It's been 10 years since the reveal of Final Fantasy XV, but only in the past two have we really learned what the game is. It's the story of a young prince and his friends on a journey to reclaim his throne, but it's also more than that. In some ways, it's a time capsule of our current era; the more we learn about XV, the more I feel the developers are striving to make its world twin our own. The protagonists use touchscreen cell phones to make calls and set morning alarms, use branded camping equipment to cook elaborate meals and drive across country in a modern vehicle.
Final Fantasy XV takes what is familiar to us and grafts it onto its fantasy. In its appropriate of what is modern, it makes its world feel like one we can inhabit, too, not just watch through a screen. I feel the series has been on this track since Final Fantasy X, which marked a major turning point for the series. The game and its sequel X-2 were also the first games--aside from MMO Final Fantasy XI--to be released post-2000. They were the first Final Fantasies of the modern era. And unlike franchise love-letter Final Fantasy IX and the cyberpunk works of Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Final Fantasy X placed much more emphasis on mysticism and spirituality in its plot, playing on the ideas of magic and the afterlife. In depicting a world struggling to honor its spiritual roots while embracing its technological future, it painted a striking picture of the Final Fantasy franchise itself. A series striving to include attractive concepts while still remaining relevant to both its longtime audience and potential newcomers.
In the first advertisements for Final Fantasy XV, then called Final Fantasy Versus XIII, promotional materials were splashed with the words, "This is a fantasy based on reality." Now, less than three months from XV's release, we know that it and reality as we know it are not so estranged. Noctis and his friends wake up to the sound of a buzzing cellphone in Episode Duscae. They use camping gear emblazoned with the name of real-world manufacturer Coleman. Prompto takes selfies and photos of his friends on their journey. The boys rely on a souped-up Rolls Royce-designed car for transportation. It's all too familiar.
These small touches are meant to create a more believable, identifiable universe. In a world where players praise games like Call of Duty and Tomb Raider for their primly polished guns and crisply animated hair, it's impossible not to look at a game and make a judgment call on how realistic it all feels. Noctis and friends definitely don't have the hair physics to match reality, but perhaps with an artfully placed cell phone or brand name, we can build up the illusion that his world could be, or is, ours.
Trading Blades for Bullets
Players want to identify with their games, and so Final Fantasy has been tinkering with ways to make this easier on those willing to sink into 40-plus hour role-playing games. This appropriation of popular culture didn't just start before Final Fantasy XV; it began long before, all the way back in 2006--back when Final Fantasy Versus XIII was first announced.
In January 2006, Square Enix released what would be widely regarded as the black sheep of the Final Fantasy VII universe. Dirge of Cerberus starred Vincent Valentine, an optional character from the original Final Fantasy VII that had been thrust into the spotlight with the release of the CGI movie Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children a year prior. It was the first and only Final Fantasy game to be a third-person shooter. Square Enix was dipping its toes into an already flooded but extremely popular field, appropriating perhaps the most popular genre at the time and giving it their own spin. They launched their game the same year as Half-Life 2: Episode One, the original Prey, Call of Juarez, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas, Battlefield 2142, and Call of Duty 3. But it wasn't enough just to skin a shooter with Final Fantasy. It excelled neither at capturing its Final Fantasy audience nor the everyday shooter player, and received a mediocre critical reception. This foray into the shooter genre was a brave but ultimately flawed move from a company that knew where its strengths lied--pretty, fantastical RPGs.
I consider Dirge of Cerberus an appropriation of pop culture precisely because it's Square Enix deviating from its roots. In order to survive the modern market, you have to adapt to current trends. But this was one trend that wasn't a match. Part of what makes the "fantasy" in Final Fantasy is the attachment to the mystical, the presence of things like magical crystals, Chocobos, and bad guys who have amassed intangible, otherworldly power that can be unleashed on the world in blasts and beams, not bullets. The game's release made me nervous; I didn't want to see this, I wanted some old-school Final Fantasy nonsense to play. I wanted the Moogles and potions and deus ex machina moments. I didn't want guns. I don't think many of us wanted guns.
A Fantasy Far, Far Away...
In the same way Final Fantasy appropriated the shooter genre for Dirge of Cerberus, Final Fantasy XII--launched the same year in March--was a spin on one of the most beloved fictional worlds of all time: Star Wars. I did not love Final Fantasy XII, though it is widely regarded as one of most acclaimed entries. It was the one game in the series to disappoint me the most (second only to Dirge of Cerberus). The Gambit system didn't inspire me. I needed a license to equip a hat. I couldn't shake the feeling that somewhere, in some way, I had seen this same plot play out before. I had been through it all already, and I had been through it with Star Wars.
GameSpot's own review of the game from 2006 called it a "Japanese take on Star Wars' galaxy far, far away." The similarities in some characters and narrative turns range from plausible to downright eerie. Prior to the game's launch, IGN ran an interview with Final Fantasy XII art director Hideo Minaba, in which he said: "I am a big fan of Star Wars--I will admit that. But, if we say Star Wars is our influence and create our game, you won't end up with an FF game nor will you end up with FFXII. I'll just say that I'm a fan. I wouldn't say that was necessarily an influence though."
