Wisdom of Nym: Yes, Final Fantasy XIV’s Empire is just plain bad

    
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This should be obvious.

All right, let’s be totally clear about something that… feels like it should already be obvious, but seems to not be. The Garlean Empire in Final Fantasy XIV? It’s bad. It is a bad organization led by bad people, who themselves are followed by several other bad people. The Emperor is bad. Zenos is bad. Their immediate underlings are bad. The Ascians are bad. This is not ambiguous in any way, shape, or form.

For some reason people seem to keep being surprised by the fact that the bad people are bad.

This was partly inspired by seeing a bit of a row in which a few people were claiming that a speech given by Varis at the end of Stormblood specifically referenced the vague notion of racial purity, calling specifically for the creation of a master race. Some people were trying to pick through direct translations and claim that this was obvious an unintended parallel, that surely the Emperor of a nation whom you first meet after he tried to wipe out an indigenous people and whose nation literally coined a term for whole swaths of sentient beings stating they were lesser people couldn’t be racist! That must have been an error. (Yeah, we’re getting into spoilers here. Strap in.)

It’s not the first time that players of the game have tried to appeal to direct translations as a means of changing plot points that were localized in direct cooperation with the Japanese writing staff, of course. That has always been dumb. It’s always been an exercise in assuming that something that could be potentially taken in many ways couldn’t have been meant in one capacity and it must be a result of the localization, rather in the underlying writing of the story.

But in this particular case, it chafed specifically because it was an attempt to make the transparently evil Empire be less evil. As if the writers intended for the Garleans to be more sympathetic, but localization accidentally made them sound racist to just pile on the reasons to dislike the Imperials.

This is not the case. The parallel is intentional. I can’t say that with the confidence of having been a writer on staff, but I can say it with the confidence that the Empire has always been unsympathetic and just downright evil. Also, racist.

But how bad are we talking, here?

Really, this has been the case since 1.0. It’s a long-established fact that the reason we call tribes like the Sahagin, the Amalj’aa, and the Ixali “beastmen” is a direct result of the Garlean Empire. The Empire considers these fully intelligent and sentient peoples to be lesser than other groups, to the point that the second lore book even includes an in-universe article pointing out that the only real difference between a Miqo’te and a Vanu Vanu is that one is designated as a person by the Imperials and one isn’t.

Of course, out of the game’s continuity, “beastmen” is inherited from Final Fantasy XI… wherein the term was also racist, but coming directly from player cities and towns, with a huge chunk of the story devoted to pointing out that the idea these people were lesser and not equally deserving of safety and respect was (again) incredibly racist and wrong. Yes, I know, spoilers for a game that’s nearly two decades old now, but the first climax of that story is literally “we have seen the racist monsters and they are us.”

Hat tip to Walt Kelly, of course.

My point here is that we know what the Empire is, and that’s even without getting into the fact that its visual coding is specifically meant to be evocative of The Empire from Star Wars, Axis powers in the second World War, and Roman legions to the other nations of Europe (which is specifically where the player characters live). We know it because we see and meet people from places the Empire brutally annexed and watched them demolish. We meet characters like Fordola, twisted into being monsters on the Imperial payroll because that’s her only option to survive.

The Empire is evil. Full stop, no mitigation. The Empire is just plain evil. So why do people have a tendency to assume that maybe it isn’t? Where does this sense of “maybe the Empire is all right” come from?

A lot of it almost certainly a matter of nuance. We know, for example, that it’s not impossible for good people to come out of the Empire. We know that there are good people within the Imperial government and military. And considering all the nuance within the story, is it really right to call something absolutely evil?

Heck yes. The thing of it is that none of this destroys or impacts the nuance of the storytelling. There’s no cosmic force mandating that the Empire be evil; the decisions being made by the people in power are themselves evil. It’s not that Varis can’t stop being evil, it’s that he consistently has the option and chooses not to.

RIDE THE LOW RIDER

Varis knows exactly what the Ascians want because he’s been told that. He knows that he’s been used as a pawn by the Ascians because Emet-Selch tells him that. And despite all of that information, despite seeing that there’s every reason to abandon this course and at least try to take back control over the situation, he just keeps being a racist monster dancing to Emet-Selch’s tune and claiming that he knows better. By the end of Shadowbringers we can see that he’s not only powerless but what he thinks of as a rejection of the Ascians is actually exactly what they want from him.

