FFXIV and MMO Storytelling (Part 2: Heavensward)

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I talked a bit yesterday about FFXIV and how it’s set up like a TV series, with distinct arcs that are broadly akin to seasons, playing out over months until the next one starts up. The first season is the 1-50 game, and like many first seasons, it takes a while to find its feet and, in some cases, loses a lot of people along the way.

The second season has been much stronger, and it ends on a powerful cliffhanger that left me extremely excited about the expansion (the “third season”). I want to talk a little bit about the setup for this, because it’s important to put things in context. If you’re worried about pre-expansion spoilers (and the first few hours of the expansion), here’s a spoiler tag for you, just scroll past to the kitty:

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I mentioned previously that you’re a pretty much unstoppable powerhouse by the end of the first couple of major story arcs. It’s something that the game reinforces over and over again– you’re often accompanying diplomats because the people they’re talking to are more likely to listen if they have the world’s most notable badass at their side. In at least one situation, you’re tasked with making a delivery on foot specifically because previous couriers have been ambushed and killed and you’re known to be able to stand up to pretty much anyone. You predictably get ambushed, even your attackers freak out a bit at who they just attacked, and you dispatch them all with contemputous ease, able to identify the assailants for further investigation.

You’re well known, and eventually have a significant reputation. Right at the end of the second arc, just before the expansion, this is all turned on its head. Your reputation is used to put you in a position where you can be framed for a very public crime, and your associates are targeted as accomplices. It’s set up extremely delicately, with the game not telling you what’s going on until it’s too late. For emphasis: the game doesn’t tell you what’s going on until it’s too late. It’s meant to leave you stunned and angry, and it accomplishes this brilliantly. A heinous crime is pinned on you and things go bad quickly, forcing you and your remaining associates to flee. You’re essentially a criminal… except that, as previously mentioned, you’re the most powerful individual anyone knows, and the guards in most cities are terrified of having to face you; they KNOW what you’re capable of, and their masters know their grip on things is tenuous at best, so you’re left to your own devices, just without your organization’s headquarters or resources.

It’s a very effective situation, especially because you can’t protect your associates, and the expansion opens with you fleeing to another country. It’s a brilliant setup, giving you the perfect justification for rebuilding in a new place without robbing you of your previous accomplishments. Some people here know you, most don’t, and you can carve out a reputation here once more, all while taking the occasional trip back to your homelands to work on fixing what you lost.

There are a lot of things that the game could have strung you along with– there are plenty of loose ends left just prior to the expansion, but the story does a good job of tying them up without making you wait. Each one has a build, and there’s an overall arc to things– it doesn’t feel like you do your time in the expansion and then get the payoff at the end, nor is everything neatly wrapped up leaving you to explore this strange new world for unknown reasons.

I think we’re good on the spoilers I need; here’s the kitty:

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Heavensward could easily have ignored everything that came before it; that old content doesn’t matter, you don’t need to bother with it, feel free to move onto the new cool stuff and forget the old. It’s been the WoW expansion model for a decade now, with very, very little that players do actually carrying over from one expansion to the next. If you’re lucky, an NPC or two will “remember you from somewhere”, but if you opted to, say, do dungeons from 1-80 and then pick up the 80-90 game, odds are good the story starting at level 80 and carrying you to 90 will make perfect sense.

The message in FFXIV is that you are powerful, and you take part in a lot of interesting things, but you’re still only one person, and it’s very difficult to change the entire world as just one person. It’s a narrative that suits the overall feel of the game, when there are hundreds or thousands of other players around you. There isn’t a sense that you’re a unique snowflake– you’re clearly special, but there are many people in the world who are special. It keeps the MMO conceit functional without making you feel irrelevant.

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Archeage got me thinking down this path. In Archeage, your part in things is special, but you’re one special person out of many, and in some cases not even necessarily that significant. It suits the open-world sandbox game style, where maybe you strike out and become an adventurer or maybe you settle down on a farm and raise chickens. It’s a big world with a lot of moving parts that you are not the center of, and as a result it’s much more believable as a world. More specifically, it’s a world you can be a part of, not necessarily a game you can play and beat.

FFXIV doesn’t do the sandbox thing, but it does a lot of work and pays a lot of attention to the little details that make it feel more like a world. The narrative outright tells you that while you’re an important player in the world, you’re not the center of the universe and things are happening that you aren’t necessarily a part of, and in some cases can’t contribute meaningfully to. Some of the best moments are ones where you, despite your unstoppable badassery, can’t actually DO anything, because you aren’t in a position to talk politics, or move vast sums of money, or conjure food from nothingness for ten thousand hungry people.

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The game lets you gently sway from feeling powerful to feeling powerless, and so the moments in the story where a target appears– where you can flex your muscles and punch/stab/blast faces– are extremely satisfying. This… THIS is a problem you can solve, and you are the best in the world at it. It’s a form of friction, only in the narrative rather than the gameplay. You don’t always have control, so you appreciate the times when you can seize control for yourself.

I talk a lot about how important friction is to games. Too much and players get frustrated, too little and they get bored. The very best storytelling, like the very best games, strike a balance where you’re not just being fed victory after victory on a silver platter and are hailed as a Big Damn Hero everywhere you go, nor are you forever stymied as a fourth-string player in a production you’re barely even noticed in. FFXIV straddles the line magnificently, providing genuine but believable frustration and moments of catharsis. There may be ten thousand starving people, but there’s also an invading army at their doorstep. I can’t feed them, but I can sure as hell go fight an army. I’m aware that there are problems I can’t fix, so I appreciate the ones I can, and it makes the world feel more real.

The player doesn’t need to constantly be the hero, the center of the universe. It’s an ego trip that works in a shorter-form game, but in a longer game, one that lasts months or years, that center-of-the-universe schtick wears thin.



Source: Digital Initiative
FFXIV and MMO Storytelling (Part 2: Heavensward)

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