Telling a strong, engaging story in a video game is no easy feat. The writers must make the player care about not only the characters, but make them feel immersed in the world of the story. That can be a difficult task when the developers are eager to show off any new or innovative gameplay mechanics, making the story sometimes take a back seat. For an MMO, crafting a great story is an even more daunting task. There’s so many factors to account for, such as making the player feel unique in the world while also not crushing them under the sheer amount of quests that are often trivial. Of the many MMO’s currently out, I feel only Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn(referred to as Fourteen hereafter) accomplishes all the above.
The most integral part of any story is the living and breathing world its set in. If you took the greatest actors you could find for one of Shakespeare’s plays, but forced the stage to be riddled with trash that tripped your actors at every turn, you’re selling tickets for a circus instead of a great drama. Outlandish example aside, developers must craft a world that complements rather than fights their story and characters. The world of Fourteen, Hydaelyn, is a very diverse land, but each zone it’s divided into fits and has their own backstory. That history in turn lends a narrative aid to the main story as it progresses throughout Hydaelyn. Much of the story has the heroes dealing with the politics of an area as an obstacle, and without the history to backup why those politics exist, the story would make no sense.
Then there’s just how damn beautiful Hydaelyn is. Currently only taking place on the continent of Eorzea, each part of it an eyeful. From lush jungles to craggy deserts, Eorzea has every feasible biome. Nothing outlandish like a desert next to a blizzard-filled tundra mind you, the biomes all make sense where they are and each is unique from any similar zones. Ruins aren’t haphazardly placed either, there’s a story you can discover behind them if not a dungeon as well. Enemy factions, such as the Beastmen tribes, also have their own suitable areas that are tailored appropriately. Everything totals up for a living, breathing world that doesn’t have you forgetting a zone after you finish questing there.
I shouldn’t have to say how important those individual quests are to the over-arching storyline, but too many MMO’s are littered with mindless quests. Fourteen is at fault in their own regard, but they do it with better style. Rather than clicking a quest giver and receiving a giant paragraph of what they need done along with their favorite hobbies, color, and food, they talk to you like a normal person would. Everything is put out in speech bubbles as the character actually speaks to you, rather than giving you the familiar paragraph quest. Fourteen still has a paragraph to summarize the quest in your journal, but it’s a great tool to refresh yourself if needed.
The main story especially needs a journal to remind you of current events because there’s quite a bit. Almost all main story quests have multiple stages that force you to travel anywhere from a few feet to across Eorzea. All of the travel is relevant and is in no means a “filler,” but brings up the question of “how much is too much?” Stories can be ruined or become tedious when too many supporting characters are introduced and irrelevant information is given to the reader to flesh out the world more. Fourteen seemingly treads the line of becoming tedious at points, but almost every named character has an impact at some point of the story or has several appearances to warrant their existence. Unimportant characters have generic names like “Empire Soldier” and are usually Fourteen’s Red Shirts from Star Trek. In the end, everyone serves their purpose eventually, but it can seem overbearing at first.
The side quests are a bit more numerous than the main story but they also serve a purpose. As I said earlier, ruins and other landmarks are typically explained for the player or some level of information is given to give them meaning, not only to break up the scenery. Their main purpose is to help you gain experience because story quests are level-locked, but there’s at least more of a purpose to them than that. However, they usually follow the typical recipe of kill x amount of x, then go grocery shopping for the quest giver while you’re at it. Reiteration: they are there to help you level for the main story, and considering you can play one character and unlock every playable class with that character, you’re going to need the experience if you like to dabble in other classes.
The final feature that gives even more depth to Fourteen is the voice acting. Granted, the feature is nothing new. Star Wars: The Old Republic for example has voice acting for every single conversation in the game. Without going into a tangent, their recipe works and they crafted another good story, but Fourteen uses it in a different manner. Simply put, some scenes have voice acting and others don’t. Those that don’t are important overall to the story, but make you realize it’s mostly filler until the next pivotal portion of the story. When NPC’s start actually speaking through voice acting, I pay a hell of a lot more attention. Side quests generally have zero voice acting and show you that there is a minor story to read here if you care, otherwise skip through and go kill x amount of x for the quest giver. The main story also has unvoiced sections, but it’s generally conversations between the characters to set in motion the next pivotal part that you really want to pay attention to.
The world is amazing to look at and there’s a compelling story to keep you playing, but are you “immersed” in the game. I personally hate the term, but I also understand its merits for those that enjoy that aspect of a game. As far as immersion goes, there is one glaring problem: when your brave group rushes to overcome some enemy or obstacle, the story NPC’s always disappear. Sometimes their disappearance is explained and sometimes they’re just gone. Worse is when they join you in a cutscene afterwards and give themselves a pat on the back for all the hard work that they did. Thanks for disappearing then taking part in the credit you jagaloon. To be fair though, you are a legendary warrior in the story and they will take every chance to spit polish your boots for it. That reaction makes sense though and fits, it’d be on par with you meeting a famous warrior like Achilles or Odysseus. And just as those heroes of old, you will make mistakes along the way and have enemies to overcome, everything that made their stories worth retelling. The story is an old one, but it never gets old.
Fourteen isn’t perfect by any means, but has given the best damn presentation of a story that makes me the player truly care about a video game. Of course, the main subject of this article is Fourteen, but there’s something relevant here for all developers, especially for MMO’s. Any hardcore MMO fan has cut their teeth on the yellow exclamation mark experience that was early World of Warcraft and knows that there was a story buried in there, but the developers left no distinguishing markers for the player until a quest chain finished. Fourteen changes the formula by making it blatantly obvious what the main story is, let alone the in-game markers that differentiate quests. Combine the great main story with the beautiful setting Square Enix crafted and you have a winning formula. I genuinely hope more developers follow their example, and that’s not to say there isn’t other games that achieved this, but the MMO genre is sorely lacking.