by Gabriel Ojeda-Sague
Reading through the criticisms of Final Fantasy XIII and the recently released Final Fantasy XV, all of them agree the graphics are beautiful. These titles undoubtedly have the most advanced graphics of the franchise. But I feel, as I read these review and essays, that they leverage the games’ advanced graphics against them as a sly way of implying that the game succeeds only superficially. Take Salvatore Pane’s essay in ENTROPY on FFXIII, where he calls the game “the most beautiful treadmill in the world” because of its (compared to other FF titles) direct plot path, environments, and combat system. Since the entirety of his article is on agency, the history of the JRPG, and the experience of the open world, it is clear that the issue of “beautiful” is just an afterthought. Or more specifically, a minor compliment said for the sake of manners before a much more biting dissection.
And in fact, his few mentions of graphics only occur on the basis of describing whether a game’s graphics are more or less advanced (e.g.,“a graphical presentation that dumped the 2D sprites…for groundbreaking 3D characters and beautifully rendered cutscenes”). Games with advanced graphics that tend towards high-definition and versions of realism tend to have interpretation of their graphics ignored. Are they realistic? Do they wow? Are they beautiful? are basically the only questions answered about the graphics on a game like FFXV or FFXIII. It is more common to make interpretive claims on graphics choices that are technologically less advanced, say like the return of 16-bit for Undertale, or the simple elegance of Monument Valley’s geometry.
I think it is likely that Pane’s motivation for not dealing more in-depth with the graphics of FFXIII or FFXV (which he addresses in the final moves of his article) is, logically, because his attention is to agency and the mechanics of the game. My hope here is to make it apparent that that is somewhat naïve: that to adequately analyze the role of agency and player response to the JRPG one must think of graphics and mechanics as interlaced and one in the same. Here, I’m interested in identifying and describing the aesthetics and graphics of these most recent FF games more deeply and considering their ideological, thematic, and emotive work. When we say the graphics are advanced or “beautiful,” and quickly moving on to tear at the rest of the game, without even asking how graphics and mechanics might be related, I think we are oversimplifying the game from both a player experience standpoint and a developer standpoint.
I want to focus on FFXV, instead of on its predecessor, because I find Pane’s critique that it marks the franchise becoming a “cookie-cutter American action game” more urgent to this discussion. Many of my friends who have played FFXV (and FFXIII) have agreed, saying that the game “just doesn’t feel like Final Fantasy.” I think the best way to start to push back on that critique is through graphics.
I’d like to talk about splendor. As a player, this is the emotion I think I feel the most when I see unbelievably advanced graphics like those in FFXV. Splendor, I think, is the only reaction pushed to the forefront when we first enter the game, pushing a luxury sports car across the beautifully rendered desert landscape that we occupy for the first half of the game. And splendor is in even more at the forefront when we enter the water-based city of Altissia. This is a city built on luxury, complex architecture, floating canals.
The reaction of most critics, including Pane, to this new landscape is relief that the typical “open world” famous in Final Fantasy titles has returned. However, the player will slowly realize this world is not as open as it looks. While we do control a sports car in a vast desert, the car is actually attached to an invisible rail system that stops the player from driving off-road, crashing into random objects on the road, or driving sideways. So, the expanding, reflective roads of the desert are actually direct paths between important hubs like cities, gas stations, and other locations. One can stop the car and exit to travel on foot or Chocobo to travel in the space between roads, usually large fields of grass. This is not atypical of vehicle systems in many open world games, but I won’t easily forget the surprise I felt as the car auto-drove when I tried to sway out of lane. Let’s say we leave the car. Then the world is open and free, correct? Well, while true in the most basic sense, it is easy to discover that the vast majority of the landscape is empty. Mobs of enemies are rare and distant from each other, separated by large swaths of grass or hills. Items are spread out in seemingly arbitrary locations and represented just by glimmering dots. The landscape itself, though open, has very limited interactivity. One cannot actually change the landscape, or effect one’s presence onto it. A player can only sweep mobs or items temporarily off its blanket surface.
