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Introduction

For this assignment, I have chosen to analyze the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game (MMORPG) known as Final Fantasy XIV (Square Enix, 2010) and determine a few of the ways in which its players use it to construct identities and represent themselves through its characters (player-made and otherwise) and the jobs they can have. Additionally, I will look at how the game’s economy is defined and how players also use it to define and represent themselves. Initially released under Square Enix producer Hiromichi Tanaka, it is the second online entry in Square Enix’s list of Final Fantasy games, and the races used by the player characters are based on the ones from the first online entry known as Final Fantasy XI (Square Enix, 2002), with their names having been changed while their appearances were also improved. Though the game has a complicated history, its first version was released in September 2010 (Sainsbury, 2015) and, despite being visually beautiful, boasted several gameplay problems that caused not just lag but also frustration for players, such as menus that took too long to navigate, a convoluted battle system that made every action take a long time to execute, and a lack of variety to combat-based content, to name a few.

A game reborn

The game’s many issues were such that they could not be fully resolved by having a new team take over its production and releasing patches that addressed several of the problems, so the new producer, Naoki Yoshida, shut down the servers in November 2012 and released the second version of this game in August 2013 (Sainsbury, 2015). This was accomplished through the use of a CGI (computer-generated imagery) trailer in which the world as players knew it was essentially destroyed, paving the way for Yoshida’s team to rework the physical environment and maps of most areas.

Where the original version received an overwhelmingly negative response, this second version garnered widespread approval. Though this new version, subtitled A Realm Reborn (Square Enix, 2013), was released a few years ago, it continues to add new expansions to its universe, with Heavensward (Square Enix, 2015) being the most recent one and Stormblood (Square Enix, 2017a) scheduled for release on June 20th 2017. Several factors combine to make Final Fantasy XIV (Square Enix, 2010) a consistently relevant and popular game even today: each new expansion, like A Realm Reborn (Square Enix, 2013), is released in Japan, North America and Europe with the language options of Japanese, English, French and German available to all versions; its massive player base was last reported to be over six million players (Square Enix, 2017c); and it has a long list of awards to its name, including a Guinness World Record for “Most prolific role playing game” (Stephenson, 2017, para. 2). As such, the game fits Storey’s (2009) first definition of popular culture as ‘well liked by many people’ (p. 5).

Gaming as a social activity

A great part of the appeal of MMORPGs is their social aspect: they allow people to connect to each other through the Internet over a common interest. As humans are naturally social creatures, they have a need to interact with others around them, and this is no different in the gaming world where players rely on others for information and friendship (Grooten & Kowert, 2015). In fact, because of its online nature, online gaming allows people to interactively connect to literally anyone in ways that may not otherwise be possible for them, whether it be because of time constraints, distance, disability or simple social discomfort. Games may also allow people to temporarily escape difficult life situations such as isolation or abuse. By its very nature as a MMORPG, this game promotes collaboration and teamwork, and as such most content, such as dungeons, cannot be completed alone. There are five Data Centers spread out between Japan, Europe and North America, and each one features several servers. The Duty Finder feature, which allows a player to queue for any given duty, automatically matches up the player with others from servers across the same Data Center, giving each player the option to select which other languages they wish to queue up with. Further, the roulettes of this feature each contain a number of dungeons with a particular level or difficulty requirement: this ensures that new players who are queueing up a single duty have the chance to get help in completing it from other players, and grants those veteran players who use the roulette a special bonus for queueing it up.

There is also a wide variety of player guilds (known as Free Companies) that one can join upon reaching a certain level and where they may ask for help from their guildmates, and players are also able to add other people on their server to their friend list. On the other hand, the quests of the game mostly promote independence by making effective use of signifiers (Chandler, 2016): for example, a meteor icon above an NPC’s (Non-Player Character) head denotes a quest from the game’s main storyline, a glowing spot on the ground can be clicked on to pick up an item, and a quest icon on a player’s mini-map tells them where they have to go in order to progress with their quest. Of course, if any of these signifiers are unclear to the player, they can ask for help not only from the people they know, but also from strangers through the use of chat filters such as Shout which make a player’s message visible to every other player on the same map. The game is also very customer-focused and community-oriented in other ways: Yoshida, the producer and director, regularly stays in touch with the player base through the official forums, often attends player conventions, and is known to give several interviews. Through the forums, he also hosts contests and “question and answer” sessions in addition to regularly teasing information about upcoming content or merchandise through “Letters from the Producer”, recorded videos that are shortly thereafter translated and made into transcripts, with all of this content being shared on the official forums (Square Enix, 2017b).

