Final Fantasy XVI: Fiction that Reflects Reality


Joe Richards discusses Final Fantasy XVI's reflection of real climate concerns

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Image by Square Enix Presskit

By Joe Richards

Final Fantasy is a franchise that needs no introduction. Having a 35 year legacy, each new entry into the franchise explores a new facet of the fantasy subgenre and an entirely new setting. From classic high fantasy, steampunk to modern science fiction, Final Fantasy is a series that has a legacy that spans an array of styles. Jumping from a more modern take on fantasy, the latest entry in the series jumps back into the high fantasy that began Final Fantasy, forgoing modern technology for a setting that evokes classic titles.

Being compared favourably to series such as Game of Thrones, Final Fantasy XVI is a combat focused action game in which players take control of Clive Rosfield; a disgraced and disenfranchised heir to the throne who is thrust into a multifaceted political conflict surrounding possession of mystical objects known as the mothercrystals. In typical Final Fantasy fashion, these complex human conflicts are supported by mythical beasts called Eikons that serve to amplify the spectacle for the audience and punctuate moments with visually staggering battles and setpieces. These Eikons are stylised after the summons of Final Fantasy past. Serving as vessels for these “Eikons” are the Dominants. Dominants are the individuals who channel a particular Eikon and these characters are major players in the countries in which they reside. The game draws attention to the disparity between how Dominants are treated in various countries; some countries worship their Dominants as godlike figures, where others treat their Dominants as tools to be used.

At the heart of the story of Final Fantasy XVI are themes of human exploitation and resource warfare. The magic in this world is not an unlimited resource; the cost of using magic is severe. Those who use magic do so at the cost of their own bodies, falling victim to a curse that turns them to stone. The parallel in this dynamic is clearly seen in the human cost that arises as a result of the intense labour of mining for fossil fuels in the service of those who make use of them. While taking some creative liberties with – and putting the agency into the hands of the workers, rather than separating worker and resource – Final Fantasy XVI aims to interrogate the grim realities that underpin the modern resource hungry world, in light of global efforts to combat climate change.

Revelations throughout the narrative shed light on how the worshipped mothercrystals are actually the main cause of the world-threatening “blight” that is sweeping across the continent of Valisthea. This “blight” is accelerated by the overwhelming harvest of magic from the planet and effectively renders any area it affects as completely uninhabitable. The parallel here is clearly seen in the irreversible damage that we as humans are doing to our own natural landscapes, with rising sea levels and deforestation. Similar to the “blight”, we are destroying and rendering lands completely unusable once we exhaust their use.

By presenting these clear parallels in such stark circumstances and without room for interpretation, the game presents a scenario that rings eerily true to areas of our world today, where homes and livelihoods are similarly wiped out. Our expectation of a fantasy away from reality is disturbed and deconstructed to force us to remember the issues that face us every day.

Beyond just choosing to represent the issues of climate change and the emergent resource warfare, Yoshi-P decides to go a step further with his work in Final Fantasy XVI and delivers a scathing critique of how nebulous these figureheads can truly be. This critique has proven itself to be a controversial element of the game for players across the board. The roleplaying genre is no stranger to the idea of a surprise twist villain. These types of villains are a solid way to keep players on the edge of their seats and offer “just one more thing” as you make your way towards the end of a story.

Despite the advantage of being unpredictable, these villains can often feel intrusive and almost wasted if they arrive too late in the story. Other entries in the Final Fantasy series have fallen into the trap of “one last boss fight” against a god-like figure who hasn’t been a significant part of the story at all. Final Fantasy IX is revered as one of the very best RPGs on the original PlayStation, but this wonderful story is damaged by a boss fight who quite literally appears from nowhere as you defeat Kuja, the main antagonist.

