Let's get this out of the way, I am a fanboy. I am shameless in my love for Final Fantasy and have been for years. There are certain non-canon spin off things that I've generally avoided, but with the exception of III, X-2 and XI, there hasn't been one I didn't enjoy on some level. The characters are always interesting and developed well, the stories are epic and the worlds are beautifully realized whether based in the medieval or the futuristic or both. I could go on and on about the merits of the series, but I won't. Instead, I'll try keep things as subjective as possible. Besides, FFXIII is just a segway for my point in this post: Linearity and it's place in video games.
Reports on Final Fantasy XIII, while generally favourable, all point fingers at one aspect of the games first half. In several reviews I've read things like, 'the game is shockingly linear' or 'the linearity is ridiculous'. Statements which, especially in the context of a final fantasy game, continue to baffle me.
Since when is linearity the enemy? I love a good story, and I genuinely believe that games have the ability to provide unique, innovative narrative experiences, but only if there's something interesting there to work with in the first place. Without gushing like the miserable fanboy I am, FFXIIIs 'shocking linearity' works 'shockingly well' in my opinion. It's a different experience to the usual formula, and the lack of exploratory freedom isn't going to go down well with everyone, but it's this linearity that provides the much needed momentum to the story. These people are cursed and have no idea how to fix it. They don't have time to go trouncing around forests or fields chasing mutated squirrels and giant lizards, they're too busy continuously pushing forward in a collective effort to not die.
I realize a full post on FFXIII (and how I love it) would be too predictable for me. But as an example of my point it's quite useful. Linearity, coupled with good storytelling (most of the time anyway), has ALWAYS been a huge part of the FF experience, one that has enthralled as many as it has repulsed. Why are critics suddenly so eager to point this out?
I hear the arguments coming already. 'Every path is just a tunnel or a narrow corridor', 'the level design is unimaginative', 'TOWNS TOWNS WAH WAH WAH'. Yeah every path is a narrow corridor, as I said the current storyline doesn't lend itself well to time-wasting, we're in a life and death situation here. Unimaginative? Are you for real? I don't think there's been even one locale in the game this far that didn't make me grin like an idiot, the game, including its levels are nothing short of beautiful. As for the towns, get over it. Yeah I liked them too but things have to change.
'Change? But aren't you, here, on this blog, decrying this change? you hypocrite!' I hear you cry. Not quite, I'm afraid. I'm not against change, in fact XIII has done away with a lot of the shit that bugged me about previous entries, and even the new additions I'm not too keen on deserve their part in the experiment.
No More Heroes, my favourite game of 2008, suffered the opposite of this. With an open-world idea (very obviously) tacked in as an afterthought, one that never really felt very open at all, NMH came under heavy criticism. Now FFXIII has decided to toss any and all pretense of an open world, with a story that justifies, no, demands it's 'shocking linearity' as a sense of urgency. It seems as if people genuinely are just impossible to please.
Open world gaming is a great idea. But admit it, when faced with an open world sandbox to explore or terrorize (Just Cause 2, GTAIV, Saints Row etc.) how much attention do you usually pay to the story? Very little, I'd wager. Not that I'd blame you, those games usually have stories as impressive as those found in Stephanie Meyer books or the type of fanfiction you'd find on DeviantArt blogs. That, or they end up shockingly pretentious in their efforts to avoid it. Either way the open world idea lends itself much better to gameplay than it does to narrative.
Which basically brings us to what you personally want from a game or what you believe games can do if you believe they can do anything. Personally, I think there is untapped potential in the idea of games providing truly unique narrative experiences and that's what I want to see. Sandbox games are incredibly fun to play, but their novelty ultimately wares off and I often find I need a little more to sink my teeth into. A good story, well told, is a nice way of providing that extra depth.
I mentioned in my Heavy Rain post that there seems to be a growing divide between what developers want to make and what consumers want to play. Realism has proven to be a false-prophet for the industry, and I think this disdain for linearity will end up the same.
I'll probably be posting more on Final Fantasy XIII in the not too distant future, there's bigger plans afoot than what I've talked about here.
TL;DR: A mediocre post on the merits of Linearity. Expect a better one when I have time to string a metaphor together.