I loathe side quests with a fiery passion. They’re the complimentary breadsticks of game design, the freewheeling exercise bike designed to keep you busy going nowhere, the weird no-budget local adverts they play in cinemas before the lights dim and trailers start.
They’re a waste of bloody time.
MMO’s – that’s your World of Warcrafts, EverQuests, TERAs, and the like – are the logical extreme of this bale of gaming silage; enormous side quest delivering machines – whole servers filled with the damned things – and from companies with the temerity to demand you pay a monthly fee for the “pleasure” of accessing this Sisyphean boulder’s worth of content too!
Well that’s the theory, anyway. I’ve found things work a little differently when you’re standing in the middle of an online field of killer rabbits dressed like some sort of mismatching steampunk fantasy battle-nun.
The tiny squeak of distinction for me is that MMOs are more about getting the chance to play as a virtual alter ego with heroic tendencies than temporarily filling the boots of a one-and-done living legend, making it easier for me to perform the mental gymnastics required to make minor tasks to feel like my side-questin’ adventurer is having a day off from saving the nation/world/universe/the very fabric of reality itself instead of that awful sinking feeling that I, the subscription-paying gamer, am frittering away my precious time and money on the perpetual XP hamster wheel. In this very specific sort of bubble I can happily spend the forty-or-more hours required to work my way up to whacking a dragon-god in the chops and then shift gears and relax with more mundane chores, safe in the knowledge that in a year’s time there’ll more than likely be another world-destroying wannabe lined up for me to sort out – only this time I’ll not only be an amazingly reliable healer (honestly once I get back into the swing of things I’m really quite good at making sure nobody di–HEAL YOU?! HOW ABOUT YOU GET OUT OF THE SODDING FIRE FIRST Y-[cough]) but I’ll be a fantastic cook and have blown most of my hard-earned crafting money on a fancy hat with a massive feather in it too.
But a good MMO doesn’t merely provide Much Stuff Wot People Can Does, it’ll convey a sense of believability, a feeling that the world’s so alive when you do inevitably come around to the idea of dusting off the cobwebs you don’t merely re-sub, you come home.
Final Fantasy XI‘s Windurst is home for me.
The game’s always felt a bit clunky and unintuitive – that was true even when my only real frame of reference was Phantasy Star Online played over dial-up modem, and the seventeen years that have passed since then haven’t done as much to change that as perhaps they should have. But to have survived this long in an official, active, and internationally profitable (in 2012 Square-Enix announced the game was their most profitable Final Fantasy ever up to that point – think of all the mainline games in the series before then, and pick your jaw up from the floor as you realise XI – the weird one that wasn’t even a “proper” Final Fantasy – beat them all) capacity it had to have some special creative glimmer in there, a unique take on a genre that has publishers scrambling over each other to try and grab their own golden MMO goose – and it does:
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it’s OK for games to inconvenience players. And oh boy, does XI ever inconvenience its players! There are shops that only open at particular times, boss battles you’ll struggle with if you tackle them on the wrong elementally-themed day of the week, quests that only start if you pick the hidden option, and if you miss the airship’s departure time then you really will have to sit around and wait for the next one to turn up – and yes, that includes watching it come in to dock and extend its little gangplank before you can get on board. And all this is after seventeen years of improvements! This immersive inconvenience stretches all the way to Vana’Diel’s NPC population too – there’s not a marker or mini-map to be found and when you do bumble your way into a quest you really are going to need an online guide open in a browser tab if you’d like to get it done before your subscription needs renewing. But this lack of railroading forces you to look around, to notice things, to engage with the game as a whole because you can’t easily place everything in neat little “Main quest” and “Things I don’t ever have to bother with” pigeonholes. And because of this you end up talking to all sorts of NPCs you normally wouldn’t take a second glance at – and that’s when you discover Final Fantasy XI’s characters are just itching to tell you a story.
Stories about the terrible war, twenty years past. About themselves. About ancient history, local gossip, and the beast tribes roaming beyond the walls. Chatting to a few locals at random reveals all sorts of tantalising little threads from other lives, details that are inconsequential by themselves but come together to create something wonderful: There are fireworks available to buy – fireworks invented by specific character you can actually see, visit, and talk to – and the rolanberries used in rolanberry pie (MP+50 AGI-1 INT+2 for thirty minutes when consumed, also: delicious) come from the straightforwardly named Rolanberry Fields, located just outside the city of Jeuno. Does any of that matter? No, it doesn’t. Is it something you’ll remember long after other, lesser, MMOs have been and gone? Without a doubt.
