Script follows below the fold
Establishing the Model
Does Final Fantasy XIV have a good story?
Hey, that’s an interesting question, isn’t it?
It was a big deal when a major WoW content creator shifted over to doing Final Fantasy XIV content, and it was a major event when World of Warcraft’s subscriber numbers (apparently) dipped below Final Fantasy XIV’s subscriber numbers (apparently). One of the reasons cited for this was that FFXIV has a great story, and that story is sooo much better than World of Warcraft’s story, conspicuously by people who were full-time world of warcraft creators.
(There was meant to be a clip here of Bellular talking about how the Final Fantasy Protagonist was an ‘actual agent’ in their story, not just a participant dragged around to watch other people doing things.)
When I saw this my reaction was: What? What? That’s not true, that’s not true at all!
Now I get this. This is not necessarily a family of media criticism that cares about storytelling in videogames as much as it cares about being part of a content creation space that wants to churn out twenty videos a day so they can advertise ball trimmers.
For me, I found the story of Final Fantasy XIV a serious problem, because it sort of relied a lot on me enjoying and caring about things I did not enjoy or care about. This is a story space that really has no idea what to do if you’re not already heavily on board, which meant for me, I played this game with a notepad in hand, trying to work out what the big deal was.
What does it mean to have a good story? What does a good story look like? What does good mean?
Oh and just to be VERY CLEAR at this point, I am going to talk about this game as someone who’s finished the Endwalker Main Scenario Quests: I’m not going to be avoiding spoilers, and I will mention some things that won’t make sense unless you’re also aware of these things. If you’re spoiler-averse, click away!
If you put me to give a simple answer, I might just say that the story of Final Fantasy XIV is lousy, and that’s a value judgment about the overall piece, and it’s unfair, because it creates the impression that I just think the whole thing is all bad, as opposed to having very specific problems with how it executes on ‘telling a story through a videogame.’ No single word is going to give you a good answer. Is it compelling? Is it tedious? Is it self-satisfied? Smug? Despondent? Kinda Anti-Semetic? Exciting? Engaging?
Instead of trying for simple answers, I want to talk, in detail, about things that the storytelling in Final Fantasy XIV, and what parts of it I think do well, and I’m going to do that by breaking it down into the following categories:
- Narrative & Plot
- Base Assumptions & Theme
- Characterisation & Voice
This is what we refer to as a model; this is meant to give me ways to sort out the elements and put them in groupings, so I can more easily refer to things.
Narrative and Plot
These are, despite how they seem synonymous, two different things, at least when we get involved in discussing storytelling like this.
- The plot is the sequence of events that the story covers
- The narrative is how that sequence of events is demonstrated to the audience
It’s useful to think of these things separately, because sometimes a narrative works fine and the plot doesn’t, or a plot works and the narrative doesn’t demonstrate it, creating the impression of mistakes. These things get sometimes laid out as ‘plot holes’ and it’s more ‘the narrative didn’t bring to your attention a detail that is missing.’ Sometimes a character has consistent behaviour and values, but don’t express themselves in a way that makes that obvious.
For example, the plot of Hamlet is
- Hamlet’s dad is murdered by his brother
- His brother marries his sister in law
- Hamlet’s father becomes a ghost
- Hamlet returns home
- Hamlet meets a ghost
But the narrative of Hamlet is
- Hamlet returns home
- Hamlet meets a ghost
- Hamlet’s dad is murdered by his brother
- His brother marries his sister in law
- Hamlet’s father becomes a ghost
And these are different to give you a different perspective on that narrative. You discover the truth when Hamlet discovers the truth, meaning that you get to feel the way Hamlet does at this discovery more than if you already knew.
Final Fantasy XIV’s ‘plot’ starts out way back in time; the narrative involves keeping most of that completely hidden. The entire sequence of the events in the Allagan Empire and earlier ages is part of the ‘plot.’ There’s a single character in both the pre-historic past of the pre-sundering empire, then the Allagan era, and then the modern period, and being aware of them through this entire sequence is part of the ‘plot’ of the story. Of course, you don’t get to know that. The narrative introduces you to them very near the end of their story, and the rest is flashback and retroaction where it goes ‘hey, this character and this character and this character are all the same guy, boom, mind blown.’
When you try to look at the plot of Final Fantasy XIV, then, you just get too many goddamn things. What’s more, that sheer size makes it more complicated, and a lot of things are points made just once, and therefore, even though they’re very important to single moments, they just fade out when looked at as part of the whole. When you try to look at the plot, from the prehistory to the now, the two predominant messages seem to be:
- Everything was better and more powerful in the lost past, which we lost because we failed
- Isn’t it great that Square-Enix, a company that made all the Final Fantasy games, is around?
