Final Fantasy XI: Chasin' the Dragon
by Pitchfork



Why Final Fantasy XI?

If I ever said Final Fantasy II is the black sheep of the series or that IX is the most-overlooked Final Fantasy game, I was incorrect. Both distinctions actually belong to Final Fantasy XI. As far as most fans seem to be concerned, it exists outside of Final Fantasy canon; sort of like how Mystic Quest was considered in the Nineties. Sometime after the VIII writeup, I started getting emails and messages from people asking me what I was planning to do after X. "Are you going to do X-2 or jump right to XII?" they'd ask, as if XI wasn't even an option. For a long time, even I wasn't sure what I was going to do about the entry between X and XII.

This is because XI, unlike every other volume of the Final Fantasy series proper, is an MMORPG. Aside from having the ostensible markings of a Final Fantasy game -- moogles, chocobos, the pantheon of summon monsters, the familiar classes, spells and items, etc. -- it really doesn't behave like one at all. There's so little resemblance between it and the ten titles preceding it, the name Final Fantasy Online would have probably been more appropriate (not to mention farsighted).

So why cover XI if it's not really a proper Final Fantasy game?

Well, it's still a numbered Final Fantasy title, and it would be crass to have a big gap (or an X-2) on that cool Flash menu between X and XII. But more practically, it's Square's first (and thus far only) MMORPG and, if you remember, was developed in tandem with IX and X, possibly making it the last game Sakaguchi worked on during his tenure at SquareSoft. Even eight years after its initial release, it's still the dominant MMORPG in Japan and the most widely-played Japanese MMORPG in the world. And now that the next numbered entry in the series, Final Fantasy XII, is ubiquitously regarded as an offline MMORPG, it can't really be said that XI exists in isolation from the rest of the series anymore.

So I downloaded the PC version of the game in late December and took the plunge. Before we get into how that went, let's go over some of the game's details.


Characters

YOU

Yes, you. The one playing. YOU are the main character of Final Fantasy XI. When you log in, you awaken in Vana'diel as a freelancing young adventurer trying to make a name and fortune for himself. As you explore more of Vana'diel, becoming stronger and earning prestige, you soon discover the full dark extent of your forthcoming trials. The Beastmen are mustering their forces once again, there are whispers of the Shadow Lord's resurrection, and no matter how hard you try, you are unable to persuade any of your real-life friends into spending their money on Final Fantasy XI and helping you. Soon your missions throughout Vana'diel are keeping you up until 5:30 am on a nightly basis, you've stopped shaving, and you're subsiding entirely on microwavable peanut satay. "WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT," you shout whenever the sun peeks in through the window blinds. And now you're regularly telling your friends you can't hang out because you need to work on the novel but you know damn well you're just going to spend thirty minutes halfheartedly revising a paragraph before saying fuck it and playing Final Fantasy XI until it hurts to stand when you finally do stand back up. Do you persevere and see your mission through, becoming a legendary hero worthy of saving the the imaginary realm of Vana'diel? Or are you going to puss out and run, deciding planet Earth and the things you do there are more important to you? Only you can decide.


EVERYONE ELSE

The 499,999 or so other people playing Final Fantasy XI. Some of them include the creepy high-level player who follows around new players with female avatars, the desperate collector who spams "[Scroll of Teleport-Vahzl] [Can I have it?] 5k" in the shout channel every two minutes, the chain smoker who brbs after every battle, the high-level spawn camper who doesn't speak English and sneers at your efforts to negotiate with him, the raven-haired Elvaan with a name from Dragonball Z or Naruto, a hundred thousand men pretending to be girls, the casual racist, the guy who's just arrived home from getting wasted and passes out in the middle of a battle,the 45-year old single man playing a Galka, the boastful party member who catalogues his sexual conquests and seems to expect you to believe him, the kindhearted Tarutaru, the male/female couple who regularly gets into arguments and has extended I love you no I love you sessions over the linkshell channel, the cowardly Japanese player who drops out of the party and flees when a fight goes awry, the one actual female who plays online games to inflate her self-esteem, the strange Tarutaru with the jack o' lantern hat who's logged in and sitting in the exact same spot in Southern San d'Oria 24/7, and the one genuinely interesting and chilled-out stranger you duo with once and then never see again.


Races

Humes

Solidly-rounded and with no inherent advantages or weaknesses, Humes resemble humans in that they are physically identical and their name is a derivative of the word "human." What a great start we're off to, Final Fantasy XI! People who play Humes are jerks.






Elvaan

The Elvaan, as you'd expect, look and act pretty much exactly the same as elves -- but Square doesn't call them elves, because this is Square and they do things their way. Contrary to what you might expect, the Elvaan have the highest Strength stat and are best-suited for physical Jobs.






Tarutaru

A diminutive and spritely race from the distant city of Windurst. The name of their game is high Intelligence and very high MP, but low Strength and HP. I've noticed that the people who choose Tarutaru are generally the pleasantest and most gracious Final Fantasy XI players.






