Each disc-based Final Fantasy has pushed the limits of consoles in terms of cinematic presentation and the artistic representation of vast worlds with intricately designed inhabitants.
Even though it now shares space with such artistic powerhouses as Uncharted 2 and Mass Effect 2, Final Fantasy XIII upholds the series tradition of possessing generation-defining graphics. Its beautiful in-game engine compares favorably to pre-rendered video in most other games, and its cutscenes have the sparkling clarity and frenetic action of a Wachowski-directed Pixar film. While the game's story is typically obtuse, the world in which it unfolds is full of life that is at once foreign to us and natural in its context: there is enough outlandish machinery and mythical fauna to rival the Star Wars films in terms of sheer variety, but it all seems to adhere to a certain, foreign logic. Even the small details like animated menu transitions or text layout speak to painstaking craftsmanship designed to draw the player further into another universe.
Final Fantasy XIII's world is one in which players are invited to lose themselves. However, after spending some time in that world, I cannot help but feel nostalgic for some of the older titles. With all of its hyper-realistic splendor, Final Fantasy XIII seems like a place that can exist without any help from the player. More than any other title in the series, Final Fantasy XIII is a ready-made universe that asks relatively little from its players in terms of imagination.
Final Fantasy XIII's visual fidelity serves to standardize interpretations of its characters. The version of Lightning seen in the pre-rendered cutscenes and artwork is essentially identical to the one the player controls in game:
Aside from less minute details in her hair and skin tone, the playable character model is impressively similar:
Lightning is defined without much help from the player: her movements, appearance, and personality traits are shared across gameplay, cutscene, and artistic representations. A player wanting to fashion their own image of Lightning must struggle against a strongly-established version created by the developers. This stands in sharp contrast to Final Fantasy games that pre-date Final Fantasy VII.
For example, in Final Fantasy VI, Terra takes this form when the player controls her:
Because of a mixture of technical limitations and contemporaneous design philosophies, Terra's interactive form uses a traditional, "super deformed" art style. The oversized head and face lend themselves to representing the essence of emotions and mannerisms rather than attempting to simulate them. The game gives the player an impression of the character and leaves it to them to construct the particular details.
At the same time, the game presents an alternate representation of Terra in the menu system:
The portrait suggests a different interpretation of Terra by using more realistic facial features and a subdued expression in juxtaposition to the cartoonish in-game representation. Since both of these versions exist in-game, the player learns that the game's aesthetic and characters are somewhat malleable.
This plasticity becomes even more apparent when viewing Yoshitaka Amano's artwork. As lead character and graphic designer, he offers a glimpse into a third, highly stylized version of a character who already has two developer-created visual identities:
All three of these representations convey an important aspect of Final Fantasy VI's storytelling: the player is encouraged to use their imagination while exploring the narrative. The various kinds of artwork hint at a universe whose image is veiled; the game's form is a projection of something the player helps construct. In order to experience the world, we must imagine it as we would the setting of a novel or a campaign in a table top game. The sprites, portraits, and brushstrokes are all different yet valid ways of interpreting a universe whose existence relies on our interpretation.
In contrast, Final Fantasy XIII's world is pre-packaged for the player's consumption. The gorgeous character designs leave little to the imagination: their voices, equipment, and personalities are rendered as beautiful, yet immutable, works of art. While Final Fantasy games have always been heavily authored experiences, Final Fantasy XIII defines the narrative experience in a way largely independent from player interpretation. The danger with this is that if a player does not like a character, there is little that can be done to change it.
Examined in this way, the utility of simplistic or impressionistic graphics goes beyond technical limitations or a philosophical statement. Minimalism is a narrative tool that stimulates the player's imagination. Every person's playthrough of Final Fantasy VI was slightly different based on how they conceived of its characters: Each person's Locke spoke differently, every person's Sabin was a different height, some imagined Terra as an ethereal water-color painting where others saw a manga caricature. The simplicity of crude graphical representations can reward a player's investment in the game: taking part in crafting the experience engenders a sense of ownership that facilitates immersion and enjoyment. I suspect this is one of the reasons behind the retro aesthetic in the recently-released Sleep is Death: simple graphics are both technically flexible and narratively conducive to creating a tabula rasa for player-driven creation.
Over the years, Final Fantasy has shifted the onus of storytelling away from the player and towards the developer. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it has changed the nature of the series. What was once a collection of sketches that comprised variations on a theme is now a single portrait. Make no mistake: Final Fantasy XIII it is a beautiful painting, but I do miss being able to add my own brushstrokes.