Heck, this was literally the entire point of 4.1 through 4.3’s main story. Fordola and Yotsuyu are both victims of the Empire and their societies, people who embraced awful decisions as a way to survive, but both of whom are given the choice and opportunity to become something different. Fordola rises to the occasion and is, if not redeemed, on the path to being so. Yotsuyu rejects the opportunity and becomes a tragic figure as a result. Nuanced, sure, but not precisely subtle.

But I think there’s another reason behind wanting to believe that the Empire might not be so bad, and that’s because the Empire is genuinely neat. It’s interesting. If you’re fascinated by its wrought iron repurposing of bizarre tech and its regimented society, you probably want to explore more of it instead of smashing it all. How can you have that if the Empire is evil?

And the answer to that one is… the same way we’ve seen this happen repeatedly. Eulmore is a city of evil, yet it’s not populated solely by horrid villains, and while it needs to be torn down there are still good people in the ashes willing to rebuild. It does require a whole large-scale repurposing, though… and acknowledging that the society that existed before was evil. Whatever justification it may have had before, it turned out evil and needs to be stripped down severely along the way.

It’s equally important to not miss the symbolism that’s being not-at-all-subtly put forth by several of these stories. Yes, the Empire has comprehensible motives for the evil stuff it does, but that doesn’t make it not evil; that just means that its evil isn’t some vague and inhuman thing but an understandable part of its existence. It means you can understand why people would fall for it. But it’s not an alternative point of view.

The Empire is bad. And if you’re searching for reasons why one of its members might use language that you know is really bad, maybe that’s all the explanation you need right there.

Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments down below or via mail to eliot@massivelyop.com. Next time, let’s talk about the deep cuts we already know to franchise lore in patch 5.2.

The Nymian civilization hosted an immense amount of knowledge and learning, but so much of it has been lost to the people of Eorzea. That doesn’t stop Eliot Lefebvre from scrutinizing Final Fantasy XIV each week in Wisdom of Nym, hosting guides, discussion, and opinions without so much as a trace of rancor.
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Khalith .

Well of course, all empires in Final Fantasy games are evil and so are all organized religions. That’s been the case in basically every game.

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Alex Willie

The reason people want the empire to be more nuanced is because just plain bad is just plain boring. the sort of thing a Basic Betty would write. fans tend to hope that the writers are more interesting than the people who write kiddie cartoons and recent starwars movies. Fans are hoping for Thanos and not Dr Claw.

Its interesting that you would write this after Shadowbringers has given the Ascians so much more nuance. I mean i guess we can go with the weak label that they are racist because i need them to be one dimensional for my argument to work and since they are racist since I said so, they are plain evil regardless of all other motivations that more properly align with the writing of Shadowbringers.

I personally do hope the writers give us more nuance to the empire than the lame old racists seeking world domination for no other reason…but wait they have already done that, the empire being descended from the previously lesser race incapable of using magic and thus looked down upon by the other nations. But they got strong and rose up and became a world super power in the lifespan of a single generation, which though they use roman titles is more reminiscent of Japans own history, and the history again being more similar to the expansion of Japan than the unification of Prussia.

Still, you are probably right, not for the reasons you stated but because this is final fantasy and historically the FF bads have always just been bad and nothing more. I hope they can break out from that and continue the more interesting direction they seem to be taking with this xpac.

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Sorenthaz

The Garlean Empire basically has always given off heavy Palpatine’s Empire vibes to me as the whole thing seems to be heavily inspired by Star Wars. And of course the Empire in Star Wars was in turn heavily inspired by the Nazi empire.

So yes, Garlemald is basically a technologically advanced Nazi Germany. The racial purity element that was shown quite a bit in Stormblood and how they viewed the Ala Mihgans should’ve made it clear. I don’t get how anyone would think that they’re not FFXIV’s equivalent of the evil bad empire.

