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Opinion – Solutions for Open World Games

We’ve hit peak open world….I hope.

The open world genre is undoubtedly dominating the video game space.  From genre luminaries like Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry to lesser lights such as The Division and Watch Dogs to genre newbies like Final Fantasy and Mass Effect, developers collectively have concluded that the market wants more open world games.  There certainly is something appealing about the genre.  The ability to explore new worlds, take on a variety of challenges, and change your environment for the better are all something that open world games do very well.  Sadly, newer entries have taken their cues from the Ubisoft model which significantly degrades their long term prospects.  I’ve already written on why that model doesn’t work, so this will be on how to fix it.  We’ll start with something that should be obvious:

Every game mechanic should meet a threshold of fun

Playing games is a voluntary act.  We all pick up the controller because a game promises a good time (however we choose to define that).  We don’t play games for the prospect of large quantities of boring activities which is where most Ubisoft style games land these days.  Rather than emphasize the entertaining nature of their gameplay, many open world games promise hours of stuff to do in the hopes that the player will find something to enjoy.  Unfortunately, this approach results in shotgun blast side quests that are quick, unspecific in their aim, and often variations on the same theme.  Final Fantasy XV demonstrates this issue by having a map full of activities that rarely elevate beyond “kill this monster” or a straightforward fetch quest.  The end result is a world full of activities of which few are actually worth doing.  This is a trend we’ve seen in countless other games including Mass Effect Andromeda’s deluge of shoddy side content and Far Cry 4’s multiple variations on item collection.  Developers need to ask themselves if every major mechanic in the game (open world or not) is fun on its own.  If the action isn’t, than strip it from the game rather than rely on the myriad of other activities to pick up the slack.  Quantity doesn’t make up for quality.

Systems are your friend

One of the greatest missed opportunities in games is the chance to apply broader mechanic systems to open worlds.  Rather than try to craft each event, developers should establish worldwide systems that create gameplay opportunities.   Saint’s Row 2 provides a simple example of something that could be incredibly complex.  When the player takes territory in SR2, the player’s gang replaces the opposing gang thereby turning a once hostile territory into a friendlier place.  When the player goes on missions, the gang will support them in the territories under the player’s control.  This system isn’t particularly deep, but it creates a more strategic element to the game where the player could take certain territories before missions to ensure they had back up during the big fights.  Open world games are perfect for this kind of worldwide system where the player can have an important impact on the look and gameplay of the open world.  Rather than making maps a collection of static icons, developers ought to code dynamic systems that create gameplay by themselves and through their interaction with other systems.

Please stop forgetting about the story

Given the considerable energy that goes into creating enormous environments, players ought not be surprised at the sacrifices developers make in other aspects of the game.  Story often suffers as the developers must devote limited resources to creating a story wholly within the open world environment.  Whereas other style games can move character’s through new cities, different continents, and even other planets, many open world games must focus on a single place.  The evolution of the Saint’s Row series shows how this works in practice.  While the early games focused on small time street thugs trying to carve out territory in a major city, SR3 & 4 envisioned the eponymous Saints with global aspirations.  Given the limited nature of open world environments, the stories of SR3&4 had to both justify a) why the Saints had to take over yet another city and b) why everything important seemed to happen within the confines of that city.  The end result was a hackneyed plot about space aliens destroying Earth who then put the Saints in a city simulation for, you know, reasons.  I’ve focused on the environment, but characters, narrative arc, and every other aspect of the narrative declines as soon as the developer utters the words “open world”.  By refocusing on making great stories, developers could create an interesting new direction for the genre.

If the open world fad is anything like its predecessors, we can expect it to fade as it collapses under the weight of over indulgence and its lack of innovation.  If open world games decline to the point of just a few tent poles, then developers will have missed out on an opportunity to do some incredibly interesting things with the genre.  These games should not have a future if they continue to mirror the Ubisoft industrial mold, but could create a whole new generation of fans if they’re willing to try something new.

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Opinion – The Final Fantasy XV Opening

It’s like sticking the bread between two slices of salami.

