Writing for the ever-expanding: a critique of Shadowbringers

The latest FINAL FANTASY XIV expansion has been showered with unanimous praise for its writing, but what exactly has Shadowbringers done to make it work?

Key art of the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, main cast of Shadowbringers, by lead character artist Akihiko Yoshida. From left to right: Thancred, Minfilia, Y’shtola, the Warrior of Light, Alphinaud, Alisaie and Urianger. © Square Enix, 2019.

Spoiler warning: This article will reveal important events of the story for all of FINAL FANTASY XIV, including the latest expansion, Shadowbringers, and the optional Dark Knight quest line.

Writing about — and in fact, starting an article by mentioning — the disastrous launch of FINAL FANTASY XIV, and its miraculous relaunch as A Realm Reborn seems to be somewhat beating a dead horse these days, as few write-ups on the game fail to mention it. After all, there is understandably some exciting drama in the idea of not only a high-budget video game, but a high-budget MMO game, an undertaking of an even grander scale, being killed off only to be relaunched, with a development time of barely two years. This, to some extent, still lingers as a shadow on XIV; being that such a short time was allotted for the revival of the game, it had to be rebuilt on the basis of the original 1.0 version, and as such, atop its flaws. Come five years later, the launch of its third expansion, Shadowbringers, and a large part of 1.0’s weight, namely its so-called “technical debt,” has been taken off the game’s shoulders, with content and quality updates alike bringing the game technically on par with other games of the genre. While individual players may disagree with some specifics, each expansion adds atop another, and do nothing but improve on the formula. Shadowbringers itself has received nothing but praise, with the writing at an all-time peak, and main composer Masayoshi Soken proving once again to be a worthy successor to Nobuo Uematsu. However, there is more to XIV than gameplay, as it remains nonetheless a mainline entry in the Final Fantasy series, which is known not only for pushing the envelope in terms of innovation in video game graphics, but also their story.

The Final Fantasy series, with its first entry released in Japan in 1987 — although the West’s first received its entry with Final Fantasy III, and for several years had a different numbering scheme — defined what the J-RPG, the Japanese school of role playing games was to be. Role-playing games, a name taken directly from their table-top versions, such as Dungeons and Dragons, borrow directly their mechanics, specifically; each playable character has a defined role and set of attributes, such as the nimble and tricky Rogue, the noble bulwark that is the Paladin, and the group’s healer, the Cleric. Secondly is the idea of levels and statistics. A Cleric will be proficient in magic, but have weaker physical defense, whereas the protector Paladin will have high defensive ability. Levels tend to work differently in each game, but the main idea is that fighting nets the combatants experience, and once a certain threshold is reached, their level increases, improving some of their attributes, and sometimes unlocking new abilities. This progression system however tends to mean that a character’s ability is unfairly limited to level and not the player’s own skill, as no matter how good the player is, a level 1 character will be squashed in one hit by a level 99 enemy. Final Fantasy as a series is defined by its anthological nature: while there are allusions to reoccurring concepts and archetypes, each Final Fantasy game is independent from one another, and are all set in different worlds, with different stories. Naturally, there are also exceptions to this, such as the Ivalice Alliance, which contained games set in the world of Ivalice, beginning with non-FF entry Vagrant Story, my favorite FF game, the spin-off Final Fantasy Tactics and its sequels, culminating in Final Fantasy XII; and the Fabula Nova Crystalis series, tying XIII, XV, and the spin-off series Type-0 together in the same universe. There are only two Final Fantasy MMO games, being Final Fantasy XI, and FINAL FANTASY XIV. The former has little influence on the latter, being that XIV being inspired by XI, an outdated 2001 game and its design principles was precisely the reason why its 1.0 version failed so spectacularly: it had failed to evolve to accomodate the current MMORPG scene.

