| Arts & Culture
Video Games ‘Final Fantasy XIV’ Taught Me About Care and Connection During the Pandemic
My online relationships remain heartfelt and cherished ones, even as I’ve reconnected myself with whatever it is we call “real life.”
In the early weeks of the pandemic, a multiplayer online game reminded me how to grieve. As the lockdowns where I live in California grew imminent, I could think of little else other than my family members in Toronto, many of whom work in health care. With my father, a hospital worker, spending time away in isolation, I decided to fly back home and take care of the rest of the household. Over the next four months, I tried to will myself into living some sliver of a normal life. Instead, I scrolled endlessly through social media on my parents’ living room couch.
One April evening, my news app sent me a curious push notification: “ Final Fantasy XIV Community Holds Massive Vigil for Player Who Died of Covid-19.” At first, I hesitated to open the link. By then, my feed had been saturated with the usual images of the pandemic’s dead: statistics and charts, some online memorials, the occasional hashtag. I had numbed myself to it, out of fear that a name I recognized might be next. But in the end, as a millennial who grew up with video games, I couldn’t resist.
I’m a fan of Final Fantasy , the game developer Square Enix’s cornerstone franchise, and I’ve played through some of its most storied titles over the years. In Tactics and Final Fantasy XII , I plumbed the depths of the Rabanastre city sewers and soared into the bright skies of the world of Ivalice. As I journeyed with Cloud Strife and his allies in the legendary Final Fantasy VII , I was enraptured by revolutionary organizing against an extractive corporation. In the hastily assembled Final Fantasy XV , I joined four best friends on a life-changing road trip that ended in tragedy and everlasting brotherly love. And in my favorite game of all time, Final Fantasy X , I followed a love story across time as a theocracy crumbled in an apocalyptic pursuit of truth.
While I knew that Final Fantasy XIV was a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG), I made a point to avoid it altogether. It’s not that I refused to play anything other than solo games; MMOs like RuneScape , and Blizzard Entertainment games like StarCraft , Diablo , and—briefly— World of Warcraft were formative experiences for me. But the notorious toxicity of those online communities soon became too overwhelming. If you were new—a noob , in gamer speak—players of snobbish dispositions would refuse to help you through a game’s most formative and difficult periods. And if you were a woman, or queer, or trans, or Black, or any intersection of these and more, violent language in online gaming wasn’t that much different from what we might hear in real life.
But this piece of gaming news—about the virtual vigil in Final Fantasy XIV —hit differently. I watched thousands of players’ avatars, dressed (“glamoured,” in FFXIV speak) in funeral black, silently process from the merchant desert city of Ul’dah into the thick forests of the Black Shroud to honor the life of a deceased player named Ferne Le’roy. As the article reported, Ferne was a player who most attendees did not know in real life. The funeral organizer was even further removed; they did not even know the green-haired Viera (a bunny-eared race in the world of Final Fantasy ) and organized the event as a show of kindness for the late player’s online friends.
Moved by this boundless love for strangers, I began to cry. It was August 2020. In my own life, I feared for the safety of my father, my aunts, and my cousins—frontline health care workers all—as I watched the Covid death counts in Ontario exponentially rise. At a time when I dreaded the worst-possible news from and about my loved ones, the thousands of avatars in FFXIV who commemorated a fellow player resonated with me. In that funeral, I saw care work in action, the same ethics prized by fellow scholars in my academic field, Filipino studies, which thinks plentifully about what it means to care for each other.
Within the virtual confines of the continent of Eorzea, I saw people who may have never met IRL—in real life—but who share a capacious love anyway. They upheld the values of this special MMORPG in particular: to band together and help those in need. And most importantly, I witnessed in those players a stubborn insistence to mourn collectively at a time of deepest isolation.
So, when I returned home to Los Angeles, four months into the pandemic’s beginning, I immediately threw myself into an adventure in Eorzea.
In Final Fantasy XIV , you spend the majority of the story as (spoilers ahead) the Warrior of Light: a voiceless cipher of your own creation. Thus, without giving it much thought, I designed myself as a tall Elezen—the game’s elfish race—with a silver pompadour, suitably ample melanin, and an ostentatious anime reference as my name.
A Realm Reborn , the “first” installment, takes place in the wake of what locals call the Seventh Umbral Calamity, a catastrophe that caused mass memory loss, destabilized the regional politics of Eorzea, and set off a chain of events that threw the fundamental physics of all living matter into disarray. Eventually, you are recruited into a group of young scholars (or, perhaps more accurately, scholar-activist-warriors) called the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, who work in the shadows to solve transnational problems. In games like World of Warcraft , you as the player only watch the game’s politics and narrative from the sidelines; in contrast, your Warrior of Light is a chosen one with exceptional martial prowess and a blessing from an all-powerful deity. You quickly rise from humble adventurer to messianic figure, standing at the heart of the world’s politics and mythology itself.
