Time to wrap things up for this trio of posts! …is what I’d like to say. But this has gotten a bit long, I’m afraid. There will be a Part 3.1 coming soon, but I’m releasing what I have for now.
As I mentioned in Part 2, this final post will feature discussion of bisexuality and homosexual romance. I won’t be getting into graphic discussions of either, but if you are unwilling or unable to tolerate such topics, then you’ll want to skip this. You are, as always, entitled to your own opinions — but I”m getting bolder in my own, too, and that’s part of why I’m writing this at all. I’d love to change minds, but I know how difficult that is, and I’m not going to ask more of you than you choose to give.
I’ll also put a big warning on this post for anyone who intends to give FFXIV a try on their own time. I’ve been writing this series of posts for my friends and fam that a) do not understand games and/or fanfiction, and/or b) don’t have time for it. As such, I’m not going to hold back on spoilers since I assume these folks will not encounter this story outside of my discussion of it. I would MUCH rather you play and find out what I’m talking about for yourself if there’s any chance you will do so at all!
I’ll give y’all a moment to settle on whichever side of the fence you prefer before I move on.
- Now that we’re all on the same page… let me tell you a story. A tale of heroes and legends, eternally retold. We will stop along the path for discussion, as is proper, but until then…
Once upon a time, there was a boy; the youngest child of seven. His mother raised him and his siblings alone in a secluded cave — until the storm came upon them one summer, not long after his fifth nameday. Despite his mother’s efforts, and the survival instincts she’d instilled in her children, both she and his siblings were lost, leaving him to brave the wilds alone in search of a second home.
At first, he took shelter with a grandmother and her granddaughter; then at an orphanage, under the rule of a man with an iron fist.and a cruel heart. Finally, he fell under the wing of a rich old man seeking a servant instead of a son. Time passed, and the boy grew into a man under the watchful eye of his master, friend, and father. But fate had more in store for him than servitude to a recluse.
The great Calamity, caused by the moon’s sudden fall from the sky, brought an end to human life as it had been for generations. In his early twenties, robbed of all but the remnants of his master’s estate and the memories of happiness left in his heart, the boy-turned-man forged himself a new path as an adventurer, seeking to restore peace to the shattered world around him.
Little did he know that his actions were watched over by a higher power he’d never known.
That higher power was Hydaelyn, the crystalline Mother of Light. She tasked the boy-turned-man with spreading Her divine Light across all nations; with righting the wrongs of Her world. Her power gave him the strength and skill to transcend mortal limits, and eventually he found friends that shared both his purpose and his gift. They, not She, became the source of his true strength.
At their sides, he conquered the Darkness against all odds and became a hero, a living legend — or so it should have been. But Darkness does not sleep for long. Its eyes opened again and again over the years, demanding his performance in the eternal struggle for human existence.
- The events I’ve outlined above are a massively-truncated synopsis of both Raphail’s personal backstory that I am writing, and the events of the original Final Fantasy XIV storyline. They set the stage for the beginning of the romance that I am here to discuss, and thus I’ve included them so that you have a proper sense of scale for what comes next. Let us continue…
In the momentary peace that followed one such series of battles, the hero offered his hand in aid to a group of scholars and archaeologists researching the remnants of a long-forgotten tower. As he helped with the preparations to enter the magically-sealed tower, he met a red-haired boy-turned-man at the helm of the expedition not unlike himself: quick, smart, clever, foolish, and brave to a fault. Their meeting was like looking into a mirror, and it left a lasting impression on both.
Their whirlwind friendship, however, would be cut short by fate. The red-haired stranger had his own role to play in the hero’s long journey, and that of the world; one that would see him trapped inside the very tower he sought by choice, in order to preserve the dangerous secrets inside for a better, wiser future. Someday, generations later, he would inevitably wake from his long slumber, but his sacrifice was the equivalent of death for those that knew him best, the hero included.
The hero, by that time, knew well the burden that came with the duty of protecting the world. He had offered his own life time and time again for the greater good. His friend’s actions were noble — a selfless gift to the realm. And yet, the pain in his heart felt the same as it had on the day he’d lost his family. Perhaps the stranger had reminded him too much of the siblings he had loved and lost.
But there was no time for grief. Treachery was afoot again in the world that the hero was sworn to save, as was the way of things since he’d first picked up his blade and ventured into a realm in need. With an unspoken, indefinable weight on his shoulders, he strode forth into the sea of battle again, to protect the world that his dearest friend — and so many others — had died for.
Necessity had always proven to be the hero’s greatest ally in times of strife. The memory of his lost friend gradually faded to the back of his mind as the war against the Darkness raged on — but the raw, unfiltered nights when he drank himself into a stupor trying to forget all the things he’d wanted to say and all the adventures he’d wanted to share remained.
- This part of the story is equal parts experience with actual game events, and my attempt to fill in a few things that happened out of contextual order for me as a player. The red-haired stranger’s name is G’raha Tia, and he certainly left quite the impact on both Raphail and myself.
