So here’s an interesting question with an answer that continually shifts: What content is optional in Final Fantasy XIV?
If you’re a big fan of the game, like myself, you’ll probably be quick to point out that the very nature of the game means that there’s tons of optional content that’s rewarding but not mandatory. That’s part of the goodness of the game, right? It really lets you run with your own choices because while there’s tons of content in the game, the majority of it is actually optional rather than mandatory. All you have to play is the MSQ, and that… well, it takes all of the 2.x series to get there, but it actually does wind up being very good!
This is not the first time that supposed side content has become a requirement of the MSQ. Players have long been required to fight Ifrit, Garuda, and Titan in Hard mode in order to finish off the 2.5 MSQ sequence. Not that this really jumped out to anyone at the time; after all, if you had been playing the game at the time you were basically expected to have already finished these fights because you needed your relic weapon. For a time, that was mandatory. So you probably wound up doing it anyhow.
Not that this sort of thing hasn’t cropped up in other places. Case in point: the Fractal Continuum was technically an optional dungeon in Heavensward. You didn’t have to do it, so long as you didn’t mind not having access to Expert Roulette… but if you were bringing an alt through the game after that was no longer the current endgame, you could comfortably skip it altogether.
At least, until the Hard mode was released in Stormblood, which you could only unlock if you had done the normal mode. This meant going back and doing a quest for a storyline that wraps up a largely irrelevant chain elsewhere. Oh, and the Hard mode finishes a story for a beast tribe you may have not done, so that’s another kick in the shins right there.
That’s the thing. We all know this stuff isn’t really optional. It’s just generally not mandatory.
I realize that this is splitting hairs a bit, but these are actually important hairs here. While FFXIV is set up so that you can choose to do or not do a lot of things on a weekly basis, it also very clearly does expect that you will clear through a fair amount of content on your (expected) lone character. Sure, you might not do Expert on a reliable basis, but you are assumed to have unlocked the dungeons necessary. It is assumed you have cleared through side quests for trials and alliance raids and so forth. You aren’t forced to reliably clear them, but you are expected to clear them at some point.
And it’s not just expecting you to do this stuff out of boredom, either. In Shadowbringers alone, one set of quests with obvious lore implications only reaches a conclusion if you take on the YoRHa raids. Another storyline and entire branch of the game is buried over in Eden, which clearly contains a lot of information about the future path of Norvrandt and the First. If you want to know more about Ronka, you need to take part in the Qitari beast tribe quests. The list goes on.
That’s not to say all of this is vital to understanding the main plot; rather, it’s to say that a lot of these threads pay off what are otherwise complete narrative cul-de-sacs that go nowhere. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if The Twinning winds up being the last we hear about some of the mechanisms behind the Exarch’s journey.
By making all of this stuff not mandatory, you can stretch out your expectations a fair bit. Clearly it’s all right if you have an alt and start leveling up through older content without following every storyline to its conclusion. But there are a lot of bits along the way that will have an impact if you don’t do older stuff, things that may not be required to keep the story going but are going to leave you shut out of a lot more content by ignoring it.
The question then becomes where the line should be drawn. Are alliance raids meant to be totally optional content? How many trials should you assume people have gone through? What about normal raids? Dungeons?
Let’s not forget that at least one key plot point of backstory in Shadowbringers is only revealed to you if you level up one job of every single role, meaning that your understanding of the world (disregarding some searching) requires more leg work than the game strictly requires of players.
The obvious rejoinder is that you might just not want to do all of this stuff, and that’s valid… but it also brings up the other hand to that, wherein the design team puts a lot of work into these things and wants to encourage people to at least give them a look. If you’re wondering “why don’t we get more (content I personally enjoy)” while there’s a whole lot of content you haven’t touched, something has at least theoretically gone wrong with the overall flow. It’s in the team’s best interests to encourage you to try other stuff.
And following unexpected routes is sometimes a good thing because it allows for bigger storylines. Yes, as someone with several alts, the fact that finishing the Ivalice series is required for the new relic weapons is annoying… but it also means that the hints and teases at the end have a chance to pay off in new ways that would otherwise be inaccessible. That’s a good thing. Heck, I’m willing to bet there are some people who clocked out of alliance raids a while back because you never needed the for the main story… leading to people ignoring what is a legitimate portion of the game and its lore.
Yet it also does result in some odd and uncomfortable roadblocks. Some players are going to have a difficult time getting accustomed to the different requirements of other playstyles (alliance raids really are a different animal from trials or normal raids), and even if you’re told where you need to go, it can feel weird when you have to stop what you’re doing to suddenly backtrack and take on old content just to keep going with new content.
Ultimately, I don’t think this is an issue that the developers can solve entirely because that definition of “optional content” is broad. It covers everything that isn’t explicitly required for forward motion, but even the stuff you don’t have to do is still kind of expected for you to do. And ultimately, the best thing you can do about it is sort of nod and recognize that even though everything is theoretically optional… well, you should probably at least clear it once.
Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments down below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week? Live letter reactions, naturally.