originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/650225...
Final Fantasy XIV is a game about the transition to capitalism, a game about nation building and proper government… a game that’s obsessed with work as the highest of virtues. It’s a very fascinatingly ideological game, distinctive among the handful of MMOs I’ve played… the fact it says something at all is unusual, but the content of what it says is fascinating in that it seems to be the worldview of the bourgeois a couple centuries prior.
Many MMORPGs are framed around a time of war, but within that, FFXIV has an unusual interest - to the point of obsession - in its aftermath. The Warrior of Light (player character) - as much as she is functionally a big gun who gets carted around blowing up threatening gods and monsters - is supposed to be changing the world for the better: overthrowing colonisation, ending unnecessary wars, etc etc.
But that leaves us asking, what sort of world are the Scions of the Seventh Dawn (the semi-secret organisation which directs the warrior of light to fight, the lovable band of warrior-scholars who anchor the plot) trying to build as their ‘Seventh Astral Era’?
To answer this, we can look at the projects of their allies. There is a certain bourgeis vision they all seem to share, which becomes all the clearer after each conflict: the leaders want a buzzing economy of cosmopolitan trade where everyone can nominally profit, the commoners are hard working people who just need a chance to demonstrate what they can build.
It’s not that the idea of a cruel or explorative ruling class is absent from FFXIV. Nor even the corrosive effects of capital, like gentrification, on a region. The scheming lalafel syndicate (boss babies) of Ul'dah tend to fill this role when the plot falls for it, but the Shadowbringers expansion gives us the city of eulmore as well, whose ruling class arbitrarily select from the disaster refugees outside while enjoying meals that are, unknown to the citizens, actually cannibalism. There is a large beach area in La Noscea which is owned by one rich playboy capitalist, who the game seems to treat with at least some disdain, if not particularly strong.
But the way they handle most of these rich characters says a lot; the way they handle the more positive rich characters even more.
The hard-working refugees
Let’s begin with an early example. At the end of A Realm Reborn, the Sultana of Ul'dah - one of the three main city states of Eorzea, a city rife massively stratified by class - hopes to abolish her own monarchy. This ends up prevented through a bizarre scheme involving a fake poisoning. The details don’t matter - for my argument, the main factor is that she is presented as naive to risk the stability of her city over high minded ideals. The capitalists on the other hand are hard-headed realists; selfish but attuned to the realities of the world. Everyone else is irrelevant. This is perhaps the worst showing a non-Imperial capitalist will get in FFXIV.
Two expansions later, the Sultana will be persuaded by a casino owner - a man who is otherwise almost always a comedy character - not to directly pay for reconstruction of a recently liberated country as charity, but to allow the Syndicate (who have so far been, canonically, profiting handsomely from refugee labour) to expand their capitalist enterprises there, such as reopening a salt mine. The prosperity of Ala Mhigo depends on a classic threefold model where capital, land and labour equally contribute to production of wealth. These are the two options presented to our narrative: wasteful charity or mutual gain through working to expand foreign capital. And while this exact dichotomy is rare, the immense love of industry will colour the whole game.
This nation, Ala Mhigo? The refugees of Ala Mhigo recur throughout the game, and their narrative is bizarre. They live in slums around Ul'dah, exploited to superprofits by the Syndicate but still second class to the citizens of city-state proper. The other nations would not have them at all. But they certainly are not, we just understand, to do anything forceful to resist their situation, and indeed, at their given home under a large rock in the desert, the player is asked to intervene to stop the younger people getting themselves rashly killed in a rebellion (by beating them up).
The right thing to do for these refugees is apparently to accept their meagre lot until their host gets around to backing the reconquest of their homeland. They should work hard in the meantime, and their usefulness will ease the prejudices of Ul'dah, like has happened in history precisely never.
Let us compare the Domans, simply pseudo-Japanese in contrast to strange blend of Turkish visual signifiers and Glaswegian accents in the Ala Mhigans. In the 2.x patch series, we are introduced to this second band of refugees, and travel with them between the three city states looking for a place to live. But the Domans find themselves rejected at every turn - until eventually they’re given a spot building a frontier town (and one time player hub), provided they work hard and don’t disturb the locals too much. Suspicion about their indolence is repeated often, though eventually the domans work their way into acceptance.
Now, there is nothing implausible in this crappy situation; it echoes the sorts of cruel aspersions cast on migrants in reality. The Domans are, of course, eternally grateful to the Scions and the player character in finding them this place to live; you get to see a little group of children in a sort of Famous Five-alike prosocial adventuring group. I believe at the time of this questline, the town was gradually built up over a series of patches, the fruits of their dutiful labours. Among them is Rowena’s House of Splendours, whose ruthlessly price gouging proprietor is a running joke.
