The Minecraft Travelogue: The Wheat Field: Days 101-112

Seven witches are destroying this world by raising an army of undead warriors. My job is to hunt and kill them. Perhaps killing these witches will restore balance to the world.

Six witches have been slayed: one more remains.

After journeying to a barren place of sand and rock, I ran out of food, and was on the edge of starvation.

This is my journey. My only goal is to tell a good story.

Day 104

Near Floating Rock was a pond, the perfect place to cultivate my wheat. I filled it in, using dirt I dug up from under the water.

Minecraft Travelogue

Soil is difficult to find in this land of baked clay.

Minecraft Travelogue

After making many trips below the surface, I finally found enough material.

I hoed the ground, and planted all of my seeds on a hope, and by day’s end they were growing.

Minecraft Travelogue

The next question is: would I grow enough wheat before I starved to death?

At nightfall, I saw a spider on the distant mesa and went inside.

Minecraft Travelogue

I couldn’t risk a fight in my condition. If I got injured, my death would be accelerated. I was getting very hungry and only had one loaf of bread left. I’d like to kill skeletons, to use their bones as fertilizer, but it was too risky. Maybe in the morning I will search for dead skeletons instead.

Day 105

At sunrise, I found a gold plated zombie rampaging through my fields. He was difficult to fight, especially in my weakened condition, but I killed him without a scratch.

Minecraft Travelogue

Minecraft Travelogue

Unfortunately, this fight added to my hunger and exhaustion. I searched all morning for skeleton bones, but no success.

I finally planted a couple saplings. Maybe these oak trees will sprout and provide apples to tide me over until the wheat grows.

Minecraft Travelogue

The tree sprouted, but it was sickly and gray. This wasn’t going to work, I thought. I chopped it down, and it yielded two saplings, but no apples. I immediately planted another, hoping the apples would come soon.

Minecraft Travelogue

I went to bed hungry, one unit of hunger left. Soon my stomach would start eating itself. My crops were coming along nicely. I should have wheat by tomorrow.

Minecraft Travelogue

Day 106

I waited. And waited. I grew delirious under the hot desert sun. When would these crops grow? Was the sun too hot for them?

Minecraft Travelogue

I’ve died before, but not like this. Not like this. I could see my death coming days away, and yet everything in my power did little to stave it off. Once the pangs of hunger grew too great to bear, I would consume my last loaf of bread.

I held it like a lifeline, tempted to eat it immediately, but I had to wait.

The crops were growing tall, but they hovered at the peak of maturity.

Minecraft Travelogue

Finally, just was I was ready to go to bed (maybe for the last time), one crop of wheat matured. But I needed three to make bread.

Minecraft Travelogue

Day 107

And then I could stand it no more. My stomach was consuming itself, and I had to act quickly to prevent permanent damage to my body. I ravenously consumed the last loaf of bread. Would the rest of this wheat mature soon?

Minecraft Travelogue

By the end of the day, I had more bread. I made the loaf and consumed it immediately, still hot from the oven, burning my mouth and fingers. I needed at least two more loaves before I could begin healing. The crops were maturing faster now.

Minecraft Travelogue

Day 108

To pass the time while my crops grew, I collected as many cacti as I could, grafted them together, and built a cactus 16 meters tall. Let this be a warning to all who attack: you will get stuck.

Minecraft Travelogue

I even hurt myself building it, but by afternoon, I had enough wheat and bread to heal fully.

At night, I decided to hunt skeletons for bones. Their bones, crushed into bone meal, would provide excellent fertilizer for my crops.

I hunted two skeletons and got two bones, good for six bone meals.

Then I was attacked by zombies! I made it back to my house while a baby zombie, creeper, and villager zombie stood outside. I was safe, but they would still be here in the morning.

Minecraft Travelogue

Minecraft Travelogue

Days 109-112

Time passed slowly while I waited for my crops to grow. My hunger was neutralized for the moment, but who knew how long this desert went on? I needed to have a very large stockpile of bread, to prepare for any outcome.

