February 13, 2012 by dbfeder
In perusing the debate between ludology and narratology within video games, I have been drawn towards the former for one simple reason: the central purpose of games is to be played. In fact, this belief has caused me to react to the question “what is a game?” with confusion. A game, at its most basic level, is something to be played. It matters not to me if there is a winner at the end – who did not love playing dress-up as a child? – or if the rules are made up during play a la Calvinball; all I need is something to play.
Since the reason for video games’ existence is to have a player, it is only logical that the most important aspect is the gameplay itself. The structure of the game defines the player’s experience more than any other part; it is highly conceivable to imagine a game designer taking the most fascinating subject material and turning it into an object of hatred by creating an unwieldy control system or using an atrocious camera angle. The gameplay is crucial to player experience, and without it, the work would be an entirely different form of art. Removing overt lines of narrative still leaves one with a game, such as one like Tetris or a Madden title; removing gameplay leaves one with a movie.
My personal choice of games in the past, however, seem to run against this preference. I played my first Final Fantasy title at the age of 7 with Final Fantasy Tactics (SquareSoft), and although the title was far too complex for me at that age, I was hooked on the series. Role-playing games have been my favorite since then, with the complex narratives and beautiful scenery drawing me into multiple titles, Final Fantasy or otherwise. Even after all my time spent on newer, more powerful consoles, Final Fantasy VII (SquareSoft) remains my favorite game largely due to the nuances I found in the narrative on my second and third times through the storyline. With the importance of the elegant tales of RPGs to my video game enjoyment, it would seem that my initial reaction to the question of narrative in games is incongruous.
Then, along came Final Fantasy XIII (Square Enix). Here was a game whose highlighted graphics, as viewed online, were a central reason to my purchasing a PlayStation 3, whose existence as a successor to several of my favorite games, which utterly failed to engage me on any narrative level. Despite having logged close to triple digits in gameplay hours, I could still not tell you the central conflict around which the plot is meant to revolve; having put it down without finishing it, I would be unable to fill in a friend on the crucial elements of the situation in which my save game rests.
Final Fantasy XIII’s failure to create investment was caused by both of the major tenets of RPG narratives: the characters and the storyline. The characters appear at first to fall into the archetypes the Final Fantasy series has established for itself: the brooding, mysterious main character is represented by Lightning, while the comical close friend, in this case Sazh, also makes an appearance. However, in this installment most of the central cast falls flat. Snow, who initially seems to be the tough guy in the mold of Barrett (from VII) or Auron (from X), quickly is found to be sensitive to a fault and unable to lead in any capacity, while Vanille is one of the most grating characters I have encountered in the series and was removed from my playable party at all possible instances.
The storyline itself also fails to engage. The typical structure of a plot requires a conflict which must be confronted by the characters, whether in literature, cinema or video games. Final Fantasy XIII’s narrative introduces this issue – a curse placed upon the main characters which will end their existence as humans regardless of their actions – but continues on to haphazardly move the cast purposelessly from locale to locale, not to search for answers but simply to reiterate the futility of their quest. Even at my position near the very end of the game, I am unsure as to how they will solve their problem; even more crucially, due to the annoying personalities involved, I do not care if the solution comes at all.
Yet, I find myself picking the controller back up to keep playing, striving ever more to level up one more time, push through the next stage, and finally finish the game. The reason for this is the gameplay; with a fascinatingly tactical battle system which differs from all previous editions and a leveling up system that feels genuinely rewarding and has an attainable perfection in sight, the failed narrative has yet to stop me from engaging in the game. Even one of the major criticisms of the game upon release – the highly linear nature of the levels, with only one path to explore and follow – kept me engaged, as one of my difficulties with RPGs is my inability to do everything. I have always strived to take every possible path, not wanting to miss anything, and sandbox games have been my bane as a result. Final Fantasy XIII removed that issue for me, making the gameplay even more appealing.
A compelling storyline can make a game great, forcing you to shirk other responsibilities just to discover the next twist, much like a page-turning book or a well-crafted drama series. However, it is not crucial to one’s enjoyment of the game, even when the game is not of a genre that eschews narrative but is one that seeks to centralize it. Games are first and foremost an exercise in play, and the storyline is secondary. As shown by Final Fantasy XIII, a game with a poorly constructed plot can remain as addictive, enjoyable and compelling through a well-organized game engine.