FFTA, Xenoblade Chronicles, and Content Overkill

So recently – after about 100+ hours of play – I put away Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. While I am often a pretty through completionist for games (especially those that fall within my particular niche), I couldn’t bring myself to do it in TA. Why that is – and why some “content” is more compelling than others – is the topic of this post.

It basically boils down to two things – how tedious is the content to explore, and how relevant the content is in play. It’s a relationship not entirely dissimilar to a ratio: one unit of tedium per one unit of relevant is a low tedium:relevance ratio, but 10 units of tedium to one unit of relevant would be considered high-tedium, and 1 unit of tedium to 10 units of relevance would be considered high-relevance.

1 “unit of tedium” might be, say, 10 minutes of grinding – of repeating the same action over and over again without meaningful advancement. Grinding isn’t exactly uncommon in my favorite genres, but it’s never really welcome – it is ALWAYS a time-sink for dubious benefit.

1 “unit of relevance” might be the bit of fun that comes out of that 10 minutes of grinding. The bit of fun can be a lot of different things – new fights, new characters, new abilities to use in combat, new world lore, new maps, whatever – but the important bit is that it delivers a bit of the fun you’re looking for in a game. And that can be a subjective thing.

Like, a lot of “endgame content,” to me, isn’t usually relevant – it’s stuff you do after the game is over. I play these games for story and world and the fun of exploration. After the game is over,  you’ve explored the major areas of the game, you’ve experienced the bits of story that were most important, and you’ve experienced the world as it was intended to be experienced by anybody – you’ve absorbed the biggest bits of relevant info. Thus, grinding for endgame content is, for me, typically low on relevance, so it would have to be quite low on tedium for me to consider the ratio worthwhile. Much like a book, I expect to move on after the game is over.

FFTA is one of the first times that I’ve experienced normal game content that, for me, is pretty much just as irrelevant as endgame content. But it took me a while to realize that it was. I started off playing FFTA with an eye toward that completion – I wanted to master every job on at least one unit of every race. This is part of why it has taken me twelve years with this game – there’s a lot of variation that happens in FFTA, a lot of grinding for steals or repeating missions if you want to gain some of the game’s good items or achieve the perfect map set up (which, this last time through, I still did wrong….grumble…).

Because it had taken me so long, I had pursued FFTA this time around with a specific goal – I’d get through as much story material as possible as quickly as possible to get to the bits where I could safely grow my characters. Because quests aren’t lost – and because some quests appear much earlier than they can be completed, and others are actually best accomplished well after they initially become available (don’t wanna miss capturing those goblins with your hunter, do you, Mr. Completionist?!) – trying to log each mission as early as possible was not the best of ideas. But this lead to an interesting phenomenon. You see, the missions in FFTA have assigned levels to them, while the random encounters scale with party level. So what with all the grinding I was doing for special characters and unique weapons, I was very over-leveled for much of the story, able to walk in and trounce the enemy fairly effectively.

It was about the time I discovered Ambervale that I realized: the relevance of these bonus characters and job masteries I was pursuing was actually very very low. Sure, they gave me more options in combat, but these options weren’t especially vital or useful when compared with “being higher level and beating the snot of out things.” It didn’t matter that I only had a few souls mastered on my beastmaster or didn’t unlock the Summoner job for my viera mage – these things were unnecessary and largely pointless unless I was deeply invested in the combat system itself or the scads of endgame content. And after 12 years….I really wasn’t. It was pointless content for the sake of having more content, not really important to the game itself.

I compared that experience to the experience I recently had playing Xenoblade Chronicles, where I was much more of a completionist. I still left a few endgame things undone, but I managed to accomplish a LOT of what that game laid out – extra skill ranks, completed collections, filled out relationship charts. What that game seemed to do right that FFTA did wrong was that the things I accomplished were more relevant to me – they added color to the world, characterization to the party, side-stories to the main quest, and all of them were pretty satisfying. They were also low on tedium – collections could be completed by exploring new areas and wandering around the wilderness, quests didn’t require you to return to the quest-giver, and deepening relationships were a simple button-press away.

It’s something I’m going to keep in mind while I’m working on my next games – content is not valuable in and of itself, it is only valuable when put to a particular use. I don’t want my game to be a time-sink. I don’t even really want someone to be able to spend 12  years with a game I make – I want them to get the experience, at a deep level, and then move on. I want to avoid content overkill.

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