Design Analysis of Final Fantasy XIV's "Amaurot"
It's no secret I am a huge fan of Final Fantasy XIV-- but where I began as a new sprout excited just to play a Final Fantasy game, I grew to appreciate the care and intricacy with which the development team at Square Enix crafts their game play. You can watch the evolution of their design ethos shift as the main story quests develop, the way they go from more standard MMORPG fare of "kill some mobs, fight a boss, kill some more mobs, fight another boss" to using and subverting the building blocks of the genre in an effort to create a deeply emotional experience for the player.
Nowhere is that incredible expressive quality more apparent than in the climactic dungeon "Amaurot" from the Shadowbringers expansion.
Suffice to say, from here on is almost entirely spoilers for FFXIV: Shadowbringers. You have been warned.
The Warrior of Darkness
Before I launch into my design analysis of the dungeon, I think some contextual information would be useful.
For anyone who is not familiar with the game, Final Fantasy XIV is an MMORPG made by Square Enix, which follows the story of the "Warrior of Light": your player-character hero touched by a crystal goddess named Hydaelyn, who is tasked with saving the world of Eorzea. Together with your friends known as the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, you fight monsters and empires and (of course) save the day.
However: this structure begins to be subverted and challenged as the game progresses. You encounter others who are the heroes of their own stories, who force you to reckon with the destruction you leave in your wake, and who make the player start to see nuanced shades of grey within the black-and-white morality of a typical fantasy setting. At the beginning of Shadowbringers, you trade the title "Warrior of Light" for "Warrior of Darkness", since in this new land your character finds themselves in is plagued by eternal daytime and monstrous, pseudo-angelic terrors. In a more fundamental shakeup: for the first time in the game, you can't rest on the assurance that the deity you have been blessed by is as benevolent as you assumed.
Though it certainly is no Disco Elysium when it comes to forcing the player into morally-ambiguous situations, the latter work of FFXIV presents a surprisingly nuanced touch for a genre that often doesn't push much critical philosophical thought. Nowhere is this rocky moral territory more prevalent than in the case of Emet-Selch, the erstwhile antagonist of Shadowbringers who has become my favorite video game villain since the first time I played Borderlands 2 and met Handsome Jack. What you learn over the course of the game is that the people who were once your one-dimensional moustache-twirling masked villains, called the Ascians, are actually a group of displaced beings who predated the world of Eorzea. Emet-Selch, one of the few remaining of his kind, comes to the protagonist with a trickster-esque curl of a smile to toy with the main characters; but he also slowly, carefully, starts leading you to discover more and more truths about the world you currently inhabit. Over time he even presents a thought-out, earnest case for why the Ascian's "evil" plans aren't as evil as the player once thought.
Emet-Selch, With His Ascian Mask
To make a long story short: the Ascians were once a society known as "the Ancients". They made astounding works of art, practiced rhetoric, and studied the world through science. Most importantly, they had the power to create life. With their skills and latent empathetic powers, they built a utopian society headquartered in a city called Amaurot. However-- a deep sound resonating from the deepest reaches of their star made the Ancients begin to lose control over their creation magic, and monsters borne of their subconscious minds came to terrorize the world. Though much of their world had already been destroyed, the complete downfall of their society was averted by calling upon a deity known as Zodiark. A lot more happened after that-- but the long and short of it is that there became a war between Zodiark and the crystal goddess, Hyedaelyn, that shattered reality and created the worlds as they exist in the present. Emet-Selch was one of three Ancients who survived that war. Emet-Selch (and by extension, the Ascians) are trying to collect the souls of their fallen people and rebuild their lost society. Where the other two surviving Ancients, Lahabrea and Elidibus, pull evil strings and laugh malevolently and attempt to destroy you on sight, Emet comes to the protagonist with proverbial hat-in-hand, trying to explain why they are so desperate to recover their world and beseeching even a bit of empathy for their situation. Sure, they have to destroy the worlds as they exist-- but wouldn't you do anything to save the people you love and care about, too?
His final gambit to convince the heroes that the Ascians are more than one-dimensional shadowy villains is by making the player relive the end of their world: the destruction of Amaurot.
"Welcome to the final days of Amaurot."
The dungeon begins in-medias-res of the apocalypse.
An art nouveau city is in smoke and flames around you. The first thing you hear is Emet Selch's voice in your ear, recounting the story of how it happened while his words manifest in the changing environment. The player is there as a witness to an unchangeable past, confirmed when game beseeches you "Bear Witness to the First Doom", and you are forced to comply.
