to shape their world and each other as they grapple with the complex perspective and sympathies that come with witness life, death, and pain across countless generations and potential timelines; yet all of their struggles to understand and make meaning ultimately depend on the whim of a player whose actions are being filtered through the lens of a girl who has no intrinsic stake in the events or native inhabitants of the world in which she finds herself. This almost recalls classic Greek tragedy in how laughably ironic it is: as characters wrestle with their humanity and universe, their fate rests in the hands of someone whose priorities are entirely elsewhere–literally in a different game.

If there’s any larger takeaway here, I think it’s this: the worlds and metaphysics of video game worlds are integral to the stories of video games, and the characters of games oftentimes relate to the game’s world in different ways. If the characters have different stakes in the world, then the relations between those stakes, along with the weight given to each of those stakes, must be mindfully architected, or else the whole narrative could be thrown out of balance. And, although we might think it obvious, FFXIII-2 shows us how crucial it is that the principal avatar in a game is actually invested in the world of that game. After all, what incentive does a player have to act as an avatar that does not wish to participate in the game’s world?

But, with that, a new chapter is beginning. Here’s hoping that Square learned from its mistakes, and that Final Fantasy XV has a story worth telling. The only way to know for sure is to dive into its world and find out. Or, you could head back here in a few weeks and see what I think of it.

Or both. Both is good.

FFXV Art.jpg

 

Unclear Control: An Intersection of Player Experience and Game Mechanics

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

I spend a lot of time introducing non-gamers to video games I like. A majority of the time the non-gamer’s reaction is mixed. Amidst moments of excitement and comments about the beauty of the graphics, there are inevitable complaints about lack of clarity in the in-game systems and control scheme of the game. Some of the complaints are completely reasonable, and I agree with them entirely; understanding the implications of the Final Fantasy VIII junction system, or how to jump in Dark Souls without helpful explanation from a friend, seems to me to be a miracle. I quickly forgive these complaints because they are complaints about overly complicated systems.

FF Junction Screen

The Final Fantasy VIII junction screen.

But there is another set of complaints that are much more foundational. These are complaints about the basic systems of a game, which often aren’t that complicated, but are steeped in convention. These complaints have to do with the fact that non-gamers by definition have less experience with the conventions of gaming than a gamer. For example, some of these complaints might be:

  1. How am I supposed to move with one control stick and look with other?
  2. How was I supposed to know that I’m supposed to go to the right?/Where do I go?
  3. How do I pause?

But the following example is, I think, particularly interesting, simply because it’s a problem that every game has to deal with in some way. This is the moment when the person I’m showing a game to has just finished watching the introductory cutscene (or lack thereof), and their avatar is just standing there, gazing off into the distance, until I say, “Hey, you can move now, you know?”

Usually at this point, the person in charge of the avatar jiggles the joystick and, surprised, says, “Oh whoa, you’re right.” Even experienced gamers often get caught off guard at that moment, since they are by nature naive for any given game when they are starting it for the first time. Normally, conversation about that moment of unclear control ends on that note, and never comes up again (unless the player makes the mistake another time). One should ask, why doesn’t the game just inform the player that they’re in control using a text box? And that is one potential solution to this problem. But it’s easy to trivialize the narrative power of a moment like the one described above. The power of a moment that plays with player expectation so effectively should not be overlooked. The mechanics in a game that impact us most are the ones that play with our expectations.[1] Rather than leave the unclear control at the start of a game as a nuisance in the gaming experience, why not use it to tell a game’s story better? There are a few games that have caught on to this narrative power. For example, in Batman: Arkham Knight, when Batman tells Alfred that he’s going to even the odds, and a text prompt appears that says “L1- Even The Odds”, the player shudders with anticipation of what powerful new ability is about to be introduced (or perhaps aware that it will undoubtedly be the Batmobile).

Batman Calling the Batmobile

The prompt for the player to call the Batmobile in Arkham Knight.

In a similar way, some games have played with the accidental mechanical phenomenon of unclear control in order to create experiences that range from satirical comedy to heartbreaking loss.[2]

So what exactly is it that defines “unclear control”? To understand, I’ll propose a framework that will capture the phenomenon of unclear control so we can analyze it. The framework consists of two mechanical elements of games. We’ll then look at the phenomenology associated with the second mechanical element. I’ve created this framework with the intent of explaining unclear control, but I believe it could explain other design decisions as well.

The first mechanical element of the framework is the player’s control state. The control state is the set of ways in which the player can impact the game at any one time t (for this and following explanations I will label a moment in time as variable “t”). Control state is fluid, so it can change over time, based on in-game mechanisms and controls. At time t the control state could be one thing, but it could change to something else at time t + 1 second. But at any time t the player has a definable control state.

The second mechanical element is the actual game state. The actual game state is the collection of all aspects of the current run of the game, including the graphical systems, the music that’s playing, as well as many more internal calculations that vary depending on the game. Each actual game state contains exactly one control state, and there is only one actual game state at time t.

But many aspects of the actual game state do not present to the player’s senses, which leads to the creation of the apparent game state. Many times in a game, the player cannot distinguish between several different game states. Thus, these game states are apparently the same. These actual game states will all be grouped together into one apparent game state. Thinking about it from the other direction, one apparent game state can arise from a variety of actual game states, only one of which is active at time t.

A key aspect of this system is that a particular apparent game state can arise out of several different possible control states because it can arise out of several possible actual game states. The control state in any one particular apparent game state can be ambiguous. I’ll note the key relationships between these ideas below:

  1. Each actual game state contains exactly one control state.
  2. The apparent game state can arise out of any of a set of possible actual game states.
  3. The apparent game state can arise out of several different possible control states.

With this framework we can now define unclear control.

Although the classic example of unclear control is the moment at the end of a cut scene when it is unclear if the game engine is once again taking player input to control the avatar, the mechanical phenomenon is actually more general than that (I describe unclear control as a mechanical phenomenon because it is a phenomenon borne out of the mechanical systems in a game). Unclear control occurs whenever the player is experiencing an apparent game state that contains several different control states.[3] In this way the player has no way to tell how much control they have until they try to give an input.

Unclear control is born out of an inherently frustrating aspect of video games: the question of how to communicate to the player that they are in control. And historically, games have had differing ways of dealing with this problem, including giving tutorials, and text-prompted hints. However, many game companies did not realize that this was a problem that they had to deal with in any particular way, and so when the initial dialogue ends at the start of the game, the avatar is left just standing there until the player figures out that they are in control. Thus, in its first appearances, unclear control is a frustrating, absent-minded, and accidentally created mechanical phenomenon. But, some game creators recognized that unclear control could be used to create narrative power, and so kept creating systems that utilized unclear control, even though it is frustrating for players initially, so that they can tell stories in a more intriguing way in the latter portions of the game. On that note, let’s turn to a few examples.

Final Fantasy VI Cover ArtFinal Fantasy VI makes use of unclear control frequently throughout the game. Dialogue sections (parts of the game in which the only player input possible is to click a button to make the next dialogue box appear) often have no visible or auditory transition back into player control once the dialogue box disappears, so when they end, the player’s avatar is left standing there until the player decides to move. But sometimes there are dialogue sequences in which the player’s character just stands in place, without making a sound, with no dialogue box present. Thus, the two most common ways to know whether the dialogue section has concluded are to try to move your avatar, or just to just wait for so long that the dialogue section could not reasonably still be going. I doubt that many players actually do the latter, so I will assume that in general the way of checking to see if a dialogue section is over is to press a movement button once the dialogue box has disappeared.

This brings us to an example of how unclear control can be used to forward a game’s narrative. At one point in Final Fantasy VI, Locke, one of the game’s protagonists, gets put on a mission with a previous romantic flame named Celes, who he thought had been killed earlier in the game. They bump into each other accidentally late at night outside of the inn at which they are staying. Locke attempts to apologize to her for an earlier transgression, but she won’t respond. After a moment she runs away from Locke, off-screen. Locke is left silent, staring off in the direction that she ran. At this point I impulsively tried to run after her, thinking that the dialogue section had concluded and my next goal was to find her and tell her that I didn’t hate her (chasing after characters is a recurring objective in the game). My goal at that point implicitly became to chase after Celes. But it turned out that the game hadn’t yet handed control back to me yet. The game was actually in a different control state. Instead of giving control back to me, the game slowly faded into black. But my experience should not be considered unique, because the gameplay itself is what gave me the goal to chase after her.

