Despite being a lifelong player of MMORPGs there are only two online worlds where I’ve inhabited a single character to their maximum level and stuck around for the endgame – and only one where I’ve stayed for multiple expansions all the way through. Don’t mistake me though, the very nature of the genre has always remained as seductive to me as it did when I first found my way into the world of Vana’diel back when Final Fantasy XI’s European release wasn’t even on the cards. As those who know me well can attest it is notoriously hard to keep my attention and indecision is the core of my being. More than anything what has held me back historically hasn’t been any kind of major disappointment or failure of game design so much as me falling prey to my own incessant need to make 100s of alternate characters and switch games constantly. What is about these two standout worlds that kept me in them when others could not? Before, I might’ve argued that for one of them, the ever popular touchstone of the genre World of Warcraft, the key difference was the work put in to modernise and broaden the appeal and ease of access to the genre, or perhaps the links to earlier years becoming invested in the absurd story of previous Warcraft titles. Now however after a number of years finding myself growing ever more attached to the comforting homelike feeling of logging in to Eorzea I think I have an entirely different and much more accurate answer.
A cursory glance at my twitter will show you an endless series of pictures of my Final Fantasy 14 character in various outfits and poses posted as though they were selfies (which compose the other half of my timeline). The comparison is crucial. Ruruka Ruuka feels at this point like an extension of myself. She is a person I begin to miss if I spend too much time away from the game, something between a good friend and an alter-ego. The gradual process of building up her personal backstory in my head as she progressed through the plot of the games has resulted in a fully-fledged character that functionally nobody but me has experienced. It was talking about this process and considering other times I’ve done anything even similar that I remembered that I’d done the same thing with my WoW character back in its second expansion. This in turn led me to thinking about the little stories I’d come up with and how they reflected a snapshot of who I was as a person at these points in my life, and further still about the complex web of personal stories that people bring to their characters and interactions in these spaces, compounded immeasurably by the process of reincarnation entailed by moving on to new games (sometimes bringing the same characters with them).
While I’ve never been a roleplayer per se the practice of coming up with these tiny character stories is something I’ve brought to more than just this genre. As someone who has intense difficulty with indecision I’ve always found it very helpful to approach my choices from a story perspective instead of a gameplay one, and thus class and ability choices become about justifying them as in character and satisfyingly slotting into the world and everything tends to spiral from there. Such was the case with my Death Knight, Akalah. Starting out on the release day of Wrath of the Lich King I was attracted to the class partially because it was the exciting new thing but mostly because it had a real explicit link back to the stories I wanted conclusions to from Warcraft 3. Having landed on this I needed a race that fit with my ideas about this whole Death Knight thing and though I was tremendously hungover and naming her with a friend by just slightly changing the name of a DotA hero this turned out to be a choice laden with meaning. Akalah was a Draenei, a race that literally came from space to the fantasy world of Azeroth bringing with them the personalisation of the previously generic religious holy magic force “The Light”. Their ships were powered by the beings that provided it, they lived in close contact with them and of all cultures presented in the story The Light was most closely intertwined with their lives. The conception of the Death Knight is that these people were heroes lost in the fight against undeath and raised again to fight their allies. Their early plotline is the story of them regaining their own minds and agency, discovering the state their bodies are in and in the case of those attuned to the use and communion with The Light, their connection has been rejected. While this is fairly generic fantasy stuff and I don’t wish to linger on the topic of discussing the cobbled together mess of the Warcraft mythos, I think this reveals an important series of decisions going on in my head as this character was created and grew.
