14 December 2021

Endwalker via Derkholm and Detroit: Creation without conscience

Spoilers for Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker (and previous expansions).  Read on with caution.

So I just finished Endwalker, a game expansion for an MMO I've been playing on and off for ten years.  Series have a certain power that few single-standing works can manage, adding weight and consequence to encounters that no shorter tale could achieve.  While each expansion has had a plot in itself, Endwalker brings to a close the overarching situation first set in motion in the now-inaccessable 1.0 version of the game.

Warrior of Light, Dark, and all the shades in between.
There was a lot of crying involved, for the lost, and those who mourn them.  Urianger meeting Moenbryda's parents particularly got to me.  And the score certainly brought home the weariness of the long struggle to reach this point, making friends and occasionally losing them.  Meeting enemies, and usually killing them - and hopefully not having them come back from the dead so that you have to fight them all over again.

The enemy - the antagonist - is often one of the most important factors in making an ending satisfying.  Fortunately, Zenos, the individual I ended up fighting most often in this series, was not that central to this expansion.  While I did appreciate that I got to ride him into battle, I was glad to abandon him at the edge of the universe, hopefully not to make a third coming.  I recognise he was created a monster, but for the most part I found him dull.

Not this guy again.

The other villians of the series left me a good deal more conflicted.

In Shadowbringers, Emet-Selch took centre stage, the architect of the death of millions, all in service of a plot to bring back a lost Utopia.  I found him entertaining, and was a bit sorry to see him go, but remained impatient of his insistence that all the people he was sacrificing in the service of trying to resurrect the past were less worthy than those who existed before, hardly people in comparison.  It seemed a weak argument, a typical bit of dehumanisation.

And then we went to Elpis.

Elpis is part of the lost Utopia, visited thanks to a bit of handy time travel.  And it gave me a better context for Emet-Selch's point of view, along with introducing the 'real' villains - both of who aren't really villains.

Villainy is often determined by who writes the histories, and we have all along been looking at the story from the end of 6000 years of determined efforts to undo past events.  An enormous pile of wrongs directed at 'us'.  Travelling to Elpis put us firmly in the shoes of 'them', and also brings in some echoes of two other places I've encountered in SFF: Derkholm and an android-facilitated Detroit.

The Utopia of the past is populated by 'humans' (Ascians/Ancients) who possess creation magic.  They are immortal (although they can choose to die/return to the lifestream), apparently peaceful, and devoted to the betterment of the planet on which they live (Etheirys).  This is all very strongly modelled on a Greek Utopia, given the names of some of those we encounter - Hades, Hermes and Hythlodaeus (the traveller in Thomas More's Utopia) - but is not apparently meant to be Olympus, since none of them act like the squabbling, hyper-sexed and petty family that were the Greek gods.

The primary occupation of the Ancients appears to be creating species to further improve Etheirys.  They create a concept for the species, test it out in Elpis, and then decide whether to release it into the wild, try to improve it further, or to give up on the concept and destroy the test specimens.  The specimens seen in Elpis are all apparently of animal intelligence, although the Ancients also create 'familiars', which appear to be intelligent enough (though certainly not regarded as real people, any more than Mickey Mouse's self-sweeping brooms are people).

This is where I was strongly reminded of both the game Detroit: Become Human (with the usual question of creating android life and then heartlessly discarding it, refusing to consider androids as people), and Diana Wynne Jones' Dark Lord of Derkholm, where the ('good') wizard Derk is quite happy to create non-human and human-mixed species, although he at least regards them as his children, and would recoil from the idea of unmaking or discarding them.

While Jones is my favourite author, I've always found Derk a very scary person: happily creating unique intelligent species without apparently considering whether that's a good - or kind - idea.