Locke and Celes

Locke encounters Celes outside of the inn.

Through unclear control, the game gives the player a goal—to chase after Celes—that is not actually achievable based on the metaphysics of the game world. I could not act on my desire to pursue Celes, just like Locke couldn’t. The unclear control in this example potentially creates a palpable feeling in the player of the difference between what is wanted and what is done. Regardless of the amount of player emotional investment, the apparent game state creates the illusion that the in-game goal is to chase after Celes, because the dialogue section appears to have concluded and the player is given an indication of where to go to follow her. Thus in some sense the player feels they can and should chase after her. But the volition cannot turn into action. When it comes down to it, Locke doesn’t chase after her, no matter how much he might want to. And then comes the feeling of failure—the feeling of not acting on your desires and also not helping a friend. Through unclear control, the game can express to the player a feeling of knowing what you want but being unable to incite yourself to action. I challenge any medium other than games to express this feeling as eloquently as Final Fantasy VI does.

My next example, from Undertale (by the magnificent Toby Fox), is not nearly as emotionally charged: the goal is satire on JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games). So in order to understand it, I’ll need to describe the trope that is being made fun of. A great example of the trope in action comes from Final Fantasy IX. Zidane, the character that the player controls through a majority of the game, walks into a room mostly filled with water, with a bridge through it. Once the player walks into the room, the player loses control of Zidane, and then a dialogue section ensues. There is a moment of pause before a serpent slides out from a hole in the wall and falls into the water. There is another pause before the serpent attacks and a battle starts.

Zidane at the serpent encounter

The room where Zidane encounters the serpent monster.

Thus the formula is born. The player is in control, walking along, and a certain location will cause the control to be taken from the player. A monster appears and does something. Then, after a pregnant pause, the monster attacks and a battle begins. One should note that in order to use this particular series of events, generally the game must be discontinuous between the battle word and overworld, featuring a transition of some sort between the two worlds (most older JRPGs work this way).

An important detail of this particular trope is that it teaches the player something about their control state during the events leading up to the battle. When the avatar stops, they know that they are no longer in the control state that allows them to move their avatar. But after the monster appears, a naive player may try moving again, to see if they have regained control. These games have now standardized that after a monster appears and control is taken from the player, control will not be given back to them until after the ensuing battle. This is not a necessary truth, just a standardized one.

Undertale features a moment very similar to the one in Final Fantasy IX described above. One need only take a look at the two pictures below to see the similarity in the circumstances. In both cases the player is walking into a room filled with water, and there is a bridge across it. In a similar fashion, the characters both stop on the bridge only to be interrupted by a monster.

 

Zidane after defeating the serpent

Zidane stands in the room where he just defeated the serpent.

The player encountering OnionSan

The player encounters OnionSan.

Now, Undertale is incredibly ambiguous between two of its control states in particular: walking around the world, and dialogue. The apparent game state for the two control states is the same whenever the dialogue box is absent, especially during transitions between the control states. Dialogue sections almost always start with only an abrupt change in control state (taking control away from the player), and they almost always end by returning control to the player. Often very little indication is given that a transition has been made.

So when the player is stopped on the bridge, the player immediately knows that they’ve entered a dialogue section. The monster, who we find out is named OnionSan, shows up and talks for a little while, immediately activating the conditioning any regular JRPG player has experienced. After OnionSan is done talking, all of these non-naive players are ready and waiting through the pregnant pause for the battle to start. But, little do they know, the game has actually changed the control state for the player: they are back in control. When finally they do decided to try to move, they are rewarded with watching the avatar awkwardly shuffle across the screen. With the use of an unclear control state, Undertale has fashioned a moment that is awkward both in dialogue and in the actions of the player. And since the moment repeats a few times before the player makes it to the next room (without ever fighting OnionSan), the awkwardness is effectively prolonged, leading to wonderful participatory satire.

Creating ambiguity in the amount of control the player has at any one moment can be an effective means in many occasions of tying humor or story into the very mechanics of a game—a key part of the player experience. Final Fantasy VI used unclear control to give insight into Locke’s state of mind through the implicit creation of in-game goals—to experience firsthand how multiple options appeared possible, but only one choice was made. Undertale used the unclear control to satirically challenge a common trope in the JRPG genre. And I’m sure that with more searching, other brilliant examples of narratively powerful unclear control could easily pop up. But what’s most important, I think, is that unclear control takes use of what is often a frustrating or embarrassing experience for a player (not being sure whether or not they have control of the avatar) and turns it into a tool to use to expand player experience. What other frustrating aspects of games can we hijack in a similar fashion? Games don’t have to be frustrating, even for new players. If an element of the design of a game is frustrating, it should be removed (if it can be). And if it is not removed then it should be used as part of the storytelling experience. Rather than stick like glue to our common mechanical conventions, game designers should make use of their mechanics to expand their story, or maybe at least tell a joke. Let’s make use of how the mechanics of our games make players feel to enhance the experience. Let’s shoot for the standards set by Final Fantasy VI and Undertale, and use all the tools we have available to us to tell our stories.

Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.

[1] “Game mechanics are constructs of rules and methods designed for interaction with the game state, thus providing gameplay” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_mechanics).

[2] If we define a phenomenon as the object of a person’s perception, unclear control would be a mechanical phenomenon because it’s something that a person notices that is based on the mechanics of the game. I describe it as accidental because, to the best of my knowledge, no one desired to create unclear control in the design for their games in its first appearances.

[3] It may also be interesting to consider the situation in which players have no control. Is WHETHER a player has control relevantly different from HOW MUCH control a player has in any particular way? Are there special characteristics for the “null set” within this model? I’m not entirely sure what the answers to these questions are. But if we find the answers, they may help fill out the model in a more complete way. I’m eager to hear any thoughts/examples. If I find an intriguing idea I’ll likely write about it in the future.

Why 3 disks were acceptable for Final Fantasy VII, and why 3 games are not for its remake.

“The book I’m looking for […] is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world.”[1]

 

I promised as part of With a Terrible Fate‘s one-year anniversary that I would present further analysis on Final Fantasy VII (I’ll be shortening the title to “FFVII” in this paper). With a remake of the game on its way and Cloud newly added to Super Smash Bros. 4, it’s clear that the title is far from outdated, despite being nearly twenty years old.  At the time I made this promise, I was hoping to further analyze the content of FFVII‘s story; however, I’ve come to believe that it’s currently more important to discuss Square Enix’s announcement that FFVII‘s remake will be released as “a multi-part series,” as opposed to as a single game.

Just as most people who play video games have an opinion on FFVII, most people who are following news on the remake have an opinion on this choice to develop it episodically. I want to write about this decision because I think I have two unusual perspectives to contribute to the topic. First, I ended up changing my mind on whether this was a prudent development choice. Second, I think this case actually provides crucial insight into the ontology of video game worlds, and how this ontology intersects with the way that video game narratives work. Accordingly, I’m going to first tell the story of the way my view on the issue changed over time, and then I’m going to present my argument for why I now believe the developers are probably making the wrong choice. If all goes well, I’ll say something interesting about the general form of video game stories along the way.

(Please note that, as always, spoilers abound.)

I. Wrestling with Narrative Form

I think it’s fair to say that the first, “pre-theoretic” response that many people have when developers announce substantial changes in remakes of beloved games is that the changes are a terrible mistake. Maybe, on some level, the response is both intuitive and defensible: “After all,” the fan might say, “the reason why the game was so well-received in the first place was because it worked. If the developer changes the game, they’ll ruin what made it special all along.” But of course, this isn’t always the case, for the game almost certainly wasn’t “perfect” (whatever that means) to begin with—and besides, the point of a remake is, in part, to make changes to the original game. So if we find ourselves with this initial intuition, we need to seek out reasons why the particular change in question might be detrimental to the particular game in question. As someone who did feel the initial rage at Square Enix’s announcement that the FFVII remake would be episodic in form, I set about seeking out such reasons.

