A huge issue I had across all of A Realm Reborn through Stormblood was the lack of a sense of world. Sure, there’s a tonne of lore. An obscene amount of lore. The world itself though always felt empty to me. We know things have been bad in Ul’dah, with a huge split between class structure and refugees flocking to the city, but we don’t really see that when roam the city. I will freely admit that being an online game (using scant resources so it can run on consoles/toaster pc’s) they don’t want to fill it with NPCs or monsters, but environmental storytelling is very important.
Dark Souls is something that has absolutely nailed this in the past. It has the opposite problem though, where not much lore is written but a lot is inferred through the world. Things are broken, destroyed, areas are hinted at and bosses have the allusion of deeper roots. There’s a lot of lore there but you have to really want to find it. Both methods are viable but going to the extreme on either side causes its own issues.
Now we’re in Shadowbringers, this problem has eased. Not a huge amount, but it’s a darn sight better than it used to be. If you travel to Eulmore, you feel that the place is decadent. Even without the story, it’s lush with the upper class gorging their faces, the walls are flush with tapestries and art, the music reminds me of feast hall music; celebratory and grand. Down below all of this though is a seedy underbelly. It’s nothing untoward, but because it’s such a small ecosystem, the rift between the lower class and upper class is massive. The lower class all live in shanties, far below the eyeline of the upper class (as not to ruin their views). You can tell all of this without the game saying it at first, and when it does talk about it frequently (both in town and out of it), it helps reinforce the world.
Another place I felt this strongly was in Amh Araeng. Mord Souq is a small trading hub built in the ruins of the Nabaath Empire, with another settlement not too far away in the centre of a rock structure, giving both shade and protection. In the distance though looms a giant wave of light, stuck in place. You can tell it stopped suddenly at a glance, and it gives you that sense of wonder about what happened and why. Later, the story will explain what happened but it works in conjunction with the story telling the world has already given you. Things in Amh Araeng are built upon the ruins of older structures, train tracks lay idle from lack of use and many of the monsters in the area are undead military, vicious animals or automaton. It’s not a hospitable place.
Il Mheg though has the hints of something awful. A lot of the area feels playful and light, but with a very dark twist. Coming into the zone feels like an explosion of flowers and life, but things dotted around the landscape make you think something more is going on. What’s happening with all the leaf people topiaries everywhere, why are there humanoid mushrooms walking around, why is there a giant castle with fairy wings? Even the music is playful and light piano music backed up by soft echoes of singing. This is not even talking about the entire town that has sunken below the lake. It’s dripping with lore potential, which also slowly unfolds through the main story and many sidequests.
Other zones don’t quite tell the same exciting story. There’s hints here and there of how things used to be, but it feels more like the older areas. The Crystarium is surprisingly massive but feels empty. The Rak’tika Greatwood around the Fanow area has the feeling of people trying to live close with nature but a lot of the rest of the area just feels like “places” rather than trying to tell a huge story via the world.
I wanted to touch briefly on these zones. Every time I entered a new zone in Shadowbringers I was blown away. When you first enter the First and you’re confronted with a huge bloom of purple flora everywhere it’s an incredibly impressive sight. Not everything has to allude to a story, sometimes things can just be great. After playing around in this world for a few weeks now, I am still loving all the areas.
I think it’s important to discuss topics like these, even if I’m not as eloquent as I could be, storytelling is incredibly important. Sometimes you can tell people the story, sometimes you can just show them the world. I think Shadowbringers does a bit of both, and that’s a hell of an accomplishment.