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Kiran Earwaker likens theories of Determinism to the Final Fantasy XIII saga...
There’s a well known line of logic that proves - worryingly - that all control is an illusion. It goes like this: if the universe is deterministic, then every event is by definition predetermined. Our thoughts are simply electromagnetic impulses obeying physical laws, and every ‘choice’ we make is just another domino tumbling through some incomprehensibly vast Rube Goldberg machine. Alternatively, if the universe is fundamentally indeterminate - as required by quantum mechanics (our current best picture of how things really work) - then outcomes resolve randomly; you don’t decide anything so much as fall into a decision state within a range of probabilities (a bit like a pachinko ball tumbling into a slot). Either way, you have no real control; your actions are either inevitable, or profoundly random.
And yet, despite such damning a priori evidence that it doesn’t exist, each of us clings desperately to this futile notion of control. We each experience a cognitive hallucination; a smoke and mirrors trick of the (in)/determinate brain which conjures up the subjective perception of agency. It seems reasonable, we think, to assume that we choose, given that we experience a sensation of choosing. Consequently, when someone holds a candle up to the mirage and we see it shimmer away in a misty haze of confusion and mental vapour, we react very strongly indeed.
Albert Einstein couldn’t bear the indeterminacy at the heart of Quantum Mechanics. “God doesn’t play dice!” he said in outrage, before wasting the rest of his life trying to prove that God, in fact, plays Canasta. Many people detest Derren Brown, because he uncompromisingly unmasks us as the crushingly manipulable automatons we truly are. And certain hardcore gamers were livid when Square-Enix stripped the JRPG experience to its core with Final Fantasy XIII, exposing the linear grind-fest that lay at its heart in a stark and honest new light. Suddenly, they were simply battling from A to B to trigger cut-scenes - the JRPG as new-age corridor shooter - and the walls of illusion had crumbled in on them. In truth (with the possible exception of Final Fantasy’s VI and XII), it was ever thus; towns, NPCs, side-quests - all were largely superficial distractions in previous entries, window-dressing to tart up the borders of a slickly constructed critical path that unfolded with measured predictability. With FFXIII, Square-Enix simply made this critical path explicit. Whether that was a brave or foolhardy decision, it forever let the genie out of the bottle and the cat out of the bag. It pulled the curtain back from the wizard, kicked him off his stool, and left him spluttering arthritically on the floor. It. Then it fried the cat, made a cat sandwich, and shared it with the genie, before eloping with the wizard to live in the bag, much to everyone’s confusion.
So it’s with an uneasy flourish that Square-Enix attempts to reconstruct that illusion for FFXIII-2; layering towns with NPC side-quests, and expanding dialogue options to build a ‘player driven’ experience on its predecessor’s ‘story driven’ foundations. Choice informs every new gameplay mechanic, every tweaked layout design, and every laboured utterance; it forms the scaffolding of the narrative structure itself, with its multiple endings and branching, inter-dimensional time-travel motif.
As such, its a little disheartening that the opening sequence is essentially a barely interactive cut-scene, with (FFXIII protagonist) Lightning requiring minimal assistance to battle Bahamut from atop her mighty Odin Eidolon. While it’s visually spectacular stuff, and the new ‘Cinematic Action’ QTEs (Press X for Bum Rush!) at least add a thin layer of interaction to the experience, the resounding first impression is of a game that’s perhaps more ‘player-assisted’ than ‘player-driven’.
Of course, lengthy introductory cut-scenes aren’t exactly new to Final Fantasy games, and a subsequent section - which introduces Lightning’s sister Serah as a playable character - offers slightly more evidence of the developer’s intention to restore player agency in FFXIII-2. Serah’s current home - a small seaside town - is brimming with NPCs, and even has a rudimentary side-quest or two on offer. It’s here that Serah encounters time-travelling scamp Noel, the sole human survivor of a desolate possible future, and - after a few knowing nods to Chrono Trigger (they chase a cat, return a lost pendant, and travel through a time gate) - the pair set off on an adventure to locate Lightning and alter the course of events that lead to the destruction of Noel’s homeland.
