This is an ongoing series in which we explore the world of Final Fantasy XIV and all it has to offer - including the Heavensward expansion content - starting from scratch with a brand new character. Join us as we venture into Eorzea…
Week 9: The Eorzean Escape
This being the final entry in my Final Fantasy XIV diary, I thought it only right to reflect on the past months and come to some sort of conclusion as to what it is that has made delving deeply into the game so enjoyable. Plus, it's Christmas, so trying to unwrap the whole thing and understand it from a perspective beyond the aesthetic and immediate feels like a valuable point of meditation at this time of year.
In any case, I didn't want to add another 'This is what Christmas is like in FFXIV' article to what is surely going to be a very tall pile by the end of this weekend.
Whenever I load up A Realm Reborn, click myself into the world and come to some sort of plan as to how I'm going to spend the next few hours, I'm always hit with a sense of loneliness. Not loneliness of the melancholic, isolated sense, but something altogether more positive, something calming and welcome.
Amid the hustle and bustle of other mainstream games, obsessed with firing engagement after engagement at you in some vague scattergun approach to making sure you're having an awesome, amazing, incredible (insert your own superlative here) time, here's a game that dials the pace right back. FFXIV asks you what you want to do. It puts all the emphasis on you to create your fun out of what it offers.
For that reason it's both welcoming and distant. On the one hand you're greeted with open arms, on the other you're left to your devices. To borrow a cliché: you more you put in, the more you get back. It's like learning a foreign language. Probably.
As a result, then, when the rewards do come they feel infinitely more worthwhile than those that are awarded in other games for simply going through the preset motions. That loneliness, whilst certainly (to some extent) coming from you having to force the engagement for yourself, might then also come from the conditioning other games have forced upon us when it comes to their obsession with praising players for even the most questionable successes.
To enjoy FFXIV you almost have to go through a de-conditioning chamber to get there. That is, if you're otherwise used to spending your gaming time playing only mainstream propositions.
A similar pattern of reward is achieved by the likes of Dark Souls or Sunless Sea, although much of their 'loneliness' is derived from the high walls of difficulty they throw at you - setting up the feeling that you're alone through a lack of ability to attain whatever lies behind the brick.
FFXIV is not a difficult game in the traditional sense - far from it - but it does require a level of dedication and a desire to understand its intricacies that some might deem difficult.
This is all getting a bit philosophical, perhaps, but that's indicative of the impact FFXIV has had on me since being triggered to think about the act of engaging with it, rather than simply playing it as a means to pass the time or 'complete' it. When thinking back on this MMO it's not the events, the quests, the loot or the narrative that come to mind, it's the overriding feeling of a wholly positive form of isolation.
Perhaps isolation isn't the right word at all. Solitude or seclusion might be more appropriate.
In a way, FFXIV offers the ultimate form of videogame escapism. You're not escaping into a world of bullets and guns in which your mind is forced to switch off so that your reflexes can enjoy free reign over your cerebral material. Instead you're escaping into a world that forces you to act in an intelligent, thoughtful way in order to derive any satisfaction from its treasures. Your mind is escaping into another world, rather than simply being distracted by a constant onslaught of action and potential for digital death.
While other MMOs attempt to trigger the same kind of emotional response as a means to retaining the player base over a period long enough to claim financial success to shareholders, FFXIV's approach feels entirely lacking of any cynical, profit-driven, undercurrent. Whether that really is true or not is almost beside the point given that it's not visible from within the game itself. It's a quality that allows you to absorb the design choices with an open mind, celebrating the fact that they've been designed with the player, rather than pure profit, as priority.
Of course, player satisfaction and profit tend to go hand-in-hand, but the balance can be skewed in favour of the latter. I don't want to name names, but there's a reason why so many other MMOs have failed to retain their players and have had to go down the free-to-play route in order to attract anyone anymore. FFXIV, instead, continues to charge its player base a subscription fee - highlighting the fact that people will pay for something that harbours value, rather than settle for something inferior but free.
That value spawns from the fact that FFXIV asks you to engage with it just as much it engages with you. It's a two-way relationship that feels meaningful over the long term, one that alters and deepens as you understand its world and your fellow players more readily.
This diary may be over, but my FFXIV relationship certainly isn't.
Click over the page for week 8 to read about a tale of three cities...