Nostalgia or Magic – Perhaps They Are One and the Same
My personal history with RPGs and Final Fantasy is pretty easily summarised: It’s a love story.
The first time I played a Final Fantasy game was when I was around twelve to thirteen years old. Camping out at my cousin’s place during summer vacation, they had just bought the brand-new title Final Fantasy VII. I didn’t have much exposure to video games before that since I wasn’t allowed to have a console or any gaming system at that time. Said cousin’s home was my gateway to games – video, and others actually. There, I started playing Dungeons & Dragons for the first time and fell in love with the idea of an RPG. I played my first Super Mario games during my weekends at my aunt’s, learned how to beat one cousin after the other in Street Fighter and Tekken, and one fateful day, I experienced something new: an RPG – but it was also a computer game.
FFVII was in many ways a revelation. It was the first game that grabbed me through its story. It was the first game that made me pay attention to world-building and the message behind the story I was playing. It was the first game that made me want to know more about the antagonist.
It was the first game that made me cry.
It’s a visceral memory that I have. Young teenage me sitting on the floor, legs half asleep because sitting on the floor for hours is never comfortable, a bag of gummi bears next to me, clutching the controller because surely the game was kidding me! There was no way that the thing that had just happened actually happened. No way!
In a time without internet access, without full media coverage about every nook and cranny of a game, a time where, if I wanted to talk about the game I had to be in an actual room with the people that had played it too, there were no spoilers. No other dozens of games that had done the same thing before. No points of reference. Nothing to put the experience into any sort of context.
And I think that, those factors, are the ones that fuel the nostalgia. Those things you can’t replicate anymore. It wasn’t just a story that took an unexpected turn. Those are a dime a dozen. But the precise circumstances under which I first experienced that story — that made it so memorable.
That was when I irrevocably fell in love with video games.
There were others, of course. I branched out. With fourteen, I got a PC and a whole different sort of gaming world opened up through that. I fell in love with strategy games, city planners, the first pc RPGs found their way to me… but Final Fantasy stayed with me. It had to. That very first game never quite let me go again. I would replay it several times later on in life. It wasn’t the same. Not even close. But it also wasn’t worse. Just… different. When something blows you away this much at first, it is easy to think that every repeat performance would most likely feel the same. They never do, though. That first-time magic? That goes away, but it also makes room for other things. In FFVII’s case, the game itself grew over time. I wasn’t the only one blown away by this title, after all. Sequels, Prequels, Add-Ons and other media around FFVII would continue to go on and grow the story for years.
I sat and watched in awe how animation got better and better as Advent Children came out, I scraped together for a PSP just to be able to play FFVII – Crisis Core. (Spoiler: It was so worth it!). I played the little tie-in fighting games. And of course, the follow-up titles. Final Fantasy VIII was a worthy successor. Final Fantasy X was another milestone in gaming for me. I am one of the few people who even kinda enjoyed the dreaded XIII. And then… it fizzled.
I am not even quite sure why. But for a while, I completely lost touch with that entire universe. (To be fair, apparently, so did the publishing studio…) And when XIV came out, I didn’t even really pay attention. I had finally gotten into MMOs a while before through Lord of the Rings Online, and that game took up a lot of my gaming time. It had made me fall in love with the genre. The shared experience, the cooperative play and the friends I made through that game got me out of an unpleasant personal phase. To this day, Lotro has a special place in my heart. So when XIV came around, I wasn’t interested. I only read how bad the game experience was, and before I could even get around to trying it out myself, they were already talking about shutting it down.
I read articles about the Re-Launch a year later, read about how much better it was, but again, I didn’t pay too much attention. I was busy doing other things. Namely, playing Star Wars The Old Republic. When Stormblood launched, I decided to give it a chance. Bought the complete edition and then… didn’t really play. At that time, I was deeply immersed in Guild Wars II and had absolutely no free headspace to get into another MMO.
In hindsight, that might have been a bit of a mistake. Not playing Guild Wars II — that game was and remains marvelous and a milestone for MMO gaming in its own right. But by not giving FFXIV the time of day back then, I unknowingly deprived myself of something special. I finally got to start really playing XIV a couple of months ago. I was looking for a really story-heavy game, and the single-player RPG market sadly feels really dried up at the moment. (And has been largely disappointing to me in the last few years.)
Whenever I read something about current MMOs online, there was always something that stood out — regardless of opinions on mechanics and gameplay — everyone always seems to agree on one thing: Final Fantasy XIV is worth playing for the story alone. People kept going on about that whenever I saw the game come up in discussions or reviews. The story. Play the story. It’s amazing!
Well, I went in there, expecting to be blown out of the water after all the glowing praise, and what do you know… that was exactly what happened.
I feel like I don’t even have the words to properly explain just how incredibly good this game is. How deeply immersive it feels, how welcoming and open it is despite being an MMO. It starts off slow (not boring, just slow) and guides you into a world that is filled to the brim with absolute storytelling treasures. It makes you laugh and it makes you cry, drags you along into a story that won’t let you go again and that will, if you let yourself get into it, shatter you over and over again only to gently build you up just in time for the next round. And it does all that while being simply charming.
