I’ve spent a lot of time pointing out when game writers break the rules of storytelling. Sometimes I feel like the storytelling police: A dull prescriptivist that endlessly harangues writers with a list of simple Do’s and Don’ts lifted from Creative Writing 101.
But look. Storytelling rules are more guidelines than laws, and I’m willing to admit that the resulting cake is more important than the ingredients that go into it. If you think a rule is getting in the way of telling your story, then you should break the rule rather than the story.
Having said that, Final Fantasy 12 breaks an amazing number of rules in its introduction.
The Rocketeer touched on this in his entry this week when he said:
The game starts out with a ton of backstory and exposition that goes on way, way too long and drops too many proper nouns.
So let’s talk about this opening…
After “Square Enix Presents”, the first words the game shows us are location titles that say:
That’s three proper nouns and a date. The date doesn’t mean anything to the player and isn’t strictly needed right now. The audience doesn’t need to memorize this number, and they certainly can’t be expected to care about the fictional calendar system you’re using. In fact, I don’t think the date comes up again. From now on, people will simply talk about time in terms of “a thousand years ago” or “six months later”.
It’s not that giving the date is strictly wrong here, it’s just emblematic of how this intro is designed. The storyteller is about to dump a lot of information on the audience, in a short amount of time, and without proper context. Some of this information is critical, some of it is fluff, and some of it won’t be important until hours later.
We’re shown a royal wedding. Then we cut to a war room and we see the good guys – or at least, the people we just met – talking about the war. Then our newly-married prince goes off to fight.
Next we get two and a half minutes of battle footage that looks rad as hell but which is actually pretty insubstantial in terms of information density. We just don’t care about these people enough to watch them fight for two and a half minutes without anything happening. Nobody has an arc yet, or goals, or a worldview we can relate to.
The Star Wars influences are incredibly strong in this game. Specifically, this storyteller has decided to embrace all of the faults of George Lucas. The original cut of Star Wars suffered from this exact problem. The opening crawl went on for ages, and then Lucas expected us to care about characters we knew nothing about. His friends had to take him aside and explain that he was doing everything wrong. Eventually they got him to chop out the extraneous details and just show the audience what was important and immediately interesting. The start of Final Fantasy XII feels like it was written by a George Lucas who never got that memo.
The intro to this game keeps slamming between these two extremes. Either it’s presenting us with dry geopolitical facts, or it’s overwhelming us with spectacle. What it needs to do is settle down and give us someone with a name, a goal, and a reason to care about them. Then the audience will be in the mood for exposition and fireworks.
It sort of does that with the prince. We see him get married, talk about the war, and then march off to battle. I don’t think that needed to take six minutes, but it does almost feel like we have a story going.
But then he drops dead, and the storyteller is back to square one. We need a new protagonist and a new arc. Maybe the princess? Are we supposed to be caring about her? What’s her deal?
So now that the audience is lost at sea and wondering where the story is and who we’re supposed to care about, the storyteller decides to drop into full-on exposition dump mode. We cut to a static shot and a narratorIt turns out this narrator is actually a character we’ll meet later. begins reading us the text on screen. This goes on for two and a half minutes.
Perhaps worried that this might still somehow be comprehensible, the narrator makes sure to deliver all of this in a dry, flat tone while embracing the rough faux-Elizabethan style used by everyone in this world that isn’t the main character, who we haven’t even met yet. Now, The Rocketeer is fond of this arty language and I can’t claim it’s bad. It’s actually pretty slick and gives the world a really nice texture. A lot of Final Fantasy games – and a lot of games in general – wind up feeling like everyone involved is from southern California. This game avoids that by embracing an anachronistic style that really makes this world feel special.
But depending on how much exposure you’ve had to Shakepeare, this might also make the language a little difficult to parse. That wouldn’t be a problem if this was just a short narration to fill in some key facts and set the mood. In fact, that would be 100% on-brand for Final Fantasy. But no, like I said: This narration drags on and on. It buries us in proper nouns. The narrator tells us about nations, leaders, geography, battles, dates, and key events.
This isn’t a simple war of Red vs. Blue where we can just file all the nouns into boxes labeled “Us” and “Them”. There are seven different locations mentioned in this opening: Arcadia (the bad guys) Landis (a little country of lesser note) Nabradia (the Prince’s home) Dalmasca (the home of our main character, when he finally shows up) Rabanastre (capital city of Dalmasca) Rozarria (a superpower in roughly the same weight class as the bad guys) and the Galtean Peninsula. (The region where the game takes place.) It’s way too much to expect the player to memorize all of it, and the game hasn’t given the player any way to figure out how important any of these individual factoids are. So while the Elizabethan phrasing is theoretically a good move, it has the added drawback of making it even harder to parse this long, boring, information-dense brute-force info-dump.