Fortunately, each new mature batch of wheat yielded more seeds, sometimes only enough to replenish the vacant square, but frequently extra seed as well. My field was slowly expanding, and soon I was on a third row!

Minecraft Travelogue

Each day the cycle was the same: plant wheat, harvest wheat, plant more seeds, bake bread.

Sometimes I took Lightning for a walk, but there was nothing to see.

Minecraft Travelogue

After nine days at Floating Rock, I think I finally had enough wheat. I harvested as much as I could, and didn’t till any more soil. All four rows were full. Now I was storing seed as well as bread, which will come in handy should I ever find myself in this situation again.

Tomorrow I will resume my quest.

Minecraft Travelogue

Author’s Note: Thanks for everybody who has commented on these Travelogue posts! I know it’s been far too long since the last post: as you may have gleaned from this post, my journey hit a wall–lack of food–that took me quite a few hours to recover from! Needless to say, things got a little boring for a moment there! But now I’m back on track, and I intend to finish this first season. Only one witch remains! I’m already plotting ideas for Season Two, so keep reading. I appreciate the support. ~Dennis

The Role of Graphics in Video Games

When it comes to video game graphics, I’m generally of the school of thought that while graphics are nice, they aren’t the most important part of a video game. I can appreciate a beautiful game when I see one, but I’m no “graphics snob,” obsessed with having the most powerful PC or the latest generation consoles the moment they are released.

Gameplay comes first, I’ve always thought. That’s why I can still appreciate games like Super Mario Bros. (1985), the Legend of Zelda (1986), Super Mario World (1990), Final Fantasy VI (1994) and Zombies Ate My Neighbors (1993), even though these graphics are “outdated” by today’s standards. Even modern games designed to have a “retro” look take certain liberties with their graphics, doing things that actual mid-1980s and early-1990s games weren’t capable of (for example, check out this fantastic explanation of the graphics created for Shovel Knight).

But then, I saw the five-part series on video game graphics by YouTuber Ahoy titled A Brief History of Graphics. In this series, Ahoy charts the evolution of video game graphics, from the earliest games to today’s 3D masterpieces.

As I watched, my view on graphics started to evolve. Maybe graphics aren’t purely aesthetic touches, as I’ve often believed. Ahoy begins the first video by saying, “They say graphics aren’t important. But every game I’ve ever played has had them.”

After watching the series, I crafted three theses about graphics: graphics must not hamper the gameplay experience; graphics should expand gameplay possibilities; and graphics should be aesthetically pleasing only after the first two conditions are met.

The videos have been embedded at the bottom of this post for ease of reference. If you’d like to watch them first before I expand on my theses, feel free to scroll down.

Thesis 1: Graphics Must Not Hamper the Gameplay Experience

Obviously graphics are needed to some degree in video games. Without any graphics, we’d only have games, not “video” games. The lowest threshold that games need to cross is having functional, utilitarian graphics. Can we at least see the characters? Does the game operate without crashing? Does the game accurately detect when we hit enemies? Does the game run at a consistent speed?

Most games meet these minimum guidelines, but there are a surprising number of games throughout history that are “broken,” not because the concept didn’t work (though there are examples of those games as well), but because the graphics are so poor that the game is frustrating to play at best, and impossible to play at worst.

I remember playing many NES games where the graphics negatively detracted from the game. Human characters looked monstrous and grotesque. Backgrounds were muddy. Projectiles launched from weapons disappeared and then reappeared when you least expected them to.

In the early days of 3D graphics, the mid-1990s, it wasn’t uncommon for polygonal characters to walk through walls that should be solid, or fall through floors, or fly over the edge of the map, only to see an eternal expanse.

One of the most famous “broken” games due to graphics was the Pac-Man port for the Atari 2600. You probably know what the arcade version of Pac-Man looks like: little round yellow ball, eating white pellets and colored ghosts, navigating a blue and black maze. A simple game, sure, but at the time it had some of the best (and smoothest) graphics in arcade games.

