The Rule of Three: Examining Plot, Exploration and Combat.
The Short Version The first half of this section attempts to quantify the three constitutent elements of FF6: plot, exploration, and combat, and to weigh them in proportional measure. This measurement is based on the notion that in Final Fantasy 6, like many RPGs, the overall structure of the game is that of linked quests. From the measurement of these elements on a graph, the pacing of the quests becomes very clear, and its pointedness is explained. The second part of this paper analyzes the organizing principle behind the second half of the game: metonymic time. Metonymic time, it is argued, is the emergent factor that provides a sense of fullness, completeness, and order to games rich in simulated skill and non-linear quest lines like FF6. This concept is analogous to the synthesis of skills in action games. The analogous relationship across genres is discussed, and the rational use of metonymic time is suggested with examples.
We'll get to characters (and music!) on the next page, but before we do, there's one last way to analyze how the plot fits in with the game. As I see it, there are three elements to an RPG, and while they frequently overlap, it's fairly easy to spot them. Those three elements are plot, exploration, and combat.
Plot is fairly obvious: it is the story that the game tells to frame the events of the narrative. Some games don't have plots, but most RPGs do. Obviously, it is possible to have many diverging plots in one game; analyzing those plots would be difficult but hardly impossible.
When quantifying plot, I counted all the script words spoken on a given quest. As to how I divided quests, I usually looked for a moment in the script where the stated objective changed, you can see my results on the previous page's diagram.
Exploration is all of the non-combat action performed in the world. Exploring towns, viewing optional scenes, talking to NPCs (ironic or not), and many other things are what I term exploration. There is often a lot of overlap between exploration and plot, but not too much in FF6. Moreover, even in games where there is overlap, it is still possible to quantify and analyze the design choices made to create exploration.
Combat seems simple enough; how much fighting is involved in each quest? This turned out to be trickier to tabulate than I expected. How do you assess how much "fighting time" each dungeon represents? There are actually numerous ways to do it, although each of these ways brings up more questions than results. For the purposes of the pacing graph, however, we want to know about is quest design, not dungeon design, because we're still analyzing how the plot, exploration, and combat interact to form our perception of the game's overall experience. (An analysis of the dungeon design, which was often deceptively elaborate, follows on a later page.)
So, to analyze how the combat is constructed to form quests, I analyze it using what I call measured time (this is a meaningful term, I promise; see below). FF6 measures time by using a step count; step counts are also used to figure out when to start a random encounter. Dungeons are constructed on an invisible grid, each block of which represents a step for the party. The distance from the entrance of any given dungeon to its exit is a concrete number of steps, given the ideal path. Thus, you can rate a dungeon based on the minimum number of steps that it takes to go through it.
Unfortunately, nobody travels the perfect path through a dungeon, or at the very least they don't do it their first time through a dungeon. There are often distractions, puzzles and the like. Final Fantasy, as a general rule, is not as puzzle-heavy as something like Legend of Zelda or Lufia. In fact, in the WoB, there is only one dungeon with real puzzles--the Cave to the Sealed Gate. Accordingly, when fashioning a combat "score" for each quest, instead of relying upon puzzles to inform me of the accurate length of a dungeon, I rely on treasure chests.
FF6's treasure chests are unusually rich; there are a lot of them and they frequently yield something very useful. (This is especially true in the WoR, but the WoB has its fair share of sweet chest loot.) Players learn quickly to go out of their way to get a chest, knowing that its contents could be extremely useful. What I have noticed is that, because of the usefulness of chests, every chest in a dungeon makes a player more eager to search for the next chest. Accordingly, I gave extra combat weight to dungeons with more chests.
And finally, I added extra points to the combat score for having more bosses in a quest. In any case, the graph is below, and we'll break down its meaning and trends.
Of course, the "scores" on the graph were adjusted mathematically so that they all fit in the same space--that's why there are no numbers. There's no way to make these three elements equivalent, and I don't even try. The point of having them all on the same graph is to show how the designers chose to use each element in what relative proportion for each quest. For example, you can see that the quest to find Terra has relatively less of all three game elements. There aren't too many dungeons, not a huge amount of exploration, nor much plot. This I attribute to pacing. If every quest were longer than the last, the game might feel tedious. The same pacing move happens when the party journeys to the Sealed Gate. The designers are making the middle of the WoB flow by alternating short and long quests.
One other important thing to note is how the combat score actually has a downward trend from beginning to end. Exploration and plot jump up and down quite a bit, but the combat score starts high, climbs to its highest point in the second quest, and then descends, plateaus, descends again, and never makes it back to previous levels.
I admit that my scoring system has its flaws, but I don't think that fact alone accounts for what the graph shows. Rather, I think it actually shows that earlier dungeons are designed to be bigger (and slightly more numerous in quantity) but easy. Later dungeons are shorter but much more dense with treasure and difficult encounters. Ultimately this is a design feature that has to do with RDur and DAE, a couple of interesting (if you're an anal weirdo geek like me) statistics that describe exactly what these dungeons are doing. But that's on page seven--we're still talking about story and presentation right now.