In this context (one ultimately lost by the game itself, incidentally, as the Death Knights became more like edgy American TV style Black Ops units) Akalah is a person from a culture with a seemingly unified sense of peace and community. She has found herself on an unfamiliar world where she has not only been caught up in a war that has nothing to do with her, but she’s been transformed into the very thing her allies are at war with. It’s in returning to her allies and attempts to connect with her old culture that she developed gradually in my mind. On her creation I chose for her a face that conveyed less of a sense of anger, malice, rot or any of the other undead antihero looks and instead landed on one that displayed a real sense of exhaustion, a face that wants desperately to rest. After her ideal asserting her own sense of self back upon her body, her return to civilisation is met with horror, literal thrown rotting food and insults in what passes for subtle storytelling in this setting. Meanwhile though on my side of the screen I’d begun to feel instilled with the sense of loss entailed in that disconnection from The Light. This was no mere loss of magical power but a wholesale rejection by a culture that is itself sentient; despite being nothing but a victim Akalah is treated as an apostate, seen the same as those who practice demonic rituals and wake the dead by the very force her life has been based around. Instantly an Other to her old self, seeing her old community from outside and unable to return, here is a character to whom the nature of things is suddenly powerfully clear: the peace and love of this order is only for a certain few.
While at the time I only really considered these kinds of things in a context of trying to turn an hamfisted mess of a plotline into something I could enjoy a little more, looking back on it this building of an internal story based upon rising back up from collapse and a slow dawning realisation that the nature of your being will not be accepted by those you’ve lived amongst is painfully obviously some manner of processing. The time when I made Akalah was not too long before I came out to my friends and family, the start of a long process of a reorienting relationship with society at large and my personal life with my family. In this context the story of an exhausted woman returning from death (I’ll let you fill in the blanks there) and loss only to struggle on with no real sense of why and left with nothing to tether themselves to obviously flowed from me and into me with incredible ease. It was a space wherein I could toy with my own sadness as someone who was able to carry on in spite of it. Being her carried a sense of personal empowerment it would be impossible find elsewhere as in a sense she was me. Again these were never fully fledged stories or roleplays I played out with anyone, but little snippets of context for who it was I was playing, certainly at the time never intended to be anything like what I’m describing now, but thinking on this led me to understanding what it was that kept me going with that character where I hadn’t with so many others. It made me think about what stories other people tell themselves as they make their way through these worlds. While Akalah feels like a real fully fledged person to me, to anyone else she is just another edgy teen story antihero type player character, a dime a dozen in the world of any RPG. How many people I run past in these games have a similar personal attachment running behind the scenes? How many of those funny names cover up this kind of player experience? While I have no answers to that, I can however use it as a contrivance to jump ship onto a game where I’ve had this experience tenfold, my longest played MMO so far: Final Fantasy 14.
This time around the long debate over what my character should be was settled by making characters on two different servers to play with different groups of people and ending up spending more time with one than the other. I’d picked Thaumaturge as my starting class to acquire an ability for the now removed cross-class skill system and the story of Ruruka Ruuka started coming together from a need to explain to myself why she’d started off in Ul’dah pursuing this line rather than her chosen endgame class at the Arcanists Guild over in another city. This quickly crystallised into the idea that dissatisfied with working and living with an arrogant merchant family she had turned to adventuring in order to find her way to the alluring walls of Limsa Lominsa’s academic magic guild. Ul’dah is the home city of the Dunesfolk Lalafell, a player race that is essentially a more cutesy version of the classic fantasy Halfling archetype, physically slight but gregarious. Connected and industrious, the city operates on a shared system of power between a Lalafell monarch and a largely Lalafell controlled syndicate of loosely allied business leaders. It operates on the labour of refugees that it wants nothing to do with, its streets are lined with markets and the destitute in equal measure, and the elites even enjoy a bloodsport colosseum based on promises of winning one’s way out of poverty (also used to punish criminals). So Ruruka Ruuka became an estranged child of a minor merchant family in a city run almost exclusively to the pleasure of the wealthy and high-born, a young woman with a strained family relationship and a self she felt she could only actualise by being elsewhere. Which on my part is the most blatant wish fulfilment concept I think I’ve ever deployed in a game – while the situation is by no means 1-to-1 at the time of Ruruka’s creation I found myself stuck back at my parents’ home, living with a constant inability to actualise myself and with a strained tension around my queerness breathing down my neck. Where Ruruka dreamed of escaping her world to halls of what is essentially a university off in some fabulous place she’d never been, I had just followed that dream in real life into a crash and burn failure and extended depressive breakdown. In Ruruka then I had created someone for whom that would go differently.