The game was ported to the Atari 2600, bringing the title into the homes of millions. However, due to the limitations of the Atari, the game didn’t look like the arcade. See the video below for gameplay footage:

Not only are the colors all wrong, but the worst part is the flickering ghosts. The reason the ghosts flicker is that the Atari wasn’t powerful enough to draw all the objects on the screen at the same time. Four moving ghosts was too much for the processor to handle. So two ghosts appear in one frame, then the other two ghosts appear in the second frame, back and forth, back and forth.

I suppose the developers thought they were being clever, perhaps thinking that the ghosts would flicker so fast that your eye wouldn’t be able to tell that only two are on screen at once. But your eye can tell. And the game was a miserable commercial failure, mostly because the graphics severely hampered the gameplay experience.

Thesis 2: Graphics Should Expand Gameplay Possibilities

Let’s assume your game beats the very low threshold of unworkable graphics. The next challenge is to use graphics to expand gameplay possibilities. One observation that is very clear in A Brief History of Graphics is that with advances in graphics come new types of games. When side-scrolling was invented, more expansive games were possible. As game systems got more powerful, they could have more objects on the screen at once, leading to more intense racing and shooting games.

With the advent of 3D graphics, games offered players more directions of movement, no longer restricting them to the 2D plane.

Watching these videos, this is when I had my big revelation. The video games that are often heralded as advancing graphics are often more than just pretty images for the eye. The games that break new ground in graphics technology also offer fresh gameplay opportunities.

Consider the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) for the Nintendo 64. For the first time, Link adventured in a three-dimensional realm. The game was more than just a graphical upgrade of the existing Zelda formula. The third dimension added new challenges to Zelda. Now puzzles had to be thought through in three-dimensions. Link didn’t just push and pull blocks from left to right, but up and down as well.

Link’s weapons, most notably the arrow and hookshot, required movement across the third plane. If the player just ran around with his eyes level, he’d miss secrets, doors, or switches hidden high up or very low.

Or consider the evolution of first-person shooters. Some of the earliest examples, Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993), only allowed the player to shoot enemies along a horizontal axis. In Doom, while enemies might physically appear in a higher location than the player, the player couldn’t actually aim their gun at the enemy. They just needed to make sure the gun was lined up with the enemy vertically, and bam! Enemy gone.

But as FPSs got more sophisticated, so did aiming. Now players had a lot more control over where their shots were going, making the game more challenging.

Too many games, however, have awesome graphics that simply don’t expand gameplay possibilities. I own a Nintendo 3DS, but I never use the 3D feature, for example. Viewing a game in 3D doesn’t offer anything new in terms of gameplay. I’m not even sure it makes the games look better either, as the 3DS has to be held at a very specific angle otherwise you’ll see double images.

Many people say that Super Mario 3D Land (2011) and the Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (2013) do use the 3D effect successful for some puzzles. I think those claims are debatable. I played both games to completion without using the 3D effect and I got through just fine.

Of course, not every game can break new frontiers graphically. Not every game can have a major graphics innovation, such as side-scrolling or 3D movement. With each new breakthrough in graphics technology, it’s acceptable for games to have a period where they figure out how to exploit that technology to the fullest.

Thesis 3: Graphics Should be Aesthetically Pleasing Only After the First Two Conditions are Met

Finally, if a game’s graphics are both unbroken and they expand gameplay possibilities, then fine-tuning the graphics so they are as aesthetically pleasing as possible is acceptable. Graphics can set the mood for a game, and so adding stylistic flourishes is sometimes necessary to set the tone.

One of the most beautiful games that satisfies this third thesis is Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island for the SNES (1995). The game looks like it was drawn with crayons, which fits the more childlike, cutesy atmosphere. I’m sure Miyamoto’s team had to come up with some new graphical technology to achieve this effect. Yoshi’s Island certainly plays very differently than Super Mario World, but that’s due more to the design than the graphics, I think.

Still, working with established graphics technology (and limitations), Miyamoto’s team came up with a very beautiful game that sets it apart for all other games of that era.

If you aren’t familiar with the game, check out the gameplay video below:

When it comes to 3D games, I think developers have hit a plateau where graphics aren’t really adding anything new to the gameplay. I think this happened around the sixth generation of video game consoles (PS2, Xbox, and GameCube). The previous generation was the first generation with 3D graphics, and video games went through a lot of growing pains. Many of them couldn’t satisfy the first condition, let alone the second.