Of course those who have played the game (and perhaps some who haven't) will immediately recognize that this kind of 3-pronged analysis can't really be made to work on the second half of the game. While there is plot, it's not linear. Moreover, the gameplay structure of the World of Ruin is flexible as well. The player's ability to choose the structure of the second half means that in order to analyze how the WoR is constructed, we must use a different technique. Thus we come to the ridiculously BLAM-ish, but possibly useful concept of metonymic time.
Why is it that the World of Ruin feels artistically complete--why does it feel like half the game when it's only 25% of the script? Is it just all the dungeoning you have to do? I'd say no, that there is something else at work. The organization that makes the World of Ruin coherent relies heavily upon the use of metonymy, creating what I call metonymy time. Now, for those of you who--unlike myself--majored in something useful in college, metonymy is a kind of symbolism, where an item associated with a larger phenomenon stands in for that other thing, symbolically. A good example is saying, "The White House has issued a statement." Obviously the building isn't doing any such thing; it's the staff who work in the White House that do it. The House in question, however, is an obvious symbol of the staff and duties of the US President. In the case of games, the metonymy isn't verbal but rather is a collection of quest conventions that stand in for the ambiguous, misleading, or unbelievable passage of time in which those conventions took place.
Real time: no intro necessary. Although, you may not perceive it accurately when playing a game, right? "When did 4:00 AM happen?!" you ask. We've all been there.
Measured Time: Time measured by the game in one way or another. Usually this is in the form of some kind of daily clock built into the game, with day-night cycles and calendars. The day-night cycle itself can be seen as a kind of measured time. FF6 measures time in steps, which plays into a number of different facets of the game, including the way random encounters are initiated. (Usually the game clock isn't measured time, it's real time, although the reset-button factor can confound it.)
Described Time: This is time as described directly or indirectly in game. Direct description is Cid's statement to Celes that she'd been asleep for a year. Indirect description can also be subtler, like Edgar discussing the events that happened during the Thamasa section of the game, and implying a timeframe.
Metonymic time is simply a way of perceiving the length and artistic completeness of a game. It is a subjective sense of time, not an actual measure of time. It is a very important and reliable subjective sense, however, because it is specific to games rich in simulated skill.
Consider the way that players of action games remember their experience with any individual title. A player of an FPS or fighting game remembers the game in two ways: first they have a general impression of the experience based and their opinions/evaluations about those experiences. Second, and perhaps more important, is their skills; players remember a game through and because of skills. More than one accomplished designer has argued that videogames are nothing more than learning experiences, and that games are engaging because learning cumulative skills is inherently fun. If that's true, what players remember of an action game is heavily influenced by the skills they acquire while playing it. And of course the more skills they learn, the more syntheses of those skills that they perform, the better the game can be. (Although sometimes this is confounded by other factors.) Playing through the game again will remind them of how much they've learned, how much they've mastered. The greater the distance between the player's first, fumbling attempts and their current mastery, the greater the reflective perception of the game will be for them. "Wow," they tell themselves. "I sure came a long way. What a game!"
Games rich in simulated skills cannot be remembered quite in the same way, because the player does not gain skills--the characters do. Generally, the acquisition of skills by characters is not a process of mastery, but a process of discovery. The player has to locate and unlock character skills and equipment, which are simulated substitutes for mastery. Hidden spells like Melton, hidden weapons like Illumina, hidden characters like Gogo--these are the trophies of a game rich in simulated skills. The player had to work hard and work cleverly to find these assets for their party. So when the player is remembering the game, thinking about the artistic completeness of what they finished, they remember the things they discovered, rather than the things they mastered.
The problem is that the cumulative effect of mastery is palpable even in a mediocre action game, whereas the cumulative acquisition of simulated skills can easily come off as boring. In the case of mastery, every twitch of the thumbs causes the player's brain to recall all the skills that went into the action they are performing now. In a mediocre RPG, however, a player replaces all of their gear with gear from the next shop. And then they replace all of that gear with treasure found in the last or second-to-last dungeon. This is the worst kind of linearity. Because the best gear (or most of it) in this circumstance is simply plopped in front of the player, their impression of the game will suffer, in retrospect. For one thing, the game is too easy; it's just a series of inflating stats that are placed, unavoidably, in the way of the player's party. For another thing, what is the player going to remember about their agency in the game? That they pressed "A" at all the right times? They didn't have to be clever, or curious, or work for their skills and gear. That can be really disappointing.
An ambiguous sense of time is most definitely a problem that the FF6 team faced when building the WoR. Without a strictly linear narrative (or even a linear path through the map) the WoR might seem a little more aimless than it actually does. You can complete all of the events of the WoR in some two or three action-packed days? Of course not, it's just that the developers didn't bother to narrate the time you're obviously experiencing in their expertly crafted array of dungeons, and brief but meaningful scenes that are couched in gameplay such that they feel judiciously narrated.