I’ll confess that I don’t normally endorse episodically structured video games, but my hope was that there was a more principled reason behind my worries concerning FFVII. I decided that this reason was justified doubt in Square Enix: even though the studio is rightly renowned for some exceptional games (including FFVII), their track record in the past few years has been less than stellar. Case-in-point for our present concerns is the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy: Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIII-2, and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Though a comprehensive critique of the trilogy is well beyond the scope of this paper, one criticism that I have shared with many other gamers is that the three games, taken together, have very little semblance of any compelling, unified narrative. Whatever you may say about each of the three titles taken individually, it seems almost impossible to reconcile their stories, themes, and even characters with one another when you consider the games as a comprehensive trilogy. The saga of Lightning &co challenging the Fal’cie in XIII has little in principle to do with the saga of Noel, Caius, and Yeul, which dominates the narrative of XIII-2; and if anyone can offer me a reasoned argument as to how Lightning Returns has anything to do with XIII and XIII-2 besides reusing character names and some visual assets, I’d love to hear it.

FFXIII Lightning Serah Mog

Pictured: Lightning, Serah, and a Moogle that is somehow integral to the plot of the FFXIII trilogy.

As I said, a more thoroughgoing analysis of the FFXIII trilogy is outside the scope of this article.[2] Suffice it to say, I initially took the problems of that series as sufficient grounds to worry about Square Enix releasing FFVII’s remake as a trilogy. However, I ended up changing my mind when I reconsidered an obvious fact about FFVII: it was originally released as a set of three disks of game content.

When I had first considered FFVII, I hadn’t thought that its separation into three disks mattered. I assumed that the fact that the original game took place over three disks was nothing more than a technological limitation of its platform, the PlayStation 1: the game simply had more content than could fit on a single disk, but it was still just one game. But then I realized that this wasn’t quite fair to Square: technological limitations aside, they had actually done quite an impressive job of making the separation between the game’s three disks narratively meaningful. Disk #1 concludes with most of the most famously shocking and final deaths in the history of video game stories: the death of Aerith, a romantic interest of Cloud and the last of the magical Cetra race. Disk #2 ends with the player’s party killing Hojo, the creator and father of Sephiroth. Both of these moments pivotally influence the overall trajectory of the game: the death of Aerith hangs over Cloud and his friends for the rest of the game, and largely shapes the events of the game as well as Cloud’s growth; and the death of Hojo paves the way for the final confrontation with Sephiroth on Disk #3.

Sephiroth and Aerith

The famous moment at the end of Disk 1 when Sephiroth kills Aerith.

Perhaps because it was conceived as a single game rather than the three games of the XIII trilogy, FFVII masterfully divided itself into three narratively distinct, potent, interconnected segments on its three disks.[3] Once I contemplated this, I started to think that a three-game remake of FFVII could actually work quite well.(Because this seems like the most plausible defense of how to break the game up in a remake, I’m going to assume for the rest of the article that FFVII will be remade as three games, although Square Enix has only said, to my knowledge, that it will be a “multi-part” remake.) After all, if Square Enix expanded each of the original disks to fill an entire game, perhaps adding more content while keeping the overall narrative arc the same as in the original, then it seemed perfectly reasonable to suppose that the narrative progression through the three games would be just as cogent and well crafted as the narrative progression through the original FFVII’s three disks.

–well, “it seemed perfectly reasonable” at the time. I no longer believe that the three-disk success of the original FFVII justifies it being remade as a three-game series. Moreover, understanding the reason why FFVII shouldn’t be transposed into a trilogy sheds light on one of the many ways in which the player’s agency in videogame worlds directly influences the way videogame stories work.

II. Player Causality and Narrative Teleology

I’m going to argue that, because of the ways game worlds and game narratives function, it is inappropriate for FFVII to be remade as three standalone games. The argument depends on two more general claims about the dynamics of video game stories. Although I take both claims to be intuitively plausible, I’ll offer some arguments in further support of each of them.

 

Claim 1: The player of a video game is able to substantially, causally influence the events in that game’s universe, in virtue of her actions through the proxy of her avatar(s).

 

Claim 2: The causal influence of a player on a video game’s universe is essential to the narrative of that game.

 

(Note: when I say ‘video game’, I’m not talking about all video games, strictly speaking. I’m primarily concerned with analyzing story-based, single-player games.)

Intuitive though these claims may be, they are substantive claims nonetheless. I don’t expect to offer conclusive proofs of them as “principles of game narrative” within the scope of this paper, but I do hope to convince readers that they are two very plausible assumptions to make about a very broad set of video games. If I’m right, then FFVII falls into that very set, and that, I shall argue, explains why it ought not to be separated into three distinct games.

Claim 1 just says that the player of a video game is able to shape its world in a significant way. At first glance, this claim might seem obvious—“This is a trivial fact,” one might say, “because the player literally controls someone in the game’s world (the avatar), and the avatar’s actions, derived from the player’s control, clearly influence the events of a game’s universe.”

But this response is too quick for two reasons. First, it’s not readily apparent that people in a universe really do have causal power over the universe—it could just be that the universe as a whole evolves over time, with its various parts only appearing to interact in a series of causes and effects. That’s very different from a universe in which people can genuinely modify the events of the universe through their own actions.

Second, even if we grant that game avatars do have causal power within their universe, it’s not obvious that this power is derived from the player. Even though the player is controlling the avatar, you might think that, within the context of the game’s narrative, the avatar’s actions can only be properly understood as choices that the avatar chose to make. It would be unwarranted, unnecessary, and bizarre to make sense of the plot of a Mario game by saying something like “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then the player took control of Mario in order to make Mario save Peach.” Rather, we just say, “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then Mario saved Peach.” Claim 1 suggests that we really have to analyze the story of a game partly in terms of the player’s causal influence, which seems like an odd thing to do.

But a closer examination suggests that Claim 1 survives these two criticisms intact. We can get around the first criticism by considering replays of a single video game: when we play through the same video game more than once and have the avatar make different choices, the events of the game evolve differently. This doesn’t require that the game have choice-determined endings, or anything like that: the mere fact that we can move an avatar either left, or right, or not at all, in the same moment of the game’s narrative during different playthroughs of the game, suggests that avatars really are agents within their universes—their actions aren’t wholly determined by the universe external to them.

What about the worry that the avatar’s causal power is enough, without invoking any implausible causal power on the part of the player? Though this point may be more controversial, I think we have fairly clear-cut cases (and less clear-cut cases) suggesting that we do have to analyze the stories of games partly in terms of player agency if we are to adequately explain and understand those stories. In many games, the player will be provided with information that her avatar could not reasonably know—perhaps something is revealed through a cutscene where the avatar is absent. This knowledge may well lead the player to make decisions in the game and direct her avatar in ways that could not be adequately explained by appealing to what the avatar believed and desired—instead, we need to appeal to what the player believed abut the world of the game, and how she acted on those beliefs through the avatar. We see this phenomenon even more clearly in replays of games: a player may well make different choices during her second playthrough of a game based on certain facts that were only revealed to her (and her avatar) very late in the narrative of her first playthrough—and so it would be even less plausible to account for these choices purely using the avatar’s mental life. We need a concept of the player acting as a causal agent through the avatar.[4]

So I think that Claim 1 remains plausible. The player, acting through her avatar, can causally influence the events of a game’s universe. This influence is substantial in the sense that the player’s actions, by influencing the game’s universe, influence the whole causal chain of the universe thereafter—the actions aren’t somehow “negated” by some counterbalancing force. I think that we typically think of causal influence in this way (i.e. a single action has ripple effects through time and space), and so this is a fairly intuitive view of game narratives.

What about Claim 2? This claim says that the causal impact a player has on the world of a game is an essential part of that game’s narrative—without that same impact, the game wouldn’t have the same narrative. So it isn’t just enough for a player to be able to make a choice in a game’s universe that has nothing to do with the story: in some sense, the game’s story must be inextricable from the player’s choices. But this seems to be patently true. Witness first: in many games (FFVII is one of these), the events of a game’s narrative will not transpire at all unless the player chooses to engage the game and exercise her causal force. More to the point, the player’s avatar often constitutes the point-of-view through which the narrative is conveyed, and the avatar’s actions are crucial determinants of the events of that narrative.[5] As a result, the narratives of games do seem deeply dependent on player choice.