By the sixth generation, 3D games were bigger, making adventures like Grand Theft Auto III possible (2001). Recently I played through Kingdom Hearts II (2005) and was blown away by how good the graphics still looked. I know there’s an HD remaster of Kingdom Hearts II out now, and I’ll probably get it someday, but do the HD graphics really change or enhance how the game is played? Probably not.

One of my favorite games from the seventh generation was Final Fantasy XIII (2009), which I wrote about recently. The graphics are stunning, to be sure, but the same basic gameplay and story would’ve probably been possible on the PS2 and Xbox. Maybe the environments would’ve been a little smaller, and maybe there’d be a few less partial and light effects on the screen, but would that serious hurt the gameplay experience?

Because aesthetically pleasing graphics are now skipping over the second condition I outlined, I haven’t been as excited for the latest generation of consoles. What can the PS4 and Xbox One really do that their previous iterations couldn’t? Will the improved graphics on these systems really lead to new types of games? So far I’m skeptical.

I do have a Wii U, and I appreciate that Nintendo is at least trying new innovations, graphically, with the inclusion of the second screen. Nintendo’s previous console, the Wii, was starting to show its age graphically. The Wii had trouble creating large environments, such as the kind seen in the Grand Theft Auto titles. So the Wii didn’t have many games with massive overworlds. But is that a real loss?

The bigger a game gets, the more I feel lost. I heard somebody remark  once that Grand Theft Auto V is experienced more through the smartphone “map” display than from the actual graphics on the screen, at least when driving. The world is so big you have to use the map to set destination points, and from there, you follow the yellow line on the mini map to get to your destination, only seeing the beautiful cityscapes through your peripheral vision. The game is so big that such a mini map is needed, but at what cost?

Everybody is saying that the next big expansion of graphics will come with competent virtual reality. Perhaps. But I’m holding my breath for now.

In conclusions, graphics are important to video games, but they are most important when the second condition is met, when graphics expand gameplay possibilities. Aesthetically sophisticated games are nice, but if the graphics come at the expense of gameplay, then perhaps developers should invest more money and time in developing a solid game first before worrying about making it shiny and pretty.

Game on
~Dennis

A Brief History of Graphics





Pokeball Christmas Wreath

This year, as I prepared for Christmas, I wanted to come up with a decoration that fit the season but also fit my nerdy, video game interests. I’d seen wreaths before made out of ornament balls, so I decided to make one myself.

Only with Pokéballs!

All you need for this project are Christmas balls, red and green glitter spray paint ($8 a can at Hobby Lobby), a strong wire (like a coat hanger), electrical tape, and ribbon.

First, I gathered the balls, about 70 total.

White and silver Christmas balls

Because the Pokéballs were going to be green and red, I used white and silver balls to fill in the gaps. I eventually added some plain red balls as well.

The larger white balls served as the base for the paint. Putting painters tape around the circumference, I spray painted the tops of half with red glitter paint and half with green.

Spraying green glitter paint on the pokeballs.

I held the balls in my hand and spray painted them, then set them in a box to dry.

I quickly found that the glitter paint was harder to work with than normal spray paint. You can’t really push the button down lightly. If you do, only a clear glue comes out, not the paint. So I held the balls at arms length and tried to apply the paint as lightly as possible. In some cases the paint clumped together as it dried, but other times it stayed on evenly. I’m not sure what caused the difference.

In the future, it’d probably look better to spray the balls with normal green and red paint first, and then put a second, lighter coat of glitter paint on top.

The masking tape didn’t work perfect: sometimes the paint dribbled through.

Red pokeball ornament with paint dribble.

What was most unusual is that sometimes the glue part of the glitter paint pooled at the bottom of the ball, under the masking tape, leaving the sides cleaner than the bottom.

When painting the balls, make sure to leave the “top” hole of the ornament in the center of the ball and toward the back. Once on the wreath, since this messy back-end will be facing the wall, nobody sees too many dribbles.

