Shadowbringers is an incredible experience. How incredible it is feels hard to convey, built as it is on so much of my emotional investment in this world. That investment itself built upon my own experience of being situated in it as it grows in complexity, scope and character, as my own position in it shifts. Even worse, an enormous portion of this is owed still (and in Shadowbringers I would say more than ever) to the in-universe apocalypse scenario that reflected the loss and rebuilding of the games original population and developers. I would say its easily the best Final Fantasy story that exists and honestly limiting it to the confines of its aesthetically-absorbing-but-slightly-airy brand identity diminishes it. It’s true that almost the entire DNA of the game is a Final Fantasy Best Hits album, but, well, I for one don’t believe in nature over nurture y’know.
That nurture is also what makes it such an esoteric thing to convey. It’s what makes it a thing that I can love and others can experience as a treadmill of stuff that exists simply as a wall between them and the Content their friends are on about. Shadowbringers is a story bolted to the end of this treadmill and it knows it and for better or worse it says to the people who’ve been there from the beginning “this is for you”. Because the thing is this love affair wasn’t something that happened overnight, and for us the treadmill was never a thing to overcome. All these lengthy stories existed originally as new chapters to check in on, brief interludes or additional expansions to a story we’d already been a part of. A story that proves again and again it learns from itself, is willing to ask questions about itself and take those to interesting places. That growth is an intoxicating part of experiencing it and it’s something that will naturally be more dear to the people who were willing to give themselves over to this flawed thing that made its name by literally wiping itself out and starting over with only the promise that the mistakes would inform how they proceed.
I’ve gone over this before but it still really impresses me how much life the self-imposed apocalypse breathes into this world. For all its flaws, the original A Realm Reborn reboot is full of small moments that really sell this sense of rebuilding and recovery, you deal endlessly with victims of this collapse both at an individual and cultural level. Quests can be surprisingly in-depth stories about recovering agriculture to help with the ongoing crisis of this changed world, they can be about the horrible things people have turned to in the wake of their sense of reality collapsing or they can simply be about some classic adventuring to fight some gods and an empire. No matter what though, once all the picking themselves up and dusting themselves off awkwardness is done, these stories feel really earned, really heartfelt and considered. Importantly, they also grow. I’ve spoken of how the characters grow and change and learn in ways I don’t often see in this kind of heroic fantasy fiction and Shadowbringers has gone on to wow me in that sense even further. Doing all this side content of late though, I’m struck again by how impressed I am that these stories have become things like botany quests about helping other communities thrive now that we’re able to look beyond ourselves with a consistent theme across expansions about culture and humanity transcending borders. The stories of old crimes echoing into the present and recent calamities creating even more have themselves evolved into a fight to change these cycles, stories that make heroes of people committed to empowering others. All of them carrying the weight of the ideas and feelings that built them up into the concerns they present now.
That’s not to say we’re out of the realms of romantic, fantastical, character driven fantasy though. All that killing gods and fighting empires with the power of friendship is very much here, and it’s in its ability to examine this that Shadowbringers really brings the game’s strengths to, uh, light. At its core, Shadowbringers is a story about history. Perhaps its biggest achievement is granting one to its long term technically-primary-but-really-background-excuse-for-evil-magic-antagonists The Ascians. The dastardly club of sentient black bedsheets who we very occasionally are reminded are behind everything and immortal and very evil suddenly feel like actual people. They’re an ancient people bound to us thematically by the shared experience of apocalypse. That they are personally responsible for not only our recent one, but all previous ones that happened to our world, is now cast in the light of an endless pursuit to return things to how it was when their people lived. What’s interesting is that we’re asked to sympathise but not really to understand; their representative in this particular chapter plays the part of lone survivor, he compares his ancient victimhood to our ongoing one at his hands, he shows us the experience of the fall of his world first-hand to show us that our own experience is nothing by comparison. He does this while wearing the costume of the founding emperor of the racial supremacist, imperialist state we’ve struggled against for our whole time in this story. Not coincidentally either, as he personally lived as that same man. That this isn’t technically his “true form”, but instead the role he feels most comfortable walking around the world in, tells us enough. As the game unveils the true face of the ancient Ascian culture it begins to make even more sense, the vision of perfection they mourn is the US’ roaring 20s (with sick ass jazz mixes of their musical motifs no less).
