Regardless of the type of overall game experience you’re going for in a massive, open-world game like an MMO — be it mechanic-centric or narrative-heavy — one of the most important things for the development team to get right is that feeling of “place” — of the virtual world feeling truly convincing.
This is something that Final Fantasy XIV’s predecessor Final Fantasy XI did very well, particularly within the main city-states, and it’s a tradition that A Realm Reborn continues with aplomb.
Worldbuilding is a far more complex matter than simply plonking some rocks and trees down at the side of pathways, however. It’s even more complex than the overall geometry of the environments that you explore over the course of the game — it’s a combination of things, all working together to make the virtual world as convincing as it possibly can be.
Let’s explore how A Realm Reborn handles this.
First and foremost, although we’ve already said that worldbuilding is far more than just simple level geometry, it’s hard to deny that A Realm Reborn’s designers have done a fantastic job with the environments you explore as you develop your character. Split into three large, multi-part regions and two smaller additional areas, the realm of Eorzea is certainly a diverse place in which to live a virtual life.
Thanalan, the region in which you find the affluent merchant city of Ul’Dah, is perhaps best described as a “desert” region, but this presents an overly simplistic view of this area’s geography. Up in the north of the region, the dusty wastes give way to sharp, jagged rocks and towering crags, making the area an ideal place for experienced miners to dig up some treasures. As you proceed further in a southerly direction, the grey rocks become more and more dusty until you eventually reach the Sagolli Desert at the southern pinnacle of the region. The weather is frequently hot and rains are rare — but when they come, they come in force.
Meanwhile The Black Shroud, the forest that surrounds the city of Gridania, is a verdant green paradise in comparison to the wastes of Thanalan. Surrounded by trees big and small, young and old on all sides, the Shroud is aptly named; the canopy of leaves above you at times makes it difficult to see the sky. And yet even within this region there is diversity; proceed to the South Shroud and you’ll find a large, swampy lake, atop which sits the small settlement of Camp Tranquil. Other areas feature ruins of long-dead civilisation, babbling brooks and muddy trails made by collapsed pathways — in some places, you’ll even find yourself beneath the level of tree roots before re-emerging at ground level.
La Noscea, meanwhile, is the name for the region that surrounds the city of Limsa Lominsa on the isle of Vylbrand. Of all the regions, La Noscea is the most geographically diverse, taking in dense wooded areas, rugged highlands, beautiful white sands with crystal waters and, further south, deep jungles filled with lush greenery and the bright colours of strange and wonderful flora.
Amid all these regions are the scars left by the Calamity, the event which concluded Final Fantasy XIV’s 1.0 incarnation and effectively “destroyed” the world ready for it to be reborn anew in A Realm Reborn. Realistic environments give way to the fantastic as you encounter regions such as the aptly named Highbridge, which sits astride a chasm it’s impossible to see the bottom of, and huge, jagged crystalline lumps make beautiful, strange sights in many of the regions — particularly the barren Mor Dhona, in which sits the mysterious Crystal Tower.
But as we’ve said, there’s far more to building a compelling world than simply providing pretty vistas to look at — even if Square Enix has made an effort to get people to go in search of said vistas through the Sightseeing Log gameplay mechanic. No; in order for a world to feel truly “real”, it needs some life about it, and A Realm Reborn delivers this in several ways — incidental details in the background, such as the sounds of nearby fauna while you’re exploring an environment or the shadow of an eagle flying high overhead as you journey towards your destination on foot; and the people who populate the land of Eorzea.
Speaking from a personal perspective, one of the things I always found least appealing about the immensely popular World of Warcraft is that many of the NPCs had absolutely nothing to say or do — they simply stood around doing nothing or, in some cases, wandered around on fixed paths. In a lot of cases, it wasn’t possible to talk to them unless they had a quest to give you, and they certainly didn’t feel like real people in many cases.
A Realm Reborn, like its predecessor Final Fantasy XI, takes the polar opposite approach, with any populated area being filled with NPCs that you can make small talk with. Some will offer you quests, others will simply provide a bit of background colour. For those more interested in progression and mechanics than narrative, these NPCs are easily ignored. But for those who are interested in the game as much for its world, setting, lore and ongoing narrative, these NPCs can provide fascinating insight into Eorzean culture — how the different social strata interact in the city of Ul’Dah, for example, or how a group of pirates managed to stop raising havoc for long enough to found the city of Limsa Lominsa.
It goes further than that, though. Out in the world, you’ll occasionally stumble across events that are going on — usually as a prelude to one of the many “Full Active Time Event” (FATE) public quests that are dotted around each of the regions. One FATE might begin with a beastman pleading with a guard to be let into the hot springs at Camp Bronze Lake, with the subsequent argument eventually escalating into violence. Another might begin with members of the local Grand Company preparing for an operation and directly soliciting your support. Another might see you come across a forlorn-looking merchant on the side of the road, who asks you to assist him while he sees to his injured chocobo.
And it goes further still; new questlines added in the most recent patch entreat you to explore the realm and interact with its residents rather than focusing on mechanical challenges like defeating monsters. The Delivery Moogle questline provides deeper insight into a number of supporting characters from the main narrative and sidequests — including a hilariously innuendo-filled exploration of the relationship between Highbridge’s guardian Hunberct Longhaft and the mysteriously devoted Miqo’te twins who are habitually by his side. And the Winebaud’s Riddles quest not only provides some significant mental challenges to the player — kudos to anyone who worked out the riddles without cheating — but also yet more fleshing out of the background to the world.
These quests don’t offer much in the way of tangible rewards — what you eventually get for completing Winebaud’s Riddles is one of the finest pieces of trolling I’ve ever seen by a game developer — but they do give you deeper insight into what is a lovingly crafted world. As such, certain types of players have complained that they are “boring” or “pointless” — and from a mechanical sense, perhaps that’s true. But from a narrative perspective, and a broader worldbuilding viewpoint, they help make the realm of Eorzea feel all the more real — and that’s something that continues to be a strength of A Realm Reborn even as we approach the game’s first anniversary.