Final Fantasy XVI is an achievement for the long-running franchise, in both gameplay and narrative. It will go down as one of the best Playstation 5 games. But, for years to come, people will debate its conclusion. Did Clive and Joshua live or die? The cool thing about this discussion is that so much depends upon whether or not someone played through the side quests and how that factors into XVI main theme.
To be direct: we have a lot of indicators that Clive lives but no real and true confirmation.
The evidence for Clive living
The evidence for Clive living is scattered throughout the game. Some at the beginning, as part of the main story. Some at the end, as part of the side quests.
During the prologue portion, the flashback sequence with Clive’s journey to Phoenix Gate, there’s a conversation between Clive and Jill the evening before the fateful Night of Flames.
Jill: You’re going with them, aren’t you?
Clive: I am Joshua’s Shield. I’m sworn to protect him. He takes too many risks. I only wish I could save him from himself.
J: Clive. You…
C: I have another mission, too. Father has given me my first command.
J: Well, if you’re not going to pray to Metia for your safe return, I shall just have to do it for you. [She prays and a tear runs down her cheek].
Metia is the burning red star that’s right next to the moon. It’s a focal point many times throughout the game. With lore even talking about it being a messenger to the moon and that people make wishes on it. So it’s been framed in the story as not only wish granting but directly linked to Jill’s prayers for Clive to return home safely.
At the very end, after Clive defeats Ultima and maybe dies on a beach somewhere, there’s the sequence with Jill and Torgal. Jill notices the faithful hound looking out the window, up at the night sky. We see the moon and Metia burning brightly. Then the red star winks and dims. Jill begins to cry. She and Torgal run outside. We know that Dominants have some sense of one another’s aether. So the winking out of Metia seems to coincide with Jill losing that feeling of Clive, which is why she’s suddenly heartbroken. On the deck, Torgal howls at the moon while she sobs. Pretty strong signs that they recognize Clive’s gone.
Except when the sun rises, the tone changes. Jill sighs and looks almost relieved? Immediately after that, we hear Clive’s voice say, “And thus…did our journey end.”
For those who only focused on the main story and avoided the side quests, that conclusion seems pretty definitive. The trophy for beating the game is even called “Fallen Star”.
The twist on this is two-fold.
One of the final side quests in the game is with Harpocrates, the Hideaway’s resident loremaster. “A Tail to Tell” is only unlocked after completing another random side quest called “An Inconvenient Truth”. It’s seemingly innocuous as you’re just reconnecting Harpocrates with Dion. But at the end of it, Harpocrates gives a Stolas Quill to Clive and says, “‘Tis said that an owl’s feathers are steeped in the wishes it hears over its long lifetime, all those words just waiting to pour out onto the page. So consider this my wish for you. That one day, you may put down your sword, and pick up that pen.”
Clive’s response? “Well, when that day comes, I’ll certainly have a lot to write about.”
Then the absolute final side quest is called “Priceless” and needs you to complete two other quests to unlock. In this one, Clive wants to do something nice for Jill and recalls how, when they were kids, they had tried to run off to see a field of snow daisies only for it to storm. They never made it. So Clive finds this beautiful path of flowers on a cliff overlooking the ocean. There, the two reminisce about their childhood and bond over their present and future. It’s very lovey dovey. But there’s an important bit of dialogue.
Jill: Before we broke camp, the morning after the storm, do you know what I did? I slipped away from my governess to climb the tor. And from there I saw a sea of petals, all reaching for the sun. And I realized that no matter how terrible the night…dawn would always come. That you…that you would always come for me. And you have. Again and again.
It’s these side quests that have caused people to re-think Clive’s fate.
The first because it gives context to the opening monologue. It’s Clive narrating: It was Moss the Chronicler who said that the land of Valisthea is blessed in the light of the Mothercrystals. And that it was this light which finally led our forebears out of the darkness. Yet what they saw in the light gave rise to temptation. Temptation that ever lures us back into the crystals’ shadow. And thus did our journey begin.
