Why having rigid rules in Final Fantasy made for a better game

The Final Fantasy series shows us that having rules, rather than freedom, often leads to a better gaming experience. 

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Most video games treat plot the way that parents treat pudding: as an inducement to get you to do your chores, ie the actual gameplay. Defeat x monster: unlock plot. Scale that tower: have some plot. Use double jump to clear the molten lava: congratulations, there’s a bit of plot on the other side of the volcano.

A growing number of games, particularly independent titles, use the gameplay to tell the story – One Night Stand, What Remains of Edith Finch, and Papers, Please, – but for the most part, the two are kept at a distance from one another.

At its peak, the Final Fantasy had a great deal of engrossing story, but by god it loved to make you do a lot of chores to reach them. You would occasionally happen upon a boss battle that simply couldn’t be beaten at your present level and have no option but to retrace your steps and kill monsters until you got strong enough to survive. But at its best, the franchise’s gameplay made the story more involving.

Each new Final Fantasy game takes place in a different universe, with the combat taking place under different – well, for a given value of different – rules. Broadly, though, gameplay fell into two types; the game’s breakout title, Final Fantasy had a largely rigid system, in which only certain characters could do certain things: only one character could use healing magic, only another could handle a melee weapon effectively, while a third might be needed to steal rare items form enemies, or a fourth might be required to cast offensive magic.

This was, for the most part, the system favoured by Final Fantasies V, VI, VII, IX and X (although at the very end of V, VII and X characters who had achieved their full potential could use the full range of powers – but for most of the game, you were better off with the right specialists in the right places.)

Yet VIII and every entry from XII onwards used a free-flowing system in which characters could change their abilities at will.

When Rinoa Heartilly is kidnapped in Final Fantasy VIII, you miss her only in the cutscenes because she is just one of six entirely fungible playable characters as far as combat is concerned. A battle without Rinoa plays out the same way as one with Rinoa. Yet when Final Fantasy VII takes Cloud Strife out of commission, you lose your most powerful and versatile character, the only one who can use physical attacks, magic and support skills equally well. That Tifa Lockhart, likely the character you have levelled the most with Cloud, is also temporarily removed from play only adds to the feeling that your ragtag band of adventurers has been crippled, perhaps fatally.

Final Fantasy IX separates its magical characters from its fighters on several occasions, and each time the division is not just felt in the plot but in every battle. When Yuna, the party’s designated healer, goes missing in Final Fantasy X, the attempt to rescue her feels frantic and dangerous because you can’t heal yourself anywhere near as fast as your enemies can hurt you.

It’s not the only reason that Final Fantasy XII, a thinly veiled rip-off of Star Wars, lacks the punch of earlier instalments, but that there is really no difference between who you have in your party and who you don’t other that aesthetics doesn’t help. With Final Fantasy XV the problem became even more acute, with a party comprising of the hero and three sidekicks who are so fungible it was only when the final credits rolled that I realised they weren’t going to be killed off in order for the “real” supporting characters to take centre stage.

It felt like a sad end to a series that used to feel pioneering in its blend of storytelling and gameplay, which now feels increasingly bland and characterless. Still, there’s always the re-releases.

This article was part of the NS’s “Vintage video games week”, click here to read more in the series.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.