The world is ending, of that there can be no doubt. Everything is finite, and nothing finite can last forever. That ending may be entirely out of human reckoning, or we may fall to any of the existential crises that we face; climate change not the least of them. There's good reason to be optimistic, not to mention the argument that we have a moral responsibility to resist doomerism. Nonetheless, doom is always possible, and acknowledging that possibility is at best uncomfortable and at worst despairing.
When faced with existential dread and uncertainty, turning to fiction to help us understand, cope, and confront our own feelings is one of the most human things we can do. There is absolutely a moral dimension to how we do so, but fiction that admits the real possibility that the world might end — eschatological fiction — can help us not feel so alone with that existential dread.
Personally, this is part of what has long drawn me to the Final Fantasy series of games. Right there in the title, the series always asks the player to consider the very real possibility of the end of the world through fantastical analogy after fantastical analogy. Now in its sixteenth main iteration, the series has long explored eschatology through different metaphors and literary tropes. Final Fantasy X showed a world brought to the brink by unprocessed generational trauma, while Final Fantasy VII showed a world on the precipice of annihilation caused by the unchecked machinations of a single energy company. Sometimes, the series points inward; Final Fantasy XIII-2 asks us to come to terms with our own culpability in diaster, and to look directly at our own need to be acknowledged as a moral good in the world — to understand how that can obscure the costs of our actions. In its latest expansion, Final Fantasy XIV even directly takes on how eschatological stories such as those found across the series can fail to help us but can instead land us at overwhelming and all-consuming despair.
In its sixteenth and latest iteration, though, Final Fantasy has brought its focus further inward than ever before, directly placing its protagonist in opposition not only to the game's villain, but also in opposition to us as players. In this post, I'll explore my own thoughts on that radical shift in the series' focus, how I approach that shift as a fan, and why I think that change is so badly needed in the face of unrelenting technoutopianism that would bend our much-needed optimism into nowhere solutions.
What This Post is and is Not
This post is not, however, a review of the game. A review may simply conclude with "play it, it's a good game and well worth the cost" after extensive discussion of the game's technical merits, story, aesthetic qualities, and so forth. That is all good and necessary, but my goal here is rather opposite: to carefully consider what I got out of having played the game. I have made my decision to purchase and play the game, leaving me to now reckon with the effects of having done so.
Necessarily as a result, this post will be extremely spoiler-y. I will assume from here on out that you have either played Final Fantasy XVI in its entirety, or that you are not bothered by a pointed discussion of its plot. As this post deals extensively with the history of the series, I'll also issue a spoiler warning for anything with "final" and "fantasy" in its title.
What The Game is Not
Before I can explore what Final Fantasy XVI is, I must do due diligence in being clear about what the game is not. The game is fundamentally limited in some extremely important ways that do, sadly, undermine not only its own ideals but also cause actual harm in the real world. No exploration of the game's plot and impact is complete, or even truly started, without the recognition that FFXVI strongly revolves about a fantastical analogy for real-world slavery, but that somehow manages to omit all depiction of Black people who even today bear the generational brunt of that cruelty, compounded with new and continuing forms of oppression.
The conspicuous whiteness of the game may be best summed up in the character of Elwin Rosfield, monarch of the Rosarian nation. We are told continuously throughout play that Elwin is a true ally to the Bearers, the slave caste within the game's story, but we are left to simply assume this to be the case. From very early on, we are shown that Rosaria depends economically on the labor of its Bearers, and still treats them as property, albeit with less casual cruelty than its neighbors. That mere window dressing around the abhorence of slavery is all we are given as proof that Elwin has earned his stance as an ally until late in the game, where we learn that he had undertaken a generations-long project to dismantle Rosaria's slavery state despite political opposition by Rosaria's rich power brokers. Presumably, the Bearers are supposed to be thankful for this delayed and secret support, continuing to serve their owners for the decades that Elwin's project will take to free them.
In his capacity as the main protagonist, Elwin's son Clive Rosfield is at least significantly more active, taking charge of a network of Bearer liberation cells. Early in the story, Clive is taken captive by one of Rosaria's enemy states and made into a Bearer himself, brutally driven to serve his captors for thirteen years. FFXVI shows us how this motivates Clive to take the sword on behalf of his fellow Bearers, but doesn't bother asking us to reconcile with the complicated legacy left by his father, nor why it took thirteen years as a slave to be convinced of the cause.
