MMO Masterclass: Storytelling in FFXIV – A Realm Reborn

Tamrielo from Aggrochat has recently been looking at storytelling in FFXIV in his two-part post, where he’s analyzing the different content seasons and story archs in the game, how they have improved over time and immersed him as a player. If you’ve been playing a Realm Reborn for any decent amount of time since FFXIV’s relaunch, you know that there’s no way around the main storyline in Eorzea. In fact, there is probably no MMO out there right now that is more dedicated to its storytelling than this one. The narrative is front and center and accomplishes the remarkable feat of including its audience. After Yoshida took over the reigns for ARR, the player character was brought back into the narrative fold.

Naturally, many MMOs turn the player into a nearly omnipotent hero of the story and much has been criticized in regards to that particular trope. However, FFXIV does it in such an unconditional, dedicated and traditional way, that it’s kind of a big deal. Telling stories has always been the forte of the FF franchise and finally, there is a classic MMORPG that not only manages to rise from the ashes but combine the linearity of JRPG storytelling with an MMO environment. As much as I tried to care about the politics of Azeroth or Tyria in the past, no other MMO has managed to include me, make me care about NPCs and the greater course of events, the way FFXIV has done.

The Great Final Fantasy Formula

Ever since the early beginnings of the FF franchise, Squaresoft’s much beloved JRPG titles followed a very clear and narrow path: the player gets to control a powerful hero, more often than not a person of unknown origins or obscure past. The hero is not the player, since the player has no real agency over the character’s story and there are next to no choices. An equally important ingredient to this formula is “the party” which is one of the most central aspects of all FF games; your very own gang of specialists, distinctly defined by their class and different abilities that will mostly align with a holy trinity concept, despite the fact that FF is all about round-based combat. Down the line, you and your gang will probably find out that you are all related or were raised in the same orphanage. You are never truly alone in a FF game.

Cloud and the gang

Cloud and the gang

Add to this very straightforward setup a linear storyline with next to no branching; the point is not to write your own story or find your own path but rather, to immerse yourself in a tale told by an invisible puppet master. The tool you’re given to accomplish your goals is a customizable, complex round-based combat system with random encounters. Your driving force is a world struck by tragedy or impending doom that only you and your A-Team can save (most likely by help of some sparkly crystal or other). Along the way, you will face one or two ambivalent villain figures as well as lots of wacky side-kick characters.

Now imagine all of this being crafted with an outstanding sense of aesthetics on a graphical and musical level, and the result will always be the same: your next FF title. In the past, Squaresoft have consistently pushed narrative RPG standards for at least 15 years, during a most pivotal time for gaming and not just with the FF franchise either. A Realm Reborn, although set in an online world where choices and interactions with other players are possible, follows most of this old textbook to a fault.

Intricate Politics and Overwhelming Stakes

A great many heroic tale comes with a doomsday prophecy: it will be the end of the world as you know it, or alternatively the end of the world full stop, unless significant obstacles are overcome and evil is vanquished. While this can be a tiring setup in RPGs and MMOs, it is still popular enough in getting audiences engaged. I don’t really mind this trope personally, what I really care about is execution. Am I presented with an uninspiring tale of clear good vs. evil or a much more complicated world where loyalties and intentions change constantly?

Squaresoft JRPGs have often introduced such nuances, despite their linear plot. Over the course of a playthrough, you’d learn about the background stories of your adversaries. You would have to rely on characters of questionable allegiance, you’d see mercenaries turn altruistic or allies turn traitor. Faced with warring factions unwilling to unite for a greater cause, you’d find yourself drowning in petty schemes and side-politics. Even villains may be worth saving in the end.

MMORPGs have a hard time delivering such complexities, given that they try to achieve a certain degree of open world freedom and accommodate various playstyles. A Realm Reborn doesn’t compromise much on that front; players who want access to dungeons or endgame, will need to engage in the story. But since the story is the driving force behind the entire game, rather than an afterthought, things feel different.

refugees

Unwelcome refugees in wealthy Ul’dah.

Now I’m with Liore in that there’s still some “goofy MMO writing” and delivery going on at times, the cutscenes sure can get tedious while your character is silently nodding along. But I’m impressed at the different issues the story has touched on thus far – from immigration poverty and class warfare to interracial politics (and racism) and even environmentalism. That’s just to name a few themes. Down the line, you realize how you’re being pulled into twisted intrigues and machinations by multiple players on a chess board Game of Thrones-style, while SE take full opportunity to send players all over the world (including so-called old zones and dungeons) to chase their story’s tail, simultaneously serving the social engineering of the game. For an MMORPG, that is one noteworthy use of narrative.

Joining a band of brothers of sorts, the player soon establishes a steady home-base to return to in between missions and before long, gets attached to the NPCs that share the story with him. It’s safe to say that not many an eye was left dry at the conclusion of ARR before the expansion.

The Heavensward Trailer and The Adventurer

The official launch trailer for Heavensward is another example of storytelling done right. Instead of the usual showcase of random locations and encounters without obvious connection, the trailer takes over from the moment your character finished his/her main story. The Adventurer, an unnamed character who represents the player in FFXIV is back, while the ending of the Seventh Astral Era as well as some future events flicker over the screen. The trailer concludes with the player arriving in Ishgard, which is where your journey in Heavensward begins. Talk about trailers bridging content.