There was a moment during A Realm Reborn when I, as Adrian and as the Warrior of Light, was reminded that this is, after all, a Final Fantasy game. After defeating Titan, a godlike deity known as a Primal, I returned to the Scions’ headquarters and found that I had arrived too late: many of my colleagues were murdered by a legion of the game’s major antagonists, the Garlean Empire, bent on conquering Eorzea. At the headquarters, I had to pick up each body, one by one, and bring them to their final resting place.
With morbid bitterness, I realized the privilege that my Warrior of Light had that I did not: He could bury his comrades in person, with the company of those closest to him. Throughout the first year of the pandemic, I lost neighbors and friends to Covid, and the best we could do was hold virtual services on Zoom.
This foreboding sense of responsibility—and falling short of it—ties together all the installments of FFXIV . By the time the Warrior of Light reaches the theocratic nation of Ishgard in the Heavensward expansion, the stalwart Scions are in ruins, and the Warrior is thrust into the center of a thousand-year war between dragons and humankind. In the next two expansions, some of their dearest comrades sacrifice their lives to end wars and topple empires—and their ghosts walk with the Warrior to the very end.
In my experience, I journeyed to other worlds and to the very edge of the universe, mourning the innocent people that I could not save. As the worlds inside and outside the game crumbled, how badly I wanted to be with my friends who faded into nothingness. And for those I could not be with when they passed, could I not have at least said one last goodbye?
With morbid bitterness, I realized the privilege that my Warrior of Light had that I did not: He could bury his comrades in person, with the company of those closest to him.
In April 2022, the Final Fantasy XIV developers bolstered the Trust System, a mechanic that allows you to play through story events and dungeons with a party of non-player characters (NPCs). Previously, your only option was to find a group of other real players who can battle monsters and villains with you (a task made less daunting by a queue-and-roulette system called a Duty Finder). But thanks to the Trust System, you can now make your way through the majority of the game’s storyline on your own.
But I still opt to run content with other people online. It’s an MMO after all. By playing with others, I get to check in with the community about the twists and turns of the story. In a traditional RPG, a monumental boss battle can only be shared with others as an anecdote, a story told after the fact. But online, I love the magical moments when other party members are excited for you to experience the fight for the first time. Even in Endwalker , the game’s latest major expansion—where the Trust System was at its most robust and the story its most immersive—there’s nothing like the feeling of witnessing an epic revelation in the company of like-minded strangers.
Without giving too much away: The first eight-player trial of the expansion is an enemy that, for the majority of the series, you’re made to expect you’ll fight at the very end. As much as I would have been perfectly content to play it with NPCs, experiencing that moment of shock with seven strangers—several of whom were themselves first-timers to the trial—made the experience all the more memorable. I still have my chat log from that battle, and it goes like this:
>> HOLY SHIT IS THIS SERIOUSLY THE FIRST TRIAL
>> WHAT THE FUCK
Zepla, one of the premier Twitch streamers, YouTubers, and ambassadors for FFXIV , theorizes that the story itself is part of what makes the player base a warmer community than those of other MMOs. Because your very own Warrior of Light is at the center of the story, the events and the lore as you experience it feel deeply personal. And with friends, your first-person singular becomes the collective we :
“Remember when we marched into Ala Mhigo for the first time? That was badass.”
“Even more badass was the music during the first time we walked into the Crystarium.”
“And then when we saw him —”
“Yeah, I knew who he was.”
“Come on. They gave us sooooo many hints!”
The depth of the FFXIV story might bring players into conversation, but the game becomes a community because of how much you can do together. In Fellowships (mutual-interest groups) and Free Companies (the game’s equivalent of a guild), players might run quests together or set up statics (teams that meet on a regular basis) to run raids, the game’s highest-level content. I quickly found the community so warm that I launched a veritable campaign to convince one of my IRL friends from Toronto, another writer and RPG fan, to join the game.
We hadn’t seen each other since our social-distanced picnic in the early summer, not knowing when—and if—we’d ever see each other again. After much campaigning, in November 2020, she subscribed to FFXIV . It wasn’t long before we two writer-gamers whipped up some fun lore for ourselves; Sherry, her Au Ra (a dragon-like race), became my Elezen’s in-game adopted little sister. Shortly after, we joined a Fellowship for players of color, whimsically named The Potato Lounge.
The depth of the FFXIV story might bring players into conversation, but the game becomes a community because of how much you can do together.
Each server (known as a “world”) and their overarching data centers have different emphasized interests. When I joined FFXIV , I chose Diabolos (named after a recurring villain in the game) as my home world, within the Crystal data center. Little did I know, Crystal was known for being the place for role-playing enthusiasts. In FFXIV , as in World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs, the role-playing community takes on many forms. For a majority of these players, role-playing resembles a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, adapted for the in-game lore. Other scenes are more notorious—the Balmung server, for example, specializes in erotic role-playing (ERP). Regardless of what scene a role player enters, creative writing abilities and a collaborative ethic are the most prized skills to have.