Gaming as identity forming

As Grooten and Kowert (2015) point out, games allow people to create virtual identities in a digital world through their avatar, which can become part of the process of forming their own identity as the character may represent the player’s personality. The way the player’s character(s) is(are) programmed in Final Fantasy XIV (Square Enix, 2010) allows for a wide variety of customization options to create one (or several) character(s) that they feel best represent(s) them: different face types with further customization options for specific parts such as the eyes, nose and mouth, a wide variety of skintones, hair colors and hair styles, and even the option to have hair highlights and heterochromia (two different-colored eyes). Part of this customization also includes choosing a voice for their character although this character remains a mute, and the voice is only heard during combat or when the character is performing some emoted actions. The fact that the character has no voice in which to speak and is only occasionally given textual choices during pre-rendered cutscenes is supposed to allow the player to feel more immersed in the game, the idea being that they can imagine themselves in the character’s shoes. When the character’s lips are seen to be moving but the player is not given any textual options, it allows for the creativity of the player to imagine how their character might be talking in their own voice and what they might be saying.

In Final Fantasy XIV (Square Enix, 2010), the player’s character is an adventurer and the player chooses what city-state they will begin in by choosing which starting combat class to assign to them: for instance, an Archer will be sent to the forest town of Gridania. The player’s starting class generally leads them to a job specialization at higher levels; however, one of the advantages of this game is that it does not force the player into a single combat role per character. As of level ten, the player can, by equipping a different class or job’s weapon, immediately switch to that job or class. This type of flexibility is more suited to the modern gamer because it allows them to become fully invested in a single character without being limited by what they can try. The beginning of the story is all about learning about your first class, and the game forces you to familiarize yourself with it to a certain extent by not unlocking the ability to use other classes until you reach level ten. Its focus at this point is also not on the story: it progresses slowly and most of your questing consists of either fetching items for an NPC or killing a certain number of one or several weak monsters. In that way, the game eases the player into becoming familiar with its controls, features, and environment (namely, the local area maps) while also granting new combat skills every few levels to maintain player interest and motivation in leveling a class. The level of flexibility granted by the many classes that a player can choose to level allows them to adopt several identities on one character as the mood strikes them.

As McCloud (1994) points out, drawing an object in a realistic fashion serves to objectify it and emphasize its difference from the player. In the case of Final Fantasy XIV (Square Enix, 2010), the weapons and armors are drawn somewhat realistically to reflect the themes that they are supposed to represent, with a variety of details and accessories often accentuating their otherness from the player. Given that the contests are often about designing a new outfit or hairstyle and that the winners get their entries made into content, this game can in a way be said to fit the fourth definition of popular culture outlined by Storey (2009): ‘culture actually made by the people for themselves’ (p. 5), especially since Yoshida has been known to consider and even acquiesce to certain player requests. As he is himself a gamer, Yoshida understands the importance of listening to player feedback in helping to improve the game in order to both retain their current players and attract new ones (Lin, 2015). This was what led him to develop an open relationship with players by keeping them regularly updated on the status of the game through the forums (Square Enix, 2017b). As a result, players can develop positive relationships with both other players and the team producing the game that they play.