Mithra

This female-only race of humanoid felines cohabits Windurst with the Tarutaru. They're the most agile of the five races, but they have lowest Charisma stat -- which is ironic, considering how catgirl characters are all played by men for the purpose of exploiting other men, as Byron's short-lived and scantily-clad Mithra monk "Schoolgirlforu" demonstrated more than adequately.





Galka

The hairy, hulking, and male-only demihumans from Bastok, where their strength is exploited by the Hume population. As you'd suspect, they've got the highest defensive and second-highest physical strength stats and are built for tanking. For whatever reason, you don't see too many Galka players.







The Setting

Final Fantasy XI takes place in the land of Vana'diel, the most complex and diverse fictional world Square has ever created. Even though the game's graphics are showing their age, Vana'diel is still a dazzling place that eschews the more phantasmagoric excesses of contemporary JRPGs for a more down-to-earth aesthetic. You'll almost want to keep playing Final Fantasy XI just to explore more of its world. Almost.








The Story

Beats me.

No, really. I have no idea what this game is about. There's a plot buried in Final Fantasy XI somewhere, but I didn't really pay attention to it. It was too difficult to keep track of. Though the game does have its share of cutscenes, they're obviously not going to be as prominent as they are in an offline Square RPG. The scenes pertaining to the overarching story are usually only activated during national missions, which are sets of quests exclusive to your character's affiliation with one of the three cities of Bastok, San d'Oria, and Windhurst. Since you usually need to gain about least five levels between national missions, you're viewing cutscenes within days, or more likely, weeks of each other. By the time you accomplish your objective and trigger a cutscene, you've completely forgotten what the hell is going on and are unable to understand a bloody thing the NPCs are talking about. It also doesn't help that party and linkshell chatter intrude on the cutscene text, so you dialogue boxes looking like:

Rochefogne: King Ranperre... It is I, Rochefogne. Does Your Majesty not remember me?
Zigkirby: wtf whats pat doing
Governator: think hes getting the cutscene
Rochefogne: Often in youth did I hear stories of Your Majesty's glorious reign. I longed to grow into a man like the great Dragon King, Ranperre.
Governator: you got the cutscene pat?
Schoolgirlforu: meow
Rochefogne: Try though I did, I have failed. I have lost everything, even the most sacred of possessions.
Schoolgirlforu: =^-^=
Rochefogne: I...
Zigkirby: fucking spawn camping japanese
Rochefogne: Your Majesty, please tell me. Whence has the sword disappeared? Did you dismiss it?
Bernkatsel: [Scroll of Teleport-Holla] [Can I have it?] 2k

But the cutscenes aren't really that important. The average Final Fantasy XI player is much more concerned with objectives and rewards. The cutscenes and plot are once again what they were in the 8-bit days: garnish.

Addendum: Former player Rhete tells me that the story actually gets pretty good later in the game, starting around when you're level 50 or so -- which equates to a couple hundred hours into the game.


Ps and Qs

Well, let's talk about the gameplay.

After choosing your race, gender, appearance, and home city, it's time to pick a job. Yes, Final Fantasy XI utilizes a variation of the famed Job system, and all your favorite Final Fantasy staples are there: Paladin, Dragoon, Summoner, Blue Mage, Scholar, Bard, and so on. (Currently there is a total of twenty jobs -- but as long as Square Enix can profit from the game, there could always be more updates.) Starting off, you are only given a choice of six: Warrior, Thief, Monk, Red Mage, White Mage, and Black Mage (the six character classes from the first Final Fantasy). All of the other jobs must be unlocked by completing quests that start becoming accessible when you reach level 30. You can change your your character's Job at any time by speaking with the moogle in your personal Mog House.

After hitting level 18 and fulfilling a "collect three totally unrelated enemy drops" quest, you get the option of equipping a Support Job (subjob). This allows you to essentially junction a second Job to your main Job and benefit from its stats and special abilities. There are some limitations, however. Two-hour abilities and Merits do not cross over from sub to main. No matter how high a Job's independent level is, it is capped at half the level of your primary Job when set as a sub. And even when you have a set sub, only your main Job gains experience points. It should also be mentioned that Final Fantasy XI makes no distinction between the levels of your character and those of his Jobs. Switching out your level 32 Monk to try out the new Corsair Job you just unlocked puts your character back at level 1.

Isn't that neat?

