My journey through Final Fantasy XIV continues apace. My bard and black mage are now at level 46, and I’m currently questing through the icy Coerthas, which seems oddly French with all the names ending in -x and -eau. When I first started playing, my circle of FF14-playing friends all told me to be patient. A Realm Reborn would be slow, but the story would pick up by the time I got to the first expansion, Heavensward. I expected a slow burn, a gradual build to a big confrontation with the bad guys I’ve been chasing the last 30 levels. What happened to me this weekend was not slow, nor gradual, but rather Square Enix taking a gauntleted fist through my chest, rooting around in my ribcage before pulling out my still-beating heart and eating it before my eyes as I thanked them for the pleasure.
Final Fantasy XIV enthusiasts will likely recognise the quest I speak of — Bringing Out The Dead. Those who don’t, fair warning, here there be spoilers.
This story starts 20 levels earlier. I was tasked with visiting a village of sylphs — tiny flying insectoid-like creatures that look like they’re made out of plant leaves. The sylphs had long been allies of the local government, but that relationship had deteriorated over the years. It was my job to repair it and bring them back into amicable harmony. Once done, the sylphs thanked me for my efforts and sent with me an ambassador to help me and my comrades — the Scions of The Seventh Dawn — in our fight against the shadowy powers that threatened war. I leave the ambassador, named Noraxia, in my friends’ care at our headquarters and go about my business.
Levels later, I returned to headquarters to deliver my latest report. When I first teleported into town, I noticed there’s a new group of “Concerned Citizen” NPCs standing outside the door. I realised that was odd but thought, “Oh, this must be my next quest. The Scions operate with little oversight, and they must be alarming the local populace. It’ll be my job to calm them down.” I walked into HQ, and nothing was amiss. I went down the stairs and through the door to get to my superior’s office, and I remember the visceral physical reaction I had to seeing the ground littered with the bodies of my comrades. “Oh no!” I shouted.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been confronted with senseless death in an MMO. It happens frequently. A place I once visited was full of life, and later it’s filled with corpses. What kneecapped me about this experience was that the game took great pains to remind me that I knew these people. In games, I’m used to bodies being nondescript and indistinct from other NPCs. They’re usually a random assortment of the game’s races and genders, all wearing the same three sets of generic NPC clothing. But these were distinct models, wearing distinct armour. It was the people in the bar whom I imagined my character would sit and have a drink with after a long day of Scion work. It’s something truly devastating to be able to pick someone out of a mass of bodies and think,“that person sold me potions” or “that person mended my armour” or “that sylph came here with me.” You see, Noraxia, the little sylph ambassador, died too. Her death was uniquely upsetting, she was entrusted to me by her people, sent to assist in saving the world. I imagined they had no idea they’d be sending one of their sisters to her death.
But Final Fantasy XIV wasn’t content to leave me there with my sorrow. They planned to add insult to my injury. After a few intervening quests, I was sent back to the scene of carnage, tasked with bearing my comrades’ bodies to a cart that would take them away for burial. When I arrived, I was met by an exceedingly callous laborer who basically goes, “Oh, you seem like a stout lass, carry those bodies over yonder and be quick, they’re starting to stink.” You accept the quest, and you’re suddenly aware of the pile of bodies dumped in an alley behind you.
The quest makes you pick them up like any other quest item but with a devastating twist: the bigger the body, the longer it takes for you to pick them up — the action bar fills faster or slower depending on the size of the body you’re interacting with. Beefy Roegadyns take longer to “pick up” over the willowy Miqo’tes. But none go as fast as the tiny sylph, her small, leafy body laying in stark contrast to the rest. Then, just like any other quest, the bodies go into your key-item inventory, and you must hand them over to the undertaker. In most MMOs, if you pick up more than one item of the same type, they stack in your inventory. In another cruel twist of the knife, Noraxia’s body doesn’t stack with the rest. She gets her own inventory slot with her own gutting flavour text.
Whenever you complete a collection quest in FF14, you have to “hand over” the key item to the quest NPC. When it came time to “hand over” the bodies (represented by a white flower icon with some wholly inappropriate flavour text), I didn’t want to do it. For a moment, my cursor hovered over the “hand over” command, and I couldn’t click it. I started to tear up. And my reluctance was well-founded. Whenever you “hand over” something normally, you never see the item in question. Your character goes through the motion of picking something out of your pocket, the quest NPC accepts it, but nothing ever materialises. When I handed the bodies over to the undertaker, they appeared in the back of the funeral cart, mouths slack in their death wail, eyes open, and staring sightlessly.
I love it when a game’s mechanics reinforce its storytelling. In Final Fantasy XIV, the commands you’ve been mindlessly using the entire game to complete quests — pick up, use, hand over — have now become invested with so much weight. The game forces you to think about what exactly you’re doing while the callous reactions of undertakers teach you a meta-lesson in compassion.
In most MMOs, you are a merchant of death. Until this point, I’ve probably completed dozens of quests that ask me to rifle through dead bodies for one trinket or another. I’ve done this habitually and mindlessly, the dead nothing more than a quest box to be ticked off.
The way the undertakers talk to you, urging you to hurry up, noting that the dead won’t care for a bit of rough handling, the script is flipped. They’re the mindless quest-doers anxious to get that box ticked off while you’re the one left behind in the wake of devastation. How many times have I thoughtlessly clicked through the text boxes of a widow wailing the fate of her husband? And now, when that’s been done to me, I’m furious that I can’t somehow immolate these people with a Fire III spell.
This quest is something that’ll stick with me for a long time. It’s become one of my “this video game made me cry ‘’ moments, filed alongside the Pacifist ending of Undertale and the menu moment in Final Fantasy XV. For all the pain and suffering this game has put me through, from the way y’all tell it, this is only the beginning. I can’t imagine how the game’s future storytelling moments can top this, but I’m excited to see it try. As I went through this quest, I thought of writing a strongly-worded letter to Square Enix detailing my distress. Here goes:
Dear Square Enix,
How dare you. What the fuck? How dare you!
I love this. Please hurt me again soon.