Final Fantasy’s engaging narrative and gameplay remain a hallmark of gaming to this day. But what more people don’t consider is how the two intersect. It isn’t immediately obvious that the lore of a Final Fantasy game best complement its gameplay. However, it happened throughout several instances in Final Fantasy’s history.
Gameplay-wise, Final Fantasy was functionally simple. Players with high speed or agility acted first, and time stopped so that the player could execute commands. This battle system, called ‘Turn-based’, was the mechanic of the first three games. The first three games’ narratives were simply as well. Final Fantasy I and II featured four unknown and unnamed Warriors of Light who saved the world out of duty. Only Final Fantasy II featured named orphans who challenged an Empire, even though their character arcs were non-existent.
The next game introduced the ATB, or Active Time Battle, system:
The Active Time Battle (ATB) system was designed by Hiroyuki Ito and was the first battle system to receive a dedicated name. It shares many attributes with the original system but adds the dimension of timing for commands. An ATB gauge tracks when party members are going to act. When the gauge is full, members perform an action. In later games and/or remakes, some actions have an additional wait time, such as casting spells or using special abilities.
Right around the time Hiroyuki Ito created the ATB battle mechanic, Hironobu Sakaguchi began writing more intricate and often expansive stories. Not that they weren’t before. Final Fantasy I, II and II were all grand sweeping epics based on good vs evil, heroism, and fantasy. Yet, Final Fantasy IV was different. This time most of the story revolved around the character development of one character: Cecil Harvey.
Cecil spoke out against the evils committed by the Baron Kingdom. Later, he sets out on a journey which changes him forever. Many of the themes in Final Fantasy IV matched Cecil’s character arc: the search for redemption. And while he finds it mid-way through the game, he still feels the consequences of his actions.
This is a vast difference between the four unknown and unnamed Warriors of Light with no past. As narratives changed, so did gameplay and battle systems.
In what ways did they change? Taking Final Fantasy IV as an example, the consequences of one’s actions, and the flow of time. All of the Final Fantasy games force the players to take responsibility for their actions. Yet Final Fantasy IV urged the characters to ACT NOW or suffer consequences. If only Cecil would have taken the right actions, he wouldn’t have such a need for redemption. And at the same time, ATB forces us to commit to making the most practical moves to victory.
Also consider that, throughout time, our characters change. And time has consequences. Cecil changes from a Dark Knight to a Paladin, mirroring his lessons learned through his character arc. Rydia undergoes changes as well, from child to adult, due to the passage of time in the Freymarch. These two examples show just how ATB worked within the narrative of Final Fantasy games. And other games, from Final Fantasy V and up, continues to incorporate engaging narratives based on these principles.