It could just be a completely meaningless artistic choice to have Clive narrate an intro and outro. But…when the team puts in a side quest that directly suggests that Clive stops fighting and becomes an author and tells the story of what happened—it’s begging you to read the voiceover as the beginning and end of Clive’s book and that the entire game we just played was a visualization of the text. Meaning that Clive lived to write the very book he was narrating.
Then the side quest with Jill expands Clive’s fate from Metia to include the sun. It isn’t just that Jill prays at night. It’s that she prays at night, then, inevitably, like the dawn, Clive returns. This time, because Metia winked out, and because she could no longer feel Clive’s aether, Jill feared the worst. Except, there’s no more aether in all of Valisthea. That’s what Clive used Ultima’s power for. To put an end to magic and Dominants and the whole thing. If it all disappeared, that would explain why she and Torgal suddenly couldn’t sense his aether.
But what about the Curse? When Clive’s on the beach, we see that his left hand has started to turn to stone. This is the price of aether on the human body. Over the course of the game, we saw many Bearers succumb to the curse. Dominants weren’t as affected by it unless channeling a tremendous amount all at once (see Hugo Kupka). Which is what Clive did by using Ultima’s power. The implication is that the Curse will spread and fully petrify Clive.
That could happen.
But we don’t know that it will. Or did. Especially given the fact that aether is gone from the world.
There are a number of dualities in XVI. The Bearers being slaves is a microcosm of the game’s larger story about fate and people breaking free from Ultima’s control. We see the same thing between the Curse and the Blight. The Curse is a microcosm of the plague-stricken continent. By ending magic and aether, Clive prevents the Blight from continuing to spread, thus providing Valisthea with a future. If that same duality holds up, then we should expect the same to be true for Bearers and the Curse.
The post-credit scene ends up as a dovetail of these two things.
We see that Valisthea is just fine. Lush, even. Given how much land the Blight had claimed, the implication here seems quite clear—Clive succeeding in ending it.
And that there is a book called Final Fantasy by Joshua Rosfield. Obviously, it being Joshua and not Clive throws a bit of a wrench in the theory. Why would Clive write it under Joshua’s name? And if Joshua lived and wrote it, why wasn’t he narrating the beginning and end of the game? Those are good questions that we don’t seemingly have great answers for. The simplest answer is that both lived and Clive just didn’t want to publish it under his name. Or that Clive lived and used Joshua’s name to honor his brother.
The counter argument there would be that Joshua had spent a lot of time researching and writing theories. It would have been easy for someone to collect those and publish them. But then why have the discussion of Clive becoming a writer? And why have him narrate? If the character doesn’t live, you don’t do things like that. So why not make it more definitive?
The true meaning and ending of Final Fantasy XVI
I love this so much. Okay.
In the final fight with Ultima, the major difference between the two is that Ultima is alone and Clive has the support of many people. This comes up throughout the fight. And is even embodied when the two have showdowns with Eikon powers. Both channel Garuda and use the same attack. Except Clive hears the voice of one of his loved ones cheering him on. When they use Ramuh, we hear Cid’s voice. Etc. etc.
Now when we zoom out and look at the game itself, you have the main story then a ton of side quests. How many side quests? 76. That’s right. Seventy-six. If you want the best weapon in the game? You have to do a series of four side quests related to Blackthorne the blacksmith. Want some of the best accessories like Berserker Ring and Genji Gloves? You have to earn renown. How do you earn renown? Side quests. Want your potions to heal more? Complete side quests. Want backstory on characters and events? Side quests.
All of the nuance in Final Fantasy XVI you gain through side quests. And what are most of the side quests? Clive helping people.
Which can seem silly, right? The world is about to end yet he’s running off to collect some rare flowers for the green thumbs on the lower deck of the Hideaway. Or going to Northreach to pick up some fabric to make new clothes for some of the kids. Or helping in local politics. Most of the side quests feel very silly. But they all come back to one thing—helping others and forming connections. And by the end of the game, we see the difference Clive makes, especially as these side quests build on one another. He not only saves lives but helps many people forge new paths forward. There’s something really beautiful and inspiring about that message. Take the time to help others and the world changes for the better.