The beginning of a game should set the tone for the early part of the adventure.  Many games choose to do so with an explosive introduction which often throws the player into an exciting scene.  The Final Fantasy series is known for this including one of the best intros of all time, Final Fantasy VII.  In that game, the players goes from a tranquil skyscape to participating in a pulse pounding strike against the Shinra power plant (it was the innocent days before 9/11).  Successful intros have similarly thrilling beginnings, even including the much maligned Final Fantasy XIII.  Surprisingly, Final Fantasy XV (FFXV) went the exact opposite route.  It is an interesting attempt at doing something different, but, sadly, it doesn’t quite work out.

FFXV begins with the protagonist Noctis joining his friends/bodyguards in bidding his father, the king, goodbye.  Noctis and crew hops into their car and drives away only to have it break down.  One of the earliest pieces of gameplay is the playing pushing the stalled car down a highway.  The experience is about as thrilling as it sounds.  This extends into the opening area where the only arching narrative is a fetch quest to get Noctis to a pier so that he can sail to a faraway kingdom to marry a princess for the sake of peace.  The intervening missions are largely fetch quests to explore a small, peaceful part of the kingdom and to get used to the gameplay.  Battles are limited and straightforward and the whole area feels like a waystation for something bigger.  And that’s the problem.

FFXV is a game about a road trip (at least, so far).  Unlike previous entries in the series, this one clearly wants to focus on a small set of characters and their interactions.  Developer Square Enix limits the characters and plot by keeping everything focused on the daily affairs of the local population.  By narrowing their view, Square Enix probably hoped to forge a bond between the players, the world, and the characters before embarking on the larger quest.  Rather than overwhelm the road trip theme with the story of invasion (you know it’s coming if you’ve seen Kingsglaive), FFXV starts at a moment in time when all is quiet.  This isn’t a bad idea, but the execution is questionable.  While the base gameplay is fun, the early quests don’t go out of their way to establish the all-important relationships that Square Enix wants to carry this game.  The chatter between characters begins that process, but the real stand out is the beautiful environment and breathing world.  Square Enix wants players to hop in their car and experience the ride before settling into the exciting parts of the game.  It feels like the road trip, more than anything else, is the focus of FFXV and everything that conflicts with it is pushed aside.

That’s unfortunate because shedding the story makes much of the later development incomprehensible.  A number of plot beats strike before, during, and after the opening section that lack support from the previous cutscenes and dialogue.  Without having watched Kingsglaive, the player will have no clue what’s going on.  At a bare minimum, this is poor form.  Completely offloading the introductory story line to a different media altogether isn’t just shifting the emphasis, it’s neglecting a key part of what an intro should do.

The introduction plays a very important role in setting out the themes and tone of what’s to come.  It should wet the player’s appetite for the game world and get them invested in its stories and characters.  In neglecting these duties, the introduction to FFXV feels more like a piece of filler midgame.  The basics of the game are all on display, but there’s nothing to suggest this area couldn’t have been 10 hours later in the game with minor tweaks.  I intend to keep playing, but I can’t help but feel that this isn’t a great start.

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Review – Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV

Please don’t suck.  Please don’t suck.  Please don’t suck.

Square Enix and its previous incarnations don’t have a great track record with movies.  Final Fantasy: Spirits Within and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children are extremely pretty bundles of complete nonsense.  While Square Enix displays some of the finest visual effects in both movies and games, it can’t seem to create a coherent, grounded story.  The developer consistently falls into the trap of deus ex machinas, not explaining key concepts, writing flat characters, and assuming the audience will go along with whatever craziness they put on screen.  Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is the next movie in this failed series, except it shoulders greater responsibility than just being a good movie.  Charged as the opening act for the upcoming Final Fantasy XV game, we must not only ask is the movie any good, but also what it says about the next iteration of this venerable series.

The story begins with a rushed introduction of the war between the Kingdom of Lucius and the Empire of Niflheim.  The evil, technological Niflheim is threatening to overwhelm Lucius and its magic wielding king.  The movie follows Nyx Ulric, a member of the titular Kingsglaive as they repulse Niflheim’s attempts at domination.  Being something of an Achilles heel for the series, I am delighted to say that the story for this movie is fine.  Nyx leads a cast of understandable characters (an achievement, considering the pedigree) whose grounded motivations help overcome Square Enix’s desire to do too much with too little time.  Approaching Kingsglaive as the introduction to the game, the developer crammed in too many concepts without giving them time to develop.  Character motivations and the broader narrative arch jam in new concepts right until the final scene with a desire to brief the future players overcoming the need for a contained movie experience.  It’s frustrating when the setup obscures the movie narrative, but the story beats and characters are strong enough that viewers can follow the broader plot and enjoy the action.

