My Final Fantasy XIV character has been through a lot. Over four years, multiple expansions and over a thousand hours of playtime, they’ve defeated empires, slain gods, liberated nations, and, in their latest and biggest adventure, they’ve crossed the boundaries of gender thanks to a magical potion called Fantasia.
FFXIV allows you to change certain aspects of your character’s appearance for free, but to make a change as big as my latest, I needed Fantasia. Advertised, rather knowingly, with an image of a human male character changing into a catgirl, this unassuming phial is generally only obtainable through the game’s cash shop for around $10 (£5.75, €7.99), which is perhaps just a little too pricey for an impulse purchase, especially for a game that charges a monthly subscription.
I wasn’t totally happy with my first FFXIV character, but when faced with that monetary hurdle, I decided to stick with them. Despite this, slowly but surely, I began to connect with my character on a level I could not have imagined. The longer I spent in their shoes, the more they felt like mine.
Through this character and the diverse community of other players they interacted with, Final Fantasy XIV became the place where I experimented with how I presented itself. Whether it was cutting my character’s hair short as I started to consider cutting the real-life long hairstyle I had kept since my teenage years, changing how I acted in-game to reflect the kind of person I wanted to be in day-to-day life or, increasingly, feeling out the boundaries of my gender identity however I could through their appearance and actions. While online games with character creators have always allowed room for this kind of exploration, the unique design of FFXIV lent my experimentation a weight that no other game has offered.
Unlike most MMORPGs, in FFXIV you can play every single class and experience all the game’s content on a single character. This means that most players – myself included – will spend almost all their time on the game in the shoes of that one character, making them your centralised, concrete identity in the game’s world. Your character becomes a genuine extension of yourself that, for the countless other players you meet while playing, is the only “you” they know. Players react to the way you present yourself just like people do outside the game, but with a degree of elasticity that makes experimenting with that presentation far easier. Trying on a new hairstyle is a far less nerve-wracking proposition when it can be undone with a few clicks of the mouse.
There was a limit to this, though. In the same way that it’s difficult to fully express one’s gender identity whilst in the closet, I could only explore my gender identity so far in-game with a male character. Increasingly, I wanted to change their gender, and Fantasia was the only recourse I had, and that remained an intimidating prospect. Not only would it cost a fee to change my character, but potentially an additional fee to revert them if I decided I didn’t like this new presentation.
FFXIV asks a commitment from the player to change their gender in a way that it doesn’t for its other appearance options, and while I find this to be a kind of frustrating and manipulative decision by the developer, it forced me to think carefully in a way I hadn’t before. To make that commitment, to be able to admit that I wanted to change this very real aspect of myself so dramatically, was a hurdle. The fact that I was, in the end, willing to jump that hurdle told me a lot about who I was, things that I maybe would not have been aware of if not for this game.
Final Fantasy XIV doesn’t handle gender perfectly, but it’s imperfections and frustrations in this regard are reflective of an outside world that is rarely accommodating of experimentation. Both the freedoms it offers and the restrictions it enforces are what makes it a uniquely affecting place to explore one’s gender, and Fantasia is the cornerstone of that: it opens the door to a new you – if you’re ready to take the plunge.