Platinum Demo – Final Fantasy XV released last Thursday on the PS4 and Xbox One marketplaces to much fanfare. The tease of a game ten years in the making, Platinum serves as many players’ first playable exposure to one of the most anticipated sequels in gaming history.[1] The demo follows a childhood version of the main game’s protagonist, Noctis. who finds himself in the midst of a nightmare. Guided by Carbuncle, a fox/unicorn/cat hybrid creature who communicates via Emoji[2], Noctis attempts to break free from his nightmare and awaken safe and sound. Throughout the half hour that it takes to finish the game, players are introduced to the game’s visual style, combat system, and general mechanics.

It also won’t be found in the final game. Platinum’s dream world of toy-sized perspectives, human-to-beast transformations, and mysterious hallways exists only in the context of the demo, serving as a self-contained story whose purpose is to highlight the game’s technical achievements[3]. Much like a good piece of downloadable content, Platinum features an experience that players simply cannot get anywhere else. Whereas games like Metal Gear Solid 2 or BioShock, which utilized demos masterfully to generate player excitement, found their teasers redundant after release, Final Fantasy XV’s will be worth playing even if one completes the full-fledged release in its entirely.

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Platinum challenges the conventions of what a demo is supposed to be. It can exist wholly independent of the game that it is ostensibly advertising. This method holds tremendous potential for a type of game that is more commonly relegated to the Flash web app or experimental game jam – the short story. Typically, games run for hours upon hours – a completion time of two hours is abnormally brief, while ten or more hours is far more commonplace. Games that are shorter have an unfortunate stigma of being throwaway or worthless – they can be easily played and returned via Steam’s refund policy and consequently risk financial ruin. This fate ultimately ensures that short games are low or no budget affairs, such as Anna Anthropy’s transgender autobiography/WarioWare hybrid Dys4ia or the mechanically bold apocalyptic drama One Chance. If such a game attempts to recoup its cost by releasing at a price, like the fantastic Three Fourths Home, then it will almost certainly fail to move the needle sales-wise.

Utilizing the demo as a framework for delivering a short story eliminates the need for a short game to cut costs and go free. Since the title is tied to a larger game, it can afford to go for a more ambitious narrative or visual style – Platinum, for instance, takes players to no fewer than four diverse environments and concludes with a rousing boss battle. It also plays with space, utilizing its dream narrative to shrink Noctis as a toy, and explores themes that the main game will likely not touch on, effectively making it a unique story within the Final Fantasy universe.

Of course, Platinum still shares Final Fantasy XV’s through and through – while it’s a unique story, it still features the same core gameplay, the same main character (Noctis), and the same artistic style. It’s not free from its larger source material in the way that Three Fourths Home exists without siblings. However, a truly daring demo can shatter this bond, going far enough to create an experience that, while thematically linked to a larger game, exists within its own universe, with gameplay, narrative, and feel that are truly independent.

pt

P.T. is that demo. A promise of a game that will never come, the tragically canceled Silent Hills, P.T. plays nothing like a traditional Silent Hill game. It’s cryptic and mysterious beyond the norm for the series, set in a world where the words “Silent” and “Hill” are never mentioned, with a narrative-driven style experimental gameplay that would never be linked to Konami’s seminal horror franchise were it not for the presence of the Silent Hill theme and title at the game’s conclusion.

In the greatest cautionary tale ever told relating to digital-only preservation of media, P.T. was pulled from Sony’s downloadable store following Silent Hills’ cancellation. This isn’t unusual; the same fate befell NBA Elite 11’s demo after that game was canceled at the eleventh hour. Unlike that mess of a game, however, P.T. didn’t need to be removed from circulation. Its story of a looping hallway from hell[4] is entirely self-contained in a way that Platinum doesn’t even achieve; there are no connections to another world, nothing to suggest that this is a side story or a part of something larger. It is instead a brief, perfect telling of a ghost story about a haunted hallway and a vengeful spirit, and it still is in a league of its own as one of the greatest achievements in interactive art.

By all metrics, P.T. still fulfilled its purpose as a demo. It was downloaded more than a million times, and the enthusiasm that it generated both for Silent Hills and as a piece of art was remarkable. To put things in perspective, it managed to excite people about a series that hadn’t had an acclaimed entry since 2003’s Silent Hill 3.[5] It’s a shining example of how the notion of what a demo must be can be shattered effortlessly – there’s no reason to carve out a small chunk of a larger game or even directly translate a game’s mechanics to a demo. A truly great short story can inspire tremendous anticipation for a larger, thematically similar work, all with the result of two great pieces of art existing in the world rather than merely one. Yes, it requires more work relative to a traditional demo, but the reward can be so much greater, both from a narrative and (most likely) a fiscal perspective.[6]

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With any luck, Platinum Demo – Final Fantasy XV will cement the legacy that P.T. was denied, acting as a demonstration of the success that higher budget short narrative games can yield with the help of a little creative framing. As the famous “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”[7] reminds us, great works of art can come in the slimmest of packages. Expanding the interactive short story beyond the most guerilla forms of development offers a chance to reshape our shared understanding of what a great game can be, while working to shatter the notion that games are best evaluated by the number of hours that players get for their purchase.

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[1] Platinum was preceded by Final Fantasy XV – Episode Duscae, released in March 2015. Duscae, however, required players to purchase the full priced Final Fantasy Type-0 HD in order to access it, thus carrying an abnormal barrier to entry for a demo.

[2] Don’t do drugs, kids.

[3] Which are dubious – fun though it may be, Platinum Demo’s technical performance is bad enough to noticeably detract from the otherwise engaging world.

[4] Hellway.

[5] Despite its generally tepid reception, I personally hold the belief that 2004’s Silent Hill 4: The Room was a brilliant experiment that laid the groundwork to make P.T.’s horror possible. At some point I will be publishing a proper blog post explaining why I find Silent Hill 4’s mechanics are remarkably clever and sorely underappreciated.

[6] This would be easier to definitively say had Silent Hills actually come out; plus, any industry analyst worth their salt could have told you that Silent Hills would have far surpassed the performance of previous games in the series. Unfortunately, the world is an unjust place, and we can’t have nice things.

[7] Which, I just learned, was not written by Hemingway. I started this blog in the hopes of teaching people something, but in the end, it was I who learned.

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