Let’s use Jatan-Paratan, a professional restaurant musician busily tooting away on his little flute, as an example: The standard procedure for games with preoccupied NPCs is to treat them as a piece of background furniture – you wouldn’t want to disturb their performance would you, you monster? – or alternatively for them to have a short script verbalising a thought along those lines. It’s less work that way, isn’t it? The MMO hierarchy of importance dictates there’s you at the top, then story-critical characters (anyone wearing an outfit you’d remember without prompting), quest-giving and service NPCs (vendors, innkeepers, etc.), before finally arriving at the very bottom of the pile, a place reserved for decorative bodies that probably don’t even have names. Random Flute Guy is about as unimportant as they come, and yet when you speak to him:
“Have you, my fair customer, ever listened to one of my performances? If you don’t mind giving your opinion, perhaps you could let me know your thoughts for my future reference.”
You aren’t just interested in him, he’s interested in you too – what did you think of his music, did you even remember what he was playing? You actually get a multiple-choice response text box after his question, and in another delightful twist that reveals how much love and sheer effort went into the game if you tell him you can’t even recall the tune he’s relieved, because he’s supposed to be providing a little background ambience to everyone’s dining and not a concert hall performance. Not that it matters what you say here – it’s not a quest, he’s not a significant character by any stretch of the imagination, and there’s no reward for talking to him (not that Final Fantasy XI has ever been big on the whole “Rewarding people for questing” business), but the inconsequential nature of the exchange only makes it feel even more like a proper little morsel real role-playing, the game extending a hand and inviting you to be a part of it.
The restaurant itself isn’t ignored either: In XI if someone mentions eating at a local restaurant that’s because there really is a local restaurant and you can walk up to the counter, order edible food, and take it away. It may not be quite the candlelit dinner you were hoping for but a portable snack that doubles as a temporary stat boost is a little more practical for the on-the-go hero, and the chain of events that allow you to visit a named restaurant, purchase food there, and then actually eat the food creates a muddy haze of realism that’s close enough to serve its purpose.
If the thought of listening to citizens filling your dialogue window with flavour text doesn’t tickle your fancy then how about something a little more practical? All of that chatter about bored guards and national history may be fascinating but it’s not especially useful as a player after all. This is the part where Final Fantasy XI get to demonstrate one of its greatest strengths… and arguably one of it’s greatest weaknesses too: The game’s dogged determination to remain in character even if it meant making things more difficult for its players. Back then, when Vana’Diel was shiny and new and PlayStation 2 hard drives were how much?! (and import-only, for some of us), it was an unusual quirk. In the modern MMO world of promotional crossovers of crossovers (and I will fight people who object to my Ky Kiske PSO2 outfit) this commitment to itself feels nothing short of astounding.
Sunana, a tarutaru milling around outside Nya Labiccio’s shop (don’t forget – her shop’s only open when Windurst has control of the Gustaberg region!), makes for a good example of XI’s practical storytelling:
“Tehehe… I keep going out into East Sarutabaruta, hunt a whole lot of Mandragora, collect their four-leaf buds, then come back and sell them off here to make a killing-willing! I’m so richy-wichy now!”
East Sarutabaruta? That’s practically next door! And she’s saying the plentiful Mandragora roaming around out there drop a profitable item? That’s an interesting little tidbit… And her next line is:
“Once I’ve saved up enough gil, I’m heading off to the shops on the docks of the port area. Any respectable black mage should at least equip herself with an ash staff, dont’aru think?”
Now I’m not a black mage and never have been (apart from one confusing time back in early Final Fantasy XIV when nobody, not even the designers, really knew what the difference between a conjurer and a thaumaturge was and healers like me had to grind for the right to wield our cross-class Swiftcast/Raise combo) but even so that’s a helpful piece of information I might not have discovered on my own – there’s magical equipment’s for sale by the docks? Might be worth going for a little wander… It’s an incredibly short piece of dialogue that’s easily ignored – Sunana isn’t a quest-starting special case or even wearing anything that’d set her apart from every other tiny taru in the city, but if you’re finding yourself short on gil she’s given you clear and practical advice you can easily follow, and it’s all delivered entirely in character.
