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Saturday, April 20, 2024

'Final Fantasy XVI' Is What Happens When Developers Grow Up

Aging is a funny thing. For Final Fantasy XVI producer Naoki Yoshida, who turns 50 this year, it has taught him a simple lesson. “I've lived through this world enough to know that it's not all rainbows,” he says. 

It’s not all bad, but for Yoshida and the other developers working on Final Fantasy XVI, slated for release in June, maturity heavily influenced their decisions on what kind of game they wanted to make. Yoshida and director Hiroshi Takai sought to create a world that let players confront morally complicated paths. It was a story, they felt, that would resonate with their audience. “As developers, we've grown older,” says Yoshida. “We also know that a lot of our fan base has grown older as they played through the series.” 

The Final Fantasy franchise, though, hasn’t similarly accrued wisdom with age. The original Final Fantasy launched in Japan nearly 36 years ago, and by Yoshida’s own admission, the series has struggled to recapture the popularity and ingenuity it enjoyed in its earlier days. If each new game in its main series is a chance to reinvent itself, the creators of Final Fantasy XVI are looking to bring back the magic by walking a gloomier path than their predecessors.

The 16th main installment takes place in a medieval fantasy world, one where warring nations fight among themselves for dwindling resources. Dominants, a handful of individuals with the ability to transform into powerful creatures called Eikons, modeled after the series’ summon monsters, represent each civilization. Some Dominants rule their nations, while others are considered tools to be used as needed. The game spans three decades of its protagonist’s life. Clive, more antihero than model champion, is on a quest for revenge. He has lost his younger brother and the Dominant of his nation, Joshua.

Yoshida, while working on both Final Fantasy XIV and XVI over the past few years, traveled the world to talk with fans. What he learned was a shock. Younger players purposely avoided the series because it was Final Fantasy. “A lot of players, their view of what Final Fantasy is had kind of fossilized,” he says. It’s as though the franchise’s identity was solidified in the period between Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X.  People expect sci-fi stories, characters that feel very anime. “There's this idea that the Final Fantasy series is just this series about teens going out and saving the world,” Yoshida says. “[Final Fantasy] has more potential.”

Gone are the days of turn-based combat, traded in for more dynamic battle systems. For Final Fantasy XVI, Square Enix brought on Ryoto Suzuki as combat director. His credits include Devil May Cry 5, a critically acclaimed game that earned high praise for its quick, stylish fights. Suzuki’s influence is clear. Playing a demo of the game, Clive felt potent to control. The character has the ability to take on powers of different Dominants, which players can rapidly cycle through in battle. Fights play out in real time, requiring players to nimbly dodge and defend and chain together combos. 

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Final Fantasy XVI’s big battle centerpiece, however, is its fights between Eikons. Each one is different in style and scope, though Yoshida says they’re all made to feel “like a pro wrestling–type match.” Although Clive isn’t a Dominant in a typical way, he transforms into Ifrit, a slightly sinister and mysterious Eikon, for these battles.

Each Dominant’s motivation and how their values and ambitions clash is central to the game’s narrative. “We didn't want to make this simply a story about right and wrong, because we believe that right and wrong is a very gray area,” says Yoshida. Final Fantasy XVI is ruled by a more somber tone than its predecessors, and certainly a bloodier one. Early teasers for the game, for example, suggest a savage end for the cherubic-faced Joshua and his mop of sandy hair.

Curiously, though, the team’s venture into deeper narrative waters has meant creating a blindingly white cast. In previous interviews, Yoshida has said that the game leaned on medieval Europe, and because of those “geographical, technological, and geopolitical constraints" the setting was "never going to realistically be as diverse as, say, a modern-day Earth … or even Final Fantasy XIV.” 

According to Yoshida, the series has always been about conflict “between the empowered and those used and/or exploited by those privileged few … it can be challenging to assign distinctive ethnicities to either antagonist or protagonist without triggering audience preconceptions, inviting unwarranted speculation, and ultimately stoking flames of controversy.” 

Yet Yoshia’s assertion that the team wanted players to focus “less on the outward appearance of our characters” and more on them as “people who are complex and diverse in their natures, backgrounds, beliefs, personalities, and motivations” undermines that point more than anything. It’s a strange fantasy to pursue, that characters of color in a world Square Enix itself is creating could not be portrayed in the same complex, nuanced ways as its white cast. Although Final Fantasy has included characters of color, they’ve yet to be featured in the more complex stories the company hopes to achieve.

Final Fantasy XVI isn’t the only game in the franchise to get a Mature rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board, but it is the first in its mainline series. Yoshida has previously said the rating gave the team more creative freedom to explore the heavy themes they’re interested in as regulations grow stricter. But it matters in a more practical sense. “It's not like we want to go out of our way to create something that's violent,” Yoshida says. “We want to go out of our way to create something that feels real.”

It’s not just about violence, however. One of the characters, Cid–a recurring series favorite who is typically cast as a tinkering engineer—is a heavy smoker, a no-go for Everyone or Teen ratings. Even a party would get scrutiny. Picture this, says Yoshida: Everyone is celebrating after a victory. They raise their tankards and fill them with wine. “But if we want a Teen rating, we have to tell the ESRB, 'No, no, no, no,’” he says. “‘That's not wine, it’s grape juice that everyone is drinking after battle.’”

The point is not to create a game that thrives off being gloomy or sordid. Square Enix has leaned heavily into its grim image in showing off the game, but Yoshida says Final Fantasy XVI is full of hope. From the demo, though, that’s still hard to discern. Fighting through an enemy-filled castle at night, only to reach a ruthless battle at its peak, does not inspire images of optimism. But to hear Yoshida tell it, it’s a promise of personal growth—not so different from what he would like future developers to do with the series. “Whoever makes Final Fantasy XVII, it's probably not going to be us,” he says. The game, then, is a lesson to those upcoming creators. 

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“Even more so than showing the players that the series can have more potential, it's showing future developers that you can do what you want,” he says. “They can create whatever they want.” 

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