Beyond Imagination: Unraveling the Postmodern Mythos of Final Fantasy XIV

Examining the concepts of myth, fiction and fantasy in Final Fantasy XIV

Beyond Imagination: Unraveling the Postmodern Mythos of Final Fantasy XIV
An image attached to the event on the official Final Fantasy XIV 10th Anniversary website appears to depict a celestial deity, presumably Hydaelyn, the guardian of Mothercrystal, within the game. Artwork by Yoshitaka Amano. Source: Square Enix.

Considering that myths serve as the foundation of a representational tradition, bridging communities through shared interpretations, perhaps engaging in the gameplay of Final Fantasy XIV might provide a postmodern encounter akin to a mythological experience.

The idea of analyzing the Final Fantasy lore as a mythological experience is something that was fruitfully developed by Rémi Lopez, in his book Le Monde Selon Final Fantasy: Le RPG Japonais Comme Mythe Moderne [The World According to Final Fantasy: The Japanese RPG As Modern Myth] (2022). Rémi looks to Carl Gustav Jung, Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade for understanding of mythology's psychological and anthropological aspects.

Rémi delves into the narrative symbology of all the mainline Final Fantasy games from I to XV, except for the MMORPGs (Final Fantasy XI and XIV), drawing insights from concepts in psychology, anthropology, and the classic Western literary tradition. However, he concludes his book with a notable gap, leaving these two MMORPGs unexplored.

In this essay, I will analyze the various layers of Final Fantasy XIV fiction without analyzing its content. I intend to illustrate its formal complexity as a fantasy narrative, and how it can be interpreted as an intriguing postmodern mythical experience. For this, I will also consider studies on fantasy, especially Tzvetan Todorov’s proposal.

Since Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (2013), the game has been produced and directed by Naoki Yoshida and featured beautiful artistic contributions by Hiroshi Minagawa and Akihiko Yoshida, some of which will be shown throughout this text, as well as some paintings by Yoshitaka Amano.

Artwork by Akihiko Yoshida, depicting a chibi character and a Chinese dragon breathing fire and chasing Naoki Yoshida (Yoshi-P). Source: Final Fantasy Fandom.

Myth, Fiction, Fantasy

Myth vs. Fiction

The concept of "myth" is an extremely polysemous term. For it to be useful for this essay, it is necessary to specify in what sense we use this word. First, it is necessary to explain why a myth is more than a fiction. We know that "fiction" is a concept that opposes the "real", but it is difficult to define what a fiction is. There is a long discussion of this in an area of philosophy called The Ontology of Fictional Entities.

In future essays, I plan to discuss this more, but for now, it's important to recognize that fictional objects can be seen as "beings" even though they are not physical. Some philosophers argue they are abstract objects, such as mathematical objects (the triangle and the number π, for example, are also beings, but they are not material beings).

Books like Homer's Iliad and the Bible can now be studied and viewed as “fictional books”, but they are much more for those who hold factual beliefs* about their content. Interpreting them becomes part of the activity of interpreting reality itself. It is in this sense that Mircea Eliade (Myth and Reality, 1963) says that today we can understand myths as part of religious phenomena and fundamental aspects of human thought.

* Unlike "secondary beliefs" found within fictional contexts (e.g., "I believe Sherlock Holmes resides on Backstreet"), "primary beliefs" or factual beliefs pertain to what we hold as truth in reality (e.g., "I believe in the Big Bang theory, which explains the origin of our universe").

Myths are neither verifiable nor false, although at the same time, they are unfalsifiable and accepted as real. On the other hand, in modernity, we tend either to study myths as logically structured religious systems (that is, as mythology) or to face them as part of the fantasy of a fictional work*. Thus, we need to analyze what fantasy is from a modern point of view, and to this I dedicate the next subtopic.

* I suggest reading Rémi Lopez's book if you understand French. It's a great analysis of Final Fantasy mythology. Other books by this publisher have an English translation, so I hope this one will be translated as well.

Modern and Postmodern Definitions of Fantasy

Formally, fantasy is categorized as a subgenre of speculative fiction (coined by Robert Heinlein in the late 1940s), which is distinguished from realistic fiction (such as historical fiction).

As a particular case of speculative fiction, fantasy can be a low fantasy or a high fantasy. In the first case, it takes place at first in the real world, but contains fantastic events at some point (such as Pinocchio). In the second case, it takes place entirely in a fantastic world, governed by languages, races, geography, and laws of nature that differ from the real world (such as The Lord of the Rings).

In the Venn diagram below, you can visualize some of the main fantasy subtypes in the red set within speculative fiction.

Speculative Fiction Subgenres Diagram. Source: Nerd for Hire.

In view of the great potential for a variety of fantastic fictions, in recent centuries we have been studying how to define precisely what a fantasy is.