Arriving in Bresha a few years in the future however, Serah and Noel are immediately attacked by Atlas - an enormous bio-mechanical weapon of war. Fortunately, a PSICOM fleet intervenes before they’re squished (tap X for airstrike!), and the pair slink off to explore. Bresha now lies in ruins, but a small town still bustles with NPCs, fetch-quests, and an eccentric Chocobo/bag-lady/thing that fulfills the shopping function which FFXIII controversially relegated to a perfunctory menu list. It transpires that Atlas’s appearance is a time-paradox; a result of the mysterious inter-dimensional bleeding which now permeates the game world. Resolving paradoxes uncovers artefacts which in turn unlock time-gates, so the first priority is to put the huge mech out of commission. Here you’re offered your first explicit choice: either attack Atlas directly (suicide), or try to locate its control module and weaken it first (probably more sensible). Locating the control module triggers a ‘temporal rift’ puzzle section: these occur fairly frequently and require you to trace out the best path through a series of points to progress. The puzzle is rudimentary at best, but the subsequent battle with Atlas is spectacular: the hulking great mech sways drunkenly in its weakened state, pawing ineffectually at Noel and Serah as you unleash a barrage of explosive QTE-driven destruction.
The well-received Paradigm Shift and modified ATB systems return in battle, freeing you to focus on higher-level tactics and role-distribution while the AI automatically selects the best individual actions each turn. It still feels a little clunky to have to press ‘Autobattle’ at all after the elegance of FFXII’s gambit system, but the real-time flexibility offered by Paradigm Shift (which allows you to - for instance - switch your characters from attacking to healing configurations on the fly) swaps back-end strategy for up-front tactical immediacy. Certain monsters can now be captured after battle and used to fill gaps in your tactical line-up, fighting alongside you as medics or saboteurs on your command, and each can be customised with equipment and specialised with levelling bonuses.
While none of the early areas offer sprawling expanses of boundless exploration, there are some hidden time gates and branching paths in evidence, and the illusion of non-linearity is perhaps greater than it was in FFXIII (even if you’re often just following a winding path from A to B rather than a straight one). But while the individual area layouts themselves might not seem massively complex, it’s their intersections in time and space that could potentially build a web of deep and interesting non-linear interaction in the game. After the defeat of Atlas, you journey through the branching tree-top paths of the Sunleth Waterscape and encounter an enormous amalgamated blob of regenerating flans. In order to defeat it, you must first travel to another time-period and slay a beast which is sucking flans into Sunleth through a dimensional rift in its throat (why you can’t just wait for it to starve to death isn’t clear).
The gate matrix - your time-travelling hub - also offers intriguing hints of further potential complexities in the design. The matrix is laid out on multiple parallel tracks through time, with each area linked to the next through its associated time gates. Paradoxes resolved in a given area can be ‘reset’ in the gate matrix, disrupting the causal chain which runs through each link and affecting other areas in turn (by resetting your work on the beaches of the Yassaf coastline for example, you can cause an eclipse to re-occur in the research town of Yaschas Massif). What’s particularly interesting here is the potential for multiple areas to affect the causal chain simultaneously, especially given that changes made in the future also ripple back to affect the past. While we don’t know at this stage how extensive such effects will be, they could potentially add a very interesting layer of strategy and creativity to exploration.
Perhaps it’s best not to view FFXIII-2 as a collection of semi-linear areas designed explicitly to appease critics of FFXIII’s streamlined layout, and imagine it instead as a potentially complex web of non-linear interaction and exploration. While a cynic might suggest that time-travel is a calculated device used to shoe-horn FFXIII’s aesthetically disparate left-over content into some sort of semi-coherent sequel, we’d like to hope that it represents a potential re-invigoration of the franchise. Although the first nine hours feel largely linear, this is fairly typical of any introductory section and there’s every chance the game could later blossom in sweeping waves of inter-dimensional cross-pollination. It will certainly take something beautiful and spectacular if Square-Enix are to restore the illusion of choice that they so expertly deconstructed with FFXIII.
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