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What a giant catfish taught me about happiness at Final Fantasy XIV fan festival

The cacts of life

“If you notice,” says the catfish, “everyone is smiling around me.”

It’s true. This huge fish person has been waddling through crowds of people who grin even as they duck under the beast’s massive barbels. Several people are taking photographs. I peer into the gaping mouth of the fish. Two human hands suddenly lurch out, gripping onto the creature’s lips from the inside.

“I’m a namazu,” says Missy, the 32-year-old woman in the costume. “It’s a giant catfish… and they’re generally really dumb-looking, and I love them... I thought it would bring a lot of happiness.”

When I suggest that it is also slightly terrifying, Missy is unfazed.

“That’s a part of their joy.”

She stretches her hand out of the mouth to offer a parting handshake, her human limb appearing from the maw of this googly-eyed creature, like a tongue.

This is the kind of unsettling wonder you may witness at the Final Fantasy XIV fan festival, a convention for the monster killers of the eight-year-old MMO, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. A get-together hosting thousands of players (although the passes around their necks insist they be called “adventurers”).

The online universe that unites these fans is like many others. You explore huge maps, go on world-saving quests, and band together to raid dungeons for loot. You dance around cones and circles projected on the floor to avoid damage, a screen busier than an Amazon warehouse staffed by bees. The story is drenched in the cheery anime tropes fans have come to expect from the series.

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But this instalment also acts as a vortex for Final Fantasy paraphernalia. Bits and pieces of the other worlds bleed into it. Kefka (the scary clown from Final Fantasy VI) shows up for a fight. You can play Triple Triad, the card game enjoyed by Squall and pals in Final Fantasy VIII. You can gamble in the Gold Saucer, a theme park from Final Fantasy VII. This last crossover is thematically appropriate, because this year’s fan fest is happening in Las Vegas.

Aside from having an an overwhelmingly alliterative name, the Final Fantasy Fourteen Fan Festival is equal parts adorable nerdery and fetishistic cat ears, a convention of moogles and magic. Cosplayers strut around like foam peacocks: a spiky dragoon, a vampiric elf, a moon goddess.

The main hall is a pit of noise and colour. There’s a giant cactuar. There’s an art exhibition. There’s a stage for hosting presentations from the game’s creators. And, of course, there’s a chocobo racing game.

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In the very middle of the hall, surrounded by fans, there is also a long wall where players scribble their names.

Here, for two days, a monk and a samurai who fight side-by-side in a Free Company (a player group like a clan or guild) might see each other for the first time. But the big deal of the weekend is the announcement of a new expansion called Shadowbringers. The main hall fills for the showing of a new trailer. Afterwards, director and producer Naoki Yoshida arrives on stage, soon joined by localisation chief, Michael-Christopher 'Koji' Fox, acting as translator.

Yoshida is a smiling stage presence with a straightened fringe and fingers coated in metallic rings. The fans know him as “Yoshi P” and there is applause between every small declaration he makes. At one point, the crowd starts chanting: “Yo-shi P! Yo-shi P! Yo-shi P!” Until he redirects the praise to the dev team, and the chanting mutates. “Dev-team! Dev-team! Dev-team!” It’s the kind of audience so charged with unbridled fanaticism that it will erupt into cacophonous applause at some nice box art.

Yoshida goes through the upcoming features of the expansion. There will be user-controlled farms. There will be dwarves and pixies and exciting server redistribution (at this an unsettled murmur grips the crowd). There will be dungeons and forests and towns and houses.

“And one more thing,” says Yoshida, in one of his many crowd-taunting flourishes.

“Blitzball!” shouts a man in the crowd, to in-joke laughter.

No, not blitzball. It’s a new playable race. The director reveals this by turning and showing the back of his t-shirt to the crowd. It’s a non-chalant Bugs Bunny. Everyone in the room cheers, because it can only mean one thing: the sexy rabbits of Final Fantasy XII, the Viera, are coming to the game.

They’re putting on a show as much as making an announcement. At one point, the president and CEO of Square Enix, Yosuke Matsuda, comes on stage (to gasps and cheers) dressed in a blue cape, wielding a mage’s staff. A jolly sketch ensues between the Japanese developers, one of them playing an interfering CEO, the other a tight-lipped manager. The whole thing is like a pantomime. Did Matsuda just announce a new blue mage class? Oh no he didn’t. Oh yes he did.

It’s a grand show, designed to tickle the emotions of exactly the kind of person who is willing to fly to Las Vegas and dress up as a moon goddess. But the bards and conjurers of this virtual land were not always so happy. Some of them remember darker times.

Final Fantasy XIV had a poor launch. Eight years ago, players arrived (many of them migrating from the previous MMO, Final Fantasy XI) expecting a wondrous new world of monsters and adventure. Instead, they got a glitchy world of bugs, performance problems and confusing interfaces.

The elders of Square Enix ordered a full retreat. Naoki Yoshida became the new director. They wanted to reboot the whole thing. Three years later, it relaunched, sporting the subtitle: “A Realm Reborn”. It appears to have slowly recovered. Today, there are healthy player numbers, say Square Enix. Although the recent boast of “14 million players” is as misleading as any studio’s big number, since it includes trial accounts and inactive ones (“Join an indeterminate number of people spread across 66 servers!” probably doesn’t cut it with the advertising department).

But these numbers matter little to the die hard longears and cat people of the fan festival. They are too busy racing chocobos to care, or entering the “cactpot” raffle, or smashing a giant hammer in a “test your strength” carnival game.

Some of them are reaching out to touch a giant replica of the game’s fast travel crystals.

