Saturday, May 17, 2014

#70: Factions in Video Games: Skyrim vs. Final Fantasy X-2

I am a person who likes RPGs of many sorts. As a result, I see many different implementations of the same ideas by multiple companies. One such concept many RPGs utilize is a faction system, where multiple groups of opposing ideals go against one another, usually having fairly drastic effects on either the main plot or the world at large. I tell you this because I am about to make a bold, controversial assertion: Final Fantasy X-2 uses the concept of opposing factions significantly more effectively than The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I know that will come across as absurd to many of you, because Skyrim is very well loved and Final Fantasy X-2 is... not. However, I do have my reasons for thinking this.

My first reason for saying this is that the factions in Final Fantasy X-2 are a lot more relatable. In Skyrim, the game does a very good job at explaining the negative sides of each faction. However, the positive aspects of each faction are a lot more hidden from view. At the beginning of the game, a captain of a group of soldiers belonging to the Imperial Legion attempts to execute the player for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This tells the player that the bureaucracy of the Legion can often lead to corruption and overlooking simple mistakes, without much of a need for exposition.
The Stormcloak introduction does not fair much better. When arriving at Windhelm, the Stormcloak capital city, players find that Stormcloak soldiers are mocking and oppressing the Dark Elf and Argonian populations of the city. Through this interaction, the game informs the player that the Stormcloak faction discriminates against other, non-Nord races. When it comes to the good sides of these factions, we do not have similar scenes. All of it is gleamed through exposition told to the player by characters who are in those factions. The player is not shown these strengths, they are told. This makes in that much more difficult to envision these strengths. So, when it comes to time to select a faction, players choose between the lesser of two evils rather than which one harbors beliefs more in line with either their philosophy (or that of their character's).
This is not the case with Final Fantasy X-2. In that game, both of its major factions are presented in more positive spotlights. When players first make contact with each faction, characters from that faction come up to talk about their group and what they believe in. There are friends, both new and from Final Fantasy X, who are on each side. This gives players, especially ones who played Final Fantasy X, legitimate reason to invest their time with each faction and getting to know them. Reaching the Youth League headquarters in rewarded with a discussion on channeling youthful energy towards progress and building a better future. On the other hand, the New Yevon members talk about how apprehensive they are towards the accelerated pace of change, and their wish to take things more slowly. In this way, players are left to ponder which faction they support based on what beliefs each group holds rather than which one is the lesser evil. Although both factions have scenes where they are shown in more “villainous” lights, those are few and far in-between when compared to Skyrim's factions.

Which brings me to my second point: The faction-based choices players make in Final Fantasy X-2 have significantly greater impact than similar choices made in Skyrim. When participating in Skyrim's Civil War questline, players are forced to choose between one of the two major factions and side with them in the war. However, regardless of the decision, most players will end up performing the exact same tasks for each faction. Forts will need to be taken over, cities will need to be captured, crowns will need to be obtained, and enemy faction leaders will need to be eliminated no matter which side is selected. Further, there are no real changes on the world when players finish the questline for either side. A few guards might comment on it when running around in the city, but the world at large does not seem care about the outcome. Players might see more/less Imperial/Stormcloak troops in certain areas, but they will look and act the same as any city guard would. Nothing happens and nothing changes in Skyrim's static world.
But in Final Fantasy X-2, players actually see the consequences and effects of choosing to throw their support behind one of the two factions. After getting about 1/5 through the game, the game forces the party to decide which group is worth their time. This choice is actually a very crucial one. Side-quests open and close depending on which group the player sides with. For example, the Youth League has a quest where players can assist them in fighting off fiends if they decide to align with that group. Characters in the story will comment on the choice the party makes. Certain aspects of the game's main story will even change to reflect this one decision. In the finale of Chapter 2, the group is required to infiltrate the New Yevon headquarters. If they sided with New Yevon, then they just stroll passed the guards. Otherwise, they will need to fight their way through. It feels like that one choice has a big impact. Compared to how Skyrim mostly ignores the choice of faction, this is a huge step up.

While many people would scoff at the idea of Final Fantasy X-2 being superior to Skyrim, even if only in a single aspect. However, a close look at the details behind these games reveals that my assertion at the beginning of this article holds merit. Though many people are right to enjoy the intricacies of Skyrim, the game has its flaws and this is one of them. Not to say that Final Fantasy X-2 is a perfect game either. No one in their right mind would say that. This is just one thing that the game gets right. Factions are a great way to quickly establish conflicts, plot, and gameplay elements. Done well, they can add to a world and player interactions with it. Done poorly, they cannot accomplish much of anything. Those of you interested in game design would do well to keep that in mind.

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