Should WoW Tell Its Story Like FFXIV? An Analysis

With all of the firestorm over the, frankly, quite poor ending of the Sepulcher of the First Ones raid in World of Warcraft, which marks the current capstone of the Jailer as perhaps the most disappointing villain in the game’s history and precious little lore left to come before the reveal of the next WoW expansion on April 19th, now marks a good time to analyze something that has been said a fair bit in commentary around the state of the big two MMO titles of the moment. Should WoW adopt FFXIV’s methodology for storytelling?

As someone who has played both games and given up on WoW for FFXIV for the time being, my personal opinion is no – but also yes.

Let’s explain.

Evaluating the Problem

The problem (or “problem” for some) is that WoW’s story is a fragmented one that is often told in a multi-media format, with a mix of in-game content spread between quest text, cutscene dialogue, environmental storytelling, and gameplay objectives, and then a wide array of outside content like animated shorts pre-expansion, novels, lore books like Chronicle or Grimoire of the Shadowlands, and a variety of legacy projects like short stories on the game website. When done well (and it has been done well at points, like how the Arthas novel was tied-into Wrath of the Lich King and paid off properly in-game), this creates a rich lore that works in-game and uses out-of-game content to enrich and flesh out the story further, adding nuance and detail that the game often would struggle to get across. When done poorly, as it has largely been for the last several years, the depictions of events in-game are often missing key details that are expanded upon by supplemental materials, or even worse, those out-of-game materials do not line up neatly to the established in-game lore and create inconsistencies. Further, in many cases, when something is not fully detailed through in-game lore, it creates jarring gaps for the majority of players who only play the game, where a character has a large part of their story arc and narrative told outside of the game, the finale shown in-game, and no effort made to contextualize or elaborate on those details. Calia Menethil being undead is a lore beat that happened outside of the game and is barely grazed within the game, as an example – if you only play the game, that point seemingly comes out of nowhere – there is a single place in-game, via interactable prop, where this information is shared with players who didn’t read Before The Storm, one that I only discovered researching this post!

FFXIV has an objectively cleaner presentation of its lore and story, largely because the game is the sole source of truth for all major revelations of lore. While FFXIV has out-of-game lore materials like Encyclopedia Eorzea and the short-stories on the Lodestone, these are supplemental materials that work from in-game knowledge already available or elaborate on tertiary details to breathe additional life into the game’s setting. This ensures that players who complete the MSQ are up to speed with everything, and that the in-game lore and story is the guiding star for all plot points. In-game, lore presentation is managed through a much more heavy-handed approach to cutscenes, with far more cutscenes that take far longer to show. A first playthrough of the game, leveling your first job, will likely be a near 1:1 ratio of gameplay to cutscene, and while gameplay wins out very slightly, the ratio has gotten closer to even over time, with Endwalker having a staggering 24 hours of cutscenes in the base 6.0 story against around 60 total hours of playtime to complete.

FFXIV focuses the vast majority of its storytelling on these cutscenes, such that anything else is largely there just to reinforce and refresh. Quest text, which is a thing in the game, exists in the quest journal, but only recaps what you saw in the cutscenes – it reads more like a narrator doing a “last time on Final Fantasy XIV!” instead of being a means to deliver the information to you fresh. While lots of flavor text exists in the game that enriches things (the English localization team loves doing in-jokes and little bits of fluff on quest item tooltips and in the quest journal) you don’t miss anything crucial by not reading those. If the game wants you to know something, it will present it to you while you are captive in a cutscene – which is both good for the lore but also can feel a bit constraining and is likely the source of many WoW player complaints about the game.

The Reason For My No

An inescapable fact of this dialogue that must be said to set the stage is this – both games have different communities and different player conditioning as to what is expected. This is not a bad thing – all of game design is ultimately defining the parameters within which a player can interact with a game. Conditioning in this context is not a bad word – it defines what a player can expect, gives them the information needed on where they have agency and influence over the gameplay and flow of their session, and helps build up the game’s style and flavor. WoW has not always been about fast gameplay – vanilla was, in many ways, quite slow, but player response to that era has changed how the game works over time – the slow pace of quest text when you had to watch it write in the journal brought addons to auto-fill the text, which created a cascading set of expectations that eventually pushed Blizzard to make the auto-complete the default state of quest text, which had effects on the storytelling of the game, as it moved out of quest text and into event voiceovers, vignettes, and cutscenes. As an aside, I think at some point, breaking down the evolution of WoW with things like that would be very interesting – there’s a very different possible current state if players didn’t use addons and permissive changes to the game as means to enforce a different design paradigm onto the game, one which Blizzard was effectively forced to adapt to.

