How To Tell Stories of Peace and the Consequences of War – Final Fantasy XIV Patch 5.4

Spoiler alert – this post has spoilers for the content of patch 5.4 in Final Fantasy XIV, and some speculation about where the story goes from here. This post remains focused on the MSQ, so if you’re only trying to evade Eden or Sorrow of Werlyt spoilers, you’re good for this post!

I’ve been working on a draft of this post for well over a month now, because it was somewhat surprisingly difficult to quantify what I liked about the MSQ from the recent patch 5.4 story of Final Fantasy XIV, the first Shadowbringers patch that…isn’t actually about the core Shadowbringers story, but instead is fully focused on how we pull forward into the next expansion.

The thing with the MSQ cycle of FFXIV is that it has a fair amount of predictability, in a way. The x.1 through x.3 patches really hit hard on the themes of the main story of the expansion launch, delivering us closer and closer to a satisfying conclusion. With the end of Emet-Selch and Elidibus on the First, the return of the darkness, and the resolution of the various issues plaguing the First in the main story, x.4 and x.5 are then for what every prior expansion cycle has offered the game – story building to the next expansion in something of a holding pattern.

I wouldn’t call this part of the story cycle dull, but it can be depending on the expansion and the bridging story being told. One of the things that I think is quite difficult to get right in an MMO or any game or story is how to tell the tale of how things settle into normal, and what that looks like.

As a longer-term WoW player, one of the things that constantly confounds me about the story it tells is that it never really offers any respite to players in-game. The story is always go, go, go, war is happening, things are happening, and there are rarely moments where the story, as presented in-game, stops to breathe. Sure, in lore, there are moments between conflicts, attempts at tenuous peace, but in the game, none of this ever really makes its way into the story or gets presented as a thematic part of the proceedings.

What I loved most about the story of Final Fantasy XIV’s patch 5.4, Futures Rewritten, is that it does a fantastic job of communicating that exact idea.

The story centers on the peace that floats in the air in the wake of our exploits on the first, the defeats of the VIIth Legion in the Sorrows of Werlyt sidequests, and the general chaos that has gripped the Garlean Empire, forcing them out of their normal imperialist exploits and leading the people of Eorzea to a sort of stunned contemplation of what their world can be without the constant threat of war.

Right off the bat, I loved this story because it has a tremendous amount of room to breathe. Most of the patch story quest time is spent contemplating the nature of sudden and unexpected peace – there is the contemplation of what role the Scions of the Seventh Dawn can even play in a world not gripped by the Garleans, the show of how pirates might react when their core targets are no longer out in the open seas and the pirates know nothing else of life but plundering and looting, and the reconciliation of the awful things done in conflict between nations and races and how the strain of history can pull at any attempt to negotiate peace, especially when the negotiation begins with the oppressor. It is a powerful and surprisingly of-the-moment analysis of these types of themes, and given the general nature of, uh, well, everything in the real world, it was particularly poignant to me.

In truth, I never knew I missed this storytelling in WoW because the concept of peace is so nebulous and seems so out of reach in the story of WoW. Hell, in real life, as a dreaded Millenial, most of my existence has been in a world besieged by some sort of conflict, usually one that starts on shaky grounds and trudges on for an eternity. The notion of peace holds a lot of power in a world like that, and I think a lot of fiction about conflict, war, and the geopolitical implications of it, whether based in our world or a fictional one, often misses this completely because it almost seems too outlandish. It was only once FFXIV put that in front of me as a story beat that the shortcomings of other such stories without these beats came to mind.

What is especially great is that everything in the story of Futures Rewritten feels like a real response to these kinds of issues. The peace brokered between the Lominsans and the Kobolds feels strained to begin with, started with a literal battle, but it is successfully brokered and lays the groundwork for other stories in that same vein. The way in which the pirates navigate their new reality is powerful and feels like an interesting foundation for more storytelling in the future, in addition to being thematically great.

I want to circle back to the Scions, however, because the role they play in the events of the patch is both relatively minor, as the main story hooks explore less-utilized characters like Merlwyb, but they also have what feels most substantial as a setup for future lore.

The Scions’ core hook in the patch is a solution to one of the XIV lore’s longest-standing issues – tempering. For the uninitiated – FFXIV’s main trial enemies, Primals, are summoned through Crystal energy and a wellspring of unending faith in their servants. This faith is made unending through the Primal “tempering” the believer, locking them together. The beast tribes of Eorzea are tempered to their respective Primals, thus serving as the lore justification for how we can constantly challenge these Primals in the game – the believers are constantly attempting and succeeding at summoning the Primals, and our job as players is to smack them down when they arise.