Now that you've picked your job, it's time to go out and kill stuff. Enter Final Fantasy XI's battle system. This is the first Final Fantasy game in which the old turn-based combat system is altogether eliminated, and fights no longer take in a battle screen apart from the field map. What you do now is target an enemy and select the "Attack" command. Your character will draw his weapon, a rigorous battle tune will start playing, and the camera zooms in closer. An invisible ATB gauge starts filling up. Whenever it is maxed out, your character automatically raises his weapon (slowly and laboriously), and SLUNCH! brings it down upon his opponent's hapless skull. Then he stands around for ten seconds or so until the imaginary gauge refills. (Or you can move him around if you want -- but it rarely makes a difference.) Then he attacks again. Then he waits again. Then he attacks again. Then he waits again. Attack. Wait. Attack. Wait. Attack. Wait. Nice and simple. It's like the game automatically tapes down the X button so you don't have to! There are times when you can initiate auto attack, step out for a smoke or bathroom break, and return to find a dead beastie and a treasure chest (usually containing something worthless).

But there is more to combat than doing nothing, or course. There are a couple of other options on the table, of course -- you can cast spells, which puts the attack/wait/attack/wait cycle on hold for the varying duration of the spellcasting process. There are Job Abilities, which are activated instantly, but have a cooldown times that can last anywhere from half a minute to two hours. Finally, there are Weapon Skills, which are XI's proxy for Limit Breaks, Trances, Overdrives, etc. These require Technical Points (TP) to activate, which are stocked whenever your character successfully inflicts damage through physical attacks. Weapon Skills can only be used after you have least 100 TP stocked, and doing so reduces your TP to zero. The attack damage increases with the amount of TP spent, and a maximum of 300 TP can be accrued.

So basically, participating in Final Fantasy XI's combat system is almost as much fun as reading about Final Fantasy XI's combat system.


Vana'diel Diary

The experience of playing an MMORPG is a much more personal affair than running through your average console RPG, and even more than that of offline sandbox games like Elder Scrolls and Fallout 3, because of how your interactions with other living players frequently affects your progress. The Final Fantasy XI trip depends totally on the player; no two people will play the same game. What follows is a short account of my time playing Final Fantasy XI, from the day I created my character and first logged on, to the day I logged off for the last time and deleted my account.

DAY ONE

My MMORPG cherry is officially popped by Final Fantasy XI. I enter Vana'diel as Pitchfork, a male Hume Red Mage operating out of San d'Oria. Polly and Rhete take bets on how long I'll last.


DAY TWO

Pitchfork kills Wild Rabbits in West Ronfaure for EXP.


DAY THREE

Pitchfork kills Forest Hares in West Ronfaure for EXP.


DAY FOUR

By now, Pitchfork has been joined by Governator, Lieronet, Schoolgirlforu, Spydak, and Zigkirby, all played by SnS members.


DAY FIVE

Pitchfork and the unofficial Team SnS rampage across Ronfaure and Ghelsba, beating up orcs, raking in loot, gaining levels and having (at least from Pitchfork's perspective) a pretty okay time. My original intent was to play the game for just a few weeks; maybe just until the free trial ended. But now my plan is to complete the main quest. If the rest of the game is as enjoyable as it's been thus far, what could it hurt?


DAY SEVEN

Team SnS is having difficulty figuring out times when we'll all be on at once.


DAY TEN

The first of us calls it quits: Zigkirby taps out.


DAY ELEVEN

Pitchfork kills Steppe Hares in La Thiene for EXP.


DAY SIXTEEN

Only Pitchfork and Governator remain in Vana'diel.


DAY SEVENTEEN

Polly and Rhete log in with new characters. I spend about about an hour backtracking to West Ronfaure and helping them power level. After hitting level two, they proclaim WHAT A FUN FF XI ADVENTURE THIS HAS BEEN and log off, never to return. Ha, ha! Very funny. You guys are the best.


DAY EIGHTEEN

Pitchfork arrives in Valkrum Dunes for the first time. It's time for the grinding to really begin.


DAY NINETEEN

I join my first EXP party and meet up with them at the Valkrum outpost. Nobody can agree on where to go. Half of them are murdered by a Goblin Bounty Hunter on the way to spawn camp Hill Lizards. It takes over 90 minutes to get everyone revived, Refreshed, Regened, on the same Field Manual training page, Signet-enabled, level synched, and in the same place, ready to go. By this time it is five in the morning and I need to log off.


DAY TWENTY

Pitchfork kills Sand Hares in Valkrum for EXP.


DAY TWENTY-ONE

I'm talking with Jef, a fellow Final Fantasy enthusiast and a longtime World of Warcraft player, and I tell him that I'm determined to bite the bullet and bear out the tedium until the endgame -- where, I've been repeatedly told, the grinding ends and the game gets good. He tries not to laugh. "WoW is immediately fun," he said. "Nobody ever had to tell me it was going to get better to convince me to keep playing." Then he reminds me he still has those trial discs sitting around, and I scream and throw my phone out the window.


DAY TWENTY-TWO

I refuse to admit that I am not having fun.


DAY TWENTY-SIX

Pitchfork finally unlocks the Support Job option and starts leveling himself as a Warrior -- by killing Wild Rabbits in West Ronfaure for EXP.


DAY TWENTY-SEVEN

Pitchfork kills Forest Hares in West Ronfaure for EXP.


