Final Fantasy XVI Isn’t Open World (And That’s a Good Thing)
Lessons in open-world design thought and how it may play into Final Fantasy XVI
In a recent interview with IGN, the Producer of Final Fantasy XVI and frontman of Creative Business Unit 3 at Square Enix, Naoki Yoshida, confirmed a heavily speculated theory about FFXVI: it isn't an open-world game. Much of the discussion in the interview involves how open-world games impacted the development of Final Fantasy XVI, and by looking at the series' legacy and how big open-world games are now, we can better understand why this is probably a good idea.
When we talk about open-world games it's often to the scope of modern classics like The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Red Dead Redemption II, Grand Theft Auto V, or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. These are games that contain a largely congruous map that players can use as a virtual sandbox of creative gaming freedom. While not essential to the genre, open-world games are becoming more popular than ever from a design standpoint, while also being an enticing way to market the scope of their world and the ways in which it can occupy a player's time.
Gaming time is a commodity, and for players with a recent explosion of available titles to choose from, promising the most immersive, the most autonomous experience has become the marker of a great game. This works wonderfully in games like those in the Assassin's Creed series, which artfully and faithfully resurrect old city streets in such stunning detail that people speculated whether Notre Dame's reconstruction after its devastating fire might pull from Unity's meticulously crafted rendering of it, though in actuality it didn't.
The success of a game can owe its thanks to the personality of its open world. This is one reason why the recent teasers for Sonic: Frontiers have some fans worrying about the emptiness of the open-zone world and questioning why games that have traditionally been side-scrolling platformers even need to transition to an open or semi-open world. Super Mario 64's success as an open game was due entirely to novelty and the exceptionally impressive technical detailing in gameplay. It is a colorful, nostalgic world developed with the heart of the original game in mind, which is why the diversity in environments and worlds feels new and exciting even now.
But this is an age of new graphical realism, and worlds constructed with today's developer software are far removed from the polygon-shaped penguins of Super Mario 64.
A recent example of the complicated development cycle of vast open worlds is no more apparent than in Cyberpunk 2077. Notorious for actively advertising Night City as one of the most immersive settings ever created, and then notorious again for releasing a game so laden with bugs and technical problems that after removing the game from the Playstation Store, Sony cautioned PS4 owners from even buying it. This is not necessarily the fault of the game's design as an open world, but the fact that it was so ambitious and vocal about creating it. Cyberpunk coveted the not yet truly defined title of most immersive open world, but this meant they had to deliver on a vague promise of understanding what fans loved about Witcher III, Grand Theft Auto V, Skyrim, Spider-man, and other predecessors.
It isn't necessarily that fans want worlds without borders, it's that fans want worlds that feel like they don't have them.
The main appeal of open-world gameplay is that it provides a simulated reality and allows players to develop their character and its behavior in the direction and pace of their own choosing. In these cases, there is often no concrete goal or end to the game, although there may be the main storyline, such as with games like The Elder Scrolls V. - Wikipedia, "Open world"
The Final Fantasy series has always featured games with a different conceptualization of an open world. Final Fantasy XII, as the first Final Fantasy I completed, holds a special place in my heart for introducing me to the concept of a lore-built world fascinating enough to make me want to endlessly explore it. It featured small alcoves with strange treasures, shifting landscapes with accessibility based on weather, and monsters so powerful that when you ran across them early in the game you were left gape-mouthed as they one-shot-killed you. But Final Fantasy XII wasn't an entirely open world--it had somewhat linear maps that lead to specific destinations and the world, while vast and varied, was not wholly accessible in a continuous area. It had to be navigated, much as how many of the other Final Fantasy games were, via airship or other land/sea vehicles.
Creating a truly open-world game of this scope and scale shouldn't always be the goal--designers need to understand why being open-world will benefit their particular story. Is this a plot and character-focused story or a larger world one? Is the player character a developed character, with their own wants, needs, and goals? Are they a largely silent protagonist the player can customize to fit their own narrative? A bit of both? How much autonomy is being given to the player versus the narrative, and how can those ideas better inform how to go about creating a suitable world design?
In reading Naoki Yoshida's interview with IGN, it sounds like Final Fantasy XVI is striving to understand the essence of that question:
"...to bring a story that feels like it spans an entire globe and beyond, we decided to avoid an open world design that limits us to a single open world space, and instead focus on an independent area-based game design that can give players a better feel of a truly 'global' scale." - Naoki Yoshida on FFXVI
This sentiment reads exactly like old-school Final Fantasy worlds, in that they're full fleshed-out maps containing mysteries and side quests and potentially "dungeon"-esque areas, but they aren't thoughtlessly curating content for the sake of being able to don the label of open world. This is where Final Fantasy XV had its major failing, and it's why the expectation that Final Fantasy XVI provides players with an open world is, perhaps, a vestigial sentiment around its predecessor's failure to deliver on that promise.
This was so egregious an oversight because the latter half of XV was entirely linear, while it was being sold as an open-world game. The true tragedy of XV is that with a smoother development cycle and a better understanding of how to marry open-world concepts with focused zones, it would have been an entirely different game. Imagine exploring an area like Tenabrae as a semi-open zone instead of staring out at the majesty of its architecture lurking enticingly in the distance.
The impact of AAA-open world games in XVI's design is going to be apparent. But meandering with purpose is what Final Fantasy has always been about. We play characters who get to explore wide-open worlds with beautifully rendered backgrounds, who get to walk resplendent cities with vast numbers of NPCs who offer unsolicited advice and observations, and we get to witness intense battles and emotional climaxes against memorable set pieces.
The development team has said that they hope to re-capture the magic at the heart of the Final Fantasy series itself--a sense of truly genuine adventure. And, with XVI, I really think they'll succeed.
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