The vision this man gives us of his home is a place where individual identity is frowned upon, where the forces of production are endless and unceasing, growth will go on forever. My personal favourite detail is the lack of context he provides for the how and the why of his culture’s fall, we are left with the idea that outside forces of chaos just suddenly brought the whole thing down. Small hints exist in the speech the ghostly inhabitants of this explorable simulacrum are concerned with. A vaunted chamber of free intellectual debate is present as part of this show given to us, a place designed to demonstrate their superiority to us and to invite us to mourn its loss. This is a place where you can listen in on the city’s intellectual figures debate what degree of force and intervention should be applied to their imperial holdings, to what degree they can trust the inferior people of other lands, a place where the power of these infinitely creative and wise beings is turned towards fear of the other, a place where the “free exchange of ideas” is wrapped in the self imposed boundary of superiority. This is culture that lives on only in its most powerful representatives, literally sustained in immortality by the sacrifice of the majority, a culture reduced to the image of great men, their skyscrapers and their endless plots to inflict apocalypse on any new culture that arises anywhere. We have lived using the aftermath of a calamity to cross cultural divides, to right historical wrongs and build a future that doesn’t fall prey to these explosions of loss and violence. The Ascians have become calamity incarnate, they live on only to cause yet more disasters under the thin excuse that doing so will restore what they remember as a unified world with no disparity, that this “rejoining” requires the genocide of every culture that sprung up without their stewardship isn’t a mere side effect. Their people cannot be brought back, but what can be is their sense that the world belongs to them alone and is uncomplicated by the lives of others. That the constructed memory of their glory days is filled with the echoes of old jazz tracks without any recollection of their artists shows whose perspective is being constructed and presented to us. We know who all this storytelling is by and for because we know that these tracks live on into the present rendered into a barely recognisable sinister backing track for these immortal and great heads of state.
Cosmologically they literally hop from world to world, seeking to restore all the resources of each to the original one, our one. Mechanically this pursuit entails exactly what you’d expect of the ghosts of an old imperial state. They install leaders, sow division, hand out advanced weaponry like candy to anyone who will keep the place embroiled in warfare and bide their time as they can simply sit and extract from people who now have no capacity to fight them nor any real knowledge that their enemy is this unified force of ideological history.
For us, Shadowbringers is a story that begins with a trip to one of these worlds victimised to empower our own. Initially this journey is undertaken because the results of catastrophe in this place will have serious destructive ramifications for our own world. Naturally we quickly become inhabitants of this place, wrapped up in the lives of its people. The entire “main party” of the game was accidentally transported here ahead of us and, due to Time Being Convoluted, they have lived years of their lives here. This is an important part of distinguishing our actions from that of a selfish intervention, not only was it not our own actions that brought us here, but it is the groundwork laid by immersion and understanding that provides our stake in it. Crucially, it is a resident of the place that informs us that the calamity here will also impact us, and it is only by living the lives of the people outside of our own world that we can go on to save all worlds. With all this Shadowbringers brings us back to A Realm Reborn’s struggle to survive, we have cultures to learn about, we have regional conflicts over scraps while the threat of colonisation looms ever closer and we have a strange mystical apocalypse.
Except it isn’t altogether all that strange: in fact, the Light is a very similar enemy to the Garlean Empire. It has consumed most of the world and transformed it into the conditions that sustain itself, it is said to be a force of total stability and stillness where everything is rendered the same, and on a lower level, its forces operate by conquering territory and converting the populace into itself. The Light may be an elemental force without a guiding personality, but is that so different from the Ascians’ long, grueling slog to create the same end over and over and over? My favourite detail in all the Light based enemies is their naming conventions – the spells and abilities all named after the concepts of law, the cruel implements of legal punishments historically deployed at outspoken minorities. The Light takes the standard angelic motifs and makes them symbols of stagnation, of punishment, supremacy and confinement, it makes them all the things that the empire runs itself on. The enemies you fight are all named things like “Forgiven Cowardice” or “Forgiven Arrogance”, as the Light swoops in and eradicates all history and culture, so too does it erase all disparity. All difference is assigned a sin, the sin is Forgiven and then difference is gone. Of course it is the Ascians who have engineered this elemental force into prominence here, just as they did with the empire back home, representatives of “Darkness” though they be, the world they yearn for is their old brightly lit city that never sleeps. The Light’s influence keeps the sun in the sky eternally, it can be said then that the restoration of this old imperium demands a power upon which the sun never sets.
So that’s all very well and good as a review of Shadowbringers as a whole but what about all the small personal stuff? What about it makes it feel so attached rather than just impressed? What about all these characters you keep mentioning? Who the hell is Giott???
