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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.