Posted On: 2022-10-17
In the previous post, I wrote about the Open Puzzle, and how it can be used as an elemental genre. In today's post, I'm going to look at one game, Final Fantasy Record Keeper (FFRK), and how its elemental genre slowly changed into Open Puzzle over the course of the game's life.
The RPG is a bit of an odd genre - while its name implies it should have one particular elemental genre at its core (the desire to play out a role as a character), the traditional genre applies much more broadly - covering games whose core appeal ranges from planning, to puzzle-solving, to growing stronger, to enjoying a good story. For the many games in the Final Fantasy series, multiple of these core motivations were mixed together: the first three Final Fantasy games focused on the thrill of adventure, the drama of a high-stakes story, and the awe of spectacle, respectively, yet they also all blended in continuous progress (leveling up), and occasional tricky fights (with varying amounts of puzzle-like qualities.) FFRK, designed to evoke nostalgia for fans of the series, not only tried to appeal to multiple different player motivations, but actually changed dramatically in design over the course of the game's 7-year life*.
With the focus on nostalgia and fan favoritism, FFRK initially presented core gameplay decisions (like which characters to use together) as a form of self-expression: play with your favorite characters together, no matter which games they are from. Yet, despite that, the game went out of its way to include significant strategic differences between characters: one character may be a healer, while another specializes in dealing damage. As players got further in the game - and as the game became increasingly difficult, these strategic choices became increasingly important. Even before the game began to emphasize its most difficult fights (ie. the "Nightmare" dungeons), players were making choices, not only based on who they liked, but also on what those characters could do and how to put together a balanced team composition.
Over the years, this shift in design became increasingly important: players would spend a scarce, in-game currency* to get a randomly selected powerup for one of their characters. Suddenly, two characters who might have similar capabilities (ie. both competent healers) would have a new difference: one would have access to some unique, character-specific action. This, in turn, increased the depth of decision-making around team-building: character differences gradually accumulated over time, adding more nuance and variation to specific choices about who to bring to which encounter.
At the same time that the game's systems added these new layers of depth, the design of encounters also increased in variety and severity. Harder fights became increasingly important, and many of these harder fights were designed as though they were closed puzzles, with specific actions expected from players to counter specific threats or challenges. As the game aged, this became increasingly true: while early encounters were usually fairly random, later encounters used strict, fully-scripted fights, with every enemy action defined in advance, and enemies wielding an increasing number of esoteric abilities that required a specific counter to overcome.
Yet, despite the encounter design becoming increasingly closed, the tools available to players made the puzzles increasingly open. Over time, players accumulated a wide variety and volume of character-specific actions, and features that bent the game's rules became increasingly accessible - allowing players to find new ways to bypass the seemingly pre-planned solution. For a concrete example of this, consider the elemental-themed "magicite" fights: each encounter is associated with a specific element, and players are expected to use a corresponding weakness (ie. use fire to beat ice.) Yet, at the same time, the game also provided a mechanism for players to lower an enemy's resistance to a particular element - ostensibly to create elemental weaknesses in fights that don't focus on elements. Clever players were able to use this mechanic (combined with many others), to effectively bypass the elemental puzzle and beat every element using the same wind-elemental character.
From the outside, it's a bit difficult to judge whether the wide variety of solutions was a sign that closed puzzles in FFRK weren't working as intended, or whether the game's designers actually intended for players to apply their knowledge of the game's systems to solve encounters by whatever means they could figure out. Regardless of intent, however, the result is the same: players were regularly challenged with situations that looked like they have only one solution*, but beneath that appearance lay a wide variety of possible approaches and strategies. Framed as an open puzzle, one can look at the players' knowledge of the game's systems as the knowledge that is continually being tested and expanded: for seven years, players were always learning. Working together, players pooled their knowledge and ran scientific experiments to try to understand the subtle interactions between the game's many different systems. Planning and team-building were core skills that players honed, both on their own and collaboratively with peers and mentors. Where one player would see only insurmountable challenges, another player could show them the door to possibilities.