Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers — Environmentalism and ecofascism
MAJOR spoilers for the main story of Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
I’ve been playing Final Fantasy XIV since its re-release (since the first iteration was bombed to shit) in 2013. It’s kept me hooked because, for an MMO, it’s got a fantastic plot. Characters are memorable and well-rounded, the setting combines history with geography, and the stories it brings to the forefront are captivating, dealing with a whole slew of — dare I say it? — political subjects.
Final Fantasy XIV (FF14) has the typical fantastical setting, and it deals with the commonalities shared throughout most Final Fantasy games. An evil empire ruthlessly expanding its territories, intricate magical systems, strange institutions and even stranger worlds. Indeed, most of the base game deals with fighting back against the evil Garlean empire. It’s all very standard, not very interesting aside from the music and the dungeon designs.
The expansions, though, take on juicier subjects. The first one, Heavensward, is about how violent an axiom can get, “history is written by the victor”. The religious city-state of Ishgard prides itself in its long-lasting ‘Dragonsong War’. The city’s leadership, led by aristocracy and a magic pope, have thoroughly conspired to rewrite the history of the Dragonsong War as to prevent humans from learning the truth. Heavensward is ultimately about propaganda, the consolidation of power through war, and doctrine’s complicity in justifying inequality. Despite the opaque, grandiloquent writing the game is known for, this is fairly surface-level stuff.
Its second expansion, Stormblood, deals with colonialism, racial theory, and the gambit of foreign military aid. I’ve already written about that here, so read up on that. I lament its missed potential in two ways, however. I found it a bitter pill to swallow how most of that expansion featured Doma. Doma is a country styled in every regard after medieval Japan, and in the story, that Japan-analog requires liberation from a foreign occupation force. That is approaching revisionist Japanese history. Moreover, Stormblood resoluted itself by actively transforming the liberated nation of Ala Mhigo into a market economy that ends up joining the League of Capitalist Nation-States.
But! All of this digression leads me to what I’m actually intending to write about. The third expansion: Shadowbringers. It is a story whose core conflict is, undeniably, rooted in climate change and environmental struggles. I predict that games are going to be doing this a lot in the next decade. Yet, its urgency is not necessarily about surviving the apocalypse. Its warning lies within states using disaster as opportunity. I will first be talking about how Shadowbringers contextualises climate disaster as something that is caused. Then I will move on to its cautions about an ecofascist state.
To be up-front: I am a Marxist who knows that games have politics in them.
Climate disaster: ideology and territory
The premise of Shadowbringers can be summed up as follows:
There is light and there is dark. Too much dark is very bad because it’s the evil thing. It is the side of dudes in robes, genocide, all that. However: too much light, the side of pale women in dresses and saints, is also very bad? Huh?
This tweak of the old formula is revealed when the player-character first arrives in ‘The First’ — a different world where light has emerged victorious in its eternal clash against darkness. Above is no weather, no sky, no days or nights. There is only pure, oppressive light. The perennial sunlight breaking through the clouds has been burning away at the environment for roughly a century when the player arrives there.
This tableau already strikes true to the meteorological fact that climate change has made irreversible changes to the weather. Notably, (warning: the paper in the following link is heavy on climate panic) a reduction in clouds, which play a significant role in moderating heat build-up.
The First is as inhospitable as it is because a group known as the ‘Warriors of Light’ (the role the player-character shares) succeeded in eradicating all forces of darkness from the world. Immediately afterwards, the Flood happened. A wave of pure light washed over The First, turning everything into one great concatenation of unhabitable salt flats. All that’s left habitable of the entire planet is roughly half a continent. The use of the term ‘The Flood’ isn’t accidental. Bluntly, flooding of coastal areas is the main consequence of global warming. But, given the victory of light, there’s also water’s connotation of purification, as if every wrong has been ‘whitewashed’.
