Standing on a cliffside and looking down upon one of the many Eorzean cities at nightfall, I see a crowd. Another player runs by me, headed to the same destination. Both of us mingle with the crowd in our own way, but soon I’ve received the quest I need and quickly depart. Neither of us said a word to each other, but for a moment we were each part of the others’ game.
The momentary interaction I have with strangers has become the pure reason I enjoy games that can be described as “massively multiplayer”. It’s not for want of a community to join – it’s because these games present to me a world in spite of one. In Eorzea I am a tall and proud warrior, no different than thousands of other strangers looking to broaden their horizons.
Final Fantasy XIV presents to me an isolated fantasy: I am on a journey to save the world. I am joined by others, and we all work towards the same goal. It’s been one of the sole MMORPG’s I’ve really played in over a decade. Eorzea gives me a world of isolation, one that feels semi-unchanging. There will always be new expansion packs, but I can always go back to Western Thanalan and it will be much the same.
Maybe persistence and community are really a type of illusion. My experience in Final Fantasy XIV is the same as it was a decade prior in Phantasy Star Online and even World of Warcraft. It’s not like I don’t enjoy the draw of guilds and a stable group of friends, but, ironically, I find that these distant worlds offer me respite from community.
Our working day is spent with strangers thrust on us – of meeting people we dislike or, even worse, have no real opinion on. Standing in line and trying to make small talk to pass the time, riding on a crowded bus. In my day job I meet thousands of people from all over – but online I can stay as much of a stranger as I’d ever like to be.
A bustling city here can be just a momentary stop. Always chasing some sort of goal, the structure of the MMO has changed in a way that represents disconnection. Final Fantasy XIV tells me: it’s okay to be alone. Other people will be there when we need them to be. If I want to glimpse a sliver of someone else’s life, all I have to do is watch and pay attention.
My first encounter with the idea of online isolation was in .HACK//, a curious series. Prior to the popularity of isekai anime (nerd goes to another world, gets laid) Anime and much of pop culture asked questions about identity and community long before social media had its claws in all of us. .HACK// presented a fake online world: one seemingly full of life, but a kind of life made of plastic.
.HACK// gave strange frontiers and a scope to the world not quite established in RPG’s at the time. You could look up into the sky and see the fragments of places not yet visited – there was a certain kind of vague promise in the world.
Lonely frontiers – a feeling of mystery and wonder. Maybe, after all of these years, I am still chasing some kind of adolescent high. Sometimes I do in Final Fantasy XIV. Sometimes I boot up Phantasy Star Online just for the nostalgia of the loading screen.
The digital frontier offered us a space to make friends in. It told us we could go on grand journeys together, form everlasting bonds. To me, it offers a respite the real world often no longer does: the chance to be alone. Every moment of our digital existence is tracked and fed into an algorithm. Our faces and moments we share with people given over to government tracking and used as an attempt to make us famous.
I find myself as a face in the crowd in these places. A person on their own journey. I often face a nagging sense that I may be hiding from something. For years I was present in spaces where I could not – or would not, be who I truly felt I was. The digital was maybe an outlet for these feelings for too long.
You don’t have to hide to enjoy being left alone. Meet me in Eorzea, I’ll wave.