Even in cases where game narratives seem to suggest that the game’s universe is ultimately indifferent to the actions of the player—e.g., Bloodborne—the narrative functions on this level as a denial of the impact that the player and avatars actions had. This narrative function is still irreducibly a claim about the player’s causal impact, and so it does not threaten Claim #2. The claim, when considered, seems both intuitive and sound.

If we accept these two claims—and I think that we should—then we are faced with an interesting consequence. The consequent claim is this: if a player’s causal impact extends over the entirety of a game’s universe, and that causal impact is essential to the narrative of a game, then it seems that the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as a player causally impacts it, is essential to that game’s narrative.

Another way to put our newfound consequence is this: it’s not enough for a game’s narrative to essentially involve the choices of the player in a local, finite sense. Rather, game narratives of this sort involve the impact of a player’s choices on the game’s whole universe, however narrow or broad that universe may be specified. I think that this, too, tracks with our intuitions about how game narratives often work: oftentimes, a primary element of a game’s story is demonstrating how player’s choices have impacted the game’s world. Nor is this a feature of heavily “choice-based” games: perfectly linear games nonetheless reflect the impact that a player’s actions have on the game worlds, even though the player didn’t have much of a choice as to how to act. (Think of Shadow of the Colossus: linear though it may be, it’s hard to deny that the game’s narrative is heavily focused on the ways in which the player’s actions have permanently altered the game’s world.)

More specifically, I think that the consequence we just drew provides the theoretical foundation for a very common narrative structure in role-playing games (especially JRPGs): the game concludes with the entire universe being metaphysically changed forever—essentially, one world ends and another begins. Oftentimes, a RPG narrative will culminate in a confrontation with some god-like figure; upon defeating him or her, the structure of the universe will be irrevocably changed (hopefully, for the better). So in a certain sense, the narratives of these games are intrinsically apocalyptic: they lead to the end of one world, and the start of something else. As Calvino beautifully writes in the quote I’ve taken as an epigraph for this paper, “the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world.” This is a natural way to marry the widespread impact of the player’s causal power with the narrative significance of that impact: tell a story in which that causal power actually brings about the end of the game’s universe in one way or another.

We can think of narratives that fit this quasi-apocalyptic structure has having a special kind of narrative teleology: that is, the entire world of the game is designed in such a way that the player’s causal influence drives the world towards its conclusion. That this is a feature of how the game is designed underscores the fact that this narrative teleology is not something that the player alone has the power to bring about—rather, game stories are made in such a way that the player’s power within the universe is made meaningful through this apocalyptic storytelling. I underscore this to make the point that this narrative teleology is by no means an essential feature of how video game stories work: it’s just one possible design choice that is especially intuitive and appealing as a means of respecting Claim 1, Claim 2, and their consequent—and I have argued that those three claims are much more generally applicable to video games as a storytelling medium.

Games that espouse this narrative teleology constitute an interesting type of narrative because they are so common in modern gaming and because they all respect Claim 1, Claim 2, and the consequent in (roughly) the same way. And such games are very common. Let me offer a brief selection of examples to give readers a sense of what I mean. (Again, and especially because this narrative teleology largely involves the ends of games, spoilers abound.) In Xenoblade Chronicles, the actions of the player’s party (and Shulk, in particular) culminate in the killing of a god, the destruction of the game’s universe, and the creation of a new universe. Dark Souls culminates in the player’s avatar killing Gwyn, who had used his own soul to perpetuate the world’s Age of Fire; thus, killing him threatens to end the Age of Fire, at which point the player must choose to either sacrifice her avatar to perpetuate the Age of Fire, or else let the fires die out and usher in the Age of Dark. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker leads to a fated battle between Link (the player’s avatar) and Ganondorf, which culminates in the ancient land of Hyrule being buried in the sea by the King of Hyrule—once Ganondorf is defeated and Hyrule lies buried, Link and his companion Tetra set out to find New Hyrule—a “new world,” for all intents and purposes. I could go on, but my hope is that those who play video games recognize the narrative I’m picking out as fairly standard for many modern video games.

Meteor

Holy and the Lifestream stopping Meteor.

What’s important for our current purposes is that FFVII also fits into this category of narrative teleology. On one level, the story of FFVII is a struggle to prevent the antagonist, Sephiroth, from radically reshaping the game’s universe by unleashing Meteor on the planet and subsequently merging with the planet’s energy (which would gather at the point of Meteor’s impact in order to heal the planet) to become a god. Ultimately, the player, controlling Cloud, is able to defeat Sephiroth—both preventing Sephiroth from becoming a god and preventing the full force of Meteor’s impact by releasing Holy—a spell that Aerith had cast, and that Sephiroth had been preventing from taking effect—which combines with

Midgar Healed

The ruins of Midgar, 500 years after Meteorfall.

the spiritual force of the plant’s Lifestream to stop Meteor. Meteor still damages the planet—it reduces most of the city of Midgar to rubble—but the game’s final scene, five hundred years after the party’s confrontation with Sephiroth, shows that the planet ultimately healed. Through the party’s actions, the world of the game is replaced with a different world: the world post-Meteorfall. The party’s (and player’s) struggle against Sephiroth permanently changes the structure of the game’s universe, which satisfies the analysis of narrative teleology that I have laid out.

 

What does this have to do with an argument against a multi-game release of a FFVII remake? Well, if the two claims and the consequent that I initially laid out all hold, and if FFVII really does respect those parameters of storytelling by invoking the conception of narrative teleology with which I have been working, then (I submit) the singular game of FFVII can’t be remade into three separate games while still representing essentially the same story.

My reasoning here is as follows. FFVII makes meaning out of the player’s actions by telling a narrative about a global cataclysm, the defeat of that cataclysm’s instigator, and the new universe that results from these two events. This follows from the consequent of Claims 1 and 2—i.e. the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as a player causally impacts it, is essential to that game’s narrative—and the game’s narrative teleology—i.e. the entire world of the game is designed in such a way that the player’s causal influence drives the world towards its conclusion. In order for this structure to work, the causal force of the player’s actions must seamlessly persist over the entirety of the game’s narrative—otherwise, the player’s actions won’t have the sort of universal influence required for the sort of story that the game is telling. This seamlessness can easily be effected by separating a single game into three disks—the switching between disks is little more than the videogame equivalent of turning the page in a book, and, as I’ve already mentioned, these “page turns” are made even more meaningful in FFVII because they happen at pivotal points in the story. However, the seamlessness is lost when the game is divided into multiple games. This is so because of two reasons.

First, it’s implausible to suppose that the causal influence of a player extends across multiple games, such that the very same actions made by a player in one game directly influence the world of another game. In part, this is because the storytelling of any given game seems primarily designed to be limited to that game’s world and no others (something that I address further below); but it’s also because it is oxymoronic to design a game that both stands on its own and is a direct extension of a different game.

Mass Effect

Wait a minute…

The reader might be ready to object, “But what about the Mass Effect trilogy?” However, that trilogy is actually the perfect example of what I’m talking about. Despite its many virtues and the fact that it does try to continue a singular story across three games, no one would argue that the transition between the three games is as seamless as inserting the next disc in a single, multi-disc game. The later games do of course note certain aspects of a player’s playthrough of the earlier games, but this process does not preserve the entire state of the prior game’s universe. For example, much content, rather than being directly preserved between games, is “translated” in some way: if you start Mass Effect 2 using a Mass-Effect-1 character that was between level 1 and 49, then you begin Mass Effect 2 at level 2, with 20,000 credits, and 2,500 of each resource. This is not the sort of literally direct continuation of story that’s required to preserve all the effects of player actions throughout the universe of a narrative. But it’s of course perfectly reasonable that Mass Effect is designed this way: after all, even though the trilogy is meant to convey a single narrative, each game is also a stand-alone title, which is precisely my point: you can’t release a stand-alone game and say that it is literally just an additional part of an existing game. It needs to be playable on its own terms. This is why, for example, Mass Effect 2 (prior to the Mass Effect Trilogy collection) had to include Mass Effect: Genesis: this was an interactive comic allowing the player to make the principal choices that Mass Effect 2 was designed to carry over from Mass Effect 1. In order for Mass Effect 2 to be its own game, it needed to be playable without necessarily presupposing that the player had played the original Mass Effect—and this is what Mass Effect: Genesis accomplished. This is wildly different from a multi-disk game, which of course presupposes on each later disk that the player has played the prior disks. In fact, on multi-disk games like FFVII, there’s no way (without hacking the game or something like that) to play the later disks without playing through the earlier disks sequentially and thereby reaching the later disc. “Skipping” Disk 1 and playing Disk 2 in the way that one could ostensibly “skip” the original Mass Effect and play Mass Effect 2 (though that isn’t recommended) isn’t really possible within the constraints of the narrative.

