Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
The director of Final Fantasy XV has said in an interview that the first half of the game is open-world, while the second half is linear. At this point, anything they could possibly say that shows that the game is getting closer to release is good news. But Square Enix is practically the pioneer of the linear-start-open-end style, and they’ve stuck to it from Chrono Trigger to Final Fantasy XIII. What are they hoping to achieve by flipping the conventional JRPG structure on its head?
Japanese VS Western Design
Most western RPGs already use a open-start-linear-late approach, although in a slightly roundabout way. You’re incentivized to do plenty of side quests and exploration before making progress in the main storyline. Even though the player isn’t explicitly forced to stick to the open world, designers have plenty of tricks up their sleeves to nudge players in that direction.
Some of the earliest missions you’ll have in The Witcher 3 or Deus Ex: Mankind Divided will be fetch quests designed to get you involved in the world around you. Or they’ll crank up the difficulty on main storyline quests so that you have to grind a bit (by doing side quests) before moving forward. If all else fails, they’ll warn you that a main quest will cancel your side quests, which makes players scramble to finish up their loose ends.
With this approach, characters come and go. Someone might have a cameo later to show you the consequences of your actions, but other than that each side quest is a little self-contained world of its own. You aren’t meant to develop long-term relationships: they tie you down, when instead you should be roaming freely.
Games like this give players a shallow look over a wide area. You get involved in day-to-day life, customs and rituals, the zeitgeist of the fictional world. You grow to understand communities, political movements, religions, and other organizations. You see the way that society flows on a bigger picture.
On the flip side, you also become detached and solitary, a lone wolf, a transient traveler. Most of the time, the main quest isn’t even really about you: it’s about you doing something for someone else. There is never a true focused exploration of your character and personality, because it all comes through in those shallow-but-numerous relationships you made with everyone else around you.
The Witcher 3 is the most recent example of this approach, boasting hundreds of short side quests. After the fiftieth time a farmer asks you to slay a monster rampaging in their fields, you probably won’t have a meaningful connection with that farmer, but you’ll certainly know that Velen has a monster problem. Mankind Divided, as this year’s ambitious RPG challenger, has comparatively fewer side quests but gives each one of them more depth. But on the complete opposide end of the spectrum is the JRPG market, which practically does away with side quests and gives you one huge main quest.
When a game uses the JRPG approach, players spend a lot of time getting to know a specific cast of characters. In exchange for sacrificing the big picture, you get an extremely close look at your crew, understanding them on a psychological level. Typically, the open-world portion of these games only arrives after you’ve developed meaningful connections with the characters.
One of the biggest problems with true open world design (and one that the director explicitly stated he was trying to solve in the interview) is that you don’t know what to do, and consequentially you become bored. Western RPGs solve this problem by giving you factions that act as focal points to orient yourself around based on your personal morals. Even if you’re just doing what someone tells you to do, it still feels like you have agency because you chose to follow that person according to his faction’s philosophical stance.
However, JRPGs will instead use characters themselves as the focal points, which only works because you got to know those characters so well thanks to the linear first half. Many RPGs are even expanding into other mediums to cash in on linear characterization. If you read the prequel book before playing the open-world game, it is essentially like having a linear beginning, and when you see the characters from the book in the game, they become your new focal points.
There isn’t a “better” approach to storytelling. A linear game and an open world game can both have great narratives. However, they have to operate in different ways to make the most use out of their chosen medium.
Final Fantasy XV and Characterization
The linear-start-open-late approach makes players care about a specific cast of characters. The open-start-linear-late approach makes players care about a region as a whole. So why would FFXV opt for the latter? Barring the fact that every previous Final Fantasy has followed the former structure, it also simply seems more natural to have a focused narrative with few characters. Everything about FFXV‘s promotional materials implies that it is going to be about Noctis and his band of brothers. How are you supposed to care about them when you’re busy doing odd jobs around town?
I think it’s a sign that FFXV is going to take a slightly different approach to “open world” than The Witcher 3 does. The lead writer has described the narrative as focusing around three pillars: the bond between father and son, the bond between friends, and the bond between the people of the world. While the first two seem best suited for a linear story, the last one feels like something you would hear about a western RPG.
Could it be that the two halves of FFXV are each designed around a different emphasis for each pillar? In the first half, you interact with the people of the world, and by association you grow to know your friends a little bit more. Then, in the second half, you focus on Noctis’s personal bonds with both his father and his friends.
It’s probably safe to assume that these two halves will be separated by some kind of cataclysmic story event, like Kefka’s Warring Triad or Sephiroth’s Meteor. My guess is that Noctis’s crystal gets stolen, all the people in the kingdom die, and he has to go get it back. Something like this would simultaneously pull the “bond between people of the world” storyline to a close, and also cash in on the commitment you made to those people. “I’m gonna get that crystal back because it will save those people who I spent all this time on helping during the first half.”
This also inverts the standard heroic story structure. Typically, the hero goes through some kind of psychological personal crisis, and through the process of solving it come to understand why they must save the world. But with FFXV‘s proposed setup, it could be that the hero first saves the world and then goes through the psychological personal crisis (because they were unable to save it?), which they overcome through the help of their friends and family.
In any case, Square Enix has had plenty of time to decide how FFXV‘s story structure would work, so I’m sure that they have reasons for what they’re doing. Are they trying to tell a different kind of story, or are they being overambitious by trying to develop three pillars at once? Hopefully, we’ll be able to know soon enough.