With the recent release of the Platinum Demo, Square Enix has given us a small slice of what we can expect from Final Fantasy XV. For all intents and purposes, this includes all the broad strokes that Final Fantasy has come to stand for; fantastical settings, stunning visuals and awkward teenagers. However, this time Square Enix seem to be pushing the series towards a more Western cultural slant, including smart phones, converse shoes and trucks. This is no accident. The developers are trying to win back a portion of the audience that have been drifting away from their games for a number of years.
Personally, I would class myself in that section of society. I’m certainly a fair-weather Final Fantasy fan who once loved the series, but has found myself drifting away in recent years. Final Fantasy X and XIII contained a mostly unlikeable cast, frankly embarrassing dialogue, and doubled-down on the flashy yet sanitised sorcery that was so evident in the Fabula Nova Crystalis games.
This strikes me as something of a social issue which highlights the disconnect between Japan and the West and the way in which our video games are developed and created. In the West, the trend has been towards character development, and the types of stories being told have matured over the last 10 years. That’s not to say that Eastern games don’t tackle mature themes, but compare the RPGs made by Square Enix with a western developer such as Bioware.
Take the Mass Effect series as an example. Bioware leave a lot of room for subtlety and interpretation in their writing, showcasing deep, unusual characters who behave and act in a relatable manner. The story-building elements they present are more to Western tastes and reflect our media at large. For example, in Mass Effect’s universe everything has a scientific explanation, from the way the ships are able to travel at light speed to the biotic (force) powers that your character can learn. The game compensates for its more fantastical elements, grounding the whole experience in a reasonably realistic fashion. On the other hand, Final Fantasy XIII makes no apologies for its mysticism and, especially towards the end, makes no effort to explain most of the magical properties that occur. The game ends with Fang and Vanille transforming into Ragnarok through their hidden powers, and the rest of the party escaping their crystalised fate for no particular reason other than it is convenient for creating a happy ending.
The difference is also punctuated through the characterisation in both games. Occasionally, Mass Effect is more profound in the things it doesn’t say, such as when Shepherd asks Legion (a Borg-like character) why he has grafted a piece of Shepherd’s N7 armour to himself. The hesitant “…classified” response shows that Legion is trying to hide an aspect of his individuality, meaning there is more to his character than the mindless hivemind AI he initially appears to be. Then there’s Mordin Solus, a no-nonsense scientist who takes some breaking down before you get to know him. Most of Mordin’s interactions with Shepherd are to the point and focussed on the task at hand. However, through careful, prolonged conversations with him throughout the game, you’ll eventually learn that he’s a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan music, upon which he treats you to a rendition of Modern Major-General. It’s a reward for taking the time to get to know the character.
Across all of its games, the Final Fantasy series wears its characterisation on its sleeve. Characters are often named literally after their personality. Cloud Strife is a troubled character suffering from deep emotional scars. Hope is a kid who learns to be hopeful. Squall Leonheart is quietly brave in the face of adversity. This isn’t just a Final Fantasy thing, but is in fact a cultural thing in Japan. Other games such as Star Ocean (another Square Enix title) have characters such as Fayt Leingod who is “fated” to unleash his hidden power, or the hot-headed Edge Maverick, which speaks for itself. This trend for naming characters literally extends to manga and anime. The Dragonball series is full of these, such as Krillin which is a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “Shaolin” and “Chestnut”; references to his martial arts prowess and his bald head. Piccolo is named ironically because he can’t stand whistling noises; the kind of noise made by the musical instrument of the same name. Then there are the “Majins” or magicians of the series, Bibidi, Babidi and Buu.
Not only that, but Eastern characters in games, manga and anime have a tendency to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Japanese characters often display long, awkward pauses, gasps of astonishment, or tend to gurn and fall over for comic effect when slightly surprised or confused. Even when they’re not speaking they are expressing themselves in some fashion to let the player, viewer or reader understand exactly what they’re thinking. To a western audience this sometimes appears unnecessary as we often take it for granted what characters are feeling or experiencing. This makes literal translations sometimes feel stagnant and superfluous when they arrive in Europe and America.
