Final Fantasy XIII is a slow burn. It takes about four hours for the story to really get going, and then it stalls. At hour three the cast is branded as l’Cie and must run from the government. By hour 24 they’re still running. I didn’t notice this lack of plot progression as I was playing, only when I went back to the game after setting it aside for a month. Only then did I realize how little the plot had changed over all those hours, and I think the reason I didn’t notice that pause in plot is because during that time the characters were being developed instead.
Those first four hours of the game are the most plot heavy simply out of necessity as the story must introduce its central conflict, but even then it takes a whopping four hours to introduce that conflict because the story keeps getting distracted by the characters. We’re introduced to them, their friends, and the relationships that will come to define them over the next several hours. Once the main cast goes on the lam and splits up, the game focuses exclusively on those relationships.
I’ve written before about how splitting up the party helps develop the characters (“Party Division as Character Development in Final Fantasy XIII”, PopMatters, 16 July 2010); where they choose to run to and who they choose to run away with says a lot about who they are, and the game takes its time exploring this idea. We jump from group to group as they run, but at no point does the government ever catch up to them, it’s not until hour 20 that two groups meet and finally have a showdown with the police. Every bit of story before that revolves around the characters’ back stories: We learn about Sazh’s relationship with his son, Fang’s surprising connection with Vanille, Vanille’s own troubled past and current countdown to death, Snow’s marriage, Lightning’s relationship with her sister, and finally Hope’s anger over his mother’s death and indifferent relationship with his father. We learn a lot about these people even if nothing is happening around them, and in these moments the game manages to create a sense of forwards momentum because we see a wide range of environments as we jump from group to group. Something as simple as changing scenery creates a false sense of plot progression.
Of course, all this character development is delivered through cut scenes, not gameplay (save for the one moment I wrote about in a previous post: “Combat Mechanics as Character Development in Final Fantasy XIII”, PopMatters, 03 September 2010) so Final Fantasy XIII is not exactly a game that takes advantage of its medium. But could a character-driven story be told any other way? Games are about action, not “action” as in car chases and explosions, but “action” as in just doing something. In games we interact with the virtual world, so the story must encourage that interaction. Most games are plot-driven because that means something is always happening to the player and we can react, whereas a character-driven story will naturally demand less interaction from the player. Introspection doesn’t make for good gameplay.
Final Fantasy XIII shows us that games can tell character-driven stories, just not though gameplay alone. We only interact with the world through combat, so cut scenes are necessary for those moments of introspective dialogue. It’s been fascinating to play through levels with no clear objectives; I run forwards because there’s nowhere else to go, but if I had an open world I’d be just as lost as the characters. In that regard it makes sense that the levels are so linear. Cut scenes and linear levels are the easiest way to tell this story, but is there another way? Can a game tell a character-driven story without sacrificing the plot? Can a game tell a character-driven through gameplay alone? Final Fantasy XIII can’t, but at least it tried.