A MMORPG, or massively multiplayer online role-playing game expands upon this concept, by having the adventure, say for the sake of comparison, a single Dungeons and Dragons run, with its characters and events, be played, as the name implies, by a massive amount of players at the same time. This is done asynchronously, and in those games, player progress is actually individual: a player’s adventure is not dependent on a group, but most of the content spread throughout, namely, MMO staple dungeons, which are enclosed locations where the player must progress by fighting several packs of enemies interspersed with small bosses, all the way to the exit — named dungeons for this principle, but they are not necessarily dungeons in diegesis; XIV has you moving through a city in the Holminster Switch — raids, — which are a difficult term, for no single MMO does raid the same way, but it is generally implied to be high-end, more difficult content than the casual dungeon — and XIV‘s own “trials” which refer to boss battles, all are multiplayer-only content. Typically, these games let you form groups on the fly to explore dungeons, dropping in and out of groups, sometimes with friends, usually with strangers. The MMO genre, usually, but not necessarily tends to substitute, or rather complement the aforementioned class archetype seen in RPGs with three major roles. The first is tank, a heavily armoured fighter that is meant to divert attention — MMO enemies are coded in a simple way, they build “enmity,” “hate,” what players call “aggro” which is generated by any player doing an action that hinders them in some way, such as straightforwardly attacking them or healing its opponents, and the enemy will attack whoever is highest in the enmity list — by using aggro generation abilities and combos specific to the role, but have low damage output. There are four tanks in XIV, the Paladin, the Dark Knight, the Gunbreaker, and the Warrior. Second, comes the healer, whose straightforward name tells everything about it; the healer keeps the tank and other allies alive, and if this fails, can revive them. The three healers of XIV are the Astrologian, the White Mage, and the Scholar. Lastly, are the damage dealers — known in XIV as DPS, or “damage per second,” which is in MMO player lingo, the name of the metric that defines a damage dealer’s performance — whose role is the complete opposite of the tank; they lack defense and survavibility, but their damage output is far higher, and they are those meant to take down the enemies. They comprise the ten remaining jobs, split into the three categories of magic spellcasters, melee bruisers, and ranged snipers.

A MMO game is, in layman’s terms, a large-scale, persistent adventure with millions of players across the world. This is not exaggeration. At the time of writing, there is an estimated five hundred and fifty thousand XIV players active out of five million total, while its direct competitor, World of Warcraft boasts almost two million active players, taking into account the fact that each new expansion brings a massive influx of players slowly dwindling as the dust settles into the “off” season and only the most engaged players remain subscribed. The terming of expansion, or less frequently, extension, when applied to MMO games, refers to a large addition of new content which is too dramatic to be simply called an update. Oftentimes, these have the scale of an entire new game, and come with a price tag. In the case of FINAL FANTASY XIV, these are planned every two years, and add new areas, dungeons and fights, new story elements, new playable classes, and push the level cap upwards — 50 for the original A Realm Reborn, 60 for Heavensward, 70 for Stormblood and 80 in the latest, Shadowbringers. During this two year cycle, smaller updates are planned every sixteen weeks or so, with much smaller story expansions that tie the loose ends of the previous expansion, and build up the transition into the next. While Shadowbringers‘ story takes an average of fifty cumulative hours to complete, a single post-expansion update’s story rarely lasts longer than seven hours.

Always outnumbered, never outnumbered

A still taken from Shadowbringers‘ cinematic trailer, showing the default stand-in for the player in the trenches of the Ghimlyt Dark, reenacting the last few moments of the post-Stormblood scenario. © Square Enix, 2019.

When it comes to FINAL FANTASY XIV, despite the massively multiplayer nature of the game, it remains a Final Fantasy game, and so the game developers, Square Enix, decided to make it so that it was mostly playable alone — of course, most of the high-end content and dungeons require to play with four to eight players, and upwards of twenty-four players for Alliance raids, but there are systems in place to ensure that solo players can feasibly be matched with other players without difficulty — and that the main attraction of the game was the Main Scenario Quest, or MSQ for short. The only other MMO game to have a similar feature is Elder Scrolls Online, and it is nowhere near as all-important. Compare World of Warcraft, in which “story” quests are tied to a zone, and can be skipped altogether to progress to the next zone if the character meets the level requirements. In essence, all content in XIV is gated behind completion of the central story beats, which in fact, makes sense, because it gives a build-up and reason that isn’t limited to a single quest line for characters to do the various content in the game. It is essentially akin to a single-player video game’s way of telling a story, in such a way that MMORPGs rarely ever do, if not at all. In these games, story is usually relegated to “lore,” or background events.

This, however, is arguably unnecessary locking, considering that most other games in the genre do without it to great success. This also means that while players can help their beginner friends, buying Shadowbringers on launch and expecting to be able to play with your friends on the latest content will do you no good, since you first have to complete the story for A Realm Reborn, Heavensward and Stormblood, or do yourself a disservice and purchase a story skip potion on the cash shop, essentially using real money to pay for a game, and then some more to not play a large part of it, and unanimously, the best part of it. Why this is even an option at all, I find baffling, but business is business. Regardless, XIV would be lesser for the absence of the MSQ, however, since it utilizes it perfectly.

Concept art for the Hingan port town of Kugane, the new hub city from Stormblood. © Square Enix, 2017.