- At the time, I envisioned the relationship between them as little more than a mutual challenge bordering on infatuation; the sort of close friendship and rivalry that often resembles a grade-school playground interlude regardless of the age of the participants. I wasn’t thinking of it as romantic. Neither was Raphail. All we knew was that we really wanted to learn more about this cool side character from what was then optional content for FFXIV.
- I filed the whole thing under “oh well, too bad I guess” in my brain and moved on with my life. Every so often, I’d remember and wonder what I was missing, but I couldn’t face the drama that I thought raiding mandated. Only once I’d witnessed the events yet to come (and my husband tried, too) did I find the courage to go back and try. Love is an excellent motivator. (As it turns out, FFXIV has raiding difficulties for everyone, not just top-tier players. I needn’t have worried.)
The grieving hero faced each battle before him with new drive and new purpose, finding gradual solace, if never peace, in his allies both old and new. Eventually, his path led him to an unexpected romantic interlude — not with one of the countless ladies of the realm he’d loved before, but with a gentleman of his acquaintance whom he deeply admired. One night became two; then many.
The broader understanding of his sexuality might have explained everything — but he was still a child at heart, too naive to realize the source of the pain he’d carried for years. The less he thought about the sleeping red-haired stranger in the tower, the better. And so he loved, and was loved in return, for a time. In the end, it would be a safe place to adjust to the shape of the rest of his life.
- This was an eye-opener for both myself and Raphail, and it’s something that I have really strong feelings about now that I’ve gone through it. Bear with me, y’all.
- Up until this point, the Raphail I portrayed had been 100% heterosexual, focused on short-term relationships and one-night stands in order to paper over the feeling that he could never “settle down” due to his duties as the savior of the world. I expected the occasional come-hither looks from lady characters — this is a fantasy story, some tropes are eternal — but my jaw nearly hit the floor when Ser Aymeric, another major character in the series, started making what I could only read as clear “passes” at Raphail — despite both characters being male.
- I can’t think of a single AAA title I’ve played in the past that has done anything like this. Sometimes it feels like the only major titles that dare to add a homosexual relationship option do so with the express purpose of punishing or limiting it — or they make sure to change the dialogue based on your character’s gender. I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I’m angry that the industry I spend so much of my time supporting has allowed me to be so shocked by something so basic. Just… having a character with feels for yours (or not) regardless of gender is so simple that it hurts.
- It made me confront my own assumptions, too. Now that someone Raphail admired was hitting on him, would he refuse out of hand simply because the person was another guy? He never had anything to suggest that in his background. He’d simply… never tried. And he’s a curious sort, both in the bedroom and out of it. Always has been. And that meant that I — a heterosexual lady — would have to figure out how to navigate a gay relationship, at least in my own head. FFXIV itself remains suggestive at the most, and doesn’t ask or require more from you as a player.
- I’m a curious sort too… but I toed the line as a young woman, married young to an opposite-sex partner, and never looked back. Dealing with this situation has made me brave enough to admit out loud that I am drawn to personalities and attitudes myself — not a gender. Given that I’m happily married, there is almost zero chance to explore other possibilities now, and that’s fine — but I’d be lying if I said they didn’t exist for me. That is worth saying without shame.
- I’ve always wanted to be the best ally that I can be. That said, I have spent my life around heteronormative, gender-conforming, stereotypical folks. I’m not used to this, even if I want to be. Facing this situation has made something that was once a bit theoretical very personal for me — and I’m honestly mad as hell right now that anyone can view such relationships as harmful or disgusting. It really highlights the importance of exposure to the unfamiliar for me. When we lock doors and build walls to keep differences out, we harm ourselves first and foremost.
- One last note: while the romance I’m here to talk about is not this one, I do have some interest in writing a story or two about this as well. If the events to come had not taken place, Raphail would likely still be pursuing this with open arms. He hasn’t had a chance to explain himself or formally end things yet with Aymeric, and he’s already worried about the inevitable day coming soon when he must. Aymeric was good for and to him, and vice-versa, too.
And life went on and on. Battles were fought, and lost, and won. Lives were lost and saved. Secrets were discovered and answered. The hero spread his legend farther and wider than ever before.
One day, a familiar voice from beyond time and space reached out to him. Out of nowhere, powerful magics summoned both him and his friends through far-flung dimensions to a second, unfamiliar world that was not truly theirs to save. The voice belonged to a hooded figure in a long cloak; the aged yet powerful ruler of the shattered realm in question, his body half made of azure crystal not unlike the familiar, mysterious tower standing at the heart of his fair city.
On his knees, the ancient stranger begged for the hero’s aid in saving his people. The threat to the stranger’s realm also posed an equal one to the hero’s, making an alliance of opportunity appealing. The hero, aware of the cost to his own realm, and having witnessed the tragedy rampant in the stranger’s realm with his own eyes, offered his hand in friendship and aid again. As ever, he rose to the new challenge of defeating those responsible for human suffering at any cost.
And then, when it was over, the story proved that it had yet to truly begin.
As a direct result of his noble actions, the hero succumbed to a terrible power too strong to bear; the combined magical might of all the suffering of the realm, centered in his own heart and threatening to transform him, body and soul, into a villain the likes of which neither world had ever known. The ancient stranger, of course, had planned for this outcome all along. Holding his magical staff aloft, the stranger swiftly trapped the hero in all his twisted agony — and proceeded to weave one final spell to end it all.
