Hardship is a social glue, especially in games. Shared victories and mutual defeat, confusion, frustration— these are bonding mechanisms that transcend the IRL-URL barrier. In MMORPGs, in which community is a main draw, the difference between a challenging game and an easy game can also mean the difference between a strong and weak community. I experienced this when I migrated from Final Fantasy XI to Final Fantasy XIV, two games that are on opposite ends of the inscrutability spectrum.
I was in eighth grade when my brother’s friend recommended Final Fantasy XI. There was something in me that craved a social experience different from eighth-grade girlhood, an interpersonal shark tank. I met Muadib soon after I first spawned in Pandemonium, the most aptly-named server for the MMORPG. The Federation of Windurst was a cartological disaster of a starting point, a city within a sprawling forest—too sprawling for me, a middle-schooler with minimal experience navigating MMORPGs. I was in over my head, overwhelmed by Windurst’s meandering paths and enigmatic quest sequences. After a couple of hours, I found my way back to the spawn point and—embarrassingly in retrospect—said to whomever was in the zone, “What do I do now?”
Muadib was standing there idle, waiting for someone like me to ask something like that. He was a tall, red-haired elf with dark skin and armor. He guided me through Windurst’s winding pathways and opening quests, pointing out the most necessary ones among the sea of needless plot-hooks. (Mind you, it was the early 2000s, before exhaustive online MMORPG guides.) Soon, we ventured out into the West Sarutabaruta zone to rail on some crabs. He familiarized me with the game’s unintuitive combat system, crucial for my squishy, low-leveled Black Mage. Returning to Windurst, Muadib introduced me to a few friends and told me to hit him up if I needed anything. Invigorated, I ventured out into West Sarutabaruta again, merrily dying a half dozen times before I reached level ten.
To get to the next leveling zone, the Valkurm Dunes, I had to cross through a canyon stocked with reptilian beasts and a sandy peninsula riddled with goblins, then take a ship across an ocean, on which I was pummeled by huge fish and sent back to Windurst. After braving it alone, I found a group of players standing outside the forest city, ready to attack the next set of challenges together. It felt like the game was hazing me, but that’s how I found my first Linkshell, FFXI’s guild-like social group. Those were the people I spent every day with, discussing the perils of eighth grade, then freshman year—also, the perils of surviving the game’s increasingly formidable challenges.
“The Dunes,” as they were called, took no prisoners. Even running across the desert to meet a party elicited aggros from high-challenge creatures, barely defeatable by five players my level. But outside the zone camped compassionate players who took turns guiding low-level players like me to our parties. These people welcomed newer players into their higher-leveled Linkshells, excitedly reliving the challenges of their first Dunes go-throughs. Experienced players would literally map out portions of their day to log onto Final Fantasy XI and help strangers. Later on in my tenure, I would do that for newbies, too.
Final Fantasy XI is a damn hard MMORPG, but its difficulty was what adhered its community. I never felt alone; there were always players—strangers even—offering company on long treks, protection across dangerous zones, healing for low-leveled classes and conversation during the often-gruelling wait for party matchmaking.
It felt like a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, in the truest sense: thousands upon thousands of people, together, fighting the same battles, suffering the same defeats, riding the same rushes, playing the role of each other’s companions.
Like many FFXI players, I’ve moved on to the greener pastures of Final Fantasy XIV. And let me tell you: In that game, up to level 42, I haven’t needed anyone’s help. And that’s what makes it a little sad.
The first ten levels of FFXIV reminded me of being on a cruise, safely ushered to various tourist spots where you stop to take a picture and buy some souvenirs before moving on. Clear directions early on led me to the Thaumaturge’s Guild, where I picked up quests for my class. Other quest-hooking NPCs are placed strategically close to each other, so I never went too far out of my way to progress through the game. And if I did, the difficulty of zones increases slowly as players are pushed through them, rarely leading them into high-level zones unprepared for high-level aggros. I gained experience easily by fighting monsters listed in my Challenge Log, a sort of checklist for leveling up, or stumbling upon the ubiquitous “FATES,” typically easy battle events clearly marked on my map. In dungeons, experienced players quickly grouped with me through the game’s party-matcher took the lead, making as little conversation as possible before unceremoniously disengaging.
At my level, discussion was rare at all in my various Linkshells and Free Companies, another guild-like system, since nobody ever needed much assistance until later in the game. I wandered through FFXIV’s gorgeous, impeccably-designed zones with nobody to struggle with.
In group battles, I would look at the avatar next to me, effortlessly tearing down the same mob. What did I have to say to her? We didn’t have anything to coordinate in combat. I knew where I was going next. My next few quests appeared on the side of my screen, plainly laying out my next few hours in-game. Before I could think of anything, she would call up her mount and go on her way, assuredly somewhere else where she wouldn’t need me, as I did not need her. Until I turned some real-life friends on to FFXIV, a curt “hello” and “goodbye” to my Linkshell was my only method for asserting my personhood in-game.
It’s lonely as shit.
It’s struggle that bonds people in-world and IRL: shared highs and lows to reminisce on, feeling the same chemical rushes in the same moments. FFXI was a hard fucking game, and also, back then, flawed as all hell. FFXIV is nearly pristine in its design, which means players don’t need each other to know what to do. Everything’s accounted for; the game gives you the guidance that other players used to. It’s beautiful, but again like life, hardship breeds togetherness, the real reason I play MMORPGs.