The second reason why the narrative seamlessness needed for a game like FFVII can’t be achieved through multiple games is that each individual game needs its own narrative responding to the constraints of Claim 1, Claim 2, and their consequent, which opposes the possibility for multiple games to work together as mere components of a single, larger game narrative. If I am right and the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as the player causally impacts it, is essential to the game’s narrative, then video games will be aimed (at least partly) towards making their own universes meaningful. In order for a game to do this while retaining a sense of cohesion in its narrative, the game’s story must address the totality of its universe on its own terms—that is to say, the game’s narrative must not stretch beyond its own universe. For to do otherwise would be to make a game whose narrative focuses on a universe other than the game itself, and it’s not obvious why or how a narrative could address something other than its own universe.

If we accept this argument, then it looks as if video games really do need to each be concerned with their own particular world. I think that the landscape of modern video games reinforces the truth of this observation: even in series of games, each member of the series is directly concerned with its own world—other members of the series are only relevant insofar as their events relate to the world of the particular game in consideration. While Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time both nominally take place in Hyrule, the narrative of Twilight Princess is not concerned with Hyrule as conceived in Ocarina of Time—and indeed, Ganondorf only becomes relevant once he appears in the world of Twilight Princess, irrespective of his presence in Ocarina of Time. And returning to the example of FFXIII, I actually think the trilogy does quite well with demonstrating the need for each game to be principally concerned with its own world: the worlds of FFXIII, FFXIII-2, and Lightning Returns are very different from one another. In fact, I think this is part of why the trilogy, when taken as a single narrative, fails to be compelling: each entry is so different from one another in virtue of the very different worlds that it feels confusing and disingenuous when the games lead us to believe that these are really the same characters who exist across the three games. The narrative arcs of the three games are so distinct that attempts to tie them together fail, which further demonstrates the tension between developing independent games and trying to make them part of a single narrative.

Lightning posing as Cloud

Pictured: the main character of Lightning Returns trying to distract you from the game by pretending to be Cloud.

My hope is that it is now evident why remaking FFVII into three games is not at all similar to the original game being split across three disks. When we stop to consider just what world-building and player agency mean in the context of video game narratives, we realize that it fundamentally doesn’t make sense to separate one game into three. I should note, however, one other possibility raised by previously Featured Author Dan Hughes: Square Enix could conceivably take a broader swath of the FFVII oeuvre—say, Crisis Core, FFVII, and Advent Children—and remake that collection of material as a trilogy. I don’t see any problem in principle with such an approach. And of course, if the remake ends up simply being some sort of reimagining or retelling of the FFVII series, then such a new story could have exciting. However, if the goal, as has been suggested, is to remake just FFVII‘s narrative as a trilogy of games, we have a problem—and I worry for the future of a true classic in the pantheon of gaming, when it seems as if a remake could turn that classic into a lesson in the limits and constraints on game narrative.

Cloud Strife

[1] Ludmilla in If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino, Chapter Ten.

[2] I actually do think that XIII-2, in particular, has a lot of redeeming features as a standalone narrative—but that’s a story for another time.

[3] In fact, further evidence for the fact that FFVII’s three-disk split only worked so well because it was conceived as a single game can be found by considering the FFVII oeuvre collectively. FFVII’s overarching story—spanning other games (Dirge of Cerberus; Crisis Core; Before Crisis), a movie (Advent Children), an OVA (Last Order), and a novella (On the Way to a Smile)—is famously intricate and confounding to try to grasp in its entirety.

[4] In certain “less clear-cut cases,” I think that you need to stipulate the player as a causal force in the game’s universe in order to make sense of the game’s narrative at all. I won’t belabor the point here, but you can see examples of this in my analyses of Majora’s Mask, Xenoblade, and BioShock Infinite.

[5] I discuss this determinacy relation in a paper on Dishonored.

Coming Soon: What to Expect in April

It’s been a while, readers. But With a Terrible Fate, despite not having posted material in a while, has been busy–and today, you can find out what that business will bring you in the coming month.

PAX East

With a Terrible Fate will be presenting its work at three different academic venues this month: the British Society of Aesthetics Postgraduate Conference, SUNY Oneonta’s 21st Annual Undergraduate Philosophy Conference, and Harvard’s Arts First Weekend. I shall be presenting my work on possibility dynamics in video games, my theory on BioShock Infiniteand my work on what sorts of stories can only be told as video games (focusing on Majora’s MaskXenoblade, and Dishonored). At least some of these presentations shall be recorded, and viewers will be able to see the philosophy of video games in action.

Bayonetta2D Boxshot Wizard v1.1

Featured Authors will be back in full force. Laila Carter will be raising the caliber of debate surrounding Bayonetta, and Richard Nguyen will be tackling the morality mechanics of your favorite games–including The Witcher III.

Cloud StrifeXenoblade X

As for me, I promised more work on Final Fantasy VII for the one-year anniversary of this site. The new work ended up being more involved than I expected–no real surprise considering the nature of the game itself–but it’s coming this month. Moreover, if you know my work on Xenoblade Chronicles, then you won’t be surprised to learn that I have some thoughts on Xenoblade Chronicles X. You’ll be getting those this month, too.

This is just confirmed content–there may well be even more to come. Stay tuned, and get ready for the next phase of game analysis on With a Terrible Fate.

Celebrating a year of “With a Terrible Fate.”

Dear readers,

It was roughly one year ago that Nintendo announced the development of Majora’s Mask 3D, and I began writing a series of analyses studying the game and its dynamics as a work of art. This was how With a Terrible Fate was born, and, thanks in large part to all of you, the site has now developed from a study of Majora’s Mask into a full-fledged home of analytic video game theory and philosophy. I want to take this moment to thank you readers — both those who have followed the site from its beginning and those who have only just discover it — and give you a sneak peek into content you can expect in the coming month as a celebration of With a Terrible Fate‘s birthday.

Incoming Articles

Final Fantasy VII

Cloud Strife

Following the announcement of an imminent Final Fantasy VII remake, I wrote an article analyzing the architecture of Cloud’s subconscious and its importance for informing our understanding of Majora’s Mask. At that time, I promised more articles analyzing the game in anticipation of this remake. Now, with Cloud announced as the latest competitor in Super Smash Brothers 4, there is more reason than ever for such analyses. Additional articles are on their way, and you can expect more work on Final Fantasy VII before the end of the year. If you’re interested in the game and haven’t read it yet, then you should check out Featured Author Nathan Randall’s article on the ways in which the player construct’s Cloud’s identity.

Nier

The Vision of Nier

When Nier: Automata was announced at E3, I explained to you both the personal value the game holds for me, as well as why I believe it has tremendous aesthetic value more generally. At that time, I offered a comprehensive analysis of the identity dynamics in the game, which was one of the first pieces of game analysis I ever wrote. I promised plenty more analyses of Nier leading up to its sequel in 2016, and you can expect the arrival of the first of these articles before the end of the year. I hope to draw readers deeper into the intricate inner-workings of this under-appreciated game, and show them the ins-and-outs of why I believe it is so important to the medium as a whole.

Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite

Given the philosophical nature of With a Terrible Fate, readers may rightly be curious as to why I have never touched the BioShock series, touted by many as some of the most overtly “philosophical” games. The reason why this is the case is embarrassingly simple: for a long time, although I adored the series, I did not feel that I had anything original and interesting to contribute to an analysis of the series. However, this has recently changed: readers can expect BioShock Infinite to meet With a Terrible Fate by the end of the year.

Retrospectives

Bionis and Mechonis

As part of the celebration of With a Terrible Fate’s one-year anniversary, I will be re-releasing a few of my most popular articles, with a twist: they will feature new commentary reflecting on the articles’ arguments, their strengths and weaknesses, and discussing what viewers have said about them over time. Some of these works of theory are now a year old; it’s time to discuss what works and what doesn’t in each of them.

And if you don’t want to wait for new content,

I just released an article analyzing the narrative mechanics of what makes Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide special — do check that out, if you haven’t yet.

