This article contains major spoilers for Bravely Second: End Layer, I am Setsuna, and World of Final Fantasy.
Metagaming is a term usually used in the context of MMO gaming. It applies to situations when a player breaks character and uses resources or knowledge outside of the context of the game to influence his or her gaming experience. Another application is in fighting games when one player chooses a fighter based solely on the other players’ choices. But for the purpose of this article, I’m going to alter the definition of metagaming to describe a recent, unexpected, and brilliant trend in Square Enix JRPGs.
Square Enix games, and their flagship JRPGs in particular, have often used the concepts of time and space as crucial plot points, starting all the way back in 1987 with the very first Final Fantasy game. At the conclusion of that game, you discover that Garland, the villain whom you defeat early on, created a vicious time loop that must be destroyed in order to save the world. From then on, traversing through time and space became a standard affair in Square Enix JRPGs. Sometimes this concept worked well, while other attempts were a mess (looking at you, Final Fantasy VIII).
But this year, nearly thirty years since the creation of the original Final Fantasy time loop, Square Enix has been experimenting with a new form of metagaming that combines game mechanics and settings, which would otherwise be taken for granted, with storylines revolving around space-time travel that allows players to inject themselves directly into the story.
The most recent of these experiments is World of Final Fantasy. It is a wonderful throwback to traditional, turn-based JRPGs that features a very space-time-heavy plot. Early on the main characters, Lann and Reynn, get thoroughly thwomped during a battle with a creature far beyond your skill level. Their magical companion, Tama, pulls them out of the battle to safety in a place where time stands still. She explains that, should they fall in combat to any enemies other than a major boss, she can expend one of her many lives to teleport them back to safety. Initially, this seems like a device to help younger or less experienced gamers, making sure they don’t lose any items, EXP, or gil obtained in between their last save and the failed battle. And, surely, this is partly correct. But this seemingly innocent system becomes vital to the plot of World of Final Fantasy.
As you reach the end of the game, Lann and Reynn inadvertently kill their parents, and Lann subsequently sacrifices himself to save the world. The credits roll, featuring images of an inconsolable Reynn, distraught over the deaths of her father, mother, and twin brother. A trophy is awarded for completing the game, and a giant “END” screen caps off the credits. At this point, most other JRPGs would allow you to return to the last save point to complete all the other sidequests and goodies that await you, but not World of Final Fantasy.
Instead, your game is saved and you return to the main menu. When you choose to continue your saved game, you are met with the following screen:
This is the only option available to you. The story isn’t over. Reynn refuses to accept the consequences of the previous in-game events, and Tama then sacrifices all of her remaining lives to send Reynn permanently back in time to just before deaths of Lann and her parents. New decisions are made, and the world is changed for the better, without loss of life. By taking a simple mechanic put in place to assist the player and using it to change the course of history, and by using options in the main menu to push the story onward, the tale of World of Final Fantasy involves the player in the time loop and puts them in direct control.
Another example is the concluding events of I am Setsuna, developed by Tokyo RPG Factory, a new section of Square Enix devoted to creating neo-retro JRPGs. This game also features a time loop, and the protagonists Setsuna and Endir discover that the events of the game have occurred over and over again with only slight variations each time. But each time, the characters fail to save the world, and time is reset, waiting for the right set of variations to align to allow the heroes to defeat the final boss, Dark Samsara.
But after Samsara is finally defeated, he retreats back in time, planning to live an entire lifetime of experience over again, thus regaining his chokehold over the planet. At that moment, a save point appears. The save point is no different from those that dot the map during the entire game and that are commonplace in any JRPG. But now, Setsuna finally pays attention to the save point. She realizes that the save points always appear before a major battle, as though time itself has been offering its assistance in the protection of the planet. Setsuna correctly theorizes that she and Endir could use the save points to return to a previous point in time to defeat Samsara once again before he recovers his strength. Thus, the save points change from being a simple convenience for players and become a major plot element.
Lastly, let’s look at the 3DS exclusive Bravely Second: End Layer. As you approach the latter events of the game, you reach a boss fight that you simply cannot win. The villain, Kaiser Oblivion, will defeat you regardless of any preparations you make. Sometimes this happens in these sorts of games; fights that you are meant to lose occasionally occur to push the plot forwards. But this is different. You lose, you get a game over, and you are returned to the game’s title screen. You can fight Kaiser Oblivion again and again, but it will always be in vain. That is, until you start an entirely new game, and use Bravely Second’s time-stopping battle mechanic during your very first battle with Oblivion. Suddenly the characters from your previous save file jump to your new game, and you can defeat him with your now overpowered characters.
But things don’t end there. The characters of Bravely Second become aware of an all-seeing being who is in divine control of all the events of the game. They look up to the sky to see this godlike creature. It’s you. You literally see your own face, shrouded in clouds, courtesy of video captured by the 3DS front-facing camera. The implication is clear: While you hold your 3DS, you literally hold the fate of Bravely Second’s characters in your hands.
Things get even crazier after you, God, help your servants in the final battle with a powerful, demonic foe. This foe, like Kaiser Oblivion, will defeat you, and then she seizes control of your entire game. She sends you back to the title screen once again, and you are forced to watch as the devil overpowers God and deletes your save data, file by file. Eventually, your power supersedes hers and you lead your band of heroes to victory.
One instance of this new style of metagaming from a single developer is unique, and also enticing. But three instances, all from Square Enix, all in a single year? It’s clear that this is a fresh method of storytelling that Square Enix wants to pioneer. However, each of these games could be considered as “niche” games; JRPGs made solely for the dedicated Final Fantasy and retro RPG fan. But with Final Fantasy XV just around the corner, could it potentially feature some of these meta elements? We’ve already seen images of an older looking Noctis, so another time loop doesn’t seem out of the question.
Is Square Enix confident enough in their metagaming narratives to include them in their most anticipated title in years? I, for one, certainly hope so. These mind-bending utilisations of standard game mechanics and hardware have, in each instance, elevated these three games above levels of normalcy. They allow you feel genuinely concerned and involved in the story, and place you right at the forefront of the plot. And not just as a player. As a human being. What could make a video game more memorable than that?