FFXIV is a game that is, in some ways, a JRPG first, with the big marquee content almost always being story-driven questing and cutscenes. Over the game’s entire lifespan to this point, it has made use of long breaks from gameplay to deliver cutscenes focused on the story for that first leveling journey through content, and has, over time, increased the cutscene density to a point where gameplay to cutscene ratio in the MSQ is approaching a 1:1 split. Gameplay still very slightly wins out, but that is also the wrinkle – FFXIV’s MSQ gameplay is largely contained to short bursts in certain quests and the leveling dungeons along the way, where WoW is far more interactive. That isn’t to say either approach is better or worse – they are just fundamentally different in that way, and everyone will have a personal taste for which they like better. FFXIV fans love the formula they get because it creates a high number of impactful story moments along the way, and the game prioritizes those moments and makes sure you feel them when they hit, while WoW prioritizes gameplay, and it uses the precious few moments of non-gameplay storytelling it does offer to push you towards the next big moment of gameplay – explore this new zone, kill these new enemies, and the like.

I think that for my personal take, there are a couple of things to touch on. Firstly, I think that you could only really use the FFXIV style in WoW over a long adaptation period, getting players gradually more used to high-density cutscenes, and I think that WoW needs immediate attention to how it tells its story that are not conducive to that. While you could argue that pulling the bandage off quickly is ideal, it would be a tough change for those who enjoy WoW for what it is at present, and it does us little good to make such a change at the cost of alienating the core audience, dwindling though it may be.

I think the other major issue worth stating is that WoW’s narrative is actually not very focused on the player, and so such frequent cutscenes would not quite work the same there compared to FFXIV. In FFXIV, you are the main character, the Warrior of Light, and so it makes a fair bit of sense that so much of the game centers on, well, you. In WoW, you are important to the story to a point, but the events of the story being told are largely not about you – instead focusing on the major lore characters and their stories, which you enable to a point by being the pointy end of the sword. The story doesn’t happen without you, but it also isn’t about you, if that makes sense.

In a lot of ways, the mythologizing of the player character in WoW has actually been problematic because it sheds a light on how little you actually mean to the story in the grand scheme of things. You being the Maw Walker in Shadowlands serves to setup a tale about how you are the agent of change, but you having this power and perceived status only serves to put NPCs on the path towards the things they must do, which makes the title feel weird and dissonant. You are the Maw Walker, legendary figure who was the first to escape the clutches of the Jailer, and yet that only serves to embolden the Covenants to do what they must – push into the Maw, seeing through you that they can also escape and it was never unobtainable. The title remaining an honorific in patch 9.2 is actually quite odd in this way, because at this point, nearly everyone is a Maw Walker in the Shadowlands!

Ultimately, WoW’s point of view and focus on its story aren’t altogether bad – the game has always been one that is more about a sense of place and scale, with worldbuilding lore being a foundation on which the story then rests, and neither of those are about us as the player character as much as they are about the world and characters already in it. We just rally the troops and provide the example. Because of that, the viewpoint of FFXIV’s storytelling doesn’t really map to WoW’s, nor should it, in my opinion – they serve very different tastes in that way and I don’t believe that the viewpoint is the problem, nor is the problem that WoW has fixable with more cutscenes and less gameplay (in fact, I would imagine the WoW story would crumble into bits if the game team had to write 24 hours of dialogue for the base launch of an expansion!).

But, I did also say that WoW could learn some lessons, so what are those?

The Reason For My Yes

With all of that said, I think there are lessons that WoW can and should learn from the methodical approach the FFXIV team takes to its storytelling.

Firstly, I think the delivery of WoW’s story needs a major punch-up to align with player interests and style better. Quest text is easy to a point, which is why it persists, and yet how many players do you know actually read it? Have you read more than 5 quests worth of quest text in the last 2 years? I haven’t. It actually makes some elements of the game feel like they come out of nowhere (there’s quest text in Zereth Mortis that states that Devourers are able to use Maw magic in the steel on Mawsworn to create their rifts, which is not explained anywhere else! What should replace it? Well, I think there are a few things you could do – more event voiceover popups, even if they don’t have voice acting to go with them, as a start. You can use dialogue from accompanying NPCs, even if it is the “dialogue bubble/fill the chatbox” style. Lastly, you could pepper in brief cutscenes – a literal 10 second stinger showing some boss NPC arriving that you have to fight would add a lot (and they already do this in some places!).