Eventually in Stormblood, the Domans get the chance to take back their homeland, and afterwards the player gets to participate in the reconstruction of the 'Doman Enclave’. This amounts to mostly providing capital: the player sells spare gear for slightly higher than they can get at a normal NPC shop, which the Domans narratively resell at a profit. This allows them to expand various industries, building by building, with the player given a tour of each one and told about its role in the enclave’s economy. Thanks to your stack of magic swords, the domans can live in comfort; everyone has jobs, the kids go to school; a model society.
For both Ala Mhigo and Doma, redemption and prosperity is found through labour... all predicated on the beneficence of capitalists.
Ishgard and Eulmore step out of feudalism
Then there’s the prior expansion Heavensward, in which the player intervenes in a hidebound theocracy (Ishgard) locked in a perpetual war against dragons. The player reveals the country’s founding myth is a lie, and kills both the most warlike dragon and the Pope, installing the benevolent Ser Aymeric in his place as 'Lord Protector’ (a title notably held by Cromwell!). Ishgard gains a bicameral legislature with a House of Commons to complement its existing nobility, though we’re spared the constitutional complexity.
In the subsequent patches, the player supports the reforms of Ishgard, rehabilitation of heretics etc. and participates in the opening to foreign trade. This is most fully realised in the Ishard Restoration quest series in Shadowbringers in which they assist (by providing materials) a young noble in his project to renovate a neighbourhood and provide - of course - its impoverished residents with gainful employment. End with a beautiful district, profuse thanks, you can tell the guy he did good… and you inspire other nobles to (profitably) use their wealth for the good of the nation’s poor.
The power structure is adjusted, the Church is removed as the main authority, but if you promise to use your wealth for good, you can remain rich. It’s a curiously curtailed fantasy!
A similar narrative comes after the annexation of Eulmore. the corrupt regime is deposed, and the decadent aristocrats learn to get to work making stuff; one wealthy catboy in particular gets over his lack of self confidence to reopen the robot company he owns, for which he is rewarded by being voted mayor of the town. The player’s allies, the Crystarium, are meanwhile once again a busy harmonious society in which all do their part for the common good: a model society constructed by a future Scion, fandom heartthrob G'raha Tia.
The beast tribes work their way into acceptance
The last few patches before Endwalker see the player return to the original three city states. In Limsa Lominsa, the Admiral Merlwyb has transformed her pirate society into a nation of traders and privateers. Now she seeks to resolve the contradiction of her city’s colonisation of the kobolds’ land - a pattern of treaty breaking which she previously upheld as a ruthless necessity. The player has always intervened to fight on Limsa’s side (even in the kobold beast tribe questline in which they assist a lazy unmotivated kobold order - which ends with them finding a new resolve to increase productivity lmao). Now they help negotiate a truce on the basis of, guess what, sharing in the profits of international trade! It is the dream or promise of liberalism, never fully realised: a universal market in which all equally profit.
The moogle questline. In dragon territory, the moogles want to rebuild an ancient monument commemorating the alliance of humans and dragons. The player intervenes to negotiate with the dragons - by letting the moogles prove their skill at crafts - find mentors, and supervise the playful, less-than-focused moogles to complete the works. Quests include slapping one guy who’s too proud to work, and tricking moogles to go to work on the project with bribes of food. Eventually, the dragons recognise the moogles’ commitment to crafts and give the project their support and blessing.
A brief word about the ironworks! Cid - who in this game looks like richard branson lol - is a lasting ally of the player, largely a weapons developer who, defecting from the evil empire of Garlemald, sells to the good guys in pursuit of some vague vision of technology serving the common good. He’s a great inventor whose individual genius drives the ironworks’ success; not such a great CEO but he has underlings handling the practicalities. He’s just a chill guy who makes cool robots, which makes everyone’s lives better.
I can go on - I haven’t fully explored the beast tribe quests because they tend to be a chore - but hopefully the theme is clear. for most, humble, dutiful work is the highest virtue; there is no inherent contradiction between capitalist and worker; rather, the capitalists and nobles of each society must be gently persuaded to virtuously create jobs for the poor, who are helpless on their own. Violent revolution is painted as righteous when opposed to outright colonial domination (and compromises with power and colonial trauma remain recurring themes) but once the nakedly sadistic Garlean Empire is kicked out, the path to the good life is to join the global trading network and ply your wares. The idea that vast numbers of people might soon find themselves swept up into an immiserated proletariat, as in history, is almost never considered; modernity is all upside, and it will arrive peacefully in the right hands.
(Funnily enough, 'Engels’ is actually a boss in this game… in the form of the giant robot from NieR Automata.)