Speaking of action, Kingsglaive excels at it.  One of the opening scenes includes a battle that stands out as one of the greatest CGI fights ever made.  The sense of scale and delightful light show reinforce Square Enix’s reputation as one of the finest purveyors of visuals anywhere.  Square Enix uses the Kingsglaive’s method of transportation, throwing a dagger and teleporting to it, to setup fantastic aerial stunts.  Even without giant war engines and wild spells, the developer manages to imbue its world with a sense of wonder.  The Lucian capital city of Insomnia blends modern technology with a magical twist that turns the mundane into the wonderful.  Kingsglaive is a feast for the eyes and can almost be watched on that basis alone.

Taken as a movie, Kingsglaive is an enjoyable experience.  Better movies certainly exist, but this one is worth the five bucks for an Amazon rental (get the HD).  Taken as an introduction to its video game counterpart, Kingsglaive achieves what it sets out to accomplish.  In showcasing an inviting world of magic and technology, the movie provides a clear hook for players to explore that world through the game.  The background information, largely superfluous for the movie, provides a workable primer for the players.  Even the story’s penchant for doing too much seems less like a flaw given that the considerably longer run time in the video game will give Square Enix time to flesh out the concepts it crammed in to this movie.  The fact that Square Enix didn’t completely bungle the narrative gives me hope that the game will avoid the major narrative pitfalls for which the developer is known.  All told, Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is a decent movie and an excellent lead in to what will hopefully be another success for the video game franchise.

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Opinion – How you start your story

A lesson in storytelling.

Lufia 2 and Final Fantasy 6 may both be JRPGs from the SNES era, but they’re narratively in completely different leagues.  While Lufia 2 satisfies itself with a cookie cutter plot to motivate the player, FF6 builds a rich world with complex and memorable characters.  The contrast is both striking and instructive.  By placing the first hour of each game next to the other, it’s easy to appreciate FF6’s impressive technique and Lufia 2’s minor investment in story.

The opening hour of Lufia 2 has effectively four stories:

  1. Maxim, our hero, learns he will fight something really bad (unexplained)
  2. Tia, Maxim’s friend, holds unreciprocated love for Maxim
  3. The way to the town of Sundletan is blocked by an evil lizard
  4. An evil catfish is causing earthquakes in Sundletan

The opening of Final Fantasy 6 also has four stories:

  1. The mind controlled magic user Terra spearheads an imperial invasion of a town to capture an “Esper” (unexplained)
  2. After regaining control of her mind, the amnesiac Terra escapes with the assistance of Locke and the Returners, an anti-imperial group.
  3. Terra and Locke seek refuge in the castle of Figaro where they meet the womanizing Edward (never thought of him as an Edgar).
  4. Terra learns of Edward’s brother Sabin who fled the kingdom to avoid assuming the throne.

 

It’s easy to see that Lufia 2 isn’t investing for the long game.  While stories 1 and 2 carry throughout the rest of the game, stories 3 and 4 are resolved in about 20 minutes and are never mentioned again.  In those stories, the characters and world aren’t developed and developer Natsume doesn’t mention anything that will be relevant later on.  They are, in short, dead space.  FF6 does things a little differently.  Three of the four stories (1,2, and 3) are relevant later on and the fourth (4) arguably is so as well.  The relationship between Terra, the espers, the Empire, and the Returners remains important throughout huge swaths of the game.  The story refers back to these moments (directly or indirectly) for a long time and they set up one of the major conflicts.  Story 4 arguably does the same, but its limited focus makes it a little less impactful.  Still, the relationship between Edward and Sabin is important for fleshing out two main characters.

