Thank you for enduring that brief nostalgia trip, but I'm only getting started. Warm fuzzy feelings aside, Final Fantasy XI was the perfect MMORPG, though not necessarily the best game. Today, there's an MMORPG out there for everyone. Whether it's subscription-based or free-to-play, casual or hardcore, action or turn-based, there's a quality option to suit every gamer in 2019. If you want to have a good time online with your friends, there's no better time than now. However, if you want to truly experience a virtual world that accurately mirrors our reality, then I'm afraid the time has already come and gone.
To best understand what I mean, it might help to examine a very successful modern MMORPG: Square-Enix's own Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. From the minute you set foot in the game, it is beautiful and intuitive, fast-paced and fun. You're immediately dragged into an exciting plot with colorful characters aiding you along the way. Your starting city is filled with helpful NPCs on every corner offering quests that teach you the mechanics of the game, lead you to new areas, and help you gain experience and level up. It's a ton of fun and expertly designed so that it never drags or loses you along the way. You teleport from one stunning location to another, allowing you to experience as much of the game as possible in the most efficient way. All-in-all, it's an excellent game, but is that anything like a real-world experience? While life is certainly full of joy and excitement, it is also undeniably cruel, difficult, and confusing.
Welcome to FFXI, circa 2003. After an opening quest thats no more than a bit of exposition, you're tossed out into your starting city. Those helpful NPCs offering quests and guidance? Nowhere to be found. You're on your own in a new world, and it's up to you to figure out what to do next. It's not too difficult to find your way outside and begin fighting monsters and gaining experience points, but it's just as easy to wander into an area outside your level and find yourself being chased and most likely killed by a goblin. Knowing where and what to fight, when to move to a new area, when and how to get new equipment, this is all left to the player to discover.
All of this blind wandering may sound like poor game design to the modern gamer, but that lack of hand-holding forced something that I believe to be lacking in today's MMORPGs: player-to-player communication. Without NPCs guiding you every step of the way and exciting things around each corner, you were basically forced to interact with the other people in the game. This is essential when you reach level ten or so and soloing becomes impossible. From that point onward, you must group up to take on more difficult enemies, and this is before the era of instanced matchmaking and auto-queues. That meant using the chat channels and search system to find potential groupmates, and if you're not a tank or a healer, that could take some time.
Now, allow me briefly to become the old man that lectures children about how he used to walk miles through the snow to get to school. In FFXI, teleporting was not a given, it was a high-level spell available only to White Mages. This service was commonly marketed in major cities for a price, but even then, you could only teleport to places you have already been. So, when my friend and I decided to travel to a distant city for the first time, it was a precarious adventure through unknown territory. Yes, it was inconvenient and time consuming, but it was those almost mundane aspects of the game that mirror the best parts of the real world. My favorite memories aren't of defeating great bosses and getting rare equipment, they're of sitting around trying to find a new healer while getting to know my groupmates, or chatting with the other undesirable DPS jobs, all of us trying to find a group in a high-level area, or staring at our own couple corpses as we sought a friendly stranger to ressurect us, lest we get booted back to our distant homepoints.
Which brings us to the title of this post and the fear of mortality. Dying in most modern MMORPGs is, at most, a minor inconvenience. For the most part, all you might lose is a bit of equipment durability. FFXI was somewhat infamous for the harsh penalties that came when your HP hit zero. First and foremost was the loss of a decent chunk of hard earned experience points, which became increasingly devastating as you got higher level. Oh, you just leveled up? Yes, you will drop back down to your previous level. On top of that, you get warped back to your homepoint, often a major city, sometimes a sizable journey from where you might have been fighting. At it's worst, dying could mean the negation of hours of grinding and a long and potentially perilous trek back to your group. To this day, many people shudder at the thought of deleveling and condemn the system entirely, but I've always thought it was genius. Never before, or since, have I been so truly afraid of dying inside a game. Sure, I've died just before landing the final blow at the end of a Souls game boss fight, but that series is built around the concept of dying and trying again. In FFXI, you did not die incredibly often, but when you did, you felt it.
So many elements of the game were cruel, inconvenient, time-consuming, unintuitive, and quite frankly, characterisitic of what we would now consider a bad game. FFXIV: ARR is the result of all of those elements being addressed and updated, and it is a fantastic game, but does it ever imitate those real-world living, breathing moments that only arise amidst otherwise mundane activities? Don't misunderstand, I love FFXIV: ARR and numerous other MMORPGs, but in all the auto-match-made dungeons and giant raids, I never again formed bonds like I did in FFXI. After all, we're just playing a game together for a short while. There's the occasional chatter between teammates, humorous or strategic, but its never much more than the equivalent of a "Hello!" and an emote in a competative Overwatch match. But, for a time, many years ago, I lived in the world of FFXI, and though I accept the reasons why there will probably never be a game like it again, I'll continue to carry those memories with a sad fondness.