I have a confession to make, and I hope you won't take this personally. But the truth is, I don't like you.
Oh, I mean, I like you as a person just fine. I'm sure you're really nice. If we ever bumped into each other at PAX or something we'd have a pleasant chat, maybe swap Street Pass tags, and both depart on pleasant terms. But when I'm playing a video game, I want you to bug off. Don't bother me, just let me play my own way.
I don't know where that antisocial gaming streak comes from. I used to enjoy gaming with friends all the time, back when I was a kid. But then, I suppose, games grew more complex, more time-intensive, more flexible. It's easy to have a fun collaborative/competitive experience with something like Street Fighter II, where your options for play consist of moving back and forth in a small arena and punching madly, but with bigger and more elaborate games? Forget it. I don't want you hovering over my shoulder while I play Skyrim, and for god's sake that's the last thing you'd want to do, either. You have no idea how boring my approach to a game like that is. Watching me would infuriate you.
I don't want to have to worry about outshooting you in an FPS. I don't want to have to worry about healing you at a crucial moment or watching your back as zombies lurch from unseen corners. We can hang out in real life, grab drinks, have a friendly chat, whatever. But I don't want you to bug me while I'm playing a video game.
This curmudgeonly streak accounts for why I've never played an MMO. I've thought about it, certainly, but in the end I just don't want to have to rely on other people – or worse, to have other people rely on me only for me to disappoint them. I have enough stress and responsibility in my personal and professional life already, thank you; games are supposed to provide an escape from that, not double down on it.
But Final Fantasy XIV made me break my rule. I keep hearing about how great it is, how very Final Fantasy it is, and how it basically avoids all the things about MMOs that seem like they'd be frustrating. So I gave in and joined the beta this past week. The game really made me work for it, with its awful signup process (as a friend of mine at another site told me, "I've had more fun filling out job applications than dealing with that signup process"), but I joined. And that meant I went into the game with chips on both shoulders: One, because boo hiss MMOs, and two because the setup left me in a foul mood. I expected to skim through a couple of hours out of obligation, set it down, and never want to touch it again.
What I didn't expect was to love it – but love it I did.
I won't lie; it did take me a little while to ease into the game. Playing on PlayStation 4 probably wasn't the optimal way to experience my first MMO... but since one of the core ambitions behind A Realm Reborn is to make the MMO experience inviting to people like me, it seemed like a fair way to go about it. What do I mean by "people like me"? I don't just mean MMO newcomers – I also mean people who have played every Final Fantasy except the online ones, who only game on consoles, and who aren't really sure about this whole "socialization in games" thing. Basically, A Realm Reborn is going after the Japanese market, but there are a fair few of us here in America, too.
Once I got the hang of the interface, or at least nearly got the hang of it (the use of the Dual Shock 4 touch pad to imitate the function of a mouse is clever but still needs a few kinks worked out), FFXIV impressed me with its no-nonsense approach. One of the big drawbacks of previous MMOs I've had glancing contact with has been the detached feeling I have from my character, something FFXIV moots by allowing you to play with a control pad rather than mouse and keyboard. Obviously it's not the first MMO to have done this, but the mapping of commands to shoulder buttons combined with the little lines that make connections between attacker and target put the game interface somewhere between Final Fantasy XII and Lightning Returns. A weird combination, but not a bad one, since I really enjoyed both of those games. After all, they both share something else in common with FFXIV: They're the most open-ended, mission-based, single-player entries in the franchise, so they share fundamental structural and philosophical similarities to A Realm Reborn.
Granted, being an MMO, A Realm Reborn is a much larger game than those other two combined. The idea, of course, is to keep players invested for as long as possible to ensure those $15 monthly payments continue rolling into the corporate coffers. Surprisingly, though, there's much less padding than I would have expected. The game admittedly doesn't lack for "hie thee to kill five rats and bring their tails to yon merchant" kind of crap, but at the same time you can find enough other ways to earn experience that you won't suffer too badly if you skip the mindless stuff. Discover a new location: Experience. Fill out your adventure logs by hunting certain creatures or crafting certain objects: Experience. Join in the random FATE mini-events that pop up throughout the world (or initiate one yourself): Experience.
