Final Fantasy XIV and Subplots and Side Stories
StoryScan: Critical hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this 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 3.5 of the 2015 Heavensward expansion. Players who have not completed content through patch 3.5 may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains spoilers for the main storyline.
With the release of the Endwalker expansion, Square-Enix has brought Final Fantasy XIV’s decade-spanning saga of light and darkness to a conclusion. While the Warrior of Light’s story is sure to continue (due in part to the title’s record-breaking profits)1, game director Naoki Yoshida has described the content to come as “a new dawn”2 and emphasized the narrative closure players can expect to get through Endwalker. This promise of closure has given players a reason to look back on previous events in the narrative, both to refresh their memories3 and to complete what they might have missed.4 In the process, players have reflected on some of the stand-out moments in the game’s history. One that comes up again and again is the Dark Knight job quest-line. This fan-favorite sidequest makes the most of its subplot status by developing the characters, exploring the setting, and interrogating new themes, all while maintaining the high quality gameplay that players have come to expect.
Like many role-playing games, Final Fantasy XIV lets players choose a combat class for their character, also known as a job. To learn a job, players must complete a series of quests commonly referred to as a ‘quest-line.’ 2015’s Heavensward expansion introduced the Dark Knight, a job dedicated to “defending the feeble from the transgressions of those meant to guide and protect them.” As the name implies, Dark Knights are knights who have set aside the strict code of their order to follow their own morality, no matter the cost. This unflinching commitment to justice can result in indiscriminate bloodshed, which puts them at odds with the very citizens they’re trying to protect. As a result, many Dark Knights have grown embittered to the point where they no longer care about the people or their problems. For relentless heroes like the player character’s Warrior of Light, this bitterness presents a unique challenge to overcome in the Dark Knight job quest-line. Tackling this challenge provides compelling new insight into the Warrior of Light’s character, the people who rely on them, and heroism itself.
The Dark Knight Quest-Line
The Dark Knight quest-line begins when the Warrior of Light hears a rumor about a heretic in Ishgard, one who recently fought corrupt Temple Guards with ‘the strength of a man possessed.’ Although the Warrior is able to track down the heretic, he’s on the brink of death after a savage beating. The Warrior tries to help them, but a dark power overtakes them, knocking them unconscious. When they wake, the heretic is by their side. His name is ‘Fray,’ he says, and he’s no heretic; he’s just a man who knows how to channel the darkness within to fight for justice. He’s willing to teach the Warrior how to harness this power, but he warns it will come at a cost. The Warrior nevertheless accepts, as they’re deeply committed to helping those who cannot help themselves. It’s a belief Fray shares; it’s also the root of his problems.
As Fray teaches the Warrior the ways of the Dark Knight, the duo becomes increasingly entangled in the affairs of the helpless Ishgardians. At first, Fray is willing to aid the common man at the Warrior’s side, but the more needy and demanding the people become, the less Fray cares about their troubles. Tensions boil over when a merchant begs for the Warrior’s help retrieving stolen merchandise, then demands compensation when the Warrior returns the merchandise with blood on it. Fray lays into the man, calling him pathetic and weak, and curses himself for ever trying to help. Afterward, he begs the Warrior to leave the ungrateful people of Ishgard to fend for themselves, but the Warrior refuses. It’s the sign of an ever-widening schism between their beliefs, one that opens in full when allies of the slain Temple Guards track the Warrior and accuse them of conversing with ‘the heretic’s corpse.’ As it turns out, Fray the Dark Knight has been dead all along—the ‘Fray’ that remains is but a dark reflection of the Warrior’s own inner turmoil, one that was brought to life through exposure to Fray’s power. Every doubt, every triumph, every pain that Fray and the Warrior shared: they were all the Warrior’s alone, and the Warrior must face them—and a ghostly double—to grow as a hero and a person.
