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Trash and Treasure: Final Fantasy XV (February 2018)

Trash & Treasure is a miscellany of monthly opinions on SFF, fandom and general geekness from Foz Meadows.

As a present to myself in this, my birthday month, I’m going to indulge in a shameless exploration of my many and complex Feelings about Final Fantasy XV. I wrote a little about its status in the Final Fantasy franchise and its accidental queerness last year, while I was still in the midst of my first playthrough, but found myself unable to manage a full recap once finished. This is because the ending to FFXV is profoundly emotionally compromising, something I was in no way prepared to deal with by the first half of the game – which is deliberate, and precisely why it works so well.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: let’s start at the beginning.

Warning: ABSOLUTE MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING OF THIS GAME.

Final Fantasy XV is a hot garbage mess and I love it to bits, though I probably wasn’t supposed to. As far as I can tell, the decision to make it the first FF game with an all-male party was originally meant to appeal to straight male gamers – or at the very least, to prioritise male bonding as a narrative device – which puts me squarely outside the target audience. But thanks to the many significant differences between how straight masculinity is performed in Japan vs America, the attempt to appeal to both groups at once resulted in a game which is, albeit accidentally, super queer. As an anecdotal case in point, I’m yet to meet a single straight dude who likes FFXV, which rejection stands in stark contrast to its popularity among my queer and female gamer friends. No, this isn’t me giving Square Enix props for queer representation, because it’s not like they did it on purpose: it’s just that, for me and others, FFXV is vastly more enjoyable when viewed as a successfully gay narrative instead of a badly straight one, and you’ll pry that interpretative lens from my cold, dead hands.

The game begins with our protagonist, Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum, recently betrothed to his childhood friend Princess Lunafreya, as he roadtrips to his wedding along with his three best buddies: Gladio Amicitia, his loyal shield and protector, armed with a big-ass sword; Ignis Scientia, who also drives and cooks, armed with throwing knives; and Prompto Argentum, who takes photographs and babbles, armed with guns. Here is what they look like (left to right: Ignis, Prompto, Notics, Gladio):

Their personalities can best be described as follows:

– Ignis: The closest thing in this friend group to a responsible adult and salty about it.
– Prompto: A hyperactive insecure puppy who cannot handle how pretty everyone is.
– Noctis: A sullen emo boy who’d rather talk to animals than people.
– Gladio: A good-natured bro with an allergy to shirts and a lot of repressed emotions.

By these powers combined, they are Team Disaster Gay: four uniquely useless but well-meaning bros let loose in a world on the brink of war, death and magical destruction. They catch fish, go camping, run innumerable errands for random people, and have increasingly meaningful fireside conversations about their feelings, all while driving a super cool car that’s totally better than everything else on the roads. Oh, and they fight monsters, and sometimes there’s a magical dog that not only carries letters between Lunafreya and Noctis, but also eventually lets you travel through time.

Yes, you read that right. There’s a magic time doge.

Here’s the thing about FFXV: in a startling contravention of established gaming logic, the sidequests are the game. Yes, the characters are caught up in world-altering events, and those events are super-relevant to the finale, but if all you do is play the main quest, the game is surprisingly short. All the major character development happens off grid, when your characters are off frolicking in the woods, playing video games (which, yes, is a thing that actually happens); going on dawn photography dates, planning a wedding, and generally hanging out. Which is, by their own respective admissions, why the straight dudes I know who’ve played it have all been disappointed: lacking any connection to the characters (who really, really fail at being Straight Bros, and especially Straight Bros Intended For Straight Bro Consumption), these players have never felt the impetus to invest in the sidequests, whose primary benefit – aside from helping you level up – is to better explore the friendships and group dynamics of the party. But without that vital investment in the characters, everything that happens past the narrative point of no return lacks the emotional impact to make FFXV meaningful.

