My quest to save the world continues.
I’ve been slowly making my way through Final Fantasy VI since stumbling across it a month ago, and I’ve finally reached the earth-shattering moment that stunned audiences in 1994. The world has been turned upside down. My party has been scattered. And I’m backtracking through every single town only to discover that most of them look much the way they did before everything literally went to hell. Sure, there are some new monsters and the color palette has been mixed up, but in the essentials the urban planning is more or less the same.
All of which is to say that the last few hours of Final Fantasy VI have been a chore. I’ve already opened most of the treasure chests and each town has more blank space than it does new content. As is so often the case, the end game has become a grind.
The fact that an RPG turned into a grind is not exactly a surprise. Repetition has long been a hallmark of the genre. What I find fascinating is how the nature of that grind has changed across generations.
For instance, while FFVI has its share of redundant combat, in other respects it’s quite sleek. The distance between towns is seldom more than a few minutes, while the battles themselves are often finished after one or two rounds. In the early portion of the game you’re able to zip through the first few regions in the same amount time it takes to get past the prologue in Final Fantasy XII.
Meanwhile, more modern RPGs like Dragon Age and World of Warcraft offer sprawling landscapes that take hours to traverse. The scenery offers a greater sense of grandeur and scale, and the added detail gives you a better appreciation for the way people’s day-to-day lives might unfold in those fantasy settings.
That fidelity can make games more immersive – or at least more naturalistic – but it doesn’t always make them better. I’m the kind of person who hates to miss anything while playing a video game. I’ll search every room and talk to every character until I’m convinced that I’ve exhausted all possible options or seen every line of dialogue. That quickly becomes tedious in a game with as many characters and as much empty space as Dragon Age: Inquisition.
I’m fully aware that that’s a problem of my own making, but it does speak to the way that RPGs have changed. Despite the improvements in graphical quality, Dragon Age and Final Fantasy are trying to accomplish similar goals. They want to provide context, locating your adventure within a much larger environment to convince you that you’re on a quest of monumental importance.
FFVI simply does so more efficiently. Every non-essential non-player character has one (and only one) line of dialogue, a feature that I am devoutly thankful for because it makes it much easier to maintain a sense of urgency and forward progress. I’m able to talk to everyone and then move on, secure in the knowledge that I’ve seen everything that needs to be seen. As I’ve previously argued, the game suggests a larger world with the most basic abstract images, and then steps back to let players do most of the more nuanced world building in their imaginations.
More recent RPGs attempt to overwhelm you with the sheer volume of content to create the same effect. Your characters feel like they’re a part of something big because they’re small in comparison to the landscape, while the cities are populated with thousands of non-player characters. You don’t have to imagine the broader scheme. You can see it.
That becomes a problem when you try to explore all of that content, which is annoying because games have conditioned me to expect to find secrets in those far-flung corners of the map. Sometimes that random merchant will give you a better sword after you talk to him three times. Sometimes there will be a cave with a bunch of loot on the summit of that mountain. That’s why I poke my nose into everything and become increasingly frustrated with the wasted time.
That’s not to say that Final Fantasy VI is free from pointless busywork. It’s simply concentrated in the core cast rather than the scenery. Characters like Gau and Mog have absolutely no impact on the plot, while others probably don’t need to be playable members of the party. The game needs an airship, but as far as I’m concerned Setzer can stay on that airship while the rest of the crew saves the world.
On their own, those are all decent characters (Mog is downright adorable). They just add weight without adding much to the story, and seem to have been included solely to extend the game time through repetitive mechanics. Each character adds a new wrinkle to the combat system – Sabin has his Blitzes, Mog has his Dances, and Setzer has his Slots – and the expectation is that you’ll spend more time playing in order to unlock all of the various possibilities for all 14 playable characters.
Gau is the most egregious example. A Tarzan knockoff with little to no understanding of human culture, Gau can only learn new Rages through combat in one specific area of the map. He’s a powerful character, but I never take him on important missions because he’s completely tangential to the story. I prioritize Locke, Celes, and Terra because they have histories with the world and the people in it. As much as I dislike Cyan, he’ll always be on the team when I visit Doma Castle on the off chance that I’ll be rewarded with some unique interaction or line of dialogue.
Gau is in the party only when I’m expressly trying to teach him new abilities. And that’s the problem. As interesting as his mechanic is, it’s just that – a mechanic – in a game that’s supposed to be focused on narrative. Final Fantasy VI has too many superfluous characters and it draws attention away from the parts of the world that actually matter.
To its credit, Final Fantasy VI handles the problem well, especially when it splits the cast into smaller groups and forces you to play with team members you might not use very often. It just didn’t need 14 characters to create that effect when you can only have four with you at any given time. As it stands, I feel compelled to waste time teaching dozens of new skills to Gau and Strago when I’d really prefer to ignore the both of them and get on with the adventure.
Final Fantasy VI is a fine game, and there are plenty of legitimate mechanical and aesthetic reasons to create systems that absorb a lot of the player’s time. Still, it demonstrates how little game design philosophies have changed over the years. Though generations apart, Dragon Age and Final Fantasy VI both try to extend the run time in an attempt to add ‘value’ to the finished product. Both games end up feeling longer than necessary, and as a player I’d appreciate a little less grind and a little more focus on the essentials.