Exploring a Massively Multiplayer Online World.
One of the best feelings any open world game gives the player is the reveal. When you first step outside the vault in Fallout, or emerge blinking from the cave like so many Platonic metaphors in the Elder Scrolls series. When you take your first steps into Hyrule field in Ocarina of Time – Link falters, then runs full pelt across the rickety bridge separating him from the rest of the world. All these moments represent a fundamental change in the character – The vault dweller who’s never seen anything aside from the cold grey of containment, the prisoner in the elder scrolls series liberated, Link learning that there’s more to life than an idyllic childhood in the forest – these are the moments that define the character, and the games that encase these moments. Here’s your playground, these games say, go and play.
Unlike these games, FFXIV’s opening takes you from the outside, inward. You arrive via carriage to your chosen starting city (allocated by which class you take as a starter). The carriage ride is only as interactive as pressing a single button to continue text, or chose a response, but when you’re dropped off, you’re not the lone wanderer in a huge playground built for you – you’re now a part of a living world. Your first quest sends you to the local adventurer’s guild, and you’re told to talk to the landlord of said establishment. They fill you in, and send you on your way. This acts much like the vault sequences did in Fallout, the castle attack in Skyrim (even down to being delivered on a horse and cart, albeit a floating cart, pulled not by horses but rather by Chocobos, the Final Fantasy series iconic yellow mascot, a chicken/ostrich hybrid). The big reveal comes when you step out of your chosen city’s gates for the first time, but there’s a more organic reveal in an MMO, and that’s your fellow players.
As you take your first steps (into Ul’Dah, for me, nestled in the heart of the Thanalan desert, Ul’Dah is a merchant’s paradise, ornate and lavish (though, like anywhere wealth thrives, not without those who suffer), home of the Thaumaturges, Pugilists and Gladiators who will one day become Black Mages, Monks and Paladins. When another player runs past you you’re instantly transfixed. You can see their name, their guild, their exotic armour, and their title. This alone says as much as any pulling back the curtains style reveal you could possibly orchestrate does. It says instantly that this world is alive, that you’re a part of it. That it’s a huge world to explore, full of possibilities and wonders for the player to uncover. Leaving the city shows you expansive terrain, populated by Final Fantasy’s bestiary, full of people fighting monsters, mining, fishing (my personal time waster of choice. A time sink within a time sink. There must be some word for that. Sinkception?), riding around on a variety of mounts that runs from the aforementioned chocobos to glowing elemental ponies that come from beating the game’s hardest bosses on extreme difficulty, if you’re lucky enough to get the whistle that summons them to drop).
This sets you up instantly for some deeply satisfying exploration. Square’s art and design department are to be seriously commended here. Every area has a distinct personality beyond desert, snowy mountains, forest, etc, with enough touches of the world that FFXIV once was. Pre-calamity cityscapes lie half buried, or crumbling into dust, new settlements of refugees, beastmen, or scholars studying the ruins sprout up around them. The in game dungeons sit nestled within the world, some subtle enough that were it not for the game directing you there, you would never expect to house their own worlds behind it. But exploring dungeons is a completely different topic, for another week. It was, in fact, going to be next week, but as Heavensward, the first expansion hits on the 23rd, and early access starts on the 19th, next week’s column will be an overview of the new areas added in to the game.
One particular area that stands out to me, exploration wise, is the settlement of Mor Dhona. Mor Dhona is the final settlement players find themselves in in the 2.0 storyline (A Realm Reborn constitutes 2.X, as FFXIV existed before. Now referred to as “legacy”, the developers are hoping the world forgets that FFXIV existed before the realm was reborn). With regular content patches for FFXIV coming every 2 to 3 months, nowhere has seen more change than Mor Dhona. Mor Dhona has evolved into a functional settlement, rather than a desolate outpost on the edge of a battlefield. Mor Dhona’s growth with each patch makes the world feel alive. New buildings are added, new NPCs appear, and the world grows with its player base.
Next week, the 2.X world ends, and the world grows once more. With the launch of Heavensward FFXIV moves into the 3.X phase, so check back next week to explore early access, in a filthy casual kind of way.