To quote my 100 per cent non-fictional friend Barret Wallace: “Planet’s dyin’, Cloud.” As our society feels closer and closer to an irrevocable change, as the Amazon rainforest burns and the ice caps continue to melt, I find the fragility of our world reflected in the narratives of my favourite games. Final Fantasy XIV’s latest expansion, Shadowbringers, has been on my mind ever since I finished it. Part of that is because underneath its tale of magic and heroes, I can’t help but find reflections of my reality.
A very real part of living in our modern times is reckoning with the idea that we might only be a generation or two from irreversible environmental calamity. We’ve had somewhere around a decade to functionally combat climate change, but politicians often seem more inclined to bicker rather than find ways to fix the world, so it is easy to feel like things are crumbling down.
I’m not so much of a pessimist to think that will be the case, but my anxieties about this are bleeding into how I perceive the games I play and the works of art I experience. On its surface, Shadowbringers is a story of scheming villains and a sweeping clash between light and darkness. Underneath, I find critiques of power, themes of innovation destroying the planet, and what it means to live during the end times and beyond them.
In Shadowbringers, the main character finds themselves transported to a world called the First. Perpetual daytime bathes the land. Monsters called Sin Eaters roam about, consuming anyone they find. The world has ended and the citizens of the First persist in the aftermath of their society’s destruction, awaiting the true death knell of all things. The player rallies to defeat the Sin Eaters and the villain behind the First’s suffering. That villain is a shadowy mage called Emet-Selch, one of the few remaining Ascians who has plotted against the player for Final Fantasy XIV’s duration.
At the end of Shadowbringers main story, the player meets Emet-Selch in a conjured city at the bottom of an ocean. The city is a magical recreation of Emet-Selch’s home, Amaurot. At this point, Emet-Selch explains that countless millennia ago, there was only one world. The Ascians and citizens of Amaurot lived in peace, using powerful magic that could create nearly anything. But then an unknown singing that came from deep within the earth caused this powerful magic to run amok, creating wild beasts and dooming society.
To save the world, the Amaurotines created a god to protect the world… at the cost of half the population. Later, after more sacrifices, dissenters birthed another god. These two gods clashed, ultimately shattering the world into multiple shards, of which the First was one. I’ve written about how the game presents this revelation and frames Emet-Selch’s position as sympathetic. But there’s more to it than that.
In the final area of the game, the conjured Amaurot that Emet-Selch creates, the music has a subtle metronome ticking in the background. It is the ticking of a clock, an ever-present sound of doom. Tick, tock, tick, tock. In this new version of Amaurot beneath the ocean, society has progressed onwards, with some of its citizens debating if they should help other people around the world. But bureaucracy slowed the creation of solutions.
Tick, tock, tick, tock. A society that considered itself mighty could not deal with the disaster it was facing until all was fire and ash and blood.
I keep thinking about the end of Amaurot, and specifically, Emet-Selch’s retelling of what occurred. A phase sticks in my mind: “the unchecked energy of creation.” What Selch means is that the Amaurotine’s creation magic, their ability to make marvels, eventually turned against them.
This quote makes me think about humanity. I think about our ability to grow, to create. I think about how that creation leads to consumption of resources and how we expand and grow bigger and bigger. I think of burning forests for farmland. I think of islands of plastic in the ocean. I think of capital cities being moved because the islands they are on are sinking into the water. I think about humanity’s unchecked energy of creation and where it has led us. I think about whether or not that unchecked energy has doomed us.
I also think about what it means to live in a doomed world. In those moments, I think of the First. Suffused with light and beset by beasts, there are few bastions of goodness that remain. The good guys all live in a city near the base of a massive crystal tower called the Crystarium. The villains dwell in a pleasure town called Eulmore where slaves and servants tend to the rich and powerful.
Shadowbringer’s handling of Eulmore, and in particular the game’s depiction of an obese and ugly leader Lord Vauthry, leaves much to be desired. It’s too eager to fall into fatphobic tropes and use gluttony as shorthand for greed and decay. It’s a low point for an otherwise powerful story.
I do find a sliver of truth in other aspects of Eulmore. We live in a society where the wealthiest people make more in five minutes than hundreds of people combined can end up making in their entire lifetimes. I think a world ravaged by climate change, or some other calamity, would certainly have its Eulmores.
Instead of a leader like Vauthrys, we would have Bezos and Trump, and the people eager to conform and debase themselves for access to whatever perverse, air conditioned fuck towers they might build in this hypothetical, post-apocalyptic future. Even after the “end,” there would be something else. Pockets of life inhabited by the lucky few, a few of them bastions of goodness, but many of them little more than the metastasized remnants of a society that consumed and consumed, more and more.
The calamity that ravaged the First is called the Flood of Light. It’s a sort of magical imbalance between natural forces that resulted in a literal flood of magical “aether” that rushed over the world and submerged it in a static brightness.
There are many cities and societies under water on the First, from Emet-Selch’s echo of Amaurot to the ruins of the enchanted Kingdom of Voeburt. Years from now, I wonder if segments of Manhattan be similarly flooded, as our oceans rise and boil? Centuries after we’re gone, will some strange adventurer literally dive into our ruins and discover what our world once was, as I have done to these kingdoms?
Of course, Final Fantasy XIV believes in the possibility of something better. The player and their friends can swoop in and restore balance to the First. The calamities can be averted with enough blood and sweat, even if you might lose some things along the way. Shadowbringers isn’t an environmental story in the same way that Final Fantasy VII was, but it similarly does believe that natural order can be restored.
That’s affirming, but the fact that I saw so much similarity between the real world and the ruins of fictional ones has still left me haunted.