A walking simulator

Jesus wept, Final Fantasy XV is a weird mess. I have never encountered something so polished and incompetent. Final Fantasy XV is the anti-Marvel movie and the anti-David Lynch film. It is a beautiful Frankenstein bride. There is nothing lazy about Final Fantasy XV and yet it’s never really interesting except in its failures.

Final Fantasy XV is a bad cover band. Final Fantasy XV is a group of technically hyper-talented musical savants who forget the song halfway through. And you are so entranced watching them flounder onstage that their active confusion and sudden incompetence becomes a great live show in its own right. For a little while, at least.

(Conversely, Final Fantasy IX is a great cover band.)

What happened to Final Fantasy XV?

But first… what is Final Fantasy XV?

Final Fantasy XV is the fifteenth game in the _Final Fantasy video game series. Developed and published by Square Enix, Final Fantasy XV debuted in late 2016 for the Sony Playstation 4 and XBOX One after over a decade in development. In game design abstract, Final Fantasy XV is best described as a heavily-gated “open” world simulation featuring floaty combat interspersed with clips from an overlong episode of an unfinished television series based thematically on the Final Fantasy video game property.

Final Fantasy XV is for the morbidly curious and the kool-aid drinkers.

Final Fantasy XV is for anyone with a band named Diegetic Mayhem.

What is the Final Fantasy series?

More recently, a punchline.

Initially, a collection of role-playing games starting with Final Fantasy developed by Square and published by Nintendo for the Nintendo Entertainment Console in 1987. Each numbered Final Fantasy game is a stand-alone sci-fi/fantasy adventure, although motifs remain consistent in each title.

Final Fantasy I-V are games for anyone already touched by the devil through Dungeons & Dragons.

Final Fantasy VI is for anyone of any age who actually has a favorite book.

Final Fantasy VII & VIII are for puberty.

Final Fantasy IX, X & XII are for those disappointed by the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Final Fantasy XIII is for Louis Vuitton.

I don’t know anything about Final Fantasy XI or Final Fantasy XIV.

There are some excellent video game oral histories out there, and one of my favorites is Polygon’s exhaustive piece on Final Fantasy VII (1997). I would pay money for an equivalent oral history of Final Fantasy XV. It would potentially be a better purchase than Final Fantasy XV the video game. There is a Wikipedia page for “Development of Final Fantasy XV” — but it is cold and stark. I want the Behind the Music of Final Fantasy XV. I want the Some Kind of Monster for Square Enix.

A fighting simulator

While we wait for that, it’s worth examining Final Fantasy XV as it exists now. Sometimes, I wish Final Fantasy XV weren’t a video game but a paperweight, because I like looking at it, and at least then it would be useful.

Here are five interesting observations about the not-paperweight that is Final Fantasy XV:

1. Final Fantasy XV is part of the Final Fantasy XV Universe

Everyone loves a Universe in the ‘aughts. Universe implies that whatever project you produce is one piece of a larger whole — and/or a single ad for a larger, unknowable whole. Personally, I despise the paint-by-numbers bullshit that Marvel puts out, but those movies generally know their beats and hit each with production line precision.

Final Fantasy XV has zero precision. As a result, it strikes out in every direction and doesn’t even know when it hits. Final Fantasy XV as a video game has several openings, and one of them is really good! Four dudes push a car down a dusty, desert road while a totally palatable cover of “Stand By Me” by Florence and the Machine plays over the car radio. The issue is that while the game itself has multiple openings, there are two multimedia prologues to the game: an anime series and a full-length CG movie, the latter of which is absolutely integral to having a clue as to what the fuck is going on, regardless of whether you care.

Post-release of the actual video game, the Final Fantasy XV Universe has been expanded in a 16-bit-style side-scrolling beat-em-up A King’s Tale: Final Fantasy XV, the upcoming virtual reality fishing simulator Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV and a series of paid DLC content filling in noticeably absent story beats from the main game.

For the most part, the absurdity of the _Final Fantasy XV Universe is all sort of funny and self aware. And, unlike Marvel, in Final Fantasy XV you definitely feel like the creators tried.

(Worth noting, Final Fantasy XV isn’t Square’s first foray into franchising the individual numbered Final Fantasy series. With Final Fantasy XIII [2010], SquareEnix launched the Fabula Nova Crystallis Final Fantasy series, of which Final Fantasy XV was originally a part, before rebranding.)

