Final Fantasy XIV and Character Arc
StoryScan: Critical hit
Our newest feature, StoryScan: Critical Hit, highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. For our inaugural essay, we’re covering Final Fantasy XIV (Square-Enix, 2010), the massively multiplayer online role-playing game developed lauded for its compelling characters and engaging storyline. This essay will cover content up through the end of patch 5.0 of the 2019 Shadowbringers expansion. Players who have not completed content through patch 5.0 may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
Massively multiplayer online games present a unique challenge for writers, as the worlds must be able to sustain a seemingly unlimited number of players at any given time, and each player will interact with the narrative at a different pace. As a result, MMOs often feature scaled-back stories compared to their single-player counterparts, eschewing extended plot threads in favor of episodic content that players experience in groups. Final Fantasy XIV bucks this trend by emphasizing its single-player content, which allows for more complex storylines, larger casts, and deeper exploration of themes. The most recent expansion, Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, pushed the single-player storyline to new heights with its antagonist, Emet-Selch: an immortal being whose quest to reunite with his lost brethren takes him through a complete, satisfying character arc.
Emet-Selch’s storyline follows a type of negative character arc that author K.M. Weiland refers to as the Fall Arc. “[This arc] is the one we most commonly associate with tragedies,” says Weiland, as “…[it] will end in insanity, oppressive immorality, or death.”1 The Fall Arc contains three specific points: the lie the character believes about their life or the world, the truth they come to learn, and the refusal of that truth. For a Fall Arc to resonate with audiences, it must develop all three of those points to the point that the character’s decisions seem not only natural but relatable. First, The initial lie the character believes about the world should be clearly stated, and the character’s reasons for believing that lie should make sense for their character. Next, the character should not only be exposed to the truth, but have a reason to consider it seriously. Finally, The character’s ultimate rejection of the truth should be motivated by new evidence in support of their initial beliefs, and that rejection should come with significant cost. Every fall has a bottom, and the Fall Arc will not be complete until the character has hit theirs. Only by satisfying all these points can a Fall Arc meet its full potential as a tragic, yet ultimately satisfying storyline.
Who is Emet-Selch?
In Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, the antagonist Emet-Selch follows a well-executed Fall Arc. To understand how Emet-Selch’s storyline fits this arc, it’s important to first establish his backstory. When the world of Final Fantasy XIV was first formed, Emet-Selch was a member of an immortal, ageless race known as the Ascians. They lived in peace and prosperity, knowing neither war nor want, until a great calamity threatened to destroy their world. To stave off the calamity, the Ascians agreed they would sacrifice half their kind to create a divine being with the power to protect them. The sacrifice went off as planned, and the being born in the aftermath—Zodiark—shielded them from the calamity.
For a time, all was well, but Zodiark continued to demand greater sacrifices to maintain order. The Ascians were torn on whether they should give in to its demands. Emet-Selch and his brethren wanted to continue the sacrifices, but the forces of opposition had other plans. They created another being to destroy Zodiark: Hydaelyn. The resulting fight between Hydaelyn and Zodiark was so devastating that it sundered the peaceful world into thirteen weak fragments. Each of these shards had its own population, but they lacked the Ascian’s immortality and knew nothing of their former lives. As one of the few to escape the sundering, Emet-Selch has since dedicated himself to putting the broken pieces of his old world back together. His goal is to see the Ascians restored to their former glory, and he’s willing to sacrifice as many of the sundered people as it takes to get there.
Emet-Selch’s backstory contains the first essential component of the Fall Arc: the lie. Emet-Selch’s lie is his belief that the sundered, mortal people who live on the fragmented worlds are worth less than his Ascian comrades. To make sure this lie clearly resonates with audiences, Final Fantasy XIV does two things: it states the lie clearly, and it explains Emet-Selch’s reasons for believing it. The game accomplishes the first point through dialogue, as Emet-Selch is all too willing to talk about the vast chasm that exists between his former allies and the sundered beings he considers lesser. When explaining his history to the player character and their allies, he describes the sundered beings as: “…feeble, frail, and foolish. Oblivious to their imperfection, ignorant of their past. Malformed creatures thrashing blindly about. Pitiful. Disturbing. Depressing.” His contempt for them is clear, as is his willingness to sacrifice them. “I do not consider you to be truly alive,” he states. “Ergo, I will not be guilty of murder if I kill you.” To the sundered beings who value their lives, as well as the audience, this statement could not be a more obvious falsehood, but Emet-Selch still believes it.