That’s just for starters: The gold standard for helpful self-aware dialogue, so brilliant the writers involved should have a medal and other designers should see it as something to learn from, is given out on the pier by the fishing Galkan Laughing Lizard:
“Hmph! You dang kids these days ain’t got no respect for your elders. Can’t you see I’m tryin’ to learn this new fandangled fishin’ method? In my day, all we had to do was cast a line and wait for the baby to tug. Why, back then it was so easy, I could catch fish while I was sleepin’!”
This is simultaneously “Grumbly old man struggling with new thing” and a comment on XI’s original fishing method, which was indeed so passive bots would be lined up day and night along lucrative shorelines trying very hard to look inconspicuous.
“But now you gotta work for your meal! Let me tell you how it’s done… First, you fix a little bait on your line, toss it into the water, and wait for somethin’ to bite. Eh? What’s changed? Well, nothing yet! Would you just hold your horses and let me get to the good part?”
This part serves as a useful introduction for those who are new to fishing, but also gives the player a touch of self-insert sass if they’ve already spent countless hours dangling their rod off the end of a digital pier.
“Now, once you feel the pull is where the real battle beings–and I say battle because that fish is not going to let you get him without a fight! If he starts tuggin’ to the left, you’ve gotta pull to the right, it he start tuggin’ to the right, you’ve gotta pull to the left…”
And so on, dispensing a complete but easily digestible tutorial of the updated fishing mechanics while still sounding like a gruff guy with better things to do than talk to you. And he really does have something better to do, because…
“If I don’t catch somethin’ for tonight’s dinner, my wife’ll clean me, gut me, and have me in a fryin’ pan faster than you can say Galka meuniere!”
Just a little something light to finish the conversation, and a reminder that you were talking to a character and not reading tips from a cold instruction-dispensing machine. The entire exchange is self-aware, practical, and personal all at once – perfect.
There’s still more – so much more. XI could do this all day long if it had to – in fact, XI could easily do this all day long even if it didn’t have to. Tarutaru, bless their littaru button noses, insist on punctuating their speech with nonsense singsong rhymes all the timey-wimey, magically mechanical cardians★TaLK★a★BIt★LiKe★ThIS★ to underline their mostly working nature and mithrans can’t help but rrrroll their rrrrrrrs like the cat-people they are. Let’s not forget self-contained local mini-quests either, like getting medicine for a sick chocobo, killing crawlers to help out with the trouble at the dhalmel farm and suchlike – the rewards are so small they’re virtually nonexistent even for the freshest-faced adventurer but the superfluity of them and they way they’re tucked away as part of the day-to-day lives of a few NPCs also means that you fall into these things naturally – you’re not treating the area as an XP bank just begging for you to suck it dry and move on, it’s a place and people live and work there. And this is all just within Windurst’s walls. There’s a whole world out there – past, present, and future – just waiting for you to go and find it. In every last city and interesting little port town and outpost you’ll find grumbling guards, lost travellers, and all sorts of interesting souls busy living their own lives.
XI has been criticised in the past for not making players feel “special” enough as the game’s filled with powerful and historically significant characters that actually do important things that often don’t involve you – and that’s certainly something of a shock when visiting from MMOs that are more eager to please – but the reward is a world that teems with life, that has you thinking about it even when you’re not there. You stroll around and feel like these places are bustling with activity even if you aren’t forced to see, well, most of it, really. XI may feel like it’s trapped in amber, almost old enough to vote yet never having to undergo a Calamity-like, erm, calamity, or a Deathwing do-over but it still feels fresh – Vana’Diel’s a rich world that’s well worth exploring on both ends of the massively and micro scale. If you join up now you’ll never see it all – and it won’t matter, because Final Fantasy XI’s worth isn’t found in endgame raids and the highest of the high-tier loot, it’s in the little girl looking for her friends, the unexpected pirate attack on your passenger ship, the local teaching you how to use The Great Star Tree as a visual landmark.
I’ll leave you with a little worldy wisdom found in an unassuming magical floating book:
“When speaking with others, it’s critical to listen and be mindful of what they say. Always talking and never listening may come across as rude. Another important point is to always be mindful of the listener. How would you feel if someone said that to you? Think carefully before sending someone a message. It also helps to be clear and concise. Being vague might cause others to get the wrong impression.”