Come on down to the Gold Saucer
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Final Fantasy XVI is coming out in a few months, and producer Naoki Yoshida has had a lot to say about it. Yoshida, along with director Hiroshi Takai, combat director Ryota Suzuki, and localization director Michael-Christopher Koji Fox had a very interesting chat with Destructoid. You really should go read it.
But I’m a little more interested in something Yoshida said in an interview with Gematsu. During that interview, Gematsu’s Sal Romano asked whether or not FFXVI would feature any lighter diversions from the seemingly quite heavy main storyline—something like Final Fantasy X‘s blitzball. Yoshida responded, “We have some very dark themes that the story revolves around. We have countries at war—we can’t really have some blitzball matches going on when people are killing each other.”
Let me make something clear before I dig into that: I don’t think Naoki Yoshida, director of Final Fantasy XIV, hates fun. The man has spent the last decade heading up a game that’s 50% world-ending, stakes-raising intensity, and 50% dress-up simulator. FFXIV features god-slaying and goofing off in equal measure. I know a lot of folks have already heard Yoshida’s words and elected to paint him as an anti-minigame tyrant who wants to erase fishing from role-playing games. I don’t think that’s a fair representation of what he’s saying here.
That being said, I still think what he’s saying is wrong. Yoshida appears to be suggesting that Final Fantasy XVI will be too bleak to sustain minigames; that taking a break to play some cards would be too severe of a tonal break for the game. In general, I find this hard to believe. Final Fantasy VII, a game about eco-terrorists preventing a rogue member of a corporate paramilitary organization from destroying the planet, has a nice long break in the middle where all its characters go to an amusement park. Final Fantasy XV, a game about a prince fleeing a war-torn nation, features some of the best fishing in the history of video games.
Plenty of grisly non-Final Fantasy games find space for minigames, too. The Witcher 3‘s much-lauded Gwent, blackjack in Red Dead Redemption 2—the list could go on forever. And many of these games are celebrated specifically for their phenomenal minigames.
Why do we love them?
So what is it that we love about minigames? And why, exactly, would anyone be disappointed when they don’t show up in a game? After all, the minigames aren’t the main appeal. If you just wanted to play cards, you could get Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics for about $30 cheaper than Final Fantasy XVI.
I think the answer is simple: people like to be invested in a world. Once a game crosses the two-dozen-hour mark, its big, sprawling map can start to feel less like a massive world that needs protecting and more like an annoyingly large patch of land that needs crossing. Respite makes this world mean something. Taking a break to play a spot of Triple Triad with a stranger or cast a line with three of your best friends reminds you of what you’re actually fighting for. Final Fantasy XIV‘s crafting and gathering classes serve a similar purpose—while not “minigames” in the traditional sense, they are a diversion from the core loop that enhances the player’s attachment to Eorzea.
Of course, I haven’t played Final Fantasy XVI yet. Maybe it’s an incredibly depressing game where nothing is worth saving, and sparing some time for fantasy poker actually would kill that vibe. I doubt it, but, you know, it’s possible. I think it’s more likely the FFXVI team is coming at this game with a somewhat limited view of what a darker, more grounded fantasy story can actually look like (Yoshida’s comments on racial diversity in the game certainly don’t help).
I’m still very excited for Final Fantasy XVI. I love the franchise, and I’ve recently been dipping into director Hiroshi Takai’s first game, The Last Remnant, which seems quite good in spite of the fact that it doesn’t feature any minigames at all. Still, I find myself a little averse to the idea there’s no room for diversion in a dark story. The real world is frequently very depressing, and we still find time to play Final Fantasy. I hope FFXVI can still wow me, but I will always be pro-minigame.