This extends further into cultural trends. When something is explained to a Japanese character, the tendency is for that character to reaffirm their understanding by repeating it back. This is a normal thing to do in Japan, but over here it would appear childish if someone repeated everything you said back to you. In games such as Metal Gear Solid (a game with heavy Western influences that can’t escape its Japanese heritage), Snake often repeats any information relayed to him, confirming this by saying “right” or “got it”. It’s not necessarily a quirk of the character; it’s a quirk of the original language.
While this article may seem like an analysis of where Japanese culture fails to penetrate the Western mainstream, the evidence suggests that there isn’t a problem in this regard. Anime conventions happen around the world with millions of fans cosplaying their favourite characters, which is fantastic. This is proof that Japan can provide compelling stories and likeable characters. Just look at the success of Studio Ghibli.
So how does this affect Square Enix, or specifically Final Fantasy? Japanese games companies have been experiencing a decade of stagnation despite this overwhelming support for Japanese art and culture worldwide. Many Japanese games studios have declined in recent years or even shut shop entirely. Konami, one of Japan’s most recognisable games studios, has all but left the industry behind in favour of creating healthclubs and pachinko machines, and the only game they’re making nowadays is Pro Evolution Soccer (a game with worldwide appeal). This leaves most of their properties such as Castlevania, Contra, Dance Dance Revolution, Gradius, Frogger, Suikoden, Metal Gear and Silent Hill in a state of limbo where we will likely never see sequels to any of these games. Capcom, a once prolific studio, has been suspiciously quiet on next gen consoles. Excluding remastered games, their only notable AAA games exists in the shape of Street Fighter V.
The fact is, the gaming boom across the globe, and the rise of indies has hurt the Japanese games industry. From the Xbox 360 and PS3 generation there has been a growing hunger for new experiences. Western takes on traditionally Japanese games have achieved a critical mass that appeals to more cultures. Whereas Japanese developers have focused on their home market and doubled-down on their own tropes, gamers hungry for a new experience have found their needs satisfied elsewhere. Bioware, Naughty Dog and the now defunct Irrational Games used the expanding budgets and capabilities of last-gen consoles to create deep, resonating experiences that were impossible beforehand. Games such as The Last Of Us or Bioshock just wouldn’t have been made in Japan. Plus, Japan’s domestic market is moving more and more towards mobile gaming, where Japanese commuters are finding their gaming time limited with travel and work. This means less money for their homegrown developers, making them switch focus to mobile platforms or opt for safe, proven franchises on their home turf.
Square Enix itself is one of the only development houses in Japan that is succeeding in changing for the global market. As they’ve expanded into publishing, most of their newest properties are Western games such as Hitman, Deus Ex, or the new IP Life Is Strange which attempts to capture American teenage culture. This shift is reflected in Final Fantasy XV which attempts to evoke that distinctly American tradition of the teenage road trip. In the Platinum Demo, Carbuncle (your small fox companion) communicates to you by sending chocobo emotes to your phone.
Personally, this comes across as crass pandering to how the Japanese view the West, and initial feedback on the demo seems to suggest that I’m not the only person who feels this way. I can, however, appreciate that Square Enix are trying to make their products appeal to an audience outside of Japan. It’s a lesson that they’ve obviously learned with the successes of the games mentioned above. Despite this, Final Fantasy games are choc full of embarrassing dialogue and cutscenes that rely on spectacle over substance, and if the demo is anything to go by, XV looks to continue this trend. As long as it doesn’t include a laughing scene like the one in Final Fantasy X, it will at least be an improvement.
With the announcement of Final Fantasy XV, Square Enix have also announced a feature length film, a mobile companion game, and an anime series. Without learning a single lesson from the widely criticised Final Fantasy XIII and all the spin offs that it produced, they’ve gone right ahead and tried to throw an entire universe at us before knowing for sure that the public will be receptive to it. I’m sure the game will not be a flop commercially, but I also don’t see it setting our shores alight with anything other than its graphical fidelity.
At this point, Final Fantasy seems to be trading on its name alone in Western territories, and this looks likely to continue unless they address fundamental issues at the core of the series in terms of perception and culture. That’s not saying that they should change or apologise for being Japanese, but if they want to be accepted warmly by the global audience, this is unlikely to happen now that we have alternatives in our own development studios.