Final Fantasy 14 trades heavily on its franchise, pulling in characters, names, and ideas from every Final Fantasy that came before. Some heroes from FF titles even make brief pilgrimages over to the MMO, like when Noctis visited for an event. Things like this add flavor to Final Fantasy 14, drawing in players that otherwise might avoid the online title.
At the same time, a writer draws on their own experiences and those of others around them to craft their stories. Famously, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are the outcome of J.R.R. Tolkien's time as a soldier in World War I, and his views on things such as industrialization. Tolkien himself called them not directly allegorical, and in fact noted that he hated "allegory in all its manifestations," instead preferring the "varied applicability" of actual history. "An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex," he wrote in the foreword of the second edition of The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien had things to say that related to his own past and present, but he also preferred the freedom of the reader. You can make connections to the situation in the United Kingdom back in the 1930's and 1940's. Some have pointed out the ways characters or situations connect to Tolkien's own Christian or conservationist viewpoints, but they're more a part of the way he tells his story, not the primary thrust of it. It's inspiration, similar to that pulled from Old English and Norse literature.
Every Final Fantasy 14 expansion has a big point, something it's trying to focus on. Shadowbringers is about revitalizing hope, and working together to achieve some sort of positive change, when the entire world is burning around you. It's a feeling that probably needs reinforcing, if you just scan Twitter, Facebook, or the internet on a regular basis.
While A Realm Reborn was largely concerned with explaining the cataclysmic shift in Eorzea, Heavensward focused on the events of the Dragonsong War, with the city Ishgard being embroiled in a civil war between populist and religious factions. The eponymous Heavens' Ward is the honor guard of the reigning Archbishop, who looks like the Catholic Pope. There's even a bit of conversation after the level 50 Dark Knight job quest, "The Wages of Mercy," which details the first Dark Knight, cast out for striking down a corrupt clergyman who committed "unspeakable crimes" against the "child of the Brume." Some have taken this as a reference to then-recent Catholtic church scandals.
But connection can be made to theocratic regimes and religious wars elsewhere around the world just as easily. Final Fantasy 14 director Naoki Yoshida acknowledged this in an interview around Heavensward's release. "History can be perceived differently depending on which country you're in, the amount of education you have received, and what area you're from," he told HardcoreGamer. Heavensward was less direct reference and allegory, and more of Tolkien's applicability to our history.
Stormblood was a story about revolution, with two regions under the yoke of the Garlean Empire trying to depose their masters and win their freedom. It dealt with not only the struggle of fighting guerilla wars, but the effect such an occupation would have on the populace. Two of the major villains, Yotsuyu and Fordola, are natives of their respective lands who have decided that the best way to survive is to join the occupying forces. "It's not just as simple as going in to defeat the empire and everything is a happy ending. So throughout the patch series of the Stormblood expansion, we're trying to depict that it's not a simple matter of defeating the bad guys for a happy ending," Stormblood lead main scenario writer Natsuko Ishikawa told DualShockers.
Which brings us to Shadowbringers, the latest expansion for Final Fantasy 14, written by Ishikawa and world lore creator Banri Oda. The expansion sends players to the world of the First, one on the brink of death after the Flood of Light. Sin-Eaters, powered by the corrupted Light, prey on the surviving people, in turn making them into more Sin-Eaters.
Upon beginning your adventure in the First, you're introduced to the new city hub, The Crystarium. The city is a refuge built around the Crystal Tower, welcoming all refugees to come and join together to build a symbol of hope. It is a city of traders, scholars, crafters, doctors, and more. It sports the Cabinet of Curiosity, where the librarian Moren seeks to keep any bit of written knowledge found safe and free for all to read. It's meant as a testament to what people of any race-Hrothgar, Viera, Hume, Elf, and many more-can do if they work together.
The players are given a choice of two regions to explore next, both aimed at navigating life in the First. There's the desert of Ahm Araeng, on the very edge of where the Flood stopped. Here, the hard-working Mord and miners of other races dig up valuable relics and resources to trade back to the Crystarium. One quest, "Work to Live or Live to Work," actually follows a young Mord whose father wants him to work a little less, to rest and enjoy his life more before he ends up in an early grave. Another deals with a young miner of the slender Mystel race, who works alone because her fear the prejudice of his hardier Hrothgar counterparts.
