Final Fantasy XV’s Dreaded Chapter 13: Why it fails and how to fix it
Final Fantasy XV is making headlines with director Hajime Tabata’s promise to rework and revamp the much loathed Chapter 13. Many fans have theorized that this chapter was the result of rushed production times or multiple scenario rewrites, but in a recent interview with USgamer Tabata said that the entire chapter was made the way it was on purpose. “The direction of chapter 13’s content was a deliberate decision made from the development team,” Tabata said. “That said, the amount of stress inflicted on the player while running through this chapter was greater than we had anticipated. We believe resolving this issue will naturally lead to a better gameplay experience.”
So what's the big problem with Chapter 13? To discuss that, first we need to talk about the relationship between a work of fiction and its audience.
The Reader’s Contract
Why do people give up on TV series or stop reading books halfway through? The usual answer is “it got bad”, but if you pry a bit further you usually get more detailed answers like “the characters got stupid,” “the plot made no sense,” or “the pacing was way off”.
All of these responses are describing the same thing: the point at which media breaks its contract with the reader.
Imagine every piece of media signing a contract with you when it starts. The contract outlines what the media is about and how the story will be told. As long as the media continues to provide what was outlined in the contract, the reader will continue to come back. If a piece of media breaks the contract, readers (or viewers, or in this case game players) will start to lose interest.
Let’s take a look at a recent example. Marvel’s Luke Cage presented itself to the viewer as a show about an invincible superhero interacting with organized crime in Harlem. Halfway through the series it broke from that formula and became a show about a fugitive from the law running from his own brother, who is hunting him with alien technology. All the things we loved about the setting and plot from the first few episodes faded out around episode seven to make way for this new plot and theme. While Luke Cage is certainly a great show overall, that dramatic right turn is the point where some people started losing interest.
So let’s apply this logic to Final Fantasy XV. What contract did the game make with us in the beginning? Well, judging by the first scenes, Final Fantasy XV is a game about taking a road trip with friends in order to see the world and reunite with your bride-to-be. Seems simple enough, right?
Note, that the parts of FFXV that people love the most fulfill this contract. The open world, the road trips, the camping, the banter between party members, all of this is in service to the theme set out by the original contract. It’s when FFXV is at its best.
The dreaded Chapter 13 isn’t the first time FFXV breaks its contract, but it is when it fully inverts it.
Breaking the Contract
It’s going to be impossible to continue this discussion without spoiling the game, so you have been warned. Turn away now if you want your virgin ears and eyes to experience FFXV in the purest way possible. Continue at your own risk. Seriously, BIG SPOILERS AHEAD.
So, as I said before, Chapter 13 wasn’t the first time that FFXV broke its contract. That came a few chapters earlier, when the game took away your treasured car. You still had access to the open world, but it became tedious to travel it. So the player usually decides to mainline story quests until they get their car back.
Eventually you do regain your car and a temporary party member, Iris, joins your party. However, while Iris is in your party you cannot use the car to drive anywhere but to the next story quest. Once again you can nominally do whatever quest you want, but it’s incredibly tedious to have to travel the world on foot, or even by Chocobo.
Iris soon leaves your party, but then the very next step in the story requires you to travel overseas and leave the open world entirely. Note at any point and time you could abandon ship and start up your sidequests again, but if you even looked at the main quest funny you would be locked out of pretty much all of the game’s side content.
At this point, FFXV has broken a part of its contract. It originally billed itself as an open world road trip game, but you lose access to the open world, and your car, from this point on. Sure, you can always “visit memories of the past” to tackle the side-quests you missed, but that’s a cop-out. It’s not what you are supposed to be doing. It’s not even real. It’s an imaginary world put in as insurance for completionists.
But that doesn’t compare to what happens next. Your bride-to-be? The character you have been chasing after the whole game? She dies, unceremoniously, in a cutscene. It feels as if Final Fantasy XV was trying to recreate the emotionally powerful death of Aeris from Final Fantasy VII, but there are multiple issues with the way this scene is framed.
1) Her death comes out of nowhere. We had no idea her life was in danger and she didn’t die doing anything different from what she had already been doing.
2) We barely spent any time with her. All we get to see of her is a few scenes in flashback, and her character was never particularly made a central part of the story.
3) There seems to be no reason for her to die. The big baddy of the game stabs her in the stomach for basically no good reason. He was helping us connect with the gods in the past, and later we find out that he wants Noctis to do that in order to awaken his full power. Stabbing our girlfriend only makes that harder.
But the worst part of this story fumble is that our main impetus for taking our trip is gone! Sure, the game says that there’s a bigger plot now, a war against the empire, a struggle for the power of the gods, so on so forth, but our main character’s key motivation just evaporated into thin air. The contract is broken. This is no longer a game about a road trip to reunite with your bride-to-be, it’s something else entirely.
…then Ignis goes blind off screen and Prompto gets shoved off a train…and this is all before the dreaded Chapter 13.
The Dreaded Chapter 13
So, the reader’s contract was well and fully broken before Chapter 13 comes about. But Chapter 13 incinerates the contract into fine ash by turning the game into everything it’s not supposed to be.
