[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introduction. The first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]
I remember being disappointed when Final Fantasy XI was announced as an MMORPG - but not as disappointed as one might think. Yes, turning an RPG into a social endeavor meant that playing the game successfully was beyond an introvert like me (or so I thought at the time). But instead of gnashing my teeth and rending my garments, I gave a half-hearted shrug.
My "meh" reaction to FFIX and FFX had a lot to do with this change in attitude. I felt like I had grown up while the Final Fantasy series remained stuck in my past. FFXI being an MMO was simply an added incentive to put childish things away.
To make a long story short - I failed to do so. All it took was one week of overwhelming boredom before I "accidentally" found myself in a game store and "accidentally" picked up FFXI off the shelves so I could "try it for an hour or two". Whoops...
Back in the ancient days of 2002 I didn't realize that an MMO could feature a story. Thus Final Fantasy XI's opening surprised me quite a bit.
A castle town is overrun despite the heroic efforts of its defenders; a boy is thrust to safety by his older sister and left alone in the world. Many years later he and others return, ready to reclaim the land that was taken from them.
It's a simple story, neither unexpected nor original. Yet the presentation gives it a resonance beyond a simple two sentence summary, and despite finding the scene between the two siblings rather overdone, I found myself unexpectedly moved.
How this would translate to the rest of the game - I had no idea. The opening presents a main character, but how could FFXI possibly expect millions of players playing different races and classes to relate to a single protagonist... ?
The Rest of the Story
The answer was so obvious that I missed it completely: players are not supposed to do so. They're supposed to be swept up in the grandeur of the final shot of the opening movie, when the camera pulls back to reveal the massive army ready to go to war. FFXI taught me something new about stories: every single character has complexity and history, and is a hero in his or her own eyes.
This was never more clear to me than when I explored around the world of Vana'diel, marveling at all the players running off to points unknown, embarking on their own goals and adventures. The sense of stepping into truly foreign territory was heightened - in a good way - by the fact that servers were shared by both Japanese and American players, with communication handled by a system of complicated preset phrases and emotes.
I dipped my toe into the water; I waded in deeper; then I dove in whole-heartedly. I partied with Japanese players who were alternately grudgingly patient and extremely accommodating with my lack of skill. I joined a 'linkshell' of US-timezone players and made friendships of greater diversity - by far - than any I had made before. I learned that while some individuals may be cruel, the majority are genuinely kind.
If the above sounds like I was an explorer traveling through a previously unknown continent, well, that's exactly what it was like. I played previous Final Fantasy games in the role of an observer, but in Final Fantasy XI I lived as my own hero.
At this point I'd like to describe the plot of the game - except as much as I am loath to admit it, my understanding of the story was always weak, and it's a bit of a muddle in my mind. There definitely is a story; however it's revealed in bits and pieces at a non-constant rhythm (since players set their own pace), and important details can be missed entirely if players skip certain quests or regions.
All I can say definitively is: the invasion of the Beastmen featured in the opening cinematic is triggered by the rise of the Shadow Lord. Eventually you have an epic confrontation against him.
And then you win! And... the game keeps going.
From a story perspective, one of the problems with MMOs is that they're designed not to have an ending; otherwise, all the precious subscribers with their precious monthly payments slip away. And so the game keeps going, powered by players addicted to their routines, and eventually the game becomes a chore rather than a fun activity.
It was a relief to finally break away from Final Fantasy XI. But it's still an experience I'm glad I had.