DAY TWENTY-NINE

Pitchfork kills Steppe Hares in La Thiene for EXP.


DAY THIRTY-ONE

Pitchfork kills Sand Hares in Valkrum for EXP.


DAY THIRTY-TWO

Pitchfork, now a level 20 RDM/10 WAR, heads to the Valkrum outpost to look for people interested in helping him out with a mission after an hour and a half of petitoning people around San d'Oria failed to pan out. On the way, he is killed by an aggressive rare monster. Unable to find somebody to revive him, Pitchfork warps back to Jeuno as a level 19 RDM/9 WAR. By now I have decided that bearing it out to the endgame is completely out of the question. Another month or so seems more reasonable.


DAY THIRTY-FIVE

I do some serious soul-searching. I now realize there is a very real possibility that there will be a numbered Final Fantasy game I can never complete. Is this something I can accept...?


DAY THIRTY EIGHT

"I JUST UNLOCKED SCHOLAR" a linkshell buddy informs me as I'm getting blasted to cinders by a Thunder Elemental (bastard was floating in my blind spot as I cast Shell on myself -- irony!) in Konschtat because I thought it might be fun change of pace to go off alone instead of spending the fourth night in a row in a Valkrum EXP party.


DAY THIRTY-NINE

Back to Valkrum it is.


DAY FORTY-ONE

As a linkshell buddy lectures me about how foolish I am for subbing WAR and that it will make nobody want to party up with me, I'm murdered by orcs in Jugner Forest and leveled down. Now I'm back in San d'Oria, down to level 21, unable to equip the level 22 sword I'd taken out of Mog Storage forty minutes ago, and have already lost my level 18 sword to the auction house. The decision makes itself: fuck this game.


DAY FORTY-TWO

The Final Fantasy XI withdrawal period ends as soon as it begins. Rhete tells me he's looking forward to the article -- even though I wasn't able to get past anything but the noob levels. Thanks again, guy.


Final playtime: 75 hours. Over three days of my life -- of my fleeting, irrecoverable life, and of my waning youth -- spent on this game, and I barely put a dent in it. Many Final Fantasy XI regulars would snort and call me impatient.




Well, let's start with the good.

Final Fantasy XI is primitive and slow, and those are its better qualities. As somebody who started with the US release of Final Fantasy on the NES, I've always felt vaguely disappointed at the sequels' departure from from it. Final Fantasy XI is the first one that feels like it was made specifically with the original 1987 game in mind. It's not only because the original six classes are back, and not just that the game's protagonist (you) is effectively mute for the first time in fifteen years, either. Like the original game, XI's story is about exploring a world and uncovering its secrets, instead of a FIGHT THE EMPIRE scenario or a group therapy session for a clique of world-saving neurotics. The game doesn't hold your hand and it never forcibly drags you from one objective (or plot point) to the next. Curative and healing items barely exist, and hitting 0 HP is a disaster instead of a temporary inconveince. And, of course, Final Fantasy XI is as ruthlessly difficult and unforgiving as the 8-bit games. Even more so. Choosing your battles wisely is more important than ever.

Final Fantasy XI's pace is already notorious. Even the most dedicated players won't mince words on this -- the game is slow. And it's not just the sluggish combat, either. Everything takes forever. Before acquiring a chocobo license, airship pass, or Teleport spells, it can take you 30-40 minutes to run from one place to another on foot -- and that's if you're avoiding combat and not regularly getting jumped by orcs, goblins, yagudo, or quadavs. You have to wait for shops to open, wait for the best in-game day to craft items, and wait for people to buy your swag at the auction house. You sit around and wait for you HP/MP to recover when you hit the "heal" command, you wait for people to invite you into their parties, you wait for your party members to run off and get Signet, you wait for somebody to come and cast Raise on you when you die, you wait two hours to use your special ability again, you wait one hour (in real time) between the five feedings in the chocobo license subquest. It feels like 75% of the Final Fantasy XI experience is waiting for the Final Fantasy XI experience.

Accomplishing any goal in Final Fantasy XI is done in very small increments, and each step of your progress can take hours at a time. Every story mission requires being about five levels higher than you were during the previous mission, and if you're able to gain one level for every two hours of playtime, consider yourself fortunate. (Rhete tells me horror stories: /SHOUT PLZ SOMEONE HELP ME I'VE BEEN LV 55 FOR A MONTH.) After every three to five levels you gain, your equipment becomes obsolete and must be replaced. Scraping together the funds for new gear requires spending a few hours crafting materials, farming crystals, or redoing a bunch of "collect X number of enemy drop item Y" quests. And when you're finally ready to do the mission, you must spend however much time finding and convincing other players to help you out. If any Final Fantasy XI regulars reading this are consistently able to recruit mission allies without any difficulty, please tell me your secret.

