Imagine that someone gave you the Twilight series and, for the sake of argumentation, vampires were a new thing that you’d never heard of before.
Now, imagine that you’d read through about the first book and a half to two books, and by the end of them, you almost sort of understood what a vampire was, but not quite, and the main plot development over the course of the two novels was that people really didn’t like vampires at all, except some vampires that everyone was cool with, and you weren’t entirely sure why, and you also never really got to see what a vampire did ever, so you were never entirely sure why anyone was afraid in the first place.
Welcome to the first twenty hours of Final Fantasy XIII.
At this point, I don’t really care about the game itself – you can read about the gameplay on any number of gaming sites. What I want to focus on is the plot of the game.
Because it is the worst written thing I’ve ever encountered. And I’ve read Vince Flynn novels. Plural.
Spoilers ahead. Here’s the summary of the first half of the game.
There are demigods called Fal’cie who randomly choose people from the population to carry out their wishes. These people, once chosen, are called L’cie, and are given special powers to achieve what are called “Focuses”, the goals given to them by the Fal’cie. If you complete your Focus, you’re turned in a crystal which seemingly provides the L’cie with eternal life; if you don’t, then you’re turned into a zombie.
There are two worlds: Cocoon, the Overworld, which has kind Fal’cie that work with the people to create a properly functioning society, and Pulse, the Underworld, which has bad Fal’cie that make L’cie who try to destroy Cocoon. If you’re turned into a Pulse L’cie, everyone on Cocoon hates you and wants to kill you; if you’re turned into a Cocoon L’cie, you’re a hero serving your fellow man.
Your party, at the beginning of the game, hunts down a Pulse Fal’cie who has converted a woman named Serah (the fiancee of one character, the sister of another) into a L’cie. During the conflict, the Fal’cie turns your entire party into L’cie, with a shared Focus seemingly centered on something called “Ragnarok”. Then you try to figure out what to do.
That’s it. That’s the basic backstory and the plot. And it takes TWENTY FUCKING HOURS to figure this out. Now, you could cheat and read the Datalog, which explains a lot of this in excruciating detail, but why would you make twenty hours of gameplay and cutscenes that can only be made sense of with flashcards?
This doesn’t even get to the game’s true failure, which is its utter lack of dramatic impact. The vast majority of the character “development” is the characters complaining about their plight, but as you continue onward with little interesting to focus on, you start to wonder about a few things. Kind of like a boring car trip where, by the end, you’ve realized that you want to be a Buddhist, your gastrointestinal issues are probably related to the fact that you still haven’t talked about your issues at work with your therapist and you might actually like Hall & Oates more than you ever realized.
Suppose you lived in a world where, at any point, evil people could come and kidnap you, your spouse, your family, your best friends, and they could inject any of you with a drug which would kill them at evil’s whim of evil. You were then given the vague hint of a mission, and whether you failed or succeeded, you would die.
A range of complex emotions and reactions would accompany such a phenomenon. Anguish, sadness, anger, denial – everything under the sun. But the last thing you’d expect is for society as a whole to decide that the innocent victims of a murderous supernatural cadre were the real problem, and hunt them down. It’s victim-blaming on steroids, and as the consumer of the story, it removes any investment you have in the struggle of the cast’s plight. A bunch of fundamentally good people all have awesome powers that allow them to go around killing monsters and faceless soldiers? Let me weep for you and your lithe attractiveness.
It also doesn’t help that we never, ever see a Pulse L’cie do anything more evil than just hang around passively. These feared agents of death, as they’re portrayed in the game, are given missions which seem no more threatening than “make sure someone else shows up to see you”. Cocoon lives in constant fear of lunch dates.
There is no part of this story which has dramatic impact, pathos, or even a modicum of logic. It’s like watching the director’s cut of Se7en, except they added in five extra hours of Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman sitting around and talking about how murder is bad and removed everything about the killer except him showing up with no fingerprints.
As video games mature as a narrative medium, Final Fantasy XIII is the medium’s Waterworld – expensive, silly and wholly unmemorable except for how crappy it is. Although it could probably use some more pee-drinking.