Netflix's Final Fantasy XIV: Dad of Light is a genuinely sweet Japanese soap opera about family

While TV shows about video games have existed ever since Link uttered his famous “well excuuuuuse me princess!” line, shows about the people who play them are somewhat rare. Stories about gamers themselves tend to fall into two categories. First, there are stories about how gamers interact with their game of choice. This is where you find stories about e-sports teams or fighting game tournaments. Second, there are stories that use video games as a framing device for external conflicts. These stories are exceedingly rare because it requires gamers to be portrayed as, GASP, real people!

This is what makes Netflix’s new Final Fantasy XIV: Dad of Light compelling. The story isn’t really about Final Fantasy XIV at all. Rather, it’s about the protagonist Akio attempting to reconnect with his father. Final Fantasy XIV is just how he chooses to do it. While the heavy nostalgia of the Final Fantasy series sets an appropriate tone, the plot would have worked just as well with World of Warcraft, Everquest, or really any massive multiplayer online game. It’s not the game that matters, it’s the people who play it.

The series opens with a young Akio and his father, Hakutaro, bonding over Final Fantasy III on the Famicom. Fast forward to present day and Akio has grown into a young adult, just entering the workforce. Meanwhile, Hakutaro has grown distant and has recently quit his job, despite being on track to be the next company president. After a number of uncomfortably silent family dinners, Akio hatches a plan to get his father into Final Fantasy XIV and befriend him in-game without revealing his identity. He hopes that the online world will allow his father to open up more than he can in real life. His master plan is to eventually tackle the game’s hardest raid boss together with his dad, and only then reveal who he truly is.

It’s a bit of a wacky concept, but it’s one you will be happy suspending your disbelief for. Dad of Light is essentially a soap opera, and soap operas are known for barely believable narratives steeped in melodrama. Final Fantasy is also known for barely believable narratives steeped in melodrama, which is why Final Fantasy XIV feels like a natural fit for the plot.

I’d hazard a guess that many gamers wish they could share their gaming interests with their parents. Dad of Light knows this and tugs on those emotional heartstrings hard. Heck it’s borderline emotionally manipulative, but in a good way. In just the first few episodes you will find yourself becoming emotional as Akio and Hakutaro’s relationship gets deeper and stronger in the online world and yet lamenting their distance in the real world.

Dad of Light’s plot delves into much more than this one relationship. It also tackles Akio and Hakutaro’s relationship with society. Hakutaro is a stoic and unemotional salaryman in meatspace, but online he is a goofy, friendly, playful adventurer that easily makes new friends. Akio, on the other hand, is timid in the workplace and finds it hard to get ahead in life. Meanwhile, his cat-girl avatar, Maidy, is a confident warrior who takes charge of entire guilds. It makes you wonder which personality is real and whether or not we are all just products of the pressure that society puts on us.

Each episode follows the same formula. Akio and his dad encounter some conflict in the real world. Akio usually has to deal with some problem at work and Hakutaro usually deals with some emotional problem at home. The two of them play some Final Fantasy XIV, Akio flashes back to a cherished childhood memory, and through their more emotionally well-adjusted avatars, they learn the lessons they need to become better people and tackle the challenges that life gives them.  

Yet another story evolves in small pieces within each formulaic episode. We see that Hakutaro’s life, even as a successful salaryman felt empty. This is exactly why he jumps at the opportunity to live a second life in an online world. Meanwhile, Akio has hit a turning point in his life, the beginning of his career. It feels as if he could very easily end up following in his father’s footsteps, feeling just as hollow at the end of his life. The two characters are painted as reflections of each other and their journey of self-discovery is what keeps you coming back episode after episode.  As Akio realizes he is more like his father than he would like to admit, he also comes to question the path in life he has chosen, much as his father is.

Unfortunately, we don’t really get a satisfying resolution to this plot. Dad of Light’s biggest flaw is its devotion to Akio and Hakutaro’s online adventures. Every secondary plot from Akio’s workplace troubles to his budding romantic relationship is kicked aside to show more interaction inside Final Fantasy XIV. At times, the series feels like a giant commercial, like The Wizard was for Super Mario Bros. 3.

And if it is supposed to be a commercial, it’s not a very good one. It’s clear they put a lot of effort into the machinima scenes rendered inside the FFXIV engine, but the engine is showing its age. Animations are stiff and doll-like. Facial animations in particular give off a creepy lifeless vibe. Action scenes are supposed to be epic but the limited capabilities of the FFXIV engine makes them feel more like fan made Youtube videos than a Netflix series with a budget. While the decision to have in-game avatars voiced by completely different actors than their real life counterparts was a good artistic choice, it’s not nearly enough to prevent these scenes from feeling distracting. As I said before, the game they play doesn’t really matter, so the heavy focus on the game feels like it detracts from the plot rather than supporting it.

Final Fantasy XIV: Dad of Light certainly isn’t the best Netflix series I’ve ever seen and it won’t be winning awards any time soon, but as soap-operas go it’s a cut above the rest. Stories about wanting to reconnect with family are almost universal and framing that story in the world of Final Fantasy XIV addresses how we can be completely different people in private than we are in public. It’s sweet and thoughtful and if anything it’s an entertaining watch if you have a gap in your Netflix queue. It won’t make you want to play Final Fantasy XIV, but it will make you want to pick up the phone and call your dad, just to see how he is doing.