A Strained Relationship
For the first time in forever, I decided to take a risk this week and purchase the new Final Fantasy XV (that’s 15 for those of you who get muddled with Roman Numerals like myself).
Final Fantasy and I, we’ve had a strained relationship for years. I remember as a kid, I must have been like ten years old, playing my very first Final Fantasy Game, FF9 to be exact, and being absolutely wowed by the magical world of sky pirates, dark mages and evil monsters. It was perhaps my first ever experience with JRPGs or in fact, any form of media from Japan, and it completely threw me via it’s fantastic storytelling.
There was only one problem – the turn based fighting. I was no good at it. I’ve never had a particularly strategic approach to video game combat, I’m that dude that goes in, hacks and slashes and asks questions later. So being forced to take TURNS in combat was infuriating to me. I also was not a fan of the random encounter aspect, I’d be running along, exploring the world when the screen would shatter suddenly and I’d just about shit myself in fright.
Anyway, over the years, I tried to play a few of the titles in the franchise, but to no avail. And, many purists would be disgusted to hear, that I thought Final Fantasy 7 was an abysmally boring piece of trash (although in fairness, I probably didn’t stick to it as long as I could have). The turn-based fighting kept blocking me from enjoying the games. I decided that I wouldn’t play another Final Fantasy game until they replaced that stupid turn-based combat with something real time.
And then in 2002 Kingdom Hearts 1 was released and made its way into my hands on my thirteenth birthday. I was apprehensive at first – I mean, as already stated, I’d decided to steer clear of Final Fantasy, and Disney Characters? Really? I wasn’t a kid anymore. Yet, I gave the game a go, and was enchanted by its story and characters. I even went as far as to tattoo the protagonist – Sora on my leg in a botched home-job during my teen years, that’s how much I loved the Kingdom Hearts franchise.
It made me reconsider my stance on Final Fantasy, so when Final Fantasy 11 came out and everyone excitedly announced to me that they’d removed turn-based combat, I hired the game out to give it a go. I was disappointed to see that they HADN’T removed turn based combat. Rather, they’d made turn based combat look like it was real time, but truthfully, you still had turns and strategy was a major component of battle.
And that was it for me, I was done. Until this week when I heard wind once again, that the series had FINALLY gotten rid of turn-based fighting, and on a whim I figured, as the narrative designer for a fairly major MMORPG, I should probably know what’s going on in the world of Fantasy gaming a bit more.
Final Fantasy XV And Transmedia Storytelling
Shortly after starting the game, I discovered that FF15 was, in fact, a transmedia franchise. If you know me, or if you’ve read a bit of my stuff before, you will know that I am, in addition to being a narrative designer, a transmedia storyteller – or at least, that’s what’s on my business cards. So hearing that Final Fantasy had attempted transmedia, I had to check it out.
For those of you don’t know, Transmedia is a fledgling approach to storytelling that recently has begun to make waves in the entertainment industry. Essentially, it is about creating an initial “Story world” from which writers can build many different smaller – but equally important – stories, and spread them across multiple media platforms to maximize profit and storytelling capabilities. Transmedia does NOT typically include direct sequels or prequels, nor does it include adaptations, rather, it’s a collection of individual stories that are equal in importance within the franchise. To be considered a transmedia property, the story world has to have at least three properties across multiple medias.
In the case of Final Fantasy XV, we have, most obviously the game Final Fantasy XV. We also have an anime series Final Fantasy XV: Brotherhood and then a CGI film Final Fantasy XV: Kingsglaive. What I want to do in this article is talk about each edition to the FF15 franchise individually, explain what works, and what doesn’t as well as why this is an exciting piece of storytelling for the future.
Let me say two things up front: First – there will be spoilers, so only read ahead if you’re okay with that. Secondly: I have made a point to call this series a “Flawed Transmedia Masterpiece”, this is because, although it gets many things right, the TM franchise seems to still be operating under the old principle in which one title is more important than the others – in this case, the game is the center piece. In Transmedia, you will have an “entry” title, but it is by no means the “main” title.
