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.
Final Fantasy XV is obsessed with nostalgia. You can listen to the soundtracks of previous games in your car, and so many story beats of those classics are repeated—Magitek soldiers, the destruction of a peaceful city, four teens pitted against an evil empire, a meteor that changes the course of history, powerful gods you can summon like Ramuh and Shiva and Bahamut, the deities of my youth. But it doesn’t wallow in the past. XV abandons the Active Time Battle, that long-perfected Final Fantasy system where allies line up on the right, foes on the left, both groups patiently waiting for their turns to strike. Final Fantasy XV plays more like an action game, like Kingdom Hearts, and instead of the linear hallways of Final Fantasy XIII, it utilizes the aforementioned open-world structure of Fallout or The Witcher. The game is relentlessly happy, content to jostle and joke and bask in the illusion of freedom provided by its seemingly endless open roads. But, as in real life, the good times must end, and two-thirds into the narrative, the game shifts suddenly and dramatically.
Final Fantasy XV spent ten years in production, and, during that period, its development team changed and shifted multiple times. Originally conceived as a PlayStation 3 spinoff to Final Fantasy XIII, XV bears the brunt of its troubled development process in its final third. The story here feels rushed and underdeveloped, and the open world XV spends so much time building is completely ripped away from you. Instead, you’re returned to the kind of sterile hallways prevalent in Final Fantasy XIII. There’s no time to pause and no way to deviate. You must press forward until the game ends.
What’s tremendously successful about these final ten hours, however, is the way the tone of the game completely switches. The happy-go-lucky adventures of Noctis and co. are brought to a screeching halt after arriving in Altissia, the city where Noctis was supposed to marry Luna at the start of the game, the reason for your long adventure. In Altissia, Luna is shockingly killed by Ardyn, the game’s big bad—a milquetoast version of Final Fantasy VI’s memorable Kefka. Noctis is unable to save her and passes out moments later following a battle with one of the game’s gods. When he wakes up, Ignis breaks the bad news, but that’s not all. Ignis has been blinded in the battle and can only walk using a cane.
What follows is one of the best sequences I’ve ever played in a videogame, and certainly the best to nail teenage boys dealing with grief. Almost like a Goddard film, the game smash cuts to a train shuttling the boys to their next objective, but for once, everyone is silent. No jokes. No jostling. The boys sit and stare out the window and try to avoid Ignis clutching his cane, acting like nothing’s happened. Noctis mopes and sighs like a moody teenager, and finally, Gladio grabs him and starts screaming, tells him he has to shape up and act like a king, a leader, someone his friends can look up to. Noctis pushes him off, and finally you’re given control of the character, but your only objective is to walk around the train until it arrives at the station. There are no goals for you to accomplish during this stretch. All you can do is walk around the train and think about how your friends have suffered and died, to imagine the ways they will continue to suffer and die as the quest continues. If you’re like me, you will try to engage Prompto, Ignis, even Gladio in conversation, and none of them will respond or even acknowledge your existence. It brought me right back to RJ’s death, how we sat around silently fighting the Final Fantasy end bosses of our childhood and high school careers. I wandered around the train with tears streaming down my face, and it would not be the last time Final Fantasy XV made me cry.
As the game hurtles toward its downbeat finale, XV leans into its own despair, the harsh opposite of its sunny first half. Due to bizarre story machinations, the days grow shorter and shorter until Noctis’ world is literally shrouded in perpetual darkness. In the dungeon following the train scene, you have to move painstakingly slowly otherwise Ignis will fall behind and Gladio and Prompto will call you out for being an insensitive asshole. At that next campfire, Prompto asks if you want to see his photos from the day’s journey, and, for the first time, Noctis says no. No one jokes. No one speaks. Gone are the elaborate meals from the first half, replaced by prepackaged Cup Noodles, the Final Fantasy equivalent of RJ’s McDonald’s cheeseburgers.
After all this, Final Fantasy XV packs one final, brutal swerve. After a grueling battle with Luna’s brother, a general in the imperial army, Ardyn tricks Noctis alone into entering a magical crystal—a reoccurring and significant object in Final Fantasy lore. When he emerges, he awakes alone in a stone prison on a mysterious island. The camera zooms in on Noctis’ face, and he’s older now, bearded, forehead creased. The player sails back to the open world from the start of the game and discovers it in post-apocalyptic disrepair, swarming with high level monsters you can barely keep at bay on your own. Eventually, you’re rescued by a trucker who reveals himself to be a small boy you met earlier in your adventure. Ten years have passed since you entered the crystal. Ten years, and finally you will be reunited with your teenage friends who thought maybe you were dead.
