I wasn’t excited about Final Fantasy XV. I was ashamed. On release day, I swung by Target on my way to work., Three weeks had passed since the Trump election, a night where I drank myself silly, cried, and promised that I would transform myself into a positive force for change, that I would no longer bury my face in pop culture distractions like videogames. Yet there I was: walking into Target at 8 AM with all the other thirty-something white collar nerds, feeling embarrassed and a little deranged.
I grew up loving Final Fantasy. The sixth game in the series is still my favorite game of all time, and I pretty much adore every entry from V to X. But the series had shifted away from my interests over the years. Gone were the huge maps and keen sense of exploration, replaced by long, drawn out cut scenes and linear hallways that served as playfields. But I felt a weird responsibility to play XV. It was first announced in 2006, a full decade earlier. I downloaded the trailer from GameSpot in my college dorm room—this was before YouTube, remember—and since then, I’d married, published two books, become a professor, and earned two degrees. Final Fantasy XV’s cast of characters, on the other hand, looked exactly the same, forever frozen at 19. I carried the game back to my car and drove to work. I taught creative writing and was struggling to see the value in it after the election. What was the point of art? What was the point of thinking critically about videogames? What was the point of anything?
More than swords and spells, more than robots and legendary beasts, Final Fantasy XV is a game about teen boy friendship. The game opens with King Regis bidding farewell to his son, Prince Noctis, and his best friends/bodyguards Gladio, Ignis and Prompto. Regis has agreed to an arranged marriage between Noctis and a mystical oracle named Luna that will bring peace to two warring nations, and now Noctis and his buds have to set out on the road trip of a lifetime to make the wedding on time.
It’s a peculiar opening at odds with the bombastic beginnings of previous Final Fantasy games, and this difference is underscored almost immediately as your car, the elegant Regalia, quickly breaks down in the nearby desert. The boys get out to push, and their dialogue isn’t the typical, stuffy Lord of the Rings melodrama you get in so many recent Final Fantasy installments. They bicker. They’re sweet. And this constant chatter continues throughout the game, happens in the background all the time as you explore the world on foot or drive around, and it all, shockingly, feels true. I’m hard-pressed to even think of a game that so perfectly nails the feeling of being with teenage boys—the goofiness, the jokes, the occasional and difficult sincerity—and Final Fantasy XV telegraphs right up front that this is its true focus. As you push the Regalia down the dusty highway, Florence and the Machine’s spectacular cover of “Stand By Me” cuts in recalling the classic ‘80s film by the same name, another text about boys sticking together and learning about friendship and death. When the chorus hits, and Florence’s voice boomed through my darkened living room, I knew I was in for something surprising and personally painful, that already the controller in my hands was heavy as stone.
RJ died when I was 18. He grew up a few houses down from mine, and we went to the same Catholic grade school and high school. He was the first person I drove other than my parents, and he was the only person I knew who owned a Sega Saturn. I’m 32 now, and it’s still so hard to believe he’s been dead for almost as long as he was alive. The memories I have of him are so weird, so scattered, and seemingly unimportant.
When I try to explain RJ to my wife, I tell her about the time our friends drove to Arcaro and Genell’s, a tiny Italian restaurant fifteen minutes away from where we lived in working class Scranton, Pennsylvania. I’ve taken Theresa there, and she knows it’s a beautiful, unpretentious place,. Arcaro’s still serves the best pizza I’ve ever tasted, and Italian Scrantonians take pizza very seriously. So when we drove there when we were 16—a big adventure for us then; twenty minutes in the car!—we weren’t surprised to find a line, to be told we had to wait ninety minutes to get a table. All of us were prepared, me, my buddy Mike, Jack, Sean, but not RJ. He spat on the ground, cursed, and walked down the street to a McDonald’s where he ate two double cheeseburgers all alone before rejoining us in the line. Something about that—trading the most delicious thick square-cut pizza in the world for mass-produced meat patties—struck me as equal parts hilarious and dumb teen rebellious. RJ had no time to wait ninety minutes for pizza, and I guess that was much truer that I ever could have realized.
He died the summer after I graduated high school. I was away on senior week, seven days away from Scranton on the boardwalks of the Jersey shore. RJ wasn’t with us because he was a year behind. He called my house the day he died wanting to hang out, had forgotten we’d left town without him. So, he went to a nearby river with some neighborhood kids and, when one got sucked into the undertow, he dove in to save them. RJ pulled the boy out, but he was swept away in the process. He drowned.
Mike was the one who told us, the first one to get a call from somebody back home. Like the rest of us, Mike was unbelievably nerdy, very funny, stick-thin with a hidden sweetness. His deepest aspiration in life was to become a geometry teacher, and he walked into our tiny hotel room and announced very solemnly that a true tragedy had occurred, that RJ had died.
