Most metafiction is bad, I find.
Almost always, when authors start getting into the weeds on the nature of reality, twisting things around and trying to play with the idea of characters within a story knowing that they’re fictional, I find it incredibly boring. It serves as a kind of excuse for not doing the hard work of writing actual characters or events with meaning. You simply point at the fourth wall and say “look at it! I’m doing something interesting here!”
And yet, something that I would describe as metafiction of the highest order is now one of my favorite pieces of fiction ever written. Definitely up there with Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, though I doubt it will ever be as widely recognized.
I speak, naturally, of the third expansion to the MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV, Shadowbringers, developed by Square-Enix, released in 2019. Just last week, I finished the main story content (including the patches) and found it to be incredibly good, and full of thematic meaning that I’ve rarely seen executed so well.
Now, the plot of Shadowbringers doesn’t actually feature any explicit metafictional elements. There is nothing about the characters realizing they are in an MMORPG, or any cheeky references to the developers. Nonetheless, I consider it a reflection and examination of dynamics that are at play around the very game that it is a part of.
I’m going to draw these comparisons, and then connect it all together with some philosophical concepts that have been on my mind for a while, to do with human dignity and how it can be extended to fictional characters. The metafiction is both contained within the story itself as a metaphor, and is also literalized in elements of the narrative in a more direct way that is never explicitly called out.
Let’s get into it! This is gonna be a long one.
A Very Quick Summary of Shadowbringers
One of the big problems with writing about this is that it requires an absolute mountain of context. Not only is the story of Shadowbringers itself very long, probably as long as many regular RPGs, but it only really works on an emotional level if you’ve played all of FFXIV and the two previous expansions.
I’m going to have to write the rest of this essay from the perspective of someone completely caught up on the MSQ (main scenario quests) of FFXIV, but I will provide a quick run-down of some of the most important concepts and characters.
- The Warrior of Light/Darkness: This is the player character of the game, and thus the saviour of both Eorzea and the First. As the player character of an RPG, they have something special about them that is indefinable, as well as a power called the “echo”, which grants them immunity to the corrupting influence of summoned godlike entities called “primals”.
- Ascians: These are the main antagonistic faction of Final Fantasy XIV, along with the Garlean Empire. The Ascians are a group of black-robed, masked immortal beings who are the survivors of the ancient civilization of Amaurot. They have all sorts of different powers, and influence the progression of history to create catastrophic disasters in order to advance their goal of rejoining all the worlds.
- The Sundered Worlds: It turns out, the world of FFXIV is actually but one shard of an original world that was broken into 14 reflections, each slightly different. The goal of the Ascians is to cause apocalypses on these other worlds, which causes them to “rejoin” with the source. They believe that this will restore the world to its proper state, as it was when they originally inhabited it. The world that the Warrior of Light is from, and where most of the game takes place, is called The Source, while the one where Shadowbringers takes place is called The First.
- The Scions of the Seventh Dawn: A group of researchers and adventurers who are working to save the world from disaster. This is basically the protagonist faction, and is the group that all of the characters that are most developed are part of, including the Warrior of Light.
- Emet-selch: An ascian who created the Garlean Empire, as well as all other empires in the history of the Source and the First. He is very bored and depressed, and decides to tag along with the Scions and the Warrior of Light in their quest to save the First. He mostly just hangs around and explains things. Eventually he decides to just kill the Warrior of Light after explaining how meaningless their existence is. He fails, and is killed for good.
- Elidibus: The mysterious white-robed leader of the Ascians, who calls himself an emissary. He initially seems like an aloof figure who seeks to balance conflict between the forces of light and darkness, but eventually becomes frustrated and decides to follow the WoL and the Scions to the source and destroy them. His true form is a primal, a godlike being that feeds on a specific emotion. In his case, it is the desire to save the world. Thus, he inspires individuals to become heroes in order to grow his own power. He is killed by the Warrior of Light at the very end of the current FFXIV story.
- G’raha Tia: A character critically important to the plot of Shadowbringers. He is the person who brings the Scions and the WoL to the First so that they can help him save it from the overwhelming power of the Sin Eaters. He is originally from the Source, and is met much earlier in the game, but survives into a post-apocalyptic future and then travels into the past in another dimension in order to prevent that future from coming to pass. He attempts to sacrifice himself to save the world three times, but is saved every time, and is currently alive and well back on the Source.
Plot Summary of Shadowbringers
The Warrior of Light travels to the First in order to save the souls of his friends and allies, the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, who have been transported there by unknown means. They are brought there physically by the Crystal Exarch, the leader of the Crystarium.
They travel around the First defeating the evil Light Wardens, and free the world from the endless, oppressive daylight that has shone for one hundred years. Then, the Ascian Emet-Selch kidnaps the Crystal Exarch and brings him to the phantom city of Amaurot, at the bottom of the ocean. The Warrior of Light defeats Emet-Selch after learning the history of Amaurot, and saves the Exarch, who reveals himself to be G’raha Tia.
