I hear a lot of arguments as to why the Final Fantasy series has declined, and most of them don’t make much sense to me. I mean, if you look at Final Fantasy 13, it’s story was really no less crazy than 7’s was. It’s gameplay was dynamic, engaging, and entertaining. While many complain about the linearity… if you really look at it long and hard, the pattern of linearity has been there the whole time. The corridors were just a lot wider in the older ones. The music was unbelievable, easily as good as some of the early Final Fantasy games… so what’s the real problem?
I think we can narrow it down to two issues. For the purposes of this discussion, the MMORPG Final Fantasy games do not exist… as we all wish they didn’t.
Hard to Love Them
Recent Final Fantasy games, starting with Final Fantasy 10-2, stopped having likeable characters. Look back at Final Fantasy 4, 6, and 7 – think about all the characters. You can remember many of them without even thinking hard, right?
We have characters who are just universally lovable like Rydia, Aerith, and Freya. But in addition to these, we also have characters that are less instantly endearing, but over time you grow to understand and like them. Characters like Barret and Cloud, Steiner, Palom and Porom, Sabin… all have rich stories that really play into who they are and make them interesting and likable characters. Even the villains were phenomenal. If you think ‘villain’, you can’t get much more villainous than Kefka, and personalities like Sephiroth, Edea, and Kuja are just dramatically more… well, interesting as villains.
Recently… the characters just aren’t the same. Starting with our new addition to Final Fantasy 10-2, Paine. She’s supposed to be in the same type of character as Cloud – the aloof hero… but she just comes across as cold and awkward. Then the entire Final Fantasy 13 cast was pretty bad. Lightning was the closest character to ‘relatable’ and she was so awkward it just felt wrong. We have Vanille, who is uncharacteristically and almost annoyingly bubbly, Snow who is just so easy to hate, Sazh who feels too stereotypical to really be likable… and don’t get me started on Hope. Please, just let me forget Hope.
It seems like somewhere after Final Fantasy 10 they lost track. They forgot how important the cast is to the success of an RPG, even if you have everything else nailed… somehow having characters like these just takes so much away from everything. Final Fantasy 13’s story, for example, was really not that bad. If you take it as separate from everything else about the game. Sure it’s a bit wacky, and some parts don’t make all that much sense – but that’s how a lot of JRPGs are. Final Fantasy 7’s story was utterly nonsensical, yet was still one of the most engaging stories you could find. Because the characters were there…. and because of the tragedies they were a part of.
Tragedy Defines a Story
And we move on to the other key difference between recent Final Fantasy games and older ones. In the past, Square understood that you don’t always make it through life unscathed. There isn’t always a perfectly happy ending. Characters die. No, I’m not saying that we need Final Fantasy: Game of Thrones where your average main character has a stick rate of 2 minutes. But if you look back at the older Final Fantasy games, they all pivoted on tragedy. I’d like to take a moment to focus on a few specific cases here to highlight exactly what made them so pivotal:
- Final Fantasy 4: Anna and Tellah – Anna’s death was such a sudden, dire moment – the castle was just leveled by the Red Wings. A character you’d never met, and only heard the name of once before. Suddenly she’s dying, but not thinking of herself, no… she wants her father and her beloved to reconcile. You have two characters here, one of whom you’ve met but don’t know well and one you’ve only just met… and you see them both take this tragedy in very realistic and defining ways. Tellah, the father, storms off in utter and pure rage… seeking the power for revenge. Edward, the lover, lost and forlorn without her, unsure if he’s even capable of anything, lapses into depression. Then, later, you have Tellah return, having found the power he sought – the legendary Meteor. Suddenly you’re confronted by the man behind it all – Tellah’s opportunity arises. He uses the power, despite the fact that it consumes him to do so – and he perishes, failing at his task and showing the price of vengeance.
- Final Fantasy 6: Leo – General Leo of the Empire, the military leader of the people you are holding a revolution against. A character you respect, despite the circumstances, for his Honor and Integrity. A noble leader. At a pivotal moment, you’re tricked into trusting the Empire. As things come to a cusp and peace is in sight… the secular leaders of the Empire betray both you and Leo. Leo, striving to end this dishonor, attempts to defeat the insane dictators of the Empire… and is defeated by their stolen magic. A noble death, worthy of a warrior… yet also a truly tragic and sad moment.