Rather than treat it like one single whole, I’m going to instead examine the narrative, split up into its five major arcs
- A Realm Reborn
But even that’s not true: because it’s really more like
- A Realm Reborn
- The filler paste afterwards
- The filler paste afterwards
- The filler paste afterwards
- The filler paste afterwards
Playing through this after the fact means the plot has this odd herky-jerky bit where you get a big event, you roll the credits, then you’ve got to do like half a dozen things that are often introduced then ditched as a sort of ‘we’ll sort that out after the MSQ but before the next expansion’ junk drawer.
Here are some plot arcs and events that happen entirely within these interregna:
- Moenbreyda is introduced and dies
- Thornmarch, Leviathan, Ramuh, Sylph, Midgarsommar
- Crystal Braves conceived, failed, and collapsed
- Minfilia getting kidnapped
- Minfilia getting written out in a rocks-fall-everyone-dies moment
- The Nidhogg battle
- Minfilia getting written out again, the rare Double Poochey (Which they upgrade into a triple Poochey in Shadowbringers)
- Shinryuu and Omega being summoned
- Papalymo dying
- Yda revealing she was dead, oops
- Revealing that tempering isn’t permanent
- Defeating Zenos again
- Fighting Bahamut
This isn’t an inherent evil! After all, you want stuff to do between the major expansions, and some of these are following through on things that were introduced in the expansions. But some of these things are very much just the story spinning its wheels, and it means that some important, major things happen in this tiny abridged period of time, and some plot points get repeated, like Minfilia being kidnapped almost immediately after being kidnapped.
That’s how we talk about the sequence of events in the story; in both cases, I think that any examination of Final Fantasy XIV as one long story is really unflattering. Instead, I want to look at the impression I got from each of the sections of the story, through the idea of their base assumptions and theme.
Base Assumptions and Theme
Base assumptions refers to the sort of fundamental ideas that a story cares about, things it doesn’t need to tell you because they’re not even thinking about it. Just as an example, if a story has a group of heroes and they’re all men, and there are no women in the story, that’s probably not intentional – it’s just the author’s base assumptions about ‘what a hero’ is.
Similarly, the theme of a story is a term we use to point to when a story repeatedly uses an idea or references an idea that makes the logic of the story work. You can sometimes think of these as trends, or if you’re not familiar with looking at work in a thematic way, you might imagine these as ‘fan theory’ fodder.
Some of the base assumptions in FFXIV are a bit unpleasant to me. The story kind of just puts them out there, and they’re not contested.
- There are more than a few times when the story takes a break to make a point about how no matter how good an idea may seem, it has to be beholden to neoliberal capitalism. That’s a bummer. Like, the Copperbell Mines is you putting down a slave uprising.
- The world we live in is a degenerated one; all the best stuff and most impressive stuff has already been done. In even the recent past, there were great and amazing things, and everything we have is a pale shadow of that superiority.
- The leaders of genocidal empires are as deserving of sympathy and humanity as the people they are genociding, perhaps moreso.
- Kings are and religious leaderships are both probably fine, because you just make sure you have good kings and good religious leaders
Thematically, on the other hand, man, this is a story that does a lot of stuff I like!
- Friendship is important and powerful, and we are always stronger when we stand together, even if we do not stand close
- There are some problems that really do need to be addressed with violence, like doom weapons and fascist empires
- The overwhelming despair of existence can be best addressed by finding the right person and giving them a hug
- When you lose someone, that doesn’t mean they’re gone; memories of them are going to carry with you as long as you remember them
- It is absolutely cool and sick to throw off the shackles of an oppressor, and wibbling about whether or not it’s good optics sucks
There’s an unfortunate undercurrent of some, let’s say anti-Semitic material?
- Emet-Selch is an emperor whose empire is explicitly trying to exterminate minority religious practices
- Rather than focus on a long form narrative focusing on, say, a kobold for an entire expansion talking about how it is to endure and survive despite extermination, we spend an expansion where Emet-Selch is our weirdo buddy
- Selchy also engages in manipulation of children in the womb and makes a half-angel child, while getting people to engage in a mass eating of a foodstuff that’s kinda cannibal-y
When I first talked about these problems I was about a third of the way through Endwalker, and I mentioned it to a friend that like, it kinda sucked that we were spending our time hanging out with Poncy Hitler, and then we were going to back in time to see him when he was young and hot and grappling with his artistic career. They said it was kinda unfair, and then the next zone I unlocked was ULTIMA THULE, which is just an all-purpose conspiracist woo-lord word, but also something that has a ‘Nazi Ideology’ entry on its wikipedia page, because they believe that’s where ‘the Aryan race’ come from.
