The Returner: Why Final Fantasy XIV will always be important to me

The Returner: Rediscovering Final Fantasy XIV

The recent digital-only Fan Festival event for Final Fantasy XIV has, I think, reminded a lot of people how important Final Fantasy XIV is to them. And I can say this with some confidence because I’m absolutely one of them.

I may not get as much time to play as I’d perhaps like these days — at least, not without sacrificing the other “gaming commitments” I’ve made for both personal and professional reasons — but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind: this is a truly special game for a lot of people, including myself.

So I thought it might be nice to spend this week looking back on my fondest memories of the game — and the things that brought me back after my long break, inspiring me to start this column in the first place.

Final Fantasy XIV

A warm welcome

Back when Final Fantasy XIV was first announced in its original 1.0 incarnation, I was intrigued. I’d enjoyed what little I’d played of Final Fantasy XI in the past, so a more up to date version of a Final Fantasy MMO was an appealing prospect. I made a mental note to check it out as soon as possible.

Then I heard very little about it for a long time, until I happened to seek out some information about it, and it turned out that… well, things had perhaps not gone quite according to plan. Or perhaps they had; either way, the general reception to the original incarnation of the game was somewhat frosty, to say the least. This is a story that has been told many times over at this point, so I won’t reiterate it in full here today.

I was a little saddened that the game seemingly hadn’t lived up to its potential, but it wasn’t as if I was short of other things to play. So I simply chalked it up to an interesting footnote in the Final Fantasy series rather than anything more significant.

In 2013, I happened to be following some people on Twitter who said they were going to sign up for the closed beta test for this supposedly complete reinvention of Final Fantasy XIV. Intrigued at the prospect, I decided to join them. These weren’t people I knew particularly well at the time, but they seemed like friendly enough folk and happy to accept “outsiders” into the fold.

Final Fantasy XIV

A few things you should know at this point: firstly, I’ve played quite a few different MMOs over the years, and historically ended up putting them aside when I felt like I’d rather be playing something single-player, often because I simply wasn’t taking advantage of the multiplayer features. And secondly, the fact I suffer with a fairly considerable degree of social anxiety, even online, has always made it somewhat challenging to approach strangers and ask for help, companionship, friendship or whatever.

This situation with the Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn closed beta looked like a means of tackling both issues at once. I’d have a group of people I’d be able to play with, and also — hopefully, at least — they’d be friendly and welcoming, even to an awkward dork like myself.

Thankfully, I was right. The Free Company I’d joined, primarily consisting of community members from the popular gaming site Giant Bomb, were a wonderful group of people to get to know the game with. There was a great mix of complete newcomers and friendly MMO veterans, and no pressure on anyone to rush through the game in order to become a hardcore raiding guild. Instead, there was a thoroughly pleasant, supportive atmosphere at all times, and a sense that everyone really was just enjoying the game together.

Final Fantasy XIV

I spent some very late nights playing Final Fantasy XIV with VinCo, as the Giant Bomb Free Company is known for short, and one of my fondest gaming memories of all time is the occasion I finally hit level 50 for the first time and got a full group of people from the Free Company to run the final two story dungeons of Final Fantasy XIV’s 2.0 main scenario with me. It was an incredible experience.

Beyond that, I had the good fortune to meet some members of the Free Company in “real life” on various occasions, including a Final Fantasy “Distant Worlds” concert in London, and PAX East in Boston, USA. On both occasions, I don’t mind admitting I was mildly terrified to meet people face-to-face, but relieved to discover that said people were just as nice in person as they were online, even if they didn’t look like catgirls any more. Plus I think on that PAX East weekend I learned more about JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure than I ever thought possible, so there’s that, too.

I hang out on a European server with a smaller group of friends these days, but my time with VinCo on Ultros will always be special to me. And waxing nostalgic like this is reminding me just how bad I’ve been at staying in touch with people, so I think I’m off to go say hello to them right now.

Marriage

Final Fantasy XIV

My wife (live-in girlfriend at the time) saw how much I was playing Final Fantasy XIV and became interested in trying it for herself. She quickly took to what the game offered — a lot quicker than I expected, since she doesn’t play a lot of other games, though she does dabble — and, once again, the VinCo community and friends were helpful and supportive, even when Turn 5 of The Binding Coil of Bahamut made her cry. (I think that made everyone cry back in the early days. Divebombs!)

I knew quite early on in our relationship that I wanted to marry this woman, but I was struggling to think of the optimal way to pop the question. Before long, I was presented with the ideal solution: a Final Fantasy XIV “Ceremony of Eternal Bonding” — essentially an in-game marriage ceremony that you can invite friends to and get exclusive rewards for.

My wife and I decided that taking part in one of these ceremonies would be a fun time, but secretly I was plotting. I bought a ring and kept it hidden, and I recruited some friends from VinCo to help make sure plenty of people attended the event. And I wrote a speech. Quite a long one. Sadly, I can’t remember which of the myriad online note-taking services I’ve used over the years that I wrote it down in, so I can’t share any of it with you now, but you’ll have to trust me when I say it was a banger; not a dry eye in the house.

In fact, said speech (which, of course, I had to deliver via text chat) was so epic that I nearly ran afoul of the ceremony’s time limit and had to sprint up the stairs into my wife’s study to actually deliver the ring to her. Thankfully, she accepted, and now we have a lovely story to tell. There’s even a video archive of someone who streamed the whole occasion on Twitch, though that will be remaining private! I have to maintain some sort of air of mystery, after all.

Music

Finally, I’ve already paid homage to the incredible music of Final Fantasy XIV on several separate occasions — and doubtless there will be more in the future — but it bears repeating that Final Fantasy XIV’s soundtrack has got me through some tough times. Some of the toughest in my life, as it happens.

During those tough times — the details of which I won’t go into for now — Soken’s music was there to inspire me, to convince me that I could carry on, to encourage me to fight — and to acknowledge that sometimes it is okay to admit you’re struggling or suffering. And the revelations that came out over the recent FanFest about Soken continuing to compose for the game while keeping his fight against cancer a secret from the rest of the team only make his work all the more poignant.

What an incredible game that has brought so much joy and inspiration to so many people. No wonder so many people are still playing it, many years after that hopeful closed beta.

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Pete Davison
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