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Even Final Fantasy 16’s developers couldn’t follow its story, so they made a tool to help

Introducing Active Time Lore

A handsome Final Fantasy 16 character looks a bit confused Image: Square Enix
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

One of the neatest features of Final Fantasy 16 is something called Active Time Lore. You can pause the game at any moment — even and especially during cutscenes — to bring this screen up with a click of the touchpad, and it gives you helpful little capsule bios of all the characters in a scene, plus notes on the location, the factions involved, any concepts the characters are discussing, and any jargon they’re using. It’s like the X-Ray feature on Amazon Prime Video that can tell you the name of a character actor that looks familiar, but for arcane video game lore.

It’s useful. It’s also quite necessary, because Final Fantasy 16 has a byzantine setting that confused even its own developers to begin with.

Final Fantasy 16’s world features multiple nation states with names like Waloed, Sanbreque, and Dhalmekia warring and jockeying for power. Each of these cultures takes a different approach to things like magic use, the giant Mothercrystals that tower over the land, and Dominants — humans who can summon and control the godlike Eikons that protect each kingdom.

It’s a lot, and Final Fantasy 16 chooses to throw players in at the deep end with all this stuff, rather than spell it out for them in exposition scenes. It’s a good choice for the momentum of the story, but it can be confusing.

A dark screen with four bubbles on it. Two have character portraits marked “Sir Wade” and “Sir Tyler.” One for current location says “Stillwind Marsh”. Another with a monster symbol says “Goblins.”
The Active Time Lore screen in Final Fantasy 16.
Image: Square Enix

This is intentional, producer Naoki Yoshida tells Polygon; at the time his team at Square Enix was making a start on the game, HBO’s Game of Thrones was at the peak of its popularity, and they wanted to create something similarly large-scale, detailed, and plot-heavy.

“It was always our objective to tell this kind of story, this sweeping, grand, epic story, with this massive ensemble cast — something that was very complex and intertwined,” he says. “And kind of throwing the players in that in the beginning sets you up for what’s going to come. Not necessarily overwhelming the player, but showing the player that we’re trying to tell this grand story very early on.”

The team realized players might need a little help, though, when an early script read left even the game’s developers baffled and struggling to keep up.

“I think it was May in 2019,” Yoshida remembers. “We brought together pretty much the main staff from all of the sections working on the game, and we read through the entire script all together. [...] And we found out that a lot of even the internal core staff were lost, they didn’t know what was going on! So we realized all of a sudden that we needed some way to support players that were going to feel this way as well. Because if we as devs are feeling it, players are definitely going to.”

As well as the Active Time Lore system, the team included a couple of characters in the Hideaway — which serves as a home base for the game’s protagonist, Clive Rosfield — who can help players keep track of it all. Loresman Harpocrates manages an unlockable library of lore snippets, while Vivan Ninetales is a political scholar who can explain the current the state of the realm and its key players, mapping out characters’ relationships on a radial chart and showing the military situation on the ground.

You can argue these are fixes that a well-told story and a cogent setting shouldn’t need. But, based on a few hours’ play, Active Time Lore is a simple, generous and user-friendly feature that could be just as handy when picking up the game after a while away as when trying to get your head around it for the first time. It will probably be widely copied by other games — and I can think of a few TV shows that could use it, too.

Final Fantasy 16 will be released on PlayStation 5 on June 22.

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