Final Fantasy XI is a game that demands a great deal of time, patience, and dedication from its players, and apparently some people love this. They enjoy the challenge; they appreciate a game that doesn't just open up its legs and give up everything it has to offer within five hours of playtime. Some people even enjoy the game's leisurely (now I'm mincing words) pace, as it makes Vana'diel more realistic and immersive.

The problem, of course, is that none of this is actually fun. During your stay in Vana'diel, you are constantly level grinding, crystal harvesting, doing NPCs' fetch quests, and spawn camping like you're on somebody's imaginary payroll. You have to take the same approach to Final Fantasy XI as you would a personal project such as building a model ship in a bottle, taking a martial arts class, or writing a villanelle. It is an arduous, time-devouring, and often frustrating process. But unlike any of the other aforementioned endeavors, which actually give you tangible, real-world results, what rewards do you get from sinking 300 hours of your life into Final Fantasy XI?

...Seriously, I want an answer.


A Word to Our Players

I should have known I was asking for trouble the first time I logged on to Final Fantasy XI and saw the disclaimer. Any time you play, you must click a button to affirm that you have read and acknowledged this friendly little reminder from Square Enix:



Let's take this point by point.

"EXPLORING VANA'DIEL IS A THRILLING EXPERIENCE."

Yes. This is true -- on the rare occasions you're actually exploring, anyway. Most of the time, you're spawn camping and level grinding on the same map for hours on end. Depending on how often you play and how much focused time you spend on leveling up and keeping your character's equipment and spells up to date, it can be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks before your character can cross over into a new zone without fearing swift evisceration at the hands of the first gob you encounter. Until then, you're stuck running back and forth between your home point and the local EXP party hotspot until you put in enough time to become sufficiently leveled up to move on -- on to the next EXP party hotspot.

The exploration and adventure aspects of Final Fantasy XI are irreparably damaged by a pair of clashing mechanics. Considered individually -- as they were probably conceived -- they do make sense. But it's not long into the game before they overlap, and playing Final Fantasy XI becomes a recreational chore.


1.) X: Characters lose EXP when they die.

Whenever your HP drops to zero, you lose experience points -- 10% of your TNL (to next level) mark, to be exact. (So if you need a total of 10,000 EXP to hit your next level, you lose 1,000.) If this makes your EXP points drop below zero, you drop down a level. Sadistic? Maybe. But let's play devil's advocate for a moment. Ever since it became standard JRPG design procedure to carpet bomb dungeon maps with save points, there's been virtually no incentive to play a Final Fantasy game (or most other RPGs for that matter) well. If you see a Game Over screen, you reload and are back at you were in five minutes (give or take a unskippable cutscene). Punishing players for being reckless or foolish -- for not playing the game well -- isn't something we see very often in the more forgiving post-SNES Final Fantasy titles. Still, having to spend 15-60 minutes dragging your character from his Home Point back to where he was before could be punishment enough in itself -- especially since it was, after all, the main deterrent from playing carelessly during a dungeon dive or boss fight in the NES Final Fantasy games.

2.) Y: You must be in a party to get anything accomplished

Final Fantasy XI's designers wanted to make a game that encouraged interaction and cooperation between players. The most straightforward way of ensuring that players link up is to fix the system so that individual player is almost helpless on his own. There are a couple of Job/Sub combinations that seem get around this rule (Ninja and Dancer are commonly involved), but for the most part, going anywhere without at least two other people is suicide.

3.) X * Y = BORK

The result? You have an online adventure game in which nobody ever wants to adventure. You're stuck grinding with everybody else, whether you want to or not, because it's the only way you'll ever be able to get anywhere. Unless you're fortunate to bump into somebody with the exact same objective as you -- which (in my experience) is exceptionally rare -- you're stuck in EXP parties until you can grind yourself to a high enough level to solo your way through. It's a shame, because the most fun I've had in Final Fantasy XI was during the first couple of weeks when I was doing missions with three or four-player parties of people around my own level. But once you hit a certain point -- level fifteen or so -- nobody wants to play the game this way. Not when there's a chance they might die and level down. Not when there's the chance that a somebody might make a mistake and get them killed, setting them back by hours. Not when they can gain EXP faster by spending the sixth night in a row beating up Pugils in a level-synched party in Qufim. The way an MMORPG is played is determined just as much by the players as the designers, so both parties are at fault here. The designers wanted to make an immersive cooperative adventure game; losing EXP for losing battles was just another means of giving players a more personal stake in an enveloping game world. The players responded to this by creating a culture of standardized EXP parties and becoming a horde of insular cowards, undermining the entire "adventure" aspect for which the game world was presumably created. Nobody wins here.