Tempering has long been a hook in the game that has been sort of explored, but also not touched upon all that much. As far back as A Realm Reborn, however, one thing was made clear – we are also tempered, and while the nature of that tempering is left sort of ambiguous and unclear (maybe it isn’t even tempering!), it seems like an important detail going forward.

The core Scions arc in the patch is exploring a cure for Tempering, and trying to discover a way to develop the means to do it en masse once one is discovered. Alisaie gets there, with a cure that is complicated and requires a lot of aether from a handful of people present at the curing. It is used successfully on the Kobold leader to allow for the aforementioned peace negotiations to occur.

Curing tempering is one of those things that is, I think, both good and bad, and the game feels like it is ramping up to tell us both sides of that story. On the one hand, removing the mindless thrall nature of a Tempering from the various beast tribes of Eorzea means that Primals stop being summoned, it means they are free to pursue peace negotiations or work through the issues that face their people on their own terms, and it represents the possibility of a brighter tomorrow.

However, removing tempering feels like a thing with unintended side effects. One of the biggest remaining cliffhangers in the Shadowbringers story is the reveal of Hydaelyn and Zodiark as Primals, and not higher beings or gods. This point was raised during the 5.0 leveling quests, has been referenced a handful of times outside, but has not resolved as of yet. My hope (and sort of expectation, I suppose) is that either in 5.5 or in 6.0, we’ll see this plot point resolved. If tempering can be cured, and what our player characters are afflicted with is indeed tempering, than if we remove it from ourselves, that opens up a lot of possible story hooks. There’s some indication that the tempering we experience as players is tied to the Echo, our ability to evade death and master use of tremendous power, and if we are “cured,” we could in theory lose those powers. Likewise, the story hooks around Hydaelyn and Zodiark imply that Hydaelyn is not as benevolent as we believe, and while we would expect that narration given that it came from Emet-Selch, chief booster of Zodiark, there is reason to believe that is an honest, neutral take from him.

Then there are the other bits of setup for the future.

As a patch, 5.4 doesn’t exclusively focus in on the peacefulness we find in the wake of our actions, though. One of the key bits of “behind the scenes” storytelling we got from inside the collapse of the Garlean Empire back in 5.3 was the ascendance of a Sundered Ascian, Fandaniel. Inhabiting the body of the most delightful shithead we met in Stormblood, Asahi, he has a very chaotic outlook on the world, and 5.4 begins to move him to the main antagonist role in much the same way Emet-Selch surfaced in the Stormblood bridging patches in time to become our main villain/conflicted problematic fave in Shadowbringers.

Fandaniel, however, has no real redeeming qualities presented yet. While even early on Emet-Selch seemed like there was more going on there, Fandaniel is very much on Team Villain, and he’s pushing to destroy the world for the sake of it. His big reveal to the player characters (not us as players since we already sort of saw him last patch) is showy and makes a lot of what I fully expect are story hooks for the next expansion. In short – lots of talk of the moon, he wants to destroy the world, he’s sundered so he has no grand aspirations or desire to maintain status, and the towers he’s summoned into Eorzea seem to mind control people. What I like most about the current hooks is that nothing seems too outlandish – Fandaniel has indeed pushed chaos and carnage alongside Zenos, as both have systematically wiped out much of the leadership of the Empire, so nothing about his presentation here seems crazy or unexpected. The biggest hook I love, though, is that for all of the times Yoshi-P would jokingly talk about us going to the moon (a meme-worthy bugbear among the FFXIV community due to the early cutscenes with Ascians frequently involving the moon, along with references to other FF titles), he last answered during the Shadowbringers fan fest cycle that we’d be going to the moon in 6.0. And, like, okay, haha, we all laughed, it’s a big joke, the whole thing is a joke, but now, I kind of lowkey think we’re actually going to do it and he knew that at the time, and not only that, but it actually kind of makes sense from a lore perspective? What is this possibility even?

It makes the stakes for this weekend’s fan fest streams that much higher, because we obviously can’t get spoiled on 5.5 yet, and it isn’t Square Enix’s form to do that, hence my suspicion in yesterday’s post that we’re going to get 2/3rds of the fan fest cycle this week and the last bit after 5.5, when all of the in-game bridging of lore is complete and we’re ready to move on from Shadowbringers fully. They did this with Shadowbringers too, in that the story was us going to a different world, but this fact was concealed or danced around until the third fan fest, where the true nature of our destination was unveiled. This is something the FFXIV team does exceptionally well, and I’m really eager to see how they handle this later this week!

But that sets us back on a path to conflict, in a way that I think was handled well. We had peace, we obtained peace, and now a response to hostility is warranted and we just have to wait and see how things unfold over the coming months.

In a post prior to fan fest but later this week, I will break down the Eden and Sorrow of Werlyt stories separately, because thematically…they’re definitely different, but I have a lot more thoughts there!

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