Gaming economy

Another way in which players can define their identity, as well as their level of power and influence in the game, is through the game’s economy. Apart from the monthly subscription fee required to progress past a certain level and keep up with the game’s updates, Square Enix does not require players to spend any additional real money. Instead, there is a Market Board through which players can sell their tradable goods to other players. Some of the jobs one’s character can choose to level up are classified as crafters, called Disciples of the Hand, and gatherers, called Disciples of the Land. The better one’s equipment is, the more easily the player can craft or items of high quality. In addition, there are certain items that are locked to the casual crafter and gatherer: to unlock them, players need to obtain specific “tomes” that in turn require a high level of skill in crafting or gathering. The materials unlocked by these “tomes” thus become rare commodities (Coleman & Dyer-Witheford, 2007) that players can sell at prices of their choosing if demand is high enough, which allows them to control the market on these items. As a result, some players become quite rich and control the game’s economy. In addition, the game has housing districts with a limited number of plots that feature three different plot sizes: small, medium and large. Each district can only have a certain number of each plot size. As demand for these is high, players are quick to grab any that become available and, if they resell, can set expensive prices in order to turn a profit, making houses another valuable commodity of this game (Coleman & Dyer-Witheford, 2007). Players can define their identity and how they represent themselves through the crafter(s) and/or gatherer(s) they choose to level up, and also through the styles and sizes that they choose for their houses, including the types of decorations they choose to showcase.

Conclusion

Final Fantasy XIV (2010) presents players with the opportunity to interact with peers, thus learning to work collaboratively and build friendships and partnerships. It also stimulates their creativity and imagination by allowing them to choose both their character’s appearance and the role that they will play, which in turn lets them create and present to others an identity of their choosing. Its in-game economy contributes to the identity that they choose to present to other players by giving them a certain level of power over the player market through the crafter and gatherer jobs that they can specialize in. Players are allowed the freedom to express themselves in a variety of ways that encourage them to define their own journey throughout the game.

 


 

References

Chandler, D. (2016). Semiotics for beginners. Retrieved from http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/S4B/

Coleman, S., & Dyer-Witheford, N. (2007). Playing on the digital commons: collectivities, capital and contestation in videogame culture. Media, Culture & Society, 29(6), 934-953.

Grooten, J., & Kowert, R. (2015). Going Beyond the Game: Development of Gamer Identities Within Societal Discourse and Virtual Spaces. Loading… The Journal of the Canadian Gaming Studies Organization, 9(14), 70-87. Retrieved from http://journals.sfu.ca/loading/index.php/loading/article/view/151/189

Lin, J. C. (2015, April 14). Meet the Guy Who Saved Final Fantasy XIV from Total Disaster. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/3817373/final-fantasy-14-naoki-yoshida/

McCloud, S. (1994). The vocabulary of comics. In Understanding comics: The invisible art. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Sainsbury, M. (2015). Game art: Art from 40 video games and interviews with their creators. San Francisco, CA: No Starch Press.

Square Enix. (2002). Final Fantasy XI [MMORPG]. Tokyo, Japan.

Square Enix. (2010). Final Fantasy XIV [MMORPG]. Tokyo, Japan.

Square Enix. (2012, November 11). FINAL FANTASY XIV: A Realm Reborn — End of an Era [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39j5v8jlndM

Square Enix. (2013). Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn [MMORPG]. Tokyo, Japan.

Square Enix. (2015). Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward [MMORPG]. Tokyo, Japan.

Square Enix. (2017a). Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood [MMORPG]. Tokyo, Japan.

Square Enix. (2017b). Letters from the Producer. Retrieved from http://forum.square-enix.com/ffxiv/forums/642-Letters-from-the-Producer

Square Enix. (2017c). FINAL FANTASY XIV Promotional Site. Retrieved from http://na.finalfantasyxiv.com/

Stephenson, S. (2017, February 21). Final Fantasy racks up three new record titles at Frankfurt fan festival. Guinness World Records. Retrieved from http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2017/2/final-fantasy-wracks-up-three-new-record-titles-at-frankfurt-fan-festival-463343

Storey, J. (2009). What is popular culture? In Cultural theory and popular culture: An introduction (5th ed.) (pp. 1-15). New York: Pearson Longman.

Micro-Essay #2: Spatial Storytelling and Virtual Worlds

Cynthia Ahmar (26708587)
ENGL 255
Carolyn Jong
March 24th 2017

 

As we know from the concept of narratology, the study of how narratives affect our perceptions of the world around us, games can tell stories. One could even argue that every game tells a story in its own way, or even that all games begin as stories: a story is intended to convey a message and game creators seek to reach those who will play them, their target audiences, by grabbing their interest, which is what a story is meant to do. However, as Jenkins (2004) points out, games cannot be viewed purely from the perspective of narrative but rather can be understood almost as pieces of art. Just how a game’s visual elements, graphics and other non-textual elements can tell a story is the main focus of Jenkins’ article.

