Darlene and Stella got shifted into two different security lines on the way into the Final Fantasy XIV Fan Festival, prompting the fourteen-year-old Stella to call out “I’ll see you on the other side, mom!” to the parallel line. The two were excited to attend an annual meeting of Final Fantasy XIV players and fans in Las Vegas, but found themselves waylaid by security at the ten-yard line. Stella emptied her pockets into a bin while her mother patiently waited in front of the metal detector, chatting with me.
“She has a wallet chain,” Darlene told me in a noticeable Canadian accent. “I told her it would set off the alarm, but she didn’t listen.” Darlene was decked out in a black robe split with red splashes, which she informed me was the Diabolic Healing Set, the clothes her character wears in the game when she plays. Speaking with all the force of a proud parent, she described the Ninja set that her daughter wears when they go on quests together. “I tried to convince her to wear it here, but you know teenagers,” Darlene told me as Stella slowly approached behind her, mortified at the subject of conversation.
Darlene and Stella had been involved with Final Fantasy XIV since it originally launched in 2010, when the now-punk rock teen was still a small child. She sat on either her mother or stepfather’s lap as they played the game and watched them explore the vast Eorzean plains while they explained the intricacies of the game to her. Final Fantasy XIV was such a core part of their household that, when the game relaunched as A Realm Reborn in 2013 on a date happened to coincide with the same week as Darlene’s birthday, the family held a party celebrating both.
“Those were good…important, I guess, memories to me,” Stella said as her mother placed a hand on her shoulder and gripped it.
Soon after the game’s relaunch, Darlene’s husband passed away from a heart attack. It was sudden and Darlene described the feeling of returning home and seeing her husband’s computer still on as “watching someone pop out of existence and only his clothes are left.” They eventually shut the computer down and threw a blanket over the desk to stop thinking about it, presuming that out of sight meant out of mind. For her, it mostly worked, and she had much more on her mind than the computer desk sitting in the corner of the room.
“That’s why I was surprised when the little one over here crawled into my lap when I was watching TV and asked when we were going to play again,” Darlene says, fighting to get out the words. “She didn’t say ‘oh mom, let’s remember dad this way’ or anything like that. I think that’s what she meant, but she just said we should start playing again.”
While this was their first fan festival, the two have been playing the game almost nightly for nearly three years. Using the wall behind us, Stella described their setup as two monitors with two separate computers at a large table in the living room, so they could be next to each other as they played together.
“I asked her for a PlayStation 4 one year and she got really quiet,” Stella explains. “A few days later, she texts me saying she’ll buy one, but I can’t play [Final Fantasy] XIV on it in my room. I said okay, that’s fine, and didn’t think anything else about it. Then later I talk to my grandma who tells me mom called her crying that I might stop playing the game in the same room with her and she had to talk her down.”
Darlene smiled. “Yeah, that happened.”
For the most part, finding stories about Final Fantasy XIV at a fan festival is easy. It’s an already bought-in audience, people who came to Las Vegas to immerse themselves in the community they already enjoy and talk about why they enjoy it. While riding the elevator, I met a group of people all wearing the same custom-made powder blue t-shirt. The group, which was a diverse set of people in terms of ages, gender, and ethnicities, and all a part of the same static (a consistent group that plays together) and have known each other online for years. Fan Fests are their time to cut loose with people they have been talking to forever.
“I started playing the game with this guy around 2013,” streamer Michael ‘Ethys’ Asher said pointing to a friend next to him, “and it kind of changed the trajectory of our lives. Like a lot of MMORPGs out there but I think more so than most other MMORPGs on the market, Final Fantasy XIV facilitates the creation and consolidation of these fruitful relationships.”
The friend Ethys pointed to is another streamer that goes by the name Healme Harry, who pointed out to me that the community in the game is unique. “It’s an extremely diverse community,” Harry explained. “There’s a really, really strong LBGT community within Final Fantasy that most games don’t have. It creates a real space of safety for a lot of people. There’s so many communities in Final Fantasy XIV that create safe spaces for people – I believe there’s linkshells and free companies for women specifically, for LBGT people, for trans people specifically, as well. There’s a lot of really diverse communities within the game.”
It’s certainly no exaggeration to say the FFXIV community is inclusive. In a room marked for Gaming, dozens of PCs were lined up to play a new event ahead of time with a line stretching up and down the ballroom. Walking around the room were strangers who just had the good fortune of being next to each other happily discussing the game, gathering recommendations on where to eat, and enjoying each other’s company. As one person in the back of the line described it, “We’re all friends here, even if we haven’t met yet.”
