I love villains.
I’m not talking about mustache-twisting, greasy bad guys bent on stealing all the money or destroying the world for some barely understood reason. I’m talking about villains. The villain is often more important to me than the protagonist. More on that in a second.
I’ve recently gotten back into Final Fantasy XIV. It’s an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game), which is a fancy way of saying it’s a persistent online world in which you coexist with other players. These games have always been my kryptonite, all the way back to the original Everquest. I’ve played World of Warcraft, Lineage II, Everquest, City of Heroes, and many more. I just love the genre.
Final Fantasy XIV holds a special place in my heart. Partly because of my affinity for Final Fantasy games in general, but also because, unlike many of the other MMOs, it’s extremely well written.
To be 100% honest, I skipped a lot of the main story when playing through this time around. I wanted to get to the end game content and I knew Shadowbringers, the new expansion, was coming out. It dropped a few weeks ago and I was ready. I hopped in and, after more hours than I care to admit (sorry Tiffany), I arrived at the end of the primary storyline. I’d heard it was good, but I was somewhat underwhelmed… until the last leg of the journey.
*** The rest of this post will container HEAVY SPOILERS. If you plan on playing this game and this content, please do not continue reading! ***
If I misunderstood/misrepresent something in the story, please forgive me. There was a LOT!
Imagine you’re an ancient being, all but immortal. Your entire race, capable of creation through mere thought, was all but destroyed through that same creation going awry. You and your peers devise a way to save yourselves – but it requires sacrificing half of your population. Your people gladly make this sacrifice. Zodiark, your god, is born from this sacrifice and provides a means of recreating your world at the cost of aether (something innate within a person) while also providing a means through which their ability to create would be controlled. In order to ‘reset’ creation, another half of your people would need to be sacrificed. Again, the choice is made. Finally, in order to complete the cycle and bring back all of those that willingly gave their lives for this endeavor, all the remaining life on the planet needed to be sacrificed.
Some don’t agree with the wanton sacrifice of lives, and break off and create the antithesis of this god that you’ve created. Hydaelyn is brought into existence and her power is to protect. She sunders the world, separating the power thirteen ways, creating shadow versions of your world. Where there was once a single planet, there is now thirteen and the Source. In order to complete what you started, you need the power of all thirteen to be returned to the Source. You are now stuck, your people a bare fraction of what they were. All of those sacrifices are now in vain. Those you loved and those that gave themselves up knowing there was a way to return are now dead and gone – unless you can find a way to rejoin the worlds. Even though it means eliminating the lives of those on each of the thirteen planets through a Rejoining, what does it matter? Their lives are transient and fleeting, and your people, once restored, can shape the universe itself.
That is your task, and you set about it for millennia. Your burden is that of your people. You and a handful of others are responsible for finding a way to return your people. You remember. You know the way and you work at it tirelessly. The other worlds grow and flourish, their people being born and dying of old age. All while you watch, remembering, missing those you loved.
That is Emet-Selch, ancient Ascian and villain in the most recent expansion in Final Fantasy XIV.
I’m sure you can see by the way I wrote that this character struck a chord with me. He was the villain, but only because he stood on the other side of the battle line. The writers even acknowledge this point as the story reaches its climax.
One line from Emet-Selch, in particular, stuck out to me, and no it’s not his final line (though that was a gut punch as well).
“I’ve lived a thousand, thousand of your lifetimes!” he shouted at my character. It struck me not as a boast, but a pain-filled admission. It was laden with emotion and carried a weight that I wasn’t expecting. He had lived a thousand, thousand of my lifetimes. He wasn’t evil, he wasn’t even wrong in what he was trying to do. He was heavy with the weight of his people, and here I was fighting him on trying to bring them back. He was tired, as was evidenced by his perpetual slouch and meandering walk – both of which were a fantastic touch.
Never have I reached the culmination of a story in a game and thought to myself, ‘please don’t make me fight him, please let there be another way…’ Yet, fight him I did. In a very Final Fantasy-esque transformation, he became a nightmare and I was forced to defeat him. It was a hollow victory. It reminded me that there are always two sides to a story. Villains and heroes – the line between them is blurry and thin. My character was touted as a hero… yet the Ascian people would revere Emet-Selch as one as well and me as the villain. I sought to preserve life, while he fought to return life to those he loved – regardless of the cost.
That is fantastic writing. A villain spouting hatred at you as he falls to your blade has no emotional impact beyond relief when he’s gone. A ‘villain’ whispering ‘Remember us,’ as he fades from existence? That leaves a mark.