Hermes becomes the focus of this question when we visit Elpis.  He's a master of flight-related creation, but can't bear the thought of destroying any of the created species, no matter how unsuccessful or unviable.  Unlike the other Ancients presented, he seems to be suffering ongoing depression triggered by his doubts about what gives his people the right to create - and unmake - other species.  In order to answer this question, he has created a space-faring species (the highly-empathetic Meteia), who are able to tap into the vast power source of dynamis, an energy controlled by emotion and antithetical to the aether the Ancients use for their creation magic.  He wants to know how other worlds find meaning.

Unfortunately, the Meteia only discover dead civilisations, are overwhelmed by the negative emotion sparked by these ruins, and (like so many AI before her) fritzes out and decides life is suffering and it's time to put all life out of its misery.  She triggers the 'Final Days', using dynamis to cause the Ancients' creation powers to run wildly out of control.

The Ancients, not knowing what's going on, sacrifice half their population to create Zodiark, a godlike being who is able to 'fix the laws of nature in place' - effectively shutting out the influence of the Meteia.  But because the Ancients then want Zodiark to harvest the lives of various intelligent races that have developed on the planet to restore their Utopia, the Ancient Venat transforms herself into a primal - Hydaelyn - and splits the world into shards/parallel existences to both weaken Zodiark, allow her to trap him, and prevent the destruction of these races .  This 'sunders' the souls of all but three of the Ancients, turning them into immortal lingering existences, but also provides living beings a closer connection with dynamis.

The three remaining whole Ancients then begin their long campaign of trying to reunite the world, free a whole Zodiark, and reform their lost people and world (again, at the expense of the 'lesser races').

Going to Elpis gives the player a real appreciation of just what familiars and 'lesser races' mean to the Ancients (keeping in mind that their attitude is not unsimilar to the approach the dominant more human races use when dealing with the 'beast tribes' of the current world).  It's a little like you discover Mary Norton's Borrowers are living behind the skirting boards of your house.  They're so small, they live such short, unfulfilling lives, they're really nothing in comparison to you, ants.  Animals that can talk, and have a semblance of intelligence, like parrots.  And familiars are just constructs, after all, with nothing resembling a real soul.

And you, the Warrior of Light, the player and POV character, who has slaughtered countless thousands because they were on the wrong side, have come to understand that you, too, are an Ancient - or 3/5s of one, give or take a stray Ardbert.  Not only that, but Hythlodaeus, the new-old friend who has been so nice to you, was one of the people sacrificed to create Zodiark.  And Hades/Emet-Selch, that architect of destruction you killed off in the last expansion - that was the friend who was always there for the former you.  The one who always had your back.  Who would gripe and complain about the things you got up to, but would always come when you called, help when you needed it.

You, above all, are probably the thing he most wants to bring back.

Turns out I killed my best friend. He seemed okay with it though.

So I finished Endwalker with a new appreciation of the guy I'd recently killed, though I still fall on Venat's side of the argument - that killing off the 'lesser' races is not the solution.  I also am slightly less impatient with Hermes' face-heel turn when I put him into the context of Derk and his giddy creation of intelligent species for funzies, though it was a spectacular bit of whiplash to have a guy who couldn't bear to crush an ant being good with all life in the universe being wiped out.

I am sorry that forewarning Venat did not seem to to produce any kind of solution that prevented the first Final Days.  I was hoping to at least create an alternate universe where Amaurot still stood.  I do really appreciate Venet/Hydaelyn so much more than I did when she was a floaty crystal - that image of her, face black with blood, staggering through eternity, is one that will stay with me.  As will her beauty when fully realised as Hydaelyn.

Hydaelyn

The Hermes whiplash is the weakest part of the story, and there are some plot holes: like going to the moon to avoid the Final Days, when the moon isn't protected by the planet's rich aether and thus would be more exposed to the Meteia's attack.  But this is a story that stays with you and I recommend FFXIV for anyone who has a stray 300 hours and the cash to spend on an online subscription game.  Starts out slow, but that's because it takes time to lift a sledgehammer the size of a planet to hit you right in the feels.

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