Wisdom of Nym: Final Fantasy XIV and the grim specter of continuity lockout

    
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So... we cool, huh? We cool?

This particular column was inspired by a question by regular reader, commenter, and friend to man and beast alike Scott Leyes, who originally posed the question in a column a couple weeks back that I thought was good enough to be expanded out into an entire column. Specifically, Scott was wondering if the story of Final Fantasy XIV was starting to reach a point where it would be hard for not just new players but even existing players to follow along, given that there are so many deep cuts and references to the game’s lore and decade or so of storytelling that the story beats might just… stop working.

Naturally, the answer to that question is… yes. Yes, we are definitely reaching that point. And it’s important to understand how we got here, what is being done about it, and whether or not it’s going to become a crippling problem for the game sooner rather than later. This is a great time to discuss continuity lockout in general, how it affects Final Fantasy XIV in specific, and whether or not it constitutes an irreversible flaw or just the natural pace of storytelling.

So what is continuity lockout? Well, you can find a page for it on TV Tropes, but quite honestly that page doesn’t do a great job of explaining what it actually is and frames it solely in terms of attracting new audiences. And the thing is that continuity lockout can absolutely be a problem for existing audiences just as surely. Continuity lockout is what happens when it’s hard for new audiences to get started and hard for existing audiences to remember important things from the overall story.

The former tends to get looked at a lot as an important element, and in complete fairness to FFXIV, the game is on a constant rolling schedule of trying to make things easier for new players to get into. Some of that is compressing irrelevant quests, some of that is just trimming up and improving old content, etc. But no matter what you do, if you are a totally new player to the game you have 90 levels’ worth of story to go through in order to catch up to the present.

But the latter, the problem with existing audiences? That’s usually elided in discussion about continuity lockouts despite being an enormous problem for a long-term story. It’s one thing if a new person doesn’t recognize a character coming back into prominence for the first time in seven years; if the new person is accepting the plan of “jump in from the middle and see if I like it,” some people are just going to be unfamiliar. But if your core audience sees someone come back and is all, “who the hell is this dude,” you’re suffering from continuity lockout just as certainly.

Continuity lockout can come from a lot of sources. Sometimes it’s the sheer size of a work you have to go through to catch up. I really enjoy some webcomics, but telling people “you just have to read a decade’s worth of daily updates for the present stuff to make sense” doesn’t exactly encourage them to get started, especially when the oldest material is almost always the weakest material. But just as surely, it comes from having your existing audience just… forget things.

Fighting with a reap.

So with all that in mind, let’s look at Final Fantasy XIV specifically. The story starting off in 6.1 is, in many ways, meant to be a soft reboot. It’s a new place for stories to start from that doesn’t require you to remember everything from the past decade. That’s been wrapped up. And yet… uh… it kind of expects you do remember all of this stuff. It expects you remember Nixies and what happened to Nero in the Crystal Tower series, and if you happen to know all of the First Brood from supplemental lore books, that’d be great, thanks.

I cannot tell you how many people have asked me if they were supposed to remember Azdaja from all the once she had been mentioned before. And I did remember Azdaja because I am a gigantic nerd and have an easy time remembering these things (and I’ve mentioned her before in these columns, even), but a lot of people don’t.

Now, the flip side to that is that the story at this point doesn’t expect you to know this stuff. This is a character who had been named but never seen or explained, and as soon as she becomes relevant, Vrtra happily explains to us who she is, what happened to her, and why he searched for her and then stopped. Clear and concise! This is to the game’s credit: You are not being expected to remember this thing you have no reason to think about; you are being expected to pay enough attention to say “oh, Azdaja, they just mentioned her, what’s her deal?”

But it still feels a bit off-putting, especially if you consider yourself a pretty dedicated player who pays attention to the story, to be suddenly confronted by someone you’ve never heard of before. It feels like you’re missing something, especially when the story is already filled with “remember this” moments that have you nodding along and saying “oh, I… kind of remember… that was a thing? I guess?”

The thing is that yes, we are reaching the point where it is easy and possible – if not inevitable – that the sheer amount of continuity is going to become a problem. There’s a lot to keep track of in this game, a lot of lore, a lot of miscellaneous tidbits. And where we go from here depends a lot on the nature of the storytelling from this point moving forward.

Now we learn.

On the one hand, much of Endwalker feels like it is, in various ways, saying goodbye to settings, people, and situations that have been a part of the game since the relaunch. If managed properly, this is a smart move because it creates a break in continuity to allow for not precisely a reset but a soft recalibration. You don’t need to remember who all of the Grand Company leaders are or what was going on in Ishgard or whatever because, essentially, this update brought you up to the new baseline and from here on out we’re entering new territory. We’re not claiming that old stuff no longer matters, just that we’re not using it as our storytelling foundation any more; we’re done with that story.

At the same time, it’s also possible that the next update expects you to remember a whole lot of obscure quests about voidsent and times they intersected with the world as a whole. And that’s going to make some people just increasingly glaze over as the story becomes harder to follow.

I do think the developers are working to combat this, especially with the little lore compendium that was added in 6.1 to give you a quick refresher on people and situations. But I think we’re not going to know until 6.2 if we’re taking this as a new springboard after a few reminders… or if we are moving wholeheartedly into making the story impenetrable unless you remember a lot of details or you’re ready to look things up on the regular. I hope for the former.

Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments or via mail to eliot@massivelyop.com. Next week, I want to talk about an issue that’s not precisely connected but is important to consider: Whether or not FFXIV is reaching a point of job saturation.

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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