Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Baby, You're Far Too Clean

With all the Blaugust talk and the music stuff it seems quite a while since I wrote anything about gaming. It isn't, of course. Just last week I posted about Neverwinter Online, Guild Wars 2 and DCUO and before that I had something to say about New World, Crowfall and Bless Unleashed. Then there was the World of Warcraft firestorm, about which the less said the better.

In every case, though, I was reacting to something in the news. Mostly structural revamps or launches. Those hooks hang posts. I enjoy writing them but it doesn't quite match up to the organic satisfaction of posting regularly and confidently about a game I'm actively playing.

Remember back in the winter and the early spring, when we were all penning long essays about Valheim? That's the sort of thing I mean. It happens when there's a new game everyone's playing or at least it feels as though everyone's playing. 

It's happening right now. Everyone's jumping on a fresh bandwagon and firing off excited posts about how great it is. It's not Crowfall. No-one's posting about Crowfall. It's not New World, not yet. It might be, come September, but as of now the beta's over and even while it was on, most people seemed happy just to test the waters, pronounce them acceptable, then politely withdraw to wait for the real thing. I know I did.

Oddly, the game of the moment is Final Fantasy XIV. Again. How many bites at the cherry is this thing going to get? For a game that seems to have been around for a very long time, FFXIV somehow manages to come up fresh, over and over.


This time it started with the announcement of an Autumn expansion. Interest and attention grew with the arrival of a covy of high-profile WoW streamers seeking a more enticing money-train to ride than the stuttering, sputtering engine of WoW's failing Shadowlands. And finally the trickle turned into a flood, an all-out exodus of refugees streaming out of the Blizzard gates, leaving the 800 pound gorilla bleeding into the dust as the company imploded. 

Here's the thing. I've played FFXIV. Quite a bit. Never got all that far but I quite like it. It's definitely an mmorpg I could play. I could join in the fun now. I wouldn't even have to pay. So much is free there'd be bound to be new games to pull me away long before I got to the end of it.

If I did that, I could post about FFXIV like everyone else. It's a big, feature-filled game with plenty to talk about. And it looks great in screenshots. So, why not?

Yes, well, I've been thinking about that. If I hadn't, I might have slipped into my usual anti-story mode and whinged on yet again about how I don't want my mmorpgs to be centered on pre-written narratives. Or I might have banged on about the paternalistic undertones that creep me out when I read the supposedly supportive and open-handed commentary coming out of Square Enix. I might even have focused fire on the forced grouping required to achieve basic character progression bench-marks.

Really, though, it's none of those, even though they're all actual concerns I have. I'm not making them up. But they're minor problems, by no means unique to FFXIV. I could easily come up with lists of complaints about the way GW2 is set up or how ArenaNet operates. There's plenty wrong with both EverQuest II and Daybreak's custodianship I could get into, if I wanted. Facts are, I tolerate worse elsewhere, willingly.

None of these games, nor the companies that make them, are perfect, not even close. If any of them were, we'd all be playing the same thing. They all have flaws and drawbacks and issues but until and unless the whole thing turns into the kind of meltdown we've seen at WoW these last few weeks, none of it really matters all that much. If we like a game enough we'll play it in spite of its failures.

I just don't like FFXIV enough for that. If I'm brutally honest about why Mrs Bhagpuss and I both stopped playing after our first month all the way back at launch and why I never stick around for long any time I go back it's because FFXIV is a bit... dull. 

No, not dull, exactly. Worthy. that's it. I feel I'm expected to be on my best behavior there, somehow. Have my laces tied and my shirt buttoned. I feel there might be a test, after.

The way it looks matches the way it feels, for me. It's pretty to look at but it's also more than a little bland. The scenery feels stage-managed. The cities are big but the streets and the buildings all look too much the same, too uniform. The countryside is mannered in the way of a country house estate. Eorzea somehow manages to look convincing and artificial at the same time. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there's no there there.

The same over-designed tidiness pervades the whole game or, I should say, the small fraction of the game I've seen. I've never got much past the high 30s. By the time I get that far I feel tired. The sameness wears me out. It's not the famously enervating cross-continental travel. I like long journeys. I spent whole days doing nothing else in Valheim and for less reason. It's just that in FFXIV I never quite feel the journey was worth it and it's rarely fun for itself.


Even the interface exhausts me. I was reading Pixel Fairy's post about the FFXIV UI and it made me remember how low-level awkward I always find it when I play.  There's nothing wrong with it, per se. As Adelle says, it's fully customiseable. It ought to be fine. It's not, though.

Enough of that! Believe it or not, I didn't sit down today to write about FFXIV at all, let alone to say bad things about it. I wanted to post about an mmorpg I am playing, not one I'm not. As I thought about it, though, it occured to me to wonder just why I'd made the choice I have and I found myself comparing the two.

The mmorpg I'm playing most right now is Blade and Soul. I only play it for an hour or two each day and sometimes I might spend longer in GW2 or EQII, but it's only in B&S where I'm actively levelling a character and following the intended progression path.

I'm aware of the heavy irony, given my comments on narrative-driven mmorpgs in general and FFXIV in particular. Almost all of my gameplay in B&S consists of slavishly following the Main Story Quest. I talk to NPCs, all fully voiced. I watch frequent cut scenes, some of them lengthy, all of them, again, fully voiced. I read along with the subtitles, all of which are in good, demotic English.

Every session I go where I'm sent and do what I'm told. There's a lot of running back and forth. There are a lot of dungeons. As I finish each Chapter I get massive amounts of xp and that's what drives my levelling. There's xp for killing things, too, but it's largely incidental. The MSQ is essential if you want to progress, not least because it gives you your gear upgrades.

