How to Make Sure Final Fantasy XIV Doesn't Suck--Part 2: Story

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Last time on "How to Make Sure Final Fantasy XIV Doesn't Suck", we discussed combat and the many revisions to the system that need to be made so that this game doesn't end up being FFXI 2.0.

This entry tackles what is the most important aspect of a single-player Final Fantasy game, if not for a multiplayer one as well:


Story is the glue that holds any game together--even a game with a placeholder story still has one, and even games with poor stories still understand and adhere to some form of narrative structure. More on that in a minute.

Final Fantasy XIV needs to have an epic story. To measure up to expectations, (mine), it needs to have the best story of any MMO, ever. And it needs to present said story in a fresh, interesting, and unique way. Cutscenes are nice, but they aren't enough any more, nor should gamers be content with them.

What follows is not a series of expectations for what a story should include; it is how the story is presented to the playerthat makes all the difference.

In that vein, what aspects of Final Fantasy XI's storytelling need to be tossed? Which should be kept? Most importantly, how can Square Enix do that which Square Enix does best and re-invent the wheel--again?

What to Toss:

I'm going to lay it out in three words:

Cut the bullshit.

Stories in MMOs need to stop wasting my time. Final Fantasy XI's storylines are hyped as being the best in the MMOverse, but that's a half-truth. I would agree that the storylines themselves are deeply engaging; however, some of them are hit-or-miss. Their delivery is even worse. Square-Enix has a lot of chaff to toss when it comes to storytelling.

Let me introduce you to a friend of mine. You may have met him before. His name is "Narrative Hook" and every novel, film, children's story, TV show, newspaper article--even this very blog post--has one. Final Fantasy XI has one, too. Actually, it has a whole bunch of them; every quest begins with one. Every main storyline has one. But the first one--the very, very first one--sucks.

It amounts to: "Welcome to Vana'diel! Here are some people. Have fun, MISTER ADVENTURER!"

The first three main storyline missions--let me be clear, these are first three sections of the game that give the first available storyline--are dull. The first two are "click spot X for cutscene". Number three is "kill monster Y". Rank up!


These kinds of quests are okay, when given from random NPC's for small rewards; But a big, important, main quest needs to grab you at the very beginning and not let go.

What to Keep

As much as I condemn FFXI's early missions, I vehemently endorse the later ones. Final Fantasy XI has been given four full expansions, each with an all-new storyline. All of them are phenomenal--the plots are unpredictable and keep the player guessing; the characters are unique and flawed, with realistic reactions and fleshed-out histories. There are still many caricatures in FFXI--that is, characters existing as devices, to fulfill a plot point--but the game still does an excellent job of making them believable characters to whom the player gets attached. You have some good writers over there, Square.

Don't fire them.

How to Revolutionize It
Final Fantasy has always set the bar for RPG's--they're famous for having the best stories of any RPG anywhere. I don't thin it's too much expect a great story from the game--but how will it be presented? The mechanisms for presenting the story are what can be revolutionized here.

A friend of mine played FFXI with myself and my friends for a good long while--his undying complaint, though, was that no matter how epic a cutscene, he always felt like 1,000,000 people had done it before. I had to agree with him--playing a game with literally thousands of other people who you know are playing the exact same story you are. Most MMO's are only multiplayer in terms of gameplay, but they're single-player in terms of storyline. This needs to change.

Storyline needs to be at the basis of everything that happens in FFXIV--from character creation to endgame. Who your character is, where they are from, and the choices they make should affect the story they play. The idea is to make an MMO in which every citizen of the world has a (relatively) unique story. This is a grandiose assertion to make and a huge expectation to have--but if it wasn't, it wouldn't be revolutionary, would it?

Branching dialogue trees, seen in games like Mass Effect, go a long way toward customizable stories--but I think Final Fantasy XIV can and should take it a step further with branching storylines, starting with character creation.

In FFXI, you chose which city to begin your quest in. That was okay. But why should every character in the game start out the same? Nothing makes you feel more meaningless in a game than seeing obvious "Insert Player Name Here" text. Your story should start where you choose, but not in the sense that we're used to.

Imagine the following scenario:

You create a character. Along with physical traits (more on character creation in parts three and four of this series), you choose personality traits. Are you a more physical or mental person? Do you prefer cities or the great outdoors? Are you serious or silly? Disciplined or mischievous?

Answers to questions like these can not only lead your character down the Job path you would probably choose for them anyway--more on the job system in parts three/four of this series--but also where, how, and most importantly, why your story is beginning.

For example, if you chose "Mental", "Cities", and "Silly", you might start the game as an apprentice in a magic shop in a big city, with a boss who doesn't like you very much. This, of course, could lead you down the path of a Mage when your Adventure begins. Add in a few choices--(Your boss fires you for being goofy and ruining a batch of spells. Do you choose to make for the Religious Abbey to the west of the city? Try to join the military? Start a shop of your own? Each choice would give you a traditional directive to go talk to Person X, but the fact that you *made* the choice makes all the difference).

Add in dialogue trees for all NPC's and you've got yourself a custom storyline, something that's never been done in an MMO. This is all "If X, then Y" simple stuff--but implemented much more often, and in the right places.

Depending on your choices, you will, of course, be at times swept up in the struggle to save the world--but that story needs to be a part of the player's storyline. Imagine that six players stand, ready to face the final boss for the game's overall story arc--they're all there, but different choices have brought them there, together.

The storylines players forge should do three things:

1. Get them invested in the game's main storyline
2. Get them invested in their own character
3. Get them invested in other people's stories and characters.

Obviously, with all this storyline customization, players are going to have vastly different goals--if one player needs to kill enemy X, but another player doesn't have that mission, what's the draw in helping him?

EXP. Pure and simple. You help another player? You reap the benefits--what's more, you get to witness a part of their story. If that player reaches his goal, player 2 who helped him should get to see what unfolds when he arrives. Hear the dialogue, see the reactions, and maybe give his opinion to his new friend on what should be done next.

In the end, an MMO needs to be about more than 'mad lootz'. More than a cool cutscene every 25 hours of play. It needs to be a living, breathing storyline in which all players feel they play a part. An experience which is a little different for everyone. Every time I play, I want to remember that it was my choices that brought me where I am--meeting new players, getting swept up in a story greater than any one player, or just face to face with this dragon who's about to eat my face.

For once, the annoyingly shrill words of Tidus from Final Fantasy X ring in my ears: "This is my story."

As with the first entry, these are generalizations meant to give an idea of what a truly revolutionary MMO might do--and how players might become even more attached to
the experience of playing.

Look for part three on Wednesday, June 8: The Job System--at least one thing about Final Fantasy XI that's definitely worth keeping around, (if not tweaked, just a little bit).

Thanks for reading and be on the lookout for more entries soon! Never hurts to bookmark us--that URL can be a bitch.