Well I’m glad you asked! See, amongst everything else, smaller than all the grandiose ideas and weird cosmology, smaller even than the new cultures, the new places, the new people, the history to uncover (and the cool commitment to the theme of how it’s told and who gets to tell it) is the stuff that really got to my heart specifically. The stuff that felt like a reward for caring about all of this that might to others not even register on anywhere near the same level, the stuff that makes this all feel like home.
So first of all speaking of home, Shadowbringers actually came out at the same time I chose to switch to playing on EU servers to play in my own timezone instead of what had become a weirdly lonely experience playing a game with thousands of people who were usually in bed or at work while I was around. That is to say, for me the journey to The First wasn’t limited to exploring a new world, it was the experience of exploring a whole new social space in which I was a new arrival to a world that looked exactly like the one I came from but felt completely different. The game going from something that had become lonely and quiet to boisterous and socially engaging for me functioned as a wonderful reflection of the highs and lows of the story. This isn’t really part of a broader point beyond highlighting a fun little personal joy I got, but if you wanted to stack up my journey against the aesthetic of leaving behind a conflict with an overwhelming imperial power behind to travel to a world where people live in the ruins of ancient kingdoms and are preyed upon by the lingering embodiments of feudal justice and Christian obeisance, all the while still finding the time to oppress their neighbours and refugees alike, well, who am I to stop you.
Right, anyway, my character has a whole personal history that I relayed in part in my previous article about this game. What’s important here is that she started the game with a view to playing the Scholar class because I thought summoning a fairy was cute and that a healer with a pet seemed interesting and as a result I became highly invested in the class’s identity and storyline. The long specifics aren’t important but suffice to say the themes I grasped onto were Ruruka’s adoption of magic as something scientific and knowledge based, something she could obtain and spread with the power of the written word. The story of it involves becoming an archaeologist for a long lost culture, a victim of one of the also long lost Ascian backed superpowers. Long story short, Ruruka has for years been engaged in a side plot about the victims of a magical bioweapon engineered by an old empire, and in so doing has been learning healing and protective arts (that rely on the aid of and coordination with a partner) from the descendants of that culture, arts she deploys as her means of fighting back against modern day empires and the power of gods and such, a skill set removed from the destructive magic she learned in her home city that she left behind. So there’s a bunch there for me to be attached to and apply to Shadowbringers, as you can imagine. I already thought of Ruruka as a scholar of empire and calamity, a hero whose power comes from the experience of tragedy and a commitment to growing from and understanding it, and Shadowbringers delves into this concept more than I could ever have imagined it would.
Again though, it’s not the broad strokes I’m concerned with here. Specifically what keeps coming back to me about the game is the “Role Quest” for Healers, a thing that terrified me when it was announced as a replacement for class specific storylines. This story concerns Giott, a Dwarf in pursuit of the Light converted version of an ancient Dwarf hero’s body that’s going around doing all sorts of horrible Light things. Dwarf is the name Lalafells have in the new world of Shadowbringers, making Giott the first of her own kind that Ruruka encounters after coming here. Superficially their cultures are enormously different, Giott’s representing more of a classic fantasy Dwarf archetype right down to the big beards and drinking. Underneath though, a lot about them reflects Ruruka’s struggles with Ul’dah, they may have shed the cold capitalism for a boisterous warrior/inventor culture but they’ve kept the family feuds, the conservative traditionalism and isolation.
Both versions of the Lalafells appear initially as more comedy than substance but go on to receive enough screen time to establish them as real cultural parts of the world. Ul’dah’s Lalafells are mustache twirling merchants, often comedically corrupt, but their home is also the biggest site of class and refugee conflict in the original story, much of which hinges on the attempt by its own monarch to shed its dependence on its own sense of superiority backed as it is by its powerful families, religious institutions and, well, the monarchy. The Dwarves are a bunch of comedy weirdos who wear helmets and fake beards that make them look like the Dwarves of the old SNES Final Fantasy games, they spout references to those old games, all their concerns appear to be trivial feuds and weird bullshit about frog robots and they take a ludicrous amount of pride in comparing beards that are literally just fluff strapped to their face. They’re also a culturally isolated society interested in little beyond the borders of their small world, they subsist on endless family feuds, they value social cohesion, honour and above all how they and their families look in comparison to the society around them. Even the funny beard thing ends up becoming a whole culture shock moment where, if you play a Lalafell, you’ll find Dwarf characters are horrified that you’d go around showing your “naked” face so shamelessly. They’re still more comedy than not, but within this beard thing lies the conflict that readies you for the Ascian’s idealised tour of their home. A tour that is presented to you as free from individual identity by a man who has traded his name for a title of office and distinguishes himself from his peers by maintaining the individual aesthetic identity of an emperor he once lived as.
