Wisdom of Nym: In praise of Final Fantasy XIV’s Ultimate content

Alas and alack.

As basically everyone who has read this column for a long period of time knows, I have not done the latest bit of Ultimate content in Final Fantasy XIV. Nor do I intend to. Considering that I have also not done any prior Ultimate content and do not intend to do subsequent Ultimate content, this is not surprising; this is also not surprising considering that I have had the opposite of kind words to say about people who got bent out of shape when various bits of Ultimate content were delayed in favor of things meant to be enjoyed by a larger number of players.

Moreover, I have gone on the record multiple times as saying that I have little to no interest in the world first race here, and I find any and all community drama that erupts from it to be exactly the sort of thing we don’t need. If people want to use tools to basically cheat the difficulty of these encounters, that’s an argument against those tools and a sign of limitations of the playerbase. If you’re nothing without your addons, then you shouldn’t have them. So you might think that I have nothing nice to say about Ultimate fights.

And you would be wrong. Just perhaps not for the reasons you might think.

Here’s the thing that I think is central to understanding a very important aspect of how FFXIV designs things: The game’s story content is not the easy mode. It is the normal mode. There are harder modes, but the game also makes it clear every single time that the Savage raids or the Extreme trials or whatever are not the actual events. They are fictional constructs in which you face off against a hypothetical harder version of the fight, and while you can argue the version the way in which they are balanced, this is a true statement within the game’s diegesis.

That may not seem to be particularly relevant; after all, does it matter if the actual fight with Zodiark is the normal mode and the EX fight is technically fictional? The two fights were balanced and produced at the same time, so from a practical standpoint there is no difference, and it’s not as if the designers later made a harder version. Why does the story here matter in the first place?

And the answer to that is a little esoteric because we have to look at priorities, and that is where Ultimates come into place.

While from a content standpoint it doesn’t make much of a difference which version is the “real” version, from a narrative standpoint it says something important about the overall game world in a subtle way. For example, we all know Savage bosses often get additional forms, but in terms of the game’s actual narrative, those forms don’t exist. They don’t happen at any point.

Here we are, in the classic.

It goes even further with Ultimates. Not only are these versions of the story explicitly not what actually happened, but they’re versions of the story that explicitly ask you to believe non-canonical versions of what happened. Dragonsong War Ultimate is the most extreme, even, spinning a complete alternate universe about what might have occurred, but all of them are purely speculative exercises, investigating the idea of enemies you never fought and battles that never occurred.

In a way, it’s a bit like the old What If? comics from Marvel, complete with the part that those comics always delivered as a subtle background joke: The answer to “what if X had happened instead” was always “things would have been way worse and you should be happy that didn’t happen.”

With any long-running story there’s always the wish to go back and re-examine things. The idea of getting a do-over and getting a chance to write new scenarios based on what you know now, or even wanting to bring back classic villains because players liked them and they’re a bit too dead to bring them back around. Often this manifests in an extreme reluctance to actually kill off a given villain, or just writing tortured justifications wherein somehow the villain is back again despite having died a while back because mumble mumble now you can fight him again.

And you might think that making so much of this content explicitly fictional is good because it allows the writers to preserve the consistency of the actual world while still getting rematches against notable enemies. This is true, but it’s not the whole story. It’s good that this is all fictional not simply because it provides a chance to keep using these villains without damaging the narrative in the future; it provides an incentive to use characters for an intended purpose now without worrying about the prospect of later regret.

But even that isn’t the biggest win here because here’s the thing: The selling point is the explicitly fictional nature.

New content rarely has videos.

Yes, Ultimates drop pretty nice weapons, and you might like the cosmetics, but they are only slightly ahead of the curve and not enough to be expected rewards. They’re obsoleted pretty quickly. Dragonsong’s Reprise weaponry was surpassed really quickly by tomestone gear, and that was… honestly to be expected. If you want a new weapon now, you are not going to be working on Dragonsong.

But people are still working on Dragonsong.

People still go back and do this content. Yes, partly for the cosmetics because this stuff can never be trivialized, and partly for bragging rights because that’s important for people, too. Yet for a lot of people the appeal and draw of this content is who you are fighting. What makes Dragonsong compelling is the fact that is explicitly giving people a chance to save a beloved character who dies and to fight back through an intensely emotional story arc, to get a full experience of an intensely emotional expansion all in one go.

Every single Ultimate is not about facing off against The Hardest Boss From An Expansion (something Ultima Weapon never was). It’s about revisiting a story. It’s about taking part in a battle against someone you specifically know that existed within a specific context. The first Ultimate covering Stormblood content is focused on Omega, a character who very specifically still casts a long shadow over parts of the game’s story and who specifically harnesses an aspect of storytelling we later understood. It’s fan service.

And that, I think, says a lot about FFXIV and its approach to story, characters, and design. The goal of this content is not simply to give you the hardest possible fight against the meanest possible bosses. It’s to give you fights against characters you remember in unusual configurations, to provide a singular guided narrative and mechanical experience. That’s why the challenge is set up to never be trivialized. These should always feel like unique encounters, special journeys of battle, not simply content to be cleared to check off a box somewhere.

The reward is clearing the fight. The weapon is just a cherry on top.

Feedback, as always, is welcome down in the comments below or via mail to eliot@massivelyop.com. Next week, I want to take a closer look at something else story-related, specifically looking at some very powerful entities, objects, and artifacts which are off somewhere that we (as players) don’t really know about right now.

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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