The focus of the first time you visit Amh Araeng is the camp of Journey's Head. It's here you'll find what is essentially a leper colony; a small destitute camp of people waiting to die from a horrible disease they cannot control. The Light is corrupting these people slowly, and all that's left in front of them is a clean death, or turning into a Sin-Eater. Given that choice, many poison themselves, dying with what they believe are the last vestiges of their humanity left.
The heady contrast to that is your journey to Kholusia. Here, in the middle of arid farmland and plains is the crowning city of Eulmore. Eulmore is the opposite number of not only the Crystarium, but the colony at Journey's Head. It's a city where the prosperous enjoy themselves with any number of pastimes, eating, gambling, and other entertainments. Below Eulmore is a slum populated by hopefuls, those who hope they can get into Eulmore as slaves, where their worth is determined only by the work they do. If a wealthy patron needs a sculptor and you have the skills, it's your ticket into the city.
But even when you scam your way in, the treatment is appalling. At a desk when you're specifically asked for registration papers, an immigration officer explains that the only difference between the "free" and the "bonded" (slaves) is the favor of the local regent, Lord Vauthry. One quest follows a young songstress who is losing her voice; she begs you for help, because her voice is the only thing she has that keeps her in the city, without it, she'll be discarded. Another quest has you saving an attendant hanging off a balcony because he was trying to get his master's handkerchief. Eulmore is class warfare in the starkest of terms, where your work is literally your life.
And at the center of it is Vauthry. The lord of Eulmore is a large, corpulent man with blonde hair. One who preaches cooperation with the Sin-Eaters that consume the rest of the world; who revels in his own enjoyment over making the world a better place. A man who you later find out was given his position and wealth from his father, who promised him that he would rule the world.
Vauthry's reign is one of civility on the surface, but terror underneath. Those who fail to offer anything seen as worth are thrown from the balconies, or turned into Sin-Eaters and fed back to the populace. The prosperity is built upon the bodies of the enslaved, even if they entered into that slavery of their own will. Vauthry speaks of a city where safety is only gained by abiding by the rules, which he decides. Where "love" is to work for your fellow man, and to give your blood and flesh to their prosperity. He establishes himself as the only justice, and so any that oppose him are evil. And the people under him clap for such sentiment. And when you defeat him again and again, he responds in the most childish pettiness.
When you chase Vauthry from Eulmore, he retreats to a magnificent palace all clad in white. I don't have to name the obvious parallel, but it's likely more inspiration, rather than direct reference. More applicability rather than allegory.
Final Fantasy 14 also comments on the responsibility for the people who live under Vauthry's rule, who feels that they are good, kind, and amiable people. It acknowledges that despite a bit of mind control action going on, it was still their actions that enslaved most and even led to the deaths of others. Those actions still have weight and meaning even well after Vauthry's reign.
Toward the end of the Shadowbringers expansion, you're also tasked with finally facing Emet-Selch. He is one of the Ascians, a group of immortal ghosts that possess human bodies to enact some larger plan. In Shadowbringers, Emet-Selch's true aims are realized. He and his fellow Ascians are people from the original unified world, before it split into thirteen shards. By creating large calamities, he seeks to merge the worlds back into one and bring back his people. It's a plan that seeks to kill countless billions in order to go back to "the good old days". You have a chance to visit Amaurot, the city of the ancients, and converse with shades of the past. Emet-Selch's people had technology and magic far beyond anything in the existing shards, but the ultimately killed themselves. The sacrifices they made to save themselves killed the world around them. Emet-Selch is reaching for a lie.
He admits that he doesn't see you, or anyone who dies in the enaction of his plan as people. The act of killing billions is not evil, because they're not seen as real lives to him. And that's frankly a normal justification for atrocities around the world, in our history and our present. Emet-Selch in the end is just another misguided tyrant, pining for a halcyon past that didn't actually exist.
The success of Shadowbringers' story is in the resonance, the universal truths. Yes, you could point to specific situations in our modern world, specific people that it may mirror, but those are more inspiration than direct copy. In the end though, Final Fantasy 14 is willing to say that these things are wrong, these actions have consequences, and the responsibility of them cannot be erased. It's not an allegory, but it has something to say, a viewpoint to impart. And that viewpoint is part of what makes the story resonate, as much as all the Final Fantasy references and beloved cast members. Hopefully further content in this expansion and the next will continue this excellent reflection of our world, because that's where great storytelling exists.