Giott is hunting the Dwarf representative of the party thought to be responsible for the “Flood of Light” not to save the world, not to protect anyone, not even for revenge or prestige. All the drunken dialogue and loud fighty bluster is a big cover, Giott can talk a lot about the danger of a being that can go around reviving other agents of Light, but in the end Giott is out for Giott’s family honour. That a Dwarf was a member of this party that almost ended the world is bad enough, that she walked around flagrantly disobeying traditions even worse. Giott repeatedly reverts to pointing out Lamitt’s shameful exposed face as a crime you’re expected to understand and share in her disgust with.
Lamitt and her friend’s adventure is the stuff of 100 years of legend in this world, but for us she’s someone we’ve actually met. They’re a group just like our own (all with the appearance of the characters originally used as the example party on the box art), who were used by the Ascians as a means of unwittingly overwhelming their own world with the power of Heroes and Light, and by the story as the beginnings of a critique of this simplistic Light vs. Dark set up the series often relies on. We also know Lamitt and co. sacrificed themselves to prevent the Light from entirely engulfing the world, and as such they’re the sole reason anyone can keep living on it at all.
Giott will come to learn all this by first learning of Lamitt’s life prior to being a legendary figure. Which, in short, is that the Dwarves were being struck by a deadly contagion and dealing with it by shutting the victims away in “plaguewarrens”. Lamitt’s sister caught it, so Lamitt went out into the world against tradition to discover a way to cure it and, on the way, got enmeshed in the culture and lives of others, all the while still bearded and behelmed. She returns to her home with the cure and, as a reward, she is punished for bringing outsiders in and breaking traditions. She removes her beard and helm, agreeing that what she has done makes her no longer a Dwarf. The plague victims stand with her, having already been forced to remove their own beards and helms in order to survive in the hot and stifling air of their life in confinement. Lamitt’s life isn’t the story you’d expect of a woman’s struggle against aesthetic tradition and for individual expression, rather it’s the tale of unbudging cultural traditionalists holding people back from helping one another.
The loss of beard and helm signify the loss of Dwarfness and in all cases it is something inflicted rather than chosen. The plague victims’ position as outcasts is reflected in their naked faces, as is Lamitt’s decision to accept punishment and become one of them for her breaches of tradition motivated solely by her sympathy for them. Lamitt’s exposure isn’t really a moment of triumphant self-expression so much as it is one of solidarity with the oppressed, a sharing of punishment. Giott’s decision to unhelm herself, however, is entirely voluntary. See, it turns out she is the descendant of the man that exiled Lamitt in the first place, and her whole drive to destroy Lamitt’s ghostly remnant is wiping away her family’s shame at letting this tradition-breaking criminal run rampant. Giott ultimately ends up removing her own helm so she can put it onto Lamitt. My intitial gut reaction to this was much as it probably sounds here – Giott defeats Lamitt’s memory by forcing a sense of shame back on it.
The actual mechanics of this are that Lamitt’s horrible Light possessed corpse is only reviving its allies that were made out of the plague victims she saved initially, an instinctual drive buried in her body’s memory. In the last battle of this story, Giott puts helms back on all of them rendering Lamitt’s shade unable to recognise them as the bodies of her friends and thus uninterested in trying to (or perhaps unable to) revive them. While played somewhat for comedy, this is a weird moment to read, the descendant of the man who victimised these people forcing a sense of shame back on them would at best be a difficult thing to feel heroic about. It’s in the knowledge that Dwarfness was something stripped from them that I think the meaning of this comes out: Giott is returning something that was taken. It’s important also to remember that these creatures aren’t the people they were made from, while the act of returning the helms is done violently, that violence is done to the power that puppets and twists their bodies and not them themselves, that same act freeing them from it.
Giott reluctantly uses her own helm to perform this trick on Lamitt’s body after it destroys the others she has on hand. If Giott was returning Dwarfness to the victims of her ancestors, then in Lamitt’s case she is handing over her own; perhaps it’s that demonstration of sincerity that allows the gesture to take when previous ones didn’t. Giott’s journey is about learning the truth of her ancestors, and the more she learns of Lamitt, the more she grows out of her traditionalist concepts of honour. It’s probably significant that she drops the trappings of masculinity to do so, but that’s a different essay. Giott’s gesture doesn’t force her culture back on these victims, but rather it retroactively attempts to welcome them into it. Her own Dwarfness isn’t even lost, rather it is used as the start of rehabilitating Lamitt’s image as the hero to her people she truly was. That she doesn’t simply go find a new helmet, and that she resolves to live in exile as Lamitt did shows, I think, that she’s giving her place up for her. The Dwarves of the modern day don’t have quite the restrictive culture of 100 years ago, but in serving out Lamitt’s exile for her, Giott still exists as a rare Dwarf representative in the outside world.
