[Every year my buddy starts a “year in review” thread where a bunch of friends and friends of friends share their favorite things/experiences of the year. Since I played the entirety of FFXIV over the past 10 months, I wrote a piece about it and figured I’d copy it here]
…Legs weary from a day spent in the chocobo saddle, I reclined on a bench in the heart of a town tucked cozy away in an ancient forest and watched a man named Daddy pluck the sugary notes of "Californication" on a glowing guitar, while a nearby gaggle of catgirls whipped out brooms and tried in vain to sweep in rhythm to the song. I was home…
2022 was the shittiest year of my life. I spent much of it watching my dad die—the ALS slowly wearing his muscles down to nothing. The inevitability of an incurable disease means you start the grieving process while the subject of your grief is still beside you. It’s weird and intense
Weeks and months spent with family in my hometown tugged at a slowly tightening knot that reprieves in the city where I currently live would loosen again. Although the greatest source of relief for me was my family and friends and the good times I still managed to have with them this year, I'm also a big believer in escapism, and boy did I do some escaping this year: a vital means of loosening that knot was Final Fantasy XIV, a fathomless game that can swallow you whole
In FFXIV, you're dropped into a vast and bewildering and beautiful world, the result of over a decade of work by a whole (whole) lot of people. Simply put, you go on an adventure. Less simply put, you play through action-packed quests while engaging with a sprawling narrative in a world inhabited by many other human players (leading to spontaneous moments of amusement like the one described in the prelude)
FFXIV’s quests are consistently imaginative and wonderful and filled with meticulous mechanics and design. I chose to play as a healer when teaming up with others, and found it one of the most singular experiences I've had with a game. I would get zoned into this pristine zen-like state of thought-to-action translation, a deluge of information reverberating around my skull from which I would glean a single Next Action to take from dozens of possibilities. And then half a second later it's time to do it again. It's gameplay enlightenment. The feeling of muscling your party back from the brink of death to finish off some creative horror and then setting off again to explore more wondrous locales never got old
"…in the end, I will always be of the sea," Yugiri said, wistfully casting her gaze toward her hometown, out of sight over the endless waves, as the nation she swore to protect lay shattered and blazing at our backs. I watched her desperately try to reconcile her origins with her present duties after brutally bearing witness to the fear and despair that had left her countrymen broken under the iron fist of their oppressor. The delivery of her monologue paired with the swelling, haunting orchestral accompaniment set my mind on fire…
From hour one, FFXIV shines for its deep gameplay systems framed in a gorgeously crafted world. Sadly, the narrative of the early game isn't quite on par in quality, offering only a boilerplate fantasy storyline. With its first two expansions, the broader ambition of the writing team begins to come into focus, and the story becomes more than satisfying enough to propel you through the game's myriad content, but, like many a broadly swept epic narrative, the many plot threads that are woven can feel uneven, and some become neglected over time in favor of ever-fresh, ever-new ones. With the third expansion, Shadowbringers, however, they handed the keys to Natsuko Ishikawa and let her finally tie this monstrous work together with a story that transcends the whole affair into pure sublimity (and thus unfortunately making this game the ultimate and worst example of "you just have to get x hours in and then it gets really good," and therefore a difficult investment to wholeheartedly recommend to anyone)
[heads up: the next two paragraphs contain Shadowbringers spoilers]
Despite my love for hyperbole, I will stop quite a ways short of calling Shadowbringers the greatest story ever told……however! I will say it pulls off the most remarkable magic trick I've ever seen in fictional storytelling. It plucks you up out of the world that's been laboriously built up around you, and plops you down in an alien and dying land utterly isolated from everything you know. Here you might say, "Ah I see, the writers unload themselves of the baggage of the earlier plot to give themselves the freedom to tell a whole new story." To which I would smugly retort, "Wrong! While forging this new story in a new world, they also simultaneously resurrect every single one of the threads they constructed over the first few hundred hours of the game and manage to re-contextualize everything in a way that retroactively makes every bit of the preceding narrative orders of magnitude better in hindsight!" That's the magic trick
One key conduit for Shadowbringers' narrative success is one of the most miraculously conceived and executed villains I've ever had the pleasure of traveling with in a game (in one of the many neat inversions of expectation, the villain is not a destination you work your way towards, but rather a companion accompanying you on your journey (and the fact he is a villain is not some third act twist either; you always know)). The story's finale struck a sincere chord with me to the point that I teared up, and those misty eyes weren't for the sake of something so dull as a comrade's self-sacrifice; they were for this villain whom cosmic circumstance (rightfully) bade me strike down. Magic
[end of Shadowbringers spoilers]
"…Reconciliation…I was needed. I withdrew myself…for them." A commitment forgotten, but still upheld. Loved ones forgotten, yet still felt. "My people. My brothers…my friends." Varicolored stones clutched in a child's hands. "Stay strong. Keep the faith. At duty's end, we will meet again. We will." A tear slips from behind the mask, then drifts upward alongside this poor soul's aether. "The rains have ceased, and we have been graced with another beautiful day…"
And now I should probably mention that Shadowbringers is only the second best expansion. If SB deconstructs and re-contextualizes the game's overarching narrative into a snug and tidy baseball, then Endwalker is the slugger that smacks that puppy into orbit (and I'm not just speaking figuratively here). It's a little messy, sure, and it takes a few zigs and zags along the way, but it does get there
In this year defined by a vigil over illness, I have looked longly upon the face of despair, and I have felt my own temperament incline in such a direction, felt the tug of the whirlpool of nihilism. And as stupid as this feels to say, Endwalker was one of the hands that pulled me from that current. It names despair itself one of its antagonists, paints a world in which despair is not just a consequence but a temptation, and where succumbing to the feeling invites literal monstrosity upon one's neighbors. And then it earnestly puts forth a message not of hope triumphing over despair but rather of hope regaining its rightful place alongside despair, acknowledging that darkness is not a thing to be defeated but rather a natural and inevitable part of life that we must learn to accept if we are to truly gaze upon this existence as the beautiful thing that it is. The way this message is delivered is so on-the-nose it could be a pair of glasses. It's so brazen, so saccharine that in any other year it may have repulsed me. But not this year. This year I let that message saturate my being. I cherished the story's more graceful moments and looked past its less graceful ones with ease. I wept when the hero of this tale—the avatar for myself, the player—through no input of my own, performed the single most tender and gut-wrenching act of mercy and understanding I've ever seen on a screen
I wish I had the words to convey how moving this journey was…for an MMO to drop a story on my head that was silly and exuberant in one moment, then dark and ponderous in the next, yet always brimming with a rare kind of messy emotional wisdom; brooding meaningfully on themes such as memory and legacy; impactful in the moment of experiencing it, then continuing to grow richer in hindsight as I think and read on it more…it's still hard to believe. In a year where joy was hard to find, Final Fantasy XIV provided it and provided it generously
"The rains have ceased, and we have been graced with another beautiful day. But you are not here to see it"
"Fate can be cruel, but a smile better suits a hero"