The last day I played, I had to do a mission in Davoi. After doing a player search, I discovered a level 21 Summoner (I was level 22) looking for a party. He agreed to come over and help me out -- but before he did, he stopped by Selbina to switch his Job to a level 68 Warrior so he could godmode me through Davoi at no risk to himself, totally defeating the fun and the purpose of playing a game like this. It sucked. He's not having fun because he's babysitting a pleading noob and getting nothing in return; I'm not having fun because I'm feeling rushed for using up this guy's time, and having a high-level player do all the dirty work for you is boring. Asking him to come as his level 21 Summoner or to synch his level 68 Warrior with my level 22 Red Mage would have been out of the question. It probably wouldn't even have processed. "Take risks? Go on a run where there's a chance of something unexpected happening? Why would anybody want to do that in an adventure game?"

"DURING YOUR TIME HERE, YOU WILL BE ABLE TO TALK, JOIN AND ADVENTURE WITH OTHER INDIVIDUALS IN AN EXPERIENCE THAT IS UNIQUE TO ONLINE GAMES."

In an MMORPG like this, the community -- the hundreds and thousands of other people with whom you're playing the game -- is just as integral to the experience as the combat and stat tinkering. Since this was my first dive into a serious MMORPG, I often felt like some cultural anthropologist in my dealings with other players -- most of whom were Final Fantasy XI veterans who have been subscribers for at least a year. (World of Warcraft's domination of the MMORPG market means that Final Fantasy XI isn't getting many new players. When I played, there was actually a Square Enix "Return to Vana'diel" campaign going on to entice people who had quit to start playing again.)

If nothing else, Final Fantasy XI gives me yet another thing for which I can blame .hack: impressing upon me a romanticized notion of what MMORPG player communities are like. The anime prelude to the PS2 games, .hack//SIGN, portrays a small group of MMORPG players of different ages, occupations, and walks of life being brought together through an online videogame. Watching //SIGN, you'd think that all the grinding, dungeon crawls, item harvests, and raids are less important as parts of a video game than for their being vehicles for communication and interaction between people. You laugh, you cry, you slay monsters, you gain levels, and you make real, enduring friendships that sometimes cross over into your offline life.

If Final Fantasy XI is any indication, this isn't an exaggeration. It's actually altogether false. Unless you can find yourself a particularly good linkshell (that's Squeenixspeak for "guild") or are able to find at least five personal friends or acquaintances willing to dedicate themselves to Final Fantasy XI, your interactions with other players will rarely be interesting or even that much fun. The vast majority of Final Fantasy XI players I've met are all business, all the time. Most of the strangers I met and partied up with were uninterested in chit-chat. When they did talk, 80% of the time it was about something directly related to Final Fantasy XI. 17% of the time it was something indirectly related to Final Fantasy XI. Stuff like "[Congratulations!]" "brb bio," "brb smoke," "brb microwaev food," and "god ???? u all this pt sukcs" constitutes the remaining three percent. I can think of only three distinct occasions when a party or linkshell conversation unrelated to skill caps, experience points, the merits of a certain sub, or auction house wares sustained itself for longer than five minutes.

"What do you expect, fool?" you might be saying. "You're playing an online Final Fantasy game and expect players not to talk about Final Fantasy most of the time?" Point. But when you're playing a game that involves so much sitting around and waiting for things to happen, it'd be nice to have players willing to shoot the breeze about -- well, anything else. But they don't. All they're interested in talking about is Final Fantasy XI. This is because they spend all of their free time playing Final Fantasy XI, since Final Fantasy XI isn't a game in which you can get ahead by concerning yourself with frivolous matters like outside interests and friends.

Of all Final Fantasy XI players, the friendliest and loveliest is the mid to high-level Tarutaru. Don't ask me why. I don't know why. He just is. But the second most pleasant Final Fantasy XI player is the noob. He's the only person you'll see who acts excited to be playing the game, and he's also the only one who demonstrates a willingness to put coherence over precipitancy and enters actual words into the chat channel. But this is only because he has not been broken yet. I imagine observing the progress of a new Final Fantasy XI player is like watching a mellow and shy college freshman metamorphose into a frat guy who addresses you as "bra" and insists he enjoys the taste of Natural Lite. For the first ten levels or so, the Final Fantasy XI noob will freely party up with other new players, run around Vana'diel and fight monsters for the fun of it, and takes dying (and the occasional level down) in good humor. By the time he hits level 25 or 30, he's punching gibberish like "ok gov go voke pug pitch dont ues bio low dps gets hate save 4 heal" into the chat channel and throwing caps lock hissy fits when the party healer isn't able to get to him on time.

But this is all part of the wider phenomena of puerile children and perpetual adolescents playing online games and using their anonymity as carte blanche to act like imbeciles. Final Fantasy XI in itself isn't responsible for that. But the game does foster and perpetuate a particular kind of player culture that shapes the dynamic of the way people interact with each other in the game.

This player culture can be encapsulated in two words: EXP party. It's simple. You have an MMORPG that functions like an 8-bit JRPG. You need to do a lot of grinding in order to get anywhere, but player characters are individually too weak to run around and win fights on their own. The solution that Final Fantasy XI's players contrived is the EXP party, which has become an inextricable part of the Final Fantasy XI experience. If you're leaving a city or joining up with people, it's almost always to participate in an EXP party.