Because I mean, sure we have four named Garleans who defected and turned good/neutral – Cid,

ARR/Stormblood Spoilers
Nero, that one emissary guy who tries to take Alphinaud to Garlemald, and Gaius
– but that’s a small handful of “good guys” among the majority of evil empire dudes, even when accounting the handful of unnameds who are rallied by the latter person on the list. Garlemald has at least 14, maybe 15 (because you know that every one of them is referencing numbered Final Fantasies) legions that all have their own leaders and loads of soldiers at their beck/call.

So I don’t really get how anyone started believing that Garlemald isn’t all that bad or is somehow sympathetic. Varis was maybe a little sympathetic due to the stance he took against a common foe, but then he made it very clear that he’s only interested in unifying the world under himself by any means necessary, even if it means

Stormblood spoils
using Black Rose to commit mass genocide and playing directly into the Ascian’s hands.

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kalech

Tbh when it comes to people trying to justify why the empire “isn’t racist”, I think it has nothing to do with lore or the game. It has to do with IRL racism. As soon as you mention that someone/something in any game is racist, there will always be people coming out of the woodwork to try and refute it. Just have a look at the comment section of the mod “Stormcloaks for good guys” for Skyrim, for example.

There’s a thousand reasons why people do this, all of them stupid, but yeah. They’re always going to find some kind of excuse, and if its not translations its gonna be something else.

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Alex Willie

the irony of using a stupid label and then calling those who laugh at it stupid

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reitiaa

I’m actually going to link this over to Tumblr and it’s purity politics, “if something is problematic I can’t like it so I’m going to do everything in my power to make it not problematic.” The concept of nuance and separating what one finds interesting or entertaining in a fictional media vs. What one finds acceptable in real life has largely been lost within the last few years. The empire is interesting and still has a lot of mystery to be discovered. Gaius, and by the end of 5.0 varris and Zenos are interesting characters. But they all espouse views that don’t fit that non-problematic need that has appeared in the last few years. And so people are like “They’re not actually terrible people, they just got translated wrong.”

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Sorenthaz

The concept of nuance and separating what one finds interesting or entertaining in a fictional media vs. What one finds acceptable in real life has largely been lost within the last few years.

See, as someone who grew up to quickly be taught separation from movies/games/entertainment and reality, this utterly baffles me how that concept has been lost on people.

Like my mother was one of those types who was afraid of us playing games like Grand Theft Auto because of the headlines about it being all about killing cops/etc. My brothers and I ended up talking her into allowing us to get GTA 4 around the time it came out because there was obviously more to the game beyond just getting in (often suicidal) fights with the police. Also we were already used to shooting people in other games anyway like CoD4: Modern Warfare. Ultimately it didn’t turn us into cop killers or anything, and I’ve done much more chaotic stuff in the Saints Row series in comparison to the tame stuff you can do in GTA4 and 5.

Then I’ve also gotten into role-playing games where I’ve RPed characters who’ve done things that I would never ever think to do or behave like IRL. I’ve also acted on stage IRL as drunk characters even though I’ve never touched alcohol in my life. Because I can separate that aspect of entertainment from reality.

Like who ultimately cares if characters are racist in a video game? Usually if they’re like that, it’s trying to drive a point and give you a better idea of what you’re dealing with.

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SaltKitten

You forgot to add that since it’s also an Square Enix game that the church is evil

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Sorenthaz

Darn Elf Pope trying to play god by using Dragon Satan’s eyes.

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Alex Willie

true enough but also because its a squenix, their bad guys are usually 1 dimensional.

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David Blair

I always felt that the narrative was at it’s worst when it involved the Garleans. It’s always been a “Grr! We’re cartoonishly evil!” Twirl mustache. Queue Dick Dastardly and Muttley.

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Fadewind

To be fair, Gaius and Regula are major exceptions.

Given Regula was Varis’s best friend, part of me was hoping he was behind the Populares movement. Even the speech in 4.5 could have been played as Varis playing to a crowd to harden the Alliance’s resolve so he could have allies.

Then the end cutscene of 4.55 pretty much made that idea null and void.

