The recent announcement of the fifth game in the Fabula Nova Crystallis compilation, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII came with a number of revelations. That the game will be more akin to an action RPG than previous FF games, that more of the world will be interactive and that the art design is going to be more specific and segmented than the first two entries of Lightning’s Saga. It’s already being considered a further blight on the series by fans (I’m entirely ambivalent about it), but the thing that most interests me is a feature that has been referred to as The Doomsday Clock.
Apparently, this will be ticking away in the background of the game as you perform various actions, engage in battle and generally make progress. Some people have already begun to condemn the idea as it reduces the amount of freedom that the player has. You will have to complete the main campaign within the set time frame, meaning that extraneous activities will lose out due to the urgency. Their displeasure is completely understandable, especially if the Clock is simply a device to cover a lack of content, but looking beyond this game it could revolutionise others.
The number of games that throw players into the role of a saviour is, frankly, obscene. Such a role brings with it certain limitations, one of the most prominent of which is that you are running on a deadline to save the world, or your wife, or whatever your objective happens to be. Or rather, you should be. Logic dictates that the enemy will not wait for you to complete side objectives and grind until you think that you are good enough to overcome them. They run upon their own schedule irrespective of your progress but this is something that games almost never embrace. Instead, you are left to your own devices, free to take as much time as you desire before finally shaping up for the final battle.
Free to ignore the world’s end and make deliveries instead.
It creates a sense of dissonance and breaks the fourth wall, reinforcing the idea that the player is in control of everything. Perhaps the best example of this in practice is the Velocity Gamer Network’s 2011 Game of the Year Winner, Skyrim. The map is massive, populated with thousands of NPCs from which you can receive dozens, if not hundreds, of missions in addition to the main campaign. These are often banal personal tasks while the storyline paints a world in dire trouble as imminent destruction looms thanks to Alduin. Everyone in the world knows that you are Dovahkiin, yet they still ask you to put aside the job of saving the world as if their deliveries are more important. For the purpose of the game, it’s all good and well. The goal is to give players an engaging adventure that can safely be referred to as a life substitute, but the very nature of it flies in the face of any logic.
It’s a mentality that plagues many RPGs, particularly those developed in the West that focus more on freedom, but that isn’t the only genre to suffer from this delusion. Shooters, action games, even platformer hybrids; any game, really, where the protagonist is reactive, responding to the events that are happening around them rather than acting of their own accord. It can be argued that this is a necessary evil in video games thanks to their interactive nature but there are some that have proven that this is not the case. A great developer can implement a deadline to powerful effect and it’s here that I’d like to cite Heavy Rain.
Standing around while his son drowns. Not a good idea.
Ethan Mars has only a few days from the kidnapping of his son to save him from drowning in a stormwater drain. Now, I understand that the game is extremely strict in its narrative, the player cannot deviate from David Cage’s script and wander about a barren world aimlessly for days on end, but it still manages to create a deadline and force the player to realise this and stick to it in a way that Max Payne 3 or Ratchet and Clank does not.
What I’m saying is that more games could benefit from a feature like this. The player would still be free to go back and continue playing when the largest threat is dealt with free from the tyranny of the Clock, meaning that no value would be lost through its inclusion. It might help to draw players into the story and events, knowing that the game will end in their failure if they do not act promptly and isn’t that often the goal of gaming: escapism?
Personally, I’m undecided on the issue. I find the games that I get most involved with are those that adopt a fanciful visual style as it is a larger leap from reality so maybe this would have the opposite effect to what I’ve been spruiking heretofore. And besides this, gaming has never been subject to the logic and limitations of reality, so what point is there to do so now? I suppose the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of this idea will be proven upon the release of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Until then, feel free to weigh in with your opinions on it.