Before you reach the first mob of enemies, you watch as Amaroutines run screaming from monsters only to be destroyed by an explosion of heat and light that leaves you momentarily blinded. The player must proceed forward to where the explosion went off and are subsequently greeted by the first few mobs.
Every enemy is a nightmarish beast that looks alien and strange compared to many of the monsters you've fought before-- glowing eyes in voidlike forms, movements that are as creepy as they are aggressive. As you and your party defeat them, the city around you falls apart; which both gates your progress by only appearing paths once mobs are cleared, but also evokes the disturbingly unstable feeling of unsteady ground beneath your character's feet. In the distance you see a giant creature flying around-- hard to get a good look at, but it seems almost sphinx-like. Not a welcome sight. It's an omen that you will probably have to take a good look at that particular horror before the dungeon is through.
You then reach the first boss and are beseeched once again: "Endure the First Doom".
I remember very distinctly the recoil of surprise the first time I reached this first boss-- which speaks highly of the capabilities of the creature design team at Square. Where most of even FFXIV's most threatening monsters have some sort of strange beauty or elegance, this creature felt like none of them. It was grotesque and more reminiscent of a horror-movie nightmare than a Final Fantasy monster.
The fight's mechanics here aren't particularly complicated, but it does feel like you are fighting an unsettling force of nature more than a simple boss. Strategy-wise it is straightforward. The tank will have to dodge a few cones of poison-breath and a tankbuster or two, while the other party members heal through it and damage the boss as they will.
The first mechanic involves the three non-tank party members getting large AOE markers and being forced apart, only to have those markers resolve into player-sized asteroids that drop from the sky. The objective here is to position them in such a way that they are far enough apart that they don't deal too much damage on impact, but also aren't so far that you can't use them for cover after they drop, since the boss will immediately stand on one side of the arena and do a slow cast to summon a giant meteor from the sky. It's a tried and true Final Fantasy image if there ever was one, but here it's strange to watch this strange caterpillar beast pull it as though in slow motion, unstoppable destruction. If you are not hiding from the terror of it, you are dead. That alone feels like it speaks volumes.
I will say, however, that this is a fight mechanic that has been used in FFXIV boss fights since Labyrinth of the Ancients from the base game, so it is not new or innovative within the oeuvre of XIV. However, it feels like a particularly apt placement here. Particularly because then, if you want to try and run an optimized DPS strategy so you are damaging the boss right up until the meteor falls, you are then forced onto a side of the arena that will immediately become unsafe after the impact because a building is about to fall on it. The players must sprint to the other side and into a small margin of safe space before it crumbles, or else they will most likely die.
The mechanics then repeat until the boss is dead.
Nothing is Perfect
Much as I adore Amaurot, I do admit the dungeon isn't perfect; there are things I would have changed if I had a hand in designing it.
The one critique I bring up here is that the pacing of the mobs between boss fights gets a bit repetitive, and doesn't feel as dynamic as the spikes of boss-combat intensity that punctuate the level. It feels like busywork to fight them.
The first set of mobs isn't so guilty of this, since it's novel to see them as they are the first engagement you have, but the mobs between the first and second boss are where that problem really stands out in my book because they don't significantly deviate from the first. You have some random AOEs to dodge but frankly they are so unthreatening you can almost entirely ignore them.
What I would have liked to try in that space would have been a more active engagement with the surrounding environment crumbling: a non-combat obstacle course of dodge-the-falling-that demands you run around with the same kind of terror and desperation that you watch the Amaroutines have. I think it's a missed opportunity, particularly because aimless panic running has become an iconic motion of the Amaroutine characters that is often laughed at outside of this level in the context of cute mini-minions flailing their arms and the like-- but the source is so heartbreaking, and forcing the character into their shoes would have been a wonderful emotional beat. Make the players dash across the map as they do in the first boss fight, but put it back-to-back. Demand more of them to survive.
Even though you do some of that "sky is falling" feeling in the first boss fight, it doesn't feel as hammered home as I think it could have been, since the focus of that fight feels more like it is on the character of the boss itself and the fight's mechanics feel more like a prelude to a more dedicated and developed section of gameplay than we were given in the interim between the first Doom and the second.