And when I say the narrative point of no return, I do mean that literally. After spending the first half of the game on the Lucian continent, exploring the regions of Leide, Duscae and Cleigne, the party is finally able to set sale for Altissia, the capital city of the island nation of Accordo. On arriving there, a mysterious woman called Gentiana, who has helped Noctis and the others before, shows up at their hotel with the time doge, Umbra, and explains – in a way that makes very little contextual sense – that Umbra has the power to take Noctis and the others back a week or so into the past, so that they can revisit Lucia. It’s such an incongruous development that, on my first playthrough, I completely missed the in-game implications of such a feature: namely, that what happened next would change the game and its forward trajectory so comprehensively that you’d need the in-world excuse of time-travel to go back and complete any quests you’d left hanging until that point.

By design, the wider political and magical settings of FFXV are complex; so much so that there’s a supplemental movie and miniseries to help explain them. In-game, your primary focus is so tightly on Noctis and his friends that, even when you get earth-shattering political news – the death of Noctis’s father and the sacking of his home city, or the supposed death of his friend and fiancé, Lunafreya – it never quite feels connected to what you’re doing. Even when you’re going on quests to gather ancient royal weapons from various tombs, fighting the inhuman soldiers of the invading Nifleheim Empire and encountering ancient, elemental gods, the grand scale of events feels surreally detached from the day to day business of hanging out with your friends. Which is why any enjoyment of the game is so heavily dependent on whether you, as a player, feel attached to Noctis and his buddies: minus any affection for them, the ongoing dissonance between their preferred life of sidequests and the operatic main plot feels bizarre, instead of – as it otherwise is – a deliberate emotional setup to what happens later.

Left to his own devices, Noctis doesn’t want to be king. He really likes fishing – you can fish whenever you like, with multiple sidequests concerning the acquisition of better rods and the pursuit of bigger, wilier fish – and has a childish disdain for eating his vegetables. Gladio is meant to guide and protect Noctis, but most of the time, that fact is incidental compared to his love of posing for photos, eating cup noodles and flirting with Ignis. (And with occasional women, much to the disgust of Prompto and Noctis.) As the passage of time plays a big role in the game – powerful monsters come out at night, so you’re strongly advised to camp or find a hotel whenever the sun sets – evenings around the campfire are when all your EXP for the day gets processed. You’re encouraged to collect foodstuffs while out in the world map so that Ignis can cook new meals for you all, with each recipe conveying different temporary stat bonuses for the next day’s adventure. (“I’ve come up with a new recipe!” Ignis proclaims, whenever you collect new ingredients.) In addition to any shots you take on purpose, Prompto takes multiple pictures throughout the day, sometimes suggesting group shots at special locations. Then, when you all sit together at night, you can go through the snaps and decide which ones to keep, the characters offering verbal commentary on each shot.

When I first played the game, I kept up an active Twitter commentary of my experience. Here are some of my threads about it, which ought to give you a decent idea of just how ridiculous it is. I cannot overemphasise how joyful, how useless, how wonderfully absurd it is to fuck around in Lucia with your buddies as they roast the hell out of Noctis, camping and eating meals and fishing together, hunting cool monsters and making friends with obstreperous locals who genuinely don’t give a shit that Noctis is royalty, because he’s got a car and a sword and a lot of free time, which are all the necessary prerequisites for being an errand-boy in a rural area full of monsters.

And then Altissia happens.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this part of the game or describe it without major spoilers, which is why it’s so gutting: there’s a massive boss fight that destroys almost the entire city, Lunafreya is murdered for real while Noctis watches, and Ignis is permanently blinded during the battle. You’re shown the aftermath in cutscenes, where Noctis shuts down and refuses to deal with the fact that he needs to complete his big magic quest to save the world, because Luna is dead and nobody is willing to process the fact that Ignis’s sight isn’t coming back. It’s heavy and awkward and brutal, and suddenly you’ve got four best friends who are grieving and angry and can’t talk to each other.