All of which is to say, I lost my mind about all of this because Ruruka is a Lalafell girl who left her culture behind because of the ways its power structures and traditions led to its refusal to help those within it, let alone the desperate world around it. Her life has been defined by the exploration of history and her empowerment arises from the knowledge of lost cultures and stories. Not only that, but Lamitt’s history of adventuring to find a cure for a magical plague inflicted on a Lalafell culture is exactly Ruruka’s story as a Scholar. The remnants of Nym, the people who taught Ruruka her healing and protective arts, the descendants of a culture wiped out by a plague, they’re a small group of Lalafells struggling to undo a magical disease that transforms them. All of this felt like this big swirling vortex of things that would appeal to me specifically. The fact that I had all of this on my mind as I went back to our original world to check in on the Scholar quest characters itself also paid off. The follow up quest I expected to be some short interlude, a minimal effort to let us know the writers hadn’t forgotten these stories exist; well, it turned out to be the exact thoughts I’d brought to it. Ruruka shares what she learned about Lamitt’s efforts to save her people and, as a result, we got to cure a plague from what amounts to a relatively obscure side story. To me though, this story is one of the major driving forces of Ruruka’s original character development and actually getting to bring a conclusion to it hit me with more emotional weight than I was ready for. Lamitt actions reverberate beyond her own immediate kindness and the impact she had on both Ruruka and Giott’s lives gave me a powerful attachment to both of these new(ish) characters.
Naturally, I was already excited to learn more about the Lalafell representative of the Warriors of Darkness. I was even more excited when the new character exploring all this was this absurd larger than life hard drinking, scrappy, swearing dumbass who nonetheless still looked as unlikely a strong hero type as Ruruka did. I was overjoyed to learn that somehow Shadowbringers was going to tie up all my own personal private stories just as well as it did all the others from A Realm Reborn. When Giott came back to visit Ruruka’s room in a recent cutscene to pep talk her, I realised that she’d become a super important character to my personal understanding of the one I’m playing. It reminded me of what I said before about these characters these worlds encourage us to build. For the first time it even gave me the sense of someone being really close to Ruruka’s heart. This kind of attachment to a character that functionally is just a voiceless avatar I made for myself is something I’d only have expected to get from tabletop RPG type games. That Shadowbringers is a whole expansion centered around characters from sidequest stories several real life years old and entirely optional goes to show the kind of philosophy that created something that got to me the way it did. It certainly doesn’t hurt that patch 5.2 shaped up to have 3 different stories about characters being put in the role of legendary heroic figures (which is itself a continuation of the way the Light turns all challengers into its own champions).
The difference, of course, is that in all of these cases the individual is lost, not one of them is undertaken as a link to history or a matter of inspiration, they’re all moments defined by power. Two result in the weight of legend overwhelming their host until the host ceases to exist, one is the co-option of a struggle, an attempt to turn our history into something aspirational, something that keeps us locked inside of it. Heroes and legends are things that control people, drain life from the world and are easily weaponised against those they are intended to nourish. The lives and struggles of actual people are washed away in the flood of sinless and dehumanised heroics, leaving a world made for those who value structure over people, see themselves not in the crowd but atop the stage and fear above all a world defined by its complexity and not by its most sanitised stories.
In summary then, Shadowbringers is wonderful. It’s wonderful for so many reasons but chief among them I think is how rewarded I feel for caring about this world and all these ancient lost cultures in it. My long term investment in the fate of the living descendants of Nym is what sustained my huge emotional investment in what is honestly an incredibly small part of the expansion. The most recent patch having a plotline about funny rat men struggling with who tells history and who they tell it for says a lot about how I was encouraged to care about this world. This article itself was originally just supposed to be about how much I loved this rude drunk bastard with a hammer but, as we’ve all learned, stories shouldn’t be told in a vacuum nor should they define the limits of our response.
Shadowbringers’ final boss fight ends on a quiet moment amongst the ruins of that previously mentioned simulacrum of the Ascian’s home, the illusions stripped bare and its creator’s malice completely spent. Surrendered to his defeat the last thing he utters is “Remember that we once lived”.
(I couldn’t fit it in but imagine I went off about the lesbians in the last patch, also take a moment to think about how both Giott and Gaia have a large hammer, makes you think,)