The once-proud people of Garlemald have been brought low by war.
Citizens of the former empire now sit huddled around fires in the bombed-out ruins of what was once their capital. Huddling for warmth, many Garleans are refugees in their own land. The freezing Northern winters are made all the colder in light of this bitter reality.
When people think of Final Fantasy, you might think of high-concept battles between spiky-haired protagonists and nefarious demigods; of high-scale, high-stakes conflicts that spare no time for the little people. While Square Enix’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game Final Fantasy 14 certainly has its fair share of god-killing, the much-beloved title grounds its stories in the lives and experiences of the people who live in its worlds.
Final Fantasy 14’s latest patch doubles down on this, taking the time to focus on those who have been hit hardest over the course of the game’s 10 years of increasingly on-point storytelling. Yes, the game has its share of dramatic haircuts, nightclubs, and fantastical nonsense, but it is also so much more than those things.
A cold world
Patch 6.4, Final Fantasy 14’s latest update, takes a look at the experiences of those who are attempting to make ends meet in the face of calamity. Originally the antagonists of Final Fantasy 14, the Garlean Empire was an aggressive power, invading neighboring land for nefarious, self-aggrandizing ends. They’re comparable to the Roman Empire from our own history, bringing technology wherever they go, at the unconscionable cost of bloodshed, war and human misery.
After the events of Endwalker, the Garleans are on the back foot. It turned out their entire imperialist past was part of a cruel cosmic scheme by the game’s real villains. Once the Garleans had served their purpose in the villains’ arcane scheme, they were abandoned, quickly falling into bloody civil war.
To their credit, the Eorzean Alliance, a loose band of city states to whom the player character belongs, has attempted to aid the Garleans in the wake of the war, despite having previously been enemies. The Eorzeans have been providing food, shelter and clothes to their former foes, but this isn’t always enough.
Not every Garlean is happy to rely on charity
Not every Garlean is happy to rely on charity – a fact that Patch 6.4 explores in depth. There’s a divide between those who wish to accept the help of the Eorzeans and those who find it patronizing, preferring instead to struggle on their own terms.
Post-war reconstruction is a delicate subject in our own world and is extremely difficult to get right. From East Timor to the United States, reconstruction has almost always been handled poorly, at great human cost.
However, Final Fantasy 14 isn’t afraid to roll up its sleeves and get stuck in to these difficult, emotive and thought-provoking topics. Throughout Patch 6.4’s main story, we’re shown a range of Garlean perspectives, ranging from laborers to nobles. It swiftly becomes clear that there’s no right answer, that whatever happens will require compromise and empathy from those affected.
Eventually, a third party, leader of the merchant city-state of Radz-at-Han, intervenes, offering the Garleans a trade deal on their own terms; a compromise which provides the Garleans with supplies, whilst maintaining their agency. It makes for a feel-good moment; the kind of resolution that we rarely see in the real world.
That’s the beauty of fantasy games, though. So often, these stories show us both who we are and what we could be, if we embraced a spirit of heroism and compassion.
More than Zero
Patch 6.4 also focuses on Zero, a relatively new addition to Final Fantasy 14’s cast. She’s not a Garlean, though her tale touches on similar themes. Zero is a refugee in her own way, having narrowly avoided the destruction of her home reality known as The Thirteenth.
Most of those stuck on The Thirteenth have been twisted into Voidsent, soul-hungry demons with little vestige of their humanity left. Zero, however, got lucky. She may be half-voidsent, lacking many of the memories from her former human life, but she’s still alive and capable of moving forward.
That said, having spent most of her existence surviving in the dog-eat-dog post-apocalyptic world of The Thirteenth, she struggles opening up emotionally. Ideas of trust and compassion elude her at first. It’s up to the player character and their friends to explain these concepts to her, often through actions more than words.
As the player, we learn and grow with her, building our own bond of trust with Zero as we fight alongside her
Initially, she struggles to conceive of relationships that aren’t purely transactional, but soon she comes to see trust and friendship as more than just empty words. Over the course of Patch 6.4 especially, she opens up to the player character, allowing them and the ensemble of supporting characters to gradually gain a place in her heart.
Video games are often [uniquely well placed to explore trauma] due to their interactive nature, and the story of Zero takes full advantage of this. As the player, we learn and grow with her, building our own bond of trust with Zero as we fight alongside her during the story. She becomes part of the gang, gradually coming to terms with her own pain and the emotional walls she had to put up to deal with her painful past.
Zero is a fan favorite character for exactly this reason. Though a new addition to Final Fantasy 14’s roster of characters, she slots in neatly – almost a surrogate for minor characters throughout the story who are battling the aftermath of their own pain. It’s no coincidence that she, and Garlean leader Julius get on so well when the interact in cutscenes: both approach life from a point of pain and regrowth.
Final Fantasy 14 never fails to take into account these sorts of poignant emotional details in its storytelling. It’s part of what makes the game so resonant with fans, and also speaks to the MMO’s enduring appeal. Though you may come to the game for the fantasy shenanigans, you will stay for the intimate and moving portraits of human growth and struggle.