I will say this: I did not care for Stormblood. The game’s previous expansion, released June 2017, focused on our heroes liberating the neighbouring country of Ala Mhigo — a nation in the deserted reaches of Gyr Abania, salt “lochs,” with heavy Middle Eastern inspiration — and the far country of Doma — a China simile, in the region of Yangxia, amalgamation of China and several East Asian countries, and even set geographically similarly to China compared to the game’s versions of Mongolia and Japan, the Azim Steppe and Hingashi respectively. There was a pacing problem in Stormblood. While it ends on a climactic battle with the dragon Shinryu, teased all the way back in patch 3.5,[1] the pacing from the liberation of Doma to moments before that final confrontation, effectively the final third of the story, felt rather dull. I could argue long about what was the cause of the issue, but in truth, it matters little. Stormblood was a weaker point of the larger story, far weaker than the previous expansion, Heavensward. Arguably, it had still better writing than the original 2.0 storyline, which had to carry the weight of being the introduction of most players to the game, and of the original game, but was also absurdly long at times, especially in the post-expansion story. Only in 4.2 did Stormblood finally become really engaging, and it coincides with a focus on Doma, rather than Ala Mhigo, which was effectively the weaker parts of Stormblood. Stormblood is however interesting as example, because everything it got wrong, Shadowbringers got right. Here is the crux of Stormblood’s interest to this critique: arguably the highest point of the expansion was the storyline of the Azim Steppe, largely penned by writer Natsuko Ishikawa.

A hard day’s knight

Before even I knew of Ishikawa’s involvement in the Azim Steppe, she was my favorite XIV writer, being that she was also responsible for the Dark Knight quest line, almost unanimously considered by the players to be the very best writing in job quests the game has to offer. In FINAL FANTASY XIV, like most role-playing games, the player can choose from several classes, or in the lexicon of FF, jobs, which all bring their different play styles and archetypes. Many of the Final Fantasy staples are present, including Black Mage, Red Mage, and Dark Knight. The former was in the game at launch, the latter two were added by expansions Stormblood and Heavensward respectively. Each job is tied to a series of quests which are necessary to obtain gears and abilities, with their own writing independent from the main story. In XIV, unlike other MMO games, a player can accumulate more than one job, thanks to the Armory system which lets them switch jobs as one would change shirts, although they need to have unlocked them and subsequently levelled them up. One is necessary to play, but learning more is entirely optional, which means that a large portion of players might have missed them altogether.

My character as a White Mage, a healer job, standing in Shadowbringers‘ hub city, the Crystarium. The character window displays my progress on unlocking and levelling the various jobs. XIV‘s “Armoury System” lets you record and swap between gear sets, changing classes by switching to the adequate weapons. © Square Enix, 2019.

The writing of the Dark Knight quests is quite interesting, because it does something unique in the game: it characterizes the “Warrior of Light,” the player’s avatar. The Warrior of Light can be almost entirely customized, from gender, name and appearance, down to clothing choices, and even a few choices during dialogue, although none of the choices actually affect the story. There is one thing that is the same across all players, however, being that the character has little to no personality, understandably in order to let each individual player imagine and infer the personality they would rather have their avatar have.

“Serve… Save… Slave… Slay… I’ve sins aplenty, aye, but regrets? Not so much.”

Fray Myste, or rather, the Warrior of Light

There is one part of the game that contradicts this truth, however. The mentor who gives the Dark Knight quests to the player and teaches them how to fight as one, Fray, is in fact, none other than the Warrior of Light themself. In the climax of the first stretch of quests, it is revealed that although a Fray existed, he was and remains a corpse, and the character merely hallucinated them[2] as a companion. The reanimated Fray is born of the Warrior’s angst and trauma, having suffered their fair shares of battles, betrayal, and loss, and expresses their sheer anger at being given the burden and tasks[3] of the entire world with little to no gratitude. Fray is so named because they’re the frayed state of mind of our character. In a further stretch of job quests, specifically those released along Stormblood, this idea was reprised with Myste — which owners of the Encyclopedia Eorzea lore-book would know to be Fray’s surname — a character this time representing not the Warrior of Light’s feelings of anger, but their guilt and regrets. The Dark Knight quests have a common theme: while the Dark Knight’s anger may be justified, it is born of a desire to protect, of love before hatred. While it would be easy to dismiss this optimism as naive, the delivery is good enough that the quests hold a special place in the hearts of most players; they’re emotionally heavy and deeply touching, and offer an insight into the tortured psyche of the character which most people regard as an empty vessel for their own expression.

Fray, having gone rogue, reveals their true identity to the player. © Square Enix, 2015.
…and the reveal is driven home, leaving behind Fray’s corpse. It can be quite a shock for the player, to see a character speak with their own name. © Square Enix, 2015.

The Warrior of Darkness

The continent of Norvrandt, or what little is left of the First Shard. No, the blue surrounding it isn’t the sea. © Square Enix, 2019.

