It was early 2004. I arrived home from a quick trip to a local retailer after a friend recommended me a game. That game was Final Fantasy XI, and I had no concept of what a MMO was at the time. For the next eight hours I would find myself installing a game I knew little about. However, the moment I was greeted by Vana'diel, with its powerful music and beautiful landscapes, I knew it was the one.
Final Fantasy XI was my first MMO, and naturally it's the one that holds the greatest nostalgia for me. I have vivid memories of my grand successes and painful failures when playing the game 11 years ago. Every now and then I find myself thinking about it in the middle of the day, and occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night after dreaming about it.
To say that I played the game a lot would be an understatement; I practically lived in Vana'diel. I stood still at my office desk playing countless hours every day as the world around me moved forward. After all, that's what it took to reach the game's coveted level 75 cap. Soon, I would find myself captured by the gravitational pull of World of Warcraft, which would keep me away from Final Fantasy XI for a full decade. That wouldn't erase the memories I forged in the game, though. If anything, it only made them stronger.
Last month the final story update arrived for Final Fantasy XI. It brought a decisive end to an epic story arch that spanned 13 years. From here forward, the game will see some minor content patches, along with its inevitable port to mobile, but for all intents and purposes this is the emotional end of the life of one of the greatest MMOs in history, one that may never be replicated.
Desiring to witness its final days, I took to installing the game, which once again meant more than eight hours of patches and installation on PlayOnline. Once complete, I grabbed my DualShock 4 controller, and entered Vana'diel for my last time.
Final Fantasy XI's soundtrack is held in high regard among players.
Final Fantasy XI greeted me just as it did a decade ago. The unmistakable theme played triumphantly on the menu and I was soon let free upon the world of Vana'diel. I couldn't help but remember what it was like experiencing MMO freedom for my first time, being able to go where I wanted to and interact with other players. After a quick jog around San d'Oria my first order of business was heading into West Ronfaure to level up.
As is natural for any Final Fantasy XI player, it didn't take long for me to become confused about certain game elements. The questions I had about what was different about the game now versus 10 years ago and what would be the best way to progress through the experience were beginning to pile up. Thankfully, I soon found myself meeting people out in the game world. Great people, in-fact.
The first person I met with Kromea, someone who similarly came back to the game after being away for many years. We spent hours reminiscing about how things used to be while leveling up together in our beginner gear. We were two old timers living in a world so familiar yet so different.
My friend and I leveled up in Valkurm Dunes like the good old days.
For a short period of time it was just me and Kromea exploring the world to our heart's content, but we soon met others. These others had been playing for a while, and would soon become our mentors as we pushed toward the level 99 cap. Once I was handed a pearl to join their Linkshell, I was reminded of why I found myself so captivated by Final Fantasy XI as a teenager.
My early experience in the Linkshell was something extraordinary. Instead of finding myself surrounded by people who prioritized being right and better than others, they were about community. Everyone I spoke to was outgoing and unconditionally helpful, resulting in myself making plenty of friends. I had tons of questions, and they had answers.
Among the highlights of my social experiences was the help I received during my Genkai level break and job unlock quests. The moment I hit level 30 I ran into someone who helped me complete the Corsair job quest. Later, a stranger by the name of Chaostaru went out of his way to spend four hours running with me around the game world to gather all my items for Limit Break 3.
A stranger helped me with one of the most time consuming and frustrating challenges in the game, Limit Break 3.
This helpful nature among Vana'diel's inhabitants is contagious. After receiving support every time I looked for it, I found myself helping others with their troubles. It was like a cycle of goodness; someone would help me and I would give back. Instead of working to overcome challenges simply to find gear upgrades and compete with others in the world, I was doing them because they were fun and gave me an excuse to play with other people.
Final Fantasy XI's sense of challenge is certainly still alive, but many of the frustrations of its early years have been done away with. The greatest example of this is the introduction of Trusts, which are easily-summonable NPCs that join your party to help you kill things. Their addition to the game is one that greatly helped make my return a pleasant experience, as the playerbase is dwindling and composed mostly of veteran players, resulting in leveling parties being highly elusive. Being able to enjoy some of the game's greatest moments and unlock new skills as I leveled several jobs was made so much more enjoyable by not having to spend time looking for group or fearful of leaving the safety of cities. In this way, the game is better than ever before.
Although much of the game has been pushed toward a single-player journey, the world itself has been unaffected by the modernization of the game. Teleports between previously-visited crystals allow for quick transportation, but the world is just as big and engrossing as ever. Places like Valkurm Dunes, Zi'Tah, Ronfaure, and Jeuno still have an unequaled spirit about them. I learned during my stay that an engrossing world isn't about pixels, it's about the experience coming together using music, great level design, and memorable interactions. Vana'diel is rich with these qualities, making it still one of the most special virtual worlds in gaming.
Despite the conveniences of Trusts and cross-crystal teleportation, Final Fantasy XI is still a brutally challenging game. Most elements of gameplay and progression aren't explained, and thus it's common to leave a window with FFXIclopedia or another website open to quickly find answers for the plethora of questions that pop up. If you die, you lose experience points. When you want to partake in a new piece of content, you'll likely have to complete several requirements to unlock access, and there's no matchmaking to rely on for quickly building groups.
As punishing as it sounds, the challenge makes triumph so much more flavorful. Just a few weeks ago I fully geared a level boosted Paladin in World of Warcraft, transitioning from being kill fodder in PvP to being able to wipe the floor with opponents. For as radical of a transformation as that was, all the little things I did in Final Fantasy XI, from earning new skills to equipment, were so much more memorable. The long journey to success creates stories similar to those in our real lives, like graduating school or being given a raise at work. There's so much more effort put into each step along the way, and it has a powerful impact on how the moment of achievement feels and the value that memories hold.
Playing Final Fantasy XI in its final days has reminded me why MMOs of the early century were so much more captivating than the next-generation works offered today. These games were heavily community-oriented, with every player you met being considered a neighbor and a potential friend. There was no matchmaking with random people from the void, you had to go out and meet people, and make a positive impression if you wanted them to play with you again. They also had a huge emphasis on great world design, knowing that you would spend a significant portion of your time running from place to place to tackle new challenges and engage in group activities. Lastly, these games were punishing, but always made success achievable. Your hard work for progression would lead to significant moments of accomplishment that you could share with those around you.
As I log off Final Fantasy XI for my last time, I feel a great sense of closure. It is a game that has brought with it lasting memories and friendships, but now it's time for me to move on. Farewell, Vana'diel.
Reddit Linkshell, Asura Server (2015).