Does Final Fantasy XV’s Supplemental Material Go Too Far?

In the weeks since i started playing Final Fantasy XV, I’ve had a number of conversations with fellow players. What did you think of the story? Did you like the characters? Were you okay with the switch to real-time combat? Why does Prompto take photos of his friends getting mauled by exotic beasts? But one question that keeps coming up is whether or not somebody watched the game’s supplementary materials: the CGI movie Kingsglaive, and the anime Brotherhood. Both of these help fill out the world, delving into lore and backstories that further the player’s understanding of the game. They vary in quality (Brotherhood is very good, Kingsglaive is merely passable), but are instrumental in understanding a few of the game’s major plot points.

On the one hand, the release of supplemental entertainment outside of the original work’s medium is not a new phenomenon. The print industry, for example, frequently churns out books meant to expand on the worlds of popular movie, TV, and video game properties. The Star Wars Expanded Universe, which was abandoned with the release of The Force Awakens, is one particularly popular example. Another is the series of Halo novels, based on the popular video game franchise. These books filled in the game’s universe and became a huge success with fans. In addition to these extensions, there are novelizations of popular movies, which has proven to be an enormous industry in and of itself.

Cross-medium supplemental storytelling is even more common across visual mediums. Marvel has been especially successful with this lately taking a three-tier approach with its films, ABC series’, and Netflix series’. The films are the major attractions, but in between releases Disney can keep fans engaged with the property with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which occasionally crosses over with or further explains the events of the movies. Meanwhile, the Netflix offerings maintain brand-loyalty while satiating the audience’s appetite for new, original stories. These series can take place in the same universe as the film offerings while never actually depending on them for plot momentum.

One of the most substantial examples of supplemental storytelling was released more than a decade ago. When the Wachowskis were readying the Matrix sequels, they approached several anime directors and production houses to put together a collection of side-stories set within the Matrix universe. This anthology, called The Animatrix, featured  stand-alone side-stories such as “Beyond,” extra exposition for the sequels in the forms of “Kid’s Story” and “Final Flight of the Osiris,” and crucial series lore such as “The Second Renaissance.” Despite being a spin-off project, The Animatrix was better received than the sequels it was meant to promote (And, if you take Rotten Tomatoes scores seriously, even better than the original film).

However, Final Fantasy XV’s supplemental material is a bit different than the examples above, because it’s essentially crucial to understanding the story. The game is formatted and presented in a way that presumes that the player to have this knowledge. It begins with a fairly low-key farewell between the character player, Noctis, and his father, King Regis. It’s a weird moment to start on, since it’s not exactly overflowing with emotion, but with the knowledge that this is the last time these characters will see each other, it takes on a greater purpose.

Meanwhile, major elements of the game’s story (the way that the ring works, the purpose of the crystal, the concept of “the wall,” the responsibility of the kings, the failure of the ceasefire, the attack during the signing of the treaty, etc.) are hardly explained in the actual game. Instead, there are cutaways to snippets from the Kingsglaive movie when they become relevant in the game’s narrative. For those who have seen the movie, this helps tie the narratives together and give context for what is happening. But without those reference points, these cutscenes are confusing and ill-explained.

The anime, Brotherhood, is less essential to understanding the grand narrative, but helpful in establishing the central characters and their relationships to one another. Final Fantasy XV tosses the player into the world with very little explanation of what’s going on or who these people are, so going back and seeing how each member of the central “brotherhood” came to know Noctis really helps define their relationship. It gives a whole new perspective on Prompto, shows Gladiolus’s softer side, and sets up how much Noctis needs Ignis to keep him on the straight-and-narrow. Their character “types” are plenty clear in the game alone, but this added background makes them feel more specific and gives them dimensions.

There are a handful of scenes that only really work having seen Brotherhood, as well. At one point, Noctis goes on a “tour” with Gladiolus’s sister Iris. The game does no work whatsoever in establishing who Iris is, or how she knows Noctis. Having seen Brotherhood, though, a through-line in their relationship is established. It’s simply a better story with this added background.

So, why was this material cut from the game and shoved off into the world of supplemental material? It’s entirely possible that they were utilized in an earlier version of the game, but got cut before the game’s release. Early gameplay footage of Final Fantasy XV centered around the fall of Insomnia (a sequence which Noctis and his friends don’t even see firsthand in the final release), and Final Fantasy games are known to insert quests (or at least side-quests) that help establish supporting characters. Other details, like Noctis’s mother’s death and his revenge, surely had a part in the game at one point and was cut.

But like with many of Final Fantasy XV’s shortcomings, the lack of this information was, in many ways, beneficial. The game is intensely focused on the brotherhood found at its center, and allowing the player to spend the vast majority of their time wandering the countryside and bonding with their friends is its core strength. Had the game inserted more of this backstory into its narrative, it would have affected the pacing in a very significant way. Earlier Final Fantasy titles were both praised and criticized for this element.

Replaying the opening of Final Fantasy IX last week makes this abundantly clear. This sequence was extraordinarily impressive at the time of its release, putting the player in the shoes of several characters whose paths would shortly meet. The game jumps around and uses frequent cutscenes to establish its narrative, and is ambitious even by today’s industry standards.

It also means that the game takes an absurdly long time before handing over the reigns to the player. The segment is interactive, but only in the most basic ways: running across screens, hitting X during button prompts, and repeatedly hitting “attack” during scripted battle sequences. It takes a full hour and a half before the game allows the player some degree of freedom.

In Final Fantasy XV, though, you’re shown a quick cutscene, you help your friends push a car for a minute, and then you’re off hunting monsters for gil. It establishes the game’s major strengths immediately, and there’s never a point where the developers seem to forget them. If they felt the need to include the often-boring details of Lucis’s foreign policy, or cut to a lengthy battle scene in which the central characters are not even involved, it would have detracted from the game’s core strength and weakened its extreme devotion to a central purpose.

This doesn’t fully excuse the decision to offload the narrative heavy-lifting to completely separate projects, though. Even if somebody approaches Final Fantasy XV in the best possible way, watching Kingsglaive and Brotherhood before beginning the game, that’s still more than three hours of passive viewing before a player can take part in an active experience. It frontloads the experience with what can feel like homework, a potentially souring experience.

But the biggest problem is a simple one: Final Fantasy XV’s near-mandatory supplemental materials are not included in the package. If somebody simply purchases the game, they have to spend another $6-30 to view or purchase Kingsglaive alone, and they have to be aware that it exists at all. With Brotherhood, they have to seek it out on YouTube or Crunchyroll. There is no good reason, aside from pure profit, why these are not included as a free download through the game’s menu. At $60, players should expect to get the complete experience they are paying for. Given how crucial the supplemental material is to understanding Final Fantasy XV, it is unethical to demand that they spend even more to enjoy the game that they have already purchased.

Like almost everything with Final Fantasy XV, its use of supplemental storytelling is a mixed bag. Some of it is great, some not so great, all of it is useful to understanding the story and none of it should be extra-curricular. Whatever the intention, the existence of this material makes for a very interesting, experimental approach to the balance of narrative and gameplay experience. It’s just unfortunate that experiencing it requires extra time, money, and effort on behalf of the consumer.

3 thoughts on “Does Final Fantasy XV’s Supplemental Material Go Too Far?

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