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The Never-ending ‘Final Fantasy XV’

Since the release of ‘FFXV’ in November, one level has confounded players to the point that Square Enix is now amending the controversial segment. The trend of downloadable updates means that the game you buy on the release date is only a work in progress. But is this a good thing for the industry?

(Square Enix)
(Square Enix)

Having sneaked your way through the train yard at night, you’ve infiltrated the evil regime’s headquarters in the imperial capital. Now you’re lost in a maze of ruined laboratories, zombie specimens, electric grid puzzles, and elevators with restricted keycard access. Your goal is to take a specific combination of lifts and stairs to the very top. That’s more complicated than it sounds since the route from Point A to Point Z is punctuated by locks and populated with monsters and other hints of the experiments that wrecked the laboratory and now endanger you as well. The music is creeping violins. The vibe is isolation. At the top of the building, the president, Rufus Shinra, ambushes your party. You fight him and his two attack dogs to a draw, and then he makes his great escape via helicopter. In any case, you got what you came for: a meeting with the president, and some intriguing clues from your investigation of the science lab. With that much accomplished, and with Shinra Inc. security forces now on full-scale alert, you ride your motorcycle through heavy patrols on a freeway to the city limits.

You’re now about halfway through Disc 1 (of three) of Final Fantasy VII, first released for the Sony PlayStation in 1997.

The following post contains spoilers for Final Fantasy XV.

If you spent $60 in November to buy Final Fantasy XV, the latest in an iconic Japanese role-playing game franchise renowned for its massive world maps and transcontinental exploration, perhaps the last thing you’d expect is to spend several hours of said game quarantined inside a dim and derelict office park. And you surely wouldn’t expect such an unwelcome hiatus from the action to arrive just before the final hour of gameplay. Even if you’ve backtracked your way through the Shinra headquarters maze of FFVII, the franchise’s most acclaimed installment, you might still come unprepared for the nearly unplayable sadism of Final Fantasy XV’s penultimate chapter. Chapter 13 of FFXV is so demoralizing and bizarre that it’s inspired a subgenre of games criticism and forum commentary to critique its existence. While it seems pretty obvious that the developers designed the level as an homage to the beloved FFVII’s Shinra Corp. headquarters, it’s astounding how wildly the Gralea research lab has driven players to depths of maze fatigue not seen since the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time. For months, a supermajority of Final Fantasy fans begged Square Enix to fix the level. On March 28, they get their wish.

Indeed, there is very little sensible direction in Final Fantasy XV, the 15th volume of the mainline series of a game franchise that includes more than 70 titles — everything from full-scale console RPGs to mobile racing games. The Final Fantasy series is noncontiguous in the way of stories and fictional settings but share many tropes in common, such as monster designs and secondary character names. The franchise publisher, Square Enix, spent more than a decade promoting FFXV, having released its earliest trailer for the game, previously slated as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, in 2006. Over the interceding decade, the project lost its original lead, the longtime Final Fantasy character designer Tetsuya Nomura, whom Square Enix replaced with the director Hajime Tabata. The release date slid and the core story changed. Even four months after the game’s release date, the developers are still working on character development.

(Square Enix)
(Square Enix)

The internet has provided artists with new tools to control their own work, even after its commercial release. Final Fantasy XV is the video game industry’s own version of The Life of Pablo — the Kanye West album that proved similarly divisive because of how dramatically unfinished it was upon its initial release in February 2016. Kanye spent a few months tinkering with the songs and sequencing of Pablo, and that janky dynamism is so crucial to the record’s personality that it’s tough to imagine hearing it the same as if he’d just released it conventionally. Similarly, FFXV has a bewilderingly amorphous design, populated by half-formed characters who are only sporadically incorporated into the plot.

On paper, FFXV is the story of Noctis, the sole prince of Lucis, who sets out to marry his childhood friend, Lunafreya, an oracle, in her home state Tenebrae. The pending marriage is more a pressing political matter than the consummation of a great romance. Final Fantasy XV is really about the angsty prince Noctis, the meathead scold Gladiolus, the senior tactician Ignis, and the gunslinging pixie boy Prompto — three royal guards and their naive charge. Four bros with swords and pistols on a fateful road trip to the end of the world: There’s your love story.

In the controversial Chapter 13, titled “Redemption,” Noctis shakes free of the Magitek soldiers pursuing him and his three guardsmen, only to find himself stranded, alone, in a government research lab in the imperial capital of Gralea. Here Noctis is cut off from the bright, open world of the 12 previous chapters. He’s stripped of his weapons, and the villain Ardyn has set up an electric signal that prevents Noctis from casting elemental magic. Also, Ardyn has incarcerated Prompto within the complex, daring Noctis to find his weakened comrade before he dies. Here’s where Noctis is meant to mature in punitive isolation. For the player, Chapter 13 invites an additional layer of contemplation. Here you are, unexpectedly immersed in stealth mechanics that suddenly resemble a Metal Gear entry and in horror overtones that evoke Resident Evil, with few hours to wonder what the hell is going on and what it even means for a Final Fantasy game to be a Final Fantasy game. For many longtime fans of the franchise, a horrorcore espionage mission that overstayed its welcome by 90 minutes is a narrative innovation too far.