At the beginning of Chapter 13, all your weapons and magic are taken away. You can no longer participate in battles. This newly found lack of power is poorly explained and feels incredibly unfair. All the sidequests you did to get awesome gear, all the leveling, all the traveling, all of it is suddenly for nothing.
As a small bonus, you are given back your car for a brief and wondrous moment, only to have it explode. That’s it. No more car for the rest of the game. It’s over. The Regalia is dead.
Then, literally a few seconds afterward, the game takes away your entire party. Noctis is now left alone to wander drab steel corridors of an enemy base.
And maybe this could have been saved if the base was fun to walk through. However, the base lasts an agonizing three hours. It’s the longest single quest in the game! It’s filled with red herring end points that taunt you with locked doors and cutscenes that send you back toward the beginning of the dungeon. Every time you think you’ve found the exit you have to find another keycard and get another level of security clearance to get taunted by the big baddy again and again and again, and it never ends. The whole time you are cut off from your party and your equipment and everything else the game was about.
A game about an open world road trip with friends has become a solitary linear hallway simulator, now with 50% more poorly done stealth elements.
Why would Hajime Tabata want to create a chapter that is antithetical to everything Final Fantasy XV stands for? One word: disempowerment.
Chapter 13 comes at a time where Noctis is struggling with the responsibility of becoming king. Up until this chapter he had his friends to rely on. He could basically do whatever he wanted. His trip to save the world was, essentially, also a vacation.
But Chapter 13 forces Noctis into a situation that he can’t escape. He has to push forward, friends or no friends, powers or no powers. This is supposed to be a moment of growth for Noctis, when he realizes that his road trip is over and the stakes are high. To make the player feel as Noctis did, Tabata decided to take their power away.
Disempowerment can be a very useful storytelling device in games. Horror games make great use of it; reducing your options and making you feel trapped.
The problem is that your options aren’t really reduced in this section. Shortly after the chapter begins, Noctis gains the ability to use the Ring of Lucis, one of Final Fantasy XV’s major story macguffins. The ring can do three things: insta-kill an enemy, AOE insta-kill all enemies, and damage enemies with a huge explosion any time Noctis dodges an attack. In short, Noctis is far more powerful than he has ever been!
So to make the chapter actually disempower you, Tabata resorted to what essentially amounts to cheap tricks. You can insta-kill enemies, but almost every enemy now instantly respawns and gives you no EXP, so you HAVE to run away. They gave you the most powerful tool in the game and immediately made it useless. That’s not disempowering, that’s frustrating.
Halfway through the dungeon Noctis finds his father’s sword. This is supposed to be a big turning point for Noctis, showing him accepting his role as king and gaining power from it. At this point, Noctis can attack enemies normally again. Unfortunately, the infinitely respawning enemies are still there! So there’s no reason to use Noctis’ new power since you don’t get any benefit from it.
Eventually your friends just show up out of nowhere after falling into an obvious trap. No, seriously. The villain of the game tells you it’s a trap, but you have to walk into it since, once again, you are stuck in a corridor simulator. Your friends show up and rescue you by…pushing the “turn the trap off” button. This isn’t a powerful reunion with friends that comes as a consequence of Noctis’ character growth. This is just lazy writing.
But now, after the grueling three hours, Noctis has accepted his responsibility, reunited with his friends, and faced off against his worst enemies. Now is the time for the party to take the fight to the villain and save the day.
Except no! The game uses infinitely respawning enemies to separate you from your party again! In fact you get separated from your party for a ten year time-wipe, and only get reunited with them right before the end of the game.
Oh, and the emperor turned into a demon off screen, the game’s backstory is told through napkins that you find lying around, and Prompto is a demon robot.
Like I said…there are a lot of issues.
What should be done?
So how could have Hajime Tabata created a chapter that was actually disempowering but still fun? Here’s one way I think he could do it.
Step 1) Come up with a better reason for separating Noctis from the party
In Chapter 13, Noctis gets separated from Ignis and Gladio because a train falls in their path, but there's a far more elegantly way to achieve this isolation. The player is nfiltrating an enemy stronghold, so why not use the plot device that is readily available for you? Have Noctis and his party get captured. Then, their captors can remove all their equipment and items, since, you know, they’re prisoners.
Step 2) Cut the chapter up into smaller chunks
While disempowering the player is a useful storytelling device, nobody wants to be stuck playing a toned down version of the game they want to play for three whole hours. Instead, break up the entire thing into sequences where Noctis slowly unlocks more of his capabilities. Maybe he finds his father’s sword first. Then his items. Then his magic. Then his weapons. Then he starts rescuing party members. Each of these can be their own quest. Better yet, let the player choose the order in which he regains his resources, making the once linear hallway simulator into an open world experience again.
Step 3) Make the Ring of Lucis a Reward
The Ring of Lucis is pretty awesome. The ability to banish any and all enemies around you into another dimension would be cool, even without the absolutely amazing spell graphics that Final Fantasy XV offers. Instead of giving it to the player and immediately making it useless, make it feel like a payoff. Right before the final encounters of the area, allow Noctis to come into his own and put on the ring. The he can use its awesome powers in the boss fights, and the player would feel amazing doing so.
That’s what it’s supposed to feel like when the main character has a life-changing revelation. It’s supposed to feel like he’s a new man, more powerful than ever.
What do you think? How would you redo Chapter 13? Let us know in the comments.