In Conclusion

While I am praising FFXIV’s storytelling here, that doesn’t mean its delivery isn’t without issues. As mentioned above, the cutscenes and loading screens can get too long and it’s a bit of a tragedy that SE didn’t invest in more voice acting for Heavensward. For your daily grind, uninspired fetch&delivery quests are a dime a dozen. When it comes to the main storyline however, ARR has achieved greatness by virtue of omitting branches and player agency. This might present a bit of a downer for some players but in my personal experience, most consequences in MMOs come down to an illusion of choice rather than the real thing anyway.

If there is one advice I would dare give to game developers in charge of big franchises, it would be to play to their strengths and also, not to fix what ain’t broken (okay, that was two pieces of advice). You can mix up some things and you should definitely improve on your weaknesses, ARR is a prime example of that – however, it is a mistake to abandon franchise-defining elements and to throw your greatest virtues overboard for the sake of innovation. Too often have we seen over-hyped sequels crash and burn because they strayed too far from the established path, rather than to widen it just a little. FFXIV has conserved its JRPG traditions and legacy masterfully and for the most part, with little compromise. Storytelling is this developer’s strong suit and they have had the good sense to embrace that.

Ironically, other developers never overcome their struggle with the fourth pillar in MMOs: how to include the player while not making him the center of attention? How to manage that balance of player agency and choices versus narrative chaos and insignificance? Square-Enix’ answer to that would be, not to go there at all. Better to have a solid, engaging and linear story the way it’s told in a book or movie, than to fail epically with the best of intentions. I can’t help but agree with them on that one. The proof is in the pudding.

5 comments

  1. If a video game narrative is “a solid, engaging and linear story the way it’s told in a book or movie” why not put that story in a movie or a book? I was rather enjoying the FFXIV storyline when I was playing but I didn’t feel any of the running about, fetching and carrying or fighting added to my enjoyment. Rather the opposite in fact.

    I remain to be convinced that video games are an appropriate carrier for linear narrative. They work, but other media work better. I much prefer scattered, non-linear narratives in video games, the kind where a picture builds up over time, almost abstractly or randomly from many minor events. That’s something video games have the capacity to do as well or even better than movies or books whereas it seems unlikely they will ever be as successful as older media in telling a straightforward linear story without a lot of narrative-breaking interruptions.

    I agree FFXIV makes a good a fist of it as we’ve seen and clearly there’s a large market for the Final Fantasy approach but I’ve always had trouble with it. I gave up half way through FFXVII, the only one of the offline series I’ve ever played, because although I was really enjoying the story I couldn’t stand to go through any more fights to find out what happened next. I could say the same of TSW, Dragon Age and more.

    Having to punch and kick my way to the next chapter of a linear story just does nothing other than annoy me. If we’re going to have a linear narrative in an MMO I’d rather it they attached each cut scene to a level, so that you could do anything you liked to gain xp and each time you dinged you’d get a movie of the next installment. Well, it would work better for me like that, anyway.

    I’m not really cut out for video games, truth be told. I’ve played them for more than 35 years but in many ways they have always annoyed me more than entertained me.

    1. Here’s the thing: books, plays, movies, and television shows are different in story telling as is a video game.

      A book requires writing that let’s you imagine everything in your mind, and a clear voice for the character or characters depending on point of view.

      Plays and movies rely on visual story telling but are also LIMITED in time. Movies and plays remain to be around 2 to 4 hours on average because they are meant to be enjoyed in one sitting.

      Television also relies on visual story telling but they are limited by both seasons and episode length – 30 minutes to an hour. Most television shows are also expected to be episodic, ending a conflict of the episode by the end even if the main plot isn’t resolved.

      Video games are different. A video game story can go on for about 50 hours without including combat. It relies on visual story telling as well. This allows a greater deal of character development that movies and plays can’t capture, and are not constrained by “resolve by the end of the episode” 30 minute plots like television shows.

      Video game stories like Final Fantasy are the closest you can realistically get for the narrative length of a book without compromising on most character development, world building, and character exploration. They also have the ability to be as visually stunning as movies, plays, and television shows. The middle ground.

      That’s why people enjoy a Final Fantasy type story for their video games.

    2. @bhag

      “I’m not really cut out for video games, truth be told. I’ve played them for more than 35 years but in many ways they have always annoyed me more than entertained me.”

      That doesn’t sound so good! :P
      Hehe…I think you still have a bit of an axe to grind with FFXIV but yeah, linear storytelling isn’t for everyone. I personally don’t agree that it’s for books and movies only, I do like the interactive aspect of RPGs no matter how straightforward. I dare say you do a lot of running from A to B in MMOs no matter what. :)

      In FFXIV’s case, the proof really is right there in the impact the story has on the playerbase by now; the level of attachment and engagement feels a lot higher than elsewhere and that to me is proof of success. Doesn’t mean more openworldy MMOs like GW2 can’t be fun too but for me, it was always hard to care about the world or any of the characters there.

  2. XIV is everything the themepark model should be, for better or for worse. There are some design decisions that I still don’t always agree with…but it is an excellent MMO and VERY excellent at what it does. Story is most definitely chief among them.

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