Trying to understand how games work

Monthly Archives: April 2021

It feels weird to start playing Final Fantasy XI in 2021. There’s a 20-year history to this game that’s immediately apparent from the title screen. A version number of “30210327_1” is in the corner. Pictures representing the game’s expansions are also listed here to show off the sheer amount of stuff that’s been added in since it first came out. It’s not even over as Square Enix are still adding more. I got a distinct feeling that they will never truly be finished with this.

When I started playing it was overwhelming. There were a lot of things I didn’t fully understand, so I had to do research. It’s not as easy to just pick up and play this one, which is what I’ve managed for several other Final Fantasy games. This one is more of a commitment (a commitment I abandoned after a few weeks but I’ll get to that). Even just getting this game ready to play required more effort than usual, as I had to set up an account and also change some settings to make sure the game actually ran on my PC.

It’s not surprising why many longtime Final Fantasy fans I’ve spoken to choose to write off this game entirely. The immense scope of it gives completionists plenty of anxiety, and it still continuing to require a subscription fee is off-putting. I’ve gone through this as part of a larger project to play through Final Fantasy from the start and it’s always seemed like the one that would be too much work.

So what was it actually like for me to play this? Surprisingly lonely. One thing added into the game at some point was something called “Trusts”, which are simply AI-controlled party members which you can summon to assist in battle. This gives an impression that the game can be played alone, as trusts of many different classes can be summoned to accommodate what the playable character can’t do. They were somewhat limited in how they could help, so they weren’t a full replacement for real players. Even with that caveat they helped me make a fair amount of progress.

The game’s cutscenes also emphasize a solo nature to the game. They position every player as a lone hero, which is normal for most RPGs, but strange in a game purpose built for grouping people together. I do understand that writing a videogame where you’re told that millions of people are also doing the same things to save the world is potentially difficult, but sticking to conventions here doesn’t feel quite right.

Because the main character is also a player-created silent protagonist, it brings a much different style of storytelling compared to what I was used to with the series. The protagonist of Final Fantasy XI is effectively an extension of the player. A blank slate for anyone to project their own feelings on or roleplay with. With main characters from prior games, such as Cloud, Squall, and Tidus, I was able to see how they grew over time because I spent most of the game with them. Although some of those characters started off emotionally isolated, they weren’t always lonely because the characters that followed them gave support, both emotionally and in combat. Those games were big open doors into pivotal points in their lives. To contrast, my created character would almost never speak, and the party of trusts that accompanied me didn’t say much either.

Defined characters that develop over time exist here as the NPCs but those are still limited by comparison. I only had small amounts of time with them before having to spend many hours on an adventure before I could see them again. It felt as though I was only peering in small windows into their lives. The moments I had to find out more about people were often when they were giving me missions. Short functional scenes with a bit of character flavour.

I also didn’t find many other players when I was adventuring. There were crowds of them in towns and cities, but forests, fields, and dungeons had significantly lower amounts of players hanging around.

On the day I began playing I found another player in a starting dungeon. They were killing all of the enemies before I even had a chance to, meaning that I had to wait like I was in a queue for a theme park ride. They did apologise for this, but I didn’t know the right buttons for sending messages at that moment so I just left an awkward silence. It gave a bad first impression of the game, but it turned out this would not be a common occurrence for me. 

I also encountered another player who seemed very proud that they were controlling two characters at once. It was very bold of them to tell me through the in-game chat function. They were having the second character follow them, but I wonder if they ever tried having them in two different places at the same time. 

While it might have been more convenient for me to not come across many players, as my initial anecdote suggested, these moments highlighted how much time I was spending entirely alone.

It’s an odd feeling as many of the systems seem intended to encourage cooperation. There isn’t much in the way of tutorials and the game doesn’t always pinpoint on a map where you need to go (and the version I bought on Steam doesn’t seem to come with a manual either). I would assume that this would have encouraged players to work together in order to figure some things out back in the day. 

These days it’s become more common to share information through indirect methods such as fan wikis and Reddit. These are also a small window into the communities that still exist, and the history of the game too. Sometimes I would read a comment thread complaining about something that led to people joining forces. There were also plenty of “back in my day” posts which often brought up how comparably convenient the game has become.

I looked through a fair amount of these so that I could know what I was doing and where I needed to go. This would lead to me having the game display in a smaller on-screen window so that I could have pages up on the screen while I was playing. It could have created more distance from the game but I actually felt a little more connected to it, as it meshed well with the in-game systems.