I was absolutely overjoyed when I learned that the lead writer for the newest expansion, Shadowbringers, was none other than Natsuko Ishikawa. The idea behind the expansion was simple, but also can hardly explained without an understanding of the prior events. Debuting all the way back in the post-Heavensward story, in patch 3.1, and properly introduced in patch 3.4, the Warriors of Darkness served as antagonists. The Warriors of Darkness belong to the First Shard, one of fourteen fragments separated from the world our character originates from, the Source, by a calamitous event known as the Sundering, although the specifics of this were not revealed until much later. They were the First’s Warriors of Light — and in fact, they look identical to the cast of characters meant to stand in for the Warriors of Light in the game’s trailers. Despite having done everything right, or rather, because they have done everything right, their world is facing oblivion at the mercy of Light-aspected aether. In the world of XIV, aether is essentially the energies of life and magic in all things, and they usually tend towards a certain element — light, dark, fire, wind, ice, thunder, water, or earth. However, there is a general balance spread across the world. Should it not be the case, such as an overabundance of umbral aether as was the case in the Thirteenth Shard, henceforth aptly titled the Void, or the overabundance of Light which turned the large majority of the First into what Shadowbringers calls the Empty, an immense, flat, featureless desert of Light, and transforms most of the inhabitants of what little has not been devoured by Light into “Sin Eaters,” essentially pure white, holy zombies that want nothing but to gorge themselves on the aether of living things.

Intruding upon the Source, the Warriors of Darkness have come to save the First by killing this world’s Warrior of Light to cause a Rejoining of the Source and First Shard, not knowing that this would have effects just as disastrous as the Sundering had in the first place. The Warrior of Light and their allies, the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, strike a bargain with the Warriors of Darkness to find a way to save their world without killing the Warrior of Light. Shadowbringers, a little more than two years after, picks up this idea, and along with plot points of the expansion inbetween, Stormblood, brings the player character to the First where they will attempt to, if not return the Empty to its original state, then at least drive away the Sin Eaters so that what little left of the world there is does not become like it, or the Void.

Outside view of the Crystarium, the new hub city, with the “Everlasting Light” weather effect that has rays of light stream out of an off-white sky, making night indistinguishable from day, at least until the region’s Lightwarden is killed. © Square Enix, 2019.

To be specific, the player doesn’t just go to the First. They’re called to it by a mysterious hooded figure, which Shadowbringers would call the Crystal Exarch, leader of the Crystarium, a city built at the feet of the gigantic Crystal Tower, borrowed from Final Fantasy IIIXIV frequently alludes to other FF games, whether it be subtle, such as the Warrior of Light namesake borrowed from the first game, Doma Castle being a location in VI, or full-blown crossovers, such as the Crystal Tower raids or the Return to Ivalice raids that borrow the setting of XII and Final Fantasy Tactics — and which should conscionably be on the Source and not on the First. It is revealed at the end of Shadowbringers,that this character is none other than G’raha Tia, who had been a major character during the Crystal Tower raids, and was supposed to lie in stasis in the tower until someone attained a level of technology sufficient to break open the tower and utilize its technology responsibly, in other words, a character many had not seen for five real-world years. As it turns out, it so happens that the Exarch comes from a doomed future where the Warrior of Light was killed, and he was pulled out from his slumber so as to use the Crystal Tower to return to the past, and the First, and save them. In the final stretch of the 4.5 storyline, the player’s companions, the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, had their souls pulled one by one by this mysterious figure, leaving behind only their now soulless body, as he was attempting to pull the Warrior of Light instead. Come Shadowbringers, the Warrior instead travels there proper, with their body along with their soul, and learns that due to the flow of time between the two worlds being very changing, each of the Scions have spent years on the First in what seemed to be weeks, or months to the Warrior, and as such, have all more or less changed and gotten settled in new positions there, changing appearances and classes. The Exarch asks of the player that they kill the Lightwarden of each region, high-ranking Sin Eater leaders, and restore the veil of night in the perpetual twilight of the First. In so doing, becoming who the inhabitants of the First know in their folktales as the Warrior of Darkness. Interestingly, Shadowbringers reveals that Ardbert and the Warrior of Light were both part of the same soul before the Sundering, which will prove to be pivotal to the story of the expansion.

Ardbert, original Warrior of Darkness, and Warrior of Light of the First, during the 3.4 storyline. © Square Enix, 2019.