But that also comes back to the game itself. If someone plays Final Fantasy XVI and skips the side quests, they have a legitimately different experience with the game. The ceiling is lower. They have less powerful equipment and accessories. They’ll have less experience and ability points so will be generally weaker than someone who does the side quests. And they’ll have a significantly reduced understanding of the world, the characters, and the events that occur over the course of the game. Taking the time to help all of those characters via the side quest yields a far richer and rewarding experience.
Which brings us right back to the ending. It’s the same thing. Engage with the game on the most superficial level and you get a conclusion that reads far more bittersweet. But when you spend the time helping others, connecting with others, building out Clive’s relationships with others, the very thing that makes the difference in the fight with Ultima, you have the knowledge and experience to understand the nuance and implication of the conclusion that point toward a happier fate. It’s quite a powerful and masterful narrative choice to make it so Schrödinger. Especially since it embodies the story’s main theme so beautifully.
This would also bring us full circle. At the end of the prologue, everyone thought both Clive and Joshua had died that night at Phoenix Gate. Only for both to have, miraculously, survived. Here we are, once again, thinking that the two are gone. How Rosfield Boys of them to find a way to, like the Phoenix, endure.
Even though people think that Jill had a change of demeanor because Clive must have appeared, it doesn’t seem like she’s looking at someone. Rather, her gaze feels very much on the sun. You would imagine if Clive just appeared in the lift at the entrance that she’d yell or run to him, that Torgal would bark or run to him.
Also, remember that Ultima had blighted the sky. For that whole final stretch of the game, things were pink-purple and cloudy and depressing. There really wasn’t a typical sky or sunrise or anything like that. So Jill’s reaction could simply be to the fact that Clive had brought back the dawn. She was getting to see the sun and blue sky for the first time in days? Weeks? Months? Which would point to Clive’s spiritual/metaphorical presence moreso than his actual living one.
The counterpoint to the counterpoint would simply be that because they already established the connection between Clive returning like the sun at dawn that we don’t need to see it. And it doesn’t have to happen right then and there. Just that we know, like Jill, that it will happen.
The truly megabrain reading
I imagine there are some people, like 12 people, who will argue that the whole game was just a text in a book of fiction and nothing we saw really happened. That it was, like the mother in the post-credit scene tells her son, “a silly story” and a “fairy tale”. Even if that was the case, it’s still a reminder of how inspiring and meaningful stories are, how fiction can shape and affect us. Especially this one with its parable about the power of human decency, kindness, and hard work.
Wait, what about Joshua?
We’re told that the Phoenix power can heal the body but can’t reverse death. So Joshua couldn’t, for instance, resurrect Cid. But if he had been a few minutes earlier, he maybe could have healed Cid. People have pointed to that as the reason why Clive, at the end, didn’t bring Joshua back to life.
Except. Clive has, for that brief time, Ultima’s power. The power of a god. If there was ever a time someone could break the rules and pull of a resurrection, it’s then.
With that said, Clive does immediately incinerate everything around him. So if he had raised Joshua, he then razed Joshua. Which is kind of funny.
Broadly speaking, I think it make sense for Joshua to live. And that we have enough evidence. From the healing Clive does, to the book with Joshua’s name, to the fact that he already “came back” once before and is the Phoenix after all.
It’s just when looking at the logistics of that moment that it’s a bit silly. Clive resurrects Joshua only to immediately unleash a sky-piercing inferno that destroys the sky island they’re on? Meaning Joshua had to survive the inferno, then survive the fall, then survive floating unconscious on the ocean, then make it home. It is a video game, so that’s possible. Clive just did the exact same thing (though imbued with Ultima’s power).
So even though I think we’re supposed to take away that Joshua survived, the actual details of the scene feel a touch sloppy or overlooked. Having Clive teleport Joshua somewhere else probably ruins the vibe of suspense. Same with casting a protective bubble over him. So it seems like one of those situations where the writers had to choose between ambiguity and logic and opted for ambiguity.