Though the death of Lunafreya is tragic, the game situates her as a distant figure, which makes her loss feel less immediately impactful than the consequences of Ignis going blind. Up until this point, he’s been a cook, a driver, a knife-thrower – all skills that rely heavily on his vision. Gladio is sworn to serve Noctis, but his grief at what’s happened to Ignis is strong enough to fracture his loyalty. Despite knowing that Noctis has lost Luna, he’s so angry at Noctis giving up – which he views as a failure to appreciate Ignis’s sacrifice – that he can’t muster any comfort for him. (And not to harp on it, but this makes so much more emotional sense in context if you view Gladio and Ignis as romantic partners.)

It’s at this point that the party embarks on the Saddest Quest Ever. With Ignis using a cane to walk, you can’t run through the map without leaving him behind – and if you do that, Gladio pulls Noctis aside and chews him out. Neither can Ignis fight: he’s there in the battle, but all he does is flail his cane and fall over. It makes for slow and painful going, and when you camp for the night, for the first time in the whole game, nobody wants to view Prompto’s pictures, Gladio goes off to sit on his own, and with Ignis unable to see to cook, the only thing the party can eat is a tin of reheated beans. It’s emo enough to be just a little comic, but if you care for the characters, it’s also tragic, too, because they’re fighting and they’re hurt and oh god, why do I care, what the fuck is this game even doing?

And then, the next day, in the midst of a battle, Ignis figures out how to use his knowledge of magic-alchemy-whatever and monster weaknesses to develop a new fighting style: he yells about how he knows he’s not going to get better to stop the other three from tiptoeing around him, and somehow the four of you end up a little bit reconciled, albeit still in a fragile way.

But the game just keeps on getting sadder. Now travelling through new environments, all destroyed by the big bad empire and its evil magic, Noctis is bewitched into thinking Prompto is an enemy. He attacks his best friend and throws him from a moving train, and you have to keep going without him. With big fights becoming more and more frequent, the focus of the game narrows to something harrowing and survivalist. When the remaining party finally makes it all the way to Niflheim, the seat of the enemy, the whole place is under attack by monsters, and in the process of escaping certain death, the beloved car in which you’ve travelled since the start of the game – the car that belonged to Noctis’s now-dead father; the car you’ve upgraded and repaired and modified on your endless happy sidequests – is completely destroyed. Noctis is separated from Ignis and Gladio and thrust into danger alone, deprived of all help and weapons.

What follows is a tense, torturous jaunt through an enemy fortress to reclaim your friends, who’ve been captured and hurt. You find Prompto there, too, and for one brief moment, the four of you are reunited in battle. And then, as part of the fulfilment of his Grand Magical Destiny, Noctis gets taken aside by the ancient godly powers he’s been courting the whole game and blithely informed that only through his death can the ultimate evil be defeated; that he needs to train and prepare himself.

And then you jump forward in time ten years.

TEN YEARS. Because that’s how long Noctis spends in that otherworldly plane, learning how to defeat his enemy. Ten years in which Lucia, where you spent all that time sidequesting and adventuring with your friends, has fallen into a permanent night full of monsters and destruction. Travelling back to the coastal resort town where you used to take photos and fish near a flashy restaurant, you find it overrun with horrors, the building broken and ramshackle. After struggling up hills that used to be full of easy resources and basic enemies and which are now utterly dangerous, you’re rescued by a teenage boy who you last knew as a child. As he drives you down the broken roads you used to traverse in your long-gone car, he tells you that Prompto, Gladio and Ignis don’t really see each other that much anymore, because the world has gone to shit and they’ve been trying to hold it together in your absence, knowing that you – Noctis – would eventually come back to save them, but uncertain of when or how.

And then you see your friends again. All ten years older, all hardened by years apart.

Ignis has learned to live with his blindness, though he still moves slower than before. Everyone has new scars. The four of you join up again, travelling towards the wreck of the city where you all grew up, and because it’s a long journey, you stop for the night. You camp together like you used to do, and there’s a moment where the characters are nostalgic for what they used to have, for the possibility that maybe things can be like this again someday – and that’s when Noctis tells them he’s going to die.