I’m not saying this is done because FFXIV is an anti-Semitic work. I just think it’s thoughtless about it, in the same way someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about may think ‘blood libel’ or ‘shekels’ are just generic terms for ‘people being mean to me on twitter’ and ‘money.’
Using this consideration – the theme and base assumptions of each work, the story they want to tell, where I can both see what they were aiming at, and what I found that I liked, it runs something like this:
A Realm Reborn
Hi, welcome to the world of Final Fantasy XIV. You remember all those things from games you liked? We have all of those! We’ve got a Cid! We’ve got Magitek! Check out this great music and the chocobos and the bosses from Final Fantasy 1 and 2! Check out this bunch of NPCs! Do you like them? Great, they’re definitely all important, and we have plans for all of them! Please stem the bleeding from the first version of this game!
The church is bad because it won’t let you fuck dragons. Also, what does forgiveness look like for the eternal? Is there such a thing as intergenerational sin, and if it exists, can we be expected to understand it?
There’s some fuss about how Heavensward and A Realm Reborn are free, and yeah, that makes sense, because imagine trying to make people pay for it.
I mean, uh, big complicated things like wars and rebellions can be understood as the actions of a small number of people who may or may not be making sensible decisions, to them, at any given point in time. Stormblood is a bit of a mess, it’s kind of two half-expansions jammed together and they kinda fit together, but only in a very general way.
Climate change is real and bad and it’s coming for us. There will come a time where we long for people who will bring cold and dark in a time when light and heat burn. There is no sin in doing, only sins in extremes. Isolationist policies will give you nowhere to hide but your own head and you’re probably not prepared to do that.
Amaurot had it coming. Also, feelings are absolutely real things, and recognising how they affect us is important. Have some healthy concerns about the Fermi paradox and maybe read the Three Body Problem.
Also, as a bonus, there’s some places where the things the story thinks are funny kind of suck? Like, the old description of the Moenbreyda doll, the Khloe Attipoe doll, those are ‘just jokes’ but they’re jokes that make me think the person telling me the joke thinks I’m going to be amused by them being creepy.
Overall, I can definitely see these expansions as having interesting ideas. I enjoyed playing Stormblood, but I liked the story of Shadowbringers, for example. The period between Shadowbringers and Endwalker included one of my favourite beats, with the cure for Tempering, and the ensuing changes to Limsa Lominsa.
What’s more, if you aren’t me and don’t have my personal opinions on these things I can definitely see myself recommending these story arcs for reasons that I can tell resonate with other people. Shadowbringers is probably a really compelling story that culminates in a smooth jazz Bioshock city if you aren’t spending your time rolling your eyes every time That Whacky Emet shows up.
There’s a lot of other stuff in here that can probably be attributed to the type of storytelling it is, with the serialised release schedule and the needs of multiple types of player. I don’t mean to criticise it for things it can’t help.
But I will criticise it for things that are explicitly part of storytelling in a videogame that it’s meant to be good at.
A big complaint I had early on was how weak the mechanical storytelling is in this game. Ifrit is the point where the story pulls over and tells you that you and you alone can fight Ifrit, and now you need to recruit three other people to do it. They can’t send help, you need to do it alone, because anyone else who fights Ifrit will get tempered, and only you have the echo. This means that one of the earliest important moments of the plot, which sets into motion a number of other plot events, is explicitly not in the story the way the story treats it.
This continues for a long time: numerous events are treated as if only you, the Warrior of Light could do it, but you didn’t, you did it with other people, who aren’t The Warrior of Light. Instead of the mechanical experience enhancing storytelling and characterisation, they detract from it: the game’s narrative jerks to a halt until you do a videogame thing.
The wildest thing about this is it didn’t need an explanation for this. The Echo and Tempering is a self-inflicted problem; the story creates a blanket rule, then says the player protagonist alone can solve it, and then doesn’t make that kind of content the kind of thing the player protagonist does alone.
There’s a similar thing where the story is so focused on what its NPCs are doing that it sometimes needs to jerk you into playing another character, which tend to not be fun to play.
What’s wild though is that there’s a way this game does excellent mechanical storytelling! When you deal with any complex boss fights, the standard language for how mechanics work mean that a boss can communicate with you what it’s doing and how, and then it can do things like escalate and create dramatic moments, like Curtain Call or the LB3 moment against Elidibus!
Just also, who are all these other people around and why don’t they get to partake in the praise?
Characterisation and Voice
This is, without an exception or a doubt, the thing that Final Fantasy XIV does the best job at.