The player-character is transported through space and time to The First. When you arrive, many of FF14’s main cast — The Scions of the Seventh Dawn — are already there, having been whisked away at separate intervals during Stormblood. All of them claim to have been there for years already, even though it couldn’t have been more for weeks for the player-characrer. This time dilation is interesting — there is an environmental struggle that has long affected The First, but it’s not an issue until the central player perspective is confronted with it. Like on our world, it is the peripheries which are affected the earliest and the harshest by a changed climate. But it’s all been on the background, waylaid until the ‘core’ world is confronted with its reality, at which point denial can no longer serve any purpose. You also learn that these peripheries have been fighting back against this apocalypse for way longer than anyone else.
Humanity is not safe. Not just environmentally: this is still a Final Fantasy game, so there are monsters. Hostile wildlife exists for the most part, but the main monsters in Shadowbringers are called the ‘Sin Eaters’ — people who have been purified by light and transformed into hideous, angel-like creatures (biblical standards). All of the Sin Eaters are called things like ‘Forgiven Sacrifice’, ‘Forgiven Hypocrisy’, etc. — previous perpetrators of some moral wrong, given a chance in the new world order through mercy, grace, and salvation. The Sin Eaters’ only task is to create more Sin Eaters, i.e., spreading the terror of light. Charmingly, the surviving few humans have come to call themselves “sinners” as a badge of honour.
Virtue’s victory, then, did not establish a paradisio where all can join in heavenly delights; it has become a domain of dead things. Monotonous and embalmed, reliquiae of the earth.
Mainstream narratives, especially in JRPGs, employ faux-Christian visuals and verbiage to invoke a vague sense of ‘holiness’. Light becomes a placeholder for a generalised sense of purpose, a way of defeating the enemy which is darkness. Using language we’ve grown so accustomed to, Shadowbringers cleverly subverts the moral and visual expectations when it comes to ‘light’ in fantasy settings.
Light gives rise to a certain field of power, converting land in the name of purity and destructive homogeneity. Everything demarcated within light’s domain will then contribute to further territorialisation, regardless if a subject accepts these conditions, or is even aware of them. Light isn’t abstract in this sense, but force exerting its influence and producing a certainty. It can be fought for, i.e., it can produce material change. In the game, this is represented negatively through the The Flood and the Sin Eaters, synonymising both to climate catastrophe.
The last sectors of humanity holding out are in constant, hostile contact with the destroyed environment. The Sin Eaters don’t target the environment directly, but rather slowly kill off the last people living on it. They may have survived this long, but the new conditions shaped in the wake of total collapse will continue to claim lives. The heralds of light, despite belonging to the faction which killed the planet, cannot stop fighting. Doesn’t matter that this will annihilate all.
The significant mechanism here is light’s de-moralisation. It is not the same as good: it will not save you. Rather, it brings about a catastrophe of its own. It makes the case that ‘light’, much like ‘dark’, is a territorialising power. The fact that the Flood happens after light’s victory over the last bulwark of darkness is *sniffs* ideological. It is an ‘End of History’ in the most cataclysmic of senses. Nothing can yet organise to stand in the way of such colossal power — change is impossible, the world might as well crystallise.
If I may make a foray into another game: there is one called Disco Elysium. Much like The First, its world is plagued by an encroaching environmental force: ‘the pale’. It is explicitly described as the negation of existence. Also explained is that the pale expands with ‘the spread of humanity’s ideas’. What is suggested in Disco Elysium is that the pale is congruous with the spread of capital, the undead vampire. The more life is sucked from labour to fuel the raging engines of profit, the more the lifeless mists roll over the remaining, habitable world. Infinite extraction in a finite world.
Framing ecological collapse through ideology does something more than merely say “the world has been destroyed”. It locates the cause within organisational and institutional capacities, at least when it comes to explaining a culprit. Situated between light and dark, though, does Shadowbringers make the case for some kind of centrism? That you can’t have moral absolutism and must always seek equilibrium in all things? Advocating for some Third Way? Indeed, Shadowbringers could have easily been a story about permanent night and how light must be restored. So besides the philosophical scale it doesn’t do much but reverse the roles of light and dark, good and bad. But this isn’t the only scale of consideration present in the game.
There is also Eulmore.
