What Final Fantasy XIII and Heavy Rain Have in Common

Gaming is about the experience. Mashing buttons and keys is how I spent the nineties–I stomped on Goombas, explored dungeons in Hyrule, and bunnyhopped in Quake. When playing Doom in my early years, I was terrified of the demons that the gates of Hell unleashed. And I’ll never forget the first time I saw the rain streaked sky in Donkey Kong Country’s second level, swinging vine to vine.

I had a blast with gaming then and I have a blast with gaming now. My experiences have been memorable and positive–most of the time, at least.

As titles both released in 2010, it stands within reason that Final Fantasy XIII and Heavy Rain should have a lot more on the classics of yesteryear. They should have evolved significantly in the overall quality of experience–from gameplay to graphics, each title has had more than enough time to improve itself. But for some reason, I feel more immersed playing Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest than I do when I play as Ethan Mars.

As a title, Heavy Rain is a sobering experience. It’s thick and tiring. Its graphics are state of the art and some of the voice acting is pretty good, but that’s about all it has going for it. The game’s flaws are numerous and transparent. Although it serves as an homage to the serial killer genre of entertainment, it fails to offer more than a short episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation does. The cast spends much of the game running around like chickens with their heads cut off searching for answers for questions that weren’t asked. Their speeches and mannerisms are hollow and their actions lack meaning; when Ethan’s wife tells him it’s his fault his son is missing, her voice falsetto with grief, it falls flat.

And with her words, the whole game falls flat.

In Heavy Rain, it rains. It pours. A couple of boys are murdered. And then it rains some more. While it looks gorgeous–a collage of scenic cityscapes drenched in a torrential downpour–nothing else happens. It does very little and shows even less.

It’s even worse for the player. There is no actual game to be found in Heavy Rain. It gives gamers frequently clumsy controls and confining linear play. A shake of a controller and a little nudge of the joystick are about as intense as it gets. Furthermore, everything is scripted to a fault. There is no world to explore beyond the invisible barriers. You can’t walk along the train tracks or leave the apartment to head to a nearby store unless the game wants you to. Ultimately its linearity smothers and hinders what little story there is to begin with. Although originally heralded as a title that was all about choice, most choices are actually concluded with predetermined endings. There are RPGs that convey better choices from the last decade. While I may determine how Shelby gets an origami figure from a sales clerk at a convenience store, it’s impossible to leave the building without it. All I get to do is choose if I want to get shot, kill someone, or smile a lot in the process. It leaves a lot to be desired.

Of course, some would say that’s fine. After all, Quantic Dream meant this game as an interactive movie–it’s an experiment in medium melding. It’s not just a game, it’s a theatrical experience as it strives to combine the cinema with video gaming. As such, I will concede that it does make steps in that direction, but I still don’t fully agree it did it right. I would buy the argument, perhaps, if Heavy Rain and its significantly stronger cousin Indigo Prophecy were the only type of video game to fall victim to these pitfalls of severe linearity mixed with incredible stylistic elements.

But they aren’t–Final Fantasy XIII, Square-Enix’s latest in their brand defining series, suffers from exactly the same ills as Heavy Rain. It’s just about as much of a game and a movie, too.

Both titles even have similar themes. While the recent Final Fantasy’s tagline was not the question of “how far would you go to save the one you love” as Heavy Rain’s was, it still shared a common backbone to its story: love.

FFXIII and Heavy Rain are about–to a degree–saving loved ones. Ethan Mars wants badly to save Shaun Mars, his son. He would do anything in the process, at one point even commandeering a car five miles down the freeway in reverse traffic (which, might I add, the game doesn’t allow you to choose against doing despite letting you voice moral regret as Ethan). In Final Fantasy XIII, Snow would do anything to save Serah, including becoming the very thing he feared. As Serah becomes less tangible and prolific, the theme of saving loved ones extends to the entire world of Cocoon itself and, by proxy, humanity.

