At GDC, Final Fantasy creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi revealed that he isn’t particularly fond of sequels. From the perspective of an outsider, this may seem like a strange statement considering that Final Fantasy is an extremely long-running series with currently fourteen games in the main series with no end in sight. However, as fans are aware, each Final Fantasy game is totally unique with its own characters, world, battle system, etc. What Sakaguchi is referring to are direct sequels, something that didn’t occur in the Final Fantasy series until after he left the company. This was given as his explanation for why each Final Fantasy is standalone, rather than a sprawling series of events. Its interesting insight into the strange development of one of gaming’s biggest franchises. More interesting, however, is how Sakaguchi’s preferences are clearly no longer vogue with Final Fantasy developer Square-Enix, as direct sequels are already planned for the upcoming Final Fantasy XV. So, today, I’d like to look at whether Sakaguchi’s words are something the company should take heed as it moves forward or a relic of the past, useful only for study.
To put things in context, Sakaguchi’s reason for disliking sequels is that he was adamant at putting out a totally complete project with no hanging loose ends to be tied up later. This is a far cry from the current industry. Over the past two generations, completeness has fallen to the way side. It began with DLC becoming a common occurrence, allowing developers to add new content, or, insidiously, sometimes hold back content for later release. Then came, the proliferation of patches. Though part of PC gaming for years, patches have become increasingly common for video games, including the sometime suspect day 1 patch. Finally, there is the recent development of early access games, where developers will release incomplete products for the consumers and slowly improve them until a hypothetical release. And that’s just a mechanical analysis. Adding in the fact that the industry loves sequels, remakes and rereleases above all else further goes to show that completeness is not valued in today’s climate.
While I appreciate the advantages that DLC, patches, early access, etc. bring to the industry, I can’t help but feel that there is a certain disconnect with providing a final, quality product. The AAA industry is sick, that much is clear from the safe choices, corporate mandates and the bug-ridden releases, fully of bad ideas that are even more badly executed. The problem, to put it simply so as to not devolve into a separate article, is costs associated with development. This took a major spike last generation, leading to a greater consolidation under a few publishers, who now hold the reins tightly on previously free developers. While this hasn’t stopped some great games from coming out, it is directly responsible for the rise of incompleteness in the industry. After all, sequels make lots of money, cost less to develop, and can be worked on by a secondary team, freeing up a primary development team to new projects.
The problem are the effects of this practice. Sequels are so heavily favoured that we, as gamers, assume sequels are coming. Sometimes developers create games for a sequel instead of telling a story on its own. This can be seen with Halo 2, Golden Sun, or, to stick to the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy XIII-2. These aren’t complete games – they are one part of a larger narrative, games that failed the beginning, middle, and end fundamentals of story-telling. I like all three of the above games, but they are inherently incomplete. If the series stopped immediately (as it did after the first Golden Sun sequel), then what was left couldn’t bare the weight of the narrative on its own. These are setups, pieces of a larger narrative. That’s an admirable goal, but it’s left them woefully incomplete on their own, with only the promise of future completion to keep people from rioting. And, in the sequel-hungry video game industry, there is always the promise of another sequel
The Final Fantasy series largely has not had to deal with the above industry-wide issues. Each numbered Final Fantasy has so far been a completely self-contained story. Final Fantasy XIII had a complete and utter stop at the end. It closed loose ends, and no sequel was needed (or requested). The unnecessary Final Fantasy XIII-2 ended in cliffhanger, but, as a direct sequel, it isn’t considered part of the core numbered entries by many. DLC, as well, is new to the series and Square-Enix hasn’t quite figured out what to do with it yet. The real question is whether Final Fantasy XV, with its already-planned sequels, will end as a complete package or be drawn out over many purchases.
But there’s another problem that the Final Fantasy series faces regarding its sequels. Sometimes a sequel will come along that demeans the original game. This happens mostly when the sequel wasn’t planned but penned at a later date. Final Fantasy, above all other franchises, suffers from this (though Chrono Cross stumbled pretty hard). With few exceptions, every direct Final Fantasy sequel has undermined the work of the original team. Final Fantasy IV: The After Years is schlock with a nonsensical plot, existing to exist and for no other reason. Final Fantasy XIII-2 and then later Lightning Returns, changes a happy ending into a slew of plot holes and garbage quasi-philosophical dialogue with brain dead characters. Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core, though widely liked, completely undermines the villains and world of the original, forcing gamers to play ignorant and think as little as possible, lest the world break down under its own inconsistencies. Dirge of Cerberus and Revenant Wings are the PG-13 and G direct-to-DVD sequels to serious games. Finally, Final Fantasy X-2, though perhaps the least insulting of the bunch (strangely enough), still manages to make each and every character about as inconsistent as possible.
Please note: I actually like all of the above games, quite a bit actually, but their stories are terrible, and they don’t work well with their source material.
The problem is the opposite of what the rest of the industry suffers from. Final Fantasy developers haven’t planned for sequels. With that in mind, it makes sense that they just don’t work. These are games trying to extend the story of Hamlet – it just isn’t going to happen (sorry Hamlet 2). However, like the rest of the sequel-crazy industry, this practice is a by-product of rising development costs, particularly in the case of Final Fantasy X-2, XIII-2, and Lightning Returns. The economic realities are such that making a brand new game and engine is too expensive with how most AAA games sell. In the SNES era, games cost a mere fraction of what they do now. Niche games could be tested and thrown against the wall. This is what led to the great risks that brought us Chrono Trigger, Soul Blazer, and Ogre Battle. Now, AAA development has to be careful. A single innovative product has to have good sales potential and must be able to accommodate an immediate sequel that can reuse assets. Otherwise, the original game would never get green lit.
I’m not certain which way the Final Fantasy series is going to evolve. At this moment, it is clumsy, trying to tack on sequels to completed projects. However, the opposite side of the coin, making games for the sake of a sequel, is just as bad when the original isn’t complete. The ideal is to have ideas for future adventures, while also delivering a complete game; however, a complete game doesn’t drive the sale of sequels as well as a cliffhanger.
As for the answer to the title’s question: no. Final Fantasy, like all AAA series, cannot afford to dispense with sequels. I’d rather the ugly side of the sequel-crazy industry rear its head than lose the series in its entirety. Does that mean we should like it? Also no. This is a strange position, one that has only existed relatively recently in the industry. Final Fantasy doesn’t exactly have a choice as it continues to travel in the big-budget direction. But that doesn’t mean the future is dark. Competition between well-written sequels and the thrust for a complete game don’t always result in a train wreck. And, if Final Fantasy XV doesn’t work out, there is always Final Fantasy XVI – that’s the charm of an ever-changing series: adaptability.
-Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer