The Evolution of Final Fantasy’s Narratives

Final Fantasy

Hironobu Sakaguchi was ready to give up. The president of Square Co. at the time, Sakaguchi had lost confidence in his most recent creation, an RPG for the NES made in the wake of the first Dragon Quest. While, contrary to popular belief, Square wasn’t on the verge of bankruptcy, the beleaguered Sakaguchi decided that this project would decide his future. If it failed, he’d leave the video game business and return to university. It was this sense of finality that led to the game’s now-ironic name: Final Fantasy.

In the ensuing years, there have been 14 numbered entries in the series and even more spinoff titles. In the numbered series, each game had nothing to do with the previous one in terms of story, characters or setting. There were common motifs and creatures, but for the most part, every Final Fantasy game was its own self-contained adventure. Ever since the launch of the first title all the way back in 1987, gamers have been captivated by amazing worlds and epic quests time and time again.

At a certain point, though, something in the series changed. The focus shifted. Once-common staples took a backseat to new tropes. The fantasy that Sakaguchi had staked his career on had never truly been “final,” but today it isn’t even familiar. Dialogue, story and character development have now become the emphasis of a series that began with four mute, faceless protagonists at the center. While a push for advanced storytelling is laudable in the video game art form, the execution of narrative technique in Final Fantasy has altered the framework that made the first entry a hit back when Sakaguchi was still reaching for success.

ffi final boss
The final battle of the first Final Fantasy game.

To understand what has fundamentally changed the series, a primer of what the Final Fantasy franchise used to be is necessary. For the most part, the plot of the first Final Fantasy is pretty simple. The four controllable characters, known as the Light Warriors, arrive in the kingdom of Cornelia carrying mystic orbs. They are subsequently told that they must defeat four elemental-based fiends to restore light to the orbs, thus bringing balance to the world. As far as plots go, it’s a pretty simple good-versus-evil tale without many frills. The ending, which involves the final boss utilizing a time loop in order to achieve immortality, is more “out there” than the rest of the game, but it doesn’t strain the mind.

Really, none of the Final Fantasy sequels that followed added much in the way of complexity. While Final Fantasy II added a human face to the enemy, it was very clear that our named-but-bland protagonists were fighting a figure of pure evil. Final Fantasy III followed a plot trajectory similar to Final Fantasy I, with four nameless heroes striving to stop the embodiment of darkness.

A shift towards character development arrived with Final Fantasy IV. Cut-scenes and character arcs were weaved into the narrative, adding a greater sense of purpose. The plot still centered on fighting elemental fiends and stopping a garishly evil final boss, but the player got to know the characters like Cecil and Kain and Rydia along the way. The high-fantasy questing aspect of Final Fantasy remained intact even with this added dimension.

After a brief regression in narrative and character depth in Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy VI took several steps forward. Prior to the franchise’s sixth installment, any character development present tended to occur within the confines of a quest, as exemplified by Cecil’s conversion from dark to light in Final Fantasy IV; his redemption is a good character moment, but it also serves the utilitarian purpose of allowing him to defeat the villainous Golbez. In Final Fantasy VI, the role of character begins to eclipse the role of the overarching plot. Scenes, not levels, like Celes’ suicide attempt or the coin toss between Edgar and Sabin add little to the plot, but they flesh out the characters in ways that the expository dialogue required of the plot never could.

These changes can be attributed to Yoshinori Kitase, whose first project as director was Final Fantasy VI. Starting with his first game, characters began to take a clear emphasis. What’s more, Kitase would come to alter the look and feel of the franchise. As he later revealed in a bonus DVD for Final Fantasy X, Kitase strove to push the limits of what a “fantasy world” was in the minds of fans.

Final Fantasy
A pivotal character scene from Final Fantasy VII where the character Aeris is killed.

Final Fantasies VII and VIII continued the trend of increased character focus. Indeed, characters in themselves became the focus of the arcs, not a battle between good and evil. The latter conflict was present in these games, but it didn’t possess the urgency that it did in the earlier titles. Final Fantasy VIII, in particular, didn’t seem to be bothered with a main plot. The main villain had the barest of motivations and the time-travel laden plot was riddled with holes. Almost entirely eschewing the setup, the ending cut-scenes were content with wrapping up character arcs and ending with a kiss on a balcony – a far cry from the triumphant fanfare of the original Final Fantasy. This isn’t bad, simply different – changed.

An emphasis on pageantry accompanied this change. Prior to Final Fantasy VII, many of the fantastical elements were standard tropes in the overall fantasy genre: Dwarfs, magic and western mythology all populated these earlier games. These elements continued to be a presence, but under Kitase they shifted into the background in favor of levels like amusement parks, impromptu band performances and extreme sports. The evolving technology aided in the shift from traditional fantasy norms to a more unique outlook. Artist Tetsuya Nomura, who worked for Final Fantasies VII through X, was hired for his ability to integrate his designs into the 3-D realm, and his input shaped the way the series would look henceforth. Visually and structurally, the franchise began to devise its own fantasy tropes.

As the series began to enter 21st century, the games grew even further from their humble origins. Final Fantasy IX continued to focus more on characters while adding even more levels of offbeat atmosphere. Allusions to Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll gave the game a whimsical European vibe, which made it feel both similar and distant to previous games. As mentioned before, western influence had made appearances in the franchise before, but it was generally Tolkien-flavored – elves and spells and castles. In Final Fantasy IX, the feeling is less high fantasy and more theatre-in-the-round. It was a sly reworking of traditional fantasy influences that set the game apart from the established feel of the franchise even further.

The next installment went even further in developing its own fantasy lore. Final Fantasy X tackled themes of religion and humanity while at the same time delivering some of the more esoteric artistic visions of the franchise. The distinctive, colorful look of the game complemented the characters as well, for every party character in the game is larger than life. From Tidus the illusory sports superstar to Kimahri the furry blue tribesman, Final Fantasy X’s wild cast pushed the plot forward, epitomized by Tidus’ repeated proclamation that “This is my story.”

The plots of these games, by the way, began to explore more abstract directions; form the time warps of Final Fantasy VIII to the dream worlds of Final Fantasy X, the stories began to abandon the narrative form that was standard to the series. Even Final Fantasy IX‘s plot, superficially similar to the good-versus-evil romps seen in Final Fantasies II and V, manages to shift things up by reflecting on the nature of life and death in a manner that was unheard of in the series. While these were still essentially linear stories of defeating a final boss, by this point the atmosphere and characters had come to influence not just the stories, but the messages that the audience were supposed to glean from the stories. Final Fantasies VIII through X in particular really focused on using the stories to convey themes rather than telling a straightforward story.

Sidestepping the MMORPG Final Fantasy XI, which didn’t have a large plot to speak of, Final Fantasy XII had a more digestible plot than its immediate predecessors, arguably since it borrowed heavily from Star Wars. It added more artistic flair and ambiguous plot devices, but it was still a decipherable plot. Elements of philosophical debate bubbled around the surface of the game’s main story, but the individual character arcs never really crossed with the underlying message. What’s more, the character threads didn’t really connect with each other, either; the final scene implied a Han Solo/Princess Leia type romance between the characters Balthier and Ashe, but it felt forced and spontaneous and the finale hadn’t earned the emotional payoff that it so wanted.

The cast of Final Fantasy XIII drive the mammoth plot forward.
The cast of Final Fantasy XIII drive the mammoth plot forward.

Final Fantasy XIII, on the other hand, went full-stop on character development and visual splendor while neglecting to have a sensible plot. Indeed, most of the exposition or vital information isn’t delivered in dialogue, but via text-only journal entries, treating the story as subordinate. Rather, the characters took center stage and the nonsensical plot went to great pains to tie the myriad character threads together.

After another attempt at an MMORPG with Final Fantasy XIV, the main franchise and its fans await a fifteenth installment. What should the latter group expect from the former? If Final Fantasy XV follows the recent trajectory, there will be lots of dialogue, beautiful designs and a plot that defies reason. Gone are the days of fetch-quests and dark dungeons, replaced with brightly colored plazas and pop concerts.

It would take a book to go into every nuance involved in how the series has changed over time, but for the sake of brevity, Final Fantasies I and XIII make for a good cross-section. While Final Fantasy I put nearly no emphasis into characterization or dialogue and only the most basic of stories, it allowed the player to embark on a vast world to explore. Most of the locations fit the profile of generic dungeons or caves, but every level challenged the players not with personal dilemmas or inner turmoil, but with dragons and fiends. It was classic high adventure and the prototypical RPG experience. On the other hand, Final Fantasy XIII offered only a few opportunities of exploration or dungeon-crawling. The level design was linear, but linear never looked so good. Beautiful set design bookended by dialogue-heavy scenes were the crux of the game. Crucially, the player’s role in the game was far different between the two games; in Final Fantasy I, the goal was to finish an adventure while in Final Fantasy XIII the goal is to guide the narrative to its climax. It’s as if the player was asked to become the director of a film.

This drastic but gradual transition that the franchise has gone through has not always pleased everyone. Critics have called the franchise’s recent efforts “a punchline” and have referred to the plots as “jigsaw puzzles.” Indeed, not every choice that Square Enix (Square Co. and Dragon Quest creators Enix Corp. merged in 2003) decided on has worked. While the emphasis has clearly shifted towards characters and story, the dialogue can be of questionable quality at times. The stories themselves have bordered on incomprehensible. Even worse, the characters haven’t always been worth rooting for. In games with such dependence on narrative, these are costly failures.

After 14 entries, though, Square Enix cannot be faulted for a lack of trying. After delivering six of the best classic RPGs out there, it would be strange if they didn’t start experimenting with new ideas. Is every design choice or line of dialogue a winner? No, but in a gaming market saturated with murky first person shooters and “gritty” action-adventures, bizarre bursts of innovation should be cherished, not ridiculed. The games may no longer resemble the eight-bit fantasy that Sakaguchi put his faith in long ago, but every new Final Fantasy game comes imbued with his spirit of risk, and that’s what keeps drawing fans back to the games. As long as the franchise continues to be inventive and offbeat, the next fantasy will by no means be final.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Kevin is a journalism major at Northwestern University.

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  1. voncile

    i wonder why square doesn’t have a small development team working on new titles that fit more into the classic formula and then they can spend the majority of their efforts on the new formula since that’s what they seem to mostly be interested in. they could spend 1/10 what they spend on ffxiii and 1/10 the manpower, just to keep us ravenous fanboys happy. everyone wins! take out voiceovers and overly produced FMVs and just make a simple game with good gameplay and good story.

    • I wish they would do this as well but they don’t seem to want to for some reason. It’d be a great compliment to their large games. I’d definitely be fine with no voices or FMVs, and I’d love some high quality 2D sprite based gaming.

      • Keriaku

        This is exactly what is happening with Bravely Default and the soon to be Bravely series.

  2. How to fix FF IMO.

    0. Bring back a simple battle system.

    1. Brink back 4 character parties.

    2. Have a story

    3. Lose the FMV and use the in game engine to progress the story. Flashy cut scenes do not a story make.

    4. Try using cute, deformed characters again [its not a sin] and hasn’t been done in so long if would actually seem fresh.

    5. Scrap voice acting. Trust me on this one, one aspect that made the early games so memorable is that each character sounded like whatever the player thought they should. This will help pull players into the story. [and get people to read more]

    Don’t believe me… How many FF fans would rather not have a game like Bravely Default: Flying Fairy [a much truer final fantasy game, despite the weird title] or complain about its mechanics. Its weird how the game that is more like Final Fantasy gets a different name, but an action game gets called Final Fantasy.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      Haha, eh, most of these decisions are too cosmetic to make a difference. What they need to do is refocus on what people used to love about JRPGs – an interesting, weird world full of goofy NPCs to explore, vast dungeons to explore, and legitimate treasure to be collected. Final Fantasy XII did all this extremely well and that game is awesome. Simple battle systems are sort of boring – FF VII’s materia system is great and allows for a lot of customization, but a lot of the battles are dull. In the olden days, a game like Final Fantasy VI felt HUGE to kids who played it. That’s what FF 13 was missing, a feeling of vastness and being tiny in an alien world.

      All that being said, your critique is valid ; ) BD FF is fantastic.

