I want to start this post off with a huge, giant disclaimer up top – personally, I think Endwalker is going to be great from a storytelling perspective and I think that the freedom to setup a new arc completely after 6.0 is going to work out pretty well.
But, a thought keeps popping into my head, and I want to explore that space a little bit today. There will be spoilers for most FFXIV content going forward, so be warned.
A Realm Reborn is an okay story. It is consistently regarded as the weak spot in an otherwise well-received MMO storyline. A lot of people like the ARR story overall, and it is quite good, but compared to what comes after – there’s just so much better content beyond it that it always gets shuffled down the stack ranking of FFXIV story content.
Why is that? Well, I think the nature of it is pretty easy to wrap our heads around. The game was in a hard spot, in that it both had to pay off story leads from FFXIV 1.0 while also welcoming a new audience of players in to the game. It had to do both of these things and then also build on the story and set the stage for Heavensward, and boy, does that setup pay off in spades! So ARR gets the worst hand it could have – it has to build the world, but also have bits in there for the existing FFXIV playerbase from 1.0, it has to establish the full scope of the story and introduce us to all the various characters, races, and nations we’ll be interacting with, and it has to do so within the context of an enjoyable leveling experience for an MMO. We can debate how effectively both versions of the ARR content did at each of these, but that’s not the point for today.
ARR’s relative weakness, I’ll contend, comes down to something very simple and straightforward – that ARR is a transitional story. Much of what ARR builds is paid off within it or is used further down the road. We resolve the vast majority of the local issues, fix up the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, repel the forces of Gaius van Baelsar, solve the issue of the Coils of Bahamut, and more. Basically, the vast majority of the actual plot elements of the core ARR story are both introduced and resolved within ARR, and since so much of that stuff doesn’t get to breathe as much as later content, it ends up feeling a bit meh.
It occurred to me, looking at the game’s story content this way, that there is a potential issue for Endwalker brewing.
We know that Endwalker is set to pay off the Zodiark and Hydaelyn story with a (hopefully) satisfying resolution in 6.0, and that the patch content of Endwalker is designed to be the bridge into a new story in 7.0. Without knowing much else of what is to come, that then leaves us with a bigger question – what will make up the story of the bridging content?
I think that a lot of the assumption in the community, at least certainly my own, comes down to an idea that certain themes, characters, and nations are all tied in to the story of Hydaelyn and Zodiark. If this central struggle is resolved, the Ascian story must also reach a conclusion, right? If that story concludes, then what is the fate of Garlemald? The idea of the “end” of the current story is perhaps more grand than Square Enix is actually set to deliver – the specificity of the wording “Endwalker brings the tale of Hydaelyn and Zodiark to a conclusion eons in the making” is pretty clear that only that core part of the story arc is fully being closed on. So I think it is safe to assume that the goal is not to completely build a new story from scratch immediately, or to have a bridge that is basically just coasting on loose ends until the new stuff comes into focus.
Once I saw that, the thought that kept popping in was a continuation – what sets this apart from ARR in nature? Well, the answer is…we don’t know fully yet.
I think you can say that Endwalker isn’t starting from scratch for most of the players of the game like ARR was. We have exposure to the characters and story being woven in, and short of new additions or changes in characterization, there’s far less need to build. Thancred is short-tempered in some ways and infinitely patient in others, Alisaie is boisterous and direct, Alphinaud is diplomatic, book-smart and street-dumb (but getting better!). Unless you change that, there’s nothing new to learn and no need for heaps of context, and even if these characters do change in Endwalker, we have hours of experience with them to contrast the changes.
One thing I think that will prove very interesting is if the setting changes as the expansion winds on. We have our little corner of Eorzea, but much of the Source is still not fully explored. After an expansion that is set to bring us to the moon and back, what will we return to? Will we discover secrets that reveal as-yet-unknown lands? Perhaps the game jumps right into what happens with the Shards now that Hydaelyn and Zodiark’s story is ended. Part of what has made the journey of the expansions so great is that we have these strong introductions to each new region, with the First having its “equivalent” versions of locations from our Eorzea, the pull of finally seeing Ala Mhigo, and to finally cross the Steps of Faith into Ishgard. There are so many ways the story could go and I am quite curious to see how they setup the next location without doing so too early (or late) given the larger number of patches available to explore the story in.