Modern definition 1 (Samuel Taylor Coleridge): Fantasy is a fictional narrative with...

  1. Ludic escape from what is possible in the real world;
  2. Plot in an alternate world (second world)* based on a mechanical reassembly of empirically founded ideas through an imaginary gimmick.
* The notion of a “second world” stems from the proposals put forth by empiricist philosophers like David Hume and John Locke. They sought to distinguish between primary or simple ideas and more complex ideas formed through associations, like the concept of a centaur, which blends human and horse attributes. Samuel Taylor Coleridge would say that the horse and human ideas live in the first world of the imagination, while the centaur idea inhabits a second world or an alternate realm.

Modern definition 2 (J.R.R. Tolkien): Fantasy is a fictional narrative with...

  1. Subversive* escape from what is possible in the real world;
  2. Plot in an alternate world (second world) based on:
  • a sub-creation of which the author is a creator-God in the secondary world,
  • imaginary extrapolations of elements from the real world (primary world), and
  • secondary beliefs of reader/viewer/player about the coherence of the secondary world that start from the acceptance of the premises of the narrative.
* The fantastic escape as offering a power of transformation, the ability of the secondary world to conquer the primary world (psychologically, socio-politically, or theologically); the utopian and subversive power of fantasy makes it possible to deny present experience and transform human life.

Postmodern definition (Tzvetan Todorov): Fantasy is a narrative with...

  1. An implied reader who can merge with the real reader/viewer/player as he or she suspends disbelief and provisionally accepts the referential world of the narrative as reality;
  2. A sequence of fantastical events taking place in our world that:
  • appear to be supernatural, and
  • require the reader/viewer/player to decide whether the events are an illusion (fantastic uncanny) or should be taken as real (fantastic marvelous).*
* “Fantastic uncanny events” find their explanations in real-world mechanisms such as madness, dreams, and drugs. On the contrary, in “fantastic marvelous events,” we assume that supernatural occurrences genuinely occur as they appear, causing a revision of the “laws of reality” to account for these extraordinary happenings.

What is common between the modern definitions of fantasy mentioned above is the escape from reality and the separation between the real and the fantastic in different worlds. On the other hand, Todorov's postmodern definition of fantasy blends the real and the fantastic into one world: a fantasy is considered real, but provisionally and paradoxically (cf. George Aichele, Jr., Literary Fantasy and Postmodern Theology, 1991).

From a postmodern point of view, the reality of fantasy is provisional because it depends on a temporary pact between the reader/spectator/player and the author. The reality of fantasy is paradoxical because it comprises a constant tension between the illusory or the marvelous and the real, since the gaps in fantastic fiction are filled in by elements of the reality we know. Even if not specified in a fantasy, for example, we assume that there is something analogous to gravity in the plot, that there is cause and effect between events, and that a humanoid character has several psychological similarities to a human.

The academic discussion on the fantasy genre is much broader, and there are other interesting definitions. Authors like Roman Ingarden, Gaston Bachelard, and Paul Ricoeur present rigorous definitions in a modern style.

Personally, I think that it’s more appropriate to understand a fantasy in the modern way (separating the real and the fantastic into distinct ontological worlds), although we still don’t have a perfect definition in that style. However, my experience with Final Fantasy XIV has led me to think that perhaps postmodern definitions are especially effective for fantasy RPGs, especially MMORPGs. In the next topic, I will argue why.

High Fantasy in MMORPG

Anyone who plays Final Fantasy XIV in a short time will conclude that they are in a high fantasy world. The game takes place in Eorzea, a world with unique races, invented languages, a long mythological and political history, an immense geographical map, and magical forces that govern the elements of nature and even time and space.

On the other hand, as an MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV has several peculiarities that make its fantasy “more real” than we usually think when we immerse ourselves in other fantasies. In the following subtopics, I will argue why I think there are good reasons to understand Eorzea as a provisional reality, but also a paradoxical world. While for postmodern theorists, these properties are common to other fantasies, they seem especially salient in MMORPGs.

Provisional Reality: Real and Fictional Interactions

From a purely narrative point of view, Final Fantasy XIV has a linear story, with few and subtle variations of dialogue with the characters in the plot. However, this MMORPG applies the narrative design of “string of pearls”, so there are sidequests with optional content that expand what the player can do in the world. However, doing them or not is irrelevant to the course of events in the main plot and the endgame.

Source: Chris Stone, Game Developer, 2019.

Interactions within the world of Final Fantasy XIV extend beyond optional quests. Although interaction with objects in the world (buildings, furniture, etc.) is minimal, there is a wide variety of interactions with other players. Moreover, the game offers an expanding range of customization options, ranging from purely aesthetic choices, like dyeing your hair, to functional features, such as purchasing battle equipment.

