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The Latest 'Final Fantasy XIV' Villain Is Populism Incarnate

A class-conscious savior narrative confronts its discomfort when "the people" want to save themselves.
March 19, 2020, 12:54pm

“Whenever we say light versus dark, each person seems to have this subconscious image that light equals justice and darkness equals evil,” says Final Fantasy XIV director Naoki Yoshida in the first episode of a documentary series on the creation of Shadowbringers. “I kept telling the team we’re changing our perspective for how we’re looking at good and evil.”

Since its beginning, Final Fantasy XIV has dedicated itself to subversion above all. It eschews the tendency of fantasy stories to largely focus on nobles, knights, and specific figures by presenting many of its conflicts through the perspectives of everyday people. In doing so, it has solidified itself as a story explicitly about the people society deems discardable—the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed—and the potential of collective power. Now, with its latest patch for the last act of Shadowbringers, it is questioning the individualism and narrative foundations that lie under the surface of the entire RPG genre.

Shadowbringers takes place in The First, a different world from the one you, as the Warrior of Light, had previously explored. Ravaged by a calamity known as The Flood of Light, those who survived it are confined to a final habitable region called Norvrandt. It is divided between two cities: The Crystarium—a sanctuary city and your group’s central hub—and Eulmore, the city of pleasures where the rich live in decadence at the end of days at the benefit of the poor.

A battle in Final Fantasy XIV Shadowbringers

'FFXIV: Shadowbringers' promotional screenshot by Square Enix

You spend Shadowbringers traveling these lands, defeating beasts created by the light known as Sin Eaters and Lightwardens. As you do, you restore the night sky to the people of Norvrandt and become their Warrior of Darkness. In the aftermath of the expansion’s main story, the people of Norvrandt are rebuilding as they learn to live with the darkness for the first time in a century.

In the process, you're also rewriting an old legend. “Echoes of a Fallen Star,” the most recent story patch, focuses on how, long before you came along, The First had its own Warriors of Darkness who were led by a man named Ardbert. They were the ones who caused the disastrous Flood of Light and now, a century later, they are almost erased from history. The few who remember them do so with resentment and hate as "the Warriors of Light", oblivious to the group having sacrificed everything, including their lives, to save their people.

Throughout Shadowbringers, you are the only one who can see and speak with Ardbert’s remaining spirit. At the end of the final battle, he merges with you to help you defeat Emet-Selch—the primary antagonist of Shadowbringers—and bring peace to Norvrandt once again. In order to give him and his friends justice, you spend the beginning of the patch restoring and rehabilitating his memory to the people of the Crystarium.

But Ardbert is not the only character from this forgotten history to be returning. Elidibus, the person who manipulated him and his comrades into causing the Flood of Light in the first place, has chosen this moment to make his return. Disguising himself as Ardbert, whose reputation you have now changed to that of a martyr, his goals are as apocalyptic and evil as ever. But he takes a vastly different and more insidious approach from those before him. Unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t set out to explicitly oppress; rather, he operates like a demagogue populist, capitalizing on the hopes of the people of the Crystarium and manipulating them for his own gains.

With your inadvertent help, he raises their class consciousness and encourages them to fight for themselves and the future of Norvrandt—and, unknowingly, his own goals. Inspired by the heroism in you and Ardbert, these everyday people, who were presented as beings to save and little more, now possess an agency that threatens not just your work, but also your entire narrative.

This is a brutal, ironic twist in a story that has always centered class conflict.

The first expansion, Heavensward, dedicated itself to conveying how the mishandling of power doesn’t just affect those who use it against each other. It portrayed a world where elites rule and derive their power from an almost-literal pile of corpses, while those most affected are often in the margins, ignored in the decisions that affect their livelihoods, and rendered invisible until their turn comes to join those dead in service to the elite. Stormblood discussed the complexities of forming a revolution—the sacrifices it requires; the difficulty of helping those who have never had a voice to use theirs; the dangers of well-meaning allies intervening in the issues of the marginalized. It also highlighted the importance of differentiating between systems of oppression and those who carry it out, arguing that being complacent in the face of injustice is a conscious and condemnable choice.

Shadowbringers is, then, a deep critique of the ruling class, an assertion that we have the power and duty to fight for ourselves and each other—which is also where Elidibus starts his recruitment pitch.

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The expansion achieves this through its two primary narratives. One is centered on the plight of the marginalized people of The First as they try to survive within the oppressive Eulmorean system that has thrived at the end of the world. To reach Eulmore requires walking through a collection of broken shacks known as Gatetown, where you, as one of its residents says, “feed on the scraps what fall on your face as you look up and hope and dream.” Over the course of Shadowbringers, the Gatetown poor and Eulmore rich join forces to help you and the Scions defeat Vauthry, Eulmore’s leader. In the aftermath of the system’s dismantling, the wealthy people of Eulmore face their own complicity in its sustenance, and commit themselves to reparations for the ex-residents of Gatetown as well as the work that will bring about a more just society.