Secondly, I think that where lore is needs to be reconsidered. In my Jailer cinematic analysis, one element I called out as a positive is that the actual finale of the expansion appears to not be a raid cinematic, but instead questing content and a likely hidden cinematic waiting past that. This means that more players, and indeed the majority of the game’s population, will get to see it firsthand through their own gameplay. So many people get the raid cinematics via YouTube or Wowhead, and like, okay, it works well enough, but there’s no real attachment to them because a majority of the playerbase never see them in-game as participants in the raid, at least based on most common public metrics pulled via the WoW and Battle.net APIs for things like raid achievements or kill rates. Even though I am a raider, I also need to point this out – raid cinematics are kind of dull, because they can rarely be done in a style that isn’t the result of conflict. When every major story cutscene in the game starts with the climax of an epic battle (which totally happened off-camera guys, believe it), you limit what can actually be done. Some of the best moments in game stories that I cherish are from peaceful moments or emerge from tension that doesn’t erupt into physical violence. The moment from Endwalker that most makes me tear up even now, 3 months later, is one that is born out of tension without violence, and it says so much because it has this room to breathe, that violence remains on the table but is also something that could be avoided, and the game lets you sit with that thought for a moment. I think something WoW does quite poorly is that even the non-combat cutscenes it does have are so often about inevitable violent conflict – there’s never any sense of earned peace, and even in those rare moments of peace, we are simply set back upon the path to violence in an inescapable manner.

Furthermore, raid cinematics are controversial even with raiders – you have to tell a raid voice chat to shut up and wait for those wanting to watch, and that creates a conflict within a raid team, not to mention that many raiders aren’t playing for the story and thus see cinematics as a pointless diversion. The audience that wants the lore is 100% available outside of the raid, whether that is raiders doing story quests or the rest of the game’s population doing all the available world content – while the raid is not 100% accessible to those who want the story. You would likely make both audiences happy if you moved the raid cinematics fully out into the world and made them center on the plot without having the need for them to come at the conclusion of a battle that a large number of players will never fight.

Thirdly, I think something that FFXIV currently does and WoW used to do in short bursts is creating narrative arcs that exist outside the main story for other content. FFXIV’s raid stories do connect to the main story, but not in a way that requires the raid story for the main story to be whole. There are a couple of exceptions (the Stormblood 8-player raid series sets up some interesting elements of Endwalker’s environmental storytelling and the MSQ hits harder if you’ve done those raids), but generally, FFXIV’s raiding stands alone and enriches the main story without being central. WoW has done this at moments in time – two of WoW’s most well-received raids in Ulduar and Throne of Thunder are largely side-stories to the main expansion story being told, with elements that enrich the main story but are not critical to it. However, for much of WoW’s history, the raids have been crucial to understanding the core story of the game, and for much of that time, the game has done a piss-poor job of conveying that to players who don’t do the raids. In a lot of ways, I think the game would benefit from decoupling the raids from the main story, using them as side-stories that intersect the main one in thoughtful ways to enhance it, rather than being the foregone conclusion mechanism for all plot and lore in the game. This is pretty similar to the point I made above, but I think that the game could benefit from both in equal measure.

Fourth, I very much believe that WoW needs to bring more of the lore into the actual game. The problem often ends up that WoW’s lore is complete to a point, but so much is left told outside of the game that the core audience is left scratching their heads. We shouldn’t be waiting on a Sylvanas novel to fill in the missing gaps about why she allied with the Jailer and what purpose that served in her mind, that detail should be in the game. We shouldn’t be waiting for the end of the expansion to finally have some detail added to what the main villain’s goal was, especially when that detail still does not completely explain his motivation or even explain it enough to leave a satisfying interpretation on the table. Chronicle introduced us to the cosmology chart, which helps explain a lot of how the underlying forces of the Warcraft universe work, but then within a small amount of time, the Grimoire of the Shadowlands has invalidated that information, or at least thrown much of it into question. Hell, even a foundational aspect of the lore of Shadowlands is in a website short story that is 13 years old now, and even then, the story itself hints at a different direction which was remolded and revised to chart a course to the Jailer. FFXIV has a well-respected story because most of us who’ve played the game have seen the same story beats and are working from a common lexicon and plotline, where in WoW there’s a lot of stuff that only makes sense through the lens of the game plus some supplemental media, and it is a dice roll to determine how much the game will bother to try explaining to you if you haven’t done the homework. The novels are fine and sometimes even good! – but I shouldn’t have to spend $20 outside the game to read and find out what Sylvanas’ journey has looked like in full when the game wants me to have that knowledge to flesh out her barebones characterization in the game!