To go deeper, Ruruka also represented to me a chance to kind of “rebrand” myself to myself. For a long time I’d felt like my depression and my closed off nature had led to me coming across as kind of cold, aloof or even arrogant. I worried that people thought I looked down on them or I intimidated them, I worried I’d never be able to stop pushing people away or intellectually distrusting people. This had all come to a head having moved in with some friends who I often found myself too nervous to leave my room around. Ruruka on the other hand was a chance to be someone who by nature of her looks was if not comedic then a little silly, her emote animations were expressive and goofy, her stature made light of some very serious moments and just generally it felt somewhat like I’d learned to face the world with a smile even if it was just to a few of my friends through an online avatar. She was by no means the only factor but I would credit Ruruka with some of the early stages of my redeveloping my ability to feel as though I could be unguarded and that I didn’t need justifications for every act of being myself. I could just be unimposing and enthusiastic at once and people would get along with me, my words weren’t inherently a burden and so on.
As time has gone on she has come to feel both like her own person and also a part of myself. I have a great adoration for the story of Final Fantasy 14 and the world it takes place in but I’m not sure that if I’d seen it through the eyes of any other playable race it would’ve struck me as strongly as it did. What being a Lalafell adds to it for me is in a sense the same as the logic for choosing Hobbits for the heroic protagonists of Lord of the Rings: in amongst all these grand organisations and world shifting plans it’s uplifting to be playing as this tiny scholar. The world comes to see your player character as a grand hero and leader of men, you are weighed down with titles and admiration and to me I think all that would’ve felt a lot more hollow if it hadn’t occurred in the context of the world’s saviour being this physically weak but fiercely determined small adventurer. Her light hearted and unassuming appearance along with her small size mark her heroism as coming from an odd place, a sense of heroic determination against all odds that sweeps up everyone she encounters. It’s a simple storytelling set up for a game like this that was sold fully to me by the idea that heroic deeds from the visibly weakest are all the more inspiring for their alleged incongruence. In the real world I couldn’t be a world changing hero or a scholar, but Ruruka could be both.
The phenomenon of this kind of attachment to one’s character seems, from my own anecdotal perspective, to be much more widespread in Final Fantasy 14 than I’ve experienced elsewhere. There are any number of reasons that could be suggested for this but I think the key is the game’s commitment to its setting and the conveyance of its plot (the exciting and varied amount of outfits it’s possible to put together and show off along with encouragements to do so coming a close second). From the first moments of character creation Final Fantasy 14 is invested in drawing you into its world. Your home city being designated by your chosen class situates each discipline as a cultural practice: the Thaumaturges operate from a grand library of an old monarchic order in Ul’dah, the axe-wielding Marauders learn from the military of Limsa Lominsa and Gladiators fight with swords on the bloodsands of Ul’dah. Significant amounts of time and effort are spent fleshing out the culture of places, the stories of side characters and even silly holiday events are given in universe reasons for existing, connections to standing concepts and running storylines of their own. In Eorzea even learning to cook has an extended storyline with a number of participants. More than this though is the central plot that pulls you through the game, essentially a single player JRPG storyline situated in this online space that, though it has its downs especially early on, opens up into some incredible highs. Small touches like just walking through locations and seeing NPC chefs practicing at the culinarian guild, merchants bartering and arguing and all sorts of other incidental animations adds a sense of movement and reality to the world and a real sense of love and care put into it. Other players being built into the plot as a kind of adventurer economy of their own eases the narrative tension of being one of thousands of The Warrior of Light. It goes beyond simply having NPCs reference the idea of you bringing a party with you and even beyond your reputation being based around being a leader of adventurers. Whole settlements rise to meet the demands of the sprawling adventurer population, extended plotlines about the establishment and management of these places are abundant and the locations have even grown and expanded over time as representations of their attachment to this adventuring lifestyle. All this serves to give a feeling of a world in movement, which adapts to you and situates you in it. Whatever gameplay abstraction needs to exist you can bet the team have come up with some kind of in universe justification for it.