Characters are consistent within themselves; they typically have clear and meaningful goals in their world and generally are not behaving in a particular way just ‘because videogames’
What’s more, voice in this setting is great. Here are some character’s lines, read by me, and I bet if you know the game you know who said what.
- “What? Why are you looking at me like that? I said I was going to distract them, not make a heroic and ultimately futile last stand. Who does that, anyway?” (Alisae)
- “In prophecy are a myriad truths concealed. The eye of man decreeth which shall be revealed.” (Urianger)
- “Did you so grossly offend every single diety in a past life that they saw fit to place a curse on your soul?” (Yshtola)
- “There are… things which we can ill afford to lose. And… I sensed from the first that I had a part to play in preserving them.” (G’raha)
- “Come what may, we Scions will never give up the fight.” (Minfilia)
Obviously, with clear voice and strong characterisation there’s room to create a lot of blorbos, and that gives players something to care about, something to connect to, something to create your own fan lore about, something that you can get absolutely brainwormsed about.
And that’s where we hit a problem because goddamn can the ffxiv community find new and interesting ways to be not normal about things.
Content Warning: Here is just a list of characters I have firm opinions on and here’s a copy of that list in case you put the first one in the trash.
- Fordola has a really cool point about how the people you hurt are the ones who have to forgive you, and if they don’t, you don’t get to make them. She wants to do good (now), and she was doing good as best she could, but she’s also aware that she did just do the wrong thing and now she can only make good through generous hearts and soft memories.
- Riqi-Tio, and Khloe Attipoe are both very good characters in that ‘I want to make the world better for you to grow up in’ way, they’re not cloying and they’re both written in ways I find very funny
- Alphinaud and Alisae irritated the living hell out of me until we did the Dohn Mehg trust, where the game used its mechanics to show me how the two characters approach the world and treat each other. Then I got to talk to Stinky with some actual choices on how to express myself. It was charming and it was great and it seriously made me pivot on those characters hard. I’m now very fond of both of them.
- Thancred is kind of convinced he’s more charming and interesting than he actually is? I feel like he’s also very thin and coasting on what players imagine he’s about, because he’s otherwise very generic, and trust me, I know generic, I’ve been making Thancreds for years.
- Uriganger is one of the weaker points of writing because he feels the most like a character who’s been written a particular way. Urianger doesn’t know plans ahead of time, because the writers don’t, but they treat him like he does and can just say after the fact ‘ah, yes,’ like a hack GM trying to pretend the players’ own idea was theirs all along; the result is a character who talks about being good at being sneaky and duplicitous who has all the subtlety of thrown cheese. He’s Kingdom Hearts, but as a dude.
- Minfilia is like, a writer’s exercise of a character. She is a quest vending machine. She is the definition of a Sexy Lamp. People hating on Minfilia shocks me just because there’s so little there to dislike. Her writing does tend towards her being a rude asshole, by calling you back to the Waking Sands to update her on events, then immediately interrupting you before you tell her things, to tell you she already knows, and to send you off, but she’s so thinly written that doesn’t feel like ‘Minfilia is an asshole’ it feels like ‘this writer isn’t paying attention to their own script.’ I feel bad for her, and I keep thinking of how you could do only a little bit more to give her a much better story. The utter incompetence of how she’s written makes her a real top tier blorbo.
- Zenos Y Galvus is the most tedious damn thing in the game. Starting with two unwinnable boss fights that you have to lose in the right way, which is annoying and slow, you then go on to beat this guy five times, which is four times more than is necessary, and a lot more than any of my characters would have given opportunity. There’s nothing interesting to him, just a pushy incel stalker who’s also a genocidal monster and never asks for forgiveness. If you look at this and think ‘a bit of a fixer upper’ I have to assume you think he’s really hot, and just… really? You can do better. I don’t know you, but I believe in you.
- Emet Selch is hitler as ghost vampire. He sucks. At no point in any of his story do I remember him apologising for anything he did, so why are you forgiving him? I’m most offended that after killing him, he has the disgusting lack of decorum to not stay dead for not one but two guest appearances. If he wasn’t a mega-genocider, baby-warper, and G’raha-hurter, he’d still be a walking sneer that’s trying to not die of aloofness, and I am just not interested in putting up with this guy’s nonsense. I mean at least Xellos was funny.
- Papalymo is meant to have a sort of paternal dynamic with Yda, but I couldn’t get past the fact he’s a dude who follows around a girl, and every time she opens her mouth to ask a question or try to be helpful, he keeps insulting her. I wouldn’t put up with someone doing that in a dungeon, why am I doing that in a story? When he died I cheered.