The Second Doom
Bear Witness To The Second Doom
The Second Doom is called the Terminus Bellweather-- a bloated cockatrice monstrosity with a goblin's face. The Bellweather will start off much like a normal boss fight, attacking rather plainly, until it stops and flies away. The party is then confronted with multiple mobs of enemies in the arena at once, which grow bigger and bigger as the waves spawn. As a tank it feels like a mad dash to place yourself between the party and every mob, and as a DPS character you are striking them down only to have more spring up in their place. Healers have to help burn down the volume of enemies while keeping everyone alive-- not an easy task. The entire thing feels overwhelming in a really emotional way. This entire section fight has a slow build of freneticism that works really well to make the player feel less like they are just in danger from random monsters or from the crumbling skyline, but that they are being directly overrun with an army of creations that were never supposed to exist. You fight them off, but the victory feels less like you have exhausted the enemy forces and more like you have simply cleared a path rather than conquered an invasion.
The end of the fight is, in my book, the weakest part. After the mobs are defeated the Bellweather returns and starts a long cast called "Burst". For every few seconds the boss remains alive, it adds a stack of "Damage Up" buffs-- and no matter how long it takes you to kill it, it will do a raidwide AOE attack whose power depends upon how many of those stacks it has. Your goal is to burn it down before it gets powerful enough to wipe the party. Once it Bursts, the fight is through.
Though I think this boss battle as a whole does a good enough job of evoking that frantic fighting-for-your-life feeling, I can't help but wonder if it wouldn't have been better served by not having the Bellweather be there at all. Having a mass of smaller creatures charge you like Hobbes' Leviathan is a more intimidating sight, and making sure the player can see the way in which they are surrounded even by placing enemies outside the area to fill in a crowd would evoke that 1,000-to-1 feeling better than having this strange central creature that is missing for almost the entire fight.
Can you imagine fighting this mob as a boss?
Another thought based on my experience as a player is that, much as I love Amaurot, I know a lot of people found it repetitive when they were forced to play it for XIV's dungeon roulette. After the first time you go through it (when your emotional state from the story makes the entire thing feel so much more impactful) the replay value decreases because the narrative stakes aren't immediate, and it loses some of the verve that I think made it so stunning to experience for the first time. A way I might remedy that is to add challenge elements to it.
For example, drawing on another Final Fantasy title dear to my heart, there is a heartbreakingly wonderful fight at the end of Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core in which you know your player character Zach has to die, because it is a prequel game. Even so, instead of resorting to a cutscene to show a futile fight the designers made the player go through fighting waves and waves of unending enemies that will eventually inevitably overwhelm you. Though this Bellweather fight can't end with the player dying, I remember playing that Zach fight and being so determined to take down as many enemies as I could with me, even if I was going to die no matter what. An interesting angle could be making a fight that has a timer on it (in a more direct way than simply the Bellweather's added damage up stacks) where the party has to hold out for a certain period of time and take out as many enemies as they can, which spawn as fast as you can defeat them. This adds an element of challenge that increases the replay value by challenging the player to do better than their last run, or keep a personal best. If you can set up the mechanics right and present them in such a way on-screen so as not to take gravitas away from the situation at hand, I think that would be a compelling way to make this fight keep its intensity and energetic build without having strange breaks in it where you are forced to deal with the stationary, passive Bellweather.
In the Ashes of A World
The only exit from the Second Doom is a portal that whisks the player onto a chain of jagged ruins floating in the sky. The camera even opens on this section of the dungeon pointed down, so you can see the small platform you are standing on silhouetted against the entire planet burning to the ground in a smoldering wreck. The stars are falling from the sky. There is no going back-- you must hop between ever-upward to an unknown destination. All you know is that there is a Third Doom ahead and it's probably the sphinx-like beast from the city; so the sense of curiosity and dread as well as being forced to stare at the monumental scope of an entire planet's destruction flavors the player's trek to the last boss. The Sphinx is confirmed as your final enemy when it appears at the side of your platform during the mob sections and lays down columns of line-AOE lasers as you fight of the last set of enemy mobs.
Mechanically, I think the reason that this group of mobs doesn't feel as lackluster as the previous one is carried entirely on the back of how extraterrestrial and almost lovecraftian the monsters you encounter look. Not only are you overseeing the last ashes of a planet, but the things now feeding on it are ungodly horror-terrors. Some of the creature designs are almost more reminiscent of Atlus' always-bewildering Persona series enemies (which are always wild designs, I recommend looking them up if you haven't played the games before) and putting that style into a Final Fantasy game creates an aesthetic schism that fits the mood of this gallery-of-destruction space-walk well.
