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The Cognitive Disconnect of The Crystal Bearers

February 3, 2010

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers has had a bit of a rough go of it in its sales so far, and it’s no wonder — a stream of largely negative early reviews has usurped the rest of the Final Fantasy name-generated momentum that the oddball December 26th release date didn’t already kill. Despite the presence of television commercials and the consistent acknowledgement that this is one of the most technically impressive Wii games to date, the laboriously-titled Final Fantasy adventure is swimming upstream.

Look at those reviews, however, and one criticism keeps popping up: the “map”, if it can even be called that, is awful, and its awfulness means that you’re going to be spending lots of time around the countryside, completely and utterly lost. Typically, this is a criticism I discount; aimlessly exploring the countryside is usually one of the aspects of a role-playing/adventure game that I enjoy the most. Talking to the townspeople, picking up odd jobs, and uncovering cleverly hidden treasure chests is a fine way to kill a few hours, even if no progress on the quest proper is being made. Besides, it’s typical in these types of games for the protagonist to be feeling as lost in the world as the player is; doesn’t it make some sense that exploration would be paramount to the players inhabitance of that protagonist?

Actually playing The Crystal Bearers prompts a change of heart, however.

This is Layle, a.k.a. you.

The assumption that I made in formulating my mental counterargument to the criticism of the reviews was that we were exploring unknown lands. This is not the case, as it turns out. The hero of the game, Layle, actually spends the majority of his time flitting from one part of a kingdom he knows very well to the next. Oftentimes, he is asked to go to visit people he obviously knows in places he’s obviously been — part of his own background knowledge that the player does not share.

In non-interactive mediums like literature and film, the consumer’s lack of background knowledge is generally not a problem. We find out the pertinent details eventually, without the need for gratuitous amounts of setup; a smartly done film or story can reveal the past without making overt reference to it, be it through the use of setting or characters’ reactions to events happening in the “present” time of the work. In an interactive medium in which we as players are being asked to play the game as one of those characters, however, there is a sort of cognitive disconnect forced upon us when we are expected to figure out for ourselves something that our avatar already knows. Finding our way to Cid the engineer shouldn’t be a problem, because he’s a friend of Layle’s, and presumably, Layle should know the way to his workshop like the back of his hand. Instead, we are forced to bumble around town until we find the lever next to Cid’s large, garage-like door, and then know enough to activate it.

"Hi, Cid! What, did you move?" "No."

As reviewers have said, what map functionality does exist is so disconnected from the world of the game as to actually be a detriment. Furthermore, the game’s plan to mitigate this disconnect is a little Moogle named Stiltzkin (a Crystal Chronicles regular) who shows up periodically to give you hints as to how to get where you need to go. While this is nice, it also comes off as an awkward sort of crack in the fourth wall, given that Stiltzkin is quite obviously talking to the player here, even if it is Layle that is being addressed onscreen.

There are a number of ways this could have been addressed, whether through a proper map function, a hint system, or even a Fable II-style “trail of breadcrumbs” leading to the main goals. While none of these things would quite act as replacements for Layle’s body of knowledge, they would at least smooth the rough disconnect between knowledge and the lack thereof. Where The Crystal Bearers ultimately fails, then, is not in forcing the player to explore; rather it’s in making the player feel like an idiot for flailing around the countryside, trying to figure out things that his character is supposed to know.

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