    • mohammad

      i agree voice acting ruined it, i noticed it in X. at least in my mind titus (tye-dus) in my mind seemed much cooler. but no we got (teedus). and the ooooohs and aaaaaaahs in xiii’s firework scene was just plain cringeworthy. in reference to your deformed characters comment i’d say just additional races would help. red xiii, cait sith, moogle, vivi etc. they are all humanoids now (oh we did have a black guy). but no more viera, bangaa, nu mou plz, is it really that hard to come up with non-humanoids? oh right it might actually take character model designs – so hard – so yeah scrap that…i don’t mind fmv, but i do mind forced cutscenes every 5 minutes that are all but pointless. sure you can skip them, but you never know if anything of substance will actually take place. the love for voice acting really says a lot about the dullards of society today.

    • Devon Lyon

      -Hire Uematsu and Sagakuchi.
      -Look at the past FF games and see what makes they special.
      -Make a New FF like the old ones.
      -Fire the stupid people who think mobile is the path for FF franchise.

    • ragsdale

      Thing is the majority of the people can’t be arsed to read and they do aim at majority. Altough I do like to read and I enjoy voice acting in the games. I also do like flashy cinematics even tough recently they kinda loose its meaning since actuall gameplay graphics is as good as in cinematics. I don’t think the problem lies here.

  3. Bring on another Tactics game, but not based on the Advanced vein. War of the lions was the most underrated FF game!

  4. I thing is that we all grew up. Those of us who started playing Final Fantasy back in the nineties have families, jobs, careers. I personally find only about two hours a week to play a video game. Thirty minutes here and there is not enough to slog through a 50 plus hour epic jRPG unless you are allowed to save anywhere anytime. So what I am trying to say is Sqaure-Enix knows this so they are catering to the teenagers, college students and casual audience who do have time to play these games. If you want them to make more old school games again you had better be willing to fork out the money and find the time to play them.

  5. Kiss this franchise good-bye. Let’s face it: It was never the same since Sakaguchi left.

  6. Vince Glass

    I’ll never understand why they had to turn them into more of a pseudo actiony adventure games, what was wrong with leaving them as turn based games with an overworld type map?

  7. Good read man. I wish they would get that through their heads that it’s the lack of depth in terms of things you can do (in a useful and immediately direct manner) in the world and battle system. Everything doesn’t have to revolve around just killing monsters; let us be able to steal, turn the monsters into items, into cards, then we could use those cards in a card game just like FF8…or turn those cards into items. That is the kind of depth we need back in terms of customization.

    The story also has a lot of problems, and I could never really nail down for the longest time what one thing encompassed all those issues of vagueness and over dramatic acting (not to mention the lack of ambition and balance in the story and character dialogue). I found out that overall Japan prefers theater-based acting as opposed to Hollywood style acting.

  8. Frederic Seitz

    My first encouter with FF was FF II in Super NES, the US import version that is. Haven’t played such an epic story in an RPG ever again. Chrono Trigger came close and FF VII is still on my list though.

  9. Jemarc Axinto

    I personally rather enjoy the shift to a character-based structure. To me it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a lack of adventure, just more of a reason to become attached. Although I suppose I am biased because FFVII is where I had my start in the franchise. Personally I think keeping a compelling story that highlights the gameplay is what keeps me engaged in Final Fantasy. Unlike FF X-2 which was fan service for people obsessed with the Tidus/Yuna love story.

  10. It’s about whether and how the player sees herself inside the game. The less character development there is, the more space there is for the character to be whoever the player wants the character to be. Yet a game without a narrative feels rote. That’s why so many games today tout multiple endings and moral decisions the character has to make that affect what happens to the character later on and also who the character is — it’s a way of giving the player some personal investment in the character while still providing enough story that the player still finds it compelling.

  11. Mary Awad

    I agree with what you said about FFXIII. I wanted to love it, but the plot was such a struggle to get through, it was impossible! Super frustrating!