Finally, you reach the Third Doom-- and instead of being asked to simply bear witness, you are finally tasked with defeating it. Put an end to this apocalyptic puppet show.
To The Edge
The final battle's impact is what, in my opinion, seals the deal on why this dungeon's mechanical and emotional design is brilliantly smart. The final boss is called Therion: the scariest cross between a slot machine, a pipe organ, and an undead sphinx there ever was. It lands on the far end of your battle field, which is a long strip of runway, and takes up the entire width of the platform.
The Therion fight has three stages. Each stage starts with AOEs and some linear laser damage, as well as tankbusters. The first mechanic that is haunting is that he will summon up two lines of ghostly, aghast heads on either side of the platform. They make for a terrifying chorus as much for their appearance as for the lasers that blast out of their mouths every time they open to scream. Based on the color scheme of the heads on Therion's face and the heads on either side of the arena, they seem to mirror the aesthetic of the Amaroutines beneath the Amaroutines' signature hoods. It feels like Therion is puppeting the souls of the people killed on the world below to assault you. The strangely musical feel of it's organ-like form as well as the silent singing is aggressively disturbing. Looking back on the earlier parts of the dungeon, the Amaroutines were never heard screaming either. It makes you wonder if, in all their terror, they were ever able to.
After the heads disappear again, Therion will charge a large laser attack that will take up the entire surface area of the arena. Your only escape are tiny outcroppings placed periodically to either side of the platform, which you must squeeze on to in order to dodge. These tiny areas will start to crack and break if you are not careful, so if you find yourself on one that is crumbling before the laser, you will fall to your death before the cast of the attack is through. Your options are being systematically taken away one by one.
And the pattern only continues. Therion will have a proximity-based damage marker appear right at his feet. You only have one way to run in order to get enough distance to survive, and that direction pushes you closer to the edge of the platform. He will then leap forward-- effectively cutting off any territory behind him, boxing you in. The phases repeat, each time leaving the players less and less space to run. It feels like you are experiencing what those people on the planet experienced as their safe spaces were stripped away until there was nothing they could do but stare down their final doom, powerless to stop it.
But you are the Warrior of Darkness, and you can't let yourself be consumed by a memory of the past. You defeat the monster and end Emet's play-- and yet the specter of the ruins of the world still stretch out beyond the exit to the dungeon, quietly asking you: What's next?
What's the Big Deal?
So, why have I become so attached to this one dungeon in particular?
Let's return to the moment in the story that you are presented with prior to Amaurot. You have been slowly uncovering knowledge about your world that you never knew before-- and where you thought you would find a one-sided tale of "cool motive, still murder", you instead find a deeply emotional plea for understanding through empathy. You can understand why this character is forcing you into this cruel gambit because he is desperate for someone to grasp the gravity of what he feels; and, in some small way, validate the sacrifices he's made and the horrible things he has done in the name of recovering the world he loves.
Emet-Selch's plea would feel hollow if it were not for some quality writing and the genius level and gameplay design of Amaurot, and if Emet didn't feel so sincere as a character, the weight of the entire plot of Shadowbringers would feel as heavy on the player's shoulders. That weight is what I think made this entire expansion feel so incredibly rich. Not to mention that Amaurot leads directly into the climactic boss fight that is the very height of the story-- a fight that is triggered partially by your continued denial of Emet even after he believes he has shown you all he can to convince you of his cause. You saw his most traumatic experience and still refuse to stand aside and let your world die so his may live: which, to him as a character, needs to feel like you have done an inexcusable wrong. Any stumble in delivering the player to this emotional and mechanical pinnacle would be magnified by the stakes at play.
That's what good level design does: unites the character and the player and grounds them both in the emotional flow of the narrative by creating a system by which you move and act within a space in an intuitive yet evocative way. It makes you understand your character and the world on an intimate level; and when done right, I don't think the player even notices the effect it has on them.
That is why this level in particular has become so dear to me-- even with a few flaws here and there, it is a crystalline moment where the game's mechanics and narrative combine in a beautiful fusion-dance that holds up the structure of the story while also being a pulse-pounding experience to behold, perfectly setting the stage for the player to feel the intense cathartic high of the climax that comes immediately after.