Snapshots over storytelling: why FFXV’s photography is key to its appeal
Chosen ones, dark visions, crystals, ancestral relics, daemons and sacrifices: despite its contemporary leanings, Final Fantasy XV’s plot runs the gamut of JRPG clichés, and except for a couple of surprises, it does very little new with any of them. It’s disappointing, but it’s not as ruinous as you might think. In any JRPG, the overall story matters far less than the people with whom you’re making the journey. A party whose company you enjoy is half the battle, and that’s a nail Square Enix manages to hit squarely on the head.
Central to this is an idea that at first seems to be little more than a minor detail. Plenty of other games have photography elements, after all, but the difference here is that you’re not the one calling the shots. Rather, it’s the ebullient Prompto who’s constantly on the lookout for photo opportunities; he’ll even occasionally encourage you to stop the car so that he can take a group snap in front of a landmark or a particularly striking vista. In one side mission we find ourselves standing on the shore of a lake, tempting a colossal beast to draw nearer so that he can capture the perfect shot.
You might well find these asides unnecessary – in which case, you’ll be happy to learn that for the most part they can be ignored. But Prompto also takes shots invisibly as you play. As you settle down for the night, you’ll be able to flick through them: some are taken at fixed moments in the story, but most are generated from the day’s activities and will thus vary greatly from player to player. You can even choose to give Prompto the ability to take selfies during combat, denying yourself a potentially useful support option for the sake of more interesting pictures on the camera roll. Occasionally, a photo will be overexposed or poorly framed, but that only adds to the illusion that they were taken by a human being. And, as Prompto’s skills level up, he’ll unlock new filters which are smartly deployed to add greater visual variety to the selection.
None of this has any meaningful impact on how the game plays, but it’s absolutely crucial in establishing the overall tone. It grounds the more fantastical elements and helps make the group more relatable. Who hasn’t found themselves in a group crowded around a friend or family member’s phone screen, pointing and laughing as they scroll through their camera reel after a holiday or a memorable night out? Later in the game, the photos achieve a surprising poignancy: as Noctis is separated from his friends, they represent a look back to happier times.
From staged snaps to more intimate, unguarded portraits, you can save your favourite shots to an in-game album, and by the time the credits roll you will have created an extremely personal document of your time with the group. It’s a handy way to recall moments that your brain might have easily discarded over the course of 40 to 50 hours – though it’s a pity that what you were doing at the time is rarely quite as interesting as Prompto’s photography makes it appear.
Yes, in a game such as this, with the heft and sweep of an epic, photography might appear to be a tiny, insignificant feature. But whether you bed down for the night in a tent or spend a few gil to stay in a roadside motel, this seemingly mundane routine works wonders in deepening your connection with the group. As you sift through the photos, the others will occasionally remark on individual shots, and while there’s the occasional bit of good-natured ribbing, you’ll more often hear them praise Prompto for the quality of his photography. It’s a reminder of how infrequently we see games depict male friendship without lapsing into hollow machismo. What a rare treat to play a game where men are allowed to bond over selfies, rather than shotguns.
Filling up with petrol is one of several mundane routines that become oddly endearing, not dissimilar to shaving and showering in Deadly Premonition. Was Tabata taking notes during Swery’s GDC talk on loveable game design?