The reason FF6’s stories matter and Lufia 2’s don’t is how the stories are integrated into the larger narrative.  Lufia 2’s stories are isolated and so interact very little with any of the other narrative pieces.  They often don’t contribute to character or world building and rarely set up the next event.  Even Lufia 2’s main story threads (1 & 2) avoid each other until pivotal moments.  FF6 takes the opposite approach.  Every minor story contributes to the larger whole.  Stories 1 through 3 establish the empire as an oppressive force which sets up the Returner’s request that Terra join the Returner cause later in the story.  Terra’s interaction with the Esper in the opening sequence lays the groundwork for an important revelation about her character much later in the game.  Every story works within a larger framework to strengthen the characters and world.  This makes each story more meaningful because they mutually reinforce each other.  The player may not care about Terra’s interaction with the Empire, but they could still access that storyline through Edward and Locke.  If the player likes all three characters, than their passion about the Empire story line is that much stronger.  Compare that with Lufia 2.  If the player doesn’t care about Tia, there isn’t another way to access the Maxim love life narrative.  The many links between Final Fantasy 6’s various plots creates opportunities for player investment in a way that Lufia 2’s limit links can’t.

FF6 works because the story constantly invests in itself.  Every element bolsters other elements tieing them together into a cohesive hole.  By comparison, Lufia 2’s story is full of disparate elements that act on their own without adding to the greater narrative.  Not surprisingly, Final Fantasy 6’s story is held up as a classic whereas Lufia 2’s reputation is mostly for its other features.

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Opinion – Talking to an old friend

This is gonna get awkward.

Hi Final Fantasy!  It’s been a while.  I’m so sorry that we’ve lost touch.   How have you been?  Is the whole Final Fantasy XIII franchise concept working out for you?  No?  People keep complaining about bland, unlikable characters and an incomprehensible story line weighed down by three games worth of crazy?  Sorry to hear that!  …not really.  Look, it’s time to be honest with you.  When we stopped being friends, it wasn’t me, it was you.  You changed and everyone noticed.  Our good buddy who had memorable characters, unique worlds, and an epic sense of adventure was lost in a sea of flashy graphics and narrative nonsense.  I see that you’re trying to turn that around.  Final Fantasy Type-O looks amazing and I’m even hopeful for Final Fantasy XV, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Here are a few things you could work on.

Have better friends – Remember Lightening?  How she thought she was so cool because she kept her distance and never betrayed any emotion?  She was no fun.  While her devotion to her sister Serah was great and all, it seemed to be the only complexity to her.  Conversations at the bar were about swords or protecting her family, but what did she do in her off hours?  Oh, and let’s talk about Serah and her very earnest boyfriend Snow.  There’s a reason I don’t hang around 13 year olds in love.  They’re totally obsessed with each other, but have absolutely nothing in common.  Maybe you know why they’re such a great pair, but I could never figure it out.  That actually seems to be a major problem with all of your friends.  They are all about declaring emotions and making grand gestures, but there never seems to be any substance to them.  They’re just words.

Tell better stories – Final Fantasy, I know you’ve got a great imagination, but I really wish you could reign it in now and then.  You’ll start with some story about oppression or nobility and, then midway through, you’ll throw in gods and stupidly random magic powers and act like its okay that you’ve just contradicted yourself 20 times.  Look, I know you want to be interesting.  Everyone does, but the most interesting stories don’t have floating cities or thousand year old sin monsters.  The best stories talk about people and their struggles.  They pull on extraordinary circumstances to show comparatively ordinary emotions.  And they make sense.  Seriously, if I hear one more deus ex machine out of your mouth, we’re only going to meet at the bargain bin.  If you can’t explain your story to a five year old, try again.

Stop treating me like an idiot – You’ve got a lot of fun ideas for some really neat games.  I love how you’re constantly trying to invent new ways to play.  I just wish I didn’t have to sit through 30 hours of handholding to get the whole ruleset.  I also wish you didn’t create very pretty games that have all the user input of Candyland.  I’ve been playing all kinds of games since we were kids, Final Fantasy.  Many of them are much more complicated than yours, yet you’re still acting like we’re five and you won’t play with me because I’m not smart enough.

If I’m to sum up everything I’m saying, Final Fantasy, it’s grow up.  I’ve got so many more friends with incredible depth, unique character, and their own sense of style and interests.  They have grown up with me in a way that you never seemed able to achieve.  I genuinely wish you the best.  I want your new offerings to build on the concepts that everyone else has pushed forward.  I want this, but I look at your most recent games, and I’m not hopeful.

