Tonight I finished my final campaign through Final Fantasy XV, my focused attempt to gain its Platinum trophy. As I played through the game’s many hours of bromantic, roadtripping quips I thought about writing a memoir of sorts to the experience. I pondered why I held the game so dear despite how unpolished the narrative direction felt on release day. Why it held so much more enticement for me than other open world titles with much more variety in their quests. Why I remembered most fondly the least interactive sections, being driven back and forth across a continent as a passive observer of the landscape (and Gladio’s inability to finish a single page of his book in the seat next to me).
As I slayed horde upon horde of increasingly intimidating creatures and daemons, I imagined lauding the structure of the game. First, its gentle introduction to a small portion of its open world before throwing open the doors to its continent. Then its approach to handling the game’s numerous quests, parsing them out in digestible numbers by having a handful of quest givers tease out successive tasks rather than popping up overwhelming numbers of quest markers across its landscape. Finally examining the strangely disjointed nature of the open world against the linear nature of the last third of the story, which despite its immersion-breaking juxtaposition gives the player a welcome distinction between driving forward with purpose and just spending time in its world. Both have their own appeal and allow the player to choose how they feel like playing on a given day. I thought I might even explore comparisons with other open world titles, discussing my frustration that games like Skyrim or The Witcher 3 are so quick to offer a multitude of quests that none feel consequential and all acts feel like trivial ways to dump hours into increasing the meaningless numbers attached to character stats. I have often called Fallout 3 the best way to lose hours of your life without any particular benefit or enjoyment.
In the end, however, a different topic seems most apropos.
I finally finished the campaign, watched the final, moving cutscenes, and anxiously awaited my chance to return to Hammerhead and fly the Regalia to unlock my final trophy. I watched with supreme satisfaction as it unlocked, followed by the coveted Platinum trophy for obtaining all others. I breathed a small sigh of satisfaction and logged out of my game.
On a whim, I went to look at the full list of trophies, looking forward to seeing that percentage bar maxed at 100. Instead I looked with dismay at a measly 52%. In confusion, I scrolled down a list of updated achievements from add-on content I did not comprehend, much less own. I felt betrayed by the sanctity of the Platinum and what I had assumed it still stood for: completionism.
Now by no means do I intend to imply that DLC is inherently evil or that updates have no benefits, but in this instance I felt overwhelmed by a multitude of unnecessary additions, most of which felt unrelated to the core experience of the game.
I pondered the paradox of my surprise with my own self-admonishment for not expecting the additional trophies this far past the game’s initial release, and I realized just how deeply systemic the plague of DLC has become in recent years. No self-respecting triple A title can release without first announcing a season pass for mediocre content that detracts from the quintessential experience of the game, and for the low, low price of another complete title on which you might otherwise spend your money. It seems analogous to last generation’s prevalence for attaching unnecessary multiplayer modes simply due to a publisher’s expectation, the unfounded idea that the addition would magnify sales.
I am not averse to the need to incur more revenue per game than has ever been the case, as Extra Credits so effectively explained, but I cannot help but think that most triple A DLC is a poorly thought out way to accomplish that end. The development cost for such content makes the revenue gained nearly moot, and the product pushed to the player feels disingenuous to both the creators’ original vision and the players’ faith in the experience. These additional purchases feel only mildly better than abusive microtransactions.
This is not to say that DLC cannot be well executed. Episode Ignis answered my most nagging question regarding the narrative lapses in Final Fantasy XV, as well as providing an epic moment of sacrifice that still tugs at my heart. Mass Effect 2 provided several excellent additions, including the Arrival DLC that boosted anticipation for the series’ third installment. Many franchises do an outstanding job of expanding their worlds by offering additional quests, but the slow drip of menial content that turns each final encounter from a decisive period into a nagging semicolon should be left to the MMOs that demand constant attention. Not every major release needs three epilogues. Many stories are best when left with a singular powerful conclusion.
It seems as though many of the largest developers have become so determined to cement their status as the purveyors of the biggest and the grandest that they pile on poorly thrown together game modes and jarringly incongruous skins. I cannot help but feel this embarrassment of questionable riches has contributed greatly my propensity in recent years to seek out independent games over blockbuster titles. Smaller studios may not able to deliver the same polish, but the games they release feel complete, and watching the credits roll brings the same sense of contemplative peace as putting down a powerful book.
I remember my disappointment when I learned that Breath of the Wild was expecting a DLC that was nothing more than a challenge mode to extend play times. I had held Nintendo and their determination to deliver gameplay over shiny tech to be last bastion against pervasive pop-up ad content, but even my white knight has fallen. And on a flagship franchise no less. I think it fair to say that while expanding game content past release date is theoretically good, it has become a game design growth akin to cancer, taking the most polished titles and adding mutated appendages like a useless Fallout perk. While some developers still produce excellent triple A titles streamlined with only the best features, as Santa Monica did with God of War, most feel more like they have drunk the EA Kool Aid and unabashedly proclaim that more must unequivocally be better.
With the lay of the land unlikely to change soon, I must content myself with smaller titles like What Remains of Edith Finch and Ori and the Blind Forest. I still crave a good ending as much as a promising start, but few major developers are willing to provide that when they see the opportunity to squeeze a few extra dollars from their players. As fantastic as the idea of added content seemed a decade ago, the commercial reality feels much more dystopian, much like the final chapters of Final Fantasy XV after its wide-eyed beginning.