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Why are some stories so powerful even when their characters are bland, predictable, and archetypal?

I’m talking Sleeping Beauty. GladiatorBeowulf.

I’ll tell you why. It’s because the best stories aren’t just about interesting characters and the journeys they take through life. They’re also about themes. Powerful, universal ideas that resonate with all of us no matter our background or beliefs. It’s these ideas that can transform otherwise unremarkable stories into tales that last the ages.

Themes are more than motifs or recurring elements. To work they must be baked into almost every part of a story, and sum up its meaning in an elegant, minimalistic way.

To Kill a Mockingbird is about the value of human life in all situations. The Lord of the Rings is about the necessity of the everyman in the face of unspeakable evil. Terminator 2 is about the battle between the inevitable and that which we can control.

A story that successfully embraces and communicates its themes achieves something I like to call thematic consistency. In my opinion, this one quality is what separates transcendental art from merely entertaining art.

It’s the hidden element that can make a story more than the sum of its parts — or not.

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So here’s the problem. You can’t just take a bunch of cool, exciting events and a handful of cool, exciting characters and throw them into a narrative.

Well you can, but what you end up with is a weak story.

Without being aware of the themes you want to talk about, you’re creating a checklist of ‘things that happened’ rather than a story tied together by common threads. The best stories stay with us because their themes resonate on and on long after the actual narrative is over: they have thematic consistency.

A lot of cheap popcorn fare goes down this lazier path. It doesn’t really talk about themes with any conviction, just stuff that happens and who it happens to. The Transformers franchise, Fast and the Furious, Taken… the list goes on and on.

(Not to say that these movies are necessarily bad, or aren’t fun to watch. They’re just less likely to stay with you than, say, the works of Shakespeare. And there’s a reason for that.)

Stand by me, bro

Recently I finished a game that had hints of true thematic consistency, but quite widely, and painfully, missed the mark. That game was Final Fantasy XV.

Spoiler warning: watch out for mild spoilers, though I’ll try to keep them as vague as possible.

FFXV was beset by one of the worst and most chaotic game development cycles in recent history. It certainly comes across in its story and the way it’s told. Rather than a cohesive whole, it feels like a fragmented mush of many conflicting ideas. Plus it doesn’t help that the full narrative is split across the game, a supplemental movie, a 5-episode anime and upcoming DLC (a dreadful decision that seems to be 80% cash grab).

I’ll be fair. The game does a good job of communicating one of its themes: friendship. The ideals of loyalty and togetherness are strong influences throughout the narrative, evoked by the bond you inevitably develop between your three companion dudebros.

Even when FFXV‘s story came crashing and clunking down, I was still emotionally invested in Ignis, Prompto and Gladio — and genuinely touched by the game’s ending.

The four dudebros enjoy a relaxing day out.

If FFXV has a heart, that is it: friends who always return to each other, no how much space or time has come between them.

This central concept is mirrored in the game’s theme song, a version of “Stand by Me” sung by Florence and the Machine. And it’s reflected in gameplay elements, like the combat and exploration skills each of your teammates level up and the way they compliment each other. In battles you are encouraged to combo attacks with your buddies to deal more damage, or use abilities to heal and strengthen the team. There are also a sprinkling of sidequests from your three companions that develop your bond (I would have enjoyed lots more of these).

All this is strong and consistent, if sometimes weirdly punctuated by gaps where your friends have to step away from the main narrative for a chapter or so to create story holes that will be filled by DLC. Seriously, don’t get me started on that crap.

But in pretty much all other thematic areas, I found the game fell flat. What is FFXV‘s lasting message about fate? Love? Death? I’ve spent over 60 hours with it and I couldn’t tell you. These all seem like elements that were supposed to be more fleshed out, but which currently feel too simplistic and one-tone. (In the future Square Enix will be adding patches to strengthen the game’s story which may fix some of these weaknesses. Again: don’t get me started.)

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Like many Final Fantasy protagonists, Noctis comes to learn that he has a fate. It’s a fate he decides to follow to its conclusion, but again, I never felt any real motivation behind his choice.

There’s a bit of implied respect for his father the king, a little awe about his ancestors, and some much-needed growing up in general. But Noctis’s arc never truly felt convincing for me. He goes from grumpy spoiled brat to wise, heroic king with maybe one cutscene to explain how and why it happens.

We never get to understand if Noctis is thankful for some purpose to his life at last or if he’s furious at having a fate thrust upon him that he never asked for. It feels like a hurried reshaping of the character to fit the narrative rather than a gradual and believable change borne from everything he goes through.

