The Expanded Universe, or How I Learned to Love Sequels

A lot of interesting and occasionally scandalous things happened at E3 last week, but it all pales in comparison to the revelation that Final Fantasy Versus XIII got a new trailer and a renaming. I’ll still refer to it as Versus XIII – I’ve known it by that moniker for too long to change in the foreseeable future – but I’m incredibly excited to see it being released as Final Fantasy XV.

Really, my gravatar picture is of Noctis. What else would I care about at E3? (Apart from Mirror’s Edge 2, my friends’ excitement over KH3, the PS4’s domination, and Microsoft’s numerous fumbles regarding the Xbox One, of course.)

That trailer never fails to warm my heart.

However, the renaming of Final Fantasy Versus XIII came with a startling announcement: Final Fantasy XV will have direct sequels.

Attack of the sequels

Needless to say, the fan reaction is mixed, with an inclination towards negativity and disillusionment. Final Fantasy XIII has two direct sequels, and while XIII-2 was a dramatic improvement over its predecessor, the taint of the original XIII will haunt both Square Enix and the notion of sequels.

Yet, the track record of FF direct sequels is overall decent. Final Fantasy X had a sequel, and it was positively received by critics. XII: Revenant Wings was a DS game that was commercially successful, with mildly positive reviews. Final Fantasy IV: The After Years sold well. And of course, the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII  is one of the greatest things that has ever graced the videogame industry.

I’m not kidding. The Compilation is a masterful work of art, and it kills me that I can’t play Before Crisis or read official translations of the On The Way to a Smile novellas. Yeah, Dirge of Cerberus wasn’t great. I couldn’t even finish the first two levels on my own. However, it contributed a lot to the universe, and it fleshed out a part of the FF7-canon that gamers had mostly glossed over.

So, Why are fans so nervous and negative about the prospect of XV sequels? The bitter memory of XIII, which wasn’t even a sequel in itself. Gamers didn’t even ask for more of Lightning, so it’s understandable that we’re wary now. We don’t even know that we’ll like Noctis, so it bothers us to hear that Square simply assumes that we will. Moreover, X-2 wasn’t even planned until the huge success of X. The FF7 Compilation and IV: After Years were similarly afterthoughts.

However, sequels are something we should cherish, not disparage or fear.

I have a confession to make: I read fanfiction. My two favorite fandoms are Harry Potter and Final Fantasy VII. And you know why? Because they are extensive media franchises that, through sequels and side-stories, have managed to present a universe that enraptures us. Fanfiction makes a franchise feel like it’s ever-changing and bigger than anything we had imagined while playing the games or reading the books.

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I’ve played both Final Fantasy VIII and IX, as well as a litany of other games. I’ve read countless books, and watched a fair share of movies. None of them come close to the universes of Wizarding Britain and Gaia. That is because HP and FF7 dare us to imagine.

In the videogame industry, there’s a tendency to conflate expansiveness with a sandbox environment. For instance, in Grand Theft Auto, you have complete freedom to do whatever you want, whenever and however, as you proceed in the main storyline. That’s not an expansive universe. Not in the slightest. The very concept of the sandbox is inherently the flaw. Game developers choose what to put in the sandbox, be it slides, swings, a jungle gym, etc. They encourage you to play within the parameters that they design.

An expanded universe is different. It dares you to imagine different decisions, different scenarios, different choices…and the cascading effects they have on the final outcome. You design the sandbox, imagining how different characters act and react in them, how they play and fight within it.

It’s the difference between Grand Theft Auto and Mass Effect. The former lets you play with all the toys. The latter lets you choose what toys you want to be in the sandbox. And even if a dialogue option is unavailable, you learn enough about the characters, the culture, and the universe to make deductions about how things would play out.

The difference in style is immediately apparent when you glance at fanfiction. How many Grand Theft Auto stories there are there on fanfiction.net, the most popular site for fanfiction? Less than 900. How many Mass Effect stories? Over 12,000. GTA is a franchise that has more installments and a longer history, yet Mass Effect, an IP only half as old, dwarfs it. Fanfiction is thus a metric for how expansive and open a universe is.

Gamers are invested in the Mass Effect story in ways that most developers can’t even dream of. And it’s partially because Bioware set up amazing groundwork in the first ME game. They conveyed expansiveness, revealed a huge list of characters, and gave each of them a fleshed-out personality.

Most IPs don’t do that. In fact, neither the original Harry Potter book nor the 1997 game Final Fantasy VII did that. Instead, they used sequels and side-stories to expand the picture, revealing depth where we had assumed none to exist, and daring us to imagine what else might be escaping our notice.

When it comes right down to it, Final Fantasy VII was a very linear game that had incredibly interesting side-quests. (Wutai, Lucrecia’s Cave, Chocobo Sage, Fort Condor battles, etc.) Before Crisis had to be completely fabricated after-the-fact, but it gave a new depth to the story of ShinRa. The TURK organization, previously a minor nuisance, became a close fraternity with its own compelling history. Advent Children, the 2005 movie, gave amazing character exposition. It humanized characters, especially Cloud, Tifa, and Rufus. (You need to watch the complete 2-hour version, though.) Crisis Core further illuminated the inner workings of ShinRa, turning Zack from a plot device into a relatable character, humanizing Sephiroth, and presenting Aeris as something other than a holy martyr.

Without these side stories, it doesn’t matter how amazing FF7 was. The enduring love for the game, the constant calls for a remake, and its relevance in today’s industry would be a fraction of what they are now. The Compilation expanded the universe, and suddenly, gamers were free to imagine themselves in it.

That’s what I hope the sequels to XV will do. When Square Enix introduced the Fabula Nova Crystallis universe back in 2006, they presented each game as a separate entity that existed in isolation, with only a common mythology binding them together. But really, we need a cohesive, expansive universe in order to feel emotionally invested in the media we experience.

It’s always possible that XV will go the same route as the Ezio trilogy in Assassin’s Creed, where we have a succession of linear, limiting stories that don’t lend themselves well to a bigger world. And if so, I will still be completely happy with that. But we shouldn’t be so disparaging of Square’s ambitions out of fear that they will disappoint us.

Final Fantasy XV won’t be as large as the expanded universe for Star Wars, which has dozens of titles and an endless list of videogames. It doesn’t need to be. What I hope is that the XV sequels will broaden our horizons, showing us new facets of Noctis’s kingdom, the geopolitics of his world, stables of new, relatable characters…

…and an invitation to interpret and imagine the XV/Versus XIII universe.

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