But the spell was never meant to kill, or even harm. It was meant to force the immediate transfer of the fatal, overwhelming power to the stranger himself, His secret plan had never faltered from the beginning: to enlist the hero’s aid (and his divine gift) long enough to save his own realm, and then pay the cost of his manipulation with his own life, sparing the hero’s and the fates of both realms in one master stroke. With his death, the entire charade would end. All would return from whence it came.
As the spell reached its peak, the forces that surrounded the pair knocked the ancient stranger’s hood from his face, revealing a lost memory, aged one hundred summers and more. The silvery ash of time stained his crimson locks as proof. There could be no question: the red-haired boy-turned-man from the tower had awoken in a new place and a new time, though no one quite knew how or why — no one, of course, but the stranger intent on ending his own life for the sake of all.
And though the stranger tried his best to grit his teeth and claim to be the ultimate betrayer and villain in the hero’s epic journey, the hero and his friends all knew it for the conspicuous lie it was — one final attempt at kindness, to protect his cherished friend from the pain of the truth. He had always known that his plan was yet another sacrifice; that the hero would blame himself if he knew.
But this time, there would be no waking up. No second chance to make things right.
The stranger watched as the hero reached out for him, screaming the name he’d worn one hundred years ago. And though his lower lip trembled at the forgotten sound after so many long years of waiting, the red-haired boy-turned-man gave him one last smile as thanks for the moments they’d shared. Would that fate had been kinder… but he could bear to do no less.
- This is the moment in which everyone playing the Shadowbringers expansion loses their collective shit. It bears repeating that G’raha Tia was a character from some optional content that hadn’t been seen in years of real-life time. While he does give indications that your involvement in his journey affected him deeply before his prior sacrifice, exactly nobody was prepared for him to emerge as the so-called “Crystal Exarch” a century later, putting on the performance of his life for the sole purpose of eventually sacrificing his own life for theirs.
- The things you witness in his mysterious realm over the course of Shadowbringers’ plot are heart-wrenching because you are meant to want to save the world you’ve been brought to. You’re also meant to carry the weight of the tragedy that necessitates his plan as more than just a metaphor. The Exarch is someone that you are encouraged to slowly trust, rely on, and love as the burden grows heavier. Once you understand who he is, the inversion of roles from what you once were to him is a beautiful twist of the knife. He has learned all that he is from what you taught him.
- For those that saw the raid content that explains his story, there was never any question who the Exarch was. But coming to it without that context, I was willing to believe a host of other possibilities as to who he might be. There are two major plot points in the story before the big reveal that serve to hint at his identity, though. Both are moments that allow the Exarch to drop his guard as much as he is able and tell you without telling you how important you are to him and everything your friendship has meant to him. Preserving his identity until the end of his plan is worth more than you can yet understand at this point, though it clearly pains him to do so.
- The first of these hints is a quick little diversion where you fight alongside the Exarch during a private scripted battle sequence. My brain (and Raphail’s) went straight to the back-and-forth childish banter that always happened whenever he and G’raha were in a room together, and it was such a strange sense of deja vu that I couldn’t quite place at first. None of those lines were voice acted, and yet the behavior, text dialogue and word choice conveyed everything I needed – and that’s after meeting the guy once. I am still floored at the level of skill it took to create this scene. As a writer and creator myself, I am going to spend the rest of my life trying to reach this bar.
- By the time I emerged from that scene, I’d put it together. I never imagined that some random guy I just happened to think was cool several years ago was going to turn out to be so important — or feel as much for Raphail as Raphail did for him! If I’d thought about Raphail being bisexual for even a single second back when they’d first met, both he and I might have seen this coming — but because I didn’t, he didn’t. I felt so stupid for not realizing faster that the mood in the room between the two of them had always been such since the very beginning!
- I have mentioned before that I hit the graphical jackpot when it came to Raphail and his facial expressions. Every player character that goes through these events shows grief and pain on some level, but you can turn any given emotion that’s being represented up to about 500% of normal when Raphail is on screen. The same can be said of the Exarch. There is no such thing as putting the two of them together in a room without their faces being a dead giveaway that they’re in love.
- With that in mind, the second hint — especially if you’ve figured out who you’re dealing with — is a master class in scripting, dialogue, and utter destruction of the human emotional framework.
This explanation slash synopsis has gotten much longer than I planned, everyone. I hope you’re enjoying the story, the commentary, the videos, or some combination of the three! I’m going to break this off here for now and continue in another post for the sake of making things easier to read.
Once again, as a reminder — this is a massively-simplified version of events that I have reduced to the bits that most illustrate what I’m trying to convey for my discussion of this romance. If you watch the videos, you’ll likely encounter a lot of details and jargon that are important in context for players, but aren’t required knowledge for trying to get a good picture of the romance in question. I’m doing my best to capture the broader story appeal of this for a wider audience, and I hope it shows.
The next video I’ll link to will cover the events above, as well as what happens next.
See you then, folks.