Fifth, I think that WoW needs to get a grip on the way it handles pivots in the story. Fans of the game will argue that the term “retcon” is so often tossed out in a way that renders it meaningless, but functionally, the game’s lore is a moving target. I still remember when Metzen wrote an apology post on the game forums because they made a small tweak to the Triumvirate story of the Eredar to make Draenei as a playable race workable – and say what you will about Metzen and his writing, but I appreciate that he cared enough to do that and to demonstrate a mindfulness about how future writing should build on the foundation of the RTS games. You can argue that the Jailer being responsible, in effect, for much of Warcraft III and a lot of smaller arcs since Wrath of the Lich King is not a retcon, but it does fundamentally change the lore that players did invest in, and does so in a way that often cheapens those foundational elements. We can all choose to ignore that idea, to pretend that the Jailer is a self-contained villain who exists only in the context of Shadowlands, but the game is building that this is not the case and that likely means that future storytelling will expand further on this concept in a way that may be difficult to ignore. I’ve said this a lot here, and I will say it a lot more in the future – if the lesson I take away from your storytelling is that investing in your story is a mistake because key details can change on a whim, then you are boxing yourself in and pushing players out.

Finally, my big soapbox point for all of this, is that I think the WoW narrative team needs to be more mindful and respectful of players’ interactions with the game. So much of the tension in the community at large since BFA has centered on the burning of Teldrassil, an event that was very harmful to the game in a lot of ways. If Cataclysm proved that nothing was unalterable in the game, the burning proved that nothing was unremovable. Burning Teldrassil is something that should have lead to a major shift in how the game perceived Sylvanas and should have been a moment of choice and moral panic for Horde players. Instead, Horde players were forced to be complicit in the burning and Sylvanas has largely evaded direct consequences – that may change with the story of Shadowlands still to come, but it has been nearly 4 years now and that wound has been a scab the team keeps picking at. Further, at the time on social media, there was a lot of petty jokes made by Blizzard employees about the burning, downplaying the very real investment a lot of players did have in that story arc or for feeling any real emotion or hurt over it. If you wanted that moment to strike a chord with players, trying to roast them for having that chord struck is in poor taste and undermines the story you seem to want to tell.

In many ways, while I didn’t really know it at the time, the burning of Teldrassil created a gnawing dread for the future of WoW in me. I played on the accounts of multiple friends and roommates for nearly 8 months post launch in Vanilla, with the game never sticking until I played a Night Elf Priest. I have a lot of fond memories of Teldrassil, exploring it, doing the quests in it. In fact, I did them twice for my main, once on my roommate’s account and then finally when I bought the game for myself in June 2005. I have a lot of Night Elf alts – my hunter, mage, warrior – and of course, the very Demon Hunter whose name has become my “brand” online. When I think about the world of Azeroth being a character in the game, I think about how that tranquil, idyllic treetop civilization sold me the game in a way the desolate Orc and Troll areas didn’t, how it gave me something interesting and different that I was missing in the other races. I did invest a lot in that and have a lot of happy memories of finally finding my way into WoW through Teldrassil, through the Night Elves, and how that experience put me on a path to love the game. My investment in that is gone in retail – you can bother with the hassle of Chromie Time to see it but the zone is gone in the main timeline, a change so large even the Cataclysm revamp never considered doing such a thing. My investment in that was then mocked by the WoW team and Blizzard employees, laughing that players like me could ever get attached to the idea of something in a fictional world.

