I know. A lot of you just read the headline, and are more than ready to jump right down in the comments to crucify me. How can a MMORPG build up a story able to rival some of the best single player RPGs that ever came out of Japan?
Final Fantasy XIV can; maybe part of it is because it’s a MMORPG, despite the challenge of narrating its story through a silent protagonist. Of course this article expresses my own personal feelings, as the enjoyment of a story can be very subjective, with different elements clicking differently with different people. Yet, I’m still going to lay those feelings bare.
Before I go on, I will admit that those who have played Final Fantasy XIV since the very first day of the infamous 1.0 version might be a bit more invested in the story than those who came afterwards. Which is why before we talk story, we have to talk history.
Back in September 2010, Square Enix launched the first Final Fantasy XIV. It was supposed to be a brand new successor to the popular Final Fantasy XI, but it proved to be a disaster. Probably emboldened by the long-term success of XI despite a fairly rock start, the publisher’s executives pushed out of the gate a game that was nowhere near finished, lacking industry-standard features, and bogged down by weird design choices and bits and pieces that simply did not work well together.
The initial version of the story was also a bloody mess. Scattered between past and present via transitions that were far from clear to the casual viewer, it also confined the player to the role of a relatively passive onlooker, with the result that it did not feel epic at all.
Rage exploded among the hundreds of thousands of Final Fantasy fans that purchased the game, and the folks at the top of Square Enix finally realized that they had a big problem. Shortly after, they announced a change at the helm of the game, with the relatively unknown Naoki Yoshida taking up the roles of Producer and Director.
Few believed that he and his team would manage to steer the sinking ship in an even remotely acceptable direction. Players quit in droves, but some, yours truly included, endured. Yet, the ship did start to change route, slowly and gradually. Patch after patch, gameplay began to improve, and the story followed, with the player put back under the spotlight.
Yet, it wasn’t until a year after release, when version 2.0 (that would have been later called “A Realm Reborn“) was announced, that players started to realize where the change would ultimately lead: a brand new game was coming, completely rebuilt from the ground up to satisfy the disgruntled audience. Yet, in order for the new world to be born, the old one would have to be destroyed.
It wasn’t simply a matter of closing a game and opening its successor: Dalamud, one of the moons in the sky above Eorzea, started to become bigger, surrounded by an eerie aura, as dark prophecies started to spread. Over several months, a full storyline that would lead to death and rebirth was created and implemented, with the players right in the middle.
When we realized that we were risking to lose our home, we started to feel strongly for it despite its initial state of disrepair. Thanks to this new, dramatic storyline players were getting more and more invested. The clumsy plot that was launched with the game had become an enthralling tale of sacrifice and resistance against impossible odds. The Garlean Empire, unable to subjugate Eorzea, was ready to destroy it, leaving no more than ashes.
Emotional involvement continued to grow until the final days: game masters got involved, starting to summon monsters in the cities, and the heroes of Eorzea rallied and fought (despite having nothing to gain. All character had been saved to be transferred to the new game, and no more progression would have been preserved). When the moment of the last battle approached, we marched out of the gates, crossing the Black Shroud to the flats of Cartenau.
Following the last fateful battle, our screens went black. The servers were gone for good. We had given our best. I remember being in voice chat with a few friends and fellow adventurers at that time, and this is what we saw:
After witnessing Louisoix’s tender smile just before he was engulfed by Bahamut’s megaflare, we were all shaken. Among ten people in that chat channel, me included, there wasn’t one who wasn’t crying or quietly sobbing.
Thanks to a story that involved a MMORPG’s players to basically unprecedented levels, the emotional tension had reached its limits, only to explode as the hope for a new world and new adventures settled in.
Unfortunately, that story is now gone. The whole arc between the fateful launch of 1.0 and the calamity caused by the fall of Dalamud is now completely inaccessible to players. Yet we preserved it, so if you’d like to see what led to A Realm Reborn, you can check out every single main story cutscene (and a few extras) of the original game below.
When A Realm Reborn launched in 2013, those who lived the fateful days before the battle of Cartenau returned, their characters preserved by Louisoix’s magic. Now named “Warriors of Light,” they came back to an Eorzea in which five years had passed, and the people had partly recovered from the catastrophe caused by Bahamut.