Ecofascism: Statecraft and consolidation
When the player journeys to the island of Kholusia, it’s introduced as a browning Mediterranean-style rock amidst restless seas splintered with shipwrecks. It is sad in how barren the soil seems, how dreary the music sounds, save for one thing: the golden city towering gloriously above.
Before The Flood, Eulmore was a military state. The rich citizenry funded the armed forces and various military technologies, which solidified its dominance in the world. The Flood left the city relatively intact, given that it’s situated on an island far away from the mainland. With its wealth and military might, it became the de facto superpower of The First. For a while, it tried to help the other surviving nations the best it could, but that stopped. Interestingly enough, since the moment it ended its foreign aid, the Sin Eaters have ceased targeting it.
The player-character is introduced to Eulmore’s political flavours through a slew of saddening and outright bizarre events. Before its massive gates, there accrues a sprawling shantytown where refugees from all over the world’s last vestiges have settled. Why? Because they want to get into the city — that’s the only place where they can be safe from Sin Eaters and the rough survival of living. It’s where all the money is, too! Some refugees say they’ve been waiting to be let in for years, others bemoan the absence of hygiene, others mention that food is scarce. That makes sense: the permanent sunlight and lack of freshwater makes growing crops, especially in such cramped, disease-ridden conditions nearly impossible. So everyone waits for the daily event: when Eulmore hands out the meol.
Two women dressed in jester outfits emerge from the city gates, carrying a bag with this so-called meol. It’s a foodstuff, a white clump of nutritious dough, that Eulmore hands out as charity to the many refugees it refuses to accept. The jesters then select one, two people (from a crowd of many more) to enter the city walls. Entry is of course conditional: they aren’t going to be an actual citizen, but some rich person’s lackey.
What this illustrates is the years following a refugee crisis caused by climate change. Shadow societies have formed around the new world power, with its own economies, kinship structures, and class divisions. From the refugee perspective, they are aware that they possess no legal rights (undocumented!) and zero resources. They must hope for the miniscule chance of bourgeois whimsy. For all intents and purposes, they’re hostages — it’s not like they even have the means to go back. From Eulmore’s perspective, this is a cheap pool of labour willing to work for a pittance. The scene clarifies very directly that it is in Eulmore’s direct interest to keep refugees outside of the city. Whenever they encounter some need for labour power, they just have to extend a hand and it will be kissed. The jester outfits add insult to injury: it’s all entertainment for them.
Through fortune, the player-character is allowed inside as a servant. It is quickly explained how Eulmorian society works. There are ‘free citizens’ and there are ‘servants’. It is legal for a free citizen to be dissatisfied with a servant at a moment’s notice — this will lead to their death, tossed from the highest point of the city into the rocky seas below. Coincidentally, death of a worker is what creates a job opportunity for another climate refugee. No bodily autonomy, no protections, despite being part of the system.
The life for a free citizen, conversely, is provided for in every conceivable manner. In order to become one, an individual already has to be insanely rich. Then, all their wealth and property is claimed by the state. In return, all of their decadent desires are fulfilled and exorbitant pleasures met. In essence, this means there is neither democracy or economic independence, not even for its free citizens. All are tied, in various forms, to a totalitarian state whose only purpose is hoarding wealth one way or another. But, being given citizenship in Eulmore puts you in with the elite, a bunch of billionaires who get to continue their lifestyles as if the world hasn’t ended.
Organisationally, this is what an ecofascist state would look like and behave like. It hires, abuses, then kills undocumented migrants in order to meet the whims of its bourgeois clientele. It keeps on partying as the world burns, maintaining its reputation of exuberance, causing more people to give up on finding another way to survive so they’ll flock to Eulmore. One might have guessed, but the fact that it attracts these migrants has a distinct character: it’s beneficial to the fascist project to violently enforce distinctions of class. Capital, in this variant of pathology, is infinitely worth more than humanity’s ensured existence.