We can differentiate interactions in Final Fantasy XIV into two types: fictional and real. Fictional interactions are those that the player has with NPCs and the environment of the fictional world. On the other hand, real interactions are those that the player has with other players, resulting in something like a "virtual society" with real social phenomena.

Fictional Interactions:

  • optional quests;
  • simple dialog choices;
  • gradual freedom of exploration in the world;
  • protagonist (avatar) customization.

MMORPGs offer a unique mix of real and fantasy interactions. In Final Fantasy XIV, at first real interactions appear to be invisible to NPCs, as they do not alter the course of events in the main story. Despite the indifference of the NPCs, the fictional world becomes a public space to express interests and opinions not only about the game world but also about the world outside the game.

Real Interactions:

  • chat with other players;
  • PvP or co-op in quests, battles, events, and mini-games;
  • economy with other players;
  • social relationships between players;
  • cultural activities (such as painting and music).
Final Fantasy XIV players paying tribute to Kentaro Miura (creator of the "Berserk" manga) when he passed on May 6, 2021. Source: @ZTumet (via Twitter).

If players not only spend time and money in the world of Final Fantasy XIV, but also build complex social and cultural activities unrelated to fictional elements, that is a sign that they recognize that place is, in some sense, part of reality. It may be a provisional reality (an artificial world that will come to an end and whose premises are temporarily accepted), but it has real value. It's as if the game world becomes an extension of the world we know or even, for some players, it can be a part that our world has lost.

Just as someone can lose a leg and have in its place a prosthesis as real as that one, we can also have social relationships in Final Fantasy XIV as real as those we have personally. Even if they are not identical relations, they are functionally analogous, useful, and valuable.

Paradoxical World: Real Interactions as Metafiction Within Fiction

However, the world of Final Fantasy XIV is not just a provisional reality, it is also a paradoxical world. At first glance, the real interactions seem invisible to the Final Fantasy XIV fiction, but most of these interactions are actually implicitly accepted as part of the fiction. Many real interactions not only overlap with fictional ones but are themselves partially fictional. That is the paradox.

When we take part in minigames or a wedding, for example, in the fictional world these activities were made for the NPCs to earn money or for the obligation of political decisions of the cities, as well as for the well-being of different adventurers of Eorzea. In that sense, the NPCs act as if they were interacting with different adventurers in the world. However, it is impossible for all these adventurers (as players) to be the same Warrior of Light from the main story.

In Final Fantasy XIV, we live in a paradox. On one hand, I live with other players who assume the role of the Warrior of Light, just like myself, within the main plot. In this context, these players are as genuine and authentic as I am, albeit living in alternate worlds. On the other hand, I recognize these same players as fictional adventurers, all traversing the same imaginary realm as me. The lines between reality and fiction blur further as I create connections — I might even marry these fictional adventurers or live next door to one of them.

Players in Final Fantasy XIV live as if in a real world within fiction, but NPCs live in a metafiction within fiction. In a wedding, the NPCs are marrying two different adventurers, but they are metafictionally marrying the Warrior of Light to himself, which is fictionally contradictory in that world.

This paradoxical metafictional mechanism is an important part of what makes it possible for players not only to have a postmodern experience (which blends reality and fantasy) but also a unique mythological experience.

The Mythology of Final Fantasy XIV

Analogous to how Final Fantasy XIV NPCs interpret players in a metafictional way, players interpret some elements of Final Fantasy XIV mythology as metafictional. Final Fantasy XIV's NPCs act as if they are in a single, unified fictional world, but players know that many elements of that mythology are counterparts to elements from other games (and their respective fictional worlds).

From an internal point of view, the myths in Final Fantasy XIV can be found mainly in the cosmogony of the fictional world, in religions, and in the legends told by NPCs and documents. These mythos provide the material for the NPCs’ mythic experience and the player’s mythological experience. While the fictional characters live the myths, the players not only are part of them but also interpret them.

Interpretation of myths not only allows players to understand myths in a more rational and complete way but also allows them to have emotions and thoughts that can be carried over to their real lives. It is especially interesting to observe how the Final Fantasy XIV community and the game’s developers elaborate relationships between the gods and the game’s main characters, just as in the past mythologists made narratives that connected the different gods and heroes of Greco-Roman mythology.

The family tree of the Twelve in Final Fantasy XIV is based on the lore in the Eorzea Encyclopaedia official merch book. Source: BroodingWanderer (via Reddit).

The mythology of Final Fantasy XIV is not limited to its fictional internal elements but also extends to references to myths from our real world (such as Norse and Greco-Roman mythology) and even to the mythologies of other fictional worlds (including other games such as NieR: Automata). However, the most important part of this metafictional mythology in Final Fantasy XIV relates to other games in the Final Fantasy series.