The whole thing is linear. I have little to no freedom of action within the narrative. There are no meaningful choices. Mostly there are no choices, meaningful or otherwise. If I don't welcome that in FFXIV, why do I tolerate it in Blade and Soul? And not just tolerate. Seek it out.

It's not as if the story's even much good. It's generic and thin. FFXIV's is much deeper, much broader, much more complete, even in the much-maligned original ARR. FFXIV's writing is eminently superior to Blade and Soul's. I still enjoy B&S more.

And I enjoy the gameplay more, too, even though it's button-mashing and most things die very quickly except the world bosses, which I can't kill at all. Even though it's supposed to be an mmorpg and yet I rarely see anyone else because everyone's max-level and no-one's doing any of the lower content. Blade and Soul has none of FFXIV's replayability or reusabilty or culture of continual purpose. Start late, you play alone.

I stopped and thought about why I prefer Blade and Soul. It's comfortable and FFXIV isn't. That's the plain truth of it. I can play for a few minutes or a couple of hours and feel relaxed afterwards. If I play FFXIV, I usually end feeling discontented, sometimes enervated, like my nerves have been stretched. It happens even if all I've done is go from one place to another or taken a few screenshots. 

Part of it, a big part, is that Blade and Soul, at the level I'm at, plays one hundred per cent like a single player game. All those dungeons I mentioned are solo instances. At no point has the main quest asked me to go do anything with another player. I could if I wanted. Most of the instances pop up a window when I enter asking me if I want to look for a group. If I don't want to, though, the game is fine with that.

Another part is that the world of Blade and Soul is more interesting to look at. It's not better. It's objectively worse, I think, unnatural, weird. Everything is too bright, too big, too odd. But it's spectacular and strange and it fires off the right receptors in my brain to make me feel engaged. Immersed? I might not go that far but close. 


Eorzea doesn't do that. Eorzea looks too... I want to say real. Maybe I mean complete. It's done. It's finished. There are no ragged edges, no messy corners. Everything makes sense. I don't want things to make sense.

None of which is to say I won't start playing FFXIV again today or tomorrow and leave Blade and Soul in the dust, nor that if I do I won't be here posting about what a great time I'm having and how much fun FFXIV can be. I've done that before and I'll bet I'll do it again. It's a good game. It can be fun. That's not the point.

And I'm not nailed on to Blade and Soul. Not even hardly. I can almost guarantee that next week or the week after that I won't be logging in every day or even at all. I pick up and drop mmorpgs all the time these days. I don't even see it as a failing any more. It's a playstyle. 

Bless Unleashed launches on August 8th and unlike most people I was quite impressed by what I saw in open beta. I plan on playing but I very much doubt I'll be playing for long. 

New World is coming, as we know. I've pre-ordered and I'm keen to get started. That one should last a little longer but once again I have no expectation it's going to be my next big mmorpg. I won't be putting in thousands of hours. Maybe a hundred or two if things go well. If I get half the play out of it I got from Valheim, I'll be happy.

Until those arrive I'm sticking with Blade and Soul. With luck I'll hit fifty before I quit. Levels that is, not hours.

I'm enjoying it a lot more than seems entirely reasonable but I don't have a lot to say about it. When all you do is the MSQ, what is there to say? But that's fine. Some mmorpgs are just for playing, not for writing about. When I find the next one that's worth spending the words, we'll all know about it, that's for sure.

Probably best enjoy the quiet, while it lasts.


  1. I've been playing a loot of STO lately. Many things about it are...off (to be polite). However it is also well and truly different from almost anything I've played. I need a change of pace right now more than I need a polished well thought out game design apparently. It's also good for short one hour or shorter sessions, which is about all I can squeeze in right now. FFXIV is decidedly not, especially at story junctures that require you to run instances.

    1. The ability - or suitability - of an mmorpg to feel satisfying in sessions of an hour or less is something I never really used to understand when people talked about it. Who plays for less than three hours at a stretch?

      These days I almost never play any mmorpg for more than a couple of hours and most times it's more like 30-60 minutes. That soon weeds out the games that take themselves very seriously.

  2. I don't think you ever have to apologize for not liking a game. I played a TON of FFXIV in the past -- THOUSANDS of hours, max level in most combat and crafting classes -- when nobody cared about it in the least. It's weird to see people go crazy for it now.

    How about that Crowfall, huh? My Twitter feed went insane for it for about a day. People were making guilds and talking about forever homes and now -- NOTHING.

    1. I pretty much said in the posts I wrote about Crowfall open beta that I couldn't figure out where the audience for it was supposed to come from. I fuly accept that there are people playing and having a great time - I just doubt there are ever going to be enough who feel that way to keep the servers up long-term. If WildStar, which was a pretty competent and finished product, couldn't do it I can't see Crowfall doing better.

  3. Maybe one day I'll check out Blade & Soul and see if our reactions to these two games are flipped or not. xD

    Although isn't there a B&S2 being discussed now? Pretty sure I'm not making that up... But maybe I am. Hmm. Nope, I check. It's real. Although who knows how long it'll take to make it to our shores.

  4. If we like a game enough we'll play it in spite of its failures.

    I love this quote and I just wish more MMO players were more honest about this. It's driven me a little nuts in the past to see people complain about a feature in a game I like and then be totally OK with the exact same thing in a different game, claiming that it's different when it's not. We all like what we like, but let's not pretend that a game you love has no flaws while everything about the competition sucks.


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