And ultimately, that is damage that cannot really be undone at this point. If you build a game that wants players to invest and to have a meaningful connection to their characters, the world, and the places they explore, and then mock those same players for doing that, well…what is the lesson? The only one I come away with is to not invest, which means not playing, and that doesn’t seem to be what you actually want but it is the outcome that makes the most sense. At this point, you can’t really undo Teldrassil for the players whom it mattered to – that lesson has been harshly taught and learned by many of us. What you can do is be mindful of the future lore, to ensure that when you create something that resonates with players, you safeguard that investment. It doesn’t mean you cannot use it in shocking and challenging ways to tug on the audience’s heartstrings – but it means that you think of ways to do that without undermining the prior investment in your story and world. Teldrassil was also pretty bad for Horde players – if you view the factions as equally good with differing views on how to maintain the peace, being forced into a genocide sucks ass, and leaves you with a pretty rotten taste in your mouth, and the game curiously does not offer a dissenting choice against Sylvanas until after this moment.

FFXIV is so often mindful of what players value and enjoy in their game’s story that it stands in stark contrast. The game gave us a view of Hydaelyn in Shadowbringers that painted her as a potential villain, and yet in Endwalker, the game subverts this and gives us Hydaelyn as a flawed mother figure in many ways, but crucially not a villain. Our faith in her and blessing at her hands was not misplaced. Likewise, Emet-Selch as a fan-favorite character in Shadowbringers was honored in Endwalker, not by absolving his guilt for his actions but instead by showing us why he felt so strongly about his time and his people and grounding those flaws while remaining clear that he was in the wrong via his approach. These added details give so much to players, but in a way that respects their prior characterization and maintains player investment and engagement with those characters and their stories.

There is so much more I could say about this, but I think it would get pretty far abroad of the direct comparison of the two games, so I’ll save it for another day.

3 thoughts on “Should WoW Tell Its Story Like FFXIV? An Analysis

  1. Okay, I’ve got a Kara raid I’m supposed to lead coming up in about 15 minutes, so I have no idea how quickly I can cover what I need to…. So here goes…

    About WoW being about the faction leaders and we’re just living in it: it didn’t used to be like that.

    In Vanilla (and Vanilla Classic), there were no cutscenes, there were no stories centered on the faction leaders, etc. If there was one, it was on Varian’s disappearance, and even then it served to place the player at the forefront in the Onyxia story. All of the raid villains kept their dialogue in game, and were complete without requiring “homework” in the form of novels, comics, short stories, etc.

    TBC began to change that, with the comics becoming canon and leading up to Quel’Danas. Still, there were no cutscenes per se, not like what began to happen in Wrath. We got phasing, raid cutscenes (even though I didn’t raid in Wrath, I saw them on YouTube), and a focus of the story more on faction leads and those from WC3. At that high point in WoW, Blizzard did what I believe was take the wrong lesson to be learned from Wrath’s success, which was to focus more completely on the faction leads and narrative arcs that could be achieved outside of the game –because an author is cheaper than an entire dev team working on a similar story– and basically took the WoW brand and made it all “critical” and “required” and “official”.

    That was a huge mistake, and led directly to Cataclysm where Blizz could rework the Old World into the new paradigm, and could extend the focus on the faction leads and all sorts of various media. Because the fans would buy it all.

    Until they stopped doing so, that is.

    Damn, I’ve gotta run, but yeah, there’s a lot there to unpack, and Blizz made a lot of boneheaded story moves, and that’s not even the plot points, but rather the presentation of the plot and how they made us essentially a “useful idiot” for the real story.

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  2. So much in this post that I agree with, but “I agree” isn’t much of a response, so I’ll quickly highlight the one point that made me go “ack, no” and it is this: “more event voiceover popups”.

    My #1 annoyance with retail WoW’s storytelling from a practical point of view is what an absolutely bloody mess NPC speeches and voiceovers are. The amount of times I’ve struggled to follow what was going on because the game somehow expected me to read three different things at once or characters were talking over each other/cutting each other off has been staggering. And I don’t think it’s that the WoW team is just bad at this, it feels more like a round peg/square hole problem. Yes, this sort of thing can be a nice storytelling device – but it requires that the player is given a chance to listen, pay attention and not be interrupted/distracted by a dozen other things going on at the same time, but that seems to be quite at odds with the way WoW likes to move you onwards at a pretty frantic pace sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s definitely a fair point, and one where I can admit that my imagination is somewhat constrained by what currently is over what could be. I’m sure there’s a better way to deliver that info and have it be well-paced and suited to the game without clipping or interrupting, but I’m not sure what that would look like.

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