I was trying to resist saying anything about this topic besides some comments here and there because I feel this is one of those complicated discussions that might not have right answers. Not to mention people have some strong opinions on it.
So, it all began with Aywren defending the importance of story in MMORPGs by using Final Fantasy XIV as an example. Then later on Naithin, as he was returning to Final Fantasy XIV, mused if Final Fantasy XIV has to be a MMO to deliver its story. Then there is Bhagpuss, who hasn’t made a post on the topic yet, asking in a comment in one of Naithin’s posts, if the way that Final Fantasy XIV tells it’s story wouldn’t be best done in a more traditional format like a movie or a book.
I will try to address both Naithin’s and Baghpuss’ positions and give my opinion on the subject.
EDIT: Bhagpuss did write a post on the subject of stories in MMORPGs. It isn’t aimed at any MMORPG in particular, just his instance about linear stories in MMORPGs in general. You can read it here.
Should the story be told in a more traditional media like a book or movie?
Could the story of Final Fantasy XIV be told in a more traditional media like a book or a movie. Sure. Should it never be made in video-game form though? That I disagree with. The emotional investment in the story would be a lot different, even lesser.
To make my point clearer, let me give some examples. When I read the Lord of the Rings, I was fully invested in the characters’ journey to destroy the One Ring. It was one of those stories that really hooked me and made me want to see how it all ended.
But at the end of the day, the struggles they went through that journey were the struggles of the Fellowship of the Ring, not mine.
While in Final Fantasy XIV, if I have to beat a boss to progress on the story I am the one struggling to do it, not some fictional character.
Yes, I know it sounds silly to compare the struggles of fictional characters who had to deal with actual monsters to mine who is just sitting in front of the computer trying to figure out how to beat a monster made of pixels. But in the first scenario I am just passively reading about it. In the second one I am actively having to use my brain cells to progress.
“Ok, but that is gameplay, you don’t need that to get invested in the cutscenes”. Which again I’d agree to a certain degree but…
This one is complicated to explain and this example will be imperfect as I am trying to keep spoilers for the Shadowbringers story to a minimum. If you want to play that expansion and go completely blind skip the next couple paragraphs.
In Shadowbringers the final villain is a guy who did horrible things. The game does a good job of showing that, his motivations, ideology, the events that led for him choosing that path and the tragedy of it all.
In the end we are forced to fight him because there is no other way that story could end. When the fight was over and the cutscenes started playing, I honestly felt bad for him. I even might have cried a bit because of certain other things that happened during those cutscenes. And I am not even the type to cry easily because of stories!
Could that have been done in a more traditional media? Sure, but again the engagement would have been different. I would have only read about someone else’s hero having to fight the villain. It wouldn’t have been my character having to do it.
Would it have made me want to cry? I’d find that it would be a lot harder as my emotional investment wouldn’t have been the same.
And that isn’t limited to the main story quest. There are stories from Job Quests that also hit me right in the feels. The level 50 to 60 Samurai quests are a good example of that.
Also, not all stories in Final Fantasy XIV are of the same quality. I will be the first to admit that the one from the base game isn’t that great, it is not bad and it gets the job done, but it won’t be winning any awards for sure. There were also some job quest stories that really made me cringe. But still, on the average, the quality of the stories have been pretty great in my opinion.
In conclusion, I do believe that the story of Final Fantasy XIV only work as well as it does because it is in video-game form. If it was in a more traditional media it wouldn’t have the same impact on me.
Does Final Fantasy XIV have to be a MMORPG to tell its story?
I will agree that the game’s story could have been told just as well in a single-player game. The only difference is that we would just have different types of boss fights, dungeons to go through and our excuses of why we did so badly in a fight. XD
But is it a bad thing they chose to bring the story to the forefront, make it mandatory and with lots of cutscenes? That I disagree with. Apparently Naithin does too, by the way, before someone misunderstand this and go with pitchforks and torches to his blog.
Considering almost all of the big MMORPGs nowadays are extremely theme park-ish and adding story to the front is also a current trend among them, then I say you might as well go all out with it.
Theme park MMORPGs by their nature are already pretty linear as it is. Adding a pretty linear story on top of that won’t change that much. In fact, as someone who likes the journey, rather than the destination, I’d go as far as to say it makes the journey more enjoyable.
It gives me even more reason to care about the lands I am visiting, gives me a motivation to beat those villains and for once I actually know why I am going somewhere. Well, besides going there for XP and sight-seeing, that is. :p
Until someone can figure a better way to do storytelling in a theme park MMORPG, I think Final Fantasy XIV might have the best implementation of it.