- Final Fantasy 7: Aerith – What has been called the most memorable moment in gaming history, Aerith’s death taught gamers to cry. Sudden, unexpected, and in cold blood… Aerith didn’t die fighting the good fight. She didn’t die to serve a purpose… she just died. This tragedy caused many gamers to be unable to pick up the game for weeks after it happened. One of the most moving moments in gaming history… and most importantly… she stayed dead. In the aftermath of this tragedy, the rest of the game was able to take shape. Without this defining moment, it wouldn’t have been much of a story. But thanks to this brilliantly executed death… we have one of the most renowned games that has ever been.
- Final Fantasy 9: Brahne and Kuja – Two characters you spend most of the game hating. Characters who are hunting you down, who delight in tormenting you. Queen Brahne, Garnet’s mother, dies after attempting to take down Kuja after she finds out that he’s played her for a fool. At the moment of her death, she comes back to herself, and you just can’t help but mourn for Garnet, and for the Queen who did such horrible things, but not due to her own nature – due to power’s corrupting influence. Even more surprising was how adeptly they managed to make you feel bad for even Kuja, the puppet who wanted to be more than a puppet. In that final scene, when Zidane went back for him… I cried. It was moving, it was touching, and it was horrible. Kuja, despite being evil… was mourned.
- Final Fantasy 10: Tidus – The ending sequence of Final Fantasy 10 was so moving, so touching, so terribly tragic that it actually prompted me to play the game. I was linked the end scene before I’d played the game, and upon seeing it… I had to know what led to that. Victory, you’re safe! Successful, the couple finally can be together – what they’ve fought so hard for…. and then Tidus just disappears, no longer a part of this world? And the ‘victory’ speech Yuna gave just absolutely wrenched my heart. This was one of the best endings in video game history… because it combined hope and tragedy in such a fantastic way.
Let’s contrast that with the events of the games since then…
- Final Fantasy 10-2: Tidus… not gone after all? Okay, fine, I get it, people wanted them to be together. But that’s not REALLY what they wanted. People begged for Aerith to return, yet you didn’t give them that… because back in those days you understood that the permanence of loss is what makes it impactful. Tidus coming back at the end of 10-2 as a ‘reward’ for Yuna… is such a cop out.
- Final Fantasy 12: I honestly can’t think of a single moment in 12 that I really felt genuinely unsettled. The game had its ups and downs… but the characters never really had much of an impact on me, so it was hard to feel bad for them.
- Final Fantasy 13: Okay, so there’s the mother. Probably the best character in the series. Too bad Hope ruined any hope of actually feeling it was a tragedy… if anything, it was fortunate for her to get away from him. Dying must’ve been a relief after dealing with Hope all his life.
- Final Fantasy 13-2: The biggest joke of all. The ending. Serah dying… but not in a way that makes any sense… she just, keels over and the universe unravels. This was just silly. Absolutely and utterly silly. Meaningless, not even tragic… just sort of confusing.
The Heart of the Issue
The truth of the matter is that the games aren’t bad games. Final Fantasy 13 still has a lot of the elements that made Final Fantasy great… but the older Final Fantasy games were so fantastic, so utterly genre-defining that it’s easy to feel that things are slipping. Recently Square-Enix has lost touch with the importance of characters. Their importance in making sure a good story actually feels as good as it is, and just as crucial the role tragedy has in ensuring a story has interest.
If you really look at it impartially, Final Fantasy 10-2, 12, and 13 had a lot of really fantastic elements. Each one had a unique combat style, gradually moving more towards the action side but still retaining the core final fantasy style. Each had unbelievable music. Each had generation-defining graphics. The problems came down to the character designs. And I think that’s why people were so hoping for Final Fantasy Vs 13 – the two characters there had the potential to be the ones to bring us back to the old days. The little we knew of them felt like they were throwbacks to the classic character design.