Final Fantasy XV’s story feels like wasted potential

Final Fantasy XV is, for many reasons, a breaking point in a beloved game series which enchanted millions around the world. It had so much narrative potential; here, I’ll explain how it fell short of its promises.

Anthony Wolf

Note: This story will contain SPOILERS!

If you are a fan of its parent JRPG series, you’ve probably bought Final Fantasy XV as soon as it was finally released on the market. After ten years of dragged development and hopeful anticipation.

Some of us loved it—others, not so much. Intuitively enough, I am among the ones who have something to say; despite its unquestionable artistic beauty, the latest entry in the main Final Fantasy series is a painful example of mediocre writing.

Briefly put, Final Fantasy XV is a bittersweet case of wasted potential. But why?

Just like my recent story on NieR: Automata, this reflection may come a little late for the conventionally lightning-fast times of the Internet. But I hope it can still find its own purpose and feel like a nice read to someone out there.

Final Fantasy XV: Art & Video Game Writing

Let me get this straight: Final Fantasy XV may have its flaws, but it is a sweet melody to the eyes and a joy for the senses — on occasions. I’m not here to question its artistic beauty, the care behind the soundtrack’s composition, or its environmental design. This picture alone should speak for that.

The game‘s biggest problem doesn’t lie in art design, and even gameplay-wise the experience can be enjoyable. Simply put, Final Fantasy XV fails to deliver interesting characters within a complex plot. It lacks coherency from the get go, leading its characters to make questionable choices (such as making too much noise around Eos, despite the need to hide from the Empire).

The foursome never stops to question Ardyn’s motives, and yet is surprised when he reveals his true nature of backstabbing hypocrite, as if we players couldn’t see it coming from the start. Two mere examples in a plethora of other, similarly embarrassing and illogical situations.

Yet, the story shows good potential towards the end, when it unleashes a tiny fragment of its beauty in the last two chapters. The post-Crystal world shows stunning, conscious apocalyptic design, although the whole story behind it is not explained nor told the way it should be. Even the ending itself is a heartwarming epilogue for Prince Noctis, legitimate heir of Lucis.

The idea behind the whole plot was grand enough to lead to an epic tale. What Final Fantasy XV is truly lacking is coherent, well-planned and well-designed character development.

Prince Who of What?

Good stories stimulate thought—great stories pull your heart’s strings with unforgettable characters. All Final Fantasy XV needed was better care on the characters’ side.

Noctis is meant to act like an immature prince, slowly reaching out to his true nature of wise ruler. Yet, his evolution doesn’t start until the end of Chapter 13, when he suddenly (too suddenly) becomes the opposite of what he had been before. Overall, his growth willingly ignores a coherent character evolution, skipping several phases which would have otherwise made him one of the most interesting and mature heroes in the history of Final Fantasy.

As for Gladio, Prompto and Ignis, the three of them are less than a shade of a flat sidekick for most of the game, with a spark of good writing on Ignis’ side toward the end of the adventure. Gladio’s intent to push Noctis forward becomes plain annoying, and Prompto… Well, do I really need to talk about Prompto?

I know, he was meant to be the joker of the group. Perhaps they just overdid it a bit.

Overall, the game fails to deliver solid backstory for all of his protagonists: all the characters involved are sheer avatars on screen, and, as a result, players can struggle to empathise with them. The same happens with Lunafreya, who fades away before we can love her enough to care; the game later delivers a long sequence of flashbacks meant to shed light on her relationship with Noctis, but it is (quite literally) too late. As fascinating as they might have been, these scenes are delivered too late, or at the wrong time to actually mean something for the player.

For most of the plot, we are just asked to blindly follow Noctis and his friends across their journey, knowing little to nothing of their motivations, their background, or their most inner wishes, needs and desires. It is true that there is an expanded universe behind Final Fantasy XV, built on the movie Kingsglaive, a comic book, a manga and more—yet, the game fails to integrate them with its story, assuming all players have followed the expanded universe on their own and have a clear idea of the world they’re exploring.

And Ardyn? Ardyn is a fascinating villain with a powerful past, possibly one of the most interesting characters in the game. However, he is as flat as the rest of the plot; a figure whose significance we can only graze during the course of our adventure, and whose most inner fears, desires, weaknesses and needs we are not allowed to explore in depth.

(Non)Interactive Narrative

I must say that I believe video games are not entirely about stories—although they increasingly enjoy telling them in unexpected and mature ways. But they can be about how our in-game actions intertwine with that story, and how we can potentially influence the outcome, if given the choice. So, I can totally understand players who wouldn’t bother about Final Fantasy XV’s plotholes, or about its poor writing.

The problem, here, is that Final Fantasy XV is not even a well-designed interactive story.

The player has almost no power in the way events unfold, and every apparent ‘choice’ is ultimately pointless to him — even to the characters involved. It doesn’t matter how you decide to reply to Luna’s messages in Umbra’s journal; the outcome will always be the same. The player has no way of influencing the story itself, and, instead, is tricked into making choices which will have no meaning over the overall experience. One exception applies: the dialogue with the Prime Minister of Altissia, shedding a faint light on the potential of what the whole experience could have been.

There’s nothing wrong in leading a player by their hand — the recent God of War does it, and in a surprisingly brilliant way. However, in Final Fantasy XV, the developers willingly decided to give players dialogue choices with Noctis; most of which will just trigger a different line or dialogue, and nothing more than that. There is no karma variable, no relationship with Luna, Gladio, Ignis or Prompto, no indicator on screen that suggests an evolving connection with any of the main characters.

Final Fantasy XV gives you an illusion of power, this way restricting its potential interactivity and immersiveness to mere action-RPG gameplay mechanics.

It needn’t be different, however: a video game doesn’t need to have branching narrative or interactive plot-choices, to feel consistent or compelling. If it gives a chance to ‘roleplay’ the main character, however, I do expect a certain degree of control over the story at hand — even just the bare minimum.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt — Or: how to craft an amazing interactive story.

As we approach the end of the story, we realise that Final Fantasy XV’s ambition was the cause of its mediocrity. There was certainly a great concept behind the whole story — but it wasn’t pursued until the very end, due perhaps to poor planning or lack of physical time.

And it is with shredded heart that I say all this. Because Final Fantasy is easily one of my favorite video game series of all time.


Originally published at http://anthonywolfwriter.com on August 12, 2018.

Anthony Wolf

Written by

Writer, screenwriter and game writer in London. Gamer, cinephile, hopeless romantic, Disney fanatic. On Medium, I talk about game writing, films & storytelling.

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