Whenever I see a police car or an ambulance screaming down the road in the opposite direction to the way I’m going, I can’t help but wonder where they’re going, what they’re doing and what the story behind that split-second encounter was. For a brief moment, my own story — usually something rather mundane like going to the shops or to get some petrol — intersects with that of some other people; an exciting, possibly tragic story that I will likely never know the details of.
That doesn’t stop me wondering, though.
Stories are all around us. Everyone you see is living their own story. And while few of them live up to the obnoxious banner currently hanging in Southampton’s WestQuay shopping centre (which promotes a local photography studio and reads “The Most Important Story Ever Told: Yours”), they’re all different and they’re all interesting in their own way. It can be kind of mind-boggling to contemplate quite how many things are going on at any given time, particularly when you contemplate how many things happen to you — however mundane — on any given day.
It’s in acknowledging the fact that stories are going on all around us — and continue without our intervention — that it becomes possible to craft a convincing, compelling fictional world. And it’s true across all forms of media: many comic books these days unfold in shared universes, with foreground events in one series fading into the background in others, but still being acknowledged; crossover TV shows keep their own narratives mostly parallel, but occasionally bend inwards a little to meet for a fleeting episode or two before diverging again; prolific authors spend volume after volume building up a convincing mental picture of how their world works, and the many adventures that the people therein have over time.
And the same is, of course, true of video games. The most well-crafted video games embrace this feeling of stories happening all around us at any time and, more so than any other medium, allow us to explore them at our leisure, pursuing the threads we’re interested in to build up a full picture of what it must really like to be an inhabitant of a virtual world.
This sort of thing is particularly important in sprawling role-playing games, where a poorly crafted world can do great harm to the immersion factor of the game. It’s the reason why the Elder Scrolls games have never really resonated with me: I never got the sense that the people wandering around and occasionally looking in my direction mattered; I never got the sense that they had their own personal stories, even when they formed the basis of a quest or two. There was the odd exception — tucked away in a few nooks and crannies were some interesting diary entries and illicit items that suggested all was perhaps not as it seemed with a character that seemed otherwise respectable — but for the most part, the identikit nature of most of the characters in these games was immensely offputting.
It will doubtless not surprise you to hear that this is one thing I feel Final Fantasy XIV does exceptionally well, much as its predecessor Final Fantasy XI did before it. Although the world is primarily populated by static NPCs who go about their same old business at all times of day or night — that and the players, of course — the game does, on regular occasions, make the effort to make the land of Eorzea feel truly lived-in.
This is most apparent in the relatively recently added “Postmoogle” quests, in which you’re recruited (somewhat reluctantly) by the Deputy Postmoogle to deliver a series of letters to various characters around the realm. Mechanically, these quests are little more than “go here, talk to this person” fetch quests, but if you stop and pay attention to what is being said — and who is involved — they take on a whole new amount of meaning.
This is because they involve characters that you will have seen elsewhere out and about in the world in various contexts.
One quest sees you accompanying the aptly named Hunberct Longhaft and his two adoring Miqo’te companions around the city of Ul’Dah; your only previous contact with these characters will have been during one of the major “FATE” events out in the world, at which point there was little time for conversation, but just enough time to wonder exactly what was going on between Hunberct and the two Miqo’te.
Another sees you engaging in conversation with a group of four gladiators whom you’ve likely only ever encountered as the last “boss” of the dungeon Halatali (Hard). Another still delves into the background of the “aesthetician” — the character you can summon from your inn room to get a new haircut — and his Ishgardian heritage.
It’s not just the Postmoogle quests that do this, however. Many of the sidequests that have been added since the game’s launch acknowledge popular minor characters, such as the ill-fated adventuring party you run into early in the game’s main scenario, whose erstwhile leader is beheaded in battle “off-camera” while you run your first dungeons. The next time you meet the group, the healer of the party — the deceased leader’s fiancee — is carrying his head around in a bag with her, stricken with guilt; the next time you meet them, which is much, much later, at level 50, long after the initial main scenario is over and done with, things have gone very, very wrong indeed.
Final Fantasy XIV is far from the only example of this idea of stories being all around us being used effectively in video games, but it’s one of the best in recent memory.
I still can’t help wondering where that ambulance was going, though. I hope the person it was on its way to help is all right.