2. People definitely worked very hard on this

Final Fantasy XV is a big, pretty game. I would never complain that this game isn’t epic in scope or hard on the eyeballs. It is a technical accomplishment, most frames out of the 25-per-second it manages to chug out. I just don’t know what the end goal was. I’d love to see a mission statement for Final Fantasy XV. Something printed out, laminated and hung in designer/writer/producer cubicles. I imagine it, realistically, said: Oh god, let it end.

3. Final Fantasy XV feels like a bunch of people made a suicide pact, then after the first dude shot himself everyone else started to wonder whether this was such a good idea, but no one manned up and said, “Fuck this. Let’s move on. Sorry, Ed.”

Here’s a parable: A group of people begin rolling a ball up a hill, only to have the ball roll back down, collecting dirt and shit and detritus as it goes along. Now, they must roll an even bigger ball up a hill. A sort of Sisyphean Katamari Damacy. Everyone knows it is a waste of time, and the ball just keeps getting bigger and more unwieldy… But they’re cursed to do this for eternity, because they’re under contract with Square Enix.

4. The Peter Principle must be involved here in some way

We know that Square Enix is prone to Peter Principling people into positions they don’t belong in. Tetsuya Nomura is the Peter Principle incarnate.

Nomura is responsible for some iconic JRPG character design and some utterly bullshit games. Anyone who thought it’d be fun to ice-skate through a Disney-Final Fantasy phatasmagoria and whiff at enemies with a hollowed-out-plastic-feeling “key sword” can thank Nomura for realizing that vision. The float-combat of the Kingdom Hearts series (2002-Eternity) has gradually made its way into other Square Enix properties, and it’s most palatable evolution is probably in Final Fantasy XV (Nomura was the original director), where it still feels like garbage.

Nomura’s CV is an exercise in long production schedules. While “directing” Final Fantasy XV for seven of the ten years it was in production, he’s produced countless Kingdom Hearts remixes. In turn, Kingdom Hearts III remains “in development,” and he’s taken on directorial duties for the Final Fantasy VII remake.

To be clear, I begrudge him none of this. I have nothing against long production schedules. I have no horse in this race. But if I did have a horse, I would not name it Tesuya Nomura.

5. Prompto the human camera is a great idea

I remember two things about Prompto: 1) He used to be fat. 2) He takes photos that the player-character and friends review at the end of every day. I know people complain about Prompto, but he’s actually only as irritating as any of the other clichés in that car. Best of all, he comes with really satisfying, if passive, feature: automated photography.

The best part about Prompto is that he takes the pictures for you. In-game cameras have been around for ages. They’re fine. Modern games have filters and selfie poses. These are fine too. Benign. At times, as in reality, in-game cameras risk becoming a redundant back-and-forth of “Should I stop and capture this moment? Will I regret not?”

Turns out, I love having games take photos of me. Or of my player-characters and the things I make them do. It removes the bland tension of “Should I be taking a picture?” because Prompto is always taking pictures.

Here’s why it’s better to have the photos taken than to take them: We don’t remember what we see in games so much as what we do. Prompto’s constant photography, because it is subtle and also through sheer law of averages, captures what you’re doing better than you ever could.

It also endears you to the characters, which is something Final Fantasy XV needs. I’m not above loving some coffee-mug characters, even if Final Fantasy XV’s don’t rise to the level of, say, Persona 4 (2008), Persona 5 (2017) or previous Final Fantasy titles (most any of them, actually). And there’s some late-game legitimate feelings evoked by sorting through Prompto’s photos of your adventure up to that point. It’s extraordinarily manipulative, but in a really great way. Firewatch (2016) pulls a similar trick on a much smaller scale, but I’m curious to see if other games spin out Final Fantasy XV’s grander scrapbooking instincts.

Important conclusion

Those are five observations about the video game Final Fantasy XV, from me, someone who knows very little about big-budget game production in Japan but has played a lot of Final Fantasy. All I can tell you is that if I were handed the Final Fantasy license, a pile of yen and told to produce something in the Final Fantasy XV Universe, I’d make Final Fantasy XV: The Making of the Game: The Game. You’d play as Tetsuya Nomura pushing a giant Katamari ball of chocobo feathers, buster swords and bullshit up a very steep hill. ★