The Scions begin working on a method for transporting their souls back to their home dimension, when the formerly deceased hero of the First, Ardbert, suddenly reappears. He inspires the people of the first to become heroes not unlike the Warrior of Light. Eventually, it is revealed that this Ardbert is Elidibus in disguise. He hijacks the Crystal Tower at the heart of the Crystarium, and begins summoning phantom warriors from other dimensions to destroy the Warrior of Light.
But, the Warrior of Light kills Elidibus with the help of G’raha Tia, and they are able to return to the Source along with all the Scions, safe and sound.
I swear that’s the short version, there is so much more context and detail I am leaving out.
Mapping the Analogy
Okay, so what does all this mean? How does a plot featuring dimensional travel quality as metafiction? Well, a large part of it comes down to the nature of the Ascians, and the denizens of the ancient city of Amaurot.
The people of Amarot had the ability to create new things just by thinking about them. In exploring the phantom version of the city, especially the instanced dungeon Akademia Aneyder, the player learns that they can conjure new forms of life at a whim.
This, along with the way that the Ascians manipulate the path of history, fits them squarely in the role of the author. They are people who are creating things to a particular end, who want to guide the story to a certain goal in order to fulfill their desires. They are not literally the authors, obviously, but they take the role of authors in this fictional framework.
Emet-selch takes on the role of authoring history, specifically. By founding countless empires across history, he sought to inspire acts of cruelty and desperation that would lead to more disasters. And, by and large, he succeeded. He views all non-Ascians as lesser beings akin to insects, who are not worth caring about, and should be rightly crushed if they resist his plans.
It is especially clear in the case of Elidibus, who literally creates hero narratives in order to increase his personal power. He sends out lower-ranking Ascians to perform various miscellaneous evil deeds just to create the need for more heroes in the First. Just as an author seeks to inspire specific emotions in their readership, Elidibus works to inspire specific emotions in the general populace of the First in order to become more powerful.
The regular folk of the Source and the First, then, are the purely fictional characters. That part is pretty straightforward, they act at the whims of the authors. At any point, and Ascian can appear and either manipulate a regular person, or just fully possess their body and control their actions entirely.
The player character, the Warrior of Light, is the reader. Their role is not in creating the world, but is experiencing it and moving the narrative forward. A work of fiction is not complete until it is experienced and interpreted, and this process is actually seen within the work of fiction itself here.
The Warrior of Light is influenced by the Ascians, to be sure, but they forge their own path in the end, and defy them at many key points. Much as a reader may interpret a piece of fiction in a way that is contradictory to an author’s original intent, Ascians do not have perfect control over the end results of their plans.
The real meat of the metafictional angle, though is in what I like to call reflected dignity. I’ve briefly touched on this idea a few times in the past, particularly in that one Moby Dick post where I promised to write fan fiction about Fedallah.
So, according to famous 19th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, human beings are imbued with dignity, which gives them with the ability to have subjective experiences. Dignity is what means that you cannot treat people as objects, or as pure means to an end, in Kant’s philosophy. I don’t fully agree with specific interpretation (he didn’t think anyone but German men who studied philosophy REALLY had dignity), but it’s a good conceptual starting point.
My concept is that this dignity is reflected in fictional characters. Obviously, they do not have all the same privileges and status and rights as a real human being, but there is still a little… something, there. They do not have full internal lives, but their authored internal existence is a reflection of the human dignity of their authors.
Meaning that you can’t just treat them however you want, at any time. The extent to which fiction effects and is affected by reality puts the responsibility of the work on the author, at the end of the day. Also on the reader in their act of interpretation, but mostly on the author. To that end, creating a human figure and treating them without any dignity within a story is similar to doing so for a real person.
This is the reason that people get upset about fictional characters being mistreated, and try to apply real-world morality to fictional depictions of terrible acts of cruelty and violence. Personally, I only think it’s a problem when it is portrayed in a way that doesn’t make the moral stance clear, or in a way that is especially callous and cruel.
Dignity as Anime Superpower
In the world of Final Fantasy XIV, this concept of dignity and reflected dignity takes the form of the density of a person’s soul. This allows them to perform great feats of strength and magic, and to resist the power of the Ascians.
Think of it this way: Who has the most reflected dignity in an MMORPG? It’s the player character, of course! They are the one in direct control of an actual, real-life person. To actually kill them, really and truly, is actually impossible in the fictional framework of the game. That would mean that the player would no longer be able to play, and thus would stop paying for the game, and the game would cease to exist.
Even the author themself is ultimately more expendable than the player. If the author dies, the player can continue playing the same content, over and over, or other authors can come and take their place. But if a game is not being played, it does not actually exist as a game.
