In a post I wrote for the Final Fantasy Subreddit:
I think all of the hate FFXIII receives is more community rabble than from it being truly awful. But if someone were curious in playing the main series (minus the MMOs), what might merit a playthrough of Final Fantasy XIII (not asking for myself)? What’s your best defense in favor of this game.
I truly believe Final Fantasy XIII’s hate is mostly rabble. This opinion is changing, as more players defend Final Fantasy XIII. So I wanted to get to the bottom of things. Do people really hate it? Of course, some people do. Then, let’s come at it from another angle. Can the people who like the game defend it? All we ever hear is the negative. But what about the positives? Certainly, someone can give a rave, rather than a rant, about Final Fantasy XIII.
I think the hate for XIII stems from several factors: existing in a community where a patronizing attitude towards games, developers, and other gamers is the price of entry; elevating certain design elements or mechanics to a kind of sacred cow status; evaluating games based on whether they contain all the “correct” elements that can be checked off a list; and groupthink.
This is what I think. But most notably, this is what Tabata said. He spoke of the amount of backlash he received from his team when working on Final Fantasy XV. He called this negative feedback the “Final Fantasy Disease”. It’s now a commonplace term in Final Fantasy forums. But the concept is as old as Final Fantasy itself. This community always has someone who pines after the old days. Even Tabata admits it: fans have the Final Fantasy Disease. The inability to imagine anything other than their own view of Final Fantasy. But Final Fantasy’s main strength is its innovation. Final Fantasy is always changing. It was only a matter of time until we got a game like Final Fantasy XIII.
But of course, many fans didn’t care for Final Fantasy XIII; it didn’t fit their idea of what a Final Fantasy. We wanted open worlds, not narrow hallways. Of course, Final Fantasy was mostly linear. Only variations were Final Fantasy I and II, and in a limited sense. Final Fantasy has several tropes, but they don’t have to show up in gameplay and level design.
I think XIII is one of the most thoughtfully-designed, subtly written games on the series. It is a deconstruction of the stereotypical Final Fantasy plot: a group of random warriors chosen by a sentient crystal to take on a quest to save the world and given magical abilities to do so, because of destiny. Instead, this game’s sentient crystal’s motives are known to be malevolent, the people chosen by the crystal don’t get along (as one would realistically expect from a group assembled simply by proximity) and don’t want to fulfill their task. They are given magical powers that make them pariahs and are hunted by a society suspicious of their moral allegiance. And then it turns out that all of it, their whole culture, is a centuries-long conspiracy by the crystal entities to commit genocide, not out of a desire to rule the world (they already do), but out of an existential need to transcend their own limitations. They are victims of an inscrutable, capricious god who uses them to fulfill a role that they literally cannot choose to disobey, and they then perpetuate that same attitude towards humanity. Social systems, anyone? Also, it may be unintentional, but as a citizen of the U.S., I’m particularly struck by how the first half of the game serves as a very pointed metaphor for the War on Terror.
Every Final Fantasy deconstructs all of the preceding games, including the first Final Fantasy; scherzophrenic86’s analysis is spot on. However, Final Fantasy XIII as a metaphor for the “War on Terror”? I don’t see it, but I’d love to follow up on it.
The main theme of the game is that “fate” is real, in the sense that the powerful can circumscribe the existential freedom of the less-powerful. It also asks the question, “What do you do when all the choices available to you are bad ones?” Choosing not to act is still a choice.
The level design of the game is about limiting your freedom. That’s the point. We complain about ludo-narrative dissonance in games, and here is a game that gets that exactly right. And I honestly think that if the game had come out five years earlier, nobody would have complained. The fanatical emphasis on freedom and exploration in game design (insofar as it’s thought to be a necessary component of all genres) is a more recent attitude, in my opinion. I think that since the last decade was so glutted with GTA clones and Elder Scrolls-style games, the conventions of those genres have bled over into the more narrative-driven JRPG. You can either have an open-world game or a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, but not both.
Now, of course, the technical limitations prevented an open world experience. But consider that Final Fantasy XII tried for an open world. Final Fantasy XIII was originally to be PlayStation 2 game. They could have tried for an open world structure, but the developers consciously decided against it. When Final Fantasy XIII moved to new gen hardware, the basic assets carried over. The hallway structure was apart of the theme.
This is where I believe scherzophrenic86 touched on something important. Final Fantasy XIII tried something different by moving away from the open world structure. It might be jarring now, but consider how many people are sick of open world games. Final Fantasy XIII was a straight, goal-oriented game with very little downtime. That may not have enjoyed the game when it first came out, but the “hallway” is the main reason people are coming around to it now.
Some of the other complaints that are common about this game I think are just the result of lazy engagement, immaturity in segments of the audience (I mean that as a description, not an insult), or limitation of perspective. People say, “You can’t understand the story without reading the chapter summaries!” when you really, really can. The dialogue is written much more subtly than most JRPGs, so the exposition is not as in-your-face, but it’s there. There are plenty of games that don’t require paying attention to dialogue and plot; if that’s what you want, more power to you. Enjoy those games. But I want there to be games available that respect the artistic intelligence of the audience, and require a deeper level of mental engagement. And nobody complained about Mass Effect requiring hours of reading in order to have context for the plot! Also, people are free to have opinions about the combat system, but “it’s different than before” is not a criticism. Managing each individual character may be your preference, but a design that doesn’t include it is not objectively bad. There are two paradigms (no pun intended) for party combat mechanics: controlling each member or controlling them as a party. Either one is fine so long as the rules of combat and the strategy necessary to win are built around one or the other. FFXII shifted to a system where the strategy was far more about equipping your characters and programming your gambits well. XIII takes a similar approach: it’s not about micromanaging, but about creating a set of roles that are able to respond to the situation. The combat in XIII is highly strategic, just in a different way than, say, FFVI. Also, each character’s AI in a role may be different from another character in the same role; Hope and Sazh play VERY differently as AI Synergists. In fact, not being able to control every character in battle plays on the game’s themes even more: you the player are not able to force a character to act how you want. They are people who will act according to their own personality. In a more sinister interpretation, you create a role for them to fill, just like the fal’Cie do, and they have to obey. But they won’t be perfectly predictable.
As scherzophrenic86 spoke: groupthink. Sure, groupthink is lazy. Why voice your opinions when you can echo everyone else? Because everyone decided to follow the herd, they ended up. I’m sure they knew Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t that bad, but it just felt so good to criticize it. Blowing every flaw out of proportion was cathartic, especially when they got to the really frustrating parts.
The dialogue is very subtle…in some part. Sazh really hits you over the head with the “enemies of the state” line. Most of it is melodramatic because Final Fantasy XIII took advantage of the wide range of emotions. Now, look at how far we’ve come with Final Fantasy XIV and XV. Look at the Witch tech demo. We can only imagine what they have in store for Final Fantasy XVI.
Plus, scherzophrenic86’s analysis of how the characters behave in battle is very insightful.
TL;DR I love FFXIII and think a lot of the hate it gets is unfair. I don’t begrudge people their opinions and preferences, so long as they are based on thoughtful reflection rather than nostalgia, artistic immaturity, or entrenched notions of what a particular game is “supposed to be.”
I believe a lot of the hate it receives is undue and unfair as well. In the coming years, people will hate it all over again, or love it for what it is.