This fact, however, was not yet known at the time of Shadowbringers’ cinematic trailer being released; closing with the line “Become what you must, become the Warrior of Darkness,” which only ever alluded to the former antagonists in the players’ minds. It did not help, either, that the Japanese title of the expansion translated to “Pitch-Black Villains,” although both the trailer and title eventually turned out to have been very misleading. Another, very interesting detail in the trailers is how the stand-in Warrior of Light changes jobs during each expansion, even if those were already existing jobs. Heavensward fittingly saw them as a Dragoon, an agile lancer capable of jumping high enough, trained to slay dragons. Stormblood saw them not only as a Gyr Abanian Monk, but also as a Hingan Samurai, making it the only job released in the same expansion as it was marketed in the trailer; and finally, in Shadowbringers, as a Dark Knight. While I already played Dark Knight as my main job in post-Stormblood, having done the expansion itself as the then newly-released Red Mage, and the previous two as a Black Mage. I was more than content to continue as a Dark Knight in this expansion, even before trying out the newly-added Gunbreaker — fighting with Final Fantasy’s staple gunblades, which do exactly what their name implies — and Dancer jobs.

A matter of Trust

The Scions’ soul problem is the crux of what Shadowbringers does excellently. I mentioned early on that Square Enix was focusing on letting players enjoy the story of XIV, at their own pace, and tried their best to make the experience similar to single-player. This reached its logical conclusion in the expansion with the addition of the Trust System, which let players play with AI-controlled allies instead of other players. Those allies? The marooned Scions themselves.

Demonstration image for the Trust System. The player must fill out the three remaining party slots with characters of the proper roles and levels in order to register for the dungeon. © Square Enix, 2019.

Shadowbringers perfectly understands one crucial thing about the nature of FINAL FANTASY XIV. It is a game that demands a time investment, although this is variable between players and game director Naoki Yoshida encourages players to unsubscribe during downtime between updates, when no new content is released and the game boils down to grinding for weekly and daily rewards to get properly geared up for the next update, which can easily cause players, as I have myself experienced, to feel burned out. Regardless, this time investment means that XIV will take up an important place in the players’ times, especially so if they are adults, and have little time to actually play video games. Secondly, and arguably this follows the same logic, this is a game that, for most players, will have occupied not only a large part of their life consecutively, but also spread across several years. Some of them played during the 2.0 launch in 2014, and some of them even played the failed 1.0 back in 2010. The story of XIV always strongly implied that the Scions and the Warrior of Light had a strong sense of camaraderie and kinship forged through strife upon strife together, and the Trust System only serves as an example of this. However, this isn’t just a writing device. A small fraction of players have known most of these characters for the better part of a real-world decade. Most players have seen G’raha Tia disappear supposedly forever in the Crystal Tower five years ago, and have seen him come back only now. Several other plot points in XIV were actual years in the making, and lore elements revealed by Shadowbringers have made players re-examine some of the information they had dismissed years ago to create theories. The players care about at least one of the characters, perhaps more so than they would characters of a story-driven game they only play once in a short time span. It works especially best in the era of social media and the sharing of experiences brought about by an hyper-communicative web: memes and screenshots, fanfiction and whatnot — the game can be talked about, shared, made almost an obsession on social media, giving it even more importance and presence in its players’ lives.

Arguably, there is one flaw in the writing of some story moments, being that they allude to events which happen in optional content that the player can miss, but conscionably should have not, mainly raids, as while they are optional, they are very much the main appeal of the game post-expansion, and the crux of what the players will be doing. If the players do not do the optional raids, they won’t be doing much for two years. This, however, becomes void, should newcomers arrive into a new expansion, seeing as old raids are no longer relevant, and there is neither incentive nor easy systems for latecomers to clear them for the sake of lore alone. This can be a minor flaw, such as not fully grasping that the Crystal Tower was flung into the future and the First thanks to a combination of the time-travel powers of Alexander, the final boss of the optional Heavensward raids, and the dimensional travel of Omega, of the Stormblood raids. This becomes a jarring flaw when most of Alisaie’s character development happens in the optional Binding Coil of Bahamut before she eventually rejoins the cast of the Main Scenario Quest with this newfound character development. Far worse, is the fact that G’raha Tia, a character of the optional Crystal Tower raid series is a major character in Shadowbringers. Naturally, the game somewhat accomodates for the player not knowing them should they have not completed the raids, but the emotional impact of seeing him back five years later is considerably lessened. XIV raids have always tied into the main story, but they are increasingly beginning to become necessary. Similarly, Shadowbringers‘ own Eden raid series, debuting with the first four battles, Eden’s Gate, have the characters try to revitalize the Empty by using the power of Eden, the first Sin Eater whose very job description is to manipulate aether, and summoning, then killing stronger versions of primals that the Warrior of Light has already fought — Leviathan for water, and Titan for earth — leveraging their aether to restore natural balance; which will no doubt be of utmost importance in the upcoming story. As with the other raid series, Eden is broken down into three instalments of four battles, totalling twelve fights, each three tiers released every even-numbered patch — 5.0, and the upcoming 5.2 and 5.4. Naturally, Eden is also optional, but it is clear from the description above that it builds atop the story that Shadowbringers introduced, and no doubt will have consequences on it.