I followed this woman’s general plan for assembling the wreath. One thing she recommends, which I didn’t realize until all the balls were strung on, is hot glue the metal top of the ball to the ornament itself. Once all the balls are on the wreath, the pressure of so many objects together can cause the balls to pop out of their holders, making it very difficult (and frustrating) to get them back on again.

After all the balls were strung, the wreath was nearly complete. I put about 3-4 small balls between each Pokéball. Because gravity wants to pull all the balls toward the bottom of the wreath, hide any remaining wire at the top with ribbon.

And that’s all there is to it!

Completed pokeball wreath

To make the black line separating the color and white halves, I used electrical tape. I cut strips of tape into four or five smaller stripes, almost like pinstripping, then cut a line circle by hand. The electrical tape sticks well and hides some of the paint dribbles as well.

Overall, I’m pretty satisfied with this project, even if some of the paint on the balls isn’t perfect.

Merry Christmas!

~Dennis

Detail on the Pokeball wreath

Detail on the Pokeball wreath

Update: 1/5/2014

As I packed away my Christmas decorations this season, I couldn’t help but be bothered by all those balls that popped off while I manipulated the wreath. So I took all the balls off the wire, then glued the metal parts in place.

I used super glue, and the process was quite easy, though time consuming. I learned not to pull the metal part off completely: the glue will dry before you bend the little wires to get it back on. So instead I pulled the metal part back just a little bit, put a dab of glue down, then pressed the metal into place.

The only balls I didn’t glue were the Pokéballs. I thought the wreath looked best with all the Pokéballs turned color-side-up, so I left the metal parts unglued so that I could twist them into place once they were back on the wire.

I rethreaded the balls, and only one ball popped off, a green Pokéball at the bottom of the wreath (where all the weight puts pressure on the balls). I’m so glad I took the time to do this. Now I won’t have to wrestle with this wreath next season!

The only task that remains is finding a box that’s wide and flat to store the thing in!

In Defense of Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII logo

I’ve been a Final Fantasy fan for more than 20 years now, as might be evident from my recent posts on Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call and Final Fantasy I. In 2010, Square-Enix released Final Fantasy XIII, the first FF for the seventh-generation of video game consoles. After playing Final Fantasy X, then XII, then oddly IX, I was ready for the latest adventure.

Of the seventh-gen consoles, I only own the Wii. I borrowed my brother’s Xbox 360, bought the game at the full price of $60, and settled in for the 50-hour quest.

And then a year later I played through the entire game again. Another 50 hours.

FFXIII has received its share of criticism, unfortunately. Most reviewers, and gamers, criticize the game for three reasons: the story is convoluted, the game is nothing more than a trek through corridors, and the game doesn’t open up until 2/3 of the way through. In this post, I’ll put those criticisms to rest.

FFXIII is one of the best of the series, a refreshing change of pace that reinvents nearly everything that had grown stale in the FF series.

A stripped down adventure

FFXIII is streamlined. The creators dispensed with the clutter and clichés of JRPGs, clichés pioneered by the FF series. Towns are nonexistent in FFXIII (well, towns that are safe havens). Gone are the inns, the shops, the endless townspeople who sometimes offer good advice, but most of the time say nothing of consequence.

Gone are the multitude of stats for each character: strength, agility, speed, defense, magic, magic defense, stamina, luck, so on and so on. Only two stats remain: strength and magic.

Healing is accomplished out of battle. In fact, everybody fully heals after each battle, so inns are useless, as are potions (though potions still remain). No longer do you need to equip armor for your characters, headgear and gauntlets and breastplates and shoes. You can equip some accessories, and weapons are modified at the save points, but the modifications really aren’t necessary.

The overworld is gone, as are airships. Dungeons lack puzzles.

Many fans were extremely upset that FFXIII stripped away nearly all of these elements. What’s left of the game without all these things? In short: the best parts of Final Fantasy—the combat and the story.

At first, I was a little shocked to see so many of the familiar conventions of the series left by the wayside. But I found over the course of the adventure that I didn’t miss any of it. That’s not to say I don’t like exploring towns, solving puzzles, and optimizing my armor and weapon choices. But what I learned was, if I wanted that style of game, I could always go back to FFVI and FFVII. It was time to move on from those trappings, and FFXIII’s creators knew it.

