Video game franchise proves fantasy can go ever on
The Final Fantasy series is still enthralling video game players, 25 years on. Pavan Shamdasani follows its trail
It's 1987 and video games are on the minds and on the television screens of almost every geek in the world. The Nintendo Entertainment System is only two years old, but already the console has broken every record imaginable, eclipsing the home computer market and all but reversing the much-publicised video game crash of 1983.
It's the ideal time for young, talented individuals eager to make their mark in this fast-growing world. Among them is Hironobu Sakaguchi, only 24 years old but already director of planning and development at the recently formed Japanese gaming company Square. Sakaguchi hasn't had much luck lately - two minor releases, both failures - but he has an idea.
He has a vision of a game that goes beyond the simple side-scrolling mechanics that have so far dominated the market. A role-playing game (RPG) of epic proportions, offering dozens of characters and hundreds of locations. He calls it, simply, Final Fantasy - and vows to leave the industry if the game isn't a success. Thankfully, it is.
Gamers instantly respond to its blend of classic fantasy tropes and then-modern RPG elements: players take on the roles of four warriors in a world of elves, dwarves and dragons, and are given free rein to explore towns, villages and dungeons.
Along the way, they encounter ordinary citizens who offer helpful information, shops that sell weapons, potions and magic spells, and an ever-increasing number of enemies that they battle using an innovative turn-based system.
As the series progresses and sequels are created, the games become larger and more ambitious - graphics are improved, gameplay reinforced, plots and characters expanded - but the core RPG mechanics of exploration and a great storyline are kept firmly intact (see sidebar for more on the series' progression).
Twenty-five years later and the "final" of Sakaguchi's fantasy adventure is anything but. The series has become a global phenomenon, stretching far beyond traditional video games, into the realms of movies, music, books, TV shows, toys and everything in-between. More than 100 Final Fantasy games have been released, spread across every platform imaginable (PC, console, handheld, mobile) and spin-offs (sequel, prequel, remake, side-quest).
Earlier this month saw the international release of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, proof of how far the franchise has come: the game is the sequel to Final Fantasy XIII-2, the second sequel to Final Fantasy XIII, thus closing off the trilogy; it is also part of the Fabula Nova Crystallis spin-off subseries.
All of which begs the important question: what makes Final Fantasy so appealing? What is it about the franchise that has not only kept the series alive over the decades, but brought in an ever-increasing spectrum of players?
To the developers, the answer is simple. "Each of the Final Fantasy titles introduces a brand new world - characters, story and music - and is targeted at introducing the ultimate fantasy story," says producer Shinji Hashimoto, from the gaming company now known as Square Enix. "As a result, the game is high in substance and presents a constantly fresh gaming experience."
These are the two distinct elements behind the franchise's success: the substantial stories, music and characters; and the fresh gaming experiences. The sprawling storylines and detailed characters are an integral part of Final Fantasy, and can be traced back to the game's early days when the series became the very definition of a "Japanese RPG".
"There are many exceptions … but I'd say Japanese RPGs place an emphasis on the storylines of the characters," says Hashimoto. "Western RPGs, meanwhile, have a higher level of subjectivity and value systems that let gamers only experience the world."
It's a fair assessment of what separates the two, and many fans agree: they say Final Fantasy offers something that many RPGs do not - a good story backed by characters you can relate to.
" Final Fantasy shines in both its gameplay, as well as the story, and a large part of the appeal is how storytelling and characters have played a major role in the series," says Quentin Lau. The Hong Kong gamer got into the series fairly late, just a decade ago with the release of Final Fantasy X. But it grew into an obsession - or rather, the obsessive nature of the game soon overtook Lau.
As the series spun off into the XIII trilogy, Lau found much to admire. "The main titles of Final Fantasy are becoming more action-oriented rather than turn-based these days," the gamer says. "But as with many large game series, there are recurring names and elements in the games that will resonate with longtime fans."
Which brings us to the second element: the fresh gaming experiences. After nearly three decades, stories, characters and music can only take you so far but Square Enix's willingness to experiment and its ability to adapt the series to the wants and needs of modern-day gamers have led to success after success with each release.
The producers explored the World of Warcraft-like realms of massively multiplayer online role-playing games in 2002's Final Fantasy XI. And, more recently, they found an ideal balance between graphics and gameplay for the action-heavy adventures of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy.
Lightning Returns strays even further from that well-trodden path. Square Enix has taken the greatest elements of the Final Fantasy series and channelled it into one game, along with such modern elements as an action-oriented approach. And on top of all that is its epic storyline.
Taking place 500 years after its previous entry, a global curse has meant that no new people are born and no one dies of old age anymore. But this world is coming to an end and players take on the role of Lightning, a female warrior woken by the gods to save the souls of humanity and prepare everyone for life in the next world.
"The game design of Lightning Returns is far different from the standard Final Fantasy series," says the game's director, Motomu Toriyama. "Players control the main character, Lightning, and in order to emphasise her elegance and coolness, a lot of action-heavy elements have been added. In addition, hours in the game flow in real-time, so time management during the adventure brings new excitement to players."
These are bold moves for a series built on the slow, deliberate pacing of action and time restraints; many a game series that strayed too far from its formula ( Resident Evil, Devil May Cry) has met with negative reactions from its fan base. But for Final Fantasy, the opposite has happened.
That can be seen most clearly in the sales numbers: the first two entries of XIII combined sold almost 10 million units, while Lightning Returns last month broke the 400,000 mark in Japan. And then there's the players' response. " Lightning Returns is fast-paced, perhaps one of the fastest in the series," says Lau. "But as long as the experience is enjoyable and memorable, I am happy with what I play."
That's a sentiment shared by many gamers. Because, unlike, say, the Grand Theft Auto series, Final Fantasy isn't defined by any solo component, graphical element or gameplay characteristic. Like any piece of time-honoured fiction, it's in its general theme that it succeeds: the idea of a sprawling world and endless possibilities, with a smaller focus on well-drawn characters and an involving, almost endless story.
For gamers, there's nothing final about this fantasy.