Talk Tough: The Language of Play in Final Fantasy XI

"Who wants pizza? We need to order pizza. Who doesn't like pineapple?"

by Adam Harshberger

In May 2002, Final Fantasy XI (FFXI) launched on the PlayStation2 as the first massively multiplayer entry in the seminal series. Later, with its PC release in November 2002, FFXI became the first videogame to allow people to play together on two different platforms. When it became available in America on both PC and PS2 – in 2003 and 2004, respectively – it also allowed Japanese and North American gamers to play together. This was an unusual move: typically, online roleplaying games segregate players by region, eliminating hurdles in both language and server latency.

Server latency proved to be only a minor issue throughout the game’s life. And the language barrier has caused no major problems, because players found that the game does most of the talking for them. In other words, despite its complexity, the game itself became the primary language of communication.

FFXI is an extremely difficult game, and its brutality is compounded by the fact that you have to play in a group. Demanding precise teamwork and punishing players severely when they fail – with both large amounts of lost time and experience points – FFXI demands cooperation at a high level before offering any sort of progress or enjoyment, really.

What’s worse is that it takes a long time to do anything. My most recent playtime total adds up to 32 days, and I’ve probably only seen ¼ of the game’s total content. One spends a lot of time in Vana’diel, the game’s world, and eventually, it starts to feel like home.

The genius of FFXI is that it uses this difficulty and demand for devotion as a means for developing a ‘language’ of play that spans across languages and platforms.

Everyone, each class, has a role. You’re trained in it, ruthlessly, from the start. So by the time you start playing with others, you’re well versed. And soon, you’ll know the role that each person in your group must play in order to achieve success. The first time you raise a character, you’ll have spent around 10 hours before it becomes necessary or even advisable to play with others. And when you do finally start grouping? Well, at first, its awkward. There’s a lot of confusion and death after death. Eventually, though, it all comes together, through a combination of organic learning and (hopefully) veteran advice.

Consequently, the functions of your class, and crucially, how you fit into a group, become hardwired into your brain. This means that when you, a person who speaks only English, find yourself in a party with 5 Japanese people, the language barrier means nothing. Even faced with these brutal conditions, you have a wordless, intrinsic way of communicating with your comrades. You function as one unit, achieving and progressing in this hellish game, together; in the process, you have a meaningful, fulfilling game experience with your companions. This feeling goes far beyond the casual, polite-smile cooperation of fragging alongside an international group in a Halo or some other such competitive game, precisely because everybody needs to fill a role perfectly – and they do.

It’s hard to explain exactly how it works. It all becomes a reaction, like pulling your hand away from a hot stove. In the heat of battle, you learn to react to what your partners are doing. For example, in FFXI, as a character does damage to an enemy, the enemy will begin to attack that character. This is, generally, undesirable – the classes designed to do a lot of damage are all pretty fragile. So if I see my glass cannon of a teammate going too hard, I know I have to grab the monster’s attention, through special abilities or my own damage output – or he’ll die, and our group’s demise won’t be far behind.

Good FFXI players come to realize there’s a certain ebb and flow to the battles; a procession of skills and auto-attacks. Everything happens on the edge, everybody knowing that one misstep could cause death for the entire group. You have to stay in the language of the game, in the rhythm of the fight: using abilities at the right time, coordinating party positions – complicated things. Given time, though, everyone just knows. We don’t need to tell each other what to do (and a lot of the time, we can’t!) because the game has taught us everything we need to know to work together. And the game’s unrelenting difficulty and harsh punishments mean that we have to listen when the game teaches us things.

The same goes for when a PC player and PS2 player interact. Oftentimes, the console gamer won’t have a keyboard at their disposal, but it doesn’t matter – the language of play does the communicating for us.

The most telling fact, and one I can relate from my 32 days of game time, is that the groups that all speak the same language and the groups made of mixed languages perform equally. It’s a hard game but it’s hard regardless of the language barriers, not because of them. Looking back, the idea that a group inhibited by language barriers, be it half-English, half-Japanese, or whatever, is able to do things that a group of same-language folk can do – without any noticeable decreases in performance – is astounding. Especially you when factor in the difficulty of the task.

In fact, I recall multilingual groups as some of the most effective groups I’ve ever been in. Could it be that communicating through the systems of the game is, in this instance, better than relying on a traditional language? I’m not sure.

I should note here that the games has functionality to send a limited amount of pre-translated phrases to players, and an emote system – but these tools alone aren’t enough to enable the kind of cross-culture collaboration that FFXI’s play-language does.

How does this relate to games at large? Titles like Dark Souls brought discussions about difficulty and strange, punishing games to the forefront. Gaming sites and Twitter feeds bubbled over with talk of how enriching the intimidating nature of the game was. It made single player mysterious and engaging again, they said. Also praised was the sparse, elegant and vague storytelling of the game. What people missed, I think, was the interplay between the story and mechanics: that yes, the world of Dark Souls is a hellish place and the graphics, writing and sound of the game reflect that – but so does the intensely hard gameplay itself; the language of its play.

Similarly, the story of FFXI is about the peoples of Vana’Diel putting aside their differences to defeat the Shadowlord. Banded together against this primal evil, their previous disagreements matter little. So too do the players – across cultures, platforms and geographies – band together against the unforgiving game. They don’t need to share a common understanding of words; they have the mechanics of the game, as illuminated by its difficulty, to let them talk.

Further Reading: Journeys: A Curated Collection of Writing on thatgamecompany’s Journey (Medium Difficulty)

“Rocksmith and The Limits of Learning” (Medium Difficulty)

“Limbo, or the Limits of Language” (Medium Difficulty)

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  • Steven Sukkau

    That is a fascinating example where the message of the game, different races working towards the same goal, is mirrored by the medium of the MMO. The medium is the message is this case, and that’s a powerful aspect of videogames that we often forget to examine. Great work Adam!

  • Nyarlah

    The amount of time needed to create or find a balanced group, added to the fact that passed a certain level you were basically forced to group to accomplish anything in the game, created very strong bonds between players.

    Add to that the advanced combat concepts like skillchains and magicburst, which made even your damage dealing abilities rely on other players, and the fact that Square-Enix didn’t divulge any information about the content in the game (you had to find it all by yourself).

    All this made for one of the strongest international and polyglot MMO communities I’ve encountered, and I certainly miss many aspects of it. With today’s standards, “mmo” games are massive only to a certain extent, limited by more single player content and instanced zones to please the newer players.

    I had several japanese friends in FFXI, we always played together even though we couldn’t communicate at all. We just knew our groups were working and we had fun with them. I’m sad to see what I consider successful experiments like FFXI or SWG just go forgotten. They introduced great concepts everybody loved, and yet nobody ever tried to replicate it.

  • http://twitter.com/TrueAxiom Tom Auxier

    It’s an interesting point with regards to modern MMO design. You couldn’t pull this off in World of Warcraft, for instance: everyone has the ability to fulfill so many different roles. Classes aren’t specifically walled-off institutions, but instead they spill out into the proverbial street of player roles.

    I’m playing an old MMO that shall remain nameless right now, and I’m finding the same thing: when roles are defined, communication is less necessary. I couldn’t imagine playing WoW without conversation, though. You’d always be stepping on each others’ toes.