Monday, April 6, 2015

On Dying Well, Man Pain, and Bad Endings: What Final Fantasy XIV Gets Right

Warning:  What follows will include massive amounts of spoilers for Final Fantasy XIV patch 2.55 (and 2.4).  If you have not finished the main story quests in patch 2.55 along with the lengthy closing cut scenes, please proceed with caution.  This post will discuss the major events of this patch in detail and will spoil pretty much everything, so perhaps it's better to wait until you've finished the story before reading this.

I have never made a secret of the fact that I loathe the so-called "grimdark" genre of fiction, and I've come to feel that we're inundated by this desire from creators and writers to be "dark" and "edgy" in nearly every form of media.  Any television show I watch now I go in preparing myself for a favorite character's death, or for some horrific tragedy to befall them.  I cringe at every tragic backstory that's used to give insight into a character's motivation, or to explain why they're an asshole and why it's OK for them to be an asshole.  In video games, I tend to avoid playing ones that I know have endings where nobody really wins, or I have to prepare myself for it and make sure I'm in a good head space beforehand.  Hell, the first time I played through Dragon Age: Origins and lost Alistair at the end, it took me three years before I played through the game again and made the choices that would allow my Hero of Ferelden to keep him, even though I felt those choices were horrible and out of character for the Hero I created.

It's not that I'm young and naive and always want things wrapped up in a neat bow.  I want to see the good guys win the day and see evil vanquished from the realm more often because in real life, it just doesn't happen that way.  Also, it's that too many stories will inflict death on characters for the sole purpose of playing with their audiences' emotions and little else.  My life hasn't been one I'd call easy, and let's just say there's a reason I haven't been able to blog in the last year or so.  Why would I willingly want to play games or watch movies that remind me the world can be a pretty crappy place and that even the supposed good guys are assholes?  These are the things I watch/play when I'm not otherwise engaged in my real life.  I should get to see a world where things work out for the better at least some of the time if only because, well, it's what I want to see.

On the issue of character death in particular, it's not that I don't think characters shouldn't be killed.  If a character must die, I want there to be a reason for their death apart from giving a (usually male) lead fodder and motivation for revenge.  I want to mourn that character without being angry because I can find twenty ways to achieve the same end result without their death (looking at you, Person of Interest).  Again, in real life death and/or horrible accidents befall people for seemingly no reason leaving nothing but questions in their wake.  But in fiction we're not constrained by reality.  We can explain death or give a good reason for it, and, again, sometimes it feels like creators will kill a character just because it's supposed to be sad and tragic, and all too often the characters targeted are women.

Way back when, I wrote a post about Blizzard and women.  In it I talked about how women in Azeroth seem to have a higher than average chance of dying, and often their deaths are used to motivate or only to inflict pain on male characters in the guise of character development.  This isn't something unique to World of Warcraft or Blizzard, of course, and in fact it's been a problem that's plagued comic books, television shows, movies, and video games for years.  It's always disappointing to see a favorite female character disposed of in favor of giving a male character more story, and in some cases downright infuriating.

Like I often do when grappling with feminist and social justice matters, I've questioned myself a great deal after that post.  What sort of character death would I feel was, for lack of a better word, justified?  I didn't really have an answer for that, and that led to a bit of doubt.  Maybe I'd always just be angry to see any woman die regardless of rhyme or reason.  Maybe I really am childish and naive and just plain hate that characters in stories die.  Then I played through the main story quest in patch 2.4 of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and watched a short-lived character by the name of Moenbryda die before my eyes.

Who wouldn't want to marry her?
And her death didn't make me angry.

Oh, yes, I mourned her because for the short time she was part of the story, she made such an impression that I made a comment on Twitter about her being my "future video game wife."  I wanted to see her hang around, but ultimately I was OK with her death.  I've been marinating in my reaction for quite some time wondering why her death didn't send me into a great feminist rant like Leza Farwalker's (formerly Dawnchaser) death in World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria did.  Was I being a hypocrite?  Was this sour grapes because FFXIV has overall better representation for women?  Or was it that I wasn't shocked because it's Final Fantasy and at least one character's death is pretty notorious even to people who've never played the series?