So let’s begin.
Final Fantasy XV – The Game
I figured we may as well begin with the entry title. Final Fantasy XV is a Playstation 4 game that follows four friends as they road trip across an Americanized fantasy landscape on a quest to overthrow an evil empire. The protagonist is Prince Noctis, the son of the defeated and murdered King Regis from the kingdom of Insomnia.
I was very pleased to discover that the combat system is indeed real time, and the complicated leveling up systems of past Final Fantasy titles had been removed. The story seemed strangely simplistic for a Final Fantasy title, which is actually a good thing, as simple doesn’t necessarily mean bad.
The game’s major success is the relationship between the four main characters – something I will go into more detail later on – but, our central protagonists are truly a joy to watch as they bromance it up on their little road trip, saving people, hunting things, the family business…. Wait, no that’s a different franchise.
There are however some fairly large issues I had with the game. Issues that if it were any other game, perhaps one that didn’t have an almost thirty-year history, would be totally unacceptable in today’s gaming market. Take the unruly camera for example. It is incredibly easy while playing this game to lose sight of your character mid-battle because the camera has swung around and hidden him behind a rock face or some trees. I haven’t seen a camera this bad since the early 2000s, and honestly wasn’t aware that that issue existed anymore.
There’s also a few moments of really bad pacing around major plot events. The big one being, the moment that Noctis’ kingdom falls to the Niflheim Empire. This is, partly due to the events that lead up to that fall being shown mostly in the Kingsglave movie, and if you haven’t watched that first, you’re kinda left going, what the fuck is happening?
Saving, the worst for last, my biggest problem with the game is that it plays out as if it is what Japanese people imagine America to be like. It’s almost as if none of the writers have ever even been to America. It’s all cartoonish clichés and thick southern drawls.
Too many times have I heard an NPC cry “Y’all come back now y’hear!” or ask you to “take care of them varmints.” And honestly, what is up with the soundtrack? It jumps between the beautifully epic orchestral music FF is known for, and country twang bluegrass! At times I had to remind myself I was playing a Final Fantasy game and not something like… Farmville.
Now, full disclosure, I have yet to actually finish the game, so I can’t speak for anything more than the first 6 chapters I have played through. I will say that I am quite enjoying the game, but there are definitely some cringe factors, which I suppose are pretty staple for J-RPGS when I consider all the awkward laughter moments in every anime ever.
Overall, Final Fantasy XV is an enjoyable game, but not without its flaws which unfortunately are plentiful. It does however set the stage for the larger storyworld, and it is to be commended on that.
Final Fantasy XV: Brotherhood
Moving on, let’s look at Final Fantasy XV: Brotherhood an anime series that, as I understand it, was released for free online. The series is compiled of five episodes varying in length between ten minutes and fifteen. It is set during the first few chapters of the game and follows Prince Noctis and his friends on their road trip. Although it is still technically the same story as the game, I feel it classifies as a transmedia story because it fills in what would be in the game just a few hours of non-story-related game play, with integral information to the world’s overall lore.
As our heroes travel across the landscape, they avoid the Empire’s soldiers, who are hunting them down (this takes place after the fall of Insomnia). While on their journey, we the audience are treated episode by episode to essentially flashbacks, detailing the backstories of each of the main characters and their relationship to the protagonist Prince Noctis.
This was a very enjoyable little series, and greatly enhanced my understanding of the character dynamics in the game. It really goes a long way to explain the emotional connections these men have to one another, all of them basically being lifelong friends. This added history, really lends itself to the game and allows you to emotionally connect with the characters in a way that I don’t believe would be possible if you were just playing the game on its own. We also learn a bit about the backstory between Prince Noctis and his bride to be – Princess Lunafreya, as well as Noctis’ childhood and the death of his mother at a pretty terrifying snake-lady demon.