The other—and ongoing—narrative focuses on your long-running conflict with the Ascians, the ancient beings like Elidibus and Emet-Selch who inhabited the world before it was shattered into fourteen shards by a clash between rival demigods. As Ascians, Elidibus and his cohorts have painstakingly worked to bring back their people—whom they see as the only truly sentient beings—and restore what was theirs by enacting genocide throughout the different shards to gather enough aether to re-summon Zodiark, the demigod his faction viewed as its salvation.

Despite their differences, these conflicts are complementary, representing the same core themes: the conflict between the old ways and the new; between the establishment and those who it excludes; between the privileged and the marginalized. Between those who have their humanity acknowledged and those who don’t.

Emet-Selch’s defeat by the end of Shadowbringers marks a condemnation of the Ascians’ nativist philosophy. “Our worlds may not live up to your lofty standards…” Alisaie tells him before his death, “but they are our worlds. Our homes! Full of life and love and hope!” When Alphinaud adds, “We define our worth, not the circumstances of our creation,” it is both an acknowledgement of the different circumstances in which we are born, and a demand for a world in which every person is valuable just because they are living.

While Shadowbringers never even remotely justifies what the Ascians are doing, it does give them a degree of humanity with which it’s hard to argue. At the end of the day, despite the differences in the methods and visions of an ideal world, you and the Ascians share the same goal: to save the world.

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And, ultimately, this is what the citizens of the Crystarium wish for, too. The difference between you, the Ascians, and them is that they can act on this dream for the first time. This is why, at the end of “Echoes of a Fallen Star,” they convene at the heart of the Crystarium to announce their collective plans to leave the only way of life they’ve known and embark on their mission to help the less fortunate.

The scene is a shock to you and your friends, even though it is a natural progression of what XIV’s narrative has done this entire time: discuss the importance of creating a more just society in which you recognize the complexity and consciousness of people different from you. In this case, it’s even people who want to help you save the world—not eradicate it to make way for another one.

And yet, XIV frames this as potentially inspiring and unsettling in equal measure.

For when Theyler, a resident of the Crystarium, speaks for everyone when he says, “We may have our sky back, but there’s no shortage of people who still need help. If we follow in your footsteps, then I choose to believe we too can be heroes one day. Even Warriors of Light,” it’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable even after Alphinaud logically points out that you, “can hardly tell them they are mistaken. They seek but to do good, as you have.” It’s uncomfortable even as you know they deserve this, have fought for them to deserve this. You were happy for the people of Eulmore’s progress, so why don’t you feel entirely happy about this, too?

XIV asks you to truthfully reflect on why; to examine the hypocrisy in feeling so conservatively about your power in this moment. For, although Elidibus is manipulating them, the people of the Crystarium have decided to act upon this newfound resolve on their own.

After all, as the Warrior of Light, you were once like them—unknown, powerless, and invisible. You had little to your name and the clothes on your back. You had to adapt to a foreign way of life and look ahead to an uncertain future. And still, you got to where you are now. You did so by earning the trust of the people through your strength as much as your kindness and tendency to help as many people as you can. You have shown that sometimes, all it takes to make the world better is to wish for it to be so, and to do everything in your power to accomplish that goal.

Which means you’re not special. Not in the way video games, especially role-playing games, have little trouble making you feel. Video games love making you feel exceptional—and thus inherently superior to at least one group of people. In this moment, XIV illustrates its eagerness to subvert what is perhaps the core philosophy of not just a genre, but also an entire medium.

To remove any doubt, the game immediately supports this notion through its lore. After everyone convenes, Elidibus creates a spectacle and helps the people of the Crystarium awaken to the power of The Echo, which only you were aware of being privy to beforehand. Long ago, your journey began with what the Crystarium’s inhabitants now hear: Hydaelyn’s call to action. Since A Realm Reborn, you had surmised that you are her special chosen representative, sent to save the world from the forces of evil because no one else can.

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But in mere minutes, Elidibus debunks a belief you’ve held onto, and built your identity around, for years. He reveals The Echo is something everyone innately has in their aether, for everyone is descended from Ascians and all Ascians possessed this ability. Some people today are just more attuned to it, and even your attunement is a mere fraction of its real power.

With this, Elidibus has already established himself as a chilling adversary because he is touching on something far greater than you or him—or even Final Fantasy XIV. He has demystified the very concept of a hero, as well as the individualist fantasies video games eagerly offer to their players on silver platters.

You aren’t the only person who can save the world; who has the capacity to be kind, helpful, and hardworking. Perhaps saving the world doesn’t even require those things; all it takes is commitment to a vision. You aren’t the only person who can be a hero. And with that realization comes the fact that Elidibus, and his followers, can create a valid narrative in which they are the heroes, too.