The Returner: Final Fantasy XIV and the art of foreshadowing

The Returner: Rediscovering Final Fantasy XIV

I’ve done it! What? Finished my New Game+ run… of Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward, anyway. This is a milestone for my progress in easing myself back into the game, as I’m now at the start of Stormblood. And Stormblood’s base game is where I stopped playing last time around — after having beaten its main story, anyway.

With that in mind, I tend to still think of Stormblood as “current”, even though it most certainly isn’t; it came out back in 2017, and there’s been another full expansion with a full patch cycle since then. For me, though, it’s still relatively fresh and new; I’ve only been through the main story once, I haven’t played any of the post-4.0 content and I’ve somehow managed to remain completely unspoiled on pretty much all of the narrative — including the Omega stuff.

Final Fantasy XIV

Stormblood and its endgame is really going to be the first time I have the opportunity to play my character as it currently exists at its “proper” level; as a level 70 Samurai, I’ve picked up about a third of a level’s worth of experience from all the dungeons and trials I had to run synced on my way through Heavensward, but now that we’re into Stormblood I’ll be able to make use of all of my skills… before having to learn some new ones come Shadowbringers. But that’s a job for another day.

I digress, though. What I really wanted to talk about today is something that I’ve noticed over the course of my New Game+ run, which is that Final Fantasy XIV has been doing some masterful foreshadowing right from the very beginning — or from the beginning of A Realm Reborn, at least, since I can’t speak for 1.0.

Talk of the Void, the First, the sundering of the worlds — all that business has been part of Final Fantasy XIV over the long term. The previous Warriors of Darkness put in an appearance towards the end of Heavensward’s patch cycle. And there’s even a scene where they’re standing on the moon — which, lest we forget, is going to be a major location in the upcoming Endwalker.

Final Fantasy XIV

If you have the time to stop and sniff the lore in dungeons that provide some — the Great Gubal Library is a good example — then you’ll find interesting stories that relate to things you saw earlier in the game, and that you’ll see later in your adventures.

You’ll meet characters who seem insignificant on their first appearance, only for them to play a critical role later in the game — one of my favourite examples of this is the old man you chat with when you start the game for the first time, who promptly disappears for the entirety of A Realm Reborn and its patch cycle, only to show up very conveniently to help you escape from all the chaos that unfolds prior to Heavensward’s opening.

Given the presence of these parts of the story from the earliest parts of Final Fantasy XIV, it’s clear that Yoshi-P and the team have had a long-term goal in mind for the game’s narrative as a whole right from the outset. And it’s exciting to know that this storyline is finally going to come to some sort of conclusion when Endwalker releases — only for some sort of new saga to begin, no doubt.

With how well-crafted this game’s lore is, and how each new patch allows us to explore it even further, I can’t help but feel a bit sad for people who confess to skipping over all the narrative because they just want to “kill things and get loot”. Final Fantasy XIV has never been about that — particularly the loot aspect, since gear progression is pretty vertical throughout both the levelling and endgame experience.

Final Fantasy XIV

And it’s never attempted to mislead people and suggest it is about such things, for that matter; every trailer for Final Fantasy XIV has emphasised the narrative aspect, and has never degenerated into mobile-game style “POWER UP! GET LOOT!”-style advertising. Sure, said trailers might have showed off some of each new patch or expansion’s most exciting battle encounters, but if you ever came away from one of those videos expecting some sort of “kill stuff and get loot” experience, you were seeing something I certainly didn’t!

Final Fantasy XIV is a very wordy game with a lot of lore to get involved with, and I completely understand why some people might prefer a different type of experience from their massively multiplayer online games. But the narrative of Final Fantasy XIV is the central attraction — much as it has been with nearly every other Final Fantasy game to date — and to see people refuse to engage with it at all just makes me a bit sad.

I won’t name names — largely because I don’t really know who the person in question is — but I saw a streamer with a seemingly reasonable-sized following doing just that on social media recently, and it was frustrating how many of his followers took what he said at face value. It was especially upsetting to see his negativity given that he played to less than level 20 on a starting class, then paid for a skip to level 70 and the start of Shadowbringers, thereby missing not only the valuable levelling experience that teaches you how to play properly, but also the absolutely essential narrative context that A Realm Reborn provides.

Final Fantasy XIV

Without all that foreshadowing, without being introduced to the characters who stick by your side through all your many adventures, without learning how the world of Eorzea works with all its political intrigue and seemingly constant teetering on the brink of cataclysm… you’ll not only be absolutely lost, but you’ll have completely missed the point of the game as a whole.

“Play a single-player game,” you might say. But that just isn’t the same; while every player in Final Fantasy XIV is their own Warrior of Light, the most important person in the world, part of the appeal of the game’s narrative content is being able to experience it alongside other people and share in all the triumphs and the tragedies along the way.

It really is a distinctive, even unique experience in the MMO space — and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

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Pete Davison
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