Essentially, the EXP party is a premeditated spawn camping session. In brief: you flag yourself as looking for a party, sit down in a town or at a field outpost, and wait. The length of your wait depends on your Job/Sub. Expect it to be short if you're a White Mage, but if you'd better keep a Spider Solitaire window open if you're playing something like Thief. Once the party's assembled, it moves to a select location close to where certain monsters spawn, but tucked away in a spot that aggressive monsters don't usually wander. Once everyone's in place, the slaughter begins.

Before we go on, some words about Final Fantasy XI's group battle dynamic. Each Job is designed to be an organ or limb of the greater organism of the party. Generally speaking, there are only four (or five) character classes in Final Fantasy XI: the Tank (decoy and meatshield), the Healer (self-explanatory), the Damage Dealer (offensive mages and melee), and the Buffer and Debuffer (strengthens the party and weakens enemies). As Rhete mentions in his fiery condemnation of the game, there is a certain kind of elegance in watching the party's disparate skills working in tandem to blast a Brutal Sheep to hell. But being a participant is like working a post at a factory conveyor belt. You're doing the same thing, hitting the same macro keys over and over and over again, until the monster dies or otherwise turns the tables and kills everyone. The game isn't really designed to let you do anything else. The strategy never changes.

As a Red Mage, my task was to cast Paralyze, Slow, Dia, and Bio (always in that order), use Cure when the designated healers were low on MP or having a hard time keeping up with multiple attacks, and sometimes chip in with melee blows (unless I was ordered by the organizers to stop blocking the damage dealers' line of fire). Once the monster died, the designated puller would run out of sight, disappear for a minute, and then come racing back with an angry monster at his heels. The party sprang to action. I held the ctrl key and started hitting macro numbers. Paralyze, Slow, Dia, Bio, auto attack, Cure. Soon the monster would die, and the puller would gallop off and return with another beastie for us to lynch. Paralyze, Slow, Dia, Bio, auto attack, Cure. Puller goes. Puller comes back with monster. Paralyze, Slow, Dia, Bio, auto attack, Cure. Monster dies. Five minute healing/bathroom/coffee break. Puller goes. Puller comes back with monster. Paralyze, Slow, Dia, Bio, auto attack, Cure. Puller goes. Puller brings monster. Paralyze, Slow, Dia, Bio, auto attack, Cure. Puller goes. Puller brings monster. Paralyze, Slow, Dia, Bio, auto attack, Cure. "Boy, what fun I am having!" I had to say to myself out loud to convince myself that I was having fun.

And this goes on for hours at a time. Before long, the participants' brains switch over auto pilot. The party chat channel falls silent. Pull, kill, pull, kill, heal, pull, kill, pull, kill, heal, pull, kill, kill, pull, kill, heal, pull, kill. But look! All of a sudden the Final Fantasy victory tune plays, your avatar shimmers, and those precious, evanescent golden words hover above his head: LEVEL UP!

"Congratulations!" everyone in the party will say. Without fail. The first time it happened I thought I had only chanced upon a party of really polite players. But after a few nights of EXP party grinding, I realized that "Congratulations!" has become a kind of ritualistic chorus in the player culture of Final Fantasy XI. The moment of the Level Up is, after all, the apex of the Final Fantasy XI experience, and it's the only time people are ever guaranteed to use the chat channel. "congratulations!" "congrats" "[Congratulations!]" and "grats," they all say. And then it's back to business. Pull, kill, pull, kill, pull, kill, heal, pull, kill -- until somebody else dings (that's MMO Tardspeak for "levels up") and everyone stops what they're doing for two seconds to chant "CONGRATULATIONS" for them.

"Congratulations!" Sure -- as if you did anything more than remain a consistent cog in the monster-slaying machine that is the party for two and a half uninterrupted hours. "grats!" As if you actually achieved something by staring at your computer monitor and hitting your macro keys long enough to receive a marginal stat increase, an even higher EXP goal for your next level, and the privilege of being able to buy new gear to replace all the equipment that just became obsolete now that you've leveled up. "[Congratulations!]" Time for a money grind!

500,000 subscribing players. Seriously.

"THAT BEING SAID, WE HAVE NO DESIRE TO SEE YOUR REAL LIFE SUFFER AS A CONSEQUENCE."

Bullshit. Vicious, brazen mendacity. Like a tobacco company printing "we have no desire that you should develop a dependency while enjoying the smooth taste of our product" on the side of cigarette packs. Do you honestly suppose Square Enix would prefer you having a rich and active life beyond Final Fantasy XI to charging you a monthly fee and selling you new expansion packs for three years? Hah.

"DON'T FORGET YOUR FAMILY, YOUR FRIENDS, YOUR SCHOOL, OR YOUR WORK."