At a table in the cafeteria, I asked a group why they played Final Fantasy XIV. One user, who goes by the in-game name Fieren, talked about how he got hooked during a trial and met so many wonderful people that he kept playing for the last two years. Another player going by Zash mentioned that he watched his friends play and joined in to spend quality time with his friends, who were also sitting at the table. As each person went around and listed their reasons, the last to speak up was a woman who goes by the name Serianna in the game.
“I started dating him,” she said, pointing to Zash. The two are now engaged to be married, though Zash admits he has had to make the hard sell for FFXIV over World of Warcraft. The table joked that, since Zash is paying for Serianna’s account, she has to play the way he tells her. After noting the awkwardness on my face, they quickly explained that this is a joke within the game and is not as weird as it sounds out of that context.
When I asked the group about the community’s relationship with Naoki Yoshida, the producer of Final Fantasy XIV affectionately known as Yoshi-P, everyone erupted in excitement. Yoshida was brought in when the original game failed at the market and he pioneered the entire A Realm Reborn relaunch. During the keynote address, Yoshida had the crowd eating out of his hand with jokes and news being delivered with a level of showmanship you usually don’t see. With that degree of push, however, also comes very important pull. When mentioning the server outages that the game suffered alongside the latest expansion, Yoshida bowed his head to the floor and sincerely apologized. The crowd was quick to forgive him.
“Yoshida’s very in touch with the fans,” a person with the in-game name of Drai explained. “The live letters, the letters from the producer, people tune into these streams, people send questions on the official forums; he’s very much a beloved, revered figure in the community and people trust him. He shows up in-game in a server and people flood to him so hard that they lag him down. All they’re doing is emoting toward him, they’re trying to trade him stuff so he can’t leave.”
I met Yoshida at a Blackjack table in the hotel’s casino. After days and days of fans approaching him, shaking his hand, telling him what they loved about the game, and a few definitely telling him what they didn’t love about it, he seemed more than happy to talk to a person he thought was another fan. Like me, Yoshida had been spending time during the convention listening to people’s stories, finding out how people play his game, and what he can do to make that experience a little bit better. It’s easy to believe the hype when the frontman is that personable.
I told Yoshida about some friends of mine that play the game named Kim and Gerry. As the dealer got impatient with our slowness, I explained to Yoshida in simple and slow English that these friends fell in love through the game and got engaged just down the street last year. Yoshida kind of laughed and I wasn’t entirely sure if he understood me, but I think he got the gist of it. “Stories are very powerful,” he replied before shaking my hand as I rushed to make my flight.
Toward the end of the festival, I sat down with a woman named Anya. A mother of two, Anya’s entire family plays the game together. She brought her kids with her so that they could celebrate the game together and was more than happy to explain how important Final Fantasy XIV was to them. Her youngest son, Collin, was happy to tell me about the friends he made playing the game and how he feels like he’s there with them when hearing the friends recount their tales. The daughter, Celes (who was named after the Final Fantasy VI heroine), was quick to answer “All the time!” when I asked them if the game ever comes up outside the context of actually playing it.
“Absolutely,” Anya said. “When new patches come out, I send them to bed early so we can get up early in the morning to check out the new stuff. When the last patch came out, my son and I were up early doing fights before he had to go to school. We were up at 4:00 in the morning running new content before he had to go to school for the day.”
The modern idea of a video game being a family endeavor rather than just a one-hour activity with a game like Mario Kart still feels like an alien concept to me, but Anya managed to break it down in simpler terms. Playing Final Fantasy XIV isn’t just about being in the same space for her and her family, it’s about raising her children to understand the world in a less abstract sense.
“It’s been good as far as dealing with drama and conflict, actually,” she said. “As with any kind of social interaction or family unit, and we kind of think of our free company as a family, and sometimes you do have conflict. When you have a group of people together, you also often have conflicting personality. There’s been times where you have people that don’t get along, so it’s important to have to deal with those situations. Or you get into a dungeon and you have someone that’s not being very nice or you’re dealing with toxic situations, learning how to manage is good to teach them.”
Her son nodded along while she talked. Whatever lesson it is she wanted to teach him, it most certainly got through.
As someone who does not play Final Fantasy XIV but owns an account I’ve been sitting on, I went into the Fan Fest trying to understand what it is that draws people to this game specifically over any of the other MMORPG, or even non-MMORPG, options out there. I’m still not sure, but that’s not for a lack of reasons given to me. I’m not sure because it sounds like it’s something you gain through the act of playing the game and meeting people and going on adventures yourself, or bringing the people important in your life into the fantasy world with you. It’s about the right community at the right time, which isn’t something you can put as a bullet point on the back of a box. Or, as someone once told me, it’s about stories being very powerful.