While I wait to be ready to write my upcoming preview of the third phase of the beta of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, let’s talk about something that normally doesn’t find much room in previews and reviews due to all the talk about gameplay and other more technical aspects of a MMORPG: the story.
And storytelling is not a secondary element here: we’re talking about a Final Fantasy game, and I’d say it’s very safe to assume that most gamers don’t buy games from Square Enix’s historical franchise primarily for their gameplay, but for their deep and intricate plots and lovingly written and detailed characters, that spark involvement and immersion.
While in Beta 1 and 2 we got some very sparse glimpses on the overarching plots that are supposed to give Square Enix’s upcoming MMORPG its typical Final Fantasy flavor, Beta 3 finally allowed us to see more of what the game offers in terms of storytelling, by making a large part of the main storyline accessible and by unlocking its previously obscured cutscenes.
The original Final Fantasy XIV made a couple fatal mistakes with storytelling, at least before the new Producer and Director Naoki Yoshida reshuffled the team and steered that trainwreck around.
First of all, our character was not the real protagonist of the story: he was a mute and dull bystander that most of the times just watched the events unfold around him, and just happened to be around to kill stuff when necessary. Even our “path companion”, ended up having a more relevant role in the story, de facto diminishing our character to the role of follower/companion.
The apparent justification for this choice was that in a MMORPG the player character can’t be the “hero”, because there are too many of them, and this would lead to a world with no continuity in which everyone is the hero.
The disastrous result of this kind of implementation was that the story simply didn’t feel involving or epic. There was absolutely no emotional connection with our dull character, and players simply didn’t care about what happened, just clicking through the events in order to get to the next fight quicker and continue with their progression. Even the less relevant class quests were more fun and engaging than the main storyline, and for a Final Fantasy game this is a critical flaw.
The second large problem with the original game’s storytelling was that the team pushed excessively on abstract concepts. The main character had a power called “Echo”, that allowed him to mentally connect with his peers and view their past like they were part of it. While this could be considered a relatively clever (even if a tad lazy) plot device, it was implemented in an incredibly confusing way.
The effect that marked the passage to the Echo was very subtle and easily missable, meaning that in most cases most players simply didn’t have the slightest idea on whether they were seeing an event happening in the present or from the past. The whole thing was so confusing that many just assumed that everything was present tense and missed a large part of the meaning the story, that didn’t even make sense that way, creating a further detaching effect with their character. Let’s not even go into the fact that this strengthened further the sensation that our character was simply a helpless and half useless bystander.
With the advent of Yoshida-san things started to change: The player character was placed more and more at the center at the events instead of being relegated to the edge, and the writers reduced the “echo” moments radically, giving the story a clearer continuity and more emotional involvement.
Naoki Yoshida and his team fully realized that they didn’t really need to force a continuity in which no one was the “hero”, and that since the story events unfolded separately on everyone’s screen, they simply didn’t need to justify the coexistence of everyone’s own version of the story. Everyone can be the hero in his own personal version of the world.
After that, the “End of an Era” storyline started to create a deep connection between players, the story and the game itself. They were placed at the very focus of the events that were leading to the destruction of the world (and the closure of the game) , and to its rebirth. It was an unprecedented idea (applied to an unprecedented situation) that turned out epic, involving and at times even moving.
The part below this point contains extremely light spoilers. Nothing said here really mentions any relevant plot events that happen beyond the first story quest, so you should be able to read safely. That said, continue at your own risk.
Fast forward several months and now we can finally experience the “sequel” of that story. The starting point is simple but very clever. The adventurers that were sent to safety through space and time by Louisoix’s last act of self sacrifice during the last battle of the old game, appear in Cohertas five years later, and return to their home cities to discover that they’re considered missing and celebrated as heroes, named “Warriors of Light”.
It’s hard not to feel deeply moved when you see relevant NPCs remembering the deeds you were part of in the previous game, and every time they seem to be on the verge of actually remembering that you’re indeed one of those Warriors of Light (apparently Louisoix’s spell didn’t just remove them from the battlefield but also blurred the memories of them in the minds of the people of Eorzea), you find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat with a knot in your stomach.
Narration is also much smoother and less confusing because, while the Echo didn’t disappear, now its effect is made clearly visible, allowing players to easily distinguish whether they’re looking at the past or at the present.
While old players are rightfully celebrated, new players shouldn’t feel left out, as they’re seen as the new generation of heroes, and their deeds are saluted on par with those of the missing Warriors of Light, creating a strong feeling of purpose and a reason to fight.
And that’s the whole point: whether you’re a returning player that saw the last battle of the old Eorzea, or a new player braving Final Fantasy XIV‘s world for the first time, you are the hero. The events revolve around you, not around other people you care little about with your character reduced to a mere bystander that just happens to be there as he looks wide-eyed on all those glorious heroes doing the actual exciting stuff.
I won’t spoil the actual events, but your character’s effort don’t go unnoticed, and connection between player and character is built properly by giving the latter the role a true Final Fantasy protagonist. You’re not the Final Fantasy XIV equivalent of Barret, Zell or Wakka anymore, but you’re like Cloud, Squall or Yuna, and it feels a lot more fulfilling and engaging.
Ultimately the original Final Fantasy XIV had many flaws, but the real, crippling weak link was the all-important story, that simply makes or breaks a Final Fantasy game. While we still have to wait for this August to see if Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn will pass the test of gameplay, we can pretty much say that it didn’t repeat its predecessor’s fatal mistake: the story is there, and it’s that Final Fantasy we know and love. No doubt about that.