The first screenshots of FF15 came out years ago and I was disappointed from the get-go. I knew turn-based combat was a relic and I wasn’t going to hold its lack of that against it, but the main characters looked, basically, like a boy band. Four teenage boys, all dressed in identical black, strutting around like peacocks when they weren’t driving a car around.
Wait—a car?? Where were the chocobos? If I wanted to drive a car I could play GTA.
The atmosphere was an immediate turnoff for me, and the later screenshots of Cindy, the pornstar mechanic, only made it worse. The death of my love for Final Fantasy had been a long time coming, but I figured it had finally arrived. FF15 was the first main series FF game I could remember that I had no plans to buy at launch.
When the demo came out, it only cemented this resolution. I found it to be pretty, but uninspired, the combat a weak derivative of a thousand other action games that had done it better and an overall feeling reminiscent of Kingdom Hearts, a game of which I’d never been a particular fan. Launch day came and went, and I stuck to my guns.
A friend of mine picked it up, though, and told me a bit about it. He actually enjoyed the combat and found the game interesting enough. And I read a few reviews that said the driving experience was persuasive in its own way and that it could even be fun to turn on the car and choose “auto” to have one of your party members drive it instead of you. What? What is fun about that? I was perplexed and suspicious, but also intrigued.
Then the price dropped to $35 for a day or two just before the holidays, and I caved. I bought the game on disk and left it sitting on top of my PS4 until last week.
Now, I’m only three hours in, but so far, and I can’t believe I’m saying this—
I love Final Fantasy 15.
What? What about the dudebros? The lack of female characters, except for the one with her tits hanging out all the time? What about the car that drives itself? What happened?
Well . . . turns out, this is a case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.
Let me get this out of the way first: I’m still disgusted with the presentation of Cindy. Particularly as the only female character in (at least the first three hours of) the game, forcing her to wander around in Daisy-Dukes and a permanently-open blouse with her pink bra on display strikes me as irresponsible at best, and a clear indication that the game designers think of women solely as sex objects at worst. I’ve heard people say, “Come on, she doesn’t look like a porn star,” and I’m here to tell you, yes she does. When your television displays a woman walking into public with her shirt wide open, showing off a barely functional bra, you are watching a porn. That is pretty much the definition of porn. I don’t have an excuse for her, and her presence in the game makes me hesitant to play FF15 at all with my children in the room. If there were more of that sort of thing, or if Cindy were a more central character, or if she were the only noteworthy element of the game, I’d never turn it back on.
Thankfully, none of those things are true. The central focus of the game is the four Dudebros: Noctis, Prompto, Ignis, and Gladiolus. And I’ll admit this, too: I was a little embarrassed to be playing those Dudebros at first. I have never been half as cool as the nerdiest of these guys. They are trying so hard. On the status screen they pose, carefully holding their chin just so or angling their shoulders into a certain easy lean. We can debate whether they’re actually cool, but they clearly believe they are cool—or at least, they believe it’s vitally important to be perceived as cool. These guys strut constantly. Every word they utter is carefully calibrated to radiate confident nonchalance. They dress and speak and pose like each other, not because they’re cookie cutouts of one another, but because they’re friends, and friends who want to be cool are known to do that.
And that’s the thing I didn’t see coming: these guys grow on you.
Final Fantasy 15 is not just any epic adventure. It is that greatest of epic adventures: a road trip. A bunch of guys, close friends, who are comfortable in their own skins and have an established camaraderie, hopping in the car and driving. They have a destination in mind, sure, but they’re in no hurry to get there, and along the way, wherever they lay their head is home.
