The dominance of the most distinctive traits of action adventure games – a strong focus on story telling, adventure, and linearity – can nowadays even be detected as influences in traditionally open ended genres. Role Playing Games, for example, have traditionally thrived in setting the player lose to explore an expansive landscape, with the narrative rising from this action. This trend, established in the late eighties started shifting at the start of the new millennium, with more and more RPG franchises shifting their focus to narrative driven, action/adventure qualities.
This shift in focus can also be observed in long-running franchises whose initial successes were based on their game mechanics. Since its seventh iteration, the Final Fantasy franchise had become increasingly ambitious in its storytelling, but that game still suffered from cliched characters, a mediocre script and questionable Japanese to English translations. It took three further games to finally fine-tune the narrative content and to seriously challenge the identity of a rapidly ageing series of games.
With Final Fantasy X, the story took centre stage. The designers at Square Enix (well, Squaresoft) made the decision to completely change the way the Final Fantasy gameworld was designed and to base it on the needs of the narrative. Whereas Final Fantasy fans were used to an open world game in which they could travel at will, Final Fantasy X imposed a restrictive linear journey: both narratively and design wise. The story demands game linearity and creates a sense of tragic urgency to the game. This choice needs to be understood by viewing the game as a whole, inseparable from its story. If one eliminated expectations based on the series history, Final Fantasy Xcan be clearly seen as a story made up of several scenes featuring a mix of player-input and non interactive scenes.
The game is entirely structured around the one concept of a journey. This journey is very specific, as dictated by the mysterious Fayth, and revolves around visiting seven holy temples in a certain order. From the beginning, the player knows that the final destination of the pilgrimage is a ruined city named Zanarkand. After every major story moment, a map of progress is displayed, detailing the amount of terrain left to cover. In this sense, Final Fantasy X is almost like a novel, in which the reader can judge their position within the story by the number of pages left in the book. The story leaves the game no option but to allow the player to move forward across islands, forests, deserts, mountains and cities in order to reach the end game.
The importance of the authored narrative is further highlighted by the cinematic presentation of the story. Final Fantasy X opens with a scene the entire game then builds towards. Although still anonymous to the player at that point, the player witnesses Yuna and her Guardians sitting around a campfire on a hillside overlooking Zanarkand, their signature weapons symbolically discarded. The narrator, Tidus, then invites the audience to metaphorically sit around the same campfire and to listen to how everything led to that point: “Listen to my story. This may be our last chance.” The entire game is then a flashback from Tidus’ perspective leading up to this inevitable point, and is a process of unravelling one by one who the people at the campfire are and their character motivations, along with the momentum generated by the intricate mix of plot and backstory. Once the same scene presented in the opening is reached, it is repeated in a new context, allowing the player to identify with the now familiar characters, having witnessed their lives throughout the journey.
The scene acts as an assertion that an ending has been reached and that only Zanarkand remains, and a reminder to the player that the story’s climax – as well as their own objectives – are within reach.
Final Fantasy X, thus, employs its strong narrative thread to effectively frame the logic behind the entire game, and for the first time in the franchise history, its characters become more than simple blank slates into which the player can project himself. Rather, their unique individuality, their banter and interactions, become increasingly important throughout the emotional journey both player and characters endure throughout the game.