It’s Friday, which is still Kotaku JRPG Day in my heart. So here’s an interesting thought on what made old Final Fantasy games special, from two veteran designers who have plenty of insight on what it’s like to make video games.
First, some context: designers Brett Douville (LucasArts, Bethesda) and Tim Longo Jr. (LucasArts, 343 Industries) have a podcast called Dev Game Club where they play different games and discuss them. This week they’ve been digging into Final Fantasy IX, a PS1 card game that comes with a free RPG. And they’ve got a lot of interesting thoughts to share. (I strongly recommend listening to it!)
One particular insight stood out to me—that many moments in Final Fantasy IX, like in other old Final Fantasy games, are one-time events that never happen again. This is unusual in modern game development, especially in Western games. Usually, when you experience a new idea or mechanic (like, say, the grappling hook in Uncharted 4), you’ll see it repeated several times throughout the game. It’s seen as a waste of resources for game developers to build something that’s only used once. A general game design principle is to introduce a new idea and then build upon it throughout the game.
Old Final Fantasy games did things differently, though. Back then, Square would frequently build one-off scenes like a QTE swordfight or a slap duel on a cannon, just for the sake of changing up the rhythm and surprising players with unexpected moments. As Douville and Longo point out, that’s not normal, and I think it’s part of what made those games resonate with so many people.
“They’re not afraid to do these one-off moments that are essentially, I assume, hand-programmed,” Longo said. “That’s not something we do as much anymore, right? There’s one sequence devoted to swinging a cage back and forth.”
Douville agreed, pointing to a certain Cleyra scene as yet another example of this approach. “This is a game that takes time to dance.”
How often do games do that? When was the last time you’ve played a video game that suddenly introduced some random mini-game or crazy encounter just for the sake of switching things up?
In the podcast, both designers also dig into what makes FFIX special in other ways: the heavy Shakespeare, the dark themes, the insane sense of humor. There are a ton of interesting ideas that all game developers could take away from FFIX, both good and bad, but even if you just like playing video games, the podcast is worth a listen.