Therefore, the type of splendor I think is employed in most of the game (I’ll get to where it stops soon) is what I’d call flat splendor. Flat, because it cannot actively be interacted with, changed, or even really experienced in an uninhibited way. This is surely not the open world of a games like Grand Theft Auto, the Zelda franchise, or more complicated sandbox games. This style of limited interaction with a blanketed open world has always been a part of main Final Fantasy games, especially ones that contain a “World Map” mechanic. But in the case of FFXV, this world is made visually stunning and splendorous so that the player’s limited interactions with it make it feel all the more absent. One cannot really wander in FFXV, because wandering would lead to finding nothing but perhaps a lone mob of Sabertusks (identical to another mob of Sabertusks a 2-minute sprint away). Instead, the kind of experience of the open world that is provided by wandering in games like Skyrim or Fallout can be replicated just by standing still and looking at a frame of the landscape. At least, this is what my partner and I found ourselves doing as we played. Simple pauses to breath and stare at flat splendor.
One comedic example of what I mean by the game’s splendor is in its food. Ignis, one of your party members, can cook meals when the party is camped out for the night that give you different stat buffs for the following day. There have been several articles written on how ridiculously detailed and high-def the renderings of this food is (see this one from Eater). But the way the food works for most of the game is as simple as you choose a recipe that you can cook with loot you have as ingredients, and you gain the stat buff. But each time you cook, you watch an entire cutscene with dialogue where your plate is presented to you. Clearly, this is a simple chance for the team to show off their graphics. But in a game that is establishing a relationship to the player that rests heavily on viewership and awe, it stands out.
While I call it “flat splendor,” I do not think that should be taken as a negative. In fact, I think of it as extremely useful. This is simply a way for the game to establish a relationship between the player and the game’s environment. However, this relationship has a stark change at Chapter 10. After a large fight at Altissia, Ignis is left blind and Noctis’s fiancée is dead. The game moves from Altissia to a train and the first mission of Chapter 10 is to wait in the train. The player can move along a single line up and down the train and must wait several minutes before the train arrives. From this point until the end of the game, there is no open world whatsoever. Chapter 10 on are filled with an overwhelming grief and melancholy in both the characters, the quests, and the aesthetics. What was at first a group of friends driving where they want in a luxury sports car, now is our main character Noctis walking up and down the length of the train. Once the train arrives there is an optional stop in a cave to fight for a new weapon, and then it is back on the train.
The game takes a turn towards the surreal when the main villain Ardyn appears inside the train as it passes through a massive cloud of snow. The player must chase Ardyn through various cars of the train, realizing quickly that he is not actually hittable as he is both immortal and can create warps in time. To make a long scene short, Prompto is separated from the party, and Noctis reenters the train where a blizzard has formed inside. The player is forced to slowly push Noctis through it to reach Ardyn who is inside the blizzard. What has been for 10 chapters a game in which you pass between points on a large dessert map, has suddenly shifted to an extremely predetermined and surreal scene inside a train.
The game continues on its new direct rail, but continues to change in form. In Zegnautus Keep in Chapter 13, the game arguably even shifts genres into a horror-stealth, as Noctis alone (no party members now) must sneak and hide in crevices or be accosted by suddenly appearing empty suits of armor (“MTs”). What makes these scenes compelling is not just their content, but that they mark a very direct shift from earlier parts of the game. Where earlier the landscape was clearly defined, sunny, and massive, now it is compact and industrial (the small, dark metal hallways of both the train and Zegnautus Keep). Where earlier, the new battle system of FFXV allowed for consideration of positioning, impressively stylized group attacks, and fast-paced warping from place to place by Noctis, now he must literally stand still to fight with his Ring of the Lucii. A limitation like this is exactly why I say it is naïve to hold graphics and mechanics apart from each other, risking misinterpreting the mechanic as stodgy and the aesthetics as gothic without considering the play between them.
