The official Final Fantasy XII playthrough has started and I can feel the excitement in the air. People are already trading weapon preferences and reactions to the six year old title. I have only completed the game once, but this will be my third attempt to play through the whole game.
In an effort to actually complete the game in question this time, I got a bit of a head start. Good thing too, because I have been completely caught up in exploration and hunts and chaining enemies and generally taking my time with the title. I want to leave more specific discussion about Final Fantasy XII in the official thread, but the context of playing XII for the first time after playing Final Fantasy XIII has led me back to a more broad thought: Dicking around is an incredibly important element to world building in an RPG.
The common complaint of there being no towns in Final Fantasy XIII was less about the desire to have actual settlements, but rather wanting the opportunity to stop and smell the flowers and have locations to return to at the player’s own pace. The importance of this element was exposed in Final Fantasy XIII-2 but is far more present in XII. While the game has a relatively slow start, the scale is apparent from the beginning. Rabanastre is a lively city begging to be explored. Even if some shops have items that are too expensive or are not available yet, the game still lets the player discover these places at her own pace.
Once the plot is finally set in motion with all characters accessible to the player, there is an incredible sensation of being part of an almost unbelievably large world, especially for a JRPG. Not only is the main quest paved by vast areas and winding paths, but hunts allow for further exploration of the world, access to better items, and a sense of the rich lore and history of Ivalice.
If I want to head to Nalbina before the story calls for it, no problem. If I want to head to other areas far before I am “supposed to”, it is no issue. Of course, I will get instantly slayed by the enemies, but it is a danger that I discovered on my own. While powerful enemies essentially still function as invisible walls, it adds a great deal of depth to have full access to an area at any point in the game.
What about that dinosaur that I was terrified of in the opening hours of the game? Head back to that area after some leveling, and it can be taken out with ease. The area created a relationship with me, the player, and I was able to react to it at a later point of my choosing.
It seems trivial that simply returning to an area can have such a profound effect, but that is one of the aspects that makes a game so much different than a film. A film tells a very specific story told through the exact shots and words that the director wants. A game builds a world and provides a plot and leaves it up to the player to tell her own story using those elements. That is why Final Fantasy XIII felt like such a failing in so many ways. The world was largely not the player’s to explore. There was no relationship between the player and Cocoon.
When I take a look at my favourite games of all time, there is a significant amount of dicking around potential in all of them. Certainly I spent hours and hours happily distracted from the main quests simply content in enjoying how alive and thorough the worlds were.
Final Fantasy IX is more similar to XII – and practically all other Final Fantasy games – in that there was plenty of opportunity to take in the world at my own pace with so many sidequests that even I have not completed every one. The original Mass Effect provided The Citadel and the Normandy for world-building distraction, Shadow of the Colossus is almost “Dicking Around: The Game”, and although Flower can be completed in a few hours, I have spent nearly that much time in almost every individual level during single sittings.
The point is that I find games to be most effective when they take advantage of their own unique medium, especially in relation to genre. If I am to play a role in a role-playing game, that should mean that I often have the power to choose where to be and when in the massive world that my character inhibits. A good RPG is often exemplified by the ability to jump in and play many hours without ever progressing the story.
Do you agree LusiTwelves? Is there a non-Final Fantasy XIII example of a good RPG with very little dicking around?