One of the most common complaints levelled at MMORPGs — and a lot of single-player RPGs, for that matter — is that it doesn’t feel like the supposedly significant things you’re doing as the protagonist are having a tangible effect on the world. Final Fantasy XIV has taken a certain amount of care to sidestep this problem right from A Realm Reborn onwards — but I feel like it’s Shadowbringers that truly shows how effective this can be.
For a while now, MMOs have been making use of a system called “phasing”, whereby different players can see different things according to their progress through storylines, questlines or other parts of the game structure. In its most simple form, phasing can mean that characters only appear in certain places where they’re relevant — Final Fantasy XIV does this frequently to ensure its main scenario questgivers aren’t just standing in one place for the entire game — while more ambitious uses of it can actually significantly change very obvious things about your experience.
In Shadowbringers, this is used in a number of different ways. The most obvious relates to the main narrative. Not long after you arrive in The First, you discover that the world being flooded with Light means that the little part of it that survived the Flood hasn’t experienced the darkness of night for a century. Thus, regardless of what in-game time it is when you first arrive in a Shadowbringers area, it’s always daytime — or, more accurately, it’s a deeply unsettling twist on daytime where the light feels just a little too bright, and there’s this unpleasant constant rumbling always sounding in the background.
Here’s the twist, though: after a bit of shenanigans gathering together several of the principal cast members besides yourself, your main quest becomes a fairly epic-seeming one: you need to restore night to this Light-flooded land. And, impressively, that’s exactly what you do.
Each region in Shadowbringers is supposedly dominated by a “Lightwarden”, and they are difficult to defeat conclusively because under normal circumstances, killing them simply means that the Light trapped within them is absorbed into the nearest host, thereby immediately birthing a brand new Lightwarden.
Because you are a super-special and heroic protagonist, however, you have the ability to absorb the Light without being corrupted by it — and as such when you defeat your first Lightwarden everyone is rather surprised to see the Light-saturated sky suddenly split open and reveal the darkness of night that had been hidden away for so long.
It’s an incredible moment — and emphasised further by the fact that any time you’re in that part of the map from thereon, there’s a normal day-night cycle. You are given this constant reminder that you’ve done something amazing, and that effect is created via something as simple as an in-game flag determining which sky and lighting effects should be shown to you, specifically, when you’re in that particular area of Shadowbringers.
In other words, you’re not taken to an exact copy of the same map, but at night-time — you can still occupy the same map as other players even if they’re at different points in the story to you. The difference is, if you’ve defeated the Lightwarden, you get to see night-time; if they haven’t, they don’t.
There’s a similar situation that arises when you arrive in Shadowbringers’ land of the fae, Il Mheg. When you first arrive here, you learn that the resident pixies are notorious tricksters, particularly fond of throwing mortals off-course and confusing them. This is, of course, enormously inconvenient when you’re attempting to track someone specific down at the time — but you have to just deal with it. And, again, the environmental settings come into play here once again.
While you’re under the effect of the pixies’ “confusion” spell, the entire zone is bathed in not only the ever-present Light, but also a thick glowing fog that means you can’t see very far ahead of yourself. It’s like every way you look, there’s a bright light dazzling you and preventing you from seeing anything other than the things that are right in front of you — and despite still being able to access the map and navigate that way, it’s extremely disorienting. You can’t navigate by landmarks because you simply can’t see them — and if you’ve been playing with the minimap off like I have been, you’ll need to keep checking that you’re going the right direction!
Once again, however, this isn’t a permanent situation; prove that you’re a friend to the pixies and they’ll happily remove the veil from over your eyes, revealing the natural beauty (and impressive draw distance) of Il Mheg proper. This, again, is a wonderful moment; it’s a feeling that you’ve finally earned the trust of these flighty fae, and from here you can begin working to free this part of the land from the problems it has been suffering. Once again, when you finally achieve this, night falls for the first time in a century — and everyone, even the immortal fae, recognise that this is A Big Deal.
What makes all these sequences all the more effective is that it’s quite an effort to get to these “milestones”. I mean, sure, you could race through the main scenario and quickly resolve things — but as it happens, with pretty much every “settlement” you reach in Il Mheg in particular, arriving at a particular point in the main scenario also unlocks about a zillion local sidequests. And what self-respecting MMO player leaves quest icons lying around on their map when there’s XP to be had? (My wife does. But I can’t play like her. I just can’t.)
As a result, bringing a certain degree of peace back to Il Mheg felt like something I really had to work for. I like to describe this style of gameplay as “method acting” your protagonist; they’re having to work hard, and you do too. It’s not necessarily fun or immediately rewarding work, but you know the end result is going to be worth it. And that end result feels all the more worthwhile the more work you’ve put into it.
As such, by the time I finally took down Titania for the first time and night fell on Il Mheg once again, I sat back, thoroughly satisfied at a job well done. That black, starry sky? I did that. And there’s no better way to feel like you’ve taken ownership of your adventures than to be able to look at something significant and clearly visible to everyone and say… “yep. I did that. That was me. I am the hero of this story.”
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