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If memory serves, one of the reasons Final Fantasy XIII saw poor critical reception was because of the design shift in how it presented the fictional world—in this case, of Cocoon.
Previous Final Fantasies had towns and people, a huge attraction of the games, ‘towns and people’ meaning expanded areas of the environment representing the bustle of the everyday life of everyday characters. You could tell a lot by each area by contrasting one settlement against another. Wall Market in Midgar’s slums is dense, haphazard and cluttered with scrap and debris, while the expensive high street of militarized Junon is prim and staid, its shops lined like soldiers to receive the coastal wall.
By this you get a sense of each place. It earths you, relates to you, since what each place has to say about itself stands out in some way in the context of the plot and story structure. Wall Market is home, Junon is benignly hostile to victims of the classist society, Cosmo Canyon is the spiritual centre of humanity, Wutai is foreign to your expectations of normalcy but also foreign to Shin-Ra. Final Fantasy VII presents the world in a relatable way, fastening your conviction to preserve it from the antagonist’s overarching destruction.
To take that away in Final Fantasy XIII, oh it’s a shock. You lose so much of what constitutes the life of the world, the quiet moments of downtime that make it all worth fighting for. No longer can you kick off your shoes after hiking halfway across the country and take in the scenery. No option to book a room at the inn, visit shops and comparing prices, scour houses and alleyways for useful trinkets, plod the streets just to kick up the dirt.
Instead, for FFXIII, towns remain unvisited, their utility encompassed by menu surfing at savepoints—online shopping for your convenience, abstracted and sanitized, at the same time dehumanizing the experience. Dealing you with goods in turn for money, depriving you of the social space in exchange for the minutes it takes to wander from shop to shop, perhaps being forced to talk to somebody.
As it turns out, people quite enjoy socializing in a videogame, especially when it’s with a large number of two-bit NPCs over a very long period of time. Well, the whole towns and people thing is only dressing to put us in a certain frame of mind, after all. Nobody’s fooled by it, but it’s nice to see when we’re appeased like that, nice to be understood and charmed. This design is, in essence, recognition of our desire to be romanced by this gameworld, to maybe feel like we could belong in it, simultaneously consoling and empowering.
Against this, Cocoon feels empty and bleak. Lonely. To be denied of something we’ve come to expect from so many years of Final Fantasies, our love of which we have made no effort to conceal, is a downright shunning. No wonder fans were irate.
On the other hand, it is not a secret that these shrinking feelings were substantiated within FFXIII’s plot. Like most FFs since the late 90’s, the player takes the role of a small band of insurgents, although this time their plight exceeded precedent. What was needed to maintain narrative integrity, and what FFXIII delivered, was straying from conventional Final Fantasy world design.
For many fans of the series, it was mainly Final Fantasies VII through X, the games of their youth, which instructed their experience of what makes the heart of a Final Fantasy and cast their expectations to be sorely unmet by the series’ 2010 instalment. To contextualize the role of each game’s party of heroes within the gameworld, let’s recap on that history:
In Final Fantasy VII you are eco-terrorists/freedom fighters against the Shin-Ra Electric Power Company, a monolith basically governing the majority of humanity. Through appropriation and exploitation of its citizens, Shin-Ra’s capitalist nature has lead to economic dependency of the world, so nearly all of the towns you visit are in various stages of its thrall. People are largely aware of its parasitic nature and that their wellbeing is contingent on that of the Company, so regard Shin-Ra with either distain or the adoration of a Stockholm syndrome victim. The protagonist party, as a group of incognito eco-terrorists, see their role as perceived with gratitude or annoyance depending on the prosperity of a town by virtue of Shin-Ra’s current investment in it.
In Final Fantasy VIII you are mercenaries from Balamb Garden, a private military company, commissioned and soon embedded in an international conflict with Galbadia Garden, a rival PMC. The short version is the nation of Galbadia is being manipulated by a sorceress who wants to rule over all of time, but to the majority of people in the world, the front is that Galbadia Garden’s escalating aggression and its nation’s worrying political direction are matters of public concern. In light of this, Balamb Garden is seen as the counter-force, as well as an underdog compared to the Galbadian superpower, so many people act kindly towards you, if a little detached from the severity of the global situation.