Developing Character, Setting, and Theme through Subplot
The Dark Knight quest-line develops the story on three fronts: character, setting, and theme. As a character study, it provides a new level of insight into the protagonist, the Warrior of Light. The Warrior is meant to be the player’s avatar, so their dialogue is kept to a minimum. While they’re able to answer questions with player-selected text responses, the majority of their communication comes through in gestures and monosyllabic grunts. This leads some secondary cast members to believe that the Warrior has little to say—a notion the Dark Knight quest-line challenges. Through the illusory Fray, the Warrior of Light’s inner monologue is not only given a voice but a body: a body capable of slaying wrongdoers with impunity. This willingness to kill, coupled with the bitterness and frustration, shows that the Warrior is more just an emotionless do-gooder. They’re a person with real doubts and fears, and the weight of their burdens is sometimes too much to bear.
As the Dark Knight quest-line shows how the Warrior of Light suffers for the people of Ishgard, it also shows how Ishgard itself is suffering. Like every other town, city, world, and dimension in Final Fantasy XIV, Ishgard is full of problems for the Warrior of Light to solve. The lowborn people living in the city’s Foundation district live in fear of the noble Temple Knights, while the highborn of the Holy See reap the benefits of the Church’s protection. Through the quest-line, the Warrior witnesses the schism between classes firsthand. Temple Knights live without consequence, kidnapping and killing without fear of reprisal; commoners live without security, suffering from violent raids and thefts. No matter how hard it is for the Warrior to continually defend the downtrodden, the Dark Knight quest-line makes it clear that Ishgard’s downtrodden are in dire need of defending.
Through the Dark Knight quest-line, Final Fantasy XIV asks a difficult question of its protagonist: how many burdens can one person be expected to bear before they break? In a medium packed with uncompromising heroes, it’s rare for a game to interrogate what makes a hero and what it costs to become one. As a champion of men and gods alike, the Warrior of Light is constantly beset by those in need of aid. Since their quasi-silent protagonist role makes it difficult for them to communicate emotion, players had no reason to assume the Warrior had any feelings about their nigh-constant question. The Dark Knight quest turns this assumption on its head, showing how much resentment has been building up inside their mind. As it turns out, even the celebrated Warrior has a limit to how much they can handle, and they’ve come terrifyingly close to that limit. Even though the quest-line’s conclusion shows the Warrior subduing their darkest impulses, the player is left with the lingering impression that those emotions will never truly be gone. This impression colors even the most benign quests that follow, as each one asks an underlying question: “How much more of this can the Warrior take before they can’t take it anymore?”
The Dark Knight Quest-line develops the main narrative of Final Fantasy XIV by expanding on three key areas: character, setting, and theme. By providing insight into the Warrior of Light and the people of Ishgard, while asking difficult questions about the cost of heroism, the quest-line adds new layers of nuance to both past and future quests. Writers who wish to draft compelling subplots can look to the Dark Knight quest-line as an example of how to weave subplots into larger narratives by developing pre-existing story elements.
StoryScan: Final Fantasy XIV and Character
Final Fantasy XIV establishes its villain’s character through an arc that forces him to make difficult choices.
Narrative Analysis: Subplots and Side Stories
Subplots and side stories add depth to narratives by expanding the world while emphasizing themes and playing with tone.
StoryScan: Spec Ops: The Line and Theme
Spec Ops: The Line leaves a lasting impression on players by reinforcing its theme, the high cost of heroism, at key plot points.
1 Kim, Matt. “Final Fantasy 14 Surpasses 24 Million Players, Becomes Most Profitable Final Fantasy Game In the Series.” Ign, October 13th, 2021.
2 Higham, Michael. “Final Fantasy 14 Endwalker Expansion Revealed, Coming Fall 2021 – Everything We Know.” GameSpot, February 6th, 2021.
3 Lo Giudice, Federico. “Final Fantasy 14 Story Recap for Endwalker.” GameRant, December 2nd, 2021.
4 Parrish, Ash. “My mad dash to catch up in time for Final Fantasy XIV’s Endwalker expansion.” The Verge, December 2nd, 2021.
* Reference Footage: Harmonea. “Final Fantasy XIV: Class and Job Quests (Dark Knight pt1).” YouTube, 2016.