Saturday, September 14, 2013

Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? : FFXIV:ARR

For most MMOs political correctness ends where the gameworld begins. Customer service will quite rightly be on you like a ton of bricks should they catch you expressing yourself in a way that would see you, if not in court, then at least socially ostracized in the real world, but if you want to rag on someone for an aspect of the race they've chosen to adopt as their in-game persona then go ahead, give it your best shot.

What's more the internal politics and culture of the virtual worlds, where our characters grew up and where, by reason, they should be far more at home than we are, tend not only to allow these attitudes but to shape and often actively encourage them. In the high summer of Everquest it was not unusual for a dwarven cleric, as he sat meditating to restore the mana he'd just drained keeping the ogre warrior in his party upright, to find the self-same ogre offering him some delicious Dwarf Chops as a snack. The ogre wasn't offering any undersized slices of pigmeat, either. He meant actual pieces of an actual dwarf, chopped up and roasted with spices and garnish, quite possibly by the very ogre now handing it around the group.

When you said "study at my feet" I didn't think you meant it literally

Someone in the original Everquest design team thought it would be completely fine for the playable races in the world they were imagining to consider each other not only as potential allies or enemies but as a staple source of nutrition. It wasn't just a couple of items sold by an NPC for a quick giggle, like the Dwarf Pickles you could buy in Freeport, either. The original baking skill included recipes for the meat of all player races and they were widely used, too, both practically for the stat boosts they provided and for the endless opportunities they opened up for boisterous humor in the most dubious of taste. If I had a platinum piece for every time my gnome cleric was offered a gnome kabob...

Forget the Charr/human squabble! Did no-one remember the cat/mouse thing?

Time moves on and consenting cannibalism between playable races appears to have gone out of fashion, only to be replaced by an unreconstructed 19th century approach to racial interaction. It's a pot that's been bubbling for a while but it came to a rolling boil in Guild Wars 2, where I admit to being mildly shocked during my personal story to find the great and the good among the three Orders that aspire to what passes for the moral high ground in Tyria blithely referring to potential allies in the fight against the dragons as "lesser races".

They're letting anyone in these days!
Given the level of technological and engineering expertise, not to mention the political sophistication, demonstrated by the Dredge, the devastating intellectual potential of the Skritt hive mind or the philosophical gravitas and nobility of the Kodan this seems an attitude steeped not just in arrogance but in ignorance too. Maybe the "lesser" races don't build baroque metropolises like Divinity's Reach, The Black Citadel or Rata Sum but a gift for ostentatious construction does not alone grant moral superiority.

The melting pot that is Lion's Arch makes for a much brighter indicator of more modern ways of thinking. Way back in beta I was gleeful to spot a Skritt citizen even though at the time I didn't quite know what it was that I was seeing. Most sentient races find a home in Lion's Arch, trading, laboring, making diplomatic representations. There's no lesser race representative on the Captain's Council now but one day, who knows?

And so to Eorzea with its moral and political infrastructure so very strongly reminiscent of Tyria's, its Grand Companies matching the Orders, its Scions of the Seventh Dawn mirroring the Pact and the overweening threat of the Garlean Empire creating the same need for unity as the Elder Dragons: here we also find a categorical divide between the superior, playable races and the inferior, non-playable beast tribes. At first the attitudes exhibited by NPCs and by implication expected of player-characters feel just as unpalatable, but as the narrative unfolds and, particularly, as side-quests deepen understanding of the milieu and the ambivalence of the settled races comes into focus, there does seem to be, if not justification then at least an explanation that rings true.

So you say...

Behind every beast race lowers a Primal, a kind of minor deity or force of nature. The very presence of the Primals is said to threaten the existence of Eorzea, largely because of the need for the beast tribes to expend vast amounts of aetheric crystals to summon their patron Primal. Not to mention that, when summoned, these immensely powerful entities tend to be highly inimical to all but their sponsored race, posing a direct threat to life, limb and liberty for anyone unlucky enough to be in the area at the time.
Got any fork handles?

Yet even with good reason to shun or fear them, many beast tribes are not just tolerated but welcomed in Eorzea's cities and towns. Goblins and Qiqirn especially seem well-integrated, respected according to their actions and personalities rather than judged purely on their race or appearance. It's a pure joy to trade with Qiqirn in their junkyards or sit in the dust as a Goblin master craftsman teaches you the basics of Materia.

For me, at least, the diversity of its races and the complexities of their interactions are one of the great pillars upon which the whole edifice of a high-fantasy virtual world rests. A wide variety of playable races is an obvious indicator when it comes to choosing one MMO over another in today's overcrowded field, but in many ways it's how the the unplayed, unplayable races are presented and developed that can end up mattering more.


  1. That's so true - so many MMOs struggle with proper backstory and culture where races are concerned, especially NPC races which are doomed to remain props at best. one reason why I always loved the fantasy genre are different races and what they stand for, how they're intertwined in the greater scheme of things.

    slightly offtopic: great writing aside, you're my favorite screenshot person in the MMO blogosphere! and the template fixes you've done recently make it much easier to read in browser for me too - I like the wider and more centered text area. :)

    1. Thanks! I put as much effort into the pictures as the words, sometimes more, so it's nice to hear that someone's getting something out of it.

      As for the new look, I like it much better too. Would probably never have happened if Blogger hadn't fritzed out on me, either.

    2. Speaking of screenshots and since you're not on twitter, check out my new gallery sometime :)
      and yes....I am dipping a toe into TERA atm, if only for the incredibly beautiful fairytale world and fun combat. I have to say, FFXIV aside which I can't judge yet, that game is even more stunning than GW2.

  2. There is also an interesting fact, as you progress along the story, that many of the beast tribes are being literally oppressed by the various city states, and it's that injustice they are facing that lead them to want to summon their Primal in the first place. It makes it harder to judge just who's the 'good guys' in this conflict (we know for sure the major villains are the Garleans, of course, but to the beast tribes WE are behaving in an awfully similar way towards them).

    1. Now that is really intriguing. I do think the FFXIV storyline and sidebars are a cut above most MMOs, TSW excepted, so it shouldn't be all that surprising that there's subtext, but that particular aspect hadn't made itself known to me, or at least not yet. It would be wonderful and awful at the same time if we found out at the climax that we'd been on the wrong side all along. The Garlean Empire is pantomime villain evil, though, so I can't imagine we'll ever turn out to be worse than them.


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