Hajime Tabata, director of Final Fantasy XV, wants to make some changes to the worst part of his game. He should not.
On November 30, the role-playing game Final Fantasy XV finally dropped after 10 years of development. But the development team wants to keep developing it anyway. Patching bugs out of a released product is not unusual, but the scope of what Tabata is suggesting very much is: He wants to add in more storyline sequences, more playable characters, maybe even a roll-your-own avatar system. And specifically, he wants to add “gameplay enhancements” to the game’s controversial Chapter 13. Having played through the game this week, I can tell you that said chapter is an odd and unexpected moment, and one that likely doesn’t play as intended. From my talk with other early players of the game, it’s a moment that is as surprising as it is frustrating.
But you know what? I love Chapter 13, and to those who want to change it, I have news: You’re wrong. Hear me out. (Some gameplay and light narrative spoilers follow. You’ve been warned.)
The majority of Chapter 13, as it exists now, takes place in a maze. Noctis has been separated from his friends and, inexplicably, his combat abilities have been taken away from him. You can’t warp, or use your weapons, or access your magic. You can’t even change your clothes. At this point in time, Final Fantasy XV locks down, shrinking from a broad, open-world roadtrip to the barest elements. Darkened hallways of steel and concrete. Shadows to hide in. A character who is as baffled and lost as you are. Alone. It feels, within the continuity of the game, as if Final Fantasy XV has given up. All its clever design ideas, all the goofy flourishes of its character writing, every single interesting thing about it has shriveled up and been blown away in a sharp breeze.
And it lasts foreeeeever. For an hour or so, you have to move through a winding, repetitive maze. You’ll see the same reused room assets over and over again, hide in alcoves from killer robots in canned stealth encounters, and listen to an unbearably smarmy voice taunt you about being alone and confused. Of course I’m alone and confused, I wanted to shout back. Hajime Tabata betrayed me!
Not only was this not in any of the trailers, it doesn’t even make sense. The narrative by this point has become disjointed to the point of nigh incomprehension, leaving you with only the most elliptical explanation for where you are or what has happened. You’re alone, frustrated, storming the enemy stronghold in what should be the climactic moment of the game, and nobody, not even the game developers, have bothered to show up.
By all rights, I should hate this whole slog, and I imagine most people playing it did. After all, the idea to patch it had to have come from somewhere. Instead, I think I love it. It’s a brilliant moment of what I’m tempted to call anti-design: a game section so oddly placed and so bad by the standards of the rest that it produces emotions intensely and fascinatingly divergent from what seem to be the stated goals of the game.
I imagine that Chapter 13 was supposed to feel like a moment of narrative failure before Noctis’ eventual triumph. It’s supposed to be Snake in Metal Gear Solid, thrown in prison but raring to get back out and save Meryl. Instead, it’s more like Raiden at the end of Metal Gear Solid 2, in over his head in a way so surreal and unexpected that the whole of his reality seems to have cracked in two.
Chapter 13 as it currently exists is an unrelenting mood piece, a study in isolation, frustration, and fear. It’s stubbornly alienating in a way that fascinates me. It feels, through its plodding minutes and frustrating diversions up and down its awful corridors, like the surging tide of an insurmountable depression. Tucked away in an otherwise goofy and light Japanese role-playing game, it is a dark nudge toward hopelessness. Videogames of the scale of Final Fantasy XV rarely try to provoke those emotions, and it’s even more rare to see one small part of a game work so well as a self-contained emotional unit.
It isn’t good design, not by the standards of the rest of Final Fantasy XV, but it is interesting design, remaining playable while also pushing the player toward extremes of negative emotion that are intriguing to experience in their own right. Good art doesn’t have to make us feel good, it just has to make us feel, preferably in a way that surprises and disarms us. Even if it’s a complete accident, Chapter 13 meets those standards.
That’s why I’m saddened by the development team’s ambitions to patch the section, making it easier and likely much less frustrating. Not because it wouldn’t make the game better–if your interest is in making a game that’s quick, fun, and makes you feel good, then changing the section would absolutely make it better–but because in the process I’m worried we’ll lose something singular and fascinating. The moments most worthwhile in games, by my estimation, are the moments that stick out from the whole. These moments shock us, confuse us, or delight us. Sometimes they’re triumphs. Sometimes they’re mistakes. But they’re always worth experiencing and talking about.
With the capacity to patch released products now available to any game developer, there’s inevitably going to be a temptation to smooth out those rough edges where they appear. I hope developers resist that temptation, though. Moments like Chapter 13 are the ones that keep me coming back to games, and to lose them would be a shame.