A key part of a story’s appeal — whether it be a book, a game, or a movie — is its ability to transport me to a world of wonder, and almost as fascinating is peering behind the curtain to see how the creator pulled it off. In the following guest post, Matt Bowyer breaks out the magnifying glass for a look at Final Fantasy XII (2006, Square Enix). Enjoy!
“Where is this taking place, again?”
“I can picture your characters and their actions very well, but I have no idea what this area is like.”
“Make these backgrounds interactive versus static.”
“This is quite the featureless white room your characters are in.”
I feel like I do a pretty good job in building the world of my attempted novels. A lot of time and effort goes into figuring out why this country grew up around the church while this neighboring country is almost agnostic, and what conflicts would have arisen between these two lands as time passed. I regularly add to a document, filling in bits of legend and mythology alongside the evolution of trade routes and what racial slurs are used among less refined city-dwellers. And then I let my characters run all over it and forget to use that worldbuilding for anything more than a backdrop. I can get away with this if I want; a story is only as good as its characters as far as I’m concerned, and that’s where most of my focus in writing goes. It’s not something that’s acceptable in video games, though, and that’s why I have this soapbox here.
Final Fantasy XII is one of the best games ever made, and absolutely the best of the Final Fantasy series. One of its strongest qualities is its worldbuilding; the bustling desert capital Rabanastre is full of people at all times, a constant buzz of activity on every screen. It’s the most alive city I’ve seen in an RPG. The entire game is full of these incredible locales; the thick heat of the Golmore Jungle, the floating majesty that is the Skycity of Bhujerba, the quiet power at the sacred site of Mt. Bur-Omisace.
Final Fantasy XII’s bestiary adds to this deep world — kill one enemy and you are treated to a beautiful painting plus a page or so of detail about it, the migratory patterns of rotund cockatrices or the hunting habits of sand-dwelling crocodiles. But if you kill another 5-10 of that creature, you get a bit of Sage Knowledge about the world of Ivalice. It may be a legend about a specific item that drops from that creature, it may be a passage from a holy book, it may be why magick power has flourished while electricity did not, it may be a bit of sell copy for a nearby shop. It’s fantastic stuff, and I found myself drastically lowering the local lizard population so I could learn more about their teeth. But that’s not enough. A deep bestiary and a great deal of supplemental in-game writing is wonderful, but anyone can do that with enough time and a decent writer supporting their worldbuilding efforts. It’s much harder, but I feel much more important, to build that world identity in-game, in a way that engages your players more deeply than words on a screen.
Final Fantasy XII excels at this. The Skycity of Bhujerba is a set of floating islands built around a magicite mining colony founded by moogles, the earliest airship builders and pilots. Bhujerba is valuable because of the skystone magicite produced in its mines — those stones are what allow the islands to float high above the ground, and they give that same power to the many airships that sail the skies of Ivalice. The Arcadian Empire’s recent expansionism has increased the pressure on Bhujerba, and now the Skycity is officially allied to Archades – but though the city grants the Empire access to its magicite mines, anti-Imperial tension boils within.
The most important visual aspect of Bhujerba is the fact that it is a series of floating islands. Most fantasy games don’t have much need to explain this — a wizard did it, are we ordering out for lunch? — but Final Fantasy XII builds the reason for this into the plot itself, and your first trip to the city deals with its most important aspect. Your first visit to Bhujerba takes you inside the mines, where you meet a character who talks of the Empire’s interest in the skystone. The end of the excursion in the mines gives the party a particular kind of magicite which breaks the rules, placing more importance and emphasis on the role magicite plays in the game, and further underlines Bhujerba’s importance to the Empire. The player does not just read this in a document three menus deep, he learns it while exploring the mine behind the political drama. The player learns of the power of magicite when the player acquires some, and the player learns of the boundaries of the world so when those boundaries are pushed later on, that change actually means something.
One of the first things you are told upon entering Bhujerba and talking to everyone that you can — the only acceptable action in a new town in an RPG — is that no one has died falling off of the city into the water below. A bit of flavor lets you know why people live here, why they apparently have no qualms about sitting on the side of a wall inches from freefall, and also offers a bit of knowledge that will help the player solve a side quest later in the game. You will also hear rumors about mutated creatures, ghosts haunting the mines, and other bits of background flavor that lead into eventual side quests later on — again, informing the player through action, not just reading. It’s not just worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake, it directly involves the player. It makes the world more than just a backdrop, it makes it a place.
There are more examples of this throughout the game. The three-tiered caste structure in Archades, a city built from the ground up to the sky: the party has to navigate the politics of the city’s elite to make it to that lofty status themselves. Giza Plains: the game tells you early on about the torrential rains that wash through every season, then buries you under those rains hours later when you return, opening up new areas and closing off old ones. The Mosphoran Highwaste, full of ancient shrines to forgotten gods: later those shrines open up pathways to new, previously unreachable areas.
Nearly every area in Final Fantasy XII was built with the player in mind. The developers considered how their design of Ivalice would impact the player. Even the weather changes make a difference; blistering heat in the desert brings out fire elementals who drift lazily in the sunlight, but are quick to react to magic cast in their vicinity. The Nabreus Deadlands feature a fog that obscures enemies until they are already upon you; that fog is a result of the Mist pouring out of ravaged Nabudis, and inside Nabudis are unspeakable horrors twisted by the incredible energy unleashed upon that city before the game began. That event is also referenced by an important NPC later on in the game, another way the game involves the player in what happened.
Compare this to the more recent Final Fantasy XIII, which has incredibly beautiful locations with stunning music supporting them, and which have no more impact on your gameplay than wallpaper. Lake Bresha is a gorgeous frozen lake that Lightning and the other protagonists land in after a boss encounter, but you do nothing but run from Point A to Point B — nothing here makes any impact on your gameplay experience. There is no difference in navigating the Fifth Ark versus navigating the Gapra Whitewood — your location does nothing but change the color of the enemies you fight. For all the importance these areas have in your gameplay experience, you might as well be playing in a featureless white room.
That might work in a book, where the strength of the characters and the story can overcome ignoring the world. That will not work in a game, because there is no story in games worth telling that ignores the player.
Matt Bowyer is an aspiring author living in Kansas City who spends too much time playing video games and playing armchair designer. He can be found at www.mattwbowyer.com in between chapters and loading screens.