New Featured Authors

It's Dangerous to Go Alone

It’s dangerous to go alone, and that’s why I think one of With a Terrible Fate‘s greatest assets is its Featured Authors: they provide unique insight and diverse approaches to the study and analysis of video games. Soon, With a Terrible Fate will be releasing a new roster of promising Featured Authors, all of whom are excited to share their views on video games with you. I cannot confirm the content of any articles at this time, but here are some hints as to their interests: games they value range from Metroid, to SOMA, to Pokémon, to Metal Gear Solid, to Fallout.

(And, by the way, if you want to be a part of this group of writers, it’s not too late. Email interest to withaterriblefate@gmail.com, and you may be able to see your very own articles published on With a Terrible Fate.)

Dialogue with Readership

Link and Termina

I get some of my best ideas from reader suggestions. As always, I hope to include you, dear readers, in the development of the site, and to use your input to continue producing content that you find valuable and interesting. Have a thought about one of my articles? Comment on it, or even email me to get in touch directly. Is there a game I haven’t yet analyzed that you think deserves to meet With a Terrible Fate? Share your suggestions with me on Facebook — or, better yet, just tweet them at me. Much of this site would not be here without feedback from my readers; for example, my work on Dark Souls,  The Stanley Parableand The Beginner’s Guide was all the result of recommendations by readers of With a Terrible Fate.

Thank you, readers,

for your continued interest and engagement in the work of With a Terrible Fate. I hope that you are excited about everything that the site’s one-year anniversary has in store. Stay tuned: we’ve only just begun to undertake all the work that rigorous game analysis demands of us.

With a Terrible Fate

“Listen to My Story”: The Problem of Storytelling in Virtual Reality.

The August 17, 2015 issue of TIME featured a cover story detailing the current state of virtual reality, along with its projected future trajectories. Author Joel Stein throws the term “storytelling” around a decent amount in the article, tracking the current efforts of virtual reality (hereafter ‘VR’) pioneers to develop a methodology for conveying narrative through the medium of VR. Stein’s own prose reflects the seeming contradiction in how VR best ought to go about telling stories: at one moment he observes that, “unlike movies, virtual reality can make you feel dumb or successful by reacting to you”; a moment later, he points out that, despite VR sharing this interactive element with video games, “the storytelling rules of video games don’t work” when it comes to VR on account of danger feeling much more emotionally “real” in VR than in modern video games.[1]

TIME on Virtual Reality

The stakes here are non-trivial in terms of where digital narrative goes next. The title of Stein’s article from which I quote is “Why Virtual Reality is About to Change the World”; last spring at PAX East, a panel of user interface designers from various game development studios expressed the standard thought that user interface development is progressing with the goal of ultimately achieving the “total immersion” of virtual reality.[2] What, then, are we to make of the tension that Stein highlights between VR and video games? Is it simply that the technology is new and we do not yet know how to use it effectively – that, as Gil Baron of Visionary VR told Stein, “[it’s] like you went back in time and gave a caveman a video camera?” Or could the tension perhaps be something deeper – that there is a difference in kind that precludes VR from serving as the “next evolution” of modern video game narrative?

My own view is that, not only there is certainly a tension in VR between being interactive and having different “rules” than video games, but it is also a tension far more fundamental than purported by articles such as Stein’s. Namely, the project of VR seems essentially at odds with our ordinary conception of narrative, whereas video games refine and enhance that same conception. I will offer a defense of this claim by showing that our agency in the actual world, which is what VR aims to emulate, determines a course of events that we experience prior to making any meaning out of that course of events, whereas narrative consists of chains of events composed in order to effect some didactic end – where ‘didactic end’ roughly means ‘a particular meaning or message’. I will then review motivations independent of this for the user interface dynamics of video games being valued on their own terms, rather than being seen as imperfect precursors to “total VR immersion.” Lastly, I will review some of the ways in which I believe VR will be useful, barring the misconception of it serving as an evolution in video game narrative.

I. VR, qua evolved video games, requires full-immersion agency.

I take it to be the case that one of the primary goals of virtual reality – not one that has been realized yet, but which VR developers aim to ultimately realize – is to emulate, within a virtual world, one’s experience in real life of ‘full-immersion agency’. Roughly, this refers simply to the feeling we have of really being able to make choices and affect the real world in which we exist; I will articulate the finer points of the term shortly. First, for the sake of clarity, I should point out that I certainly do not take this to be the only goal of VR: as I will consider in the final part of this paper, there are many other promising ends for which it can be used. Yet it seems that this goal is necessary if we wish to assume the intuitive and popular view that VR is the next evolution of video games. I will not pursue an extended proof here as to why this is the case; suffice it to say that the primary motivation behind this view of things (I take it) is the idea that video games are handicapped by the artificial distance separating player from avatar – the medium would be in some sense more consistent with its goal of dynamically engaging a virtual world if the player were fully subsumed by that virtual world.

‘Full immersion’ in ‘full-immersion agency’ refers to a phenomenology sufficiently similar to that of the player’s real-life phenomenology that the player feels as if she really is an entity within that world. I will not attempt to map necessary and sufficient conditions for this being the case, but we can point to a number of defining characteristics of the concept. For example, the player would have to experience the world from a first-personal perspective, such that it really seems as if they were seeing the world from a perspective internal to that world; this would most likely need to involve all five of the player’s senses. On the other hand, we would presumably want it to not be the case that full-immersion is so immersive that the virtual world is impossible to qualitatively distinguish from reality – such a situation would open the analysis to a whole host of complications that are beyond the scope of the goal currently in consideration.

‘Agency’ in ‘full-immersion agency’ refers to the capacity for the player to act upon the virtual world in such a way as to influence the causal chain of events in the virtual world. This is in many ways an extension of the sort of agency that players have in video games through the proxy of their avatar – the difference being that in this case, there is no proxy. Rather, the player perceives herself as directly being able to exert causal influence on the world. This factor, when conjoined with full immersion, makes the requirements for agency in VR somewhat more robust than the concept of agency in video games: whereas the controls through which a player controls an avatar are indirect and unintuitive (there is no intuitive reason why pressing a button labeled ‘A’ would result in a character jumping, for example), control in VR must be absolutely intuitive: the actions we take in a virtual world, in order to meet the full immersion requirement, must be effected by the same means as those same actions in real life. If we say that all we need to do in real life to jump is to tense our leg muscles, crouch, and propel our legs off the ground, then that mechanism must track with the experience of how the player makes herself jump in a VR world.

A succinct way of capturing the essence of full-immersion agency is to say that virtual reality, fully realized, ought to allow the player to experience her actions upon the virtual world in a way that tracks with her capacity to act upon the real world. If she sees an unlocked virtual door, then she ought to be able to open that door in a way that experientially resembles her opening a door in real life; if she chooses to sit down and do nothing, then any NPCs in the area ought to react to her as analogous people would in a real-life situation of her sitting down and doing nothing; if there is a virtual wall, then she should be able, mutatis mutandis, to at least in principle discover what is on the other side. It is from this requirement of realistic action that problems for VR narrative arise.

II. Total freedom of choice is at odds with didactic chains of events. 

A different way to describe the above thesis is that VR, like real life, contains functional representational content. When we perceive objects in real life, there is a tacit assumption that we could, at least in principle, interact with that object: we can approach things, touch things, use them for particular ends, and so forth. Even when considering space, far away from our usual locale of earth, we know it is at least possible for us to be there (say, as an astronaut) and interact in some way with what we find there (I bracket fringe cases here, such as the capacity to interact with dark matter, because nothing crucial in my argument depends on how such cases turn out). Based on our capacity to interact with the various elements of our environment, we are able to bring about a variety of disparate events that are contingent on how we choose to interact with our environment – an ability which allows us in principle to freely choose events to an enormously – indeed, perhaps incalculably – high degree.[3]

The problem with this exceedingly high degree of freedom to, in principle, choose to experience various events, is that it is directly at odds with a traditional goal of narrative: didacticism. When we consider what it means for something to be a ‘narrative’ in the literary sense, a full account usually involves some didactic element; that is to say, we assume that the author of a narrative designed it in such a way as to convey a certain message or elicit a certain response from its appreciator. This didactic element of narrative can be conveyed through a variety of literary elements: word choice, subject matter, and, particularly relevant for the argument at hand, the chain of events constituting the narrative. Which events in the world of a story the author chooses for his particular narrative, the order in which he arranges these events, and so on, are all in part constitutive of the overall meaning of the story. When we think of examples, this is almost trivial: the Odyssey, for instance, would not be the same sort of triumphant revenge story without the chain of events culminating in Odysseus killing his wife’s suitors. A chain of events, in short, is one of the basic building blocks with which an author conveys a narrative’s meaning to the reader.

