Final Fantasy is a gaming franchise most people are aware of. At one point, it was considered the pinnacle of JRPGs and almost synonymous with the term. Nowadays, the franchise and its creators, Square-Enix, are not held in such high esteem. While the exact point that it began is incredibly debatable, recent Final Fantasy titles have not been as well received by their audience. In particular, Final Fantasy XIII was extremely divisive. Some really enjoyed the new combat system because it added a new strategic element to the game while others felt that the game was being played for them by the AI. Some enjoyed the story because the characters were well-developed and interesting and others hated the characters and how forced the ending appeared to be. However, there is one element that most people agree on and dislike: Final Fantasy XIII felt much more linear than its predecessors. This begs the question: Why does XIII feel so linear when compared to earlier titles? Most Final Fantasy titles are also very linear, as is the nature of JRPGs. What made XIII different? This week, I will try to figure it out.
The first, and most obvious, thing one must take note of is that the topography of Final Fantasy XIII is much more linear than its predecessors. Earlier entries in the series, up until Final Fantasy IX, had huge world maps to explore. While the player was often restricted from going very far off the beaten path until certain plot points were reached, the world maps always looked liked plausible worlds ripe for exploration. Final Fantasy XIII did not have this luxury for most of the game. For the vast majority of the game, XIII has players walk forward in an incredibly constricting, linear corridor. There are many diverse locals throughout the game with varying environments, but the player is only allowed to explore in one of them more than twenty hours into the game. The rest of the game cordons off most of the area, meaning the player only has one way to go. Even Final Fantasy X, which was almost as linear as Final Fantasy XIII, had places where the path branched off somewhat and the player was free to wander around the area to explore and look for items. In a game like Final Fantasy XIII, which thrives on immersion, this is horrible because the player takes notice of it and is immediately reminded that they are playing a very linear game, which added to the sense of linearity.
But this is something games do all the time. Many games, from Call of Duty to Half-Life 2 to the series's own Final Fantasy X were essentially linear corridors when one goes in and analyzes them. Why is Final Fantasy XIII so different? One thing I found as I was pondering this was that Final Fantasy XIII's areas are very sparsely populated. In most other games, the places the player explores, now matter how linear, have a population in them. There are people who are there for their own reasons and that have their own backstories. Even in shooters, where the people are usually the enemy, they help make the levels the player goes through feel more like a world instead of a corridor. Final Fantasy XIII only had a few areas with people in them at all. Most of the levels were completely devoid of sentient life (with the possible exception of monsters). It is difficult to be immersed in a world without people to interact with. That is something that people just do not encounter in everyday life. This is another reason why Final Fantasy X felt less linear. As the player traveled, he/she saw other people in cities and on the roads traveling as well. Initiating dialog with a few of these people would even show the player cutscenes that added both to the world and the characters. Before fans of XIII say that there is a good plot reason why the party encounters few people (being that they are fugitives on the run), I will preempt them by saying that while it makes sense from a plot standpoint, it does not make sense from a design standpoint. The design of the world and how the player interacts with it is just as important as the plot in any game because that is what is most obvious to the player.
There is one last reason why Final Fantasy XIII feels more linear than other Final Fantasy games. Simply put, there is not much for the player to do in the game. In most RPGs, there is more to do than just the main quest-line of the game. Designers of these games often have side-quests that player has the option of doing throughout the game. These quests allow the player to take a brief respite from the story and even allow his/her character(s) to grow stronger in preparation for battles ahead in the main story. They also allow to player to learn more about the world and begin to sympathize with the local populace by getting to know them and help them out. Final Fantasy XIII does not do that well at all. There is only one area that has any optional objectives whatsoever (which is the same area that allows for exploration). Furthermore, there is exactly one type of optional objective. Where other games have diverse side-quests where the player can find an item, kill a specific enemy, etc., Final Fantasy XIII also has one type of objective where the player finds the fossilized remains of someone who was cursed to have to kill a specific enemy and take up the quest for them. There are 60 of these fights and they are the only optional objective. They do not even add to the world like other side-quests in other games do since they do not give the player any information that they are not already aware of by going through the main storyline. Again, this is something Final Fantasy X did well. Throughout the game, there are a number of times where the party is allowed to just stop for a second and help out the local populace, giving the player the ability to play the game at his/her own pace and/or learn about the world and the people inhabiting it.
As I have said in prior articles, there is nothing inherently wrong with a linear game design philosophy. While it is not my preference, it can work so long as the player is immersed enough in the game that it no longer feels linear and that the game is railroading the player. This is ultimately the problem with Final Fantasy XIII: The game does not do enough to disguise its linear nature. The player feels like they are going through nothing but corridor after corridor completely absent of any form of sentient life. The player is not given enough incentive or context for this to work. Part of me wonders why so many little things went wrong in XIII. Square-Enix was much better at this before, as demonstrated by games created both before and slightly after the merging of Squaresoft and Enix. Hopefully they will be able to turn things around in the future, else I fear they might be another in a long line of corporations that have fallen by the wayside this console generation.