I was in high school when I first played the massively multiplayer online role-playing game Final Fantasy XI. I was one of the early North American players, importing the PC version from Japan prior to the release of the first expansion pack, Rise of the Zilart, as it wasn’t clear when, if ever, the game would come to the United States. There was a solid English-speaking community on the Ragnarok server, and I never got terribly far in the game at that time, but I learned a lot about the roles in a party, or group of players, and even how to unlock the sub job.
It turns out, I wouldn’t have to wait long before a North American release, as developer Square announced just months later that an English beta test would happen over the summer. Not only was I selected for the test, but my brother was also selected and, before I knew it, there were two Sony PlayStation 2 hard drive kits waiting to be installed, along with early copies of the game.
And with that, my summer schedule was decided for me. I would stay up as late as I possibly could, waking up whenever my body decided it had slept enough, making new friends and exploring the unique world of Vana’diel which was unlike anything else I had ever played. It required cooperation with other players, otherwise you would risk dying and losing not only your monster hunting spot, but experience points that sometimes took hours to gather.
I had a leg up on many players, with my months of Japanese playing experience, so I helped lead some of the earliest parties through zone after zone, from La Theine Plateau to fighting crabs on the beaches of Valkurm Dunes. I taught the parties how to perform Renkei, the Japanese term for Skillchain which are the combinations of attacks that would be most effective in battle and, although I only knew the basics myself, it was enough. I was part of the first group of players to unlock the sub job, and helped lead the first expedition to Jeuno, one of the main cities of the game, with the hopes of finding equipment I had in the Japanese version. Spoiler: you could only get the equipment from monsters, not the shop. Even then, I thought about how eerie the city was with no other players running around.
Throughout the summer, I split time between Final Fantasy XI, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and even Star Wars Galaxies, but I always returned to Vana’diel. I would run out of steam when it became clear that character progress wouldn’t transfer to the final retail release that fall, but most of the players made a pact to join the same server at that time: Midgarsormr.
Many people followed us to the server, leading to overcrowding, but the race was on to be the first to experience everything the world had to offer. I would never quite be as dedicated to the game as I was that initial summer, but I would find my place, playing as a small Tarutaru character named Borman. I liked to play as a White Mage, a sometimes-thankless class that had the role of keeping everyone else alive. And I did it well!
Final Fantasy XI helped me through many hard times, giving friendship even at the latest hours of the night. I bonded with my brother Greg, and with others like Fuuji who I still think about to this day. I made friendships with Japanese players through the game’s rudimentary Auto-Translator function. Hordes crowded the streets of Jeuno, with some players trying to sell weapons from their hunts, and others shouting in common chat looking for a group to party with. The world was alive!
Throughout all this time, and multiple expansion packs, I barely ever scratched the surface of actual game content. It wasn’t really about that; it was about those late nights telling stories and making friends.
I’ve returned to Vana’diel multiple times in the more than 20 years since the game’s release. But the game is different, at times unrecognizable from what I played. The core is still there, but you no longer need other players for much of the content, which is probably a good thing because the player base is much smaller. The wonder and discovery of finding new things has evolved into a much more stable world set in its ways. My friends list, which still has dozens of names on it, no longer says where the player is in the world, but rather, just that they are offline. There are still thousands of players, the most dedicated of all really, but my friends are all gone. I am reminded of my first trip to Jeuno, as the streets today more closely resemble the emptiness of the early days of the beta test.
And yet, the music still sends memories flooding my brain. The sounds of a party taking down mobs reminds me of all the Mountain Dew and Dr. Pepper that kept us fueled from sunset to sunrise, and sometimes, yet another sunset all in one go.
Final Fantasy XI is one of those games that really doesn’t lend itself to preservation. Even if we were able to save every version of the game, and every update that ever existed for the game, we still wouldn’t get at the heart of what Vana’diel truly was. In many ways, the game was just a medium to tell our own personal stories. Without those friends, we are left with a world that isn’t quite as unique as it once was.
But that doesn’t discount the memories that hundreds of thousands of us around the world collectively hold, each unique in their own ways. This blog post is preservation of Final Fantasy XI, and for me, these stories are what need to live on just as much as the game itself. And yet, I still think about the game often, wondering if we would get the party back together one more time to make a new set of memories, different from the past and yet equally as potent. Maybe tomorrow…