Dishonored Title Art

I have spoken at length in my various analyses of story-based video games about the ways in which they uniquely allow a player to influence chains of events, leading to different narrative outcomes; while this is certainly a crucial feature of video games that goes beyond the fixed chain of events featured in a film or novel, note that even choice-based games are typically fairly linear – that is to say that, while the story may “branch” in different places based on the choices of a player (e.g., Dishonored), this typically just means that a video game features a few possible chains of events based on player choice. A writer can just as easily be didactic with a branching series of events as with a single series of events, providing she knows her craft well – there will certainly be novel considerations such as what didactic content manifests from the interrelations between the various branches of the storyline, but this added nuance does not in any way make the didactic narrative process impossible (again, games such as Dishonored are testament to this). However, games with fairly linear storylines are only one type of game: many others privilege player choice over a traditional storyline, up to the point where some games offer huge, interactive worlds, with numerous choices for the player to make but without any overarching narrative (e.g., a traditional game of Minecraft, in comparison to a story-based mod thereof). At the extreme, these “sandbox games,” in which a player can do virtually anything but has no strict overarching narrative to follow, are an extremely scaled-down example of the problem faced by VR: more choice means more potential chains of events, which makes it more difficult, up to the point of impossibility, to design a didactic narrative.

We can draw a comparison here between the high degree of freedom in VR and the difficulty to model complex physical systems. For example, in her book The Dappled World, philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright discusses a case first made popular by Otto Neurath: the question of where a thousand dollar bill, swept up by the wind, will land. “Mechanics,” Cartwright says, “provides no model for this situation. We have only a partial model, which describes the thousand dollar bill as an unsupported object in the vicinity of the earth, and thereby introduces the force exerted on it due to gravity […] [There is also] in principle (in God’s complicated theory?) a model for mechanics for the action of the wind, albeit probably a very complicated one that we may never succeed in constructing.”[4] Cartwright’s point here is that the number of variables required to accurately construct a mechanical model of a flimsy dollar carried by the wind is so large as to appear virtually incalculable – the complexity of the situation cannot be effectively described by classical mechanics. The point in the case of VR is that a similar breadth of complexity arises if we introduce the number of variable branching events necessary to model a world where a player can act as freely as they act in real life. An author of video may be able to craft a didactic, branching narrative with three or four player-choice-contingent outcomes, but crafting a coherent and didactic set of chains of events for some large number n required by full-immersion agency seems, for the purposes of aesthetic narrative, practicably impossible.

Now, it would be unfair to say that the events of real life cannot in some sense be didactic. People construct narratives out of their real-life experiences all the time; the crucial distinction is that this type of didacticism is only possible after one has already experienced the events in question. Most of us, I take it, do not suppose that all the events we experience in life were pre-designed in order to articulate some particular meaning – rather, we retroactively make meaning out of whatever events we have experienced in life.[5] Such a dynamic as this may well be theoretically possible in VR: imagine something like a complex world with a particular physics, designed to respond to a player in patterned ways. The problem of not being able to design events didactically would remain, yet one could still ascribe meaning to the overall chain of events after the fact – imagine, by way of analogy, something like a tabletop game of Dungeons and Dragons with a very flexible, lenient, versatile dungeon master; or, if you prefer, imagine playing some sandbox game like Minecraft for several hours, and thereafter trying to construct an overall narrative of the events that took place. You might look back on these series of events and formulate some kind of meaning based on them, yet there seems to be no sense in which the series of events were designed for that meaning, prior to you engaging with the game. To reiterate, this is a process and type of engagement fundamentally distinct from the didactically architected narrative we expect from novels, films, and story-based video games.

This is the fundamental friction between VR and traditional narrative that I doubt can be even theoretically surmounted: a realistic degree of agency on the part of the player is directly at odds with a chain(s) of events designed for some didactic ends. Any attempt to use VR to improve upon video games’ model of narrative will have to find some way to solve this problem.

III. Video games can do things that VR cannot.

Beyond the problem of didacticism, another motivation for not conceiving of VR as a step “beyond” video games is that video games, in their current forms, can achieve unique aesthetic effects that do not seem possible in VR. I have examined such effects before, and in this section I will therefore largely recapitulate my earlier work on this topic.

PAX East

At a panel I attended on user interface/experience (‘UI’/’UX’) design at PAX East last spring, the panelists remarked that “the sign of an effective, sleek UI is that no player actually comments on or notices the UI.  When the future of UI was discussed, motions were made toward the promises of virtual reality to eventually develop games in which UI is ultimately seamless.[6] I questioned whether it ought to be the case that UI/UX categorically aim towards seamless immersion of the player in the world of the game:

“With so many options available [for UI design], it seems naive to claim that the ultimate goal of UI is to be as unnoticeable as possible.  In my own work, I have aimed at articulating how the different relationships between player, avatar, and game world can establish unique aesthetic effects (e.g., the embedded narratology of “Assassin’s Creed,” or the player-dependent metaphysics of “Legend of Zelda:  Majora’s Mask”); the most immediate facilitator of these interactions, by virtue of being the conduit between player and avatar, is the UI.  So I think it follows that UI ought to explore as many permutations of aesthetic principles as possible, rather than mere design permutations, such that we can explore the broadest boundaries of what sort of stories video games as a medium are capable of telling.  Perhaps a counterpoint to immersive UI could be intentionally alienating UI that make the player feel like an utter stranger in spite of controlling the avatar within the game; such a model could be the foundation for an aesthetic of estrangement that, by virtue of being interactive, could be much more successful as a video game than as art in another medium.

“What’s more, my intuition is that it’s an artifact of the current state of UI design that we see a conceptual difference between physical space and narrative space in a video game, as the Fagerholt/Lorentzon model [of UI design] suggests.  As we develop a more comprehensive theory of video game aesthetics, I think it will become increasingly clear that physical game space and what’s called “narrative” are two different ways of seeing the same aesthetics.  Already, the lines between [various types of UI] are blurry at best:  we may say that directional markers pointing the player towards a goal are “merely spatial”; yet if we extend the concept of game narrative to include the player as a fundamental, as I have argued that we must, then is this not also a narrative element?  And this is the crucial point:  for once we accept the player as a part of the game’s narrative, and the totality of the game as its world, then it seems as though all UI, while still aesthetically differentiable, is intrinsically diegetic.

Batman and the Joker

A few months after I theoretically rejected the dogma that UI ought to trend toward full player immersion, Batman: Arkham Knight was released, providing a vivid example of the precise point I was trying to make. I quote the case at length from my review of the game (this, of course, constitutes a spoiler for those who have yet to play through the game):

“At one point in the game, Alfred tells Batman that Lucius Fox has not been responding to communications for a while. The player can then choose to go to Wayne Tower, where Lucius has been stationed during the events of the game, to check on his status. Batman enters the elevator up to the top of the Tower, where Lucius presumably is, and is seen in the elevator dressed as Bruce Wayne – ostensibly because Lucius’ staff, who does not know Batman’s secret identity, are still in the building, the player directs Wayne into Lucius office, only to find it empty. Searching the office, there is once prompt available to the player: to use the retinal scanner on Lucius’ computer. Wayne sits down in the chair, does this, only to have the computer reject his retinal scan. At this point, Lucius enters the room, approaches the desk, and asks Wayne is anything is wrong and whether there is anything Lucius can do for him. The UI prompt for the player is to press a button to again “Use Retinal Scanner.” However, when the player pressed the button, rather than merely looking into the computer’s scanner again, Wayne grabs Lucius, slams his head against the table, presses his eye up to the scanner, and then begins transferring funds out of Wayne Enterprise’s bank accounts. At this point, the screen is revealed to be security camera footage that the real Batman is watching in the elevator up to Lucius’ office: although the player presumably did not realize it at the time, he was previously playing as Hush, who had surgically engineered his face to look like Bruce Wayne’s in order to break into the Tower.