On a grander scale these personal stories of development feel like decent justifications of how your strength even came about. You experience a granular scale of growth from just another guild applicant to hero of the realm, student of magical arts to uncoverer of ancient magical secrets, common adventurer to acquaintance of world leaders. There is rarely a time in the dungeons and the battles of Final Fantasy 14 where you aren’t aware of what is at stake and what it is you’re fighting for, you are never an observer of events carried out by the actual characters but instead act as a character in your own right. The trial fights against the huge imposing beings known as Primals – created from a coalesced combination of magical power and belief to bring conceptual gods into actual being – are demanding, exhilarating and visually intense, often feeling like a complex dance between the team of players and the enemy, a relationship played out by a push and pull learning of the encounter amongst all its visual splendour. All of this comes together and truly falls into place when combined with the incredible energetic and creative music that plays over them. Fights against Primals and other raid bosses all entail new musical tracks personalised for this particular fight, tracks that usually hit a halfway point along with the fight itself resulting in a combined visual and aural spectacle as some grand screen filling attack lands and the track shifts as some ludicrously audacious lyrics kick in. Shiva clicks her fingers and transforms her song from epic fantasy fare to an upbeat pop punk track, Alexander has a rap metal track that he interrupts himself when he stops time for periods during the fight. The incredible impression these tracks make in context cannot be overstated, especially when you notice the lyrics convey the mindset and the goals of the Primals and their summoners, a kind of musical representation of the prayers that created them, and the game reaches heights akin to the absurd boss fights of Metal Gear Rising (infact a recent fight has a player blocking a giant sword à la Raiden). The ultimate result of all this is that these fights feel personal and engaging. You feel as though you’re engaged with a great personality rather than a collection of mechanics and this feeling really helps to sell a connection to the world when you return to more mundane interactions as a kind of lingering glow.
There is a more lighthearted side to this process of attachment too. Places as seemingly incongruous as the giant floating casino The Gold Saucer fit fairly seamlessly into the setting and provide, among other things, an entire trading card game with tournaments in-game, or a variety of goofy arcade token games like mallet strength testers and basketball hoops all as playable little minigames. You can take time out to devote yourself to chocobo racing or a bizarre miniature RTS game. There is almost an entire separate game based in learning to cook or make jewellery or armour or whatever else, all complete with their own sense that this is a real thing that exists in this world above being a game feature. Player housing and adventurer towns allow for a kind of socialising I’ve never really had before in a game of this type, friends log in just to hang out on their player guild’s lawn and sit around effectively using the game as a chat program with elaborate expressive emotes and a wide array of dress up options. When the world is under threat it’s easy to relate to what that means: your mind goes to the little stories you’ve experienced along the way, the people you’ve learned to sew with, the player characters you spend your time with and the (now at least) varied cast of the main plot.
The deep importance placed on the story is something that itself draws on a sense of tragedy and loss to really ground itself and for me serves as a thematic link between my last successful MMO experience and my renewal in this one. Final Fantasy 14 version 1.0 fairly famously was an enormous failure on a great number of levels, so much so that Square-Enix went so far as to apologise, shut the game down and remake it. While this is in itself a fairly unique situation, the way it was unveiled to the player base is worth explaining fully. Imagine a slow build up through multiple patches of story about a grand doomsday weapon in the form of a slumbering Bahamut, through to a final patch wherein the final days of the world play out, monsters swarm towns and kill people everywhere, the great moon sized prison that houses Bahamut hangs in the sky framed by clouds to look like a gigantic malicious eye staring down at the landscape, a distant and distorted ominous song with barely audible lyrics overwrites all other music in the world and finally the servers are cut. What follows is a cutscene where despite the best efforts of the allied military and the heroic adventurer player characters and their allies, doom comes to Eorzea, Bahamut breaks free, the fragments of the moon obliterate the landscape and the dragon begins to destroy everything it sees. The heroes lose, their teacher and leader is destroyed as he performs some last ditch spell to spirit the adventurers away from the battlefield.
