[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time, he discusses Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII and how he believes its odd evolution actually occurred.]

When fans and media alike began to complain about how linear Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII was, I began to wonder if we talking about the same series. The shock horror with which the gaming public greeted the first revealed maps of the games made me wonder if it's been so long since the last Final Fantasy that we forgot how long it took to get off the training wheels (or out of Midgar).

The series, not to mention genre, is notorious for its ceaseless hand-holding, so if anything this design decision should be as unobtrusive as the removal of a vestigial limb.

So then why does the game stumble like it had one of its feet cut off?

It's easy to see why, in a series that has always valued the cinematic above everything else (including gameplay), how a linear design is a move that has been a long time coming. And frankly, that's Square Enix's choice to make, even if it's an unconventional one. Producer Yoshinori Kitase even went as far as to say in an interview with 1UP that Final Fantasy XIII would be an RPG only by coincidence, if at all, even going as far to say that it would be more like an FPS than an RPG. Criticism should focus on what the game is, not what we think it should or shouldn't be.

However, FFXIII should have taken a few more notes from the FPS book if they wanted a linear game. If it was an FPS, it would be is 60 hours of single player horde mode. That Final Fantasy XIII has one of the most strategic and involved combat systems in the history of the series is a testiment to how vital pacing is for a long-term single player game. Even the best combat becomes tedious if there isn't action and variety to break it up, and there is no replacement for the pacing lost in the switch to linear design. Where Final Fantasy used to have sidequests and exploration, it now has nothing.

I Heard You Like Games, So We Put A Game In Your Game So You Can Play While You Play

In Tim Rogers' initial impressions of FFXIII on Kotaku, he talks about how disappointed he is about not riding on bikes: "You approach the motorcycles. A cut-scene starts. Your dudes get on and then fly away. They look like they're having a lot of fun! Too bad we can't have that fun!" This is doubly ironic since the playable bike chase is one of the most memorable moments of the beginning of FFVII. I've already warned about criticizing things that aren't there, but it's telling that six games ago, players could do exactly what they couldn't in this one.

FFVII presented a world full of casinos, snowboarding, road-rash style motorcycle combat, virtual pet breeding, and RTS held together by truly random encounters with equally random monsters and a series of press X to advance dialogue and FMV. Sebsequent Final Fantasy games have had a variety of this, from card games to fictional sports.

Minigame is commonly a derogatory term, but almost all video games, especially AAA ones, are composed of many smaller games. Fighting itself is made up of discovering weakness, buffing and debuffing appropriately, and deciding wether pure damage or chaining is the right move. Then there's also the decision of how to level up the characters, and how to level up items.This is sort of the point of nonlinear gameplay--it lets players more or less choose their pacing by giving them a lot of options if they're bored with advancing the plot.

It's not that minigames or aimless wandering are necessarily fun (because they can often be quite the opposite), but that even games focused almost entirely on combat break up the action have lulls to let the player breathe and alternate gameplay modes and areas to keep things interesting. FFXIII has some of the most fun and interesting combat in the series, but there's a reason even our most brutal shooters are constructed of more than just a continuous fight. At a certain point, fighting becomes exhausting and boring and being out of combat, which is positively uninvolved, is even worse.

What It Has

In Final Fantasy XIII, the player is still following a very direct path (matching the narrative). Themetically, the linear gameplay is evocative. Final Fantasy XIII is a game about destiny, after all, and even when they're utterly lost the characters are compelled by their Focus to move forward. The way party members wander about and make small talk is actually very well done, one of the few times it feels like real interaction and not just the game beating the player over the head with what they need to do next.

However, the areas of the game are flat, boring, and non-interactive, to the point where wandering around outside of combat feels even more pointless than previous games. FFXIII doesn't just streamline the act of walking around, it removes all gameplay from it. The only things you can do are wander off to very short branches to find items, or try to sneak up on enemies in a very poorly implemented and frustratingly random surprise attack system.

The fact is, wandering around looking for something actually was gameplay. This was never the greatest strength of the series, but it was there for a reason. The passages lead to traps or treasure, it's true, and they do in FFXIII as well. As constrained as these areas were, they lent the player a real sense of exploration. This is the act of exploration, and it's a powerful force in games. What matters more than that FFXIII is linear is that it feels linear. Towns and exploration were how previous FF games were paced.

There's a problem when walking on catwalks miles above the sky while storming a floating airship feels no different from walking through a cave or city street. These pathways are gorgeously rendered but utterly stilted. It doesn't involve the player at all. In contrast, Uncharted 2 makes climbing so involved that it's almost more important than fighting. This really lets the player experience the environment as if it was a living thing, which FFXIII's automated jumps don't.

Pacing fighting with other kinds of action is common in the most successful single player action games. Half-Life 2 goes from creepy sewer puzzles with ceiling tentacle monsters to urban firefights. Uncharted 2 has tense climbing alongside urban firefights. Bayonetta has timing puzzles and boulder chases alongside urban swordfights. Despite the fact that these games involve clobbering someone with something, all of those games also make players do a lot more. The fighting in these games stays fresh because it's balanced with other forms of action.

The Path Set Out For Them

While Square Enix has continuously inserted cinema into Final Fantasy, they have not necessarily made a more cinematic game. It seems clear by this point that the philosophy behind Final Fantasy is to bring their world to life with FMV and graphics rather than gameplay. As game technology advances, Final Fantasy seems intent on removing the game.

I do not believe that Square Enix is totally ignorant of the flaws in its game. Rather, Final Fantasy has a different blueprint. When Advent Children was released, Square Enix made it clear what they thought FFVII's lasting legacy was, and it was not the minigame, but the cutscene. They saw the RPG as a way to unfold a cinematic drama.

This is actually a very progressive decision, but it makes me wonder why Square Enix still seems to be under the impression that gameplay and narrative are at odds, or why if they're so willing to make drastic changes, walking around in the overworld in FFXIII is literally as gameplay intensive as it was in FFI. Gameplay is more than capable of creating narrative and emotion, so it's a little depressing to see a game that touts that as its focus seems so afraid of mixing the two. It's strange how the game plays, in many ways, like an archaic game.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, where dinosaur vampires cry out for blood, and can be reached at [email protected]]