The trucker calls Prompto and arranges a meeting, and this long, lonely drive to the garage in Hammerhead rendered me a shaking and sobbing mess. Wasn’t this exactly what I’d fantasized about so many times? RJ and Mike magically returned to the living—thirteen years after his funeral in RJ’s case. How bittersweet it would be to see their adult selves, to understand that their development hadn’t been cut short at 16 or 27, that they could experience the humble dignity of aging like the rest of us. I openly wept through Noctis’s reunion with his old friends, bore witness to the ways they’d changed, their ages written on their faces. I learned that, like my high school friends, they didn’t hang out much anymore. That time, responsibilities, and the shared weight of death had splintered them. I cried and could not believe a Final Fantasy game was making me cry.
In the end, it’s Noctis who sacrifices himself for the good of the group. Not sweet Prompto, strong-willed Gladio, or even wounded Ignis. It’s you, the player. Your friends know what you’re about to do, and before the climatic confrontation with Ardyn, Noctis asks Prompto if he can take one of his photos with him. The game shows you all the pictures you’ve selected over your journey, all those selfies, all those adventures, and the friends comment on the good times they shared just like my friends do when we look back at old Polaroids from high school, when RJ and Mike were still smiling and alive, when we had no earthly idea how much our lives were about to change. You pick the photo that matters to you most, and then you die, returning balance and light to the world. Your ten year quest is finally over.
And yet, Final Fantasy XV is not content to fully conclude there. After the bombast of the ending cinematics and credits, you’re treated to one final scene, a flashback to the campfire the night before Noctis’s death, mere hours after his reunion with his friends in Hammerhead. He clearly wants to tell them something, but the words are difficult, the message more so. He stares at his fists, balls them, starts and restarts. Tears rim his eyes and Prompto’s too, their faces lit by fire, and finally, he tells them, “I made my peace. Still, knowing this is it, and seeing you again now, it’s more than I can take.” He stands, looks them over, and says, “What can I say? You guys… are the best.” Then darkness. Final Fantasy XV is over. It’s one of the most humane moments in videogame history. It’s one of the most emotionally earned.
Like most RPGs, you can explore hidden dungeons and new, stronger bosses after finishing Final Fantasy XV’s main story. But unlike other installments in the series, XV doesn’t dump you back on the map and pretends that nothing’s changed. How could it when your main character is dead? Instead, XV punts you back to the final save point, and there, waiting for you, is Umbra, Luna’s magical time-travelling dog—look, it’s better not to ask questions about this part; chalk it up to anime weirdness. Talk to him, and he will send you back to the day before you set sail for Altissia, before Noctis’ death, before Luna’s, before Ignis lost his eyesight. He will return you to happier days, when you weren’t 30 and wounded by the weight of the world but carefree and 19, ready for whatever adventure waited round the next bend. He will send you back, and you can stay there for a while, exploring at your leisure, remembering the good times, long drives, fishing for bass, greasy burgers, pizza around the campfire. But you can’t outrun your destiny forever. Eventually, you will have to return to the present. You will have to face what happened to Ignis and Luna. You will die.
I don’t know if Final Fantasy XV is the game of the year or the greatest videogame of all time. It’s flawed. Its attempt to explore multi-layered teen male relationships comes at the cost of its four major female characters, Luna, Cidny, Iris and Aranea, who either die to motivate the male characters or are treated as minor accessories or insultingly one-dimensional sex objects. The larger narrative involving Ardyn and the empire is a muddled swamp that at best plays like a greatest hits of previous installments and at worst like a very clichéd, cut-and-paste JRPG affair.The mechanics and design turn loose in the endgame, and the camera is a constant battle throughout.
But its tender depiction of teenage boys and their complex relationships with each other and with death is an unbelievable miracle, one of the first truly human experiences in a medium and genre I love and have always loved. Final Fantasy XV may not be the greatest game of all time or even the best entry in the series, but it’s the videogame of my adult life. It does what all art should aspire to. It’s cathartic and transformative. I was healed after playing it, but it didn’t peddle false optimism or make me feel like I was burying my head in the sand. In a post-election landscape where I doubted the very value of populist art, Final Fantasy XV strengthened me and readied me for the long battle ahead against deception, cruelty and a total disregard for compassion. It has affected me in a very real and human way.
Last month, I flew back to Scranton with my wife for the holidays. I only see my high school friends maybe once every two years, but we reunited at Andy Gavin’s, the dive bar across the street from the local jail. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect walking in from the cold, but I knew this: we would toast RJ, we would toast Mike, we would discuss Final Fantasy XV and our shared experiences together.
That’s exactly what we did.
Salvatore Pane is the author of the novel Last Call in the City of Bridges in addition to Mega Man 3 from Boss Fight Books. His writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, Hobart, New South, and many other venues. He teaches English at the University of St. Thomas and can be reached at www.salvatore-pane.com or @salpane.