Shadowbringers

Very few video games have affected me like Shadowbringers, the third expansion for Final Fantasy XIV, has. I finished the main plot weeks ago, and just seeing people talk about the end scenes still makes me emotional. This is absolutely the best story in the Final Fantasy series, and maybe the best story I’ve experienced in a video game.

I want to talk about Shadowbringers, but I do not want to spoil it. This is an emotionally resonant story, and hearing about it in dribs and drabs would not do it justice. If you’ve played it, you already know what it’s about. If you haven’t, consider it. Granted, there are literally hundreds of hours of FFXIV between a new player and this story (and skipping the previous story, while an option, would undermine it to a large degree), but still.

What sets Shadowbringers apart for me is that it’s about your character, the Warrior of Light. Many people loved the story of FFXIV’s first expansion, Heavensward, but you really played a bit part in it. The big moments mostly involve other characters, though one scene in particular (before a battle on a certain bridge) shows how awesome your character is. Shadowbringers even tops this scene, though.

Prior to Shadowbringers, you spent much of your time killing pseudo-gods known as Primals. You have a rare special ability to resist their mental influence, an ability your main companions (the leaders of a group known as the Scions of the Seventh Dawn) lack, so these battles fall to you. Shadowbringers deconstructs this somewhat by putting you in a position of unique ability to save another world, but at great personal cost. (Not to imply this is a purely selfless act due to it being another world; the fates of that world and your own are intimately connected.)

One of the aspects of good writing is its ability to force you to suspend your disbelief. Obviously the game isn’t going to kill off your character in an ongoing MMO, yet the fear that you could die (or worse) grows to a very real level during the story of Shadowbringers. You are given several opportunities to show vulnerability or a facade of strength, and your long-time companions grow more and more concerned for your well-being. You press on because you must, but at a certain point when a character offers you a way out… well, I considered it for a moment. Not that the game would let you actually choose to do that. But the gesture felt very real.

Another neat trick Shadowbringers pulls off is causing you to feel sympathy for the Ascians: a group of genocidal black-robed baddies that have been behind nearly every evil act in the game since the re-launch. Shadowbringers changes none of that, yet by the end you will understand their motives and maybe even agree with them to some degree. For the first time, I hope the Ascian threat is resolved in some way other than simply destroying them all.

There is one aspect of the Shadowbringers story that really enhanced the experience, but I’m not sure it was intentional. The game pulls no punches from the start, showing the horrific conditions on a world that was nearly destroyed a hundred years ago. Creatures of Light, an aspect you normally identify with, keep the remaining populace in the tyrannical grip of fear. After a strong start introducing this doomed world, things slow down a bit. You learn a lot of lore, but as you get closer and closer to taking out the Big Bad and saving the world, something seems to be missing. Indeed, as the main plot resolved, I felt some disappointment. Things didn’t end as dramatically as I had expected.

Obviously the “end” was not the end, but even so, the game continued to lower expectations a bit. It teases you the whole time by hiding the name of one of the new zones, but that reveal is shockingly anticlimactic. For a time you’ll find yourself wondering where exactly everything is going. And at that point, when I found myself questioning the wisdom of their storytelling, it all came together. I don’t know if they meant to lower expectations like that (and if so, I suppose writing this is undermining their effort!), but it left me in a state to be utterly awed by what followed.

The climactic events of Shadowbringers are amazing, full stop. The way the plot unfolds leading to the final encounters is second to none. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say the greatest sequence of cutscenes in Final Fantasy history happen here. And it’s because my character was at the center of them. Many hours of story culminated in a surprising but inevitable Moment of Awesome that I seriously considered using as my wallpaper.

Shadowbringers is inspiring. This is what video games can be. Playing a character puts you in a unique position to experience story in a different way than a book or a movie. When I was younger, I might consider it somehow crass to have a whole story basically build up to a raw emotional payoff. But what exactly are we looking for from our entertainment, if not that? I almost quit FFXIV before Shadowbringers, and while my reasons were (and remain!) solid, I’m very glad I didn’t. And I’m also glad I had fellow players and friends to share this experience with.

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