Combat is fun again

Combat in the FF series has always been easy. In the early FFs, a four-person party was too much (and FFIV went overboard with a five-man party). Most battles consist of this: selecting “Fight” for each character, watching your four characters plus 2-6 enemies perform their basic attacks, then repeat. Magic and healing and defensive postures are necessary on some boss battles, but 90% of the time, you can get away with mashing “A” or “X” when a battle starts, choosing the default options.

Combat used to bog down in the “grind,” those parts of the game when you arbitrarily had to level up your characters so that you could face the next boss. FFVI had an obnoxiously long grind at the end of that game, as you had to prepare 12 characters for the final battle.

In FFXIII, grinding is unnecessary (unless you want to take on the optional side quests, which I never found the need to).

What makes combat in FFXIII most interesting, though, is the paradigm system. You have three characters in your party, and each has three roles (later six if you want). Commanders are the leaders of the party; ravagers cast magic, healers heal, and so on. Before the battle begins, you set up your paradigms, and at any time in battle, you can switch.

For example, I might begin a battle with Lightning as the commander and Sazh and Vanille as ravagers. Then I might switch to an all-ravager paradigm, and if I get hurt, maybe switch to a healer-commander-healer paradigm.

Paradigm switching happens in a couple seconds, and is absolutely necessary to winning quickly. See, the enemies have a “stagger meter” that fills up with each hit. The more hits, the higher the meter goes. When it reaches a certain point, usually 300%, the enemy’s defenses temporarily fall, allowing you to do massive damage. Staggering an enemy is important, as it’s common by the end of the game for an enemy to have millions of hit points.

Now, if you didn’t care much for the fighting, you could just hit “Auto” each round, having the computer choose your attacks for you. But FFXIII does something unique compared to the other FFs: at the end of the battle, it rates you out of five stars based on how fast you completed the battle. The rating isn’t really important (maybe you get better item drops with more stars), but for me, it was a challenge to try to get five stars as much as possible.

I set up my paradigms in such a way so that I did as much damage as fast as possible. I had to constantly watch the stagger meter, as when you aren’t attacking, the meter slowly drains. This simple addition, the post-battle rating, made combat exciting for me.

Some people criticize FFXIII for only giving you control of your leader character. The computer plays as the other two. But the focus has changed: it’s not about controlling everybody’s actions anymore. As I said, in previous FFs, most of the time you just select “Attack” anyway. This time, the focus is on managing your paradigms, and keeping tabs on your party’s health and status second by second.

FFXIII does not have turn-based combat, but real-time, which makes battles a lot more intense. And because you are healed at the end of each battle, the monsters are a lot more aggressive in attacking your characters. In previous FFs, you could often complete a battle without taking any damage, or very little. In FFXIII, all characters take massive damage each fight, so in-battle healing is now that much more crucial.

There are no magic points to worry about either. By fully reviving the party after each battle, the game can make every battle deadly.

And deadly they are. Another great fix to combat is, if you die, you immediately respawn right before that battle took place. Set-up the paradigms differently, and away you go, right back in the action! No more respawning at save points found 30 minutes in the past.

Final Fantasy XIII PS3 game cover

Lightning, the protagonist of the game, was a divisive character, as she had a steely, cold personality.

A story that flips the script

The story in all FFs is basically the same: your group of nobodies rebels against the government/church/monster overlords, slowly gets stronger as the adventure progresses, and finally takes on the boss, the ruler of the world, sometimes a godlike creature. The balance of the entire planet is in your hands, and you inevitably save it.

This trope makes for a compelling story arc and gameplay, but how you do change up this all-too-common script? FFXIII found just the way to do it. Instead of trying to save the world from a godlike monster, your characters are the godlike monsters, tasked with destroying the very world they love!