This is more of an involved game than any of the other Final Fantasies I’ve played so far. Having to do research in order to understand the game feels like preparing for an adventure. The game itself features a few systems to make it feel that way too. Maps have to be bought from vendors, many areas have to be reached on foot (or by mount), enemies can be sized up to see if they’re safe to fight, and quest items have to be handed in using the same systems used to trade with players. What’s interesting is that they are all simply options in a menu. It evokes enough to spark my imagination without the need to recreate a physical gesture within the game to seem “immersive”.

There became a point where I started to feel comfortable with Final Fantasy XI. I was gaining levels at a fast rate. Travelling around the world was much easier to do once I was able to connect more fast-travel points. With the help of the trusts I was able to get through many encounters quite easily. Until they failed me.

I was almost finished with the base game. All that was left to do was a fight with the big bad, the Shadow Lord. A boss fight that ended up becoming a brick wall. After a certain amount of time in the encounter, he becomes immune to physical attacks. My trusts had foolishly used up all of their magic points before that moment, so they just kept trying to hit him with attacks that did no damage at all. The Shadow Lord then proceeded to slowly defeat each party member one by one until the fight was over. I tried the fight multiple times with all sorts of different trusts and it just didn’t work out. There were things I could have done to become stronger, but it was so much of a grind that I decided to give up on the game.

If anything I don’t necessarily feel that this is a fault with the game. I made assumptions that I could power through a game built for multiplayer on my own. I could have taken the opportunity to engage with the community of Final Fantasy XI but it seemed unfair for me to do so, as I was only planning on being a tourist on a short stay in Vana’diel.

It really feels as though I can’t give a fair assessment on this game as a whole because I wasn’t able to break past that wall. Things I disliked could have gotten better, things I liked could have gotten worse. So much could have been different or even the same after it, but at this point I won’t know.

Maybe if I had roped some other people in before starting, I might have been able to see more of it. For now I’m going to move on to something else.


Last year I decided to commit to playing as much of Final Fantasy as I could. It’s been a very fun journey so far but I thought it would be useful to look back at Dragon Quest, a game Final Fantasy owes a lot to. Final Fantasy wouldn’t exist without this game (though Japanese RPGs might still exist since efforts like The Black Onyx, Dragon Slayer and Hydlide predate it).

I was surprised to find that the original Dragon Quest is a fairly relaxing game. That’s partly true with some of the other games in the series I have played, but those other ones also had tense moments. Fighting Psaro the Manslayer in Dragon Quest IV was not calming in any sense. If you want something to wind down with at the end of the day, the first Dragon Quest works well.

The simplicity of the game allows for that. While it is about saving the world from some evil wizard, there’s never any tension. Because it’s a turn-based RPG the pace of the game is extremely player-dictated. While there’s artifacts to be found and a princess to be saved, there’s no pressing need to do all of that immediately. Dragon Quest’s world is a place without difficulty and deadlines.

As this game was made for older hardware, there was a need to condense the experience in a way that was easy for the system to display but still understandable for a player. This is why battles play out simply with a picture of the enemy, some stats numbers on the left and a menu at the bottom. The removal of all of this context means I can’t help but not think of it as a tense battle, but instead a contest to see who can get a number down faster. A contest heavily weighted in my favour, and increasingly so as the main character’s level goes up. Losing isn’t much of a setback either. It reduces the in-game money earned to half, but that can easily be regained.

Many older RPGs are similar, Phantasy Star is one example. But Dragon Quest is a little different. It centres on one specific location: a castle. It’s where the game begins. It’s the home of the main character. It’s where you go to save the game. It’s where you go when you lose a battle. It’s where the game ends.

Having a specific home that needs to be returned to combined with the game’s simplicity makes it play like a game a child would think up. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. If anything I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic. I suppose this may be one of the reasons that Dragon Quest has lasting appeal.

It’s less like a hero embarking on a dangerous adventure and more like a child going out to play. The hero can only venture out so far, but as he grows he can go a little further. If the hero gets defeated in battle, the king tells him off like a concerned parent. When it’s time to finish playing, the hero must go home.

If you do decide to give Dragon Quest a go, just know that the more easily available ports on mobile phones and the Switch look terrible. A lot of the art in the game feels very mismatched. The environments, characters, and monsters all feel like they are drawn for separate games. It’s strange for a foundational game in a series that continues to sell large numbers gets something that looks this bad.

However you go about playing it, I think it’s worth going back onto Dragon Quest especially if you’ve been playing a lot of RPGs like myself. I’m surprised how long it’s taken me to get to it myself. 

I can easily see how this works as a foundation for many games after it, but it’s also interesting in its own way. It’s a shame that a lot of discussion of this game in particular seems to stop at how “old-fashioned” it is. This game didn’t always exist as being a predecessor to something else.

You could probably finish the whole thing on a lazy afternoon anyway, so it’s worth a shot to find out what you make of it for yourself.



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