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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Next time, let’s talk about the deep cuts we already know to franchise lore in patch 5.2.