Ever since its release in December 2009, Final Fantasy has been the go-to game when talking about poor gameplay design—it greatly divulges from the other games in its series and took out some key elements that made the series so successful. Exploration and world building are down-played in favor of continuous battle and frequent cutscenes. However, if you look around at other games that don’t belong to a long line of successful games, you’ll see that very similar games were acclaimed as art and went on to become successful. Yes, I’m talking about Heavy Rain.
Developers have always explored how close games can be to movies, and this explains the dominance of cutscenes in the media in general, along with the emphasis on camera angles when games first moved to 3D. Movies have been around for much longer than games, so they have quite a bit more experience when it comes to immersive gameplay—replicating movies by increasing the amount of cutscenes and decreasing the amount of open-ended exploration are just two simple steps to make a game become movie-like.
Final Fantasy 13 may have failed to live up to expectations, but it did at least make those transitions correctly, and perhaps indicate a trend toward more movie-like games. Several other games this generation focus on the presentation rather than the gameplay—Heavy Rain is the most obvious of them, but we can expect the same type of gameplay in Quantic Dream’s upcoming game, Beyond: Two Souls. Indigo Prophecy, Fahrenheit, and Mass Effect 2 all fall into this category of games (and surprise, surprise: they’re all made by mostly the same company) that focus on plot and presentation, rather than gameplay, even though their gameplay is nothing to scoff at. Following the success and implementation of Heavy Rain is no easy task, but I expect Watch Dogs will have a similar experience to offer, at least during single player gameplay.
The focus on presentation and movie-like storytelling is simply a different take on video game immersion. Experimentation with gameplay and presentation arguably started with point and click games and evolved from there—instead of pointing and clicking to unlock the next area, you press a few buttons to unlock the next cutscene. Final Fantasy 13 failed because it had a series of games to show up—and taking away what fans loved about that series of games did not turn out to be a good move on their part. However, stand-alone games and games that lead up to a cinematic experience have been relatively successful, even though they are experimenting with presentation.
Movie-like games could become a new genre of games, much like FPS or point-and-click games. The genre might not encompass plot, but it does give a fair warning about the type of gameplay a gamer can expect. These types of games give a different experience, and other people can enjoy the game without directly playing (after all, they do appear like a movie once you get past short gameplay segments and ignore the button prompts). If you think about it, these games couldn’t work any other way—and that includes Final Fantasy 13. Without a focus on cutscenes, the games would be completely different, and perhaps even boring. As the next gen lies on the horizon, it’s a good time to explore the different possibilities of gameplay and immersion—Square Enix simply made the mistake of doing that with a well-loved series.