I can't help but call b.s. here. I'll start with Balthier, who is obviously Han Solo--charming, sassy-mouthed, holds a reputation as a swashbuckling sky pirate. There is a huge bounty on Balthier's head, and one of the story's main antagonists is a bounty hunter who sets various traps to catch him. Balthier spends the game balancing evasion of those hunting him and trying to save the world, while flying around in his ship the Strahl, which he loves more than anything, similar to Solo's feelings on his Millennium Falcon.
Balthier's companion Fran is basically Chewbacca; she speaks rarely and mostly grunts or yells, comes from a mysterious tree-dwelling humanoid race that sequester themselves from the rest of the world, and abandoned her people to travel the world with Balthier. But she's a bunny-lady instead, because this is Final Fantasy.
The alleged protagonist of Final Fantasy XII--although there's a lot of debate that he's a red herring, deterring players from realizing who the real hero is until later--is a parallel of Luke Skywalker. Luke is an orphan who begins as no one cool with dreams of leaving his desert home planet. He's also a decent pilot. Vaan of Final Fantasy XII is an everyman-nobody with the burning dream of being a sky pirate. He is an orphan in the metropolitan city of Rabanastre, where he lives among the poor and downtrodden in the city's underworld--until he meets some crazy characters and learns to use a sword. Sound familiar.
Princess Ashe, like Princess Leia, sees her home destroyed by the evil powers and goes on the run, becoming the leader of an underground resistance. Ashe is willful and argumentative, but also highly capable and a leader people are willing to follow. Heroes Basch and Penelo are a little harder to place. Basch is older and wiser, a knight of an old, dead kingdom, similar to Obi-Wan Kenobi. Penelo has no real purpose in the game. Maybe she's the Droids.
Antagonists Vayne Solidor and Judge Gabranth are Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader to the letter. Both Vayne and Palpatine obtain absolute political power, dissolve the kingdom's governing senate, and kill the last of the most powerful warriors (the Jedi in Star Wars, the dissenting Judges in XII). Also, Gabranth, like Vader, has a familial connection to the heroes as Basch's twin brother, and has a 180-degree change of heart towards the end of the game, going out in a blaze of glorify that benefits the heroes. Also similar to Vader is Gabranth's armor, which completely hides his body and face, and the Empire's musical theme, which sounds eerie similar to Star John Williams' Imperial March.
Backing up from the who and where, looking at Final Fantasy XII's main narrative reveals more elements familiar to Star Wars. There is a mysterious force called Mist (the Force) that allows people to perform magic. The evil Archadian Empire (the Empire) invades and takes over neighboring kingdoms (planets) under the leadership of Vayne Solidor (Emperor Palpatine) and his right-hand muscle man Judge Gabranth (Darth Vader). Princess Ashe (Leia), who has lost her kingdom and family to this empire, leads an underground resistance group (the Rebels) and joins a ragtag band of heroes on a quest to overthrow the Empire. The princess meets an orphan boy (Luke) and the sky pirate Balthier with his partner Fran (Han Solo and Chewbacca), the latter two of which are chased by the world's best bounty hunter (Boba Fett). Balthier owns an amazing ship (the Millennium Falcon), and initially joins Ashe's cause for money but eventually chooses to stay and help altruistically.
The heroes go to an independent city in the clouds (Cloud City) where they are greeting by Ondore (Lando), who later betrays them and hands them over to the Empire. Ondore later changes his mind and helps them escape. After hours of adventures together, the group comes up again Vayne on his home turf. Gabranth (Vader) is defeated in a duel by his blood relative Basch (in this case, Luke-ish), and then chooses to help them overthrow Vayne. He is gravely wounded and dies in the endeavor. Once Vayne is defeated, the Sky Fortress Bahamut (the Death Star) explodes, but the good guys all manage to get away just in time.
The original Star Wars trilogy is beloved by many, and in many ways there's no real way to copy its secret sauce, presenting similar elements in just the right way and in just the right order--although the recent Episode VII: The Force Awakens proves that under the right direction, the magic can be recreated. But Final Fantasy XII has similarities that go beyond uncanny..
Facing the Future
And now we're here, with Final Fantasy XV slated to launch September 30 of this year. The game is appropriating how young people behave, crafting an experience augmented with selfies and the ability to buy snacks at a convenience store during your road trip. It's overlaying the familiar with the fantastical, but in some cases--especially in the use of brands--it can detract from the experience. I both love and fear the idea of running through a world that functions similar to my own, because I can either identify with it or fail to lose myself in its fiction. Seeing a brand I'm familiar with in the hands of Noctis or Prompto could pull you out of the experience. Video games can be a form of escapism, after all, and presenting another world where you wake up to the sound of your phone vibrating isn't necessarily the most attractive of experiences.
And yet, watching characters like Prompto and Ignis eat hamburgers in diners, push their car along when it runs out of gas, and cook meals together under a starry sky--it makes me feel like I would befriend these boys in real life. The kingdoms of Lucius and Altissa feel real and accessible, like I could hop on a plane to Europe and visit the countries on holiday. The series seems to be is aiming for higher relatability, to be something players can latch onto--whether it's dabbling in another genre, wholesale riffing on one of pop culture's most famous franchises, or appropriating pop culture and behavior itself and laying it onto the world. With more outright visible connections to our world, Final Fantasy is beginning to feel less alien and far-reaching, and more like coming home.