The most obvious use of metonymic time in FF6 is the airship living quarters in the World of Ruin. As you gather your characters, both new and returning, they begin to populate the main body of the airship. You can see exactly what I mean:
Each of these characters reminds you of how much you've accomplished (some of them even do so verbally), and they're also an important part of the interface. There's no other way to change party members than to go into the hold and speak with one of them.
(For my fellow BLAMs who grit their teeth at my free use of the term: I'm not really saying that a non-allegorical character can be a symbol. Maybe, who knows? I don't care. What I am saying is that the visible representation of the characters in space, and the access to that character's abilities--both of these things can act as a kind of metonymy. In the World of Ruin, which lacks meaningfully described or measured time, these characters populating your airship stand as symbols of your progress through the open plot of the second half.)
It is not just non-party characters that have the double life of acting as symbols for the passage of your progress; under the right conditions, dungeon loot can do this as well. In the WoR, where there is no mandatory order after the acquisition of the airship, loot can become a metonymic marker of time and progress. That is to say, the gear you get can act as mementos of the accomplishments that begat their procurement. For the most part, this is because most of that loot is of permanent use, and its accrual (and frequent use) acts as a good indicator of spent time and effort, even when there are no hand-eye player skills to document such progress.
In most games the best loot is aquired very near to the end of the game, and it replaces all the gear that came before it. FF6 avoids this pattern in more than one way.
Gear distribution: For the final dungeon, twelve out of fourteen characters need to be fully equipped at once. Not everyone can equip the same gear, so there's no "final" matching set that everyone wears. Even among characters who can wear the same thing there isn't enough of the best gear to go around.
There is, however, a lot of rare, powerful gear. When distributing that gear among the three parties to tackle the final dungeon, it's almost like walking through a hall of monuments. "Oh yeah," you think. "I remember getting that. What an ordeal that was, but it was so worth it. Look at me now!" The clearest reminder of the value of your gear and other quest rewards comes at the climax of the game, and it does a great job of recapping and embellishing all the time you've spent getting there.
Aquisition Order: Because the gear is inequivalent among different characters, and because there are so many characters to gear up in the WoR, the gear has to come early, often, and in many different locations during the second half of FF6. This is quite a bit different from your typical console RPG setup for multiple reasons. For one thing, your typical setup involves a final dungeon in which only one party is fighting. The player can concentrate gear onto just a few characters, and so it's not necessary for the designers to provide lots of gear, or the extra dungeons to find it in. The designer can instead provide one set of final gear per character armor class, and provide it at the second-to-last stop, so to speak. It certainly helps in avoiding sequence-breaking by players, which might make the game too easy and therefore unlikeable.
Of course, in FF6 there is no real second-to-last stop to provide this gear. If there were such a dungeon, it would destroy pacing of the second half of the game to have one dungeon filled to the brim with enough gear to deck twelve characters out. Why would the player go anywhere else, when they can simply do that one dungeon to get all the gear they need? Instead what you see is a division of permanently useful gear into a number of dungeons, starting even before the retrieval of the airship.
There's not a terribly strong correlation between dungeon level and the gear available within. The later dungeons tend to have a little bit more gear, but certainly not higher quality gear. This is most obvious with the Ancient Castle, which is enormously rich. It's certainly no picnic, but it's a short dungeon, relatively easy to exit and it has a save point at mid-way through. The dungeon has in it, however, an enormous amount of powerful loot--especially weapons. All of that at level forty five? Sign me up!
There's also a peripheral effect in having great gear scattered all over the map in dungeons of different difficulty: choosing makes the game seem longer. Actually the truth might be more complicated than that--a game that is built for choice seems longer, not the least of which reason is metonymic reminders. The scenario plays out something like this: the player enters a dungeon, gets demolished by the native monsters, resets, goes somewhere else. Returning to that dungeon with new Espers, weapons and characters, the players succeed with an inflated sense of accomplishment. "This used to be so hard," they chuckle. Linear games can't really match this. Players can't skip to later dungeons, can't forsee the difficulty that they have to overcome--or at least they can't do so often. All those useful metonymic reminders get to shine brightly and show the player how far they've come.
There's a remarkable cumulative effect to metonymic markers for time in single-player RPGs. "I did this," the player can say. "I had an effect on the world." Great action games normally culminate in an experience-defining moment of flow, in which every skill in the game is synthesized into one level or encounter, so that the player feels as one with the game. Great RPGs, having to rely on simulated skills, cannot often do this--but a great RPG can create a sense of tremendous accomplishment by using many of its components in a metonymic way.
Trivia! There are more than enough unique weapons in dungeon chests for every character to equip one at the same time... but not so with armor! There are only 10 shields discoverable in dugneons, only 6 pieces of dungeon armor worthy of the final dungeon, and only five discoverable helms! You'll have to buy the rest from the shops in Maranda. Use of the Colosseum can correct this, however, providing additional copies of rare items. It's not very metonymic, but it's also not very easy to win the best items there.
Previous - Designing a Game Narrative.
Next - Characters and the Music that Explains Them.