It is an anime however, so be warned, it’s quite melodramatic, at times cheesy and over the top in regards to the voice acting, but still it did a great job at triggering the big crybaby in me, and although I didn’t cry, I definitely felt a lump in my throat a few times near the end.
Brotherhood I would say is possibly better than the entry title, if not for the fact that it is a limited short series, and obviously doesn’t allow you the same kind of escapism or empowerment that the game does.
Final Fantasy XV: Kingsglaive
Lastly we have the CGI movie Final Fantasy XV: Kingsglaive. Now, let’s preface this by saying, Kingsglaive has NOT been well received by critics in any shape or form. It currently holds a 13% one star rating on Rotten Tomatoes.com, and is mostly criticized for its convoluted and confusing plot, as well as bad script.
With that in mind, I have to say, I absolutely loved the movie and can’t for the life of me figure out why everyone else hates it. I mean, it’s moments like these where I wonder if I perhaps have no taste when it comes to movies ( a scary thought when you also consider yourself a screenwriter!).
Many people have referred to this film as an “extended cutscene.” But it’s much more than that. It boasts the talent of Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) as well as Sean Bean and Lena Headey (both from Game of Thrones), who are all really good with their voice acting. The CGI is also hands down amazing! The film is a beautiful spectacle of fantasy tropes and epic action sequences. Perhaps, you could be critical of it if you went in expecting something new to the fantasy genre, but why would you expect that of a series that has made a point to stick to the tried and true clichés of evil emperors, dark mages, lovable rogues, chosen ones and beautiful Princesses?
The film is both an engaging action movie as well as a loving tribute to the clichés of the fantasy genre. It follows the Kingsglaive – an elite force of warriors who draw from the magical powers of King Lucis to defend Insomnia against the Empire’s evil threat. With this film, we step away from the action of the game – Prince Noctis only making a small appearance as a twelve-year-old boy at the start – to follow Nyx Ulric, a heroic Kingsglaive soldier as he tries to save Insomnia from an insidious attack by Emperor Ledolas Eldercap.
What I really loved about Kingsglaive is that it steered away from the cheeseball factor that both the game and the anime series had and went for a darker grittier approach. Having two iconic actors from Game of Thrones also works in their advantage as they are able to pull some pretty dark plot twists on the audience in the same vein as the HBO series.
I didn’t think that the film’s plot was convoluted or confusing at all, rather I found it easy to follow, and incredibly helpful in understanding the game as it sets up and deals with all the political intrigue that overshadows the game’s story.
Although I did love this film, it does also have its down points. There were moments of action, where if I looked away for any longer than a couple of seconds and turned back, it was confusing to see what was going on. One such point was during the climactic end battle, I glanced at my phone to check a text message, and upon looking back up found myself watching a giant iron-god being fighting an equally giant demon through the city of Insomnia. I’m still not sure where the Iron Giant came from, but I’m pretty sure it was kind of like a giant puppet version of Nyx and the demon the same but of the big villain Glauca.
Over all though, that was a minor issue compared to the sheer spectacle of the film.
Final Fantasy // Final Thoughts
And that’s it. The three stories in the FF15 Transmedia Franchise. Each I would recommend and are definitely enjoyable in their own way, if you are able to look past their flaws. I think the major problem with this series is that as I said at the beginning, it is still thinking in terms of a “main title” and “secondary titles”. I believe Kingsglaive in particular could have been a truly amazing film, one that could have made big bucks and wowed movie-goers, if it had been treated with the same level of importance as the game was. Final Fantasy XV is, regardless, an important piece of modern day pop-culture as it has attempted a very new approach that not many storytellers have attempted thus far. We have to remember that Transmedia is still in its infancy, there will be mistakes and accidents as we learn the best way to approach this new form. But if we continue to push on, there is great merit in this style, not only for writers, directors, producers, actors and designers, but also for our audiences who are always craving more from their favorite storyworlds.