One of the things that I’ve long held up as a strength of Final Fantasy XIV is that it is designed to allow you to build your own endgame with the content you enjoy most. If you like progression content, that’s there. If you just want to queue for stuff, that’s there too, and it’s perfectly approachable. From a strict standpoint, there is a lot in this game that is optional and can be engaged with depending on your interest, and frankly, that’s a good thing.
But in this case, that isn’t what I mean by optional.
To really dive into this, though, we need to talk about what qualifies as “optional” content in the game when it comes to storylines. And to do that, I think it’s best if we start by going back to Final Fantasy XI because while there’s a lot of difference between the games and our illustrious producer and director worked only on FFXIV, I can’t imagine that there wasn’t some cross-pollination from staff.
FFXI has a distinct approach to both expansions and how it manages content. Specifically, every expansion is isolated in its own little silo with little to no crossover between them. The “optional” content for each expansion is fairly limited, since most cities require you to do quests and missions in order to reach requisite fame levels and unlock more stuff, but if you had completely clocked out of Wings of the Goddess in every sense other than leveling, you don’t actually need it to start in on Seekers of Adoulin. It wasn’t until Rhapsodies of Vana’diel that there was really any crossover to speak of.
The bright side to this was, obviously, that each expansion could tell a self-contained story and you didn’t have to get involved with any of them if you weren’t interested. So if you weren’t willing to jump through all of the hoops involved in the Chains of Promathia missions, you weren’t going to be completely lost when the next expansion rolled around. The down side, however, was that it was equally impossible to have these stories link up in any meaningful way. You couldn’t really explore what happened in the aftermath of the San d’Oria story and have echoes back to it in Chains of Promathia even though there’s a direct link because they’re two totally separate storylines.
With FFXIV, this is the opposite of the path taken. Expansion stories naturally flow into one another. Pretty much every zone in a given expansion features a couple of lengthy story arcs delving into specific cast members, and when there’s a tribal series of quests in that zone you need to have finished those story arcs to explore the story. The Crystal Tower series ties directly into the MSQ, the Shadows of Mhach series is getting a follow-up in the next patch, and often new stories are direct sequels to prior stories exploring the same characters.
Again, there are good and bad sides to this. The good side, for example, is that you specifically can follow up existing stories and show characters growing over a longer period of time. We’ve watched Alphinaud grow and mature over the course of several expansions, and even if he never gets focus again, he developed a lot. But the down side is… well, when everything is part of a chain, you start to get a lot less optional content.
That’s not to say that you need to keep up with everything in order to play through the game at this time. For example, you do not need to do the Return to Ivalice story in order to play through the main scenario of Shadowbringers. It remains optional. But you would be locked out of Bozja and associated content until you finished it. And this is especially prominent when you consider that the characters from the Return to Ivalice storyline who appear in Bozja are minor side characters. Mikoto is mostly there as an exposition dump, and Cid is there because of course he is, but the main NPCs from that story are pretty universally absent.
And the thing about optional content is that it’s not optional if you have a choice not to do it, but later content you do want to do is gated behind it.
Imagine, for a moment, if Aglaia were gated behind completion of Eureka. This would allow for some interesting characters to carry forward and some fun sequel influence along the way. But it would also not only involve a lot of work to clear through the older content but involve unlocking content you want to play by playing something completely different. It’s possible to enjoy alliance raids while not enjoying the open-world grind mechanics, for example – especially since Eureka was contentious at the time.
And let’s not forget that one of the main stated goals of the development team is to help encourage more people to play. That’s kind of kneecapped if new players are told “oh, you need to do this lengthy train of content that won’t reward you with meaningful gear or experience in order to unlock the thing you want to play right now.” Yes, as someone who plays this game a lot it’s functionally immaterial to me, but every roadblock to current content when someone wants to start playing now is kind of an issue.
I remember being particularly annoyed about this when it came to the Arkasodara quests that got added with patch 6.15. Yes, I had already done both of the storylines that were required in Thavnair before you could unlock this content… but one of the storylines in question had basically nothing to do with this. It was name-dropped a couple of times, but it was otherwise irrelevant to the plot of the hippo riders. This was only not optional because it was an expected structural element.
FFXIV is a really fun game with a wide variety of content you can choose to engage in, but it’s also a very large game with a decade’s worth of ongoing development. While it can be tempting and understandable to look at all of that content as a checklist, it’s not fair to new players – or veteran players who may not have interest in doing everything – to lock things behind content that had previously been optional. Especially when more often than not, the actual narrative payoff is less “look at this cohesive character arc” and more “remember that character from this prior story, here’s a starring role instead of a minor supporting one!”
Quite frankly, I think optional content is a good thing. It’s good that people can look at some content and say “that’s not for me” and feel comfortable in doing so, rather than be locked into doing something because later on it might be necessary for totally different content. We have a throughline that everyone needs to complete; it’s called the main scenario quest for a reason. Let the rest be optional.
Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next time around, let’s take a somewhat related tack and look at neglected or forgotten systems in the game.