Fighting Titan, the fourth and final tier of the first stretch of Shadowbringers raid, Eden’s Gate. The blue glow on the floor indicates that Titan is using an attack on the floor, and it must be exited before the indicator disappears. © Square Enix, 2019.

However, this special understanding of the nature of FINAL FANTASY XIV is at the core of Shadowbringers. This example is self-evident, when comparing the writing of my least favorite expansion, and of Shadowbringers. The latest patch released, 5.1, focuses its story on attempting to return the souls of the Scions to their bodies, and on the reconstruction of Eulmore, a city of rich aristocrats come to while away in hedonism before the end of the world, deceived by the antagonists. Once the Scions and the Warrior of Light liberate them from the influence, their society is in shambles, disorganized. Similarly, two years prior, 4.1 was focused on the first steps towards the reconstruction of Ala Mhigo after its liberation in Stormblood itself. I didn’t care about Ala Mhigo. Despite its characters effectively being despondent, rich and entitled, I cared a lot more for Eulmore’s citizens, for they soon learned the errors of their ways and attempted to right their wrongs. This is because the characters of Eulmore were people with lives outside of the war that the Ala Mhigans waged against the empire.

In order to fully comprehend this, another comparison can be drawn. During an attack on an Imperial fortification, the leader of the Ala Mhigan Resistance, Conrad, is shot dead by an enemy cannon. However, due to a proper lack of introduction, I felt very little for this character. When the same thing eventually happens to a character also introduced very shortly before she is killed off in Shadowbringers, Tesleen, one of Alisaie’s new, and closest friends, it is a genuinely painful moment. It is mostly due to the fact that Conrad is killed in a rather anticlimactic manner, while Tesleen is stabbed by a Sin Eater, and turns into one. She isn’t dead yet, but probably wishes she were, as the rather graphic transformation and unsettling voice acting — I should mention I play with the Japanese voices, as until Stormblood, the English voices were not on par with the Japanese — of the scene attest to. Shadowbringers marked its dramatic tone shift from previous expansions very early on, and with quite the shocking event.

We all deserve happiness… wherever we can find it… The time left to you… is precious… No one should die… in pain…

Tesleen

However, there was also something fundamentally different between the two. Put simply: I didn’t care about Conrad, and the hopes and ambitions of this character who would see his country liberated weren’t felt. Tesleen, when she is first introduced, on the other hand, talks about herself, and her hopes and beliefs. She gives an insight on her view of the world, and tells a story of her past. In barely one cutscene, she was infinitely more fleshed out than Conrad ever was. XIV is a game of thrills and high-stakes battles waged between gods and gifted men, but those events would have neither impetus nor impact if it were not for the instances were the game slows down, and shows small moments of quiet. Slices of life, so to speak. I care for the characters of FINAL FANTASY XIV not because I’m told to, but rather because it would be hard not to. Fighting alongside the Leveilleur twins, Alphinaud and Alisaie, feels a lot more real when they bicker and banter like a real brother and sister, and not like stoic heroes. It is hard to not feel anything when, upon having to put Tesleen down in the first Shadowbringers dungeon, Alphinaud remarks to her sister, Tesleen’s closest friend, that she looks pale.

The first Shadowbringers dungeon, the Holminster Switch. If Alisaie is present in the Trust party, she will naturally react to her fallen friend. This is the main reason why Trust exists. © Square Enix, 2019.

Arguably one of the hardest moments in Shadowbringers fully utilizes all of these elements. Years before, introduced all the way back in A Realm Reborn, was a character with all the qualities I’ve mentioned. Lord Haurchefant was always kind to the Warrior of Light, with the strong implication, even more so in the original Japanese text, that he was in love with them — naturally, regardless of their gender. When the Warrior is made to take the fall for the assassination of Sultana Nanamo ul Namo, Haurchefant is the one who grants asylum in the otherwise reclusive nation of Ishgard, leading up to the events of Heavensward. And it is in Heavensward that Haurchefant dies in the arms of the Warrior of Light, having shielded them. As the Warrior of Light looks upon his last moments forlornly, Haurchefant says: “Do not look at me so. A smile better suits a hero.”

“Do not look at me so.” This specific cutscene is one of the few moments in the game which deliberately deactivates your headgear so as to prevent any potential obstruction of your character’s face. Perhaps a good choice, considering one of my favorite pieces of headgear from Shadowbringers is a giant frog head. © Square Enix, 2015.

