Chrono Trigger - The one where Chrono dies because you did the wrong ending

Illusion of Non-Linearity in Final Fantasy and other RPGs

The Final Fantasy series gets a bad wrap about its problem feeling too linear over the past couple of games. Japanese RPGs (J-RPGs) in general get this label attached to them. A big problem is that these games shifted how the player explores the world from a “make your own path“-style of traversing their worlds to a “connect the dots“-style – going from town A to town B and so on until you get to the end of the game.

[Expansive overworld] Final Fantasy 7 - The one where someone dies
[Expansive overworld] Final Fantasy 7 – The one where someone dies
Final Fantasy XIII - The one where your soul dies when associated with ancestors
[Linear overworld - exaggerated has no overworld] Final Fantasy XIII – The one where your soul dies when associated with ancestors
But, I guess what I want to discuss is that Final Fantasy games and JRPGs as a whole have never really been open-ended and non-linear but older JRPGs just did a better job at hiding their linearity from the player. It all depends on the scale of which you explore each area before moving to the next.

Scale-of-exploration

What do I mean by the scale-of-exploration in each area?

When you come across a town you need to go to, it’s not always as simple as walking to the end of the town to continue your story. You need to talk to some people, solve a few riddles, deliver some goods, collect some trinket or equipment. The player needs to cause some reaction to occur to get the story-engine started again.

This scenario doesn’t need to be in a single town, though. It could span several towns. Maybe even a continent or two. The trick is to intuitively pare down the number of locales and the size of these locales.

Most RPGs tell the player to do something like talk to some man by Hojo’s Research Lab or go near the outside of the Golden Saucer. They give you a location and a general area for exploration. The first is small (a building in a town) relative to the world map and the second is large (the area outside of a city) relative to the world map, but the time to explore each is the opposite. But traveling to each while taking only a few minutes can span either a whole city or an entire continent. Traveling to Hojo’s is on foot following only a series of corridors to reach the facility. Traveling to the Golden Saucer can happen by train, by airship, by car, by chocobo… The scale needed to travel and explore each of these locations feels entirely different from one-another and the means to travel to each feel different. And this is only Final Fantasy VII that I’ve talked about.

FF Tactics (FFT) is an even more stripped exploration experience because the player isn’t even allowed to do any exploration, only travel. Probably not the best example since it’s a war game and place-markers over a map fits the style of a wartime campaign.

Final Fantasy Tactics - The one where everyone dies. You suck
Final Fantasy Tactics – The one where everyone dies. You suck

Combining the two gave us the style that Legend of Dragoon followed. Towns on a map but only straight lines to get to them. You didn’t have a sense of forging your own path because there was none to forge. You could only follow the path created by the developers in traveling between towns which limits the feeling of exploration when traveling. It’s too hard to feel like you’re exploring when you only have one route to take to get from A to B.

Legend of Dragoon - The one where voice acting ruins everything
Legend of Dragoon – The one where voice acting ruins everything

That’s not to say that the feeling of exploration within a town doesn’t exist, but the limitation of scale from a town makes an adventure feel less grand and… adventurous.

This is also a big problem that I’ve had with the Final Fantasy games since FFX where the shift towards a perceived linearity occurred. The games changed the scale of exploration from having a large world to “looking like” the world is large. There are many vistas overlooking colorful backdrops, towns with many paths to travel through, and buildings that give the player a sense of the size of each location and a world size required to have this happen, but we never actually get to explore the world just the pockets of towns one at a time within it.

Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy X – Where voice acting goes to die

This is something that Chrono Trigger hid very well because you not only explored your world, but the worlds of the past, the distant past and the distant future. When you’re given a hint about needing to travel to a cave of fire, you don’t really know what time period, so you develop an intimate knowledge of each location and its landmarks to help make travel easier.

Chrono Trigger - The one where Chrono dies because you did the wrong ending
Chrono Trigger – The one where Chrono dies because you did the wrong ending

Legend of Zelda takes this approach as well. Talking in vagaries about people and landmarks and expecting the player to explore and discover each location. Taking a game like Ocarina of Time, for example, and using my definition of Scale-of-exploration it takes a very similar approach that Chrono Trigger takes. You are given the grandest of scales, the world, to explore and carve your path to the end-game until youdiscover a clue about starting the next story-time ignition. Then you go to a more remote section of the world and explore this area, opening up a door to some labyrinth somewhere and exploring the area until you get an item, defeat a boss-man, or collect a thing.