The second part of establishing the lie, explaining the character’s reasons for believing it, comes from Emet-Selch’s role as an unsundered Ascian. He remembers a world uncorrupted by aging, and he has seen how mankind has struggled against itself without immortality. “I have lived a thousand thousand of your lives!” he says, explaining his qualifications for judging the sundered. “I have broken bread with you, fought with you, grown ill, grown old…For eons have I measured your worth and found you wanting!” In his eyes, the mortal races were robbed of an eternity of perfection. While his memories of a perfect world are contradicted by the way the Ascians argued when faced with their own calamity, it is clear that he believes they were superior. His faith in his vision of the past is so strong that he even built a replica of his old world and filled it with artificial renderings of his lost friends. Like his memories of the past, these creations are not accurate representations of reality, but his belief in them is absolute.
With the lie established, Final Fantasy XIV moves onto the second part of Emet-Selch’s Fall Arc by confronting him with the truth. In his case, the truth is the idea that the lives of the sundered people have as much value as the lives of the Ascians who were broken apart. This section of Emet-Selch’s arc works because the developers gave him both a motive and an opportunity to learn the truth. The first element, his motive, is established early on as one of self-preservation. At the beginning of the Shadowbringers expansion, the player character—the Warrior of Light—has been established as the protector of the sundered races and has already slain one of the few remaining unsundered Ascians who tried to sacrifice people for a rejoining. Emet-Selch, seeking to avoid the same fate as their colleague, realizes their safest bet is to form a temporary alliance with the Warrior of Light and their allies. This gives Emet-Selch the motive he needs to get to know members of the sundered races.
While survival is Emet-Selch’s initial motive for working with the Warrior of Light, it also provides the opportunity for him to see the truth. While traveling with the Warrior and their allies, Emet-Selch witnesses how the sundered mourn when they lose one of their own and how they come together to rebuild their homes after war tears them apart. The latter moves him so much that he admits the parallel to his own home, saying: “The vibrant energy that fills the air when like-minded souls gather…To think back on that time before time fair brings a tear to the eye.” While the sundered will never be the people Emet-Selch lost, he cannot deny the evidence of their value, especially when they have the strength to oppose him.
Once the established lie is challenged by the truth, Emet-Selch’s arc enters the final phase: the rejection of the truth. This final, downward step in the Fall Arc is what differentiates it from a Positive Arc and makes it a tragedy. To give the tragic turn in Emet-Selch’s arc meaning, Final Fantasy XIV ensures that the rejection of the truth is motivated by new, compelling evidence and that the act of rejecting the lie is both conclusive and costly. Emet-Selch finds new evidence to support the lie when the Warrior of Light is overwhelmed by an elemental power they had hoped to contain. To Emet-Selch, this is an unpleasant reminder that sundered beings are frail and incapable. “What a disappointment you turned out to be,” he says, facing the struggling warrior. “I placed my faith in you…but look at you now. Halfway to becoming a monster. You are unworthy of my patronage.” The truth may not have changed, but thanks to the new evidence, Emet-Selch can no longer believe it.
With the lie reinforced, Emet-Selch reaffirms his commitment to it by challenging the Warrior of Light to stand against him, knowing that it will end in one of their deaths. Ultimately, Emet-Selch dies, thus satisfying the last component of the satisfying Fall Arc: his rejection of the truth is both conclusive and costly. Turning his back on the truth costs him everything, and in the end, he must entrust a new task to the Warrior of Light; not to bring back the Ascians, but to remember that they lived.
Emet-Selch’s character arc is not only satisfying for an MMORPG storyline, but for a storyline in general, because it meets all of the criteria of a strong negative character arc. When the audience is first introduced Emet-Selch, he believes a convincing lie about the world, and the lie has merit based on his backstory. As his story develops, his lie is challenged by the truth, and he is given a reason to consider an opposing worldview. Finally, he is shown further evidence in favor of his initial beliefs, and he uses that evidence to reject the truth, even though it comes at a high cost. With every step satisfied, the arc comes to a natural conclusion, leaving behind both a memorable antagonist and a worthy addition to the series.
1 Weiland, K.M.. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 7) (pp. 178-179). PenForASword Publishing. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage: Daktyl. All cutscenes with Emet-Selch | FFXIV : Stormblood & Shadowbringers. YouTube, 2019.