But, look, I’m not doing it justice. It still sounds like it’s just a setting, but that’s not it. This road trip—at least thus far—is not what the game’s about, it’s what the game is. I am on this road trip, and the other characters—two-dimensional stereotypes though they may be—are on it with me. The best part of a good road trip is the company, and the FF15 designers knew this. You are thrown on this journey with three friends: a nerd, a jock, and a spaz. They react to each other and to you. You’re the prince of their kingdom, but as a player you immediately get the sense that because these guys are your friends, they don’t let you skate on that. They give you shit for screwing up. They rib and tease each other. They tell you to take your jacket off when you whine about it being hot. They call for you to stop because they’re hungry, or exclaim how awesome the shop is when they go inside. One of them cooks dinner every night, and everyone else fully understands that if he weren’t along, they would all most likely starve. (I have a theory that preparing and serving food to another human being is one of the simplest, most earnest expressions of love we have, and when Ignis gives me dinner, man, I feel it.)
You would think adding random monster combats to this formula would break suspension of disbelief, but amazingly, it actually enhances the feeling of camaraderie. The characters shout to each other by name in combat to cover each other or take advantage of an opening. Now, we’ve all seen that before, but there’s something special here, something that takes it to the next level. For once—finally—the AI characters in my party don’t just feel like window dressing. I never wish they weren’t there because they’re only getting in the way. I’m grateful for them. They belong there. They deal real damage in combat, even killing monsters before I can get to them. They heal me when I go down, expressing authentic, teenage-male concern for my well-being: gruff but sincere. They make me want to answer, aloud, alone in my living room: “Nah, I’m fine, man, it’s all right.”
Square has done such a great job with these characters, with this sense of immersion, that I can honestly say this is the first video game I’ve ever played that I would truly qualify as a “role-playing game”. No, I wasn’t allowed any input on what that role would be or how it would look, but that is exactly why it works. The experience is immersive and well-conceived, but most importantly, it’s persuasive. I don’t want to
play the game again because I want more XP. I want to play the game again because I want to be there, on that road trip, with those guys. I want to lounge in the car while a friend has the wheel, fiddling with the music until I discover with joy that I can play the soundtrack to the first Final Fantasy game (!). And not only that, but for the first time in my life, I’m in a car full of guy friends who dig that music as much as I do!
Taken in this context, I can forgive and even sympathize with the decision to not include a female character in the main group. These are high school guys on a road trip. I get it. I’ve been there. And while I still wish Cindy had been presented differently, her state of undress makes it that much more vital and appreciated that the Dudebros never talk about her disrespectfully. They talk about her when she’s not there, yes—but there is none of Trump’s “locker room talk” here. She’s hot, and one of the characters wants to come back to try and impress her. He plans to do this by getting his own car. His fellow Dudebros support this. There’s no vocal misogyny, no “I’d like to tap that” (though I’m sure they all would), no commenting on her tits or her bra size. Coming out of a game that included a pornstar mechanic in the first place, this development left me surprised and deeply pleased. I only hope that this attitude persists throughout the game.
So yes, FF15 has surpassed my expectations. So far, it’s a great game. I want to play it some more.
But it’s more than that. This is a huge claim, and I don’t make it lightly, but I think FF15 might be the herald of an entirely new gaming style.
When I play FF15 and consider the VR headset sitting next to my TV, I imagine the two of them melding. Imagine taking that road trip in VR. Imagine a future where you don’t just play a game, you have an experience.
Yes, I was never as cool as Noctis. But maybe that’s the whole point.
Who among us doesn’t wish they’d spent a few years in their twenties backpacking across Europe, or just jumping in the car with a gang of friends to see where the road leads? Who doesn’t miss that easy, nonchalant thrill of finding a place to stay for the night and making it your own, of watching your friends go in and casually inspect the place?
Look, I’m in the twilight months of my thirties. I’ve got two kids. My days of road-tripping with friends are behind me. But how cool is it that I can fire up my PS4 at night, and sample that experience?
Imagine this trend catching on. Imagine new games that maybe even do away entirely with the status bars and the number crunching, and simply place you in the Apollo 11 just before liftoff, or let you roleplay a first day on the job or a first date(!). A melding of television and video games with a heavy smattering of the classic RPG ideal thrown in, an entirely new form of entertainment.
Final Fantasy 15 isn’t that experience, not yet. But I love what it gets right.
And who knows? With any luck, maybe Final Fantasy 20 will be.