Another, deeper layer to Eulmore’s delight in ecofascism exists within its cultural doctrines. It is obsessed with the territorialism of light, in the same sense I mentioned that The Flood carried a connotation of ‘whitewashing’. When the player-character succeeds in taking down the first ‘Lightwarden’ — a powerful Sin Eater that ensures light’s hold over a certain area — it is Eulmore that has an immediate military reaction. Despite the fact that developing a method that restores ecological sustainability is a net good for all of humanity, Eulmore shows that its interests lie elsewhere: securing the influx of refugees. It seeks to protect that ultra-dependency — for if they lose their labour pool, they cannot maintain power. Worse yet, other communities will gain power rivalling theirs. This is, in effect, what happens as the plot of Shadowbringers develops.
Brilliantly, the free citizens of Eulmore worship the The Flood and the Sin Eaters. Safe on their perches, they worship the world’s end as it allowed them to get even more money. The language is taken at face-value: to the rich, the end of the world is a holy intervention. It is representative of a worldview obsessed with aesthetics, (racial) purity and absolute (heavenly) beauty. They believe in the apocalypse, because the apocalypse alligns with their class interests — it keeps them on top, and the people on top tend to think of themselves as superior. Light, as an ideology, serves them just fine.
Lastly, I have to return to the meol. Late in the game, it is revealed that meol is nothing other than ground-up Sin Eater. If the Sin Eaters represent the ecological end of history, then it means the people who are most in need of a new world order, are literally fed the idea that this is what they must abide. Change cannot happen — stagnation fattens them, as it has the free Eulmorians. Moreover, it is revealed that occasionally, a free citizen will be chosen to ‘transcend’: a free citizen is willingly turned into a Sin Eater. The state benefits from, and directly contributes to the changed climate. It seeks to extract the last bit of life from the dead world it towers over and will do everything in its power to ensure that doesn’t change.
Conclusion: A new type of villain?
Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers has done something incredibly honest and downright confrontational in a day and age where games pussyfoot around the elephant in the room. I personally consider this story a magnificent read on a possible future we all can work to avoid. It doesn’t shy away from illustrating that there is a distinct ideology which has led to climate disaster. Indeed, the changed climate isn’t the villain, as nature remains a neutral plane unconcerned with humanity. But it can be influenced by humanity, who have contributed immensely to its changing. It names this villainy, characterises it as a class of people. Elites who have promulgated those distinct sets of ideas and practices before the Flood, and who continue to spread them after.
Is this game about how capitalism is bad, then? Sure. At the very least it is an anti-capitalist narrative. It predicts, accurately, how the rich would keep humanity barreling toward extinction as long as they retain control. Why? Because on the one hand, they cannot fathom having to give up the power they had waited so long for to accrue. On the other, they’d have to admit this is all their fault. Even it takes a fair amount of sociopathy to be a billionaire, the full-bodied realisation that you have severely contributed to global extinction would trigger gestalt collapse. (I hope!)
So, Shadowbringers cautions us of the rise of ecofascism. But an important counterweight to any critique is: does it speak about alternatives? In a sense, yes. The main hub of Shadowbringers, the Crystarium, is a city built entirely by climate refugees. Contrary to Eulmore, everyone is welcomed and everyone enjoys the same status, provided they contribute to the sustainability of its community. In its lower areas there is a whole agricultural and botanical section where they grow food for its people, having adapted to the new climate and ensuring they raise crops without further destroying the environment. In order to save the planet, the people of the Crystarium take the fight to Eulmore. It’s understood that such wealth cannot be allowed to remain in the hands of few, when it could benefit so many people.
Yet, at this point in the plot (every patch cycle more story is added), there is nothing beyond the fall of Eulmore. It has at least conceded that some things about light can result in bad things, but it still stands at a crossroads where it can fold back into calling this ‘excessive’. “Light should be enjoyed in moderation (= the only actual good thing).” Moreover, Stormblood’s plot promoted that the best form of government, following fascist occupation, should be a market-based, liberal democracy. That seems to exist at odds with the conclusion of Shadowbringers.
Whether FF14 is aware of this or not, I cannot say. But with a cogent story about ecological collapse and ecofascism being the most potent dangers any world can face, Shadowbringers pulls its weight. Because this expansion takes place on The First — a different world altogether — perhaps the lessons of too-late can be changed into a tactic of prevention on the home world.