In the very first moments of the final quest, “Shadowbringers,” as all hope seems to be extinguished, a character asks the Warrior of Light why they keep fighting despite all of their suffering. This is a question that has been brought time and again in the story, and is usually answered by a phrase that appears frequently as well: “for those we have lost, for those we can yet save,” originally spoken by the Goddess Hydaelyn. However, this time, arguably due to the reveal in Shadowbringers that Hydaelyn might be just another of the dangerous Primals that the Scions are tasked with defeating, one of the choices given to the player to answer this question instead, is one of the following choices: “Fate can be cruel, but a smile better suits a hero.” Judging from the reaction of most players, which ranged from pausing a moment, overwhelmed with their emotions, to expressing discontent at the writers for making them feel this way, it was very effective, and one that wouldn’t have worked as well if it weren’t a choice. It used the special, personal relationship between not only the character and the avatar, but the character and the player, reframing it as a relationship that was shared by all players, but existed beyond the diegesis. The player got to chose whether they wanted their character to “move forward,” so to speak, heeding Haurchefant’s words and turning them into something that steers them, rather than letting the memory incapacitate them. And in truth, there really wasn’t a choice. Or rather, there was, but the other options were merely dressing. The player is strongly compelled to pick it. Then again, the simple framing of the way it is delivered as a choice, is what makes it so effective a moment.

I am reminded, in the same way, of the first, absurdly hard Ultimate difficulty raid, the Unending Coil of Bahamut.[4] The final transition to Golden Bahamut, had Bahamut Prime kill the entire party with his signature Teraflare move. A full party kill, referred to as a “wipe” means that the party has to restart the entire fight. Not so, with this fight, in which, instead of fading the screen to black, the words “the Phoenix’s shrill cry cuts through the pall of desperation!” appeared on the screen, as the aforementioned Phoenix, usually fought in the normal difficulty of Coil. Phoenix cast the “Flames of Rebirth” spell on the players, reviving them instantly. Then, Bahamut proceeded to surround himself in a cocoon of flames, and “unleashe[d] his inner rage,” coming out as Golden Bahamut, as an equally infuriated version of Bahamut’s musical leitmotiv began to play. The sheer surprise and delight of players upon discovering this was for no small reason: the game had used its game elements, its rules, and in this case, broken them, to tell a story, with no small amount of theatrics. Increasingly, this has been the case since Stormblood, such as the Castrum Fluminis fight against the primal Tsukuyomi, in which the primal leveraged the suffering of her summoner, Yotsuyu, by sending shades of her tormentors to attack her. The players had to kill the phantoms before Yotsuyu’s suffering reached the critical threshold. Once that was done, a dark spider lily spread across the screen, covering the stage as it transitioned from a steel, high-tech Imperial Castrum to a Shinto-style circular bridge on a lake, surrounded with red maple trees. The Tsukuyomi fight is by far the highest point of Stormblood. All of these scratch the surface of understanding the nature of the game, but it was truly perfected in Shadowbringers. I had already seen an essay on the specifics of the video game medium, and how to utilize them to tell a story, but what makes XIV so special, is that it does so by blending writing and gameplay together while still retaining traditional aspects of the genre which it pertains to, and in a genre where it is difficult to do so. Even more surprisingly, Shadowbringers does so without avoiding ludo-narrative dissonance — a term referring to gameplay and narrative elements not matching up, perhaps even saying contrary things. Shadowbringers manages to blend narrative and gameplay without blending narrative and gameplay.

Oh, it’s going to be a long night.” Tsukuyomi in the final phase setting. Blue shield orb (the Astrologian ability “Collective Unconscious”) not included. © Square Enix, 2018.

The weight of tomorrow

Producer Naoki Yoshida has put forward the idea that XIV was somewhat similar to a TV show. He only ever used this simile to defend the aforementioned skip potions, justifying that the potions let you “skip ahead” to the newest season of the show, if you didn’t feel like watching the weaker first seasons. There is, however, one main difference, being interactivity. There isn’t just a cast of characters. While some role-players give their avatar a personality and agency different from their own, this isn’t simply their story. While in a different context, there is an interesting line before the final battle of the expansion: “This is our story.” These words are spoken against the expansion’s actual antagonist, Emet-Selch, not a Lightwarden, but an Ascian, one of the few who remained unbroken from the Sundering, and who wants to return the world to how it was before, with the people he loved, by sacrificing the lives of all the shards and the Source to restore the originals. The rebuttal Alphinaud gives him before then is that they understand his sorrow, but while Emet-Selch’s loved ones are in the past, those he would sacrifice to revive them are in the present — and no less deserving of existing than Emet-Selch’s own kin. Emet-Selch’s motives are understandable, and arguably no less rightful than the Scions’, and the only reason he is a villain is that his methods involve anything ranging from deceit and trickery to downright genocide. Emet-Selch’s acts are that of desperation. After he is fought in the final trial, the Dying Gasp, Hades — having shunned his title and revealed his true name — refuses to accept defeat, to have fought for nothing, even though, having lived several human lifetimes, he still feels the pain of his losses. It is only after it is certain that he cannot survive that he admits defeat, and asks the player to carry his legacy. The Dying Gasp, and even more so the Extreme version of the fight deserve a mention for how visually and thematically impressive they manage to be, exceeding even Tsukuyomi. Similar to the Bahamut fight earlier, there was something special about being told to “Unleash Light” against Hades’ constant barrage of Dark magic, filling the otherwise black arena with a blue-white glint, and gaining the “Light in the Dark” flair status effect.