These omissions are frankly racist, and in ways that undermine the game's key themes and impede its moral clarity. The game is absolutely weaker, perhaps even catastrophically so, for these problems, and should be criticized strongly on that basis. I am myself white, and thus not in the best position to give voice to these criticisms, but rather am obligated to listen to them carefully, without defensiveness, and to amplify them as best as possible. In that vein, I encourage you to read and watch the following treatments on racism in FFXVI:
With that in mind, and in full knowledge that the game is problematic, let me proceed to discuss what Final Fantasy XVI is and what it does accomplish with the sixty hours of attention it demands from its player.
Throughout the series, Final Fantasy has made extensive use of crystals as a visual and narrative motif. In Final Fantasy VII, crystallized essence of planetary life serves as the basis for all magic. In Final Fantasy XIII, people who achieve their divine tasks are turned to crystal until the gods need them next. In Final Fantasy XIV, the game beings with a crystal goddess exhorting us to "hear, feel, think." That we later learn that the selfsame goddess came into being by consuming half of the entire population of the ancient world, and that we later destroy what little is left of Her keeps us awake at night grappling with how much we depended on Her earlier benevolence, and with the complexity of what brought Her to commit the heinous acts that serve as the basis for the game's entire plot. In Final Fantasy IX, crystals are the source of all life, while in Final Fantasy Tactics, the dead return to crystal at the end.
Perhaps most notably, though, Final Fantasy Type-0 tells the story of a world divided into "crystal states," nations each founded around the magical powers granted by their respective crystals. Each country's crystal demands an extreme cost, consuming the memories of soldiers who depend on their powers, and locking the continent in eternal war. Fate in FFT0 is, at best, the crystals sustaining themselves through neverending conflict, a thin analogy for the real-world military–industrial complex. Peace is fundamentally incompatible with the existence of crystal states, as FFT0 shows a world entirely dependent on magical weapons powered by crystals.
It is in this tradition that Final Fantasy XVI builds its world of nations dependent on gigantic mountain-sized Mothercrystals not just for miliary dominance, but as energy sources for every aspect of daily life. An early scene shows court gardeners maintaining topiaries with Aero spells case from shards mined out of Mothercrystals and imported into Rosaria. Blacksmiths' forges are powered by Fire spells, and crops are irrigated with Water spells.
All the while, lands around Rosaria are increasingly becoming barren, falling to an ever-expanding Blight in which no crops can grow, no animals can thrive, and life comes to a silent end. Many of the game's monster enemies are simply animals displaced from Blight-striken lands, and much of the game's conflict comes from scarcity as refugees flee the Blight. A dozen or so hours into the game, we learn that the Blight is the toll exacted by the Mothercrystals, the void left behind as they drain magical energy from the lands. This revelation in turn is later displaced by the even more pointed truth that even absent the Mothercrystals, magic of any kind necessarily draws from the land and spreads the Blight; the Mothercrystals simply make it much easier to depend on magic, to trade magical energies as physical trinkets.
The analogy to real-world climate disasters is obvious, of course, cemented in quest names like "Inconvenient Truth." Where our capitalist societies depend seemingly inexorably on fossil fuels, the feudal states of FFXVI depend seemingly inexorably on crystalline blessings. Perhaps for the first time in the long-running series, the crystals are not only complex, but actively malevolent objects to be destroyed.
At this point, I could imagine stopping and writing a different essay about how the Mothercrystals serve as climate fiction, where they capture or fail to capture the complexities of our dependencies on fossil fuels, or how the game deeply interweaves its twin stories of liberation from oppression and independence from magic. That would be, I think, a valuable and necessary take on the impact of the game's narrative, but I want to focus on a different element instead: how Final Fantasy XVI directly implicates the player as being the origin of its dystopia.
We Bear Final Witness
Needless to say, the story expects the player to eventually succeed in destroying Ultima, creator both of all humankind and of the Mothercrystals that bring so much grief to the world. Following a battle so replete with Christian imagery that Ultima throws out attacks like "The Rapture" in between calling the player character "Logos," we're shown a scene presumably set some centuries later. In this last glimpse, we're shown two young boys struggling with everyday chores while wishing that they had the power of Eikons and magic to help, before cutting to the boys playing out scenes from the game as youthful make-believe. Before fading to black, the camera pans back to show the book of fairy tales that inspired the youthful play, immodestly titled Final Fantasy.
