I have spent, I would say, a distressing amount of the last month with my eyes streaming tears — not for work obligations, personal reasons, or even really “still in that Global Pandemic” reasons. If anything, I’ve been doing it for fun, as I’ve worked my way through Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker, and the reasons it’s hit me so keenly have made it a story well worth ending another wildly challenging year on.
Endwalker is the latest expansion for the reborn MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV, a game so popular right now you literally cannot buy it, as publisher Square-Enix desperately hopes to have fewer people clogging up login queues as players likewise desperately hope to work their way through the events of the critically acclaimed game’s long and winding story. Endwalker in particular has been billed by its creators as the climax of a story eight years in the making. Your character, the noble Warrior of Light, works to stop a long-prophecized apocalypse known as the Final Days, and Endwalker seeks to wrap up plot threads, character arcs, and mysteries that have been interwoven in XIV’s vast, ongoing story since it was saved from shutdown and rebooted in 2013 as A Realm Reborn. It’s all there: shocking villain twists, heroic stands against certain doom, big lore reveals, fights against gods, more gods, and a few more gods for good measure, a tale that stretches across eons of time, generations of civilisation, and into the very stars of the universe beyond the world your heroes have called home for the best part of the decade. Endwalker is the grandest of grand finales, a scale unlike anything XIV has considered before. But it’s also incredibly sentimental, and perfect for the unending moment we’ve found ourselves in the past few years.
Endwalker might occasionally be about that most beloved of all Japanese RPG tropes, fighting god and defying fate. But its simplest of truths is that, ultimately, beneath all its worldbuilding and its bow-tying on old plot threads, it’s about hope, and fighting against seemingly unstoppable despair. Quite literally, the the climactic conflict of the game is about you and seven of your closest friends/random people you queue up with in the group finder beating up a living embodiment of the concept of nihilism.
Let’s take a step back from that particularly weird, but cathartic edge, and explain. About halfway through Endwalker’s storyline, you discover the true source of the Final Days — a cataclysm that, eons beforehand, laid low the precursor human civilisation that called XIV’s world Etheirys home, and saw it sundered into 14 different shards of itself in an attempt to stop it ever happening again (spoilers: oops it starts happening again, and it’s partially your fault? Don’t worry about it). The cataclysm is embodied by an empathic hive-mind called Meteion, created by one of that ancient civilisation’s most powerful mage-scientists, who was set out into the cosmos beyond Etheirys to seek out life on other worlds, and answer the simple question posited by her master: what purpose have those civilizations found in living?
The answer Meteion finds breaks her and her mentally connected sister bodies. Each different physical aspect of Meteion’s form sent out into the stars, it turns out, found worlds either lost to ruin or in the process of tearing themselves apart — each of their civilizations wracked with despair as their own advancements in attempts to create a utopian society, ones purged of suffering, ultimately damned them. Her empathic abilities overwhelmed with the sadness of untold ending civilizations, Meteion becomes transformed into a dark version of herself, drowning in a nihilistic belief that the only way to end suffering is to end the very existence of all life — threatening you and your loved ones on Etheirys with a returned apocalypse, one that sees skies blaze red with meteors, people overwhelmed by their own despairs to be transformed into horrifying, chaos-wreaking beasts, and general havoc. It’s not ideal to say the least.
Endwalker’s story is not a particularly original riff on apocalyptic fiction, admittedly. Yes, it rather delicately builds on hooks and worldbuilding blocks laid over Final Fantasy XIV’s history — even ones left abandoned when its initially troubled release was rebooted as A Realm Reborn — and draws upon its beloved, long-running cast of supporting stars in the Scions of the Seventh Dawn to bring some touching moments of character work that pay off arcs that have been unfolding across years of multiple expansions at this point. But at its core it’s quite simple: you’re faced with the end of the world, and you go and stop it. But it’s what happens along the way that makes Endwalker such a heartstring-plucking, emotionally cathartic experience. The Warrior of Light’s place in XIV’s story is both as a vessel for the player to imprint themselves on, but also as a beacon of hope for the people around them. No matter the odds, no matter the losses, no matter the darkness swirling around your adventures, time and time again you have stood by your friends, united allies, and brought peace and justice to the world.
Endwalker throws the metaphorical kitchen sink at you across its cataclysmic tale, threatens multiple times to have proven that even your noble hero has their limits, and time and time you instead persevere and persist, with both a superheroic sense of strength and the love and support of entire nations’ worth of supporting characters at your back. You get knocked down, spiritually or physically, and you rise again to the occasion, no matter your own despair, no matter how many stressful anxieties you burden. So when it comes to the final battle, to face the host of Meteions — to convince them, by your words, your strength, and the literal prayers of friends at your side, that there is a reason in having suffering along the path of life to emphasise its joys and triumphs — you deliver a blow to the bleak concept of nihilistic despair itself, averting theFinal Days to stand proud as a bright light of hope in a sea of darkness. It might just be a big raid fight in an online video game, but after hours of emotional wringer after emotional wringer, I couldn’t help but break down as I completed it recently and Endwalker’s narrative made its final curtain calls — it was a surprising cathartic release of emotions that its story had kept repeatedly bringing to my surface.
That catharsis is undoubtedly also informed by the world in which Endwalker has released in. FFXIV, like so many things the past few years, has been hit by the covid-19 pandemic. Patches of story content between expansions in the last year saw a delayed release schedule, and even Endwalker itself came out a couple weeks later than planned. Even the ongoing issues about server overload have a root in the pandemic beyond the fact that XIV has become majorly popular as people stay at home and look for big, long-term games to dive into — producer Naoki Yoshida has apologised publicly (and profusely) multiple times that planned server expansions have been hampered by both supply shortages and the pandemic curbing in-person work. But there’s also the emotional toll it’s taken on us all, as we come up on nearly two years of trying to wrestle with a fundamental sea-change in the way we live. The year 2021 has been rough for a lot of people, myself included — in particular the last few months. Escaping into fiction from the stresses of the real world is nothing new (we’ve all been doing it lately!), but something about Endwalker’s story of hope in the face of overwhelming grief — and wondering if all the suffering is really worth it — struck particularly close to home with the current state of our own world. A tale of cataclysmic hardship, and communities and nations rising up together to confront it. A tale of people acknowledging that hardship wearing them down, but enduring and overcoming all that pain, loss, and horror to come out the other side of it with a sense of togetherness.
Trials and tribulations in a video game are rarely, if ever, going to match trials and tribulations in the real world. But Endwalker giving me the simple release to literally stare despair itself in the eye and slash it to pieces with a scythe the size of my Warrior of Light’s entire body was a welcome fantastical tool in combatting the stresses of the real world — every bit the fitting conclusion to the current story of FFXIV, and every bit the fitting conclusion to 2021.
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