essay

Ending Knowledge: Final Fantasy XIII-2 and understanding story through paradoxical endings

One of the selling points of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is that, more than any other game in its series, it was designed for its commercial status. Through costumes, DLC story and extra battles, it was crafted so that it could be sold and then profit could be made from players continuing to spend money on items after the initial selling window. This strategy, while not unique to this game, presents an unusual approach: endings, often paradoxical in nature, provide more exposition. As more content is added, the story expands and the gaps in plot are filled in over time through optional content, both in-game and purchased.

An integral part of the game is that, given the time travel nature of the narrative, the time line splits in various places. Two versions of events play out allowing the characters to traverse both and see how choices would have played. Gates, the labels for the options allowing players to pick various points in both timelines, can be locked, suggesting that, should events play out differently, the player will see ever increasing more content. This promise, however, is proved false in its consequences: the story has been predetermined and there are fixed endings. Added to this is downloadable content that connects issues, plot threads and even characters in previously unknown ways.

These story end points, unlocked as the player progresses more of the game, gains new items and sees new places, puts the player in a truly new situation within an old context. In order to understand the true reach of the story, through watching all nodes of the branching narrative, they must play through the game, yes, but also gain increasingly mastery of the systems and the meta-game systems. It goes beyond the classical sense of time investment equaling character progression and ties it to the understanding of how the story might branch at different choices. The player must then have a fluency with the narrative as experienced and seek to find the moments when the game could end and then try to see if it might.

Such endings, if successful, represent a change in the knowledge-progression model of normal play. In the traditional sense, the player gets better at the game by playing it more. As she retries sections and sees more of whatever story is presented and choices available, the mapping between the physical space and the possibility space grows; the player has an increasing understanding of the branches and so can navigate the tree as need to see what she might want to see. However, Final Fantasy XIII-2 subverts this model in an interesting way: instead of maintaining this method of story delivery, of repeating sections and making alternative choices, it splits them off by marrying them to endings that are both expository and yet, in turn, paradoxical to the story.

In one sense, if the game is played to its conclusion, the player is put back into control of choosing which gate to continue to play from with the characters; the “true” ending does not exist. The player must discover which ending they prefer, as they discovery them, and then, when wanted, stop playing. This agency is not unlike other games that share multiple endings though. What makes FFXIII-2 interesting in this regard is that it explains events through these endings. In stopping through one choice, it prompts reflection and invokes catharsis upon the journey the characters have taken up to that point.

Yet, in doing this, it seeks to explain the events as logical and, in doing so, draw conclusions that are, on the one hand, contiguous through the events seen yet, on the other, in contradiction to any other endings. In explaining, for example, why one character, thought an ally,  might choose to sabotage an important mission, it puts all previous actions, both chronological past and future, within a new understanding. If this character might make the chain of decisions that brought them to this point, all other actions taken by them must be questioned. Some exposition, then, serves to give the player an insight into the world, yet contradicts previous information. The player then must consider this paradoxical ending in light of other information, or even other endings.

It is the additional endings, and the exposition they add, that makes FFXIII-2 both intriguing in this regard and highly questionable. The story, if it could be said to be linked to what the player sees, promotes a situation where, to understand the “complete” story, they have to hold in their mind contradictory outcomes to events. In one particular example, a monster is defeated at one point in the past which leads, of course, to a very different future outcome which reveals previously unknown information about a character. However, to get to that understanding, the player must see both the ending that leads to it and other possible endings that might contradict it.

This leads to both the fulfillment of the model of showing more story to dedicated players, yet also creates a situation where player discussions must highlight not only what they experienced, through their play sessions, but which endings they have seen. Complicating this even more, and leading to the questionable nature of adding endings through optional content that can be purchased, is knowledge that is locked away through these methods. Some players will not pay for more story, even alternative endings, yet such knowledge might lead to a greater understanding of the plot.

This lack of a “true” ending and adding premium content makes FFXIII-2  unique in that, while it invites interpretation and player choice through the mechanics of locking Gates and seeing different outcomes, it simultaneously promotes the fact that, to have a greater understanding of the story, the promise of “truth” in the plot, content must be brought while also showing the most determined players a more complete yet contradictory picture of the story.  In order to see why certain events happen, the player must possibly spend more money, time and engage not with older sections, as the previous model might have a player do, but an increasing array of new endings.

In trying to give more content to players over an extended period of time and in trying to get them to spend more money, the developers of FFXIII-2 push both the commercial and the borders of player agency. At any point, the player can stop playing, can even choose one ending they like over another. Such choice, while not locking the player into any one path, presents the understanding of what a game might do, allowing the player choice in narrative and endings, yet also adds to frustration. The premium content taunts the player with more story, possible paradoxical endings, while asking for not time but money.

Representative of this problem is the latest DLC “Requiem of The Goddess” which, it suggests, closes the story by explaining the events according to an in-game character. Yet, this is the most paradoxical of endings. Any information gleamed from it stand in contrast to any other that are part of the in-game content, a collection of already disparate endings that both reveal and complicate the story. Any players expecting closure will have to, as they have experienced through the other endings, consider if this is really the ending they want and if the game, even as content is added, can ever end.

To begin to question the endings of a game is a rare occasion. It is not often that players can discuss, outside of a hypothetical, what might have happened during story moments in a game and then see it realized. However, by using this method, the developers of FFXIII-2 also set a dangerous new model. If endings, sold to players, explain certain events, or even report to be the “true” ending to a work, it puts the onus of buying or seeing it on a player. If, as several examples show, exposition is hidden within these endings that point to different interpretations, it further complicates an already complex situation of endings that are, even labelled such in the game, paradoxical.