Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV do not take place in the same world. One is not a sequel or prequel to the other, neither game continues the same story themes, and indeed nothing connects them beyond the names and a set of thematic elements. So I enjoy looking at those thematic elements sometimes, for the same fundamental reason that when I was a little boy I occasionally liked to take apart toys just to see how they worked.
You’ll remember that I looked at moogles as they related to the Final Fantasy series as a whole a while back, with the ultimate conclusion that moogles exist to provide an in-universe explanation for mechanical conceits. Chocobos have got to be simpler, though. They’re present in both Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV, and they’re extremely straightforward in both: They’re mounts. That’s their purpose in the series, isn’t it? You ride chocobos. Surely it can’t be any more complicated than “fictional method of transportation”.
The answer is of course it can. But I think the first step is to look back at the series as a whole.
Chocobos first appeared in Final Fantasy II. There was one wandering around, and if you caught it, you could ride it at break-neck speeds. It was also entirely optional and not very well documented, and ultimately it was entirely superfluous to the game as a whole. You could easily beat the game without ever fussing with chocobos.
Final Fantasy III featured a return of the riding birds, far more accessible, and also introduced the Fat Chocobo to serve as a sort of banking service. Again, though, they were… strangely sidelined. You had a lot of important transportation methods through the game, including an awfully large number of airships, but chocobos were again more or less optional. They were useful, but there was never any real relevance in terms of the plot to having a chocobo around.
This continues on down the line. Chocobos keep showing up as a transport method, but almost always as a transport method you stop using fairly early on. Chocobos are barely relevant as transport in Final Fantasy VI and VIII, and while VII and IX both feature particularly useful super-birds, they can be obtained only through lengthy sidequests and still can’t be used to access the final dungeon. It’s possible to almost completely avoid them in X and XII, and you have to go out of your way in XIII to even ride one.
FFXI and FFXIV both make use of the birds, of course, and here they’re considered much more important by players. After all, running across Vana’diel without a chocobo license is asking for trouble. But even there, they’re only an element of the overall game transport system. You don’t ride a chocobo from Windurst to Bastok; you take the airship. Ditto with Gridania to Limsa Lominsa. Chocobos are convenient for short jaunts, but they aren’t something you use at all times, and in FFXI you’re restricted to just renting birds for a long time.
But they’re everywhere in the franchise. You literally can’t throw a stone in the games without being reminded about chocobos. FFV’s main character has one as a pet and traveling companion. Sazh in FFXIII has a chocobo chick living in his hair. There are stables and farms devoted to the birds, and in most games, chocobos are inexorably tied to one minigame or another. You race them in several games (including FFXI), you can have them as companions in a few (FFT and FFXIV after the relaunch), and you use them to dig for treasure and generally explore. They’re occasionally optional but never forgettable.
In other words, whenever chocobos show up, they’re taking an element of the world and marrying it to mechanics. Or doing the exact opposite of what the moogles do, if you’d prefer.
There have been games in which moogles do not appear as part of the in-game universe, but there are no games without chocobos showing up. Over several games, we’ve acquired a pretty solid picture of what chocobos are in lore terms. They’re big yellow birds, generally flightless (although some can manage short hops) with a penchant for greens and a distinctive call. They like to dig, they serve as mounts, and they generally function in the ways we expect horses to function in our world.
At a glance, this might seem reductive. Bringing game mechanics into the game world is one thing, but bringing the game world into the game mechanics feels like taking something fantastic and slapping numbers on it.
The thing is, they actually perform just as important a function. Where moogles are an authorial contrivance writ large, chocobos are a way of seeing how the game and the mechanics tie together. Since you understand a large portion of the ways that chocobos work from all of the other games in the franchise, it’s easier to understand how they fit into a new context. Nothing that you can do on a chocobo in FFXI is new compared to previous incarnations, but as a result, you have clear ties to other games in the series as well as what the mechanics represent.
Increasing your speed out of combat is purely mechanical. Having a sink to take gil or company marks out of your hands is mechanical. Being able to dig, race, or breed companions is mechanical, as is being able to summon a companion into battle. But tie all that to a chocobo, and suddenly this doesn’t feel like an arbitrary addition to the game, just the function of a bird.
Or maybe someone saw an emu and decided it would be cooler if it were yellow and rideable. I may be reading too much into it.