The story is admittedly a little complicated, but let me try to make it simple. In FFXIII, there are two worlds, Cocoon and Pulse. Each world is managed by overseers, godlike creatures called fal’Cie. The fal’Cie treat humans as their pets, providing for all their needs: food, light, heat, technology. Humans live in advanced, futuristic societies because everything was given to them by their benevolent overlords.

The fal’Cie are unable, however, to directly intervene in human affairs. So when they need something accomplished, they call a human to do their bidding. Humans who are called by the fal’Cie are branded, turning into l’Cie. The l’Cie have two options: complete their Focus, or mission, or ignore their Focus. If they ignore their Focus, they become Cieth, undead zombies. Nobody wants that.

However, if they complete their Focus, they are turned to crystal and given eternal life. So the in-game fable goes. But who knows if they actually get eternal life?

In the beginning of the game, our six heroes awaken a fal’Cie from slumber and are branded as l’Cie. The heroes live on Cocoon, and Cocoonian society is afraid of anything from Pulse due to a war far in the past. Our heroes stumbled upon a Pulse fal’Cie, living on Cocoon, so they are branded Pulse l’Cie, which marks them as enemies in the eyes of the Cocoonians.

It takes a while, but eventually our heroes figure out their Focus: Destroy Cocoon. This is how the script is flipped around. The heroes become more and more godlike as the story progresses, so certainly they have the power to destroy their home planet. But, of course, they don’t want to do that.

So they are presented with a quandary: destroy their home planet and fulfill their Focus? Or ignore their Focus and become Cieth, and likely doom the planet anyway as others would surely be made l’Cie to complete the Focus.

The story is not about stopping some godlike even being from conquering the world, but it’s about these Pulse l’Cie avoiding their fate to save the planet they love. They don’t want to destroy the planet, they don’t want to turn Cieth, and they don’t want to turn into crystal. The story is about fate versus freewill, destiny versus freedom.

Not only is the overall story amazing, but the individual dramas of the characters are the best of any FF game. In FFXIII, it seems like every character belongs together in your party: there is no dead weight.

Compare this to FFIX, for instance, in which one party member is a fat monster named Quina. You find him in a swamp, trying to catch frogs, which he loves to eat. His only motivation for joining your quest, I kid you not, is “I will join you so I can find more frogs to eat.” Really? What a dramatic letdown.

Let’s talk about those hallways

So the battle system and story are excellent, the best of any FF game, but what about the world? What is there to interact with, if not towns or an overworld? In short: nothing. Most worlds consist of nothing more than long tunnels. You run down the hallway, fighting monsters, and every 5-10 minutes are treated to a cutscene. Repeat.

In the beginning of the game, you run along a road, then a bridge.

After getting branded by the Pulse fal’Cie, you run along a crystalized lake, a long corridor through crystalized water.

Later you run down a tunnel bored through stone. Sometimes you run through a city, but it consists of one street, with all alleyways and cross streets blocked off, then you turn a corner, and surprise!, you run down another straight street.

Occasionally there are tiny branches off the main road, and in a couple places you might have two slightly different paths to take, each leading to the same destination. 97% of the game’s environments are tunnels, hallways, or streets.

And that’s okay. If you want an open-world to explore, play another game. I’m fine with the hallways because 1) they look beautiful, 2) the soundtrack is amazing (I’ve been listening to it almost every week for four years now), but most importantly, 3) the hallways keep the game focused on its strong points: battle and storytelling.

You are out of battle for no more than 5-15 seconds in most cases. The action of the battles is what drives the game forward, not the exploration. And the linear nature of the game allows the creators to tell a tight, focused story. You won’t get sidetracked by sidequests in FFXIII. To story is always moving forward, and that’s a good thing.

The game holds your hand for the first 35 hours

Penny Arcade expressed a common critique of FFXIII’s hand-holding, one shared by many:

Final Fantasy XIII comicHere’s what critics are referring to. In the first 2/3 of the game, you have no control over who is in your party. Six playable characters are at your disposal, but sometimes you only play as one, sometimes two, and sometimes three. The combinations are always determined by the game, dictated by the story. Not all of the main characters are in the same place at the same time.

Still, many people wanted to be able to access all six characters, and all six paradigm classes far sooner. I found, though, that once the game “opened up” it was a lot less interesting to play. Here’s why.