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Opinion – Consistency in a Fictional World

How to not look like your major plot point was pulled out of your ass

You remember when it happens. You’re watching a movie or playing a game about superheroes or wizards and they do something that doesn’t make sense. They reveal a power or bend a rule that seems off with what came before. The incongruence seems odd, if only because the basic plot deals with topics that violate the rules of reality in the first place. The situation raises a basic question: Why does Wolverine shooting lasers from his hands seem wrong when he’s spent his comic history doing equally impossible things like healing major wounds and slashing things with giant metal claws?

The justification for most reality bending aspects of stories is usually flimsy. Consider Bioshock’s plasmids. Yes, the reason everyone can possess machines or set each other on fire is because they drank a tonic that grants these powers. Take the explanation one step back and plasmids make no sense. There is no scientifically justifiable reason that plasmids can grant magic powers. They just do. The same can be said of mutants in the Marvel world or wizards in just about any universe where they exist. The basic underlying principle for all of these concepts is a small justification and, well, because that’s just how it is. These are decisions not made to be consistent with the universe as we know it, but rather to make an interesting world that people will want to hear about.

As flimsy as the justifications are, they are still the basic building blocks of the world that the player/reader/listener/viewer accepts as a barrier to entry. The justifications create a rule that the audience needs to acknowledge if they are going to enjoy the work. When a piece of media establishes a rule in its world, that media is effectively telling its audience that this is an area to suspend disbelief. It is a contract between the creator and the audience where both acknowledge that, to achieve the desired effect, the audience must accept some oddity. This creates a special space where the artist can suspend the rules, but it also creates a limitation. By asking the audience to make exceptions to the current rules, the artist must then stick to those rules or risk undermining the contract. Allowing someone to fly as a result of their genetic code means that they can’t then summon lightening using magic. The rules need to be consistent.

The goal of suspending disbelief is to create flexibility, but the system can buckle under the strain of too many exceptions. The audience must have some grounding in the world to understand the ramifications of actions. Change a few rules, and the audience can still relate to the work as the world still largely resembles their own. Constantly change the rules or change too many of them and the audience feels adrift. It’s hard to understand a world that constantly changes as it is hard to place an action in the appropriate context. If Superman dies and stays dead, then the reader knows this is an event of importance and can react appropriately. If Superman dies and revives, then it’s hard for the reader to take any subsequent death or danger seriously. The writer can really mean for him to die and stay dead in a given issue, but the readers, having seen his death before, don’t know that this time is different.

The new rules can also feel cheap. If the new rules are introduced as answers to a problem that was previously insurmountable, then the answer feels alien to the context of the universe. It raises the possibility that every answer is a miraculous, unknown power that will just happen to show up at the moment it is necessary. As the answer is not woven into the story line, the answer feels like what it is: a way to resolve a problem that the artist couldn’t think out. It would be far better to build the solution into the narrative so the audience knows that it’s there and can accept it as part of the world sometime before the last possible moment.

Perhaps the greatest problem is when a rules change violates the exceptions created before. When the artist asks the audience to make an exception to a rule and then violates it, they are breaking the contract they have made. The audience then disengages with the world because they notice the disagreement with what camp before. It’s a bit like noticing a gun in a game set in medieval times. The end result is something that looks cheap or, in the worst case, doesn’t make sense at all. Consider the end of Final Fantasy XIII. The game sets up an impossible scenario where the player must kill the god that is levitating the city that the player is trying to save. If the god dies, the city comes crashing down. When the player finally defeats the god, one of the party members conjures a crystal tower to hold the city aloft. This power had never been mentioned before and contradicts everything we’ve seen about this characters abilities. No explanation is given. The end result is not a satisfying conclusion, but instead it feels like the player has been robbed of an ending that didn’t need a totally made up power. Final Fantasy XIII asks the player to invest themselves in a world and then undermines it at the last moment.

This is all to say that the rules of a universe, however fantastical, must be handled with care. Don’t ask too much from your audience and don’t expect them to hang in there for every twist you can think of. Think through the necessary changes and work them into the narrative. A well written story will establish all the necessary elements before they are needed. Only by treating the universe with care can an artist convince others to accept it.

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