During the pandemic, when all entertainment establishments had closed down, a dedicated number of players established a vibrant social scene in the game. On Crystal, with a large group of friends, a Miqo’te—a humanoid race with catlike ears and tails—named A’ley Bristanne organized a collective of virtual nightclubs she called the Vibe Tribe. These players turned their in-game houses into beautiful venues, complete with role-played bartenders and dancers and someone on Twitch deejaying the parties via livestream. During the peak of the pre-vaccine pandemic, Vibe Tribe DJs could make a modest profit out of cash tips they received during their streams. In the FFXIV venue, you could role-play, or you could come as your out-of-character self and frequent the venue as you would in real life.
My fellow Potatoes from The Potato Lounge were Black and brown role players. And it wasn’t long until I joined them. With the Potatoes, I learned how to become a more imaginative writer. In tea rooms and Vibe Tribe clubs, we developed our characters’ inner trials and heartfelt romances in the safety of our mutual lore. Our characters forged alliances and romantic relationships, lined up to get into the hottest A’ley-endorsed clubs, and soared the skies in search of treasures of our own making.
In the late fall of 2020, as Los Angeles became the world’s epicenter of the pandemic, I felt myself becoming—willingly—less human and more Elezen. Why ponder the suffering of the world when I could travel so freely across space and time? Why did I need to go on my stupid mental health walk when I could fly my dragon across the waving grasses of the Azim Steppe? Why step outside at all, when an even-better outdoors could be explored with the subtle movements of my fingertips?
But in the waning days of the Trump presidency, as more of my family and friends caught Covid, and as I lost too many people to grieve in one sitting, I was reminded by my online friends that not only do we have lives to live, but that those lives make our adventures all the sweeter. (The non-player characters do the same, in fact; in the intermittent periods between story updates released by the developers, the NPCs assume you’re off on your own adventures, away from them, but are always grateful for your return.)
My player comrades never let me forget that we can write and role-play such rich characters because of the backgrounds we come from. Every struggle our elves and dwarves experience is a reflection of how much we work to survive offline. And every time we celebrate a victory—whether a consummated in-game relationship or a completed high-end raid—we do so with the genuine joy of dear friends underneath the crystalline Eorzean sky.
Late in our journey as the Warrior of Light, our comrade Alphinaud accompanies us into Garlemald, the frigid territory of the frightening Garlean Empire. This teenage white-haired Elezen is a controversial figure in the story. For most of the early game, he is a notoriously overconfident and privileged child. But when one of his heroic ventures fails, he spends several expansions mulling over the consequences of his pride; by Endwalker , Alphinaud earns the trust of all the Scions and the leaders of many nations around the world. Shivering in the darkness, he ponders the state of the strife into which he was born.
“Ours is not a kind world,” he laments. “But it is a beautiful one. Always.”
These days, Final Fantasy XIV is not always so kind. Such unkindness is often blamed on the influx of World of Warcraft players joining the community, who might bring Blizzard’s infamously toxic culture into Eorzea. Furthermore, the reinvigoration of PvP (Player versus Player) gameplay, and the rise of a voracious FFXIV streaming community on Twitch, has brought a different feel to a game that has now become mainstream. While Crystalline Conflict, the current PvP tier, has given competitive gaming a new lease on life, it has also led to widespread cheating. And while Twitch streaming has brought about an influx of new players, it has also given rise to in-game celebrities and some fan bases with their own negative subcultures. For example, when the popular World of Warcraft streamer Asmongold began to dabble in FFXIV , he needed to stop his videos and call out his live chat for their rampant misogyny.
This isn’t to say that FFXIV was perfect before its current popularity. Even before its dominance in the MMO market—at 35.8 million subscriptions (both active and inactive) and an average 3.4 million daily players logging in during the release of Endwalker —the player base has had its share of racists, sexists, and every kind of ’phobe out there. This is a problem that the game and its moderators will need to address even more, now that it’s reached critical mass.
“Ours is not a kind world,” Alphinaud laments. “But it is a beautiful one. Always.”
As the world—our earth—opens up, that pandemic role-playing scene is dwindling, normalizing into niche communities of themes with little crossover into each other. I still play almost every day, but instead of dancing in virtual clubs, I slice raid bosses with my friends and my scythe, collecting the loot the baddies leave behind.
But I will never forget the community during the doldrums of the global pandemic. For months, those virtual clubs and tea parties were my lifeline at a time when I otherwise felt unbearably alone. The game’s town squares, with its chaotic conversations and its occasional buskers and town criers, had become real public spaces to me. My online relationships, however mediated they are by a virtual universe, remain heartfelt and cherished ones, even as I’ve reconnected myself with whatever it is we call “real life.”
And when the world falls into crisis, the community can still pull together and march, just as it did for that fallen player at the beginning of the pandemic. On February 22, 2022, when Russia began its brutal invasion of Ukraine and over seven million people fled the country for safety, we learned that the FFXIV YouTuber Zepla was one of those refugees herself. When she went silent and carefully made her way to Portugal, players raised awareness of the crisis and reached out so that, when she was ready to play again, she could stream the newest content and explore the virtual world we called our home.
And we’d be there to log in and play.