Let’s start with something straightforward: Everyone who wants to hop down to the comments to state that you don’t care about story in an MMO? You’re excused. Congratulations on not caring about a thing. Choosing to ignore this warning and posting a comment in which you loudly proclaim how little you care about something constitutes consenting to being mocked relentlessly because not liking something is fine, but walking into a pasta workshop to lecture people about how much you don’t like pasta is a bit pointless.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about themes. We’ve finished up Final Fantasy XIV‘s first story arc after eight years of storytelling, and while there are a lot of side stories and the like that have been spun around this game, the main story itself is now viewable as a completed entity, and that means it can be unpacked as a piece of self-contained fiction rather than an ongoing tale which may very well reframe parts of itself. And that means now is time to start asking about whether or not it explores its themes along with whether or not those themes are any good.
Fiction literacy is not in a great place online, sadly, and that means a lot of people usually disingenuously trying to claim that certain things don’t have themes. This is false; the mere act of telling a narrative of some kind means that you have themes and narrative meaning, even if the narrative is just “plumber wants to rescue princess.” Even if you are explicitly trying to avoid themes that might go along with a given narrative, that in and of itself creates thematic implications because you are contorting to avoid a specific analysis.
At the same time, themes are not the only thing that make for a good or memorable story. One of my favorite films of 2021, The Green Knight, had a pretty simple and straightforward theme of being humble and aware of your own limitations; the legendarily terrible Batman v Superman has a lot of very dense and layered themes about the right to hold power, the limits of unilateral authority, and the individual journey between decency and monstrosity in pursuit of ideals. Themes are a component, not the whole of storytelling, and you can have the most interesting themes but put them forth so badly or with such awful conclusions that you shoot your story in the foot.
So what are the themes of FFXIV? Well, the biggest one is a pretty self-referential one that asks why you’re here in the first place.
I’m not kidding. Endwalker definitely leans harder on this, with Hermes and Meteion both questioning the meaning of life and Venat asking you directly if your journey has been worthwhile, but it’s hardly new to the game. Midgardsormr seals away your blessing to see what you will do without it just before Heavensward, only to find that the Warrior of Light continues onward. Gaius straight-up asks the Warrior of Light for a purpose in Praetorium, although that impact is lost a bit now that it’s not an actual choice. And Zenos even serves as a dark mirror to the WoL for this precise reason: He has no reason to fight aside from fighting.
Considering that this is asked in the context of an MMORPG, I’d say this is a clever rhetorical trick. There are a lot of different reasons you might be playing the game. But it also provides an answer, both diegetically and via ludonarrative, in the form of bonds with other people.
Whenever the story has to give an explicit answer of what keeps characters going, the ultimate reason is always the fact that they are all working together to make the world a better place. That’s a bit generic for a JRPG story, but it’s backed up by the fact that literally, you are playing a game in which you are encouraged and expected to form bonds with others – to join a Free Company, make friends, craft things, adventure together, laugh together, share your journey.
It’s a neat little trick that couldn’t really work without the genre, and that is in fact what does make it work. Usually, the whole “I got here with the power of my friendships” trope feels like a rather bland ending, but here you literally got here with the power of your friendships. The party I took into the final dungeon of Endwalker was also the party I went into the final trial with. This was a shared experience and journey, whether those companions are in-universe or real.
But I also said that’s just the biggest one, and while the story touches upon a lot of other themes here and there, there’s another big theme running through the game from start to finish. Specifically, it’s a theme about the ability to grow and let go of the past and pain, to forgive and seek forgiveness.
Again, it’s more subtle early on, but it’s present right from the start and later developments make it even more relevant. The Ascians are defined, in no small part, by their inability to let go of pain and their willingness to destroy everything in hopes of bringing back a past that is already gone. Ysayle may recognize that her idealism for the past is built on a lie, but she can’t let go of it and gives her life for it.
Stormblood even made it into an explicit plot point of the subsequent patches. Fordola and Yotsuyu both are women defined by exploitation, pain, humiliation, and loss. But at the end of the day Fordola chooses to rise above that and try to do better, and Yotsuyu cannot. Her ending is a tragedy, but it’s a tragedy brought about by painfully comprehensible suffering.
The story is clear that people suffering like this are not simply targets to be mocked; they deserve sympathy and compassion. But ultimately, you can’t live like that. You cannot spend your life clawing for something that’s gone, you cannot hold on to pain and spread that to others. You have to reach for something better, to grow as a person, to be willing to find forgiveness for those who wrong you and accept responsibility for the things you have done wrong.
It’s these themes woven throughout the game that enrich and enhance the experience of the game as a whole. If the game’s dungeons were miserable slogs and the combat was horrible, the story wouldn’t rescue the whole game, but as it stands it enriches and provides additional context while being a good story all on its own. And by marrying the need for personal growth to the need for personal connection? It says something.
More than that, it says something to exactly the sort of people who are inclined to spend ages in these games (so, me, for example). It highlights the need for maturity, for advancement, and for not letting the past define you. It asks you to be better because that is ultimately what will make your journey worthwhile.
So, yeah. Good work on the themes there, folks.
Feedback is welcome in the comments down below or via mail to email@example.com, although I encourage you to keep the caveats from the first paragraph in mind. Next week? Let’s talk about the game’s biggest narrative misfires. Not just stuff I dislike, but places where the story just really doesn’t work.