Perhaps it sounds silly to some of you, but I did do a lot of soul searching over this.  For me, and many other feminists I know, challenging ourselves like this is part of how we grow and continue to change.  My stance on Blizzard and women never wavered, but I continued to be baffled by why FFXIV wasn't making me angry.  At first, I chalked it up to Moenbryda being a minor character and somewhat of a plot device, but after patch 2.55 and another beloved character's death, I think I have some answers.

In my post on Blizzard and women, I focused a bit on how characters die.  I said that women in Azeroth were passive in their deaths, that it was something that happened to them rather than them being active participants in it.  For example, childbirth or a stray rock thrown in a riot.  For male characters, there was often an element of self-sacrifice involved (Rhonin's sacrifice at the battle of Theramore).  The death of women served as fodder for male characters to drive them to depression and/or murderous rampages.  The death of men was something great and noble, and when women tried to seek vengeance, they were denied and/or villified for it.  In at least one case, the woman in question was given patronizing speeches by men to make her see the light.

This, I've come to realize, is where FFXIV got it right with Moenbryda, and then again in 2.55 with a major character death.  To understand what I mean, first I need to explain who Moenbryda was and how she died.


Moenbryda is a Seawolf Roegadyn who was an apprentice of the late Louisoux Levellieur.  She's introduced to us in patch 2.4 as someone who has been researching auracite, a type of crystal that the Scions believe can be altered to bring true death to the immortal (and evil) Ascians.  Rather than being some random scholar the Scions have never heard about, Moenbryda has a history with both Urianger and Yda.  When we first encounter her, she openly flirts with Urianger and makes the normally composed and stiff Scion rather ruffled and obviously embarrassed.  (Whether she flirts with Urianger precisely because of his reaction, or if she and Urianger have a romantic past is left open for debate.  I like to think they did, or that Moenbryda was hoping to start one.)  Yda also talks favorably of Moenbryda and obviously cares for her as a friend.

Though we've never heard of Moenbryda before, her presence doesn't feel out of place and her history seems natural.  Within these few quests we're able to see Moenbryda as a caring friend with a sense of humor, an intelligent scholar, and a fierce warrior who will defend her friends with her very life.  She's given depth and dimension some NPCs never see for entire expansions, which speaks volumes as to the writing and I feel compelled to give a kudos there.

Moenbryda understands.
At the climax of the arc, the Ascian Nabriales turns up at the Scions' base to steal Louisoux's staff.  When he threatens the Scions' leader, Minfilia, Moendbryda steps in with her axe, but is promptly impaled and thrown back by Nabriales's magic.  He then takes Minfilia through a portal and we're urged by a mortally wounded Moenbryda to go get her.  (At this point I feel compelled to mention that I will likely be discussing this part of the quest in a separate post focusing partially on Minfilia herself.)  When we return after saving Minfilia, another small skirmish ensues in which we're told to use the auracite to vanquish him.  Of course, it's not enough to defeat him, so Moenbryda, after a speech about finally understanding her mentor Louisoux's sacrifice, gives her life so that we, the hero, can kill Nabriales once and for all and save both the Scions and Eorzea.
Moenbryda accepts death.

Unlike in World of Warcraft, where heroes too often tend to die off-screen or in books, we watch Moenbryda step into the light and give up her lifeforce to power the auracite.  We see her smile as she says goodbye and see her find peace in her decision and knowledge that she is dying for the greater good, just like Louisoux.  It was a powerful scene, one that was made to tug at the heartstrings.

In the aftermath of her death, the Scions grieve, particularly Urianger and Yda.  In keeping with his character, Urianger is private in his thoughts, only explaining that Louisoux kept Moenbryda at arm's length after learning what he'd have to do in order to save Eorzea and he didn't want her influenced by his decision.  He's happy that she came to understand Louisoux loved her and only pushed her away to spare her pain.  Urianger does ask Minfillia for time away to grieve, and states he's going to search for the missing Students of Baldesion, an endeavor of which Moenbryda would approve.  There's no big dramatic scene where Urianger swears vengeance on the remaining Ascians, and he doens't fall into a deep depression and wallow in his grief.  He continues working, and he does that for Moenbryda.