Upon its initial release, the main villain of Final Fantasy XVI was similarly scrutinised for very similar reasons. In a game that primarily marketed itself on having a story with intense political intrigue and conflict, the idea of a mystical being above this conflict was one that didn’t sit well with many people. Ultima is an unnerving presence throughout the narrative of Final Fantasy XVI whose presence feels wholly alien and disconcerting. Making steady appearances throughout the narrative, referring to Clive as ‘Mythos’, this supernatural presence emerges as a lingering thought in the minds of players as they steadily defeat each Eikon and gain their powers.

While this decision to change focus from the political to the supernatural didn’t sit well with the majority of players, I argue that this was the true point of Final Fantasy XVI’s narrative. Ultima’s complete and total disconnect from the political intrigue serves only to show how truly meaningless the politics are. In turn, Final Fantasy XVI tasks us with changing our perspective on these types of conflicts in the real world. Recent years have seen a distinct raise  in awareness of the ecological threats against our world,  that are occurring as a direct result of human industrialisation. We have also seen renewed efforts for the average person to become more eco-conscious. For example, coffee shops are offering reusable cups for regular customers, refillable water bottles are becoming a standard with a priority on drinking fountains and waste-free shopping with refillable containers is becoming increasingly popular.

By no means am I saying that these changes are meaningless or useless, but the dousing of these large-scale ecological threats requires far more than just refilling water bottles and using reusable bags. Environmental awareness has become an inexorable aspect of politics in our modern world, when it is absolutely more than that. To push environmentalism as part of a political campaign is to miss the point of environmentalism in the first place, and it places the focus on the wrong people, letting the culprits get away with their crimes. Final Fantasy XVI highlights that those who perpetuate the damage against the world quite literally do not exist in the same world as those politicians. While we as the public can workshop ways to reduce the use of plastic (or in the case of Final Fantasy, magic), this has a negligible impact on the manufacturing of those resources. At the end of Final Fantasy XVI, the political conflicts of the rest of the game fall to the wayside in light of this world-ending threat, and the promise of total destruction under the rule of Ultima. Final Fantasy XVI is telling us that unification and a concentrated effort to fight against those nebulous powers is what affects change. At the cost of his loved ones and himself, Clive manages to fulfil a promise made to his mentor in ridding the world of magic, and freeing those who are still alive to reform the world in a new image, a world without magic and the threat of destruction.

This has only been elaborated upon over time, with the recently released downloadable scenario in The Rising Tide. While this scenario is largely supplementary to the main story, it once again shines a new light on the very human cost of ecological warfare. The story of Leviathan the Lost is alluded to in the base experience of Final Fantasy XVI in passing and is largely left a mystery until this expanded campaign. Within this small campaign, players discover the origin of Leviathan, as being controlled by and frozen in time as a literal baby.

It is quite telling that one of the hardest fights in the game is effectively against a child possessing a huge water serpent. Once again, the human cost of mindless resource gathering is made abundantly clear, and is thankfully resolved throughout the experience. A character lost at the hands of such selfish misdeeds however is the previous heir to the Eikon of Ice, Shiva. Being forced to learn a spell to literally freeze time, players learn that she was exiled to the land of Mysidia and died as a result of the Crystals’ Curse. Those who wished to use her for magic alone threw her to perish, and this discovery sheds more light on just how those with magic are used for utility alone in the world. The disparity between worshipped Eikons and essentially enslaved Eikons is stark and emphasised by this discovery. Bahamut is an Eikon revered for his status within the country of Sanbreque, with the same being true for Hugo Kupka of the Dhalmekia Republic. Waljas and Shiva are not given the same privilege. Final Fantasy XVI excels as an ecocritical narrative and does so with bombastic scenes and thoughtful reflections on how we as the public can affect change in our world now. Meanwhile, it acts as a stark critique on how these world-threatening issues are often completely subdued by ultimately meaningless political dogma.  Where this game is an absolutely staggering achievement for a new console generation, quite possibly its biggest achievement is its delivery of an ambitiously critical narrative that can resonate with everyone.