For whom weeps the storm?
Her tears on our skin
The days of our years gone
Our souls soaked in sin
These memories ache with the weight of tomorrow

Who fights?
Who flies?
Who falls?

Stand tall, my friend
May all of the dark lost inside you find light again
In time, time whirling, turning, we seek amends
Eternal winds to the land descend
Our journey will never end

From those who’ve fallen to those who arise
A prayer to keep us ever by your side
An undying promise that we just might carry on in a song
Pray don’t forget us, your bygone kin
With one world’s end, as a new begins
And should our souls scatter onto the wind
Still we shall live on

Stand tall, my friend
May all of the dark deep inside you find light again
This time, tumbling, turning, we make amends
The eternal winds throughout the land ascend
Here to lift us, that we won’t end

Tomorrow and Tomorrow, the closing theme and leitmotif of the expansion, only played in its entirety at the tail end of Shadowbringers
Emet-Selch’s last words; acceptance, but not resignation.

Shadowbringers, more so than FINAL FANTASY XIV has been in general, is a story of loss, and of grief. It’s a story of acceptance and coming to terms with said loss. While it gets dark, and tragic, it is never cynical, nor bleak, nor hopeless. And if it weren’t for all that the very nature and limitations brought about by the type of game it is imply, it would be lesser for it. Game design is the art of crafting an experience with rules, systems, and limitations. It stands to reason that narrative design for games should be crafted in accordance with the way those systems interact with the players to tell the story in the best way possible. Shadowbringers was showered with praise for its narrative upon release, and it is not without reason.

The Warrior of Light frequently nods, but barely does it hold the weight of tomorrow. © Square Enix, 2019.

Temperance W.


FOOTNOTES

[1] “Patches” in MMO games are large updates to the game. XIV patch cycles last two years, and each new number (3.0, 4.0, 5.0) correspond to a new expansion. Every smaller numbered update (3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 3.5) add smaller story moments inbetween two expansions, while adding side content. There are always five “post-expansion” patches every sixteen weeks or so. The game’s “original version,” albeit with a different patch cycle was the 1.x version, and the A Realm Reborn relaunch corresponds to 2.x. Heavensward corresponds to the 3.x series, and Shadowbringers to the 5.x series.
[2] While the corpse is that of a man, the reanimated Fray matches the player character’s gender, which can give away the twist if players of either gender discuss it, or if a player uses a Fantasia, which lets the player change their appearance, including gender.
[3] The nature of MMORPGs is such that its player characters effectively are high-risk couriers: most of the side quests in these games demand that players deliver objects from A to B, or fetch objects by killing monsters or animals that carry them, or simply hunt these monsters for the sake of hunting them. These are colloquially referred to as “fetchquests,” with the implicit statement that they are merely just tedium.
[4] In XIV, all Ultimate raids are newer, — they debuted in Stormblood — significantly harder versions of an older expansion’s raid series, with several fights compressed into one. They generally benefit from improved fight choreography and theatrics as the technology at the heart of the game and the design ideas for battles have improved as well. There are only three released thus far, Unending Coil of Bahamut and Ultima Weapon’s Refrain for Stormblood, and the Epic of Alexander for Shadowbringers. The former two are respectively taken from A Realm Reborn‘s normal raid series and final story boss, and the latter is Heavensward‘s normal raid series. Ultimates are part of XIV‘s difficulty ranking system, of which the least difficult, but nonetheless still hard, are Extreme trials, followed by Savage raids, and a single Ultimate encounter compressing a raid series into a single intense fight with several of its most prominent bosses fought in sequence all at once. There once existed the “Hard” distinction for level 50 trials, but they are essentially no harder than trials with no epithets, and this distinction has disappeared as of Heavensward and only remain in name for Hard mode dungeons, which are not much harder either, but suggest that an older dungeon is revisited with updated mechanics. Hard dungeons are usually purely optional.

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