This crystal fits in well in Vegas, the city of facsimile. If there can be a 1:1 replica of Michelangelo’s David in Caesar’s Palace, why not a giant shard of Aetheryte?

On the main stage, there will soon be a panel about lore, in which hundreds of people will help create the flavour text for a new beast, with microphones passed around to take suggestions. The resulting monster is a gargantuan liopleurodon with bone armour who eats tiny kings and wears their crowns. The crowd called it “the Vegetarian”, and based on the laughs this suggestion received, I can report with confidence that it was a good joke.

All the while, that wall of signatures is becoming crowded. At first, players wrote their names under their server. But it’s soon become a chaotic slab of cursive, with the severs – Cactuar, Hyperion, Ultros - lost among the names.

At the foot of the wall, there is a portrait surrounded by flowers and trinkets and snacks. A shrine to a long-eared warrior.

That’s sad, I think, this MMO must have its own Vile Rat, a dead player commemorated by others. So I ask a nearby fan: who was this?

“It’s Haurchefant,” she says.

I frown. Her-osh-o-fan?

“Haurchefant!” she says again, as if I had not heard of Jesus Christ.

Haurchefant Greystone wasn’t a dead player after all, but an aristocratic NPC knight. And among players he really has a Messianic reputation. In the story quests that pepper the MMO, he dies taking a magical spear for the player character. And since everyone in this hall plays the same story, they were all personally saved by him. He died, so that we may live.

Two Square Enix staff come to inspect the shrine and its trove of goodies. There are Doritos, Nature Valley bars, half a loaf of bread, a handwritten letter (“I know you are with me," reads one line. "I can feel it”). There are even some dollar bills. I ask a staffer what they’ll do with it all.

“We’ll take it back to the office,” he says, “and recreate it.”

As much love and fun that’s bouncing between the walls of the Rio, there are grievances too. Every so often, an MMO will absorb the problems of the real world. In Final Fantasy XIV, there’s a “housing crisis”.

In 2014, a patch added neighbourhoods full of houses to the world. A dungeon diver could now become a homeowner, so long as they had about 3 million gil (the in-game currency) in their pockets. But on crowded servers, there weren’t enough plots to go around. Shortages mean that the paladins and rogues of this land now gather in residential districts whenever a patch is due to add new houses. As soon as the fresh suburbs pop into the game, there is a literal race to buy land. Two players told me they only got a house for their clan by exploiting an elaborate loophole. They bought another clan and inherited that group’s house, something you’re “not really supposed to do”.

“You have to nickel and dime,” said one of the homeowners.

New suburbs full of houses have since soothed demand, and there are other measures to help keep the housing market healthy. If you don’t log in for 30 days, for example, your home will be repossessed. However, it remains a problem, say these players.

This isn’t the only smudge of reality to mark the fantastic realm. Players are also running brothels in-game, as Kotaku reported last year. There are pubs and homes populated with scantily clad cat girls selling naughty words to johns, and making creative use of emotes to get busy.

“Huuuhh!?” says director Naoki Yoshida when I ask about this during a press Q and A. He seems surprised, but it’s hard to believe the creators of the game aren’t aware of this most MMO of player behaviours. I just want to know the studio’s position on cybersex for gil. Do they quietly discourage this kind of thing? Or are they happy to turn a blind eye to this erotic role playing?

“Can I make a very general response to this?” says Yoshida, via a translator. “First and foremost, before you even start playing the game there should be a user agreement that pops up and you will have had to check it off…

“So within that user agreement there is a clause that states that anything that… breaks the law, any activity or any remarks that are made that are meant to break the law or infringe on any sort of laws, for those players… there will be punishment... either that being your account being banned or... some kind of penalty will be imposed upon them.”

It’s a strict invocation of the laws of Eorzea, rather than real life laws (although perhaps he's reminding us of that too). Is cybersex really that concerning? Even if it’s a consensual encounter between two adult players?

“Regardless,” says Yoshida, “that is still eligible for an account being banned.”

It likely doesn’t matter to roleplaying matrons and sex workers whether their tricks are bannable or not, since it would take one of the people involved in the sexy dialogue to report it. But whether it’s against the rules or not, dirty talk is one reason why a number of roleplayers keep logging in. Still, it’s a very sober and serious answer from a man who, less than 24 hours later, will appear on stage dressed in a flashy Kimono and singing an angry rock song. Yes, the festival’s finale was somewhat surreal.

This rock concert featured The Primals, a band made up of various Final Fantasy developers. The sound director is on lead guitar. The head of localisation is on vocals. Yoshida appeared as a special singer, dressed in a Kyoto-made Kimono with a white tiger emblazoned on it. There is something surreal (and yet very Final Fantasy) about seeing the head of a studio performing what amounts to a very expensive session of karaoke. But the crowd loves it. They are one big holler, singing along, glowing batons swinging in unison to tunes they all know from repeated boss fights. The whole scenario would be cult-like, if it wasn’t so adorably geeky.

With the concert finished, the fanfest is over and the cat ears must be put away for another year. Final Fantasy XIV is probably not the MMO for me. But there’s more happening in the world of Eorzea than I could have imagined. The worship of dead NPCs, the housing problems, the strangers cyber-rutting in the corners of fantasy taverns. Yet alongside all that intricacy and intimacy is a game that demands the love of holy knights, barbarians and even catfish. When I think of Final Fantasy XIV from now on, I'll remember the namazu. It's big, it's slightly unsettling, and I don't really understand it. But it makes a lot of people smile.

Disclosure: Square Enix paid for this trip.

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