Legend of Zelda - Ocarina of Time
Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time

But to the extent of open-endedness, LoZ games are as linear as Final Fantasy games. You need to collect X to go to Y, talk to Z to get key-item A. The games are linear because you need to go to and perform actions in a particular order to progress the game, but the illusion of non-linearity masks LoZ games better than it does for Final Fantasy games and is non-existent in more recent JRPGs. You feel like you’re exploring a large world and given a large freedom because there aren’t limitations to your exploration and the scale shifts from caves, to towns to the world while the limitations are still non-restrictive.

ellie-last-of-us

Dubbed TV Shows and Fixing Voice Acting

I’m leaving Prague right now and have spent ample time on the TV finding something to pass the time during the moments when your legs and feet hurt just a bit too much to keep the adventure going for the day. With a small selection of channels to keep my viewing attention, I was able to catch some Czech TV when the BBC Entertainment and news channels couldn’t hold my interest. This meant I happened across a few dubbed TV shows from the States and UK like Doctor Who, a minute of Big Bang Theory and some South Park among a few other shows and movies being rebroadcast over in the Czech Republic. If you were watching a documentary or a series of facts, the voice over seemed very normal. But because I was watching Dramas and Comedies, the movies were not-bearable.

Character Vocals Across Countries

It’s always interesting to see who they get to voice act certain characters that you’ve grown accustomed to. You get used to hearing a certain tone come out of a mouth that when a different sound comes out, there’s almost an immediate recoil. This is interesting because there are some brands that keep a cohesion among different nationalities of their characters. Disney, for example, keeps a similar sound coming out of many, if not all, of its characters so when you go to any Disney theme-park or watch any of their movies, you can recognize who each character is by sound alone and not just by face.

This realization came when I played the Japanese version of Kingdom Hearts 2 because I didn’t want to wait the six months for localization to come up and found it entirely amusing that every character that I recognized, from Donald to Simba, had an at least somewhat similar sound coming from them.

Japanese

English

Having a similar sound was of no concern for the Czechs in any of the TV that I watched while I was in Prague. Matt Smith, Karen Gillian, Stan Marsh, Eric Cartmen. Not one of them had a similar sound and it made it difficult to process who was talking just by sound alone and I would have to wait for visuals to catch up to see whose mouth-flaps were moving at the time.

This is also a reason why people pick a camp in the Anime community between subs vs dubs (Subtitles vs dubbed over) because it’s hard to enjoy an Anime the same in one camp when you’ve already experienced and are used to the vocals in another.

See Cognitive Dissonance – A disagreement from what the brain expects to what is presented, McGurk Effect

Tones (Mood and Setting)

A larger disconnect to watching bad Voice Over (VO) is because the voices don’t match what is going on in-scene. We need to run away from the screen, but my voice is at the same volume through the entire scene showing no movement of sound across a landscape. I’m swinging a sword around and jump across tables to dodge axes being swung but my voice shows no strain being exerted in the slightest.

               If you see actioned moving occurring, we expect there to be some coherence between action and exertion. Strain with movement, locality of sounds, distress when endangered. When that tone isn’t conveyed properly, it not only breaks your suspension of disbelief but makes it harder to take any of the drama seriously.

This can be extended to watching someone dryly read a script over someone actually acting out the script. Joy, pain, excitement, sorrow. Being able to convey these emotions while delivering your lines is important to develop emotional connections between your characters and the viewer. It went unnoticed when I was watching the news or a documentary because mood is generally consistent or nonexistent, but to build drama there needs to be conveyance and a connection of emotion.

This is why I am grateful for the vague distinction between Voice Actors and Vocal Artists where the prior goes in and gets the dubbing done quickly, but Vocal Artists are able to connect tone and emotion to the viewer. Vocal Artists also learn to manipulate their mouth and vocal chords the same way a seasoned musician would, able to produce whatever sound they wanted to by plucking and strumming in just the right way.

Flow

A smaller gripe but one that adds a large impact to a scene is how the VO Actors are doing their reads. Are they reading them together in the same room or are they reading them separately? Are they able to respond in a tone that seems like they are having a conversation or is the VO Actor trying to anticipate what the tone of the other actors will be?

If you are given a direction of act sad, it’s hard for another person to know how you will act when sad and puts them in the position of try to act consoling to your unknown behavior. Sometimes it works but when an actual conversation is being had, reacting to the conversation creates a much better flow than predicting where the conversation will go which ultimately makes the interaction feel contrived rather than authentic.

This is particularly why dialogue and story heavy games and TV can be so impactful to a viewer. The Last of Us, Animaniacs, Avatar all had their actors in the studio together for conversations so that they could react to the other actors instead of taking some vague direction of “how am I supposed to react to your lines”.

The Last of Us

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Catch “I know that Voice” on Netflix if it’s available in your area when you read this. It gives a great Behind the Scenes look at the industry and how good Voice Work is accomplished by many veterans of the industry.

And Animaniacs on Netflix.

And Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix.

 

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