In Final Fantasy IX, you present as a charming band of thieves but in truth are an impromptu task force ordered by the regent of Lindblum to interfere with neighbouring kingdom Alexandria’s plans for domination. Amid your party is the beloved Alexandrian princess, Garnet, while main character Zidane has social in-roads in the majority of the known continent’s cities and towns, so you are generally well received wherever you go. Alexandria’s military might and cruelty leads to shock in all who witness it; although Alexandrian forces end up occupying Lindblum, their horror and frustration sides the average citizen with you. By the time Garnet steps up to rule her kingdom, the mastermind behind the whole war cows Alexandria, making it a peer of what remains of its neighbours.
Final Fantasy X is less pertinent since your party members are publically stationed as heroes and celebrities. Unlike the other games, the antagonizing force here does not complicate the social space for the party or offer any condition of class warfare. It’s a cosmic danger, not a social one: you don’t need to worry about getting dobbed in by anyone. Every single person you meet is on your side in your quest.
In Final Fantasy XIII, your situation is more extreme than the former three. Again, there is a militarizing superpower waging war on a peaceable land—Gran Pulse and Cocoon, respectively. In this case, however, Pulse attacks Cocoon by converting the latter’s citizens into weapons to use against it. Cocoon is seen as the defender in this ongoing war, while Pulse is enormously threatening, mysterious in purpose and agency, subversive, corrupting.
The characters you play—Lightning, Hope, Sazh, et al—are zapped at the very beginning and imbued with this purpose. Suddenly they find themselves labelled as public enemies, outcast by their own society. So, hounded by Cocoon police forces, your party of fugitives is channelled ever forwards, perpetually unable to stop and rest or to blend into a crowd, given how their faces have been plastered on every TV in every city.
Unlike Shin-Ra, Galbadia and Alexandria, however, Cocoon is not the dominant military power in this war. It is very much the underdog, or at least it’s presented as the underdog—you have no ground to view it otherwise given how your lense into the world is that of a group of Cocoon-born and bred individuals. In this context, your party of heroes are the unwitting instigators of aggression, and Cocoon’s reaction reads as justified self-defense. So deep in enemy lines, Lightning and company find very few allies so very few social opportunities to chat with your average bloke on the street. A condition spared Cloud’s, Squall’s and Zidane’s quests.
Looking inward to the emotional state of your party finds they have little to be charmed about. They have been made into soldiers in a war to destroy everything they’ve ever known. Their own world has turned against them. They are betrayed and shunned, victims of social ostracization, objectified in a conflict between deities. The narrative of loneliness and detachment coming from the unavailability of people and towns is appropriate design given how it complements the experiences of your protagonists.
In this light, the further complaint that the game only opens up after leaving Cocoon and arriving on Gran Pulse is an additional boon.
The same design reappears in a similar form in Mass Effect 3, where again it was targeted as a common point against the game. Long accustomed to Shepard’s bopping across the galaxy to visit cities and get acquainted with their inhabitants, fans were annoyed by the reduction of available cities to the one option, the Citadel, which the plot has narratively switched to become the hub of sentient resistance and sanctuary against the warring Reapers.
Locations around the rest of the galaxy are instead dedicated to furthering the story through engaging in terrestrial battle against the reapers and communing with diplomats to wrangle support for the war effort, the latter of which largely depicted though cutscenes, meaning the player hasn’t the ludonarrative option to enjoy the areas as downtime and cannot return afterwards.
Cruising through space now means hopping from one skirmish to another, one story-beat to another, with little to fill time in between. You can still approach planets and scan them for ore and optional key items, but you can’t land on them to sink your feet in or kick around some dust, like we enjoyed doing before. On the most part they become less like places and more like objects in space, abstracted notions of planets with an accompanying information card, that sometimes reward you with goodies for pressing buttons at them from orbit.
The universe feels emptier for it.