Video games have outgrown their own packaging. On the Super Nintendo, Final Fantasy V was just a couple megabytes. On the PlayStation 2, Final Fantasy X was 4.19 gigabytes. On the PlayStation 4, FFXV is 43.5 gigabytes. That’s a minimum 10-fold growth in game size, accompanied by great leaps in processing power, with every other home console generation. Accordingly, game developers have filled that space with larger maps (rendered in exponentially naturalistic detail), more cutscenes, more side quests, more dungeons, more content, more everything. The fruit of a $91 billion industry, AAA video games are now their own sort of blockbuster.

The other big commercial advancement of the past decade is the advent of digital distribution for games that would have previously been sold only in stores, a development that lets a consumer play games without ever touching a cartridge or disc. There’s still GameStop and Best Buy for those who prefer to buy physical copies, but there are also networks (such as PSN and Xbox Live) from which players can instead download huge files to consoles with native storage space ranging from 32 gigabytes (Nintendo Switch) up to a full terabyte (PlayStation 4, Xbox One). Digital distribution hasn’t just altered the consumption of games, it’s revolutionized the production pipeline altogether. No game is sold out, and no release is ever really final. If a development team is struggling to meet the release date (which is often spelled out in the development contract, not just the marketing materials), the publisher can force a game to press in a state of well, screw it. Hence, the “day-one patch”: a way for developers to force through last-minute changes and critical fixes in overtime.

In modern video game development, overtime lasts indefinitely. No Man’s Sky, released in August 2016, was the subject of controversy for, well, many reasons, including the developer’s having released the game with far fewer features than they’d led fans to expect. Rami Ismail, cofounder of the Dutch games studio Vlambeer, wrote about the angst surrounding No Man’s Sky as a case study of how business-minded video game publishers subject the artists who comprise game development teams to the outdated release clockwork of the cartridge economy. Under the old regime, there was very little work that a developer might do to a game once the publisher put it into production, even in the weeks or months before the game hit the shelves at retail. Ideally, game developers use story patches and downloadable content (DLC) to enhance end-user experience, honing games as close to the development team’s creative vision as possible. “Day 1 Patches aren’t necessarily a failure on the developers or the platforms side,” Ismail writes. “The developer isn’t lazy. The platforms aren’t malicious. Day 1 patches are simply a patch to a submission system that’s old and convoluted.” Of course, if software patches enable studios to not just resolve system errors, but also to make late-stage creative calls on a game even after a release date, why should they limit themselves to Day 1? Why not decide, as Square Enix has, that a video game is a living, breathing document?

Ultimately, Square Enix capitulated. On March 28 — four months after the game’s November 29 release date — the publisher will issue various software updates to FFXV, including a patch that will ameliorate the difficulty and duration of Chapter 13. I won’t miss it, but I suppose I’ll always cherish what it’s come to represent: an aging franchise’s wild stab at reinvention, an old level made radically new.

(Square Enix)
(Square Enix)

In any case, Chapter 13 isn’t a game-breaking glitch. It’s an arduous and unpleasant stretch of user experience, to be sure. But it is also, for better and worse, the most challenging, most provocative, and most memorable stretch of a Final Fantasy game in recent memory. Given the abundance of downloadable content (DLC) that Square Enix plans to release for FFXV in 2017, it seems we’re all effectively in agreement that the version of FFXV released worldwide in November was not the whole shebang. But the publisher and its critics disagree about whether “unfinished” is necessarily “unacceptable,” even when pricing trends mean that early adopters are effectively paying peak price for the worst version of an iterative product with no scarcity constraints. (It is common for the publisher to discount popular titles from anywhere between 5 and 50 percent in the months and years following a game’s release.)

Single-player games are now a brave, new, open world of constant revision. The story-updates model itself “has not been fully established yet,” the FFXV director Tabata stressed in a January interview about the forthcoming DLC, which Square Enix will release exclusively to players who have also purchased the $60 video game’s additional $25 season pass. “The fans who have grown accustomed to playing traditional Final Fantasy games may feel uneasy about this unfamiliar initiative. That said, I personally believe the approach to updating single-player games, as we are doing with this title, will continue on in the future as a new trend.” It almost sounds like a threat, though it’s certainly helped alleviate the otherwise contentious deadline pressures that pit developers vs. publishers. Given the docket of scheduled updates and extras — including playable, standalone chapters for Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto — it seems that even Square Enix itself would have to agree that FFXV was pushed to market as an unfinished product. In the offline era, the consumer’s first option to seek a refund. The publisher’s last resort was a recall, and their best resort would’ve been a sequel. Now, at least theoretically, the developer has all the time in the world. In which case a game like FFXV might perplex me indefinitely. Surely, there’s a patch for that.