The Big Final Fantasy QuestionS

Is Final Fantasy dead? Should we stop getting excited about the series? Is it time to abandon all hope?

A great deal has been written about the decline of Square Enix's titanic RPG franchise, and it's hard to find a Final Fantasy fan who doesn't have strong opinions about how the influential series has evolved over the years. Back in January, I wrote that Final Fantasy was dying, and although a strong E3 showing from Square Enix has pumped up my optimism, lumps like Final Fantasy All The Bravest are still hard to swallow.

Last week, Wired's Chris Kohler declared that Final Fantasy isn't just dying—it's dead. Today, he elaborated further, concluding that thanks to talent exodus and brand abuse, Final Fantasy has lost its position as a name that stands for "quality always."

An excerpt:

If Final Fantasy keeps going this way, it only has worse days ahead of it; the idea that people will keep sinking money into a worsening slate of Final Fantasy products is preposterous; no hot gaming brand lasts forever and in fact few even make it this long. But at the same time, it is of course entirely possible that Square Enix, at some point, could produce a killer game with the Final Fantasy name on it that does gangbuster sales. That would require a brand new outlook, though. It would perhaps mean giving the Final Fantasy name to a totally new game from a different development studio with bold new ideas and a better track record.

I think that at some point, this will happen. But for this to happen, it would require Square Enix to accept what many of us already realize: The path it is on with Final Fantasy is a dead end. It cannot just keep trying the same flawed things over and over again, expecting different results this time just because. In other words, it can only turn things around once it accepts that Final Fantasy is dead.

Okay. The status quo is not working. It's hard to argue against that point—although Kohler's piece does not spend much time talking about Final Fantasy XV, a game that seems to depart from tradition in many ways. Combat in Tetsuya Nomura's next baby will be executed in real time, for example, forsaking the turn-based strategy that Final Fantasy helped popularize.

(Kohler, a friend and former boss of mine, is infamously vitriolic toward "vaporware"—or games that are announced but never released—so I can see why he isn't paying much attention to the game formerly known as Versus XIII, which was originally announced in 2006.)

Yet... from a practical perspective, what does that mean, exactly? Say a bunch of executives at Square Enix read Kohler's article and collectively yell, "Goshdarnit, he's right!" What should they do? This is not Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed. Final Fantasy has always been known for experimenting with themes, characters, and combat systems. There is no status quo—at least from a gameplay perspective.

The solution to Kohler's dilemma, I think, can be found in a different story that ran this week: an Edge interview with Yoshinori Kitase, the longtime Final Fantasy shepherd who has been involved with the series for over two decades. In the interview, Kitase dishes on the creation of Final Fantasy VI, a game that many fans rank as their favorite in the series. It's my favorite, too.

It's all worth reading—fun fact: FFVI was produced in just a year, according to Kitase—but here's one particularly salient section:

“It’s maybe strange to say [this], but I miss the limitations of making games in those days,” Kitase acknowledges. “The cartridge capacity was so much smaller, of course, and therefore the challenges were that much greater. But nowadays you can do almost anything in a game. It’s a paradox, but this can be more creatively limiting than having hard technical limitations to work within. There is a certain freedom to be found in working within strict boundaries, one clearly evident in Final Fantasy VI.”

And there we have it. In a couple of lines, Kitase nails exactly what's wrong with Final Fantasy today: the developers are overwhelmed. Swamped by technological advancements and Square Enix's insistence that Final Fantasy set a worldwide standard for video game production values, the teams behind the most recent Final Fantasys have floundered. Big budgets and eye-popping graphics have hurt their creative output, and instead of trying to do more with less, they did less with more.

Perhaps as a net result of this problem, Team FFXIII lacked direction. As the creators of the much-maligned Final Fantasy XIII once explained: "Even at a late stage of development, we did not agree on key elements of the game, which stemmed from the lack of a cohesive vision, the lack of finalized specs, and the remaining problems with communication between departments."

It's no wonder they couldn't figure out how to make any towns.

So, look. I don't agree with Kohler's assertion that Final Fantasy is deadFFXV looks promising, I like what I've played of Lightning Returns so far, and the revamp of FFXIV sounds like a success. But his overarching point is correct: something needs to change. Square Enix's development teams need to tap into that limit-fueled energy that helped make games like FFVI and FFVII feel so special to so many people. I don't know that the solution is, as Kohler suggests, to pass the series off to another developer. Maybe there's another way to recapture the zeitgeist.

Or maybe they just need more self-imposed restrictions. How about they put FFXVI on Super Nintendo?