In the game Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2008), we see a prime example of the graphics that depict the physical environment setting the mood in its “An Antique Land” mission: a murky, cloud-covered wasteland inhabited only by skeletons and monsters, the landscape featuring several remnants from a past era and painting a picture of desolation and emptiness. In fact, what can be seen tells us almost less than what we cannot see, what is unnaturally absent. The remnants, located in and around the “muck holes” (Polansky, 2012), tell a story of something that once existed. Seeing them, we can imagine the people who used to live there and the kind of life they lived. Whether our imagination is accurate to the history of this place is not as important as the fact that its environment allowed us to construct our own understanding of it. Jenkins’ (2004) argument that games reveal narrative elements through the use of their designed spaces finds its place there.

Environmental storytelling can also often evoke pre-existing narrative associations: for instance, Dungeons & Dragons (Gygax & Arneson, 2014) uses a lot of fantasy and medieval elements such as dragons, dungeons, wizards and elves. How the game’s environment is set up can also tell us a lot about how we are meant to understand it: a completely empty building can give us a feeling of tragedy, sadness or apprehension. In Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013), visual elements that determine a mood of something that feels unfinished and abandoned include: unpacked boxes and luggage, various paper notes penned by Sam that are positioned in many places throughout the house, cupboards and drawers that can be opened and searched, and even the animations rendered through game code, such as zooming in and out, and moving from one room to another.

Jenkins (2004) argues that as a sensation given through sound, music can also set the mood of a place or situation in a game: an upbeat song can evoke happiness and motivation whereas a slower piece can evoke wistfulness, and if there are lyrics, they can also contribute to the mood through the words used and the voice of the singer. At the end of Gone Home (The Fullbright company, 2013), the feeling that the story is unfinished persists: elements such as the exact nature of Sam’s actions, whereabouts and intentions (both present and future), as well as Katie’s feelings about the entire situation, are left up to personal interpretation by the player who is supposed to be in Katie’s shoes. The song heard at the end also helps to create a mood that reinforces the storyline and its theme of being unfinished, at least from my perspective, with its wistful lyrics and slow and soft music. Sam’s dictated narrative, found at various places throughout the house, is another auditory tool that is used to further unpack the plot while also contributing to this theme: she is sharing various parts of her story with the player but the game ends without a real resolution and on the hopeful note that Sam and Katie will meet again. By the end, these spatial tools have revealed to us a new element in the form of the true meaning of the game: we can see it as Katie (the player) having ‘gone home’, but I think a more interesting interpretation is that of Sam having left her parents’ house and ‘gone’ to her real ‘home’, which to her is anywhere that her girlfriend is.

The visual and auditory elements of spatial storytelling in Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013) serve to create a compelling narrative that contributes to the highly immersive atmosphere of the game, while at the same time potentially leaving the player feeling unsatisfied or at least wanting more by the end. Though this game is a story exploration, it appears to boast similarities to the visual novel game type: expository text, and several accompanying visual and auditory elements. The visual novel is an interactive game particularly distinguished by static graphics and strong characterization, elements that are both present in Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013). Perhaps this game can then be considered a visual novel.


References

Bethesda Game Studios (2008). Fallout 3 [PC Game]. Rockville, MD: Bethesda Softworks.

Gygax, G., & Arneson, D. (2014). Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition [Tabletop Game]. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.

Jenkins, H. (2004). Game design as narrative architecture. In N. Wardrip-Fruin & P. Harrigan (Eds.), First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game (pp. 118-130). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Polansky, L. (2012, October). The poetry of created space. Retrieved from http://www.bitcreature.com/criticism/the-poetry-of-created-space/

The Fullbright Company (2013). Gone Home [PC Game]. Portland, OR: The Fullbright Company.

Micro-Essay #2: Spatial Storytelling and Virtual Worlds

You Can Now Play Owen Gaede’s Tenure!

When we talked about this game in class after doing the reading, I looked for a way to download it and found a Twitter post by Mr. Ian Bogost referencing a Windows version of the game (the original game was for some specific system called PLATO) that he intended to eventually share. I managed to email him, and he replied to me a few days ago saying that he was still looking for that version. Just today, I received a new response from him with the link to download it! It isn’t a big file either. Here is Mr. Bogost’s blog post with the link, for any who might be interested:

http://bogost.com/writing/blog/tenure-the-game/

You Can Now Play Owen Gaede’s Tenure!

