There's a moment in episode two of Final Fantasy XIV: Dad of Light, Netflix's new imported Japanese dramedy, where the main character's dad abruptly quits playing Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn for some unknown reason. His son Akio wonders how this could happen, given his dad has ravenously devoured the game since mysteriously quitting his job with no warning, so he asks his dad why.
His father Hakutaro, as we know him at this point, is a stoic man who never lets on his emotions. He's quiet. He hardly even talks to his very own son and wife. His son Akio doesn't resent him for it though, he just wishes he had any sort of relationship at all. In an effort to rekindle a bond they shared over the very first Final Fantasy game on the Famicom when he was just a kid, Akio gets his father a PlayStation 4 and the popular Final Fantasy MMO. "Final Fantasia?" his father questions, the name he always got wrong even when he was younger. He doesn't let it on at the time, but there's definitely a light sparkle in his eye at the gift.
Yet Akio has a secretive plan tied to it. In the game as his anonymous avatar Maidy (a blonde cat girl), he befriends his father's in-game character (adorably named Indy Jones). Akio has a personal quest he formed alongside his in-game comrades: they will accompany his father through the game, culminating in beating the game's hardest boss and Akio then revealing his identity. Through the game, he hopes to forge a bond with the father he never really knew. (Even if he's basically catfishing him.)
Fast forward to episode two. Hakutaro's been having a surprisingly great time with Final Fantasy XIV until he randomly stops playing. Akio's confused about it. Then his father boots up the game, showing off the snowy area he's landed himself in, despite being a beginner in the game—a mere level seven. "Dad is probably embarrassed," Akio's mother says. The camera zooms into the other players surrounding Hakutaro in the video game; they're all laughing, chatting, but most of all: they're all wearing coats.
They're dressed for the weather. His beginner character, donning only short sleeves, is not. Hakutaro felt out of place because his own Warrior of Light was not wearing a coat, contrary to the other players. He quit the game out of pure embarrassment.
When I geared up to binge Dad of Light over Labor Day weekend, I was expecting to relate to the son character. Just another kid desperately trying to grow closer to a parent he barely had a relationship with. Instead I found myself identifying with his father, a 60-year-old older man. I related to him because like me he was apprehensive about online games, but also ended up finding solace in it. When Akio boots up the game first for his father and explains that it's literally populated by people from all over the world, he responds in an earnest way. "That makes me feel kind of shy," he says worriedly.
Same here, pal.
Shyness in playing online games is something I hardly see discussed in the video game space, let alone depicted accurately on a television show. When I play online games, I never have voice chat on; I never touch text chat. I usually play even in multiplayer games in solitude, acting out in emotes in games like Absolver rather than hopping onto a random Discord channel. There are games where I make exceptions for personal friends of mine—like in PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds or Overwatch.
Yet when it comes to making friends in a video game, I close myself off. I deny friend requests that come my way after a few rounds of successful ranked matches in games like Splatoon 2. Hakutaro's apprehension as a person who hasn't played games in decades resonates with me, not because he's "out of touch," but because like him I'm inherently shy (with a touch of social anxiety to boot), and even interacting with others through an anonymous facade scares the heck outta me.
Unlike me though, once Akio gets his father a keyboard for the game everything changes. His father can finally communicate outside of emotes, and the result is… shocking, but understandable. Gone is the mild-mannered, almost mute father figure he'd known his whole life. Here was an eccentric, lively character, emoting flexes and excitedly introducing himself. Online Hakutaro was finally free to express himself openly; or alternatively, was able to adopt a new lifestyle, even if it was constrained to the virtual world. One of friendliness, one of newfound excitement to explore the world and overcome challenges.
It's a familiar sentiment, even to Akio whether he wants to believe it or not. Akio is your typical salaryman in Japan. He works as a sales representative, but he's far more shy than most of his colleagues (honestly, who can blame him when he's had the same haircut and fashion sense as he did in all the flashbacks to him as a kid). He doesn't know anything about baseball, or women, or anything really. Much like his father, he's relatively clueless.
But in Final Fantasy XIV, Akio has a bustling social life. He has friends of all sorts, buddies who are willing to help him mend his relationship with his father with no questions asked. They're all anonymous, of course, but they're real human beings from all around that care all the same. Akio too is more friendly and open in this virtual setting like his father is (even if it comes to a surprise to him). He feels so freed by the game that he sees it as the only way to get close to his father, and as he says in the show's opening monologue, he wants to share the world he loves with him.
Each episode follows a formulaic routine where Akio usually runs into a problem at work. His father usually hits a roadblock in his life too, but together the two come to revelations thanks to happenings in the game, resolving their respective issues. Alternating between in-game dialogue (voiced by different voice actors, including a girl for Akio's cat-girl stand-in) and real-life moments, the show hits expected notes per episode. Every episode also begins with a flashback to Akio as a kid, illustrating a memory with his father. (In one flashback they go out to eat soba for New Year's Eve where his father randomly drops the bombshell that he's allergic to soba noodles and orders curry and rice instead, effectively saying #SorryNotSorry.)
Despite the familiar soap opera-y pace, Dad of Light manages to be an earnestly sweet show, proudly displaying the bonds we grow not only with video games, but within them too. Games, especially MMOs, can feel so freeing for players, as seen for both the father and son in Dad of Light. It's rare to see such a dynamic portrayed in a show, let alone one that doesn't villainize games or cheapens them. Dad of Light, above all else, shows video games as an essential, positive point in our day-to-day lives. And for that, it deserves to be watched.