- G’raha Tia is a character who went through a similar arc to me to Alphinaud; at first he felt like a raid NPC, introduced to be the tour guide on that ride and bounce when they were done. Then in Shadowbringers, he comes back, and you get to grant his wish to go on an adventure with you, and that’s really sweet. There’s a whole story here about what it’s like to live with a long-term medical condition but tragically, and the question of continuity of life. And like, yeah. I would absolutely go on an adventure with my friends to make their medical problems not problems.
- Sadu is great? I liked most of the Azim Steppes plot, but specifically Sadu’s specific attitude and the way her mechanical storytelling worked. Like you think you’re beating her down and then the layers of buffs pop off and she’s suddenly up and beating you down again, regaining stacks and showing she’s even more ferocious.
- I’m pretty confident Fandaniel would be big into NFTs.
I really could keep going, with characters that I like in more general ways like Krile and Rhauban and Pipin, or I could even point to fanon like how Minfilia is really interesting once the fans start writing a characterisation for her!
One thing I think that this game has going for it that I love is its Voltron-like character depth (said as praise). Every character is about as shallow as a teaspoon but has implications of being much deeper, meaning that it’s very easy for almost any compatible headcanons to step in and create a sort of networked lore. That’s rad as hell! I like that!
The comparison that springs to mind is – and I know this is going to get me a look – is Touhou. The bulk of Final Fantasy XIV, for all of its high production value and its visually impressive storytelling and voice acting, is a lot more like a Touhou game, where once you play the story, you go talk to your friends and your friends and you come up with a component of the story yourself. You create a storytelling tradition that connects you and your friends.
There is a comforting forgetfulness about long-form media like this. When you watch a television series that spans a hundred hours, you are going to slowly forget all of the moments and instead start to see them as these lines of narrative. The most recent stuff replaces the older stuff, and you start to remember the first forty hours as more of a haze, as a generalised ‘weak point’ but gently rocked in the comforting amnesia of ice-skating along in the post-end-game experience of durdling around.
When you’ve trekked across a mountain range, that goes up and down through the clouds, you may take a moment at the top at your final point, to turn around and look back at where you’ve been. You can see these bright shining peaks and remember those moments, and when you do that, you sort of stop thinking about the whole of the journey. It becomes just its highlights. It becomes just its best moments, strung together for you.
And I don’t want to take that away from you. If you at the end of the story of Final Fantasy XIV look back and see characters you love, on a path you enjoyed, and think to yourself ‘what a great story,’ then nothing I can say is going to hurt that, nor would I want it to.
And that’s good, right?
Just in the same way you wouldn’t look at me, and see the way I see this story, the things I remember and the highlights that stand out to me, and think ‘well, I’ve got to prove him wrong.’
I like this game, after all. I like the space it gives me. I like the movie-style plots my characters can get caught up in, the kinds of adventures that frame the experiences I can make in that world. I love the experience of the dungeons and pushing the numbers I can do. I really enjoy getting grand company seals and popping open random boxes to see what kinda fun goofy thing I get. I laugh as I imagine what my characters might say to a dialogue prompt, and try to find a friend who I can share the story with. The raiding experience is a great big bouncing castle of fighting and that’s heaps of fun.
… but liking it does involve standing next to the ways the storytelling in this game sucks. The ways that parts of this game aren’t just Not The Best, but seem to be to me, the kind of things you only do if you want to do them or don’t know they can be done better, and we know they can be done better.
A long time ago a friend compared Final Fantasy XIV to a theme park. That MMOs could be entirely about freedom, giving you a non-directed space to do whatever you want in. Think Minecraft and Eve Online, where all the stuff you do is directly related to player impetus, and there isn’t tailored media in the world. Then the counterpoint was theme park games, where you walked around the big tailored area, found a tailored experience and got on the ride and saw what that ride was about.
I love going on the rides here. I love having fun in the big combat encounters, and I love imagining a story about my cool character with my friends’ cool characters, and what it means when they fight a Rathalos. When the game is charming or funny or sweet, it’s really good at that and I really like it. The game excels at voice and characterisation, so even the characters you don’t like are consistent, they do the things you’d expect them to do.
But the story, viewed as a story, is full of choices that I think could be done differently and would make me like them better. They could choose to not invoke Nazi stuff. They could choose to focus on coming up with ideas for what women could do, rather than about the way a genocidal emperor feels. They could choose to think about a world getting better rather than a world crushed under a history that can never be exceeded.
And now, at the end, I hope it makes sense when you ask me ‘do you think Final Fantasy XIV has a good story’ and I say ‘I don’t understand the question.’