The strife of the game, the immense personal cost that Clive and his family paid to end their world's crystalline dependency, might ultimately fail to save the world. Even after succeeding in felling Ultima, humanity still yearns for the power and convenience of the Mothercrystals' blessing. In that closing, the game makes explicit the deconstruction that runs throughout its plot, denying us any hope of hiding in ignorance. In wanting this fantasy, even after being shown what it costs, we are the young children threatening to undo all that Clive worked for.
Looking back from though dismal lens, then, much of the plot becomes more clearly focused on the player and their actions. After all, the player continually compels Clive to use his magical abilities to defeat — to murder — score after score of enemies. Inhabiting his Eikon, Ifrit, is intensely traumatic for Clive, but we force him to do so merely by pressing both sticks in at once. The game takes every opportunity it can to show us the toll that Eikons have on their summoners' bodies, and yet it's a cheap and easy source of advantage in combat. Are we any better than the young boys at the end, wishing for an easy shortcut around difficulty in the form of magic?
It gets worse still when we consider Ultima's plan: to turn Clive into a perfect vessel for his power, erase his will, and conquer his body as an ultimate weapon. As the player, we advance Ultima's plan when we dive into menus to unlock new abilities and grow the power of Clive's Eikonic feats. We steer Clive towards Ultima's aims with our controllers, possessing him as completely as Final Fantasy VI's slave crowns. Clive may have escaped his fate as a Bearer, but we still control him as our own avatar.
In the end, then, the strict linearity of the game's plot isn't weakness, but is shown to be the characters resisting the player's influence. In the moment of his final victory over Ultima, Clive tells us that "the only fantasy here is yours, and we shall be its final witness." Cheesy and corny as the title drop is, Final Fantasy XVI uses it well (along with minor key–shifted versions of the series' iconic prelude) to make its deconstruction truly inescapable: victory necessarily requires destroying the Mothercrystals, resisting Ultima's dominance over the world, and ending the fantasy.
Truth and Belief
Here, I might well be accused of reading too much into the story, of injecting my own complicated feelings about video games and burdening the plot of Final Fantasy XVI with them. In defense, though, I will direct you back to the "Inconvenient Truth" side quest. Given how directly that title speaks to the game's climate fiction themes, one might reasonably expect the side quest to concern itself with how society came to depend on the Mothercrystals, or how society denies the reality of the Blight and its causes, but no: the quest concerns itself with how the Bearers first came to be enslaved. The true story of their oppression is considered heretical, as it would offend and upset modern political elites, a story beat that feels far too relevant as fascists like DeSantis work to rewrite American history to remove any mention of the US as an oppressor.
The quest is given to you by Vivian, a professor of history, and one of two characters responsible for providing you with a reference to the game's extensive lore. As you return the banned book to her, she delivers a monologue on how important stories are, how they shape the truth by shaping belief, and how there is no objective truth about history that can ever be determined except through belief. To Vivian, truth is the consequence of belief, and belief is the consequence of stories. As arbiter of the game's lore, and embodiment of many of its most pointed themes, she tells you that the game matters because its plot can shape your beliefs about the world. What to make, then, of the young boys who believe in the superiority of a world with magic, that drains the world to power their society?
Throughout, the game is in constant conversation with the tropes and trappings of the series, continually bring them under the same dismal lens. Jill, Clive's childhood friend turned comrade-in-arms, notes that your actions are causing monsters to become stronger — a commentary on the level grind of the series. Merchants are able to offer you their goods because they also profiteer from war. Ghyshal greens aren't just for chocobos, but are a part of the food cycle; chocobo stew is likewise a delicacy served at the local pub.
There is a constant feeling of examining and putting away one's toys, of making something new in their stead. In other Final Fantasy games, there is a tradition of a character named Cid granting you an airship, and with it, cheap and uninhibited travel across the world. In Final Fantasy XVI, however, Cid dies at Ultima's hands, and it is his daughter Mid who is tasked with making the realm's first airship. A brilliant inventor, Mid easily produces a toy model of the airship from Final Fantasy III, IV, and XIV. A cutscene shows Mid carefully considering her airship prototype before realizing that it could be used to drop bombs and to create more war orphans like herself. Instead of building the actual airship, for the first time in the series, she literally buries it instead. If magic is dangerous, so too is the Clarkian escalation of technology into magic.