Apart from that, we're not given much insight into Urianger's grieving process, which isn't to say Moenbryda is forgotten, far from it.  We attend a memorial service for Moenbryda, and time and time again Minfillia and others remark that it's unfair we have no time to properly mourn because there are many other dangers and enemies still left to confront.  This theme continues into patch 2.55 where we have a chat with Yda and bring flowers to Moenbryda's memorial site.  Yda's grief feels very real and natural.  She's continuing on, though it's obvious she's feeling lost and sad, and she talks about how her friend would be angry to see her in such a state, a familar sentiment for anyone who has ever lost a loved one.

And this is why I'm not angry.  Moenbryda's death was a good death, if there can ever be such a thing.  She sacrificed herself in a way normally reserved for male characters to die, and instead of having her die to push other characters to vengeance, she's remembered for her sacrifice and her friendship.  What's more is that her death isn't forgotten, we watch the remaining characters grieve for her and know that her death is allowing them to learn more about auracite and how to fight the Ascians.

But what about when character's don't sacrifice themselves?  What of characters whose death do drive a male protagonist to seek vengeance?

Nanamo and Raubahn

Nanamo and Raubahn
Sultana Nanamo Ul Namo is the leader of the city-state of Ul'dah.  Though she's ruler by bloodline, in truth she's more of a figurehead who must battle for power against the Syndicate, a council whose members are comprised of the richest merchants in Ul'dah.  To simplify things a bit, Nanamo is essentially a socialist while the Monetarist faction of the Syndicate are capitalists who are always looking for profit over the social welfare of those less fortunate.  Early in ARR, after a memorial service for those lost in the Calamity, her military commander Raubahn Aldynn explains that Nanamo understands her people's suffering and has been trying her best to ease that suffering, but every attempt to aid the poor and the refugees of the Calamity are thwarted by the Syndicate time and time again.

Throughout the main story quests we're given glimpses into the politcs of Ul'dah and see Nanamo struggle to make the best decisions for her people.  We also see how devoted and loyal Raubahn is to her.  Raubahn, a former gladiator who purchased a spot on the Syndicate and reinstated the Immortal Flames company to serve as the Sultana's army, believes in Nanamo's vision for Ul'dah.  His military genius and her compassion make the two of them together a good force for Ul'dah.  He's also one of her closest confidants and a true friend to her.

Alphinaud explains Ul'dah's sigil.
Due to her continued struggle with the Syndicate and the discovery of treacherous plots happening right under her nose, Nanamo comes to the conclusion that the best chance for Ul'dah's is for her to abdicate the throne.  In 2.55 she calls for a private audience with the Warrior of Light (the player) and reveals her plan.  She speaks of making Ul'dah a "true republic" that is "ruled by the people" and not only those with enough money to buy power.  In return, she requests that we help Raubahn in the trying times to come so that he can establish this new Ul'dah.  Following this revelation, we're left to watch helpless as Nanamo drinks a glass of poisoned wine and dies before our eyes in a fairly disturbing cut scene.

While we're being framed for her murder, the Monetarist leader responsible for her assassination publicly taunts Raubahn, an action that turns out to be very hazardous to his health.  Raubahn kills him and then later engages in a battle with his former friend who claims responsibilty for Nanamo's murder, losing his left arm in the fight.  Raubahn continues to fight so that we can escape with the Scions.  At the end of 2.55, we see him imprisoned behind bars with a bandange on what's left of his arm while his face is contorted in what can only be described as an expression of sheer rage.

