I’m 12 years old and sitting amid the white sands on a narrow, jagged stretch of beach. In front of me, blue water limns an infinite horizon. Behind me lies everything else, a dried-out, dead landscape seemingly devoid of other people. The world has already ended in a big bang, and all that’s left for me to do is gather fish for my sick grandfather’s dinner. The quest I had undertaken to save the world stopped abruptly after that disaster on the floating island; the villain had won, he blew everything up, the screen faded to black, and now I was marooned alongside an unwell old man and made to participate in a seemingly pointless fish-collecting exercise. Some fish were good and made grandfather feel better; others weren’t, and his condition appeared to worsen. Here