Jump gently and carry a large scythe. Screenshot: Square Enix
I’ve spent, I’d say, a disturbing amount of money in the past month with tears in my eyes — not for work commitments, personal reasons, or even real”still in that global pandemicreasons. If anything, I did it for fun, working my way through Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker, and the reasons it touched me so strongly made it a story worth remembering. to end another very challenging year ahead.
Endwalker is the latest expansion for the reborn MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV, a game that is so popular right now, you literally can’t buy it, as publisher Square-Enix desperately hopes fewer people will clog login queues, while players also desperately hope to work their way through the events of the game’s acclaimed long and winding story. Endwalker in particular has been billed by the creators as the culmination of a story eight years in the making. Your character, the noble Warrior of Light, works to stop a long prophesied apocalypse known as the Final Days, and Endwalker tries finish plot threads, character arcs and mysteries woven into XIV’s expansive, ongoing story since it was saved from shutdown and rebooted in 2013 as A Realm Reborn. It’s all there: shocking twists and turns from villains, heroic stances against certain doom, grand lore, battles against gods, more gods, and a few more gods for the record, a story that spans centuries, generations of civilization, and into the very stars of the universe beyond the world that your heroes have called home for most of the decade. Endwalker is the largest of the Grand Finals, a scale XIV has never considered before. But it’s also incredibly sentimental and perfect for the never-ending moment we’ve been experiencing over the years.
Endwalker may occasionally be about that most beloved of all the Japanese RPG tropes, fighting god and defying fate. But the simplest truth is that in the end, under all its world-building and its snares on old plot threads, it’s about hope and battling seemingly unstoppable despair. Literally, the game’s climactic conflict is about you and seven of your closest friends/random people you line up with in the group seeker beating up a living embodiment of the concept of nihilism.
Let’s take a step back from that very strange but cathartic edge and explain it. About halfway through Endwalker’s storyline, you discover the true source of the Final Days – a catastrophe that, centuries before, brought down the forerunner of human civilization that XIV’s world called Etheirys home, and saw it shatter into 14 different shards of itself in an attempt to make sure it never happens again (spoilers: oops, it’s starting to happen again, and it’s partly your fault? don’t worry). The disaster is epitomized by an empathetic hive called Meteion, created by one of that ancient civilization’s most powerful magician-scientists, who went out into the cosmos behind Etheirys to seek life on other worlds, answering the simple question posed. by its master: what purpose have those civilizations found in life?
The answer Meteion finds breaks her and her mentally connected sister bodies. Every other physical aspect of Meteion’s form sent into the stars, it turns out, found worlds either lost to destruction or in the process of tearing themselves apart – each of their civilizations riven with despair as their own advances in attempts to to create a utopian society, those who had been purged of suffering ultimately damned them. Her empathic abilities overwhelmed by the sorrows of untold ending civilizations, Meteion is transformed into a dark version of herself, drowning in a nihilistic belief that the only way to end suffering is to end the very existence of all life-threatening you and your loved ones on Etheirys with a returned apocalypse, one that sees the sky red-hot with meteors, humans overwhelmed by their own despair of being transformed into horrific, mayhem-causing beasts, and general havoc. It’s not ideal to say the least.
Endwalker’s story is admittedly not a particularly original riff on apocalyptic fiction. Yes, it builds quite subtly on hooks and world building blocks laid throughout the history of Final Fantasy XIV – even the ones that were abandoned when the initially difficult release rebooted as A Realm Reborn – and draws on its much-loved, long-running cast of supporting stars in the Scions of the Seventh Dawn to bring some touching moments of character work that pay arcs that have unfolded at this point over the years of multiple expansions. But at its core, it’s very simple: you’re facing the end of the world, and you’re going to stop it. But it’s what happens along the way that makes Endwalker such a heartbreaking, emotionally cathartic experience. The Warrior of Light’s place in XIV’s story is both as a vessel upon which the player can imprint themselves, as well as a beacon of hope for those around them. Regardless of the opportunities, regardless of the losses, regardless of the darkness that swirls around your adventures, time and time again you have stood by your friends and allies and brought peace and justice to the world.
Endwalker throws the metaphorical sink at you over his catastrophic story, threatening to prove multiple times that even your noble hero has his limits, and time and time instead persevere and persevere, with both a superheroic sense of power and the love and support of the supportive characters of entire nations behind you. You are knocked down, spiritually or physically, and you rise again for the occasion, no matter your own despair, no matter how many stressful fears you suffer. So when it comes to the final battle, to face the crowd of Meteions – to convince them, by your words, your strength and the literal prayers of friends by your side, that there is a reason to suffer in the path of to have life to emphasize its joys and triumphs – you deal a blow to the bleak concept of nihilistic despair itself, turning away the Last Days to stand proudly like a bright light of hope in a sea of darkness. It might just be a big heist fight in an online video game, but after hours of emotional wringer after emotional wringer, I couldn’t help but collapse as I recently finished it and Endwalker’s story made its final curtain calls – it was a surprising cathartic liberation from emotions that the story had repeatedly brought to my surface.
That catharsis is no doubt also informed by the world Endwalker was released in. FFXIV, like so many things in recent years, has been hit by the covid-19 pandemic. Patches of story content between expansions over the past year saw a delayed release schedule, and even Endwalker itself came out a few weeks later than planned. Even the lingering issues of server overload have roots in the pandemic beyond the fact that XIV has become hugely popular as people stay at home and look for big, long-term games to dive into – producer Naoki Yoshida has apologized publicly (and profusely) several times planned server expansions were hampered by both supply shortages and the pandemic that curbed personal work. But there’s also the emotional toll it has taken on all of us as we struggle for nearly two years on a fundamental turnaround in the way we live. The year 2021 was tough for many people, including myself, especially the last few months. Escaping in fiction from the stresses of the real world is nothing new (we’ve all been doing it lately!), but something about Endwalker’s story of hope in the face of overwhelming grief – and wondering if all the suffering is really worth it – got particularly close to home with the current state of our own world. A story of catastrophic hardship, and communities and nations rising together to confront it. A story of people who acknowledge the hardships by appeasing them, but who endure and overcome pain, loss and horror to come out the other side with a sense of togetherness.
Trials and trials in a video game rarely, if ever, match up with trials and tribulations in the real world. But Endwalker gave me the simple release to literally stare desperation in the eye and chop it up with a full-body scythe on my Warrior of Light was a welcome fantastic tool in combating the stress of the real world – every bit of a fitting conclusion to the current story of FFXIV, and at least the fitting conclusion to 2021.
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