Too Much Information
If you ask me to hold two objects, then I’ll put one in each hand and everything will be fine. If you ask me to juggle twelve objects, then I’ll probably drop all of them and end up with nothing. This is the FF12 narration in a nutshell. It asks me to memorize a ton of information without giving me any context to hang it on or attempting to get me to care, and as a result the whole thing washes over me without teaching me anything.
This is something that Final Fantasy games are usually really good at! Squeenix has spent decades running circles around western developers by building their stories atop memorable, vibrant characters. Final Fantasy 7 opens with our protagonist jumping off a train to assault the evil corporation. Final Fantasy 8 begins with our protagonist and his foil duking it out in this school’s version of a lunchroom brawl. Final Fantasy 10 introduces our lead and his world by showing us he’s some sort of sports celebrity, and then the player gets involved by signing autographs. In all of these cases, we begin with a clear protagonist and we give the player control of them as soon as possible.
In FF12, we spend twelve agonizing minutes being force-fed backstory and setting details before we’re allowed to take control. And once gameplay finally begins, we’re controlling someone who wasn’t mentioned in the previous twelve minutes, isn’t part of the main cast, and who will be dead at the end of the scene.
Like I said at the start, there aren’t any hard rules in writing and you’re free to do something unconventional if it makes for a good story.
Aldous Huxley begins Brave New World thus:
A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.
That is the entire first paragraph of the book, and it doesn’t contain a single verb. One of the most famous books of the 20th century begins with two sentence fragments.
You’re not supposed to do this. Huxley is very clearly flouting the rules of grammar. I’ll leave it to the lit majors to speculate over why the author did this, but I think it’s pretty clear this was done on purpose. The important thing for this discussion is that he did it and got away with it. It’s fine. The book has its critics,I’m not really a fan either. but nobody singles out this unconventional opening as a major failing of the book.
But you can imagine how different the reception would be if Huxley broke a dozen rules instead of just the one. Bad, punctuation. incorrect Capitalization, mispelled words and incorect grammers that have maked it confusing to be readed.
The audience isn’t going to think that Aldous is breaking rules as a stylistic choice, they’re going to think that maybe the old boy should have spent some of that mescaline money on a proper editor.
This is how the intro of FF12 feels to me. This is the kind of bumbling tomfoolery I’d expect out of a modern-day Bethesda or Ubisoft title. It’s not something I’d expect from the Square Enix of 2006.
For comparison, Final Fantasy X spends its first chapter teaching us that…
- TIDUS travels to SPIRA.
- In SPIRA, he meets RIKU.
- RIKKU is an AL BHED.
- AL BHED are hated for
Each bit of information is connected to a previous bit of information, so we always have context for the things we’re learning, and these things are always relevant to what we’re doing right now. It doesn’t try to explain a religious schism between the RONSO and YEVON in BEVELLE before introducing us to our main character, because that would be batshit crazy.
But this is exactly how FF12 handles its introduction. We’re buried in proper nouns without ever being given a reason to care. It actually feels like the designer is going out of their way to make this difficult.
On my first time through this introduction, I actually got Prince Rassler and Reks confused and thought they were a single character. They’re both baby-faced boys with short white(?) hair and names that start with R that fight beside Basch. So when we got to Reks I thought we were doing a flashback. No, these two guys don’t look alike, but I thought “Oh, the pre-rendered version of this guy looks WAY better than the in-game version” and not, “This must be yet another character.”
Laugh at me if you like, but when gameplay began I just sort of assumed that the storyteller wouldn’t make me sit through twelve minutes of cutscenes and exposition and then have me play as someone that hadn’t been introduced yet.
This is not the last time I’ll demonstrate that I’m bad at parsing this genre.
Anyway, the point I’m getting at is that the game needs to…
Use Characters to Make Us Care
The thing is, we don’t need this brute-force info dump here at the start. Our alleged POV character is Vaan, and he’s a clueless street rat. It wouldn’t really strain credulity if he wasn’t totally up to date on geography and geopolitics. As we follow him around this first chapter, other characters could feed him this information organically. When he glares at some Archadian soldiers and asks why we don’t get rid of them, an adult can explain that these guys are steamrolling their way across the continent.
Vaan could learn about Rasler after we meet up with the princess later, which would improve the game immensely by giving her a reason to speak, an opportunity to express some visible emotions besides confusion and rage, and a way to bond with the rest of the team rather than her just standing around and waiting for someone to find a throne for her to sit on. Vaan could learn about Rozarria about fifteen hours from now, when they actually become relevant to the plot.Eh. Reasonable people could argue about when to introduce Rozarria. They’re in roughly the same weight class as the Empire, and you probably don’t want to wait 15 hours to introduce a force that large and powerful. Either way, we certainly don’t need to learn about them BEFORE we meet the protagonist!