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Alex Willie

Precisely. they are too cartoonish. but there always seemed to be a hint that there was more to it. hopefully we get a little more song of ice and fire or Demona and a little less Looten Plunder

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David Blair

Oh man! I rarely give pluses, but you win for the Gargoyles, Captain Planet, and Inspector Gadget references!

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Fadewind

The issue with Beastmen is not due to Garleans. The term Beastmen came from Sharlaya to differentiate the “beast” races and the “Spoken” ones. Until rather recently, Miqo’te were seen as beastmen.

It’s also made worse that Ul’Dah (specifically the Monetarists) banned Beast tribes from selling in the city to buckle down on competition.

Limsa continually breaks contracts and deals made with Kobolds and Sahagin.

Not saying that the Empire isnt evil, but that’s one area where most cultures in Eorzea are as bad as Garleans.

joaovbs96
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joaovbs96

Funnily enough, this years Heavensturn brings something sorta related to this.

Event spoilers, obviously:

Spoiler
Basically, the year of the rat is about to begin. While the Lominsans accept the Qiqirns, they continuously look down on them for their similarity to rats. As Neneroon sum it up, our task is ‘[to] make rats popular with Lominsan populace. Then Qiqirn gain favor by favorable comparison!’

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Alex Willie

and this makes the world a little more interesting. the author wants to assign that garleans as evil for looking down on other races and ignore that nearly all of the nations in the game do the exact same thing in one way or another.

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Fadewind

I wouldn’t say nearly all.

Limsa has issues, but they are a bunch of pirates. They are more accepting of Beast Tribes than the rest of Eorzea. (As both Qiqirns and Goblins are allowed in the city.) Ul’Dah bans them for no reason other than business. Gridania…well…they are xenophobic nutjobs.

Ishgard has kept good relations with the Vanu Vanu in the “Sea of Clouds” but most of their immediate neighbors (in terms of Beast Tribes) would be Ixal who definitely worship Garuda. So, you can’t really keep good relations with those and they weren’t responsible for Garuda being summoned.

Kugane has open trade with the Kojin and Namazu are allowed to…pull their shady shit. Individuals might have problems, but ironically the most closed off (and closed minded IMO) city is the most open.

It’s not known how Ala Mhigo treated Beast Tribes in the past, but they are definitely taking steps to include them in politics.

The only city with known good relations is Doma. The Lupin were welcomed and treated like anyone else (if they are even treated as a beastmen race).

It’s a nuanced issue that Sharlaya could have been trying to take a scholarly approach and it was morphed into a self-serving premise for racism. This sort of thing does not exist in the First in any capacity either.

To be fair, Garleans treat everyone equally. Equally beneath them.

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Jaymes Buckman

It is weird when people use arguments from fictional villains to back up their points. All those people who reference Syndrome’s speech about ubiquitous specialness to defend loot elitism in games. Or the ones who say that “let the past die”, spoken by the antagonist of “Last Jedi”, was actually the philosophy of the filmmaker in relation to the works of George Lucas.

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Sorenthaz

Or the ones who say that “let the past die”, spoken by the antagonist of “Last Jedi”, was actually the philosophy of the filmmaker in relation to the works of George Lucas.

To be fair that movie was basically nothing but Rian Johnson completely dumping on everything that JJ Abrams tried to set up as potential plot hooks and questions to answer through the next two movies in the trilogy.

It also started right off the bat with Disney humor injected heavily into it to the point where the first scene could’ve been something out of Guardians of the Galaxy 3.

So that’s one quote that did seem to accurately reflect the direction/goal of the movie. Because the way Rian just so casually (in some cases literally) tossed out plot points and things that should’ve been bigger moments was just frustrating to see as someone who grew up on George Lucas’s Star Wars.

I’m still salty with how they completely ruined all of Luke’s character development in Return of the Jedi so Rey could be built up off of it.

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Jaymes Buckman

I liked that movie and I love George Lucas. Rian’s intent seemed to be additive on the whole. Perhaps more communication with Abrams could have helped
though.

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Alex Willie

I wonder what both the sequels and the prequels could have been like had Marcia Lucas been in charge.
She always had the best head on her shoulders of anyone involved with Starwars to take an ok story for a niche audience and turn it into fun and memorable for everyone.