So you go to the city to fight the big bad. There’s an opportunity at this point to use Umbra the Magic Time Doge and return to the world as it used to be, to finish quests there with your aged-up party, but I honestly couldn’t do it. By that point, I’d become too involved with the characters, which is often what happens when I truly love a video game: even knowing that the whole thing is fictional, that the options are designed to maximise gameplay opportunities, I get stuck in my own particular sense of loyalty to the emotional context, which here meant it didn’t feel right to take characters who were visibly ten years older back to a time period where they’d last been young, but where none of the NPCs would point out the contradiction. Which meant I had no choice but to go forwards into the final fight.

The big boss battle is dramatic, powerful, satisfying, staged in successive bouts. But right before the final confrontation, Noctis turns to Prompto, who’s still carrying all the photos he took ten years ago, and asks to see them one last time. Paused on this awful threshold, you revisit the story of these guys and their friendship, looking at all the pictures taken before their world fell apart – and Ignis, blind, is standing there, unable to see, listening to the others reminisce – as the game asks you to select one picture for Noctis to carry with him into battle.

You do this, and Noctis goes in, and he fights the big bad. He vanquishes the enemy and saves the world from darkness.

And he dies.

And then, in the cut-scenes that follow, you see the ghost of Noctis in the afterlife with Lunafreya, his single chosen photo carried with him into death, while his living friends watch a new sun rise from their campsite, three chairs occupied and a fourth left forever empty.

There are other callbacks to earlier scenes and adventures here, too, presented as the credits roll, and I’m not ashamed to say that the combination left me in tears. Because this game, this fucking garbage game with its weird emo boys killing monsters in club gear, stopping to pick garlic and carrots and take selfies with cool rock formations; this dumb queer Blidungsroman roadtrip with its mishmash worldbuilding, irreverent dialogue and endless fishing quests is simultaneously one of the most heartbreaking games I’ve ever played. But that heartbreak only comes if you first invest in the silliness of everything that comes before Altissia: the pain of loss, of finally feeling the weight and significance of the bigger events you spend so long ignoring, is only felt if you actually care about the characters, their feelings and their friendship. It’s a game I suspect I’ll replay many times in the future, but only seldom through to the end, because it hurts too much. All these months later, I still can’t decide if the whole thing is madness or genius, but either way, it certainly made an impression.

And that is how I feel about Final Fantasy XV.

3 Comments

  • Trash and Treasure: Final Fantasy XV (February 2018) – Headlines
    February 28, 2018 at 9:58 am

    […] post Trash and Treasure: Final Fantasy XV (February 2018) appeared first on The Book […]

  • Raney Simmon
    February 28, 2018 at 3:51 pm

    I’ve never played it myself, but it definitely sounds like an emotional game, that’s for sure.

  • Paul
    June 13, 2018 at 4:11 pm

    I had no very little expectation going into this game. The last one I played was 12.
    The first half of this game was a 8/10.
    The second half was a 4/10.

    Im rounding up. They had 90% ofd this game done then didnt fill in the details that make it a world. They filled it in poorly for the most part and its really dissapointing. It was enjoyable, but there is always in the background a question why they made it so shallow after working so hard on developing it visually. Soundtrack was fantastic. Magic was a shitshow, fighting was interesting but items were mostly poitnless. AP system was not terrible but could have been better. Fights took no skill as long as you had time, hi-potions and pheonic downs you were immortal. ENjoying this game or not is not the point. This was supposed to be Final Fantasy enjoying it wasnt ever the question, it was the experience on the way that this was supposed to tell and it did so poorly. Skyrim had more depth and i didnt really like that game so much, but it was more coherent and put-together. Cindy was pointless. Why am I gathering vegatables for a vendor if they lead to absolutly nothing in the story. This isnt an MMO what was that bs? DOnt even get me started on chapter 13. Some people are easily entertained but this is inexcusable.

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