As a Final Fantasy fanatic, I perk up at the mere mention of a Final Fantasy game. Whether its a mainline title or not. So, of course I was excited to see the Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin announcement at Square Enix E3 2021 broadcast. My excitement got the better of me the first time I watched the trailer, and I blocked out all of the possible flaws. But after re-watching the trailer a few times more, I now see why the trailer is so meme-worthy. There might be a problem with Final Fantasy writing.
The trailer includes lines like “I’m here to kill chaos, that’s my mission.” And “I only know one thing, I want to kill chaos, I need to!” And it makes me hope that this is just some early (and temporary) translation work that won’t make the final cut. But although these lines sound jarring, this is a spin-off Final Fantasy game. Which means, many won’t judge it on the same scale as a mainline Final Fantasy game. But it made me think about some of the most recent mainline Final Fantasy iterations, and if I’m being honest, the stories weren’t that moving.
To be clear here, I’m talking specifically about the Final Fantasy XIII series and Final Fantasy XV. To me, the Final Fantasy VII is the best story of the entire series, and this includes the remake. And although I actually enjoyed the Final Fantasy XIII series (not many do), I have to admit that I couldn’t tell you a standout story moment in the game. The same goes for Final Fantasy XV.
What is the problem with Final Fantasy writing nowadays?
I think a large part of the problem is that these stories have been too focused on trying to make the player understand that they’re in a fantasy world. It’s as if the creators are in my head saying “hey, look at all these fancy giant crystals, and these giant summons. And look, you guys like chocobo right?”
The stories have been severely overshadowed by the beautiful fantasy settings that they’re based in. Instead of the writers focusing on the character’s individual journeys, and the hardships they face, it tends to feel like the writers want to shove everything attributed to the word fantasy down our throats.
Consider Final Fantasy XIII for a moment. Throughout the first few opening hours of the game, we see all of these characters with kickass designs, and we so badly want to connect with them. We want to get into their minds and understand them. Instead, the game shoves words like Fal’cie and L’cie down our throats without bothering to explain what any of this means and how it affects the characters. After some time, it becomes more clear what all of this means, but they fail to hook us into the story early enough, which tends to make some gamers mentally check out of the story all together.
Why previous Final Fantasy games were so iconic
Let’s compare with Final Fantasy VII. When we take control of Cloud, instantly we understand that he’s a mercenary working with a team of environmental activists who seek to bomb the Mako reactor owned by Shinra. It’s a simple objective that gives us a clear focus, but that’s not what hooks us. What does hook us is the clear lack of trust Barrett displays towards Cloud and the lack of regard Cloud shows for the situation. This subtle tension is enough to make us wonder how this situation might possibly go wrong, building a level of intensity that makes the player invested in what’s to come. Final Fantasy VII does not beat you over the head with complex subject matter until you’re already invested.
In Final Fantasy X, you take control of Tidus, the son of a superstar Blitzball player while he himself is on the way to play a high-stakes game of Blitzball. And as you interact with NPC’s around you on the way to the stadium, Tidus’s conflicting feelings about his father are made clear immediately. It implants the question in your mind, “what went wrong with his father?” And this sets the tone for the incredible story that is about to play out. Before you even get to Spira, you’re already hooked on Cloud’s inner-conflicts. I would have loved if they’d done something similar with Lightning to open up Final Fantasy XIII.
The old Final Fantasy games even had well done sub-stories for its supporting characters. An example of this is the heathbreaking dynamic between Barret and Dyne in Final Fantasy VII. After believing Dyne to be dead, Barret adopts his daughter Marlene. This happens prior to the game beginning. And when you reach the Golden Saucer in the game, you begin to hear rumblings of another man with a machine gun for an arm, the setup for what is to come. Barret and Dyne are finally reunited, only for Barret to discover that Dyne’s despair over the loss of his family has eaten away his soul, to the point that when hearing Marlene is still alive, Dyne intends to kill Marlene so that his wife will not be alone in the afterlife. After fighting Dyne, he understands that his idea was wrong and wishes his daughter to stay in Barret’s care. And then, with nothing left in his heart, Dyne throws himself off of a cliff.
While it sounds melodramatic when you hear the story outside of the game, the point is that these character moments offered us a special feeling that’s missing from the Final Fantasy games of today. And the best part about it is that all of these side stories relate back to the main theme of the game, giving you more motivation to continue on your journey to make a better world.
What we need to make things right
The problem with both Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XV (and now possibly Stranger of Paradise), is that they block out our connection to the characters with uncompelling story jargon. I enjoy playing Lightning, but her plight doesn’t feel genuine the way Cloud and Tidus’ did. It’s not enough to give us cool-looking characters and eye-catching fantasy aesthetics. And it’s certainly not enough to slap the Final Fantasy name on anything and expect us hold it in high-regard like the previous classics in the series.
When it comes to Stranger in Paradise, you probably shouldn’t judge a game by it’s reveal trailer alone, but if I were to do so with Stranger of Paradise, it gives me the impression that the story was brainstormed during an hour-long Zoom meeting. It feels like all of the attention to detail is given to the game design and game mechanics, while the storytelling is an afterthought. When you consider the level of storytelling we’ve received from earlier entries into the series, it’s a crying shame if that’s the case. We need compelling characterization with the dialogue to match. It’s not enough to tell us how much we need to kill chaos.
Please Square Enix, show us captivating character moments instead of telling us which over-powered boss enemy we’re supposed to want dead. I want to feel concerned for my character’s mental health as he discovers that his life isn’t what he thought it was. I want to feel broken when my main character discovers he’s been helping the girl he loves journey towards her own suicide mission. I want to feel the weight of character moments every step of the way. Because its only a fantasy if you sweep my attention away from reality for an extended period of time.
This is an opinion piece, and for that reason we welcome the opinions of others regarding storytelling in Final Fantasy games. Please share your personal views on the subject below. All opinions will be shown respect.