Coinciding with this thinning of outer space, the inner space of the Citadel has changed, too. As Shepard, the player can walk around various sectors of the complex, its shops and nightclub and refugee camp, as well as check up on party members during their shore leave. Unlike Final Fantasy XIII, you do get one city to spend some downtime.
But other than the few specific supporting cast members, you don’t have much of an opportunity to talk to the Citadel’s inhabitants. On the most part, the ambient chatter of the city is filled by autonomous dialogue between groups of two or three NPCs, each having their own discussion on how the war has affected their lives. As Shepard approaches within earshot, their voices chime into their respective string of conversation to serve as the life of the Citadel while providing some ancillary worldbuilding about some social or cultural affair.
Let the record show that much of this dialogue is actually quite interesting and endears you to these bit characters and their placement within the world. A couple of examples stand out: there’s the citadel guard befriending a newly orphaned teenage refugee, still waiting for her parents to reach port. And there’s the elderly lady with Alzheimer’s frequently mistaking an embassy clerk for the girlfriend of her missing son. Significant in my mind is the Asari trooper suffering from survivor’s guilt, regaling her Reaper encounter to her therapist.
Aside from eavesdropping, you can interact with many of these characters only once, by sharing with them some item or information crucial to their topic of conversation (a soldier’s dogtags, an irreplacable religious artefact, etc.) that concludes their dialogue cycle. In the case of the traumatised Asari soldier, you can use Shepard’s status as a Spectre to officially entitle her to a firearm, since she keeps asking her therapist for access to a gun just for the comfort of having it. Allowing her one results in her suicide.
Although Shepard has this route inwards to connect with people, the manner by which it plays out comes across slightly jarring. Rather than seeming like a ‘true’ quest as in these sort of RPGs, the kind of yolk where you go somewhere to complete the objective before returning to your quest-giver, retrieval of the key item or information typically occurs accidentally in the general course of Shepard’s space exploits, by scanning around planet clusters or examining points of interest in the field, and in both cases clicking ‘ok’ at whatever you find. The items themselves appear as nothing more than information cards, flat and hollow, literally stock images for whatever they represent. Perhaps they mean the world to some NPC but to the player-as-Shepard they’re hollow knickknacks.
This links in with the way the game presents your relation to the NPC population of the Citadel, again contrasted against fan expectations built from the previous games.
Eavesdropping being the majority of your interaction with characters in an area, Shepard cannot communicate with characters except to present them with the profits of her self-imposed errand. Other than that you can’t even communicate with people, you can only witness them communicating with one another. All throughout these conversations, the camera remains fixed to its normal in-game position, as opposed to the excited camera work of cutscenes and conversations of greater comparative importance, giving a slight aura of aesthetic distance and disinterest to Shepard’s exchanges with the people of the Citadel.
Note that the sudden departure from dialogue as a mechanical interaction, shifting instead to autonomous NPC conversations, and the framing of this via unperturbed cinematography is the exact same dialogue/relation design as the few Cocoon civilians you pass by while on the lam in Final Fantasy XIII, minus the perfunctory sidequests.
It’s a removal from the lives of these people, from the entirety of sentient life in the galaxy, appropriate to Shepard’s spiritual isolation as ‘humanity’s savior’, as everyone keeps telling her. We can see the rising stress of this role over the course of the story as she becomes more and more detached from those around her, more conscious of perceptions of herself as an icon, a military asset, and not as a person.
At the same time, Shepard is being edged towards the centre of the worlds of those with whom she has her most intimate relationships. You can talk to your crewmates, gratefully, but they themselves seldom talk to one another other of their own accord, so the Normandy never quite feels like a team, unlike Mass Effect 2. It creates a sense of discord where everyone seems to be putting on a brave face and acting normal only for your sake, to avoid troubling you and risk agitating Humanity’s Last Hope. Though you may be surrounded by support for the mission and boundless well-wishing, realising your companions are compartmentalized and isolated on the Normandy, that their camaraderie is a facade, breathes into you a grave air of loneliness, which binds perfect with Shepard’s narrative arc.
Although these aspects of Final Fantasy XIII and Mass Effect 3 are often counted against the games, I consider them a triumph of narrative design.