Conflicts and beats: FFXV vs. Uncharted 4
The first Final Fantasy I played was FFX and it was amazing. I was ready to fall in love with the main female character, Yuna. I knew she was going to die and that my role was to help her achieve that. This was a great conflict that kept evolving: the more I played the more I cared about her, but progressing through the game meant bringing Yuna closer and closer to her death. My actions created a conflict I couldn’t solve. I wanted her to live and the game wanted her to die.
That Final Fantasy game left a lasting impression on me, but I cannot say the same about the recent Final Fantasy game in the series. In my opinion, the conflicts in Final Fantasy 15 are not constructed in the same clear way as in Final Fantasy 10 and the player has less of a part in driving them forward. For most of the game, information is presented and resolved by the game itself, instead of presenting the player with a goal, creating the conflict and making the player progress towards the goal fighting the hardship. This is evident in even smaller structures than the entire story arch such as the opening sequence.
We start with a cut scene — an adult male, identified on the screen as Noctis, and facing a devil-like creature sitting on a throne. By the actions of the NPCs we can assume it is a battle. The player doesn’t get to do much because Noctis is wounded pretty quickly and the NPCs guide him to safety (and by that, establishing the relationship between the four characters — they are there to help Noctis).
Goals are presented but almost immediately resolved by the game itself without the player having to work hard for them or learning something new in the process. In the hellish fight, the goal could have been to survive that battle, the hindering factor could have been how powerful the enemy was, but the battle is resolved by the game and the player doesn’t take part in it. This could have been a good chance to integrate the battle mechanics tutorial (which is currently outside of the game) but it is left as a wasted opportunity.
In the next scene we see a young Noctis being sent on a mission by the king. The following scene presents the hindering factor: Noctis and his friends need to start their journey but the car is broken. The first real action the player does is push a car.
Contrast and conflict are good. That is the basis of every good storytelling. The player morphed from an adult in a hellish battle, to a teen prince getting orders from the king. From hell with no control to a safe place with some form of authority, and from that place of power (being a prince) to pushing a car on the road.
The problem with this type of contrast is that it is very light. The player was never in any state for too long and mostly experienced a lukewarm version of the situation. For example, in order to make the contrast more extreme, the first scene could have taken place in the same hellish battle, but this time all of Noctis’s friends are dying one by one, and it seems that Noctis himself cannot overpower his enemy. Then we would cut to the scene from Noctis’s youth, but this time his departure is celebrated in a large public parade, his friends are around him, well equipped with weapons and armours. From being at the bottom, the next scene could start with Noctis at the top, followed by another scene where Noctis is at the bottom.
“Uncharted 4” did a similar thing to FF15: they both start the game with a battle that takes place later on in the game and therefore its outcomes are left as a cliffhanger. However, unlike FF15, in “Uncharted 4” there is a strong emphasis on making the player an active part in resolving the conflict and reaching the presented goal. That first battle is used in order to guide the player through a tutorial , which creates a more complete experience. The conflicts themselves might not be too extreme, but making the player “work” in order to resolve them makes them more significant.
The first scene starts at the heart of the action: Nathan Drake is on a boat in the middle of the ocean during a storm. There is another unknown character on the same boat, and as other boats appear behind them Nathan screams “they are gaining on us” and the unknown NPC pulls out a gun. One line and one action tell the player that the other boats are not friendly.
During the opening sequence in Uncharted different goals are presented to the player alongside derailing factors. This set of “beats” is what drives the story forward and makes it interesting and engaging. While a similar structure can be spotted in FF15, it is usually resolved for player: The player is in a battle with the goal to leave/win it, they perform one action and the game “helps” them leave the battle by moving to another scene. In “Uncharted 4” the player needs to find her/his way to reach those goals.
First and main goal: getting to the island. It is stated clearly by the NPC: ”just get us to the island”.
hindering factor: the storm.
Resolution: the player learns which button controls the boat and uses that to advance towards the island.
Second goal: again, getting to the island, but now the player knows how to control the boat.
Hindering factor: a ship and some small boats are chasing the player.
Resolution: the player needs to ram the boats and in the process, creates the next problem when Drake falls to the water.
Third goal: getting out of the water.
Hindering factor: an enemy boat approaches.
Resolution: player learns how to dive.
Fourth goal: after finding Drake’s own boat, the boat is not functioning anymore and the goal is protecting the NPC while he fixes it.
Hindering factor: the enemy is shooting at Drake and the NPC.
Resolution: player learns how to shoot.
Fifth goal: getting to the island yet again.
Hindering factor: there are rocks and boats in the way.
Resolution: this is the first time the resolution isn’t in the player’s favor, and it is also the end of the scene as a ship hits Drake’s boat leaving the player with the cliffhanger.
Every one of those beats is a teaching moment for the player and serves the tutorial. In addition, the amount of time spent when the goal is “getting to the island” guarantees the player won’t forget that even if it takes a while before the game comes back to the same scene.
Through the scene the player keeps switching from “being at the top” and controlling the situation to “being at the bottom” and in danger. As I’ve mentioned before, these contrasts and conflicts progress the story and make it interesting. The next scene opens with a contrast as well: unlike the previous scene, we meet a young Nathan who seems to be in a safe place. Although the conflicts the player encounters in the opening sequence are not too extreme, them not being resolved by the game makes them more powerful. If the player doesn’t know what to do the game can’t continue and that adds to their importance.
FF15 has a similar structure to Uncharted, but it isn’t as strong. The player doesn’t stay in any scene for too long and can’t do anything while she/he are there. The tutorial is a separate part of the game and if it is played beforehand, it gives a different impression of what the game is like. This leads to a messy starting scene and no clear motivation for the rest of the game. Uncharted avoids that by giving the player a clear goal that they can understand and makes sure the player works hard in order to try and achieve it in the first few minutes of the game.