Why Final Fantasy XIII just didn't work

This is a column by Jason Schreier dedicated to the analysis (and occasional mocking) of his favorite genre, the Japanese role-playing game. Whether it's because they're too antiquated or just too niche, he believes JRPGs don't get enough attention in the gaming industry today. It's time to change that.

On January 31, Square Enix will release Final Fantasy XIII-2, a direct sequel to Final Fantasy XIII, which the developer shipped several years ago to mixed reactions. Some fans adored the game's gorgeous aesthetics and flashy combat; others cursed Square Enix for daring to defile their beloved series.

Perhaps because of that fan ambivalence, a large part of Square Enix's marketing plan for Final Fantasy XIII-2 has revolved around the message "This is not Final Fantasy XIII!" During preview events and demos, the developer has been careful to show off all of the new elements that the first game did not have: towns, NPCs, sidequests, and so forth.

Will Final Fantasy XIII-2 be worth playing? I'll tell you in a few weeks. But while we wait to see whether or not the newest Final Fantasy is worth our time, let's figure out why Square Enix is so eager to make it feel different than its predecessor.

Just where did Final Fantasy XIII go wrong?

If you direct that question at a group of fans, you'll probably hear the word "linear" one or two hundred times. The most common critique of Final Fantasy XIII is that it's too straightforward, too rigid. Too much of a line.

This gripe seems a little unfair. While the game is indeed linear -- you spend most of your time following a scripted path -- this is not much of a departure from the norm. With a few exceptions, the Final Fantasy series has always forced players to follow strictly defined narrative progressions.

What makes Final Fantasy XIII different is that it doesn't even bother pretending otherwise.

The word "immersion" has become something of a cliche in recent years. Publishers and developers throw it around like bills at a strip club, sprinkling it among other buzzwords on marketing and press materials. "Unprecedented immersion," reads every box cover ever.

Still, the idea is important: While playing a game, we want to feel like we're immersed in the experience. We want to feel like we're visiting new worlds, seeing new sights, inhabiting new locations. We want to feel like we're somewhere else.

The concept of linearity diminishes this feeling, reminding you that you are playing a game and following somebody else's script. When you don't have any choices, it's tough to feel immersed.

To combat this, other Final Fantasy games create the illusion of choice, using techniques like sidequests, towns, world maps, vehicles, and even optional bosses to make you feel like you can actually veer from the script.

Take Final Fantasy VII. When you leave Midgar and first encounter the game's massive world map, you get that rush of "holy shit, I can go wherever I want." You can walk along beaches or explore the corners of forests, even when there isn't much to do or see. You can talk to townspeople or try to sneak past enemies that you just can't beat yet.

You can't progress until you do what the game wants you to do next, but you can see more than what it wants you to see. It feels like you're visiting the world of Final Fantasy VII, not just watching it.

Final Fantasy XIII has no such illusion. There's no veil of immersion. It's just a series of tube-like hallways among oodles of eye-popping scenery that you'd love to explore, but can't. All you have to do is move your joystick and battle monsters. The game doesn't even pretend to care that you're there.

It's impossible to visit the world of Final Fantasy XIII. All you can do is watch it. No wonder it felt so unsatisfying.

Jason Schreier is a freelance writer/editor based out of NYC. He's a contributing writer for Wired.com and occasionally writes for a number of other sites and publications, including Edge Magazine, the Onion News Network and G4TV. You can follow him on Twitter at @jasonschreier.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.