In the great city state of Ul’dah – one of the three major cities in Final Fantasy XIV’s Eorzea – an armed uprising is taking place. The refugees camped outside the walls are finally reaching their limit. Starving, in rags, and utterly impoverished, they seize upon an act of aggression by a city guard as their moment for rebellion. In a battle that happens entirely off-screen, the poorly armed and out of shape rebels are swiftly crushed by the well-trained and active military. The player character – in my case Y’ahnii Kayleth, master Scholar and Summoner, Hero of Light, slayer of Primals, prodigy of the healing arts – is confronted with the task of assisting in the investigation. Sort of.
Arriving in Ul’dah, your task quickly becomes finding the remaining rebels and defeating them before they can incite more violence. Some words are said about how this revolt is orchestrated by an evil merchant trying to gain power. Venturing out into Thanalan, you quickly find some non-violent refugees willing to point you to their more angry friends. They’re found hiding inside an underground channel, and your character strikes them down in the surrounding waters.
Returning to the peaceful refugees, the game implies in a throwaway line of dialogue that you merely knocked out the others. As far as the narrative the game attempts to tell, they’re fine. I just gave them a beating. I’m not convinced it would be okay even if that were what was actually displayed in the action.
It sure as hell doesn’t seem okay as it is. This quest chain basically serves to acknowledge that the “great” city of Ul’dah is a hyper capitalist society with a massive class problem, but instead of making you confront these issues, your task is to pacify the poor and desperate – with force. Hurt them until they can no longer resist giving up and going back to their broken lives, camping and starving outside the city walls. That’s that, and the game views you as a hero for this.
You’re always the hero, no matter what you do. Final Fantasy XIV heaps praise upon the player character like a Diablo game drops loot. It doesn’t matter that you just assisted in the armed subjugation of a class of slowly dying non-citizens. On to the next noble quest!
I preferred Final Fantasy XIV’s narrative when it was just kind of incompetent and boring. Weak storylines in an MMO are certainly nothing new – it is the almost all-encompassing norm. It’s accepted because it is generally not the point. In most MMOs the plot is a backdrop; the real story is what you do within that world and the challenges you embark on with your friends. Whether you do PvE or PvP, large groups or small groups, easy or hard, it’s the times spent with the systems and encounters that are remembered as the true narrative.
All of what I just described is available in XIV – if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t play. At level 50, A Realm Reborn offered me encounters with terrific mechanics and complex strategies in a way I could interact with without spending the time required to commit to a raiding guild. I’ve never had such a consistently fun time just playing the endgame of an MMO.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the narrative in XIV is increasingly muscling in. As I’ve ramped up towards the climb to 60 in Heavensward, I’m feeling increasingly demotivated. When it was content to just do vague but harmless epic fantasy nonsense, XIV was acceptably decent at it. Now that it’s tackling issues far more real and challenging, it’s becoming apparent that the writing staff lacks both the nuance required to handle their topics and the sense of pacing to get on with it and let me play the game.
Logging in now, I am never sure what I’ll be faced with. Will this be a relatively rapid cutscene leading to a challenging new dungeon, or will I be stuck listening to characters drone on for hours about hamfisted and tone-deaf fantasy politics? Will I get to play the MMO, or will I have to play the Final Fantasy?
I’m not giving up yet, there’s too much here that I enjoy. But ultimately this all is wearing on me, and if I end up falling off the train it will have much less to do with the things Final Fantasy XIV does as an MMO and more with the things it does as a Final Fantasy. When it decides to be an MMO it’s one of the best in the genre, but as a Final Fantasy it’s probably the worst the series has ever been.