Wednesday, February 15, 2012

#8: Time Travel in Games

(Spoiler Warning: I discuss Final Fantasy XIII-2's plot.)

Time travel is one of many in a list of often utilized science-fiction tropes. It is easy to understand why that would be. Most people are fascinated by the concept of going back and forth through time for a variety of reasons. Some people would love to travel to the distant past to observe how folks from olden times really led their lives with their own eyes. Others have the distant future in mind for their destination. These members of society are interested in the growth of humanity and desire to see how our actions in the present affect the what happens afterward. Still more people see time travel as a means of escapism. They look at the lives they are currently leading with disgust and repulsion. They dream of going back to the past and fixing their lives so that they no longer feel miserable. The concept of venturing across time and space permeates books, movies, and other media and video games no different. This week's article will analyze the mechanic of time travel and video games using Final Fantasy XIII-2 as the basis for discussion.

The first, I have to fill you in on the premise of XIII-2. As you have probably already figured out Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes places after the events of Final Fantasy XIII. In the game, the protagonist of the previous game, Lightning, has mysteriously disappeared from the timeline after saving the world. Everybody, except her sister Serah, remembers her fighting a bunch of monsters and getting killed in action. Serah remembers the Lightning was at her side one minute and gone the next. After three years of self-doubt, she meets a young man named Noel who claims to be from the future, a world where he is the only human left. He says that was pulled out of that timeline by Lightning and instructed to bring Serah to her. Together, they go on an adventure through time to search for a way to find Lightning and (inevitably) fix the timeline so that Noel's future does not happen.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 uses time travel both effectively and ineffectively. For one, its system of time travel does allow it to explain away a few of the plot holes that are typical of a time travel story. The protagonists of the game are not allowed to just go to any time period they desire. First, they have to find a gate in whatever era they are in or have been to previously. Then, the have to find an “artifact” that opens up the gate. This explains why it is impossible for the heroes to just go to the time period when and where all the shenanigans involving mucking up the timeline were originally thought up and kill the villain of the game or convince him that his plan is incredibly stupid (which it is, but that will not be touched on in this article). There is no gate that allows them to travel to that period before everything started. It also explains why the events of the first game remain intact. No time gate appears before three years after the events of the first game. The time travel mechanic also helps bring the player into the world and makes the player begin to care about the people in it. It is interesting and fun to go to different time periods of the same place to see how the world advances. Every area has at least a few interesting characters or developments that bring the player closer to the story and make him/her want to save this world. Lastly, do something that alleviates a problem that I have seen many time travel stories. In many stories, all the time travel weirdness occurs without anyone giving so much as a backwards glance, except for the protagonists. In XIII-2, the people in this world of paradoxes and time manipulation do what would be expected: They send teams on scientists and researchers to go out and investigate them to try to figure out why these paradoxes occur and fix them. Later on in the future, it is implied through an optional quiz game that time travel and paradoxes become part of a standard education. In a unique take on time/space manipulation, citizens of this world become used to paradoxes and other oddities as a such are not surprised by it. All these little details are done well and help to add a bit of logic to the world.

However, while XIII-2 does many things right with its time travel narrative, it also does many things wrong. One of the main problems with the narrative of the game is that the writers are all to eager to use the word “paradox” to explain away every and all problems that occur. While this makes sense in a time travel narrative, it is often the case where the effect of a paradox does not make any sense at all. For example, in one optional area in the game, the effect of a paradox cause a whole team of researchers to disappear, presumably to a different time period. This somehow causes red spheres filled with all of the regrets of those affected by the paradox to materialize in their place. Wait, what? How did that happen? What possible explanation could explain that? While that is only a side-story and can be easily ignored, the main quest is also filled with plotholes. When Lightning disappeared, she was sent to place outside of space/time called Valhalla, ruled by the goddess Etro. In Valhalla, it is possible to see all places and periods of time at once. Furthermore, Etro is the one who can control space/time and open up time gates. The problem with an area like this is that it basically breaks the plot. If it is possible to see every era at once and create gates to places in time, then there really should be no narrative tension. The conclusion of the game should be obvious well in advance and all of the events would be simultaneously playing out while at the same time have already been played out. It does not end there. The story constantly reminds the player of something that does not make sense: “Change the future, and you change the past.” At first, I thought this was referring to the paradoxes. I thought that meant that if a paradox began in the future and sent something into the past was resolved, then the past would change because it was no longer be affected. This made sense to me. However, a datalog, the in-game database, entry says that if the future gets changed for whatever reason, then the past will auto-correct itself so that the future will have the best possible chance of happening. Think about it for a second. How would that make any sense? I am legitimately wondering that. Anyone who can explain that to me, please post a comment. I would be eager to learn.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an interesting takes on the usual time traveling tale. It has both its good points and it bad points. Be warned, while I personally enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII-2, it is not a game for everybody. Old fans of the Final Fantasy series or JRPGs in general will find themselves right at home here. Others should borrow or rent the game first before considering a purchase. I complained a lot about the story as it heavily relies on “A goddess did it.”, but the gameplay of XIII-2 really works.

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