In the next two subtopics, we’ll examine how references to other Final Fantasy games occur in Final Fantasy XIV and how they contribute to The Hero’s Journey as a Warrior of Light.

"Cosmos & The Warriors of Light" for DISSIDIA FINAL FANTASY Limited Edition (2008), by Yoshitaka Amano. Source: Square Enix / nasastar (via Minitokyo).

The Final Fantasy of the Final Fantasies

In Final Fantasy XIV, we encounter two distinct types of metafictional references from the Final Fantasy series. The first type consists of references that seamlessly integrate into the game’s fictional narrative, involving readaptations of well-known elements like magic crystals and chocobos. On the other hand, the second type involves extrinsic metafictional references that coexist outside the game’s plot, sometimes even contradicting its established premises without influencing the fictional world’s storyline.

Extrinsic Metafictional References: Ramza Beoulve from Final Fantasy Tactics, SDS Fenrir (motorcycle) from Final Fantasy VII, Audi R8 Star of Lucis from Final Fantasy XV, etc.

Intrinsic Metafictional References: Crystal, chocobos, some specific items and skills, moogles, Gilgamesh, Cid, classes, airships, magitek, some monsters, some summons, etc.

The metafictional elements intrinsic to Final Fantasy XIV are coherent with the game world and can be understood and appreciated, even if the player has never played another Final Fantasy. However, if he has more experience with the series, these elements will make the plot more predictable, nostalgic, and familiar.

I believe no other game in the Final Fantasy series is named as appropriately as Final Fantasy XIV. That's because, more than any other game in its series, Final Fantasy XIV synthesizes elements of the entire Final Fantasy series and becomes a home for fans to feel immersed in the rich mythology of this franchise in all its complexity. Here we have elements of the mythology of all Final Fantasy and the player can feel himself the Warrior of Light.

Final Fantasy XIV. Source: Author / Square Enix.

The Spiral Adventure of the Warrior of Light

Myths not only govern the forces of nature but also link nature to the human. Usually who is the protagonist of this connection is the “hero”, someone who is between the domain of gods and men. The gods or forces of nature usually choose him to confront a great evil that endangers humanity.

Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), describes numerous heroes in the most varied mythologies, such as Jesus, Hercules, Odysseus, Aeneas and Gilgamesh. The stories of these heroes have variations, but all have in common a narrative structure that Campbell calls “The Hero’s Journey”, which is illustrated below.

I especially like Thea Cooke’s diagram above for The Hero’s Journey because it doesn’t have a circular shape, but a spiral. This is the most suitable form for fantasies like Final Fantasy XIV, as the end of a narrative arc is not necessarily the end of The Hero’s Journey, but just the end of a cycle.

A new expansion can bring a new cycle with the same narrative structure, but which considers previous events, being a cycle designed above the previous cycle, and usually around an even more threatening problem for humans and gods. Recently, this game ended its first arc, which contains a long story divided into episodes, each containing a Hero’s Journey.

The Hydaelyn-Zodiark Arc:

  1. A Realm Reborn (2013)
  2. Heavensward (2015)
  3. Stormblood (2017)
  4. Shadowbringers (2019)
  5. Endwalker (2021)

It is important to note that the mythological experience in Final Fantasy XIV differs greatly from what is found in classic mythologies.

First, because the narrative of Final Fantasy XIV contains elements typical of modernity (such as heroic romanticisms and existential questions that were strange to an ancient Greek, for example), but which are familiar to us who are directly or indirectly influenced by authors such as Shakespeare, Goethe, Descartes, Sartre, and others.

Second, because Final Fantasy XIV players see this mythology as a fantasy and not as a myth in the classic sense of the term. As I argued earlier, players have a complex and paradoxical experience in this game that blends reality and fiction. However, this should not be confused with the mythical experience, since cultures such as Ancient Greece were not aware of the modern concept of “fiction” we have discussed.

Final Thoughts

In this piece, we delve into the captivating nature of the Final Fantasy XIV experience. Although the gaming experience of this MMORPG may not be mythical in the traditional historical sense, it exhibits a mythological essence by combining various myths, both historical and fictional (particularly drawn from the vast Final Fantasy series). Moreover, it represents modern mythology, intertwining elements of romance, existentialism, and other characteristic features of modernity.

Simultaneously, we see the unparalleled and extraordinary experience that the world of Final Fantasy XIV offers. It is my belief that philosophers and literary theorists can find many intriguing questions regarding fiction and fantasy within MMORPGs like this one. Presently, the world of Final Fantasy XIV stands as the best laboratory, studying the intersection of fiction and reality, as well as the possibilities of genuine interactions in high fantasy.


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