A popular adage of love is the cliche that you would die for someone. You’d offer your flesh to a speeding bullet. You’d jump in front of a barreling train and push them out of its path. Love is pain. Risking death to protect it is a selfless and affirming sacrifice. One time I’ve felt this in a visceral way was at the top of a snowy mountain in December 2001.
I hiked to the mountain’s peak with my closest friends. The bends in the path were treacherous, and blistering cold smacked our faces each step of the way. Just before the apex, we ran into a feared and respected leader of an oppressive religion in the area. Warped by his power-hungry devotion to the backward faith, he lectured us about his demented worldview. Then, he attacked us. With a replenished stock of curatives and a history of failures, my goals were clear. Risk death and protect my friends. Vanquish evil. Everything else faded, and I was acutely focused on trying, for what felt like the 100th time, to defeat Seymour Guado at the top of Mount Gagazet in Final Fantasy 10.
Final Fantasy 10’s gameplay is exciting and strategic, but beyond the challenging boss battles and dungeons, what lies at the core of the game — and nearly every game in the celebrated series — is the explication of what it means to be a friend, and what you’re willing to risk for people you care about. I absorbed a lot from these games. They were like a vision of what my own relationships might be like. There would be no conquering fiends or near-death sacrifice. But there would be, I hoped, much dedication and love.
Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the Final Fantasy series, was driven by some of these concepts. “This probably goes for the games I make in the future as well as the past, but the process I take when making a game, I first think of the characters and the story and the world, and the various emotions that the player will be experiencing — things like despair, defeat, and hope,” he recently said in a Glixel interview.
There would be no conquering fiends or near-death sacrifice. But there would be, I hoped, much dedication and love.
To talk about friendship in Final Fantasy, you have to understand how the games work. The framework is simple. You start off as a central character (usually some emo ne’er-do-well) and there’s an immediate threat to the world: a massive electricity corporation with a dangerous monopoly over the planet’s energy and military; a ruthless empire collecting ancient magical energy in its quest for dominance; an immortal flying beast that resurrects every so often to purge the population. As you journey to defeat these evils, you’re joined by pals who fall into some recurring categories: the quiet black mage, the aloof thief, the docile healer, the terse strongman. And away you go.
Growing up in New York City was an adventure of its own for me. I changed schools several times as my mom and I moved around the city, looking for a formula that worked for us. I went from Christian school, to public school, to a different Christian school, and again to another public school. Each move felt like a reset. The friends I came close to making would soon be boroughs away — which might as well have been oceans. I gave up on trying, retreated into myself and my bedroom, and imagined that I was being prepared for a life where my companions and my monsters were more tangible and in reach.
While my world had few constants, the Final Fantasy worlds I transported myself to were a refuge. I took comfort in the little details: like how almost every game had a character named Cid, who’s often a mechanic or engineer. Cid became an entity I looked forward to meeting in each game I explored, an old friend. His role in the games is usually to help your team travel (in several titles, he hooks you up with an airship to move around faster). When he appeared, though each time a different person, I felt something I wasn’t used to — familiarity. In the real world, I had no airship to guide me across the skies, but I had an MTA city bus to bring me home to a virtual one.
The Final Fantasy games reject the notion that victory is attained solely through one’s self. They’re instead deeply rooted in the idea that to advance, to achieve, and to succeed you need the help of others. Taking cues from anime, the series’ most touching scenes are like mini soap operas between lovers and comrades. The emotional timbre of the games waxes melodramatic as the stakes rise. Characters gaze off into the distance and profess the depth of their connection. They get into arguments. They make up and commit to being there for each other. And it's all underscored by the tension of the world potentially coming to an end.
You also see nods to the power of a strong bond in the minutiae of the actual gameplay. In Final Fantasy 15, the latest installment of the franchise, if you fall in real-time combat another member of your party might come to your rescue and revive you. One of the characters, Prompto, takes portraits, selfies, and mid-combat action shots of the four heroes throughout their journey. Final Fantasy 10 has an item called a “friend sphere,” which lets characters attain skills that other members of your party have already mastered.
Some of the games even have hidden affection mechanics that are altered by how you respond during in-game dialogue. These can change the outcome of cutscenes or factor into which characters perform combo attacks in battle. For instance, if you have a high affection level between Final Fantasy 7’s main character Cloud and his childhood friend Tifa, it’ll trigger a slightly more heartfelt version of a scene between the two at a crucial moment in the game. In another part of the story, affection level determines who joins Cloud in a dating sequence.
After beating FF7 for the first time at around 8 years old, I bought a massive game guide that detailed all the dungeons, treasures, and scene outcomes. It was my holy text. I replayed the game over with the guide at my side, methodically turning every page and following every instruction, just for glimpses of deviation in the storyline. How could I stretch my party to its limit? Was there another team combo attack that I missed? I cherished Final Fantasy for its longevity and expansiveness (some of the games clock in at well over 100 hours of gameplay). I never wanted to say goodbye, and I didn't want another restart.
Ahead of Final Fantasy 15’s November release, I replayed FF10 — almost exactly 15 years since I played it that winter of 2001. I also revisited a few hours of FF6, 7, and 9. Playing them now reminded me of how much I wanted a group of friends like the brave teams I had grown to love, how difficult that was through all the moves and the change, and how important the connections in my adult life are to me now. The games represent an interesting way to view relationships and aren’t too far from how friendships work in real life: Actions have long- and short-term consequences, people you invest in are the ones who are more likely to join you when you need them, and sometimes no matter how much you dislike someone, you have to suck it up to fend off a demon toad trying to devour your soul.