Yes, Nanamo's assassination provided Raubahn with pain and will serve as his motivation for vengeance against those responsible.  Of course, he'd already promised to take the Monetarists down prior to Nanamo's death, it's just now the gloves are off and feels he has nothing to lose but his life.  But just as Urianger's reaction to Moenbryda's death was in keeping with his character, Raubahn's violent reaction is in character for him as well.  He was a refugee whose people were displaced by the Garlean Empire, and he became a gladiator to survive.  Violence is how he lived, a violence that was tempered by his love and belief in Nanamo.  Also, it wasn't only that Nanamo was killed, it was that Ul'dah is now completely within the Monetarists' control.  He has very few options open to him except flight or fight, and well, he's a fighter.

Yet, Nanamo's death isn't just about Raubahn.  Nanamo wasn't killed to get to Raubahn or to just to piss him off, she was killed to stop her from doing something that would have completely foiled the villains' plans.  While her power as a ruler was all but crippled, her ability to give up her throne granted her more power than the Syndicate and Monetarists could combat.  What's more, she was opening the door for all those impoverished citizens and refugees to become equals to those with wealth and influence.  By himself, Raubahn wasn't a big enough threat to the villains for them to take him out directly, and the fact that he is allowed to live albeit behind bars, shows Nanamo was the more powerful and important of the two.  His rage and anger are a by-product.  (Granted, you know the bad guys are going to regret letting Raubahn live because that's just how these things tend to work out in the end.)

Bad Endings

As you can probably guess, patch 2.55 brought about a lot of changes.  After watching the hour's worth of cut scenes, I was left in a puddle of emotions in my chair.  The end to ARR is not one that can be called a good ending in the sense that the good guys come out on top.  In fact, it's quite the opposite.

Borrowing a page from the Kobayashi Maru, SquareEnix gave their player base a "no win" scenario.  Framed for the murder of Nanamo and with the Crystal Braves no longer under Alphinaud's command, we're unable to prove our innocence to a corrupt system controlled by our enemies.  To stand and fight means a certain defeat and will assure the villains' victory.  We flee Ul'dah with the Scions who sacrifice themselves one by one to ensure our escape until we're all that's left.  With little more than the clothes on our back, few allies, and fewer safehavens to go to, we arrive in the cold of Coerthas with the realization that everything we fought for throughout A Realm Reborn has been for naught.  The final chapter before Heavensward ends with Tataru reminding Alphinaud and us that hope yet remains and it is that hope we must hold onto if we're to survive the coming journey North into Ishgard.

In most other games, this sort of ending would make me incredibly angry.  As I said at the start of this, I like to see evil doers vanquished and the heroes win.  Yet, oddly, despite my heartache over the loss of Nanamo and others (who may or may not also be dead), I came away feeling sated.  Sure, the knowledge the story will continue in the next expansion helps, but it's not just that.  The ending felt authentic and, in a way, congruent to how ARR started.  There was no Calamity, but we have been torn down in a different way this time and must rebuild from scratch, this time without the assistance and knowledge of our enigmatic friends the Scions.

With constant civil unrest in Ul'dah, primals summoned left and right throughout Eorzea, the imminent threat of a Garlean invasion, and Dravanians reigniting a centuries' old war with Ishgard, there was no way for ARR to wrap the various story lines up in a neat little bow.  Plus, going into Ishgard essentially alone is a frightening prospect.  We are the Warrior of Light, but our image is tarnished.  While many know we're innocent, others may not be so easily convinced.  Add to that we are but one person facing the possibility of war with not one, but two armies.  It makes me eager to see how we're going to resolve this, and how the friends we've made in ARR will change and what will become of them in Heavensward.  I think, in the end, it would have been highly unsatisfying if everything had somehow been wrapped up neatly for Heavensward.

None of this is to say that FFXIV is a perfect feminist MMO utopia, far (very far) from it.  There are issues within the game, ones I hope to discuss in other posts to come.  However, I felt it important to document what FFXIV did different, and in my opinion, better than other games have when it came to handling death.  It's not often that I truly get to laud a game like this, especially when it involves events and tropes I usually hate.  It was also a good opportunity for me to blow the dust off this blog and return after nearly a year of silence.

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