We were silent, still, and it wasn’t until my parents arrived the next day and I saw their faces that I burst into tears. I knew it was selfish and self-aggrandizing, but I blamed myself. If I’d been there to receive his call, if we’d taken him with us, everything would have turned out ok. We drove back to Pennsylvania, went to the viewing, funeral, and afterwards we camped in a friend’s basement and fought the final bosses of Final Fantasy VII, VIII, IX, X, even Chrono Cross and Lunar and Lunar 2—the Japanese role-playing games we’d obsessed over as lonely and gawky teenagers. We beat those bosses one after another, and we never said anything. For once, that constant and familiar stream of goofy banter and jokes was silenced. We listened to the hum of the PlayStation.
I’d forgotten what it felt like to drive around aimlessly with your teenage buddies, but Final Fantasy XV reminded me immediately. The game is divided into two very different halves, and the first is a huge open-world reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid V or Skyrim. There are missions you can pursue to advance the story, but otherwise you’re free to drive around and tackle weird little sidequests. As you drive, characters banter and joke, and the genius of Final Fantasy XV is the central cast is such a finely tuned mix of archetypes that you inevitably overwrite them with your own high school friends. Noctis is the reluctant hero, the Han Solo-type with a heart of gold. Gladio is the muscle, the guy who thinks he’s the leader even though everyone knows he’s really not, the friend who can tell the others what their problem is but wouldn’t let someone outside the group say a single bad thing about them. Ignis is the brains, the cook, the hipster who wears glasses not because he needs them but because they look cool. And Prompto… Prompto is the heart of everything. He’s the one who feels like he’s not good enough for the group, that everyone else is just tolerating him, that he has to keep joking, otherwise the group will expel him. I saw myself in these teen boys, although that’s not exactly correct. I saw my younger self, smiling and so, so naïve, clueless about the hardships to come, how our group was temporary and fleeting. I saw RJ. I saw Mike.
Final Fantasy XV made me anxious in a way no other game has. The happiness and safety of my friends was so important to me that I’d turn sweaty and panicked during difficult battles. Seeing Ignis or Prompto die was enough to almost bring tears to my eyes, and how bittersweet it was to toss a Phoenix Down on their corpses, that fabled Final Fantasy item that brings your comrades back to life. Their dead bodies would rise from the ground, smiling and good as new, joking again like nothing even happened.
Their demands weighed on me, and I acquiesced every time Prompto interrupted the conversation in the car asking to pull over so he could take a group selfie. In Final Fantasy XV, you eat diner grub, fish, and cook over campfire. It perfectly captures what it feels like to be a teenage boy, how so much of your social life revolves around obtaining and consuming greasy food. At night, before our foursome fell asleep, we looked through Prompto’s photos and decided which to save for posterity. It’s uncanny and sincere and hits a heartwarming tone you almost never see in big budget videogames. And Final Fantasy XV is peppered with these moments—the boys discussing who’s the best at videogames or Prompto explaining his jokes are just bluster, that he lacks self-confidence when he’s away from the group. I felt that exact way even in my waking life. I grew frustrated with my students or anything that pulled me out of Final Fantasy XV. I wanted to be back in that world, to be back with my old friends again even in this diminished way. I’d waited a very long time to see them again. I felt like I deserved it.
Mike died when I was 27. He was diagnosed with a rare leukemia a little over a year earlier, and, through a series of coincidences and bizarre circumstances, was treated in Pittsburgh where I lived at the time,. I visited often—but never quite enough—and on that first trip to the cancer ward brought the single worst “feel better” package of all time: a GameBoy Pocket complete with ten games and a faded copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon. We talked about videogames and fantasy football. We talked about women and his impending nuptials. We talked about anything other than his illness until a nurse inevitably burst our bubble, informing Mike it was time for some terrible procedure.
Again, I felt that selfish desire I experienced after RJ’s death, some gross notion that I was somehow responsible, that if I had been a better person I could’ve saved him. We expelled Mike from our group of friends a few years earlier and although we’d made up before his sickness, I still felt deeply guilty. I wanted to tell him that I never stopped liking him or his company, but that years away from Scranton spent at one upper-class institution after another had subconsciously taught me to hate and be ashamed by my working-class past, that I needed to bury it at all costs.
I sat shaking through Mike’s wedding in the hospital chapel six months before he died. The last time I saw him, we went to the movie theatre with his wife to see The Dark Knight Rises. He wore paper boxes around his sneakers and a mask over his mouth. He was dead by the end of the summer, and by then I’d moved to Indianapolis for work. I’d driven in on fumes, fifty thousand dollars in debt, less than thirty dollars in my bank account. I didn’t have the money to return home and missed his funeral. Instead, I played Super Nintendo in the dark and wept, convinced I was not and would never be a good person.