Final Fantasy 14 is a long RPG. Well, long feels like an understatement—it's actually five very long RPGs stuffed inside each other, like some kind of game turducken. Even if you aren't distracted by all the little MMO bells and whistles—player housing, glamour hunting, fishing—you're still gonna be there a while.
Sentiments are cooling on Endwalker's patch content—but Final Fantasy 14's main storyline is still one of the most memorable experiences I've had in gaming. The culmination of the base game A Realm Reborn and its four expansions (Heavensward, Stormblood, Shadowbringers, and Endwalker) has produced one of my favourite fantasy stories, period. Heck, Endwalker itself made me cry about 18 times. I counted.
Final Fantasy 14, despite having so many cutscenes—and literally hundreds of thousands of words of dialogue—is really good to share with your mates. Getting them into the game is a hard ask, sure, and it's not really possible if they aren't enthusiastic. Like trying to get your friend who only likes hard sci-fi to watch the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions with you.
Once they're hooked, though, it's hard not to spend hours having big conversations, taking screenshots, and workshopping story beats with them. I can't think of any other game that's as long as FF14 which has the same sharable feel, and I'm going to try to pin down why.
Oh mentor, my mentor
FF14 is an MMO first and foremost. While a lot of it can be played solo—especially with recent updates—you can also very easily drop into your friend's journey for pivotal moments. Imagine getting your friend into one of those 800-episode shounen animes, except you can rock up with your own character to help them dunk on a villain. It's super compelling.
I experienced this a lot recently with a friend of mine, who has just wrapped up Endwalker. Every time they reached a fight against some godlike entity—this happens a lot in FF14—I'd ask if they wanted me to join in. This led to some great moments where, after we were done, I was able to watch them react to story beats in real-time.
While other single-player RPGs might lead to your pal freaking out at you on Discord, there's something very different about being there, boots on the ground, taking silly screenshots and spamming emotes at them. All the while you know that the next cutscene is about to make them a weepy mess, just like it did for you.
I chatted to that friend about what made those moments special, and they put it very well: "As the darkness begins to close in around you… seeing your friend's character name in-game is a welcome star in the night, even if that's just emoting at each other.
"There's a near-tangible connection when you're playing key story beat duties with friends, not least because you're watching them dance through AoEs and trying to match their movements, but because it's like any enjoyable-slash-stressful experience you endure. You've bonded over that trial now."
The slowest of slow burns
I called Final Fantasy 14 a turducken earlier, but I really meant it. Each expansion weighs in at around a few dozen hours of story content at least, and that's not even mentioning patch storylines. These episodic instalments keep a story-thirsty fanbase sated between expansions, and they often provide canon second endings to an expansion's story—such as Heavensward's patch 3.3, which wrapped up a bunch of dangling threads with a cathartic bow.
This flow between expansion packs and patch quests forms one long, winding road. Games get their sequels, sure, but they're often measurably different. Mechanics change, studios try new things or swap hands entirely, and so on. A lot of mega-RPGs instead opt to make entirely new adventures for their 'sequels'. Final Fantasy itself is famous for this—with a few exceptions, each game takes place in a new world with new characters.
But Final Fantasy 14 is different. It's an MMO, so all of these expansions are part of the same linear tale—even the upcoming expansion Dawntrail, which is meant to be the start of a whole fresh 10-year arc, is still going to have familiar faces.
This means the game can set up plot threads that won't be fully pulled for years. This also means if you're going through it yourself, you're gonna have a lot of theories—and sharing those with someone who knows more than you do is half the fun.
Oops! All theories
In the same way that I guided one friend through the game's content, I also had the joy of having a mentor when I played through the main quest. A pal and I exchanged a bunch of one-sided speculation—I'd start spinning up my own pet theories, and she'd just have to sit back and smile like a DM in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. I went ahead and asked her what it was like from her side of the screen, and I pretty much agree with everything she said:
"It requires a great deal of holding your tongue; you'll be seeing them excitedly share thoughts and feelings about things you know the end to—but watching them speculate, often correctly, and then seeing them react to twists, turns and exposition is a well worthwhile payoff." She also brought up the fact I rushed to call a beloved character a "stink man" before they'd proved their worth. I will never live this down.
Final Fantasy 14 really plays the long game. I don't think I've played a game that's needed so much patience—it's something you'd usually have to turn to an epic, Game of Thrones-style novel series for. Yet FF14 stays, for the most part, focused on paying off everything it sets up.
Granted, I don't doubt there was a time when FF14's complex and flawed Ascian villains were just evil wizards in silly robes. But even then, that kind of storycraft is impressive in its own way. The writers at Square Enix's Creative Business Unit III really know how to spin a yarn miles long.
Original character, do not steal
Final Fantasy 14's story doesn't really work without the player's imagination. The game's protagonist is called The Warrior of Light (WoL), much like Dragon Age has The Inquisitor, or Mass Effect has Commander Shepard. They absolutely have a vague personality, a story arc, and a purpose—and there isn't much narrative choice, you're still gonna be a big hero and save the day.
And yet, they're written carefully enough to be completely malleable, story silly putty for the player to mould. You can slot a dozen versions of the Warrior of Light into the character's stoically-nodding boots. Not long ago, someone made a bronze statue of their own character, and my thought wasn't "That's weird", it was "Oh, of course. If I could make my character I totally would."
Even if you aren't the kind of person who writes backstories for your characters, FF14 encourages you to do that. It makes the story one you want to share, not just because you're enjoying it, but because you're taking part in writing it. You want to compare notes with your fellow players, and tell them how your character responded to certain situations (or just who they're dating, which. Fair. I cannot cast stones from my glass house).
For example, my WoL was a hardened criminal thrust into the shoes of a hero, despite his past shame. The friend who mentored me played a plucky street rat, whereas the friend I mentored played a self-sacrificing white mage who feared his own power. These all made for completely different imagined stories in our heads—and they've all added to my experience. If you're into playing with your digital dolls as much as I am, FF14 isn't just one story—it's thousands of independent ones, each with a different character playing the role.
Levin in a bottle
It's not really a secret that the MMORPG isn't exactly in vogue. Cynically speaking, the genre's financial benefits have been replaced with live service games. MMORPGs are big, expensive projects that often crash and fail, like Warhammer Online, or they suffer from slow update cycles like Star Wars: The Old Republic. As such, only the old guards who snuck in during the gold rush have stuck around.
Even then, few games in the genre put the emphasis on story as much as Final Fantasy 14 does. It feels like lightning in a bottle, and I can't help but pin that all on the fact that it's an MMORPG. The things I've mentioned—your character being a blank slate, long-form expansion pack storytelling, and partying up for key moments—that's all owed to the game's genre as much as it is its design.
As I write this, I feel a sense of melancholy. I don't think FF14 is going anywhere soon, of course—its director says he sees 10 more years of story coming, and we're gonna be getting a graphical fresh coat of paint soon. But there will be a day when the game shuts its servers down for good, whether that's 10 or 20 years from now. The unique market conditions that serve as its replacement just don't really exist anymore, and I'm not so sure MMOs will ever be as popular as they once were. Everything ends.
All that to say, a story that's this big, with this amount of shareability—I think it might genuinely be a one-time thing. I want to be proven wrong, sure, but I just don't see a game like this happening twice. Besides, it's not over yet—Dawntrail looks to be a banger of an expansion. But when it does end, and it will, smile because it happened—after all, a smile better suits a hero.