When I think of my most cherished video gaming experiences, a few come to mind: Red Faction, Mass Effect 2, Mirror’s Edge, Mass Effect 3, Red Dead Redemption, and others. All of these games are solid, but there are plenty of other games that I like all the same. I mentioned them specifically because they each carry a unique quality that sets them apart from everything else I have played in the past. There is a difference between an exceptional game that is tossed in favor of moving on to the next one, and a game that is engrained in your mind for life because there was one thing about it that just made it so damn good.
Final Fantasy XI. It transcended what it meant to simply be a consistent fun game, and became an experience; it is also my favorite Final Fantasy.
Final Fantasy XI debuted in Japan, in May of 2002 for the PlayStation 2. The North American release was staggered with the PC launch in October of 2003 and the PS2 launch in March of 2004. Europeans only received the PC version of the game, in September of 2004. Finally, an XBOX 360 version was released in April of 2006 for all regions.
As recently as 2011, the game has continued to maintain a healthy populace. Subscriptions did drop over time as people moved on to other games – this has been countered in the past couple of years by massive server integrations. Content is still regularly added, including the mission add-ons, A Crystalline Prophecy: Ode of Life Bestowing, A Moogle Kupo d’Etat: Evil in Small Doses, A Shantotto Ascension: The Legend Torn, Her Empire Born; and the Abyssea series of battlefield add-ons (Vision of…, Heroes of…, and Scars of…). These are all in addition to the four major expansion packs that have been released in the game’s lifetime – Rise of the Zilart, Chains of Promathia, Treasures of Aht Urhgan, and Wings of the Goddess.
I will be honest; my initial reaction to Final Fantasy XI was that of pure abhorrence. I had little experience with MMOs and I was turned off by the idea entirely. With a little push from some friends, I caved into blind curiosity and opened up a subscription. I never looked back.
I played FFXI for close to five years. It did not take long for me to be pulled in. All the time that I spent logged in, I amassed about a year-and-a-half of total playtime. The timeframes in which I played provided me the opportunities to experience the game at its peak (2004-2006), and in my opinion, its twilight (2008-2010). I was able to level a few jobs to the cap, participate in a variety of raids, and I can say that overall I had an ‘accomplished’ career in the game (if you could even call it that). Though, those attributes were not what made the game for me, it was these: immersion, exploration, and community.
When you first start the game, you are instantly thrust into the vast world of Vana’diel. The introductory phases of the game – circa 2004 – were something that can never be replicated, ever. I was lucky enough to have friends that had been playing the game for a few months prior, so I was able to get a hold of some startup gil and equipment. For any player just starting out though, the game is a complete mystery.
Vast is a bit of an understatement when describing Vana’diel; any other synonym could do: humongous, sprawling, expansive, and giant. Final Fantasy XI exceeded the other games in the series in this department. Every area had its own personality, its own nooks. There are games that have massive worlds like this, but there is no incentive to explore them, to shine a light on every facet. Vana’diel’s scope was massive and there was so much diversity – swamps, forests, ice wastelands, jungles, deserts, celestial temples, alternate dimensions, enemy strongholds, etc. The fauna was just as important as the flora; each area was differentiated from one another perfectly. Vana’diel was one thing that the other FF worlds were not: it was alive.
All of the different areas mentioned above were punctuated by the game’s score. There was no definitive composition like the obsessively remixed and overdone notorious ‘One Winged Angel’ or a memorable composition like ‘The Extreme.’ However, where the score lacked in this one area, it made up for it in everything else. Every composition in the game added personality to the landscape, and the battle compositions added tension.
All of the game’s qualities were tied together by one attribute: community. The playerbase is what kept the game interesting for me, and in my opinion, it was the driving force in the game’s longevity. One memory that always stick out for me was when my guild first took down the Dynamis Lord (at the time, he was the toughest boss in the game). I was not as amazed at the fact that we were the first North American guild to take him down as I was when I heard that several PvP matches going on at the time actually stopped to applaud when they heard the news. If the game was devoid of this communal aspect, it would have crashed. Actually, not just crashed; it would have crashed and burned. With the wings coming off the fuselage and everything.
The only enjoyable aspect of waiting three hours for a party invite or waiting six hours for a rare and notorious monster to spawn – only to lose the claim – was that I was able to take part in these things with people that I had become sociable and friendly with. In other MMOs, you can go days or weeks without speaking to another player. Final Fantasy XI’s severe emphasis on grouping encouraged players to interact with one another and form bonds. All FFs have focused on group play, with intense stories and battles sprinkled throughout. I did not remember the particulars of each battle and raid I partook in; instead I remembered the people, the interactions, and the laughter. Final Fantasy has always been – at its core – about exploring new and unknown worlds, and learning about the people that inhabit them. There are thousands of people on a FFXI server at any given moment. This is what made it the truest FF I have ever played; it took that core – the aspects that made VII, VIII, and X for me – and amplified them. It is easy to be detached from non-playable characters in any of the FF’s, but this does not happen when you go through long and arduous missions/quests with real people. You form bonds.
Those are the relationships that make any game memorable. They transform it from a simple mode of entertainment into a full-blown experience. There are plenty of off-line games that deliver compelling and immersive experiences, but the social factor is what makes memories in the first place. I could spend hours grinding in any other game, but to do it with other people who are laughing and joking around with me at the same time, that made it unforgettable.
I stopped playing FFXI after I felt the game had lost its pull. Guilds and the communal atmosphere still flourish to this day, but recent updates have curtailed those benefits somewhat. Revisions in the game’s mechanics have eased the difficulty of the grind, but they also took away the experience that drew me to it in the first place. A lot of others have felt this way too, if you look at a YouTube video of an old PvP match or a collection of compositions from the score, you will find a lot of retired players conversing of the ‘good ol’ days.’ Those days are long over, but the memories will always remain, and that is enough for me to consider it a great experience.