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Monday, September 14, 2020

What might we expect from Final Fantasy XVI?

Opinion by Matt S. 

Rumour has it that Final Fantasy XVI will be unveiled this week, at the big Sony stream (and that would be the game to finally get me on board with the next generation). I don't generally put much stock in rumours, since it's bad journalism to report on a rumour without a reasonable effort to verify the legitimacy of it from a proper source (and who has the time to chase those down?), but it has now been four years since the release of the previous numbered Final Fantasy XV, so it is about time to make some kind of announcement about the future of the series (aside from the FFVII Remakes that we know are ongoing).

Rather than talk about the rumours, though, I thought it would be a good idea to look back at recent Final Fantasy titles as a way of perhaps gleaning what we might expect from the next. Final Fantasy is a fundamentally narrative-driven series, after all, and over the years it has gone through some major changes. But individual entries also have more in common than the superficial elements that people notice, and what that means to is that each new one is a chance to speculate and a delight to discover.

So, let's talk about the recent entries in the Final Fantasy series. For the purposes of this piece, I'll discount Final Fantasy XIV and XI. I don't believe XVI would be another MMO, and the MMOs do stand out as a very different approach to the Final Fantasy series in every other way. I do believe that looking at Final Fantasies X, XII, XIII trilogy, and XV, though, we can make some solid predictions for what to expect (at least tonally, even if we can't begin to guess as specifics).

1) Final Fantasy will not return to a traditional fantasy setting.

I know that this is a thing that many fans would like to see (including myself), but from the developer's point of view I can't imagine there's much of an appetite for the earlier Final Fantasy games aesthetics in the series moving forward. Square Enix likes to pitch the series as something stylish and mature - Final Fantasy XIII trilogy leaned heavily into the science fiction aesthetic and XV was resolutely modernist. Where once the series was a more traditional fantasy with some science fiction elements, that approach is a little twee by today's trends, and more akin to the creative vision Square Enix has for its other great JRPG property, Dragon Quest.

We do have a hint as to what Square Enix thinks of its old aesthetics and settings - where the Final Fantasy VII Remake leaned into classic series tropes, it did so with tongue firmly in cheek (consider that battle with the giant house enemy). On that basis I can't see Square Enix looking to return to the audience it canvased for the last "traditional" Final Fantasy entries in terms of their aesthetics: X and XII.

2) Final Fantasy XVI will be and inherently progressive concept, but it's going to get criticised anyway by progressives.

Final Fantasy has, over the years, copped some robust criticism for what people perceive to be archaic tropes and a kind of conservatism when it comes to game development. So, for example, the XIII trilogy attracted some criticism for "sexualisation" in some corners, while XV... well, it was an all-boys game, wasn't it? For four years now it has been the target of comments like this (taken from Twitter, name removed since it's not relevant):

The contrast highlights the rock-and-hard-place that Final Fantasy finds itself in; if it depicts female characters that have an attractive feminine quality to them (and its efforts at creating fantasy means that Final Fantasy will always be a series about beautiful people doing heroic things - both men and women), then the media and pundits will immediately jump to "sexualisation." As far as managing that criticism it doesn't help that, even though Square Enix is a global company, its creatives for the series are all Japanese, and Japan as a culture isn't puritanical in progressivism as the west tends to be. Unfortunately for Square Enix, over here, it doesn't matter how heroic or empowered they are (and XIII's female characters are all empowered), if there are female characters, the game will have that Japanese aesthetic beauty to them and that will be confused with being unwholesome and titillating.

On the other hand, Square Enix can't not do female characters, either. And I don't think it would have ever been a discussion point to ignore female characters this time around. The thought-vomit I pasted above conveniently ignores the context that FFXV was an all-boys club for a very specific narrative and thematic purpose - it was a masculine coming-of-age story told through the context of an American-style road trip. I can't imagine any scenario whereby Square Enix's creatives will decide to have a similarly very specific reason to repeat that narrative context.

But to get to my point around all of the above, it's this: the criticism of FFXV being an all-male adventure, just like the criticism of sexualisation in the XIII trilogy, ignores just how progressive this series truly is. A big part of XV was exploring and completely undermining the idea of hyper-masculinity, both internally and within male-to-male relationships. It was exactly the kind of progressive approach to masculinity and male storytelling that progressives should be lauding.

Looking further back, the XIII had undeniably strong female characters. The principle point of XII was to deconstruct ideas of nationalism and was progressive enough to question the very idea that the protagonists in conflicts are the heroes in the subsequent stories. Final Fantasy X was a broad criticism of organised religion. It seems strange to write this, given how the progressive pundits carry on, but Final Fantasy is a consistently forward-thinking, socially-aware and philosophically left-wing series, and we can almost certainly expect that tradition to continue with Final Fantasy XVI.

3) That open world thing is there to stay.

To Square Enix, Final Fantasy is about the epic, and I can only imagine how the team must be salivating over the size of a continuous world they'll be able to achieve using the PlayStation 5 hardware. As much as the open world did seem to compromise the ability of Final Fantasy XV to tell a story of the depth and intensity that we've come to expect from the series (we did get there in the end, but it took a lot of patches, DLC, and cross-media films and cartoons to get there), the open world format is surely there to stay with the next Final Fantasy, too.

What is worth noting is that Final Fantasy XV was in development for a very long time indeed, and that would have affected the "open world best practices" that Square Enix was using when they got the design of the game together. In short, they would have started that game before better ideas on how to do open worlds came into vogue. What is tantalising about Final Fantasy XVI and the idea that it will likely be open world itself is that it would have been developed after we've played the likes of The Witcher 3, and now know how a fantasy RPG can combine rich narrative and open world. And you can be sure that Square Enix would have been paying attention to that game.

These are very broad "predictions," of course, based purely on what Final Fantasy offered before, and the context in which Square Enix makes its games. What I can say is that I do very much hope that the rumours are true and this new Final Fantasy is unveiled in some way at Sony's event this week. Like I mentioned, I've been desperately waiting for something to happen to sell me on the next generation of consoles. A new entry in the JRPG franchise that I have the longest history in would be a very poetic way of getting my sign-on.

- Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

What might we expect from Final Fantasy XVI?
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