Final Fantasy XIV has a serious story going on. It tackles issues like colonialism and structural oppression, religious zealotry and its toll on society, strong questions about the nature of war and peace, and through it all a deeply personal journey about what it means to be a hero. What it means to be a villain even. There are moments of triumph and moments of bitter defeat. Questions about right and wrong and everything in between. And it all takes place on several layers. What does your heroic journey mean for the world? For other people? And what does it mean for yourself? What actually happens to a hero at the end of the day? And what happens to those who did everything right and yet still lost?
All this is just a small glimpse of where the storytelling of FFXIV leads you. It is an epic game. And a deeply personal one. A game that somehow manages to find a balance between heart-wrenching events and having you go on adventures that have you fall out of your chair from laughing. I have lost boss fights in this game both because I could not see my monitor through the tears and because I had to laugh so much I couldn’t move anymore. The world of XIV is unique in its way of being both mature and serious while having an overall peaceful, sometimes almost whimsical touch to it.
And it is a playground. As most MMOs are, but the sheer mass of different game modes in XIV is astonishing. Tired of doing quests and fighting enemies? Why not level all the way to max level as a Botanist instead? The game leads you through all the important areas on your quest to become a gatherer or craftsman. You unlock abilities and learn rotations just like you’d do in a combat class, but instead of killing things you do all that, learn all that so you can instead create something. And the game (and the community) thoroughly rewards you for that.
Need a timeout even from that? There is an in-game equivalent to Las Vegas that can keep you busy forever. Games of chance, racing games, card games, pet battles… Want to play Mahjong against highly skilled opponents or participate in an in game cosplay contest? You can literally spend hours doing exactly that. And if you are done, you can move to one of the deep dungeons, separate dungeons that emulate classic game mods and dungeon crawler feeling. Buy an apartment or a house and start your career as an interior designer. Or a restaurant owner. Or open a boutique to sell your crafted armor and fashion items.
Train your own squadron to go on adventures for you. Hire retainers to work for you, sell your goods or go on missions. All while you take your sightseeing log and spend your days looking for the perfect spots to see the world from. All of the things I wrote about give you XP and are legitimate ways of playing this game. And all of them are totally optional — yet definitely rewarding. You don’t need to do anything if you just want to play the story. If you want to make the world your own, though, the game lets you.
On top of it, you will not lack for content for a long, long time. The story is not only deep, but it is also long. Broken up into several arcs by the expansions, but the story content really is a lot. And it doesn’t stop. The game gets updated with new story content roundabout every 3 1/2 months. And when I say “new story content”, I don’t mean a few minutes of cutscenes and a couple of fetch quests. FFXIV’s patches are so densely packed with new stuff that other games would almost call them expansions. A single patch in FF brings more to the game that some other MMOs I’ve played (and still loved mind you!) added in a year. The story never dries up between the large expansions, on the contrary, the patches drive the story forward into the next big adventure in a way that makes each newly released expansion feel like a huge payoff for all the build-up.
It feels almost a bit off to write a glowing love letter to this game and not mention the music. I won’t say much more than that it is absolutely stunning and a staple for both video game OSTs and the franchise, mainly because I have a special article just about the musical landscape of this game in the works that will go more into depth on that topic. In the meantime:
Final Fantasy XIV might not be for everyone. Tastes and preferences differ. But for me? It is hands down the best MMO I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. It toppled my long-time favorite (Lotro) off its number one spot for games that simply make me incredibly happy. FFXIV is not a game I feel like I have to play to get somewhere. It’s not a game where I feel like I have to log in and go through the motions and get a certain amount of stuff done or I am wasting precious time and resources. Rather, it is a game that makes me feel giddy with excitement. It makes me feel at peace when I play. It makes me want to play just for the sake of it, not for gaining anything. At the end of the day, it’s a game that makes me happy by just existing in it. I play it a lot with two friends of mine lately, and they can probably both attest just how often I say something in the vicinity of “omg this just makes me so happy right now!”
A small shutout to both of them. Because I’ve been in some sort of gaming fatigue for the longest time. Enjoying the occasional hour here and there but never really on the level I was used to way back when or like I am doing now. A. & W., you know who you are, you both made gaming into something I really, truly enjoy doing again and I am incredibly grateful for it!
My other friends are probably getting tired of how much I keep talking about random bits about this game by now. And I am sorry. But be at peace with the knowledge that I am not constantly trying to convert you to play with me, I am just genuinely happy and trying to share some of the happiness every now and then.
In a way, XIV is very reminiscent of my very first more involved gaming experiences. I am back to being that twelve-year-old girl that sneaks over to her aunt’s place at every opportunity because just sitting in front of that screen made her so happy she didn’t even care if she was horribly bad at what she did – she just enjoyed it. Enjoyed the wonder of a whole new world opening up to her. At that time, when I went home at night, I lay in bed, thinking about the game I just played. The world I was just in. And I fell asleep thinking ‘damn, I can’t wait till I get to play again!’ That was the magic of Final Fantasy VII for me. And it feels somehow magical for me that today, 22 years later, I can go to bed again feeling exactly the same.