By Neil Merrett
Just as RPGs have infected the DNA of almost every other genre in terms of plot, scope and mechanics, Final Fantasy has itself mutated to encompass almost twenty years of gaming evolution since the PSone days where it represented the essence of engaging, in-depth and long-form gaming for millions of people.
There is a tremendous pleasure in being driven around. It is a feeling very different from the thrill and potential burden of being behind the wheel yourself, having the responsibility for either getting to a destination or not.
A passenger can absorb the sights and sounds around them, drift into boredom, or set their sights on what the destination ahead maybe holds. A passenger can stop to think about the world they find themselves in.
That a videogame can make one realise this without the need to head out on actual tarmac is perhaps a testimony to how far the industry has come over four decades, or perhaps just a reflection of the efforts we will go to as a species to try and escape reality.
As an epic seemingly open world adventure, Final Fantasy XV is still behind the times, However, as a backseat passenger simulator, it may just have something.
After ten years of development, the eventual release of the game this month has seen the series having to catch up with a very different gaming landscape than the one that existed in 2006. In seemingly taking aspects of very modern games like Grand Theft Auto V and The Witcher 3, Final Fantasy 15 feels like a statement on what ‘Triple A’ games will aim to be for the foreseeable future.
The mundane alongside the fantastic, quiet moments of introspection and exploration, with real-time combat, busy work and gorgeous vistas maximised for 4K devices.
It serves as a masterclass in embracing the everyday, even in a fantasy setting, with its selfies, summons and back seat passenger simulation, the game is a love letter to where gaming stands as an industry today – for better and worse. But is it too little too late? Or perhaps a timely evolution of the traditional Role Playing Game (RPG)?
Perhaps it is better to ask, do we really need the term RPG anymore?
As a means to define a genre, the term once served as a useful identification for a collection of games that sought to create a more cinematic, novel-like experience where the player assumed the life of an individual or group of characters.
This approach allowed developers to overcome the technical limitations of games consoles and computers at the time with a text heavy approach to create the impression of deep worlds in which to live out epic, long-form adventures.
The genre stood for an experience where the individual could literally put themselves into a character in a way that even engaging adventures like Super Mario World never could.
The Final Fantasy series – which now dates back some 29 years – for good or bad was synonymous with this style of epic, often rambling introspective game that raised questions about identity, ludicrous haircuts and how many hours one could put up with turn-based battles.
The player’s role was to assume the identities of several heroes and play through their day-to-day lives, deciding on how their strengths and weaknesses should be developed and mitigated, while – at their best – allowing the player’s own identity to be put into the game’s story.
Often cited as a high water mark for console gaming and role playing, Final Fantasy 7 and its immediate predecessors represented complex, often rambling story telling, that the player was intended to be the centre of. For a generation of gamers, that approach defined the essence of immersive role playing.
For decades, RPGs had a unique and devoted fanbase willing to pump literal days into scouring, grinding, levelling up and fashioning their character into their unique avatar, based around their own strengths and weaknesses.
Yet soon other genres like platformers began to try and implement this more bespoke and narrative-led approach to creating characters in games, such as your Metroids and Symphony of the Nights.
Traditional games evolved to bolster themselves with RPG elements and become complex engaging western adventures, or crime simulators, and the nature of genres became blurred.
The RPG approach to games is now no different to how an avid player of FIFA creates their own character or hard laboured-dream team in an ongoing campaign to realise sporting glory that would forever elude them in real life. Or how about a raid squad of like- and not so like-minded individuals on Destiny, building their own ragtag team to meet up on Wednesday nights to escape the hum-drum of the everyday, slaying hordes and accessorising with the latest snazzy kit?
As we move further beyond the initial technical limitations of gaming, and towards a whole new set of challenges in building more virtual, interactive worlds, the industry’s traditional approach to defining genres is arguably over.
Just as RPGs have infected the DNA of almost every other genre in terms of plot, scope and mechanics, Final Fantasy has itself mutated to encompass almost twenty years of gaming evolution since the PSone days were it represented the essence of engaging, in-depth gaming for millions of people.
For some, the game will not be the best example of modern, open world building and plotting in gaming, it will seem serve as a kind of jack-of-all-trades title that abandons too much of Final fantasy’s unique heritage, while failing to refine the mechanics, ambiguous ethics and exploration of the Witcher 3. There is something of a simplistic hack and slash gameplay to combat that has a few interesting gameplay tweaks in fighting.
It is now 19 years since Final Fantasy 7. Did Final Fantasy pave the way for the gigantic sprawling open worlds that are now the norm for games, or is it just finally catching up to the demands and expectations of a post-RPG world?
It’s the age old gaming question, what came first, the Chocobo or the egg?
Final Fantasy is ambitious and exciting, but it is no longer unique in the epic scope of the adventures it tries to create. All games are largely an adventure where we must assume some form of role. But it may just differentiate itself from the back seat of the Regalia, taken in the world around you at high speed. As least, for those who can, sit back and enjoy the ride.