Other side quests have you teaching characters how to grow food without magic, how to graft morbols into other plants to help them grow, how to power forges without the use of crystals, and teaching people how to defend themselves with their swords and democratic governments. It is telling, then, that the penultimate villain is a monarch who surrendered his will entirely to Ultima and who called himself the Last King. In Ultima's world, and in the player's world, monarchs give way to fantasies, gods, and dependence. In Clive's world, monarchs give way to communities, democracies, and independence.
Clive's legacy, hinted at in the final scene, is a world in which people can fend for themselves without relying on Ultima, but it is also a world in which fantasy can lead them back into dependence and reckless excess.
Get In The Eikon, Clive
Deconstruction, in the sense of literary criticism, works best when it highlights the contradictions and tensions inherent in a body of work or in a genre. At a personal level, I relate most to deconstruction that comes from a place of intimacy, sitting within a genre and all its flaws, and expressing its creators' deep and unabating desire for their art to be better. Within video games, that loving and intimate deconstruction has been put forth by titles such as Metal Gear Solid 2, NieR:Automata, and more recently, Tales of Arise; TVTropes suggests far more examples as well. After thirty-five years of the series, though, Final Fantasy has plenty to deconstruct within itself, and FFXVI steps up to do just that.
By comparison with deconstruction of genres of novel, film, or TV shows, video game deconstructions tend to center more heavily on the idea of ludonarrative dissonance, the tension between plot and mechanics. In Spec Ops: The Line, that dissonance plays out as a metaphor for "just following orders" to commit war crimes. In Tales of Xillia, the player is given an immensely powerful ability, but every use of it increases the chance of getting the bad ending in which the player causes extensive and extreme harm to untold millions, such that the only option that's consistent from a moral perspective is to simply not use that ability at all. In the case of Final Fantasy XVI, the conflict between Clive and Ultima is also a conflict between Clive and the player, such that the plot centers heavily around the concept of free will, submission to the divine, and submission to state power.
There, Final Fantasy XVI finds familiar ground not in video game deconstruction, but in the 1995 anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Both are deep deconstructions of their respective genres and media, centering deeply on free will and submission with divinity as a metaphor for coercion and force. That FFXIV directly acknowledges Evangelion without making the plot depend on that reference deepens the deconstruction, as it serves to remind the player that the game is in conversation with a wider culture of stories as well as its own numbered predecessors. The reference, together with a later scene in which Ultima tries to break down Clive's will in ways that closely echo one of the darker endings to Evangelion, also acts as an in-text confirmation that the deconstruction is intentional. What Final Fantasy XVI has to say about ludonarrative dissonance and the act of embodying a character through playing a game, Evangelion had to say about the demands fans make of anime. In both cases, participation is problematized and put under critical examination.
Where One Journey Ends
Deconstructions land best when they offer the potential for reconstruction, when the destruction that they apply to their own genres and media is in service of the creation of something better. If the player in Tales of Xillia resists pressing the button that gives them immense power, then peace becomes possible. If everyone playing Metal Gear Solid V across the world can agree to never build nuclear weapons in-game, then peace in the real world becomes possible. If everyone playing Final Fantasy XVI can reject technoutopian fantasies in favor of true community, then we may yet find that climate conflict is not inevitable — true peace may be possible.
To the extent that it is not limited by its refusal to surpass its own limitations and harms, Final Fantasy XVI succeeds by showing us hope that comes from depending not on state power or magical fuels, but on each other. Clive wins by relying on his brother, his childhood friend, his network of like-minded activists, and even his own former enemies. The game dares us to believe, if only for a moment, that Ultima and the real-world submission that he stands in for cannot defeat true and loving community, no matter how seductive his fantasies are.
The Final Fantasy series has seen the player act as terrorists, theatre performers, military school students (twice!), religious pilgrims, revolutionaries, the cast of Star Wars: A New Hope, and more, all the while giving us hope even in its bleakest of plots. With Final Fantasy XVI, we are invited to put down the controller, and act in the real world; to put into practice the boldest of hopes, and to make final the seductive fantasies that we are held captive to.