Wisdom of Nym: Unpacking the story of Final Fantasy XIV Endwalker

    
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All right. So this column is going to contain spoilers for the plot of Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker. You have probably gathered that from the title. I am also making sure that the spoilers in question are going to be somewhat on the vague side, for two reasons. The first is that not everyone who wants to finish the plot has necessarily been able to, due to the simple reality of the game’s queue times and the simple demands of reality on players. The second is that, well… I don’t feel like just blandly recounting the plot here, and I don’t feel that’s helpful.

I am also making sure that the plot spoilers are pushed well past the cut, so everyone who would rather avoid them can do so with relative ease. Maybe you’re already through the story (many people are), maybe you don’t mind spoilers, or maybe you actively seek them out anyhow. Heavens know that I have long been an advocate for the idea that we get too relentlessly hung up on the idea of spoilers arriving as if a good story isn’t a good story whether or not you’ve been spoiled. But if you want to avoid spoilers, turn away now. This is your last warning.

So after a decade of storytelling, it turns out that the real plot and story impetus for the entirety of the game, the events that set everything into motion, the real villain at the heart of the story, was… a certain interpretation of the Fermi paradox. That’s kind of both more cosmic and less investing than I would have expected.

Of course, that’s not actually entirely true. One of the things that I think needs to be acknowledged even as people (including me) mark this down as the end of a decade-long story is that really, we have not been following one singular story with no breaks over the course of a decade. There is definitely a decade of storytelling on display, but the fact of the matter is that each individual expansion has had its own internal act structure, its own storytelling conventions, and its own rising and falling actions independent of one another. While Endwalker ends the overarching meta-narrative that has moved through the game for ages now, it’s not really the resolution to a plot that had been otherwise building continuously for a decade.

Is that a problem? The opposite, I think. Endwalker is better judged as the culmination of its own storytelling rather than as the culmination of every bit of storytelling before it; while it closes out the meta-narrative, it’s not the last chapter in the game’s overall story, nor is it weighed down with concluding something that began so long ago. It just has to work as itself – and it does, in no small part because the game pulls an astonishing trick wherein all the plot setup that we had for this expansion is the first act of the game’s three-act structure.

Now we learn.

A lot of people have said that past a pretty early point in the expansion’s plot they had no idea where the heck it was going, which is interesting simply because the plot is actually a pretty straightforward three-act story. Act one is dealing with Fandaniel and Zenos, act two is figuring out what the heck is causing the Final Days in the first place, and act three is stopping them. It’s actually more conventionally structured even than Shadowbringers, which itself has a very short first and third act so it can turn into an extended plot fetch quest for act two.

For those of you who don’t think a lot about story structure, none of this is a bad thing for either expansion; it serves the plot and it tells the story that was wanted in both cases. It’s just a value-neutral descriptor of structure.

I think a lot of that surprise and confusion, though, is specifically because the game managed to only very vaguely hint at the absolute start of the second act; a good chunk of it is spent in a zone that was shown but never described (and shown carefully so we didn’t get a look at the building) with the only real explanation being “the Final Days have returned” and the assumption that this was what Fandaniel and Zenos were up to in the first place. Not so much, no! The two of them were important but ultimately less important antagonists compared to our ultimate destination dealing with the Final Days that were, in the end, caused by a source even Fandaniel wasn’t aware of completely.

One of the reasons I keep talking about the meta-narrative instead of just the pure narrative is that the themes of Endwalker are not actually answering themes and ideas that were laid out in the base game. It’s a bit of a sleight-of-hand trick to use Answers so frequently as a thematic callback, since while Answers has a very strong thematic statement that is relevant to Endwalker (“Tell us why, given life, we are meant to die, helpless in our cries?”), it’s not actually relevant to the original story. It’s the theme song there, but it doesn’t really tie to any of those themes.

In A Realm Reborn (which I’m using as a basis here mostly because it’s the plot people can actually experience), the themes are pretty clearly about rebuilding from disaster and finding hope when the situation seems grim. From there the patch stories move on to themes of hubris and acceptance, Heavensward talks about faith and forgiveness, Stormblood about identity and redemption,¬†and Shadowbringers about hope and inheritance. Endwalker is the first one really talking about the meaning of life, and while it calls back to plot elements, it doesn’t really have much callback to themes along the way.

Sometimes the theme is just disappointment.

This is, frankly, fine. I think it makes this a stronger overall expansion, but it does mean that for all the plot elements pull back from long-forgotten elements, the actual emotional resolution is… a bit shorter in its duration. I don’t feel that we’re finally getting payoff to something that happened back in ARR; that emotional payoff already happened. The emotional payoff we get here is about the most recent expansion putting a bow on the larger elements that had been long humming away in the background.

I also can’t help but note that most of the plot threads I hoped would be finished up were… basically unaddressed. This is also fine. I’m curious to see what happens, for example, with the handful of Ascians that are still roaming around in theory. Their plans for rejoinings and the like have been basically cut short altogether at this point. What will they do? What do they even want, if they’re still around?

And that’s part of what I like about this story. Yes, I think it might have been a little weaker than Shadowbringers, but I still enjoyed it immensely, and I loved that the designers even lampshaded the fact that there’s so much more to see with Emet-Selch just rattling off a list of things that are still out there for players to see. While I don’t know if we’ll ever get a meta-narrative as long as this one again… well, it definitely wrapped up in a dramatic fashion. That’s a good thing.

Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments down below or via mail to eliot@massivelyop.com. Next week, I’m going to be talking about patch 6.01.

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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