As I walked back into Ul’dah through the Gate of Tal, tears came again. I was back, and it was overwhelming. I’m quite positive that I’m not the only one who felt that way.
Together with hundreds of thousands of new adventurers, the warriors of light took upon themselves the task of fighting back against the forces of the Garlean Empire. New and old enemies were at the gates, and new and old allies united to resist. The story had evolved to become even more epic, as the City States of Eorzea joined under the flag of the Alliance once more to deny the imperial forces any further ground.
Taking advantage of the game’s nature as a MMORPG, the development team kept adding to the story, giving more and more depth to each character. Over the months and the years, NPCs made of pixels, textures and polygons became like friends, as more and more facets of their personalities were unveiled and evolved.
The kindness of Minfilia, Y’shtola’s sassy wisdom, Thancred’s playboy charm hiding a much deeper personality and many, many more… They all became an important presence in our life as gamers, creating a connection that grew gradually more solid and compelling.
In 2015, Square Enix released the first Expansion, Heavensward. Final Fantasy XIV had fulfilled its destiny, and had been fully recognized as a success born from disaster. Yet peace was to be short lived: as internal turmoil caused the warriors of light to seek refuge, they turned their gaze north and traveled to Ishgard.
As we walked through the Gates of Judgement of the isolationist northern city state, it felt as a promise fulfilled. Since the very first day of 1.0 those gates had remained closed, almost mocking us with their impassable nature, a symbol of how radically unfinished the original game was.
But at last we were there. We had waited nearly five years for that moment, and the sense of fulfillment that pervaded veteran adventurers was strong. Suddenly, we found ourselves at the center of an epic war between Ishgard and its ancestral enemies, the dragons.
It was a complete change of pace from A Realm Reborn, with the tone becoming darker and the narration stronger and even more impactful. Final Fantasy XIV‘s story had turned into a crescendo of spectacular magnitude, well-beyond what the scope of a single player game can normally offer, amplified by the personal involvement built during months and years of play, and by the relationships built with hundreds of other players.
And yet, after trials and tribulations, betrayal, loss and victory, the Dragonsong War came to an end. As two years before, though, it wasn’t really the end, but just the that brief moment of peace coming before a new beginning.
As our story reaches the present day, and the release of the second expansion Stormblood just a few days ago, the warriors of light prepare for a new battle.
The locked gates of Ishgard weren’t the only promise glimpsed seven years ago. During all this time, we have been witnesses to the plight of the people of Ala Mhigo, the fifth city state of Eorzea, and the first to be conquered by the Empire. On top of that, during the events of A Realm Reborn players became familiar with the tragedy of another nation subjugated by the hated enemy, the far eastern land of Doma.
Through fighting side by side with characters from both nations for years, another connection had been formed with those two branches of the story. One was long lasting and deeply rooted into the origins of the game itself, while the other was slightly newer, but still dear to the hearts of many.
Stormblood is the culmination of those feelings and connections. At long last we march past the black border of Baelsar’s Wall to tie the loose ends that first appeared in our lives seven years ago. I won’t spoil the story further, but it switches from a more personal level to an even more epic scale and scope, involving the warriors of light in events of unprecedented magnitude.
Up to the end of Heavensward, Final Fantasy XIV‘s story has been a crescendo. Stormblood picks where Heavensward left and turns it into a veritable explosion. It grabbed my heart from start to finish, tightening the grip without letting go for a moment. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me scream warcries at 4 AM as I charged into a battle that I longed for through seven years of nearly uninterrupted gameplay and story.
The feelings for all the characters that the team at Square Enix placed at my side, both those who are still there and those who we lost, created something that I hadn’t experienced before in this kind of game. Something powerful and massively exhilarating.
The fact that this is my story (and yours, if you’re a fellow player), and not that of a character that can be charming but is ultimately extraneous, definitely helps in driving those feelings home.
As my Warrior of Light emerges once more from the smoke and fire of battle, I can definitely say that this has been an amazing and emotional ride, and it’s a story that I felt the need to share, at least as much as I can do without spoiling it.
Exhaling a long breath of relief, I am left with just one question: how is Square Enix going to ever top this? For now, I have no answer, but I can’t wait to find out.