The conflict between the Ascians and the Warrior of Light is not actually “man vs author”, as I first believed it was. No, it is “author vs audience”, in true fact. The tensions present there reflect the tensions between the authors of an ongoing narrative an the audience experiencing that narrative, and offering feedback.
Take the case of one G’raha Tia: The man who kept trying to sacrifice himself for the greater good, but it never quite took.
G’raha Tia: A Case Study
The writers of Final Fantasy XIV took to killing off characters for a cheap emotional hit relatively early on. Moebryda is introduced and killed off within a few hours. Minfilia sacrifices herself to save the rest of the Scions not long after.
The Ishgardian nobleman Harchefont sacrifices himself to save the player character during the Heavensward expansion, and the fans still haven’t forgiven the developers. He was, and still is, beloved by the fans, for his upbeat attitude and his good looks. Papalymo sacrifices himself in the lead-up to the second expansion, Stormblood, and the schtick was beginning to wear thin.
G’raha Tia technically sacrificed himself way back in the original release of the game, or at least in the first cycle of patches. He sealed himself within the mysterious Crystal Tower in order to keep the Cloud of Darkness at bay. His return, and subsequent inability to die, demonstrates that he has taken on a “fan favorite” status.
The fact that the players of Final Fantasy XIV, in real life, like G’raha means that the authors of the game are less likely to kill him. This is the dynamic that I’m talking about, which is being represented in the fiction of the game itself.
After G’raha returns to the Source with the rest of the Scions, they find that his soul has also become more dense. He is less susceptible to the whims of fate, to the manipulations of the Ascians. He has a more solid foundation in the fictional world, he has been upgraded from a background character to the supporting cast.
The Limits of Metafiction
What is it about this story that is more appealing to me than most metafiction?
Well, I suppose it’s the fact that it is also regular fiction, at the same time. It is not throwing around the concept of fictionality as a weapon to reduce the stakes, to make things feel less “real” within the context of the story itself. Rather, it is using the concepts and dynamics present in metafiction to tell a completely fictional story.
If Emet-selch turned to the camera and started addressing me, the person controlling the Warrior of Light, I would have rolled my eyes and let out a deep sigh. That kind of thing is old hat, as far as I’m concerned. The problem with that kind of metafiction is that it is too limited in the kind of conflicts it can address.
For example, if a fictional character is disliked by the author… well, that conflict can only go one way, can’t it? The fictional character has no real agency in the thing, and pretending they do is just a clever construct of the fiction itself. But by embodying the author as a separate fictional entity in the Ascians, Final Fantasy XIV is able to examine these conflicts in a more complete way.
In this case, the authors of this game are able to look at the problem of an author wanting to treat their characters with absolutely no regard, but coming up in conflict against those who love and respect them. The philosophical conflict between Emet-selch and the Warrior of Light is whether the lives of the people of the First mean anything at all.
Emet-selch is representative of an author who doesn’t care about their characters, and just wants to put them through the wringer to entertain themselves. The actual argument he puts forth in the game is that they are so much lesser than the Amaurotine, they are not even worth considering.
This argument about which kinds of people really matter obviously has a lot of implications beyond simply fictional vs real lives, of course. As a symbol of empires throughout history, Emet-selch also represents the in-group vs out-group mentality across many different situations.
You can see how this kind of conflict is more thematically rich than a more simple one where fictional characters realize they are fictional.
What Does it Mean?
So, what is the upshot here?
Well, as I said earlier, there is a lot of context that I had to strip out, and that comprises… most of the actual content of the Shadowbringers expansion itself. Where it succeeds most is that the authors focused on telling a good story first and foremost. The metafictional elements are there, but they are fully contextualized within the world, and do not take focus away from the characters that we, the audience, care about.
Indeed, resisting the power of Emet-selch means affirming that the world of the First and those within it are worth caring about. It is not only a rejection of misanthropy in general, but affirming that these specific fictional characters do actually matter, even if they are only fictional.
The way that an author treats the characters in their work, reflects on the way that they relate to other people in the real world, and that will ripple out through their audience. Reflections of dignity are worthy of the reflection of respect.
As with all things, it is very complicated, and requires you to understand a great deal of nuance. There is nothing cut and dry here. I am not saying that you shouldn’t kill off that character, or that authors are Bad and Wrong if they do so.
What I am saying is that there is a moral dimension to all authorship which extends beyond the work itself. It is important to be aware of these dynamics, and that is why it is so refreshing to see a game as big and popular as Final Fantasy XIV dealing with them.
Or, at least, that is my interpretation of what Shadowbringers is about.
But, I’ve written enough here today. There’s a lot more I could say about the specific themes of different subplots within Shadowbringers, but I’ll leave with this: It’s good. Really good. I was not kidding when I said it was one of my favorite pieces of fiction.
MMORPGs are capable of incredibly dense storytelling and worldbuilding, on a scale that is difficult to grapple with, but I find it extremely rewarding to do so!