Love

Noctis also has a love interest called Lunafreya who is criminally underused throughout the game. They have been betrothed since childhood and seem to have once held genuine affection for each other, but the few sparse, cliched flashbacks we see of them together don’t add much depth to their relationship or explain why they want to be with each other. You even get to correspond with Lunafreya through a weird dog-based system (don’t ask), where you can choose to display interest for what she has to say or just indifference.

So is Noctis excited to marry his childhood sweetheart or is he blandly going through the motions? We never find out and the game is unwilling to take a firm stance.

Death

Finally, FFXV fails to say much of interest about death and violence. It’s something the evil empire of Niflheim metes out indiscriminately, but Noctis and his team also deliver it on a staggering scale as they progress through the story.

This all seems fine at first, because Niflheim employ an army of soulless automaton soldiers to do their dirty work. But, in a twist any Final Fantasy veteran could see coming a mile away, towards the end of the game it’s revealed that these soulless automaton are actually normal people infected into daemons and shoved into suits of armour. So Noctis and co. have effectively murdered hundreds of innocent people in the course of their journey.

It’s dropped as quickly as it’s brought up, without repercussions or any deeper thought, even when one of your party members turns out to be bred from this very stock of daemon-people (??).

This is a good representation of how it feels to try and understand the story of Final Fantasy XV. The game does not say enough about any of these ideas, in a consistent enough way, to make them solid themes. And in the end none of it meshes together in a way that makes sense. It adds up to an experience that feels lackluster, confused and underdeveloped.

In other words, the game lacks thematic consistency.

It’s painful to see a game with a 10 year development cycle that still ended up rushed and incomplete. These themes could have been tackled with confidence and consistency by FFXV if only they had been tied into gameplay — to reinforce the world and the characters in it.

Just take perhaps the biggest missed opportunity in the game: almost all of FFXV‘s many sidequests are glorified fetch quests. They rarely serve to build lore, add depth to main characters or shed light on parts of the story. This is in stark contrast with similarly open-world games like Dragon Age or Fallout, which have their own fetch quests but also much more consistently use sidequests to make their world feel more real, and back up central themes like power and betrayal.

My problem with FFXV is that, rather than delivering a consistent message about its characters and what they go through, it devolves into a series of events that feel thematically disconnected. This doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the game — I did. Nor does it mean that FFXV didn’t manage to say something powerful about friendship and loyalty. (I wept at its end.)

The issue is that the game was trying to say something more about its other themes but failed. These weak add-ons ultimately dilute the whole experience, like leftover Bountys in a tub of Celebrations.

Design by subtraction

Let me bring in another game I recently finished: The Last Guardian. I enjoyed this game too, although it wasn’t perfect either. But one of its clear strengths over FFXV is that it handles its themes (several of the same ones, in fact) in a far more consistent and convincing way.

The Last Guardian suffered from its own decade of development hell. But unlike FFXV, there seems to have been a consistent story running all through that development — and it emerges strong in the final product.

That product is the latest, and perhaps last, piece of work from Team Ico and Fumito Ueda, the minds behind Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. It’s a result of Ueda’s famed “design by subtraction” method of game development, which eliminates all elements that do not strengthen its core themes. The result is a lean, consistent story that isn’t without weaknesses, but feels a lot more sure of itself and its message than FFXV.

The games are tied by many similar ideas: friendship, sacrifice, loyalty. But The Last Guardian‘s comparative simplicity gives it the storytelling edge. It can speak more consistently and cohesively about a few topics because it doesn’t say much about them. FFXV is arguably more ambitious in its scope, but its sprawling narrative gives it a lack of direction.

Everything you do in The Last Guardian furthers the relationship between Trico, a huge cat-bird-griffin thing, and your playable character. Whether it’s learning to read Trico’s body language so you can encourage him to help you solve puzzles or relying on him to rescue you from your enemies, by the game’s end you trust in and care for Trico.

Trico and the boy share a close moment in The Last Guardian.

There are gentle, tender moments when the amalgamation of AI and algorithm on the screen genuinely feels like a living creature. There are heart-in-your-mouth moments where you can’t be sure if Trico is going to save you from certain doom, followed by a rush of relief and gratitude. Nothing is fluff or filler. Each moment of The Last Guardian works toward expressing its message of companionship overcoming all.

Of course, this is an extreme example. Most stories are not so single-minded in the communication of their core themes. But it proves that by reinforcing a topic time and time again throughout a narrative we can build the thematic consistency that lend stories their sense of gravitas, of staying power.

The Last Guardian isn’t just a story; it’s a story that’s trying to tell us something about the world.

And after all, that’s what makes great stories and great art. It’s taking the chaos of the world we live in and transforming it into structure, meaning, and universal themes that resonate with us all.

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