The storyteller could take these twelve minutes of dry narration and space them out into little doses of exposition that appear when the audience is ready for it and has a frame of reference to hang it on, rather than having the Narrator tell us about it like he’s reading box scores. As a bonus, our cast would get a chance to talk about these things on a personal level rather than having it all recited while we stare at the world map.
But Shamus, what about the scene where Reks dies? That’s important because it sets up why Vaan hates the Empire! In the past you’ve said that the author should “do”, not “show”?
Okay, yes. Showing is better than telling, and doing is better than showing. But like, execution matters, you know? And the entire sequence with Reks is terrible nonsense.
If we’re in a hurry to “do”, then let’s skip the narrator’s history class and cut right to Vaan on the streets and have Vaan do something. We can have the Empire march into town and take control. Vaan can run through the streets and do a few combat tutorials while we scramble to reach the sewers before we get mowed down. As he reaches safety, the camera pulls back and we see the shocking and overwhelming scale of the imperial invasion.
There’s your history lesson! That’s everything you need to know at the start of the game. The Empire just showed up and nobody can stop them. We could have Reks die defending the city, right in front of his little brother. Kaboom! You’ve got a protagonist (Vaan) with motivation (save the city / avenge his brother) and a natural hunger on the part of the audience to know who these invaders are and what we can do about them. The audience will now gladly sit still for an enormous exposition dump because they have an emotional connection to the world. They want to know why this attack happened, and what we can do about it, and they’ll be glad for details that help them understand the problem.
But Shamus! Your way skips over the scene where “Basch” kills Reks and that’s super-important!
Super-important for confusing the player, you mean. Look, if you’re really in love with the Reks death scene as written, then come back next week and The Rocketeer will help you out. In any case, the point I’m getting at is that this story would be vastly improved in several different ways if we simply used our alleged protagonist for his intended purpose.
Instead this game starts off with a wedding, and some people arguing over a war table, and some battle footage, and then the game tells us that everyone we just saw is dead. Then we play through the “Reks Gets Punked by Evil Basch Comedy Hour”, and the game once again tells us that everyone we just saw is now dead. And then we cut to a street rat who doesn’t seem to have anything to do and no obvious connection to anything we just saw, and the game expects us to care.
A Boring Description of an Exciting World
Yes, the Elizabethan language is cool, and it’s nice to have a world with some layers of complexity to it. But this introduction is a disaster that bores the player up front so that it can make the story less interesting in the long run.
There’s a lot to like about this world. The city of Rabanastre feels huge and richly detailed. We see the crowds, the architecture, and the clothing, and it creates this vivid and believable world around us. The city is divided into distinct districts, from the crowded market, to the wide-open streets, to the twisting underground tunnels, to the huge gates, to the opulent Aerodome.”The Airport”.
In Final Fantasy X, the storyteller shows us five tents and expects us to believe we’re seeing a viable island culture. Luca is supposed to be this major city, but we only ever see the docks and the blitzball arena, and we’re never shown where this “city” keeps its city. But FF12 aspires to build a real world, one that’s more than a backdrop for a cast of teenage goofs and their charmingly overblown melodrama. The fact that it succeeds despite doing basically everything wrong in the introduction is, I suppose, commendable.
Final Fantasy 12 is vastly improved on a second play-through. The introduction is less bewildering and irritating once we have a frame of reference for who these goofs are and what the storyteller is showing us. But this intro breaks a lot of rules, and that makes it really hard for the first-time player to connect with.
 It turns out this narrator is actually a character we’ll meet later.
 I’m not really a fan either.
 Eh. Reasonable people could argue about when to introduce Rozarria. They’re in roughly the same weight class as the Empire, and you probably don’t want to wait 15 hours to introduce a force that large and powerful. Either way, we certainly don’t need to learn about them BEFORE we meet the protagonist!
 ”The Airport”.
Please Help I Can’t Stop Playing Cities: Skylines
What makes this borderline indie title so much better than the AAA juggernauts that came before?
The Best of 2019
I called 2019 "The Year of corporate Dystopia". Here is a list of the games I thought were interesting or worth talking about that year.
There are two major schools of thought about how you should write software. Here's what they are and why people argue about it.
Shamus Plays WOW
Ever wondered what's in all those quest boxes you've never bothered to read? Get ready: They're more insane than you might expect.
Best. Plot Twist. Ever.
Few people remember BioWare's Jade Empire, but it had a unique setting and a really well-executed plot twist.