In fact, if you complete all the quests that pop up along the way, you'll end up hilariously overleveled when it comes time to complete the main story quests. In roughly 12-15 hours of play, I ended up reaching level 18 and reaching the first big story information dump, which strikes me as a no-nonsense rate of progress for an MMO – in fact, it seems only moderately slower than the decidedly non-MMO Bravely Default, where I probably spent 10 hours working my way through the prologue.
But let's be honest. The real reason I enjoyed my time with the FFXIV beta this past weekend is because I didn't have to be social. In the entire time I played, I was constantly surrounded by other players' characters, but I had exactly three social interactions. One, some dude with a vaguely obscene name tried to hit on me – or rather, my female archer – while I was shopping. I ignored him. Later, someone from Twitter greeted me in passing. I said "Hello" and went on my merry way. And finally, some random person invited me into their party in the middle of the Central Shroud. I declined, because I was in the middle of a task... and, also, because I'm too self-conscious to play with others.
If we're still being honest, I also need to admit that I approach RPGs like a complete spaz. I explore every little corner of the map, even if I know I won't find anything. I spend far too long at shops weighing my needs versus my budget (and, in a game like this, where my character's appearance changes with their gear, versus fashion considerations as well). I strike out to complete one quest and get distracted by another midway through. In other words, I'm pretty sure the fastest way to either make myself miserable or make someone else hate me would be to team up with them and try to make our RPG play styles integrate. I am MMO-incompatible.
And FFXIV, at least so far, is OK with that. While there's been some mention of creating parties, to date my team-ups have entirely been with story characters who basically win key battles for me. My role is just to stay alive long enough that they can crush the story bosses with skills whose power outstrips mine by a factor of 20. And the rest of the time, I'm free to just run around on my lonesome.
Which isn't to say I didn't fight alongside people – on the contrary, I teamed up quite often. But it was always a sort of anonymous "passing through" sort of thing. I'd see someone fighting a monster and sink a couple of arrows into its hide; since there's no such thing as stealing kills, experience, or loot in FFXIV (the person to initiate combat with a monster gets full EXP for its death, and contributors to the fight get EXP based on their contribution), this was simply a friendly act. And it was frequently reciprocated, with random passersby often helping me with a fight or tossing a Cure spell my direction before continuing on their own way. Meanwhile, the FATE events would bring as many of a dozen people together to take down an army of endlessly spawning creatures or a random wandering boss, with everyone teaming up for a few minutes before scattering once the FATE ended and they earned their perks for participation.
In short, FFXIV fosters a sort of hit-and-run cooperation, anonymous acts of kindness. Sure, there's something in it for me when I help kill a monster, but mostly I just like the sensation of doing something useful for a stranger with no expectation of gratitude. I can be friendly without having to be social; contribute to other people's play experience without the burden of having to play their way.
Nothing about FFXIV is, in my very limited experience as an outside observer to many MMOs, particularly unique to the game. But its specific combination of design traits really does make for an MMO that can largely be treated as a single-player game that just happens to be populated by other players doing their own thing. To be honest, all Square Enix's talk of making A Realm Reborn inviting to traditional Final Fantasy fans struck me as hopelessly pie-in-the-sky... but after a few days of wandering through the woods outside the city of Gridania, I really think they may have pulled it off.
Sadly, my lanky elven archer and all her accomplishments were wiped from existence in yesterday's purge of beta phase one, but I'll cherish the hours we had together. That being said, our time together won't stop me from creating a new character at my first opportunity. Loyalty's nice and all, but there are all kinds of people waiting for me to wander along and help them kill a random monster out there in Eorzea.