  12. Nicely written synopsis of the history of one of the best franchises out there. Well done.

  13. FF XIII has bigger problems then linearity in my mind. I honestly couldn’t find it in me to get all upset about that. I was more upset at how little you interact with the world, e.g. Gran Pulse has no living souls on it and even on Cocoon you don’t really get to meet people, etc. Not to mention that ALL the sidequests are in chapter 11, I mean, they could have spread them out some more then that. I appreciate the sense of urgency the beginning chapters imparted, I always found it silly how other RPGs would be like, “You have to go here now!” and you would putt-putt around the countryside taking your sweet getting wherever you were supposed to be in a hurry.

    I am also immensely irritated by the fact that a decent chunk of the content is only easily accessible after defeating the final boss (and you get the final crystarium level). Um, it’s the final boss, I beat the game, why pray tell am I going to bother leveling up my weapons, completing side quests, etc, after I’m done with the game??? o_O The combat system was great though…

  14. It could be said that IX is the most balanced FF game out there. The battle system was complex, but not overwhelming. The characters felt as if they belonged, and were engaged, in their world.(Yes, even Quina) The plot patiently grew into an excellent culmination of both story telling and game play. XII might be the crowd favorite, but IX is a power house in its own right.

  15. A very nice, concise discussion of what has happened to Final Fantasy over the years. I hope they manage to recapture some of the early Final Fantasy feel with FFXV.

    I am a gamer who does not hate Final Fantasy XIII. I freely admit its faults, however. You definitely hit the nail on the head with describing its story exposition. If I had not decided to explore all of the menus during some free time one day, I would never have understood as much of the “plot” as I did.

  16. It’s hard to say nice things to Final Fantasy these days. There are some positive points to balance out the flaws. Though to me since the closure of FF VI, I feel the series sort of spiraled deeper into this indescribable abyss, with the thirteenth title nailing the portal to our world shut. They seem to try and have these epic characters to feel sorry for…The newer characters seem to be screaming for attention whenever they have an arc just for them.

    But what I say is that it is our responsibility to reach out to these memorable characters, not the other way round. Videogame story arcs is a different type of medium than arcs from a television program: the story’s alien environment is what affects the players to attach ourselves to these characters while the latter has the characters show you around the environment. So the key for Final Fantasy to return to the pinnacle of JRPGs is to remind players why they play the game in the first place: to experience the world away from reality.

  17. Michael Krebs

    Interesting read with a neat progression of the series. Although I haven’t played every game in the series I have recently restarted X and Tactics and I would have to say that they are both a bit different than I remember. In my opinion Tactics has stood up better to the test of time than X. I think a lot of focus in the later generations of Final Fantasy games has been on the theatrics, just like others have said. Keeping that in mind the freedom of an open world to explore is left on the back burner because of the focus on the characters. If an older demographic was the target for these games there would be more focus on world-building, not just the minute character nuances in the later installations. No matter how old I get I’m still a sucker for a good story and an intriguing battle system.

  18. fepounsberry

    I have not played very many Final Fantasy games but the few I have played, VII and XIII-2, were starkly different. Kevin spoke the truth about the series by my little experience. Where VII had a slower and more fleshed out story XIII-2, which I stand against the “norm” and say that I loved, was more like a summer action film. You don’t go for a new Final Fantasy for the Shakespeare level story because its not there, you go for the expertly choreographed fight scenes and the unrealistic planet sized final boss dragon that happens to also be a god trying to destroy the universe.

  19. I have read the article, and the comments, and I disagree on the basis definitions laid down on what constitutes a good game. Granted each person has made a valid point, especially on FFXIII. However, despite that the battles and level up system fall short in FFXIII, those attributes matter little in regards to FFXIII’s story. The story for Final Fantasy XIII is extraordinary, a combination of artistic beauty, iconography, and excellent storytelling and journal entries that contain luscious textual material. Motomu Toriyama himself said the reason most people criticized the game was because it was a lack of world exploration, a “Western View” as he put it. However, games should not be based on world exploration. Focus on that and you’ll get video games that have no focus or direction. The story actually made logical sense. It actually talks about a lot of issues in society, and also uses clever twists in story structure to its advantage. By a part time gamer who has high tastes, Final Fantasy XIII ranks on par with Final Fantasy VII,(I haven’t played that one yet, but I’ve seen the movie and played Crisis Core, was impressed with both, so I assume it’s good.) both of which these games rank as games as great literature worth remembering for thousands of years to come.

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