By forcing me to use certain characters together, I had to work within their limitations. Playing the Lightning and Hope party for a good chunk of the game was challenging, as was the Sazh and Vanille group. I appreciated that each character only specialized in three paradigms.

Once they had access to all paradigms, whatever individuality they had was lost. Everybody can be every class. Is that really what gamers wanted?

I found that I constructed my party based on certain paradigms I was trying to create. For a long time, Sazh was always in my three-man party because he had the ability Haste, which let me finish those battles twice as fast! But later Hope gets Haste, and becomes his combination of moves was more versatile, Sazh was gone and Hope replaced him for the remainder of the game.

And Snow, sadly, one of my favorite characters, fought almost no battles the last 15 hours of the game. He just didn’t have the right combination of specialized paradigms. So his experience points just built up and up and up: I had no reason to level him.

The only change I wish they made to FFXIII was that they randomized the parties on repeat playthroughs somehow. When I played the game a second time, I found myself constructing the exact same parties as the first time around once the game “opened up.”

See how this desire for an “open” game is actually more constricting in practice?

Gamers also longed to get away from all the hallway running. As previously explained, though, I enjoyed the hallway running. At the 2/3 mark, your party travels to Pulse for one chapter (of 13). Most of Pulse is also hallway running, but at one very specific point there is an extremely large “open” area. A big field, really, filled with dozens of new monsters, most more powerful than your party. It can take a couple hours to cross this field, given how many monsters there are. There are a few nooks on the periphery that introduce you to side bosses, but grinding just to fight these dinosaurs isn’t worth it, in my mind.

After Pulse, you go back to hallway running for the remainder of the game. So the game never really does open up.

The idea of an open-world FF, however, is mostly an illusion. If you play through previous FFs, such as IV, VI, VII, IX, X, or XII, you’ll find that the games are mostly linear. You travel from town to town, and while there is usually a big “field” to explore in between each town, there is usually only one entrance and one exit from those fields.

Now, usually these previous FFs opened up at some point, giving you an airship that let you travel anywhere you wanted. In my opinion, these open-world parts of the previous FFs, though, always came at the expense of the story. No longer was the story in the hands of the developers.

Conclusion

Every Final Fantasy fan has an opinion about which games are the “best” in the series. Comparing the games, though, is difficult, as only a handful of games ever appear for a single system. Every few years, advances in video game technology open up new possibilities for the genre.

In my estimation, the two best Final Fantasies are FFVI and FFXIII—a tie, but for different reasons. In the case of FFVI, the sum of its parts is greater than the whole; in the case of FFXIII, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe I’ll talk about FFVI some other day, but I think it’s easy to see that, while FFXIII might be lacking in many areas compared to other JRPGs, when it excels, it soars above the competition.

Final Fantasy has always been a series that reinvents itself with every game. Compare this series to something like Mario, Pokemon, or Zelda, and it’s easy to see why. While Nintendo can get away with coasting on tried-and-true formulas and nostalgia, the creators of Final Fantasy have always challenged themselves to make something new.

FFXIII was that new thing I was looking for. The classic JRPG formula, established mostly by FF, is great, and whenever I want to experience it again, I have FFIV and VI and VII. By the time Square got to FFIX, the formula was dead. There’s nothing wrong with FFIX, per se, but there’s nothing fresh.

FFXIII’s combination of action, story, graphics, and music has inspired me in a way few other games have. The story, the music, and all of the lush scenery are constantly running through my head, motivating me in my day to day life.

So what if it’s linear? I know of no other game that promises 50 hours of unique content, an ever-progressing story and ever-changing monsters. There is no need to backtrack. The game has no padding, no sections that repeat themselves just to make the game longer. No, it’s a 50-hour trip straight through without sidequests, no shorter, no longer.

True, about 8-9 hours of that 50 is cinematics and cutscenes, but the FF series has always been about telling stories. And this is a story you can get invested in, because you play as these characters, you develop these characters, and while you don’t control their outcome, you experience their successes and failures right beside them.

Game on,
~Dennis