This has been a long time coming. Anybody who has spoken with me about games, especially role-playing games, knows that Final Fantasy 13-2 captivated me. I was never sure when (or if) the time would come that I would find a productive and self-contained angle from which to approach it.
When Dyl wrote about time travel in games last week, I felt like this was the right opportunity. Time travel is a prominent feature of FF13-2 and, despite time travel tales being present in popular fiction for over a century, I was forced to take a good hard look at my assumptions about the game in the end thanks to this theme. Moreover, this was made possible by the way the gameplay conveyed and supported narrative as much as (if not more than) the stunning cut-scenes.
It’s difficult to discuss the story without, you know, discussing the story. If you don’t like spoilers and you’re not done with FF13-2, consider this your warning. For those of you who haven’t played FF13-2 and don’t mind spoilers, I will try to keep the post accessible.
A Message through Time
In a game about time travel, what is the player really exploring? It’s fun to discuss the kind of hypothetical ‘what would you do with time travel’ that Dyl wrote last week, but the theme recurs again and again in fiction because it speaks to many fundamental questions and restrictions we as people must consider. Seeing a person or group of people travel through time lets us explore regret, consequences, and the ability of a small change to have a big effect. It helps us, like many other great themes in fiction, understand and experience our limitations.
So what happens when you have not one time traveler or time-traveling group, but two? It’s not so common in fiction, if only because it gets complicated quickly: if Person A disagrees with Person B, can she just stop Person B from doing something before it happens? Could Person B do that to Person A first? What does ‘first’ even mean?
However, FF13-2 made good use of common game features (a strong antagonist, the idea of good and bad endings, and exploration through replay) to deliver a different time travel narrative than is typical, while also disentangling some of the complications of this theme.
Caius Ballad is the player’s foil, and everything about his design screams ‘I am the bad guy of this story’ (from his Soul Edge-like sword to his latin choir theme song). By developing a strong time-traveling antagonist (note, he’s strong because he’s an interesting, developed character, not because he has a latin choir theme song) in Caius, FF13-2 opens up time travel choices as an analogue for conflict between individuals. Just as the player is gallivanting through the timeline to fix this or that, someone else who is not so different from the protagonists has been ‘fixing’ things to his own end. Layered on top of the usual concepts of regret, rippling changes and (especially) consequences, now there is the idea that your good ending might be someone else’s bad ending.
This is a great way to bring fantastical, larger than life themes (like travelling through time for the fate of a world) back down to the player’s day-to-day relatable understanding. However, for this to work, the designers need the player to get invested in Caius as an antagonist, and this requires actual gameplay support rather than just a couple of cutscenes.
Throughout the story, the player encounters and battles Caius multiple times. As combat is (sadly) still the main vessel for interaction between the player and the game, this really lays the foundation for having a relationship with the character. The designers even give Caius a mechanical and story reason not to just ‘die’ when you beat him (an excellent use of the ‘Reraise’ status). I imagine what I felt seeing Caius rise again and again is a lot like what some difficult bosses must feel as they watch the player restart or continue until they win.
Caius uses some of the same tools the player does in combat. He makes use of buffs and debuffs, strong attacks and assaults meant to keep a character staggered (note: not Staggered, for those of you who know the combat system). He has access to an Eidolon (Bahamut), a large summon which the player earns in the previous game. His ‘I’m just like you’-ness is highlighted even further by his appearance in the Lightning DLC, where he even uses some of the key roles the player has had access to for FF13 and 13-2: Commando, Ravager and Medic.
All of these things combine to place Caius on a similar standing to the player. Sure, he has different goals, but he’s got many of the same tools, and he’s just another person willing to use what he’s got to see his desires through to the end. You could even imagine a different player going through the journey against you as Caius (I would pay good money for that game).
This feeling of Caius as another person, supported through the gameplay, is all the more important in the case of FF13-2 because of what might be his most compelling feature: in the end, he wins.
The End (?)
Where other games (especially those involving some kind of time travel) often have you search multiple paths and choices for a ‘good ending’, like an optimistic labyrinth (the likes of Radiant Historia or Zero’s Escape come to mind), FF13-2 confronts the player with the idea that any choice could lead to an end with some people happy, and others not (‘the eternal paradox’ as Caius puts it), and actually takes that choice out of the player’s hands. Caius gets his way. You may defeat him in combat, but his vision for the future is fulfilled.
This beautifully eschews the usual logic of enabling and empowering the player in favour of something more poignant. Many RPGs lead to a climactic battle where the player triumphs by winning said battle (justified with whatever deus ex machina is necessary). But here? Not so much.
Do you win because you can win a fight? No, you beat the game, you defeat Caius once and for all, and it’s all part of the plan. Do you save the world with morality? No, you’re given an amazingly framed and tense QTE to kill or spare Caius, but your choice makes no difference (fantastic use of illusion of choice, in my opinion). Do you save the world by paying the developers money? Heck no, none of the DLC changes the ending (though the Lightning DLC is well worth it for many other reasons).
Since this is a game about time travel, you even get to take it further. You can watch the ending, and, like me, be frustrated (even feel betrayed by the designers). But it’s okay, there are other times to return to, replay, and explore in order to try to find a different ending. You can even go so far as killing Caius in one of those earlier encounters, only to see it lead to some other kind of odd or unhappy ending (Chrono Trigger fans go nuts).
I even convinced myself that if I 100% completed the game (something I don’t do often these days, especially in a game as expansive as this) the ending might change, even if that made little to no sense in the narrative. For what it’s worth, there is an additional ending, but it doesn’t change things. And before you call it a ploy to get me to stick with the game, I also continued playing because I was enjoying it, this just gave me a reason to keep going (and provided all the little discoveries and extra challenges one might hope for from the game).
You, the player, through your own actions and exploration, get to untangle all the possibilities of the timeline. All of the ‘But what if I do that 200 years before?’ or ‘But can’t I just kill him here?’, all the things you might anxiously deride a book or TV show protagonist for not doing with their powers, you get to try. You try them, and subsequently see them not work as you intended, or realise you cannot because there are (quite reasonably) limits to what you can do.
You, who might be max level and have passed through every time gate and gathered everything there is to gather in the game, cannot change this one inexorable history: Caius wins.
So what can we learn? If nothing else, the whole game can convey narrative, whether it is the attacks an enemy uses, the exploration a player is likely to carry out, or the expectations the player has of ‘the ending’. Not every game has to use everything at its disposal, but you can make some great games when you do. If a designer has the time, their game can really benefit from asking things like ‘Why is the player doing this?’ or ‘Why did I think it’s a given it would end this way?’
I went through emotional ups and downs because of this game, and looking back on it, it was a more fulfilling game for the way it treated the theme. Sure, an unhappy ending is also a great marketing ploy for the next game, but they pulled this off well for me, and I’d love to hear whether you agree or not. To me, it was something a bit different, maybe a bit cathartic, about having to accept that sometimes, there is no ‘good ending’.
Thanks for reading.