So then, exploring some of those themes, let’s take a look – will Endwalker be weighed down by bringing about a new saga in the FFXIV story?
It Won’t, Because:
Endwalker is built on the foundation ARR helped lay, and while I’ve put forward that the first steps of that foundation were a little iffy, there have been 3 expansions since and each has corrected problems in the foundation and built a little bit higher. Even without the main pillar of the that story there’s a pretty strong building there – and that is without analyzing the content that will be a part of the core 6.0 story experience.
ARR had to be a satisfying entry point for new players and a good, familiar experience for the 1.0 players returning. This pushed the story and worldbuilding in opposite directions – you want new players to have a ton of context for this world but too much and the 1.0 players who traversed the cookie-cutter tileset versions of the same maps will get restless. Endwalker, by virtue of making players go through the established MSQ, does not have to worry about that – those problems are solved as they were in ARR, updated in patch 5.3, and now we all enter the story with about the same level of understanding (some Encyclopedia Eorzea reading or Ethys Asher lore videos notwithstanding!).
In terms of storytelling, Endwalker gets the current level of polish – better in-game cutscenes with the animation quality brought up, more voiceover work and fully voiced cutscenes. ARR was great for the time and what it was given the limited production budget and time, but it has constraints that show age.
The writing team has really sharpened their toolkits and built up a lot of skills, and has more writing bandwidth to focus on the main scenario of Endwalker, while ARR had to split its stories a lot of different ways, with class/job quests including DoH/DoL jobs, and the introductory nation stories. In terms of writing structure and impact, Natsuko Ishikawa being the Endwalker main writer is a big shot of hope as she really delivered a killer story for Shadowbringers and there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic that she can shepherd the story away from too much filler or self-resolving plotlines.
It Might, Because:
Endwalker has 5 patches by the normal FFXIV cycle to release content. In the past, this meant 3 continuation stories and 2 new stories. For Endwalker, we get 5 patches of fully new story content. This is a lot more room to play but also a lot more room to meander.
Endwalker’s base writing seems like it will be on-point with Ishikawa in the driver’s seat, but patch content is routinely handed off to other writers. 5.1 and 5.2 both were handed off from Ishikawa, and were weaker overall stories. I wouldn’t say bad, but underwhelming fits the bill. If Endwalker ping-pongs the patch content between scenario writers, we might be in for a turbulent journey with no clear destination for a while.
Endwalker has a recent tradition of storytelling excellence to live up to, and the pressure of that could very well be too much. Even if Endwalker is great, it could look mediocre next to Shadowbringers and it may still struggle to fight the Heavensward diehards and their love of that story.
Endwalker’s raid series (both 8-player and Alliance) focus on original FFXIV stories and lore we’ve been getting for a while. This means less overall manpower – having the crossover raid series meant bringing on special creators to share the load and drive the design, while without it, such a thing is less likely. Not impossible, but less likely.
Endwalker will be the first expansion delivered since COVID-19, and while we’ve had most of our Shadowbringers patches under these conditions, an expansion is a different beast. We may see cuts or adjustments made to keep things moving smoothly under less-than-ideal collaborative conditions.
Lastly, any FFXIV expansion could end up in this territory if the story just isn’t as good as the bar set by the prior expansion, and that is difficult to predict, because creative vision and execution is a hell of a variable thing.
My Best Guess
I don’t think Endwalker is going to suffer too much from ARR-itis, all told. Will it get a little bit, with lagging middle chapters in patch content? Sure, probably. Will it be the story of all the patch content such that in 10 years we discuss it as a new “Horrible Hundred” style of content? I don’t think so.
There aren’t really signs for how the game is shaping up because of how little we’ve seen and heard, but the indicators are there to suggest great things are in the works, with Ishikawa at the helm and a very FFXIV-centered story and side content.
Mostly though, I think the fundamental facts are easy enough to judge on – there’s little need to worry about Endwalker having an ARR-style identity crisis or active tug-of-war at the heart of things, because the two playerbases that had to be appealed to with ARR are now a single, unified one.
Which I guess renders this whole thought experiment at least somewhat pointless…but oh well.