Final Fantasy XI, and the stories we shared with strangers

“They saved us, and it’d be a virtual lifetime before we’d forget their names.”



They were family. In that moment — mere hours among the thousands been and gone  —  that monk, that thief, and that white mage were effectively family. It was a bond of necessity, a bond driven by the brutality of a world that wanted nothing more than to see us fail.

That was the world of Final Fantasy XI twenty years ago, where convenience wasn’t a word — nothing like the online worlds of today. It was a time when we thought more real meant more good and more fun. Square’s debut MMO embraced that, and wanted — nay, needed — every second you had spare if you wanted to make your way in its web-based world.

There, the iconic characters of games past were replaced by iconic people. Tifa and Tera were replaced by the likes of BraveWarrior2000 and MagekillerX. Final Fantasy’s prior told tales of special people who did special things to save something that was special to them. Final Fantasy XI condensed that tale a six-player party. Whether it lasted six minutes or six hours, each had its own cast of characters with a tale to tell. You were part of other player’s fantasies.

And those fantasies would often collide. It might be that naive and noble upstart warrior who took on a notorious monster to aid your escape. Or that veteran paladin imparting that last-minute, drive by heal. They saved us, and it’d be a virtual lifetime before we’d forget their names.

They saved us from death. In Vana’diel, death deducted the experience points we’d worked so hard for. It wouldn’t literally kill us — but it literally took hours of our lives, and could set back your party’s story as if that time had never happened. The fear of its eventuality — the fear of hours of lost progress — was as real as the keyboard beneath our fingers. It wasn’t an idiosyncratic fancy for the addicted and obsessive, it was a dread that haunted healers, tanks, and damage dealers alike. 

Losing experience meant you could literally level backwards — that level next to your name meant you’d succeeded more than you failed. It wasn’t an arbitrary marker of time spent, and it wasn’t a summary of how much subscription fee you’d paid to the caretakers of this shared world. It meant you’d played hard to get there, and played smart to stay there.

And you had to play hard from the very beginning. Mere hours into your journey, Square’s world demanded your team be tempered to survive even middling monsters. It wasn’t a demand relegated to the boss fights of the endgame. Knowing your role and knowing its place in the game’s combat model — whether it was provoke timings as the warrior tank or sneak-attack positioning as the thief — was essential to surviving this unforgiving world.

It was the only was to answer Final Fantasy XI’s ultimatum: cooperate, or die.

In today’s online worlds, the endgame is the game  —  the time to get there but a minor inconvenience to be sped past. That interconnectedness, that interdependency that we took for granted in XI, is at the endgame. But the endgame wasn’t a thing back then. You’d hear names of places and things that sounded mystical and ominous, and that’s all the endgame ever was — put forever out of arms reach by the hours it’d take to get there.

Instead, all we had was the hours upon hours of mindful, coordinated, slaughter — yours and theirs. It was time when a party of six faced a single, meagre foe, and the odds still be stacked in their favour.

That wasn’t the early game, the mid game, nor the end game — it was just the game. It was us against a system that posed a challenge: see how far you can get in a world that wants anything but. Wandering the sandy wastes in a desperate bid to reach the place you were meant to level was itself was an arduous experience, with nary a blade drawn or spell cast.

The risk of loss imbued the world with meaning — it gave failure real-world consequences. It wasn’t enough that you couldn’t go forward — you could actually go backwards. That cost wasn’t in-game gold or weapon durability, then, the most precious currency of all: time. That risk felt real because it was. Strength in numbers forced us to created a shared experience. You didn’t ,  almost couldn’t , make your own fun.

The world pushed against us, and we pushed back — together. A lone player was an ant pushing a boulder. Together, it felt like a tiger pushing a stone. Slow, painstaking, gradual progress built around getting it right and right and right. It’s why World of Warcraft always felt soulless: I could get to work my checklist of quests without anyone else because they might be a burden in my desperate dash to hit that level cap.

Now, they want your subscription dollars more than ever — understandably. The game is made around you, and no longer do we have to build ourselves to battle its harsh and cruel world in quite the same way. It wasn’t a two-week sprint to the finish line after a new expansion. We didn’t rush to get the a state where we couldn’t play the game anymore, nor did we want to.

You’ve undoubtedly heard about those who hit a level cap a mere day after paying fifty quid for new content. It signifies how that plant pot, that mountain ridge are now blurs to the background of our desperation to hit that final number where the game can finally begin. It just wasn’t like that in Vana’diel. There, you’d spend hours upon hours with that plant plot.

It’s fitting then that XI’s theme is called Vana’diel March — a fitting name for a game that needs you to plod on in its demanding world. It’s not a marathon, it’s not a sprint — it really is a march. It was a pace that gave you time to stop and take in the orange hues of the Valkrum Dunes, or the grassy greens of Windurst. It forced to slow down and just be in the world.

That need for others forced to us to forge those bonds, to form those makeshift families. They weren’t a matchmade dungeon run, they’re weren’t a 40-minute fight with people you’d never see again. You’d spend hours together — you’d get to know them, and them you. They became family, and it’d be a virtual lifetime before I’d ever forget their real-life impact in that modern, make-believe world.

Image source: Tumblr

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