Two games from my past had a profound impact on me, both appealing to my love of fantasy and of RPGs.
One, obvious. Final Fantasy 7. Totally seminal, totally unlike anything I had ever played before. And a story that was, for all its little blocky anime trappings, profound in the extreme.
The other, a little less iconic. Daggerfall. It was, at the time, the realisation of everything I’d dreamed a computer game might be able to offer: what felt like a living, breathing high fantasy world where I could play as whatever kind of character I wanted to be.
Both games obviously part of long-running and much loved series, with FF now dropping hints of its 16th incarnation, and Daggerfall setting the path for Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim to follow.
But both took a detour. And for me, the routes they took provide me with the most captivating, immersive and downright addictive game experiences I have yet had. Ones that would blow the mind of my younger self (even though they had heard of games like Ultima Online and Runescape).
So. Elder Scrolls Online and Final Fantasy XIV.
Utterly pointless timesinks filled with obsessives worrying about what colour their hats are, or adventure-laden persistent worlds where the players’ only hope of success if to band together with like minded souls and take down dastardly foes in ever more fantastical locations?
In reality, they are both these things. But in actuality, I love them both for what they offer: almost infinite opportunities for adventure and escapism.
Elder Scrolls Online
Elder Scrolls Online first, mainly as it’s the one I’ve sunk most time into to date.
The first thing I love about it? It’s massive. M-A-S-S-I-V-E massive. The high elven isle of Summerset; the steampunkish Clockwork City; desert regions populated by wyrms and other fell creatures, forests full of wood elves and dangerous fauna; and, of course, Skyrim (and Morrowind; and, completing the circle, a beautifully realised Daggerfall).
A vast amount of Tamriel, all bursting with quests, dungeons, delves, world bosses, loot and — most crucially — other players.
It speaks to my love of high fantasy; it has some truly beautiful scenery and vistas; the lore and the depictions of the various cultures, guilds and societies of Tamriel is done excellently.
The combat is exciting and the quests are mostly well-written and intriguing. The 4-player dungeons are each unique, and some of them are challenging in the extreme. PVP is a little unloved, which is a shame, as the potential was so high.
But I’m not really there to beat up on other players. I’m here because ESO is an outstanding single-player experience, with ample co-op PvE dungeons and additional content.
With all the expansions unlocked and available through the ESO Plus monthly subscription, there are vast areas of environmentally unique lands to travel and adventure through, and thanks to its seemingly infinite opportunities for fun and character progression, it’s a title I return to again and again.
Final Fantasy XIV
I’m a relative newcomer to FFXIV, only downloading it and firing it up once I’d dusted off my old PS4. At first, I wasn’t sure about it: the graphics seemed a little dated, the slightly twee FF stylistic trappings were a bit jarring, and the thought of learning a new game’s myriad of systems, sub-systems and seemingly impenetrable user interface was all a bit off-putting.
However, I persevered.
And I love it.
One character, all classes (and jobs). A crafting system that is fun and engaging as opposed to ESO’s relatively dull busywork. A skills system that is constantly evolving and growing, revealing hitherto unrealised combos, buffs and on-the-fly tactical opportunities that turn combats into light tactical engagements rather than button-mashing slogs.
And the setting and the style have grown on me. Moogles, chocobos, spiky-haired anime NPCs … they have a charm that is unique and which has taken me back to those early FF7 days where a few blocky sprites managed to evoke an epic, passion-filled tale of loss, revenge and redemption.
Apparently, FFXIV’s story achieves the same heights, possibly even surpassing it. I’ve not really encountered that storytelling wonder yet, as I’m still in the early days. But I can see the seeds there: NPCs are being introduced that I can tell are being foreshadowed to either become antagonists, pivotal players in a wide-reaching saga, or — more likely — characters that I become emotionally attached to who then end up dying in gut-punching ways.
And though the world seems smaller and a little harder to navigate than ESO’s depiction of Tamriel, the variety is still great: from Limsa Lominsa’s pirate-worried shores, to Ul’dah’s exotic bazaars and sand-blown walls. Dungeons – of which I’ve only delved into a trio of so far – are great fun, especially when the coordinated pyrotechnics of four players’ abilities are all fireworking off each other in retina-scalding multi-stage boss battles.
Games … or hobbies?
What’s shared between both titles is a sense of community. Whether ESO’s guilds or FFXIV’s Free Companies, or even if it’s the scores of other players running around the main hub areas: you never lose sight of the fact you’re sharing the world — and a lot of the experience and joy of playing — with other people.
This is felt most when grouping up with other players to take on the dungeons, raids and trials that need more than one character to defeat. Though most of the time these acquaintances are fleeting, they are amongst the most fun parts of both games. They’re also an opportunity to see other players’ styles — both mechanically and visually, as both titles share a player obsession with costumes, clothing styles and accessories that is actually quite joyous and life-affirming to witness.
And with both games having large player bases, there are also reddits, forums and community-run fansites filled with tips, memes, character builds, walkthroughs and that esoteric shared language that only other players truly ever ‘get’. They both have rabid fanbases, and players amongst those who probably put more effort into the games than they do anything in the ‘real’ world.
I’m not one of them. But I do appreciate and understand those who are.
To me, both ESO and FFXIV are relaxing and rewarding hobbies. Games that I can, due to their design, dip into and do whatever I want to do. Go on a fishing trip? Check. Queue up for a random dungeon? Yep. Follow a well-written and intriguing questline where I feel like the most important person in the realm? Absolutely.
I can craft, trade, level up in a few skill lines and jobs to make my avatar that little bit more powerful. I can hang about the town square and listen to a bard’s performance; I can even join in or start a recital of my own. I can stroll around the land checking out other players’ characters and marvelling at the time and effort that must have gone into making them look like living legends.
In FFXIV, I can go to the chocobo races or have a round or two of triple triad. In ESO, I can chat with my companion and follow a questline that will strengthen the bond I have with them even further. I can partake in timed seasonal events. I can get my butt handed to me in Battlegrounds. Back in FFXVI I can spend a while farming the regions outside the cities as a Disciple of the Land, then a little bit of time moulding the items I uncovered into useful, sellable items as a Disciple of the Hand.
And in both, I know that there is a Main Story Quest or a regional questline out there that is just waiting for me to pick up the strands of and follow.
In short, I can spend ten minutes or three hours in either of the worlds and be guaranteed of a good time.
I may have nothing but some digital bits and bytes on a server somewhere to show for it, but that’s kinda not the point. Playing these games are how I choose to relax and unwind, and my life feels richer because of them. And by immersing myself in their worlds of quests, sidequests, lore and legends, a little of that rubs off on my imagination, hopefully helping make the worlds of my own I create through my fiction and tabletop RPG settings that little bit richer.
Finally, I feel like I have access to everything my teenage self dreamed of: access to never-ending worlds of adventure … and the ability and commitment to create my own.
Now, just don’t get me started on Destiny 2 …