Upon returning in version 2.0 “A Realm Reborn” much is made of The Calamity and how people have managed to survive and cope since, a palpable sense of picking back up and carrying on underlines every storyline and a real sensation of loss and failure really helps to sell the mounting hope of the main storyline. None of this would have the impact it did without the reflecton of the real world situation of the game itself. Doubtless a huge amount of the tone flowed directly from the feelings of the team itself as they struggled to save countless hours of their labour from being consigned to deletion. For my own part the news about 1.0’s utter lack of quality was devastating. Final Fantasy 11 had been a huge impact on me in the past and my excitement for an updated new version was enormous, and it is with that disappointment that I was able to relate to those feelings baked into the story. As Akalah lost everything and continued on, so too did Eorzea, and I think were it not for that failure I would maybe have never become so attached to it as I have.
The impact of this foundation of recovery lasts in the storytelling to this day. The recent expansion launch Stormblood sets out to resolve a hanging plotline about the imperial occupation of both a neighbouring country and a far off ally from whom we personally took in refugees. The care that has been taken in telling the story of these imperial occupations is (not “even for an MMO”) astounding to me. The empire have long been the most interesting villains of the game and a chance to take the fight into their occupied territory is incredibly enjoyable. It’s a lot more than that though – where I was expecting a game about some exciting revolutionary fervour and battles against a great imperialist foe from a coalition of its victims, I got, well, I got that but I also got a really genuine and heartfelt series of stories about cultures struggling to thrive under imperial occupation. I got ruminations on the nature of a rebellion and how it can operate. Most importantly of all I got this constant enduring theme of, once again, picking up and surviving and then thriving, I got revolution set alongside numerous little side stories all of which are about helping communities link up with each other, helping individuals within them learn what they are good at and enjoy doing, teaching communities to value all their members regardless of what profit they can make from them. In a tale of solidarity against an imperial menace it is absolutely heartwarming to have so much of its time be devoted to the weakest members of the cultures that are uplifting themselves, that it takes the time to consider all these individuals and their struggles amidst the conflict, that it recalls side characters from side quests back in the early parts of the original release now that you’ve gone to their home to fight for it. Even just the opening moments being about seeking consent from the rebellion to intervene at all before just forcing an open conflict they may not want on them speaks to a level of care and attention I don’t expect from most stories, let alone “just an MMO” one. In a story as triumphant and bombastic as this my favourite moments have all been quiet little things: helping two misfits from different cultures meet each other and make friends, helping a wolfman find a way he can provide for his community and feel valued, the small towns of people who balk at both the empire and the resistance as after 25 years of conflict they can see no good coming of either. Even the collaborator villains get motivations that make some kind of twisted sense coming from people who’ve known nothing but imperial rule and grown with “Service = Citizenship” promises.
If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d be having genuine quiet emotional moments with bit part characters in an MMORPG I would never have believed you even for all my investment in the genre. That speaks however to a lack of imagination on my part about the potential for self-exploration through something as simple as a character creator. A cursory glance at Final Fantasy 14 fans can show you a huge array of people talking about their characters as people, showing them off, fighting together, and forming lasting friendships. In a world where our economic structures demand a kind of atomised existence where socialising is increasingly difficult or expensive, where some are stuck in their home for whatever reasons they might have, this small space that can transform an internet friendship from text on a screen to representations of each other interacting and having fun is really valuable. You can even get gay married to other players in this game which feels almost unheard of to me in this industry.
People have asked me on numerous occasions what it is I get from games like these, since from the outside they look incomprehensible and bizarre, and while this whole body of writing serves as an answer I think I have a simpler one: as I sit at my computer leveling up a class for the sole purpose of getting a few more scenes with my scholar friends, it still occurs to me to wonder about Akalah and hope she is doing okay.
The Land is alive, so believe…