Micro-Essay #1: Ludology vs Narratology

Cynthia Ahmar (26708587)
ENGL 255
Carolyn Jong
February 17th 2017

 

Games have long been viewed as a form of entertainment, and for some, viewing them otherwise is inconceivable. To others, however, games are a form of art, tell stories, and deserve a deeper analysis than merely focusing on their rules. As such, ludology is defined as the study of a game’s actions and events; narratology, on the other hand, deals with a game’s story elements such as its themes and symbols. While the two sides tend to be at war with one another, Murray (2005) argues that they in fact share much in common and that both ideologies have value when it comes to the study of games.

Part of the argument for narratology is viewing games as something more than mere entertainment for children. In fact, a lot of games are enjoyed by adults and have very mature themes. To take the game Every Day the Same Dream (Molleindustria, 2009) as an example, it is a very basic game that contains a few hints on its mechanics on a surface level. However, several dark themes lurk underneath the surface upon a closer inspection: if the player has his character deviate from the intended route of going to work and sitting at his cubicle, the character can commit suicide or even get fired. This game tells a story about the drudgery of office work that falls under the umbrella of capitalism, an economic system where a few individuals privately own and control the industry for the sake of their profits. The office worker embodies such a system by going to his cubicle (one of many exactly like it) every day and performing the same work with little opportunity for advancement. Such a game can hardly be observed purely from a ludologist perspective.

One other game that I can cite as a perfect example of the need to consider games’ mechanical and narrative aspects is Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (Square Enix, 2013). This game boasts a main storyline that dictates the general direction of every new update to it, and in fact several of its dungeons require progression through this main storyline in order to be accessible. This storyline involves many dramatic elements: the recurring villainous characters known as “Ascians”, the threat posed by the many beast tribes, the player’s own character who is treated as the hero of this tale, and the often violent deaths of several characters. The most important aspects of the story are illustrated through the use of cutscenes, which are set videos that pause gameplay in order to develop the game’s main story. At the same time, however, this game has raid content that is considered to be for the more “hardcore” players: they are very mechanics intensive and failure to understand and work through these mechanics results in an inability to clear such content. Yet at the same time, even this raid content boasts, at its base, story elements that serve to define both its graphical backgrounds and the way the fights unfold. We can also reverse this argument: though the regular dungeons are meant to be easy to clear for everyone, every boss fight involves some manner of mechanics that can kill a party on their first dungeon run. Granted, these mechanics are not as punishing as those of a raid and are more easily navigated by all players. Still, this serves to illustrate Murray’s (2005) point that neither ludology nor narratology can one-sidedly decide that their ideology is the only way to study games.

Aarseth (2012) offers up the argument that the ludologist position was meant to “emphasize the crucial importance of combining the mechanical and the semiotic aspects and to caution against and criticize the uncritical and unqualified application of terms such as ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ to games” (p. 2) rather than outright condemn the study of narratology in games. In short, the two sides co-exist. There is no point to having a good story if its mechanical elements are not interesting, but on the other hand, a game without a story can quickly become droll.


References

Aarseth, E. (2012, May). A narrative theory of games. In Proceedings of the international conference on the foundations of digital Games (pp. 129-133). ACM.

Molleindustria. (2009). Every Day the Same Dream [Flash game]. Retrieved from http://www.molleindustria.org/everydaythesamedream/everydaythesamedream.html

Murray, J. H. (2005, June). The last word on ludology v narratology in game studies. In International DiGRA Conference.

Square Enix (2013). Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn [Video game: MMORPG]. Tokyo, Japan.

Micro-Essay #1: Ludology vs Narratology

Final Fantasy XIV (MMORPG)

For anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of trying this amazing game, I recommend starting here:

A brief history: the first version of the game was not well received and eventually the servers were taken down for it to be remade. The above CGI trailer is what was shown to players right before the servers went offline. And the trailer for the remake of the game is here:

If anyone is interested in the free trial, go here:
http://freetrial.finalfantasyxiv.com/na/

Final Fantasy XIV (MMORPG)