The wide, flat splendor of majority of the game was built up in the way it was for 10 chapters so that the horror of fighting alone in a metal hallway can be more affecting and more thematically appropriate. FF is a franchise about large abstract ideals such as love, honor, family, duty, and generally the balance between evil and good, dark and light. Pane points us here with his discussion of agency, but it’s clear that he does not express that the graphics are relevant to how these themes might be enacted. We must be aware that spending hours of gameplay in dark, dimly lit areas, to then explode into the final teleportation-heavy fight in the sky with the final boss (Ardyn from before) affects the player emotionally. And this is not just aesthetics, it is indeed graphics: the way darkness is rendered, the way a hallway is rendered, the definition of metal tubes lining, and the way the skin and tears of the love interest Lunafreya are defined in the final scene after victory and defeat of Ardyn.
There is a reason the game ends with Lunafreya looking at a photo the player chooses (in fact, if you a pick a photo of her wedding dress, she will shed a tear looking at it) and there is a reason why photography is so heavily emphasized in the game (Prompto’s hobby): because this is a game that is about looking and staring. It incentivizes a relationship to the graphics that is based in awe and splendor. This matters because it makes the themes of light vs. dark more immediately sensed. Final Fantasy has always strived for an arc that brings the characters to the darkest moments in their lives before coming out of it again, especially through moments of grief (Aerith’s death in FF7, for example) but only in a game like FFXV (and I’d argue as well for FFXIII) has that grief been so accurately and widely mapped onto the graphics and mechanics of the game.
Therefore, to discuss the agency of a player and their experience of the game, we cannot brush away graphical content or use it as a simple compliment. FF is a franchise that considers its aesthetics highly and no more so than in the modern FF games (likely starting in the switch to PS2 with FFX). And in my eyes, graphical analysis reminds us of why and how FFXV is a true Final Fantasy game, even if its battle system is incongruous to others or even if it has a sports car in it. Because these choices are made to manage the same network of themes and ideas that the games (and really the JRPG genre) have stayed true to for so long. And as well I hope I’ve made clear why I appreciate “the treadmill” that Pane describes. Control of the player to such an overt degree as FFXV enacts forces an attentiveness from the player in this context and it reflects the experience of grief within the mechanics of the game. Ignis is blind now, so you must walk slower to let him catch up. Your love interest is dead and now you can only walk up and down this train, not talking to your friends who are frustrated with how you’ve dealt with your emotions. I understand all of the complaints about the lack of openness in FFXIII and even FFXV, but we should never make the claim that it makes the games less of a FF game or, even more troublingly, that it makes it more “American,” as Pane described, because it is clear that the systems and rules of the game’s world uphold the essential natures of the franchise.
To end with one example of how splendor finds its way into all of the FF games, and connecting again the issue of graphics and mechanics, I’d like to mention summons of Shiva. See this compilation of all the summons of Shiva in the main-franchise games of FF (excluding FFXV) and notice the way in which her summon cutscene, especially after the switch to three-dimension in FF7, emphasizes an intersection between luxury and force. It’s apparent even in the name of her signature move throughout the games “Diamond Dust” that her attack is meant to be luxurious and sensual. A summon is not just an exposé of what the game’s graphics engines can do, even though after FF7 they do accomplish that, they are also an essential combat mechanic in which the player can use a trump card level of power to overwhelm enemies. Therefore, their incredibly detailed, splendorous graphics and extended cutscenes are essentially connected to the idea of them strategically as high-cost, high-power tide-shifting abilities in combat. In fact, the penultimate boss of FFXV, Ifrit, is immortal and undefeatable; this is hard-wired into the game by having portions of the fight in which damage cannot be done to him no matter how much you attack him. How you kill him? Eventually fighting for long enough brings the summon of Shiva, who in a cutscene appears as several women in metal and jeweled bikinis who spin around Ifrit, creating a blizzard that freezes him. Finally, Shiva shatters him with a kiss.
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