Our colonialism, their colonialism
Colonised subjects seeking to overthrow their rulers is a recurring theme throughout the game, but how it is handled is kind of strangely inconsistent. An early dungeon sees formerly enslaved giants breaking out of the ground to get revenge… it’s tragic, you’re told, but they have to be killed. The 'beast tribes’ occupy a strange role: by and large, each one can be divided into a primary hostile faction who are mind controlled into fanaticism by a god they summoned, and a friendly faction willing to work with the players. It is only very, very late in the game that the any negotiating with the fanatics becomes viable, thanks to a scientific technique being discovered to reverse the indoctrination. In all these conflicts, you side with the colonists. The game actually seems to trace something of an arc, becoming more critical of this colonialism, and making more explicit that the 'beast tribes’ are not actually different from the main races, that summoning primals can be done by anyone and is the product of desperation, etc. But you could be forgiven for not seeing that coming.
Meanwhile you fight against the Garlean Empire alongside its own colonised subjects, taking up the cause of the Domans, Ala Mhigans, and other nations ruled by Garlemald. It’s much less about an ethical ideology of anti-colonial solidarity; much more that you are from the Eorzean city states, so you fights to protect their interests. It is a curious contradiction, which the game only sometimes leans into acknowledging, often in the mouths of villains.
The leader is everything
The most recent storyline I finished is the mecha storyline The Sorrow of Werlyt from the current patch series, in which you’re fighting tortured child soldiers once raised by former villain Gaius van Baelsar. With Gaius defeated and defecting from the empire, these children are now subject to brutal human experiments by his much more racist successor.
It’s unusually tragic for an FFXIV storyline, with most of the children dying. The story culminates in Gaius, once a conqueror whose slogan is 'the strong must lead the weak’, becoming convinced by the abuses he witnesses that actually society should be made up of equals, and sitting in a position of power corrupts rather than defining strength… though he evidently still believes in governments existing, since he installs a new one in Werlyt after reconquering it on behalf of his former enemies.
What I find curious about this is that, if you go by what actually happens in FFXIV, it actually is very much a story about strong leaders. the good leader, such as the Doman Prince Hien, embodies the virtues proper to their station: they are even-handed, concerned for the poor but prudent about it, decisive when they need to be, and aspire only to properly govern their corner…
The poor leader, usually an imperial lacky, is sadistic, dishonorable (breaks promises), ambitious… or just unconcerned with anything but pleasure and competition, like Zenos. By this rubric, Gaius is redeemable because he is, despite conquering for the Empire, embodying the qualities of a good leader in the game’s view: he’s a good dad (allegedly) to his adopted kids, he’s not a racist but believed in a notion of meritocracy within imperialism. There is very little to suggest he is not totally reformed after his beating by the WoL; the other characters’ suspicion at his motivations proves baseless.
It reminds me of the story of Macbeth, where an evil ruler blights the land supernaturally. So as far as the world of FFXIV is concerned, Gaius is pretty much right: the strong and charismatic, possessed of unique character models and special combat abilities, must step up to direct their nations to prosperity. Probably though trade, but with a big enough army to keep the empire at bay and deal with the machinations of criminals.
You might say, are you sure the game is saying that, not just the characters? Perhaps the WoL is supposed to be a sinister figure! To that… the game is extremely unsubtle with its soundtrack cues, staging etc. You will know when the narrative wants you to agree, to laugh, to sense danger, to be disturbed or charmed. So this kind of morality play reading is hard to resist.
The mirror of its creation
So having laid that out, what is it I find interesting and strange about it? Firstly, while the game is pretty upfront about its ideology in its more didactic moments, nobody really talks about it. I’ve seen more articles about how shadowbringers is about ecofascism or whatever, which sure, but there’s something else going on here: we’re not just against empires (and immortal tragic space wizards trying to restore a lost world by genocide, I’m leaving out a lot lol), we are very much 'for’ something. Is it just that it’s the all permeating social ideology?
The other fascination is how the game’s narratives connect to the conditions in which it was made. The story of FFXIV goes that after the disastrous 1.0 release, future game director Yoshi-P (Naoki Yoshida) presented an ambitious plan to fix up the game into something worthy of the Final Fantasy brand. After a year of extraordinarily intense work, they managed to create a much better iteration, closing the old one with a dramatic plot event and a flashy cg cutscene, and it became one of Squeenix’s most successful games. And Yoshi-P is quite a character, known among other things for making his stage appearances in elaborate cosplay based on the game; you can only imagine what this larger-than-life figure would be like in the office.
So it’s like the narratives of the game are reflecting the narratives around its creation: hard work being rewarded, the wisdom of a leader!
Mostly though, it’s that it seems very unusual to me to find an mmo trying so hard, for all its immense limitations, to confront political and historical questions. Even if I find scruple with most of its answers, and see its account of history as terribly sanitised, it’s surprising to have it say enough that I might disagree!
Is this just unfamilarity with the genre? Do WoW or Guild Wars have long cutscenes where orcs sit around discussing their ideals for the future of their nation, or anything as on-the-nose as an East Aldenard Trading Company?
Weird game. Not at all sure it’s worth the time investment to get to the good bits, but if you spend enough time in a virtual place, you just can’t stop thinking about it. And eventually you have to write a post like this.