The themes themselves aren’t too bad, although there are obvious clichés. Clichés, however, make the world go around and it would be a mistake to judge solely on originality. It’s hard to be original after centuries of writers who have done it before and a damsel in distress isn’t anything new. In the video game medium, Mario and Zelda have all done it decades before. The problem isn’t that it’s been done before–it’s that it’s been done before better when technology and budgets were significantly less. What these two titles lack isn’t and never was originality, but rather, a fluid and multifaceted presentation.

And, much like Heavy Rain, FFXIII is all about style and presentation. It’s just not pulled off seamlessly. A few minutes into the world of Cocoon and it becomes obvious that its style is the game’s the most prominent feature. Unfortunately, the smooth presentation and flashing graphics end up merely serving as backdrops for an empty cast coupled with a disappointingly linear plot. At times, the game’s style has such a high quality that it almost highlights the lack of quality in the other elements. Although it contains a complicated story and a potentially deep world, its sentiment is mostly lost in a deluge of beautiful graphics and hyper-stylized art direction. Much like how it’s hard to really stop and think about the trauma Ethan Mars is experiencing over all the scripted action scenes of Heavy Rain, it’s difficult to breathe in-between the endless montage of FMV in FFXIII. The game’s potential is drowned out.

Worse, its mediocre gameplay doesn’t try to pull it out of the sea of failure.

The gameplay is possibly the worst part–Final Fantasy’s combat system has always been a staple for the JRPG genre, the series famously known for its emphasis on gear and attributes. While it may be antiquated and sometimes synonymous with tedious grinding, Final Fantasy games had combat and stats that were nuanced and took effort to master. But Final Fantasy XIII has barely any of that, choosing to emphasize its graphics and aural qualities as well as remove more complex RPG elements. Frankly, as a game and a JRPG, FFXIII could learn a thing or two from Dragon Quest’s recent return to its roots with its ninth installment. It could even look to WRPGs like The Witcher or Dragon Age to learn even more about being updated to present day graphical effects with timeless role-playing elements.

Arguably, both games should consider returning to the roots from which they strayed so far from. Of course, games have come a long ways from their roots of basic entertainment and that’s easier said than done. Games have changed and so have gamers. It’s not as easy as simply creating an enjoyable and fun experience anymore. Graphics need to be rendered perfectly, voice acting is essential, and a writing staff is almost as important as a development team nowadays. Game development has gotten a lot more complicated.

Beyond the technical elements, there is also an overarching pressure to outperform and be a commercial success. Games need to succeed and outdo past titles as well as offer an enriching experience to their fans. Each Final Fantasy must be better than the last to convince customers to continue to stay with the franchise. FFXIII needed to have stronger cut scenes, deeper narrative, and a richer world than any of the series’ previous titles. Similarly, Quantic Dream set out to surpass Indigo Prophecy by giving HR different perspectives, more choices, and a twisting plot with multiple outcomes. But both games fell short, caving under the expectations. They were demanded to utilize technology and surpass their predecessors. However, so intently focused on success, they ended up being little more than cumbersome entries in video game history.

It feels like they forgot about the core of gaming, their roots–the fun and the experience, how it all comes together to create an effect that leaves a lasting impression. It’s almost as if they forgot what video games were supposed to be about.

Maybe if Final Fantasy XIII and Heavy Rain hadn’t fallen prey to outperform and utilize technology in ways never used before, they would have had a different outcome. If they could have gone back to gaming’s roots a little and remembered the sum of the whole is greater than an emphasis on new technology, it’s possible it could have all been a different story.

Regretfully, they didn’t. Their various elements clashed violently to create two very confused and immensely gorgeous video games that left no after effect. And all that remains after completion of both are the vestiges of potential, the worlds that Ethan Mars and Lightning will never get to share with us–the experience gamers could have had.

Perhaps that is our lasting impression. I just doubt it’s what it was intended to be.