“The “what-have-I-done” horror of the player upon “using the retinal scanner” is a direct result of UI not being transparent: although the player expects his agency to be extended through the avatar in one way (that is, merely putting one’s eye up to the retinal scanner), his agency ends up effecting something vastly different than what was expected (that is, brutalizing Lucius). This also makes vivid the completeness of Hush’s transfiguration into Wayne: in the game, the source of Batman’s agency is the player, who directs how he ought to act; the player also knows that Batman and Bruce Wayne are identical. Hush was so successful that he tricked the actual source of Batman’s agency into mistaking him for Bruce Wayne, indirectly making Batman responsible for Hush’s attack on Lucius. This makes the standard guilt of Batman for the actions of evildoers grounded in a very strong theoretical way with respect to game mechanics: in this case, Batman’s dual identity, an explicit theme throughout the game, ends up hurting those around him because an enemy is able to convince the player, the agent who most wants and is able to make Batman a hero within the universe of the game, to unwittingly help Hush in his wicked machinations. This grounds the guilt of Batman for the evil that happens in Gotham in a way that only video games could ground it: not only does that evil happen in spite of him, but, in cases like this, it actually comes about because of him.”[7]

Bionis and Mechonis

The point here is that many of the special aesthetic features of video games come about from the very fact that the player controls an entity in the game’s universe that is not identical to herself – something that cuts against the grain of full immersion. Some video game narratives actually only make sense because the player is able to act upon the game’s universe while remaining separable from it: for example, in the case of Xenoblade Chronicles, I have argued that the only way to make sense of the protagonist (Shulk) overcoming a god (Zanza) that has knowledge of the universe’s total causal structure is to attribute Shulk’s agency to the player, who is not bound within the programmed universe of the game, and can thereby perturb the evolution of its causal chains in ways that the god cannot anticipate:

Xenoblade does something remarkable on the level of second-order narrative:  it shows how video games can be used in aesthetically powerful ways to create a universe with a complete metaphysics, and then perturb those metaphysics with an external agent.  A universe of Leibniz’s metaphysics [such as Xenoblade’s] leaves all being subordinate to god [Zanza], which reflects the structure of games as a program, the path of which is determined prior to the player ever finding it; yet the design of the universe as something that can be externally observed allows the player to disturb the universe’s determined structure, and tell a story whose narrative arc is only valid by virtue of the player’s interference.  This feature, then, reflects the value of the player acting upon the program of a game to bring its narrative from the realm of possible paths into the reality of a single path from start to finish.”[8]

So we cannot conceive of VR, even when it is refined in the coming years, as an evolution and improvement upon video game narratives. Such a conception could only reasonably rest on the goal of the player being fully immersed in the narrative, because the other special aesthetic ends of video game narrative fall out of the separateness of the player and avatar – something that is lost in the case of VR. And, as I showed in Parts I and II, this goal of full immersion, when combined with player agency, makes our most fundamental notion of narrative implausible in VR. When we look to the future of VR, it cannot be in the form of the “ultimate video game.”

IV. VR could be the next evolution of film.

As I mentioned at the outset of this article, the above considerations are not intended to success that VR is an industry with no future or meaningful place in society – such a position would be misguided and naïve. I have only been concerned with blocking the intuition that VR can advance the storytelling of video games in a way that many people find intuitively plausible. In this last section, I wish to close by pointing to one of the many other areas in which I think that VR holds tremendous promise: further developing the notion of film.

In his August article on the VR industry, Stein nods repeatedly to the apparent potential for VR to allow people to experience events with a greater degree of intimacy than in other media. He describes the work of Xavier Palomer Ripoll, who designs VR simulations that “allow therapists to use immersion therapy with clients who have anxiety disorders, letting them virtually sit on a plane or ride in an elevator, for example.”[9] Jaunt has developed an app that can gives its users “a good sense of what it’s like to be backstage at a Paul McCartney concert.” Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael are “documenting nomadic tribes around the world so you can sit in a Mongolian yurt while a family cooks.” The element of experience that VR has the potential to provide can make people feel as if they are “really in,” say, the events of a movie, or a nomadic tribe’s home.

dreamporte

Such an enhanced degree of intimacy and immersion, without the complications of agency, has tremendous potential. Not only will people be able to experience film-like narratives more vividly, but they will also be able to experience places in a nearer-to-life way that might not otherwise be available to them. Dreamporte, for example, is a non-profit organization that focuses on using VR to bring underprivileged youth educational experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. VR has the potential to hugely decrease the barrier of access to world travel (virtually experience sitting in a café in Paris), to classrooms (sit in a virtual classroom and listen to lectures), and so on. Particularly as the technological quality increases and cost decreases, VR will have an opportunity to very much change the lives of everyday people.

I call this an evolution of film because, as I argued above, extended agency in VR would render narrative virtually impossible. I therefore see film, with a fixed narrative or series of events, as a better model upon which VR can improve. VR can turn the passive experiences we observe in a film into felt experiences with which we can, in some limited capacity, engage; and, as Stein rightly says, this is enough to change much about the state of the world.Tidus

Yet with VR’s potential we must also acknowledge its limitations, and that, no matter how much we may wish for it to do, there will be some things it cannot do. Tidus famously opens Final Fantasy X with the injunction, “Listen to my story.” Video games toe a fine line between between the authority of authors and the authority of players; they manage (some more effectively than others) to architect didactic plotlines while also allowing the player to explore and sometimes determine the plot of her own accord. That VR could improve upon this may seem intuitive – but I believe, in the review, that this is one domain best left to video games.

References

Cartwright, Nancy. The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science. Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.

Fagerholt, Erik and Lorentzon, Magnus. Beyond the HUD: User Interfaces for Increased Player Immersion in FPS Games. Chalmers University of Technology, 2009. Web. 15 October 2015.

Monolith Soft. Xenoblade Chronicles. 10 June 2010.

Nintendo. Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. 27 April 2000.

Rocksteady Studios. Batman: Arkham Knight. 23 June 2015.

Square Enix. Final Fantasy X. 19 June 2001.

Stein, Joel. “Why Virtual Reality is About to Change the World.” TIME. 6 August 2015. TIME. Web. 15 October 2015.

Suduiko, Aaron. Various. With a Terrible Fate. Web. 2015.

Ubisoft. Assassin’s Creed. 13 November 2007.

[1] From “Why Virtual Reality is About to Change the World.”

[2] This panel featured Vicki Ebberts [UX, Undead Labs], Alexandria Neonakis [UI/UX Designer, Naughty Dog], and Kate Welch [UI/UX, Freelance]. See “From the Floor of PAX East, Part II: The Aesthetics of User Interfaces.

[3] What I am claiming here does not depend on a metaphysical claim that we have free will; all that is required for the argument is that we have the experience of having free will, which may just as well end up being epiphenomenal or otherwise superficial with respect to metaphysics.

[4] Cartwright 27, italics mine. Cartwright uses this argument in the context of objecting to those who take a fundamentalist stance towards physical laws; the details of her overall dialectic are less important than the thought experiment itself.

[5] One might disagree with me by taking the stance that, in life, “everything happens for a reason” in the sense that events are in some way pre-designed to serve some purpose. While I would deny such teleology for unrelated reasons, note that such a view actually does not speak against my case: for if one believes that events are pre-ordained for a certain end, then it is very difficult to also commit to any sense of free will in one’s life, even as an epiphenomenon; one is therefore committing to a Weltanschauung that very much resembles a traditional narrative without branching, choice-dependent elements – and there is obviously no problem with designing narratives such as these didactically. This view of real life therefore does nothing to mitigate the difficulty of representing freedom to choose in VR – it merely denies that any such freedom exists in the real world.

[6] This quote and the following come from my March 24, 2015 article, “From the Floor of PAX East, Part II: The Aesthetics of User Interfaces.

[7] For my full review of Arkham Knight, from which this is excerpted, see “What is it like to be a Batman? Reviewing Arkham Knight.

[8] Excerpted from a longer analysis of the game, “Finding your Monad: Xenoblade and Leibniz.”

[9] This and subsequent quotes in this paragraph come from “Why Virtual Reality is About to Change the World.”