Anyone who has actually played Final Fantasy XI for more than a few weeks will tell you this friendly reminder is hogwash. The game is designed to make you forget about your friends, your family, your school, your work, and your life outside of Vana'diel.

Understand that this isn't a game you can sit down and play for the hour you have between classes. There is no point in playing for an hour. An hour is how long it takes to log on, check your Mog House delivery box, peruse the auction house, hit up a special NPC to cast Signet on you, start or join a party, and walk halfway to wherever you're trying to go. If you can only play Final Fantasy XI for an hour at a time, you're better off not playing at all.

It's not even a game you can only play every few days, either. You need to play it frequently. Gotta keep up with the people from your friends list and linkshell. If you stop playing for a few days and log back on, everyone you know is suddenly five levels higher than you, halfway across Vana'diel, and unable to fit you into their itinerary for at least another couple hours. Might as well just solo until then -- solo and get killed by a Battering Ram, drop down a level, and fail to get anyone to come out and cast Raise on you because they're all halfway across Vana'diel and it's your own damn fault for not keeping up.

Maybe it's my age. I would have brilliant fun with Final Fantasy XI if I were still under twenty and had more leisure time than I knew what to do with and no real worldly concerns. It's a video game that never ends. There's always a higher level to reach, another Job to max out, another rare piece of equipment to acquire, a notorious monster to conquer, new linkshells to join, crafts to master, gear to be bought and sold at the auction house, more pieces of Mog House furniture to acquire and arrange, new expansions to buy, and new limited-time seasonal quests and goodies. But since the game doesn't really end, and since there's such tremendous amounts of things to do and collect, nothing ever cues you to stop playing. So you keep at it. And since it's become a deeply-grooved habit, it doesn't matter that you stopped having fun weeks or months ago: you're still putting in four hours a night, when -- let's face it -- there are more constructive and fulfilling things you could probably be doing instead.

The Final Fantasy XI experience is the perpetual chasing of a carrot. The player sees a carrot dangled in front of his nose. When he moves towards it, it is pulled away. As he kills monsters, harvests items, raises his reputation rank, unlocks new Jobs, and increases his skill levels, the carrot drifts closer within his reach. When he gains a level or completes a mission, he is allowed a nibble at the carrot's tip. Just a tiny taste -- not even a big enough morsel for the player to know when he's swallowed it. But immediately, the carrot is yanked out of reach by an invisible string and getting farther and farther away. The only way to catch back up to it is to to gain more experience points, buy better equipment, get more Mog House furniture, and make your stat numbers bigger. So get to it. Gotta get that carrot. Gotta unlock the better Jobs. Gotta buy the new scrolls. Gotta get the Artifact Armor. Gotta gain more levels. Gonna get that carrot next time. Gotta raise the skill caps. Gotta make yourself attractive for parties. Gotta taste the carrot again. Gotta get the numbers up. Gotta get those numbers HIGHER...!

Somebody please tell me Final Fantasy XI is a fluke and that not all MMORPGs are like this.


Conclusion

I can't figure it out. I'm pulling at my hair trying to think of a real redeeming quality possessed by Final Fantasy XI. Is the game an entertaining diversion? No, not really -- it's too great a time devourer. It's a "diversion" in the same way a second job or an emotionally needy long-distance girlfriend might be referred to as such. Are the battle and character customization systems what carry the game? Not really -- combat is slower than molasses, and the Job/Subjob setup is a drag, especially in light of how many hoops the game expects you to jump though in order to unlock new jobs and level them up until they become viable. Does it give the player any new ideas to think about? No -- unless we're talking about how it might inadvertantly trigger OH MY GOD IS THIS ALL THERE IS TO LIFE existential crises in frequent players. Is the community of players what makes the game worthwhile? No -- not unless you're stimulated by people who communicate almost entirely in MMO abbreviations and are uninterested in discussing subjects that can't be articulated through MMO abbreviations. Does sitting alone and entering a level-grinding trance night after night for a period of months or years enrich your life in any way? No. It does not.

Final Fantasy XI is a useless game. If our lawmakers wanted to be consistent, they'd outlaw video games like this on the same professed grounds as marijuana prohibition. Chronic use of Final Fantasy XI will make you dull, reclusive, unmotivated, unthoughtful, and detached from reality -- and unlike cannabis, it isn't even fun. And that, for a video game, is the greatest crime of all.



"So I stopped playing XI," I told Jef when we got together one night for Red Stripe and Final Fantasy VI (two controllers, low levels, no Magicite) a few days after I deleted Pitchfork the RDM/WAR.

"So it beat you?" he said.

"Uh, I really wouldn't say that. I mean, it's --"

"It beat you. Admit it."

Yes. Fine. I'll admit it. Final Fantasy XI beat me. I got killed too many times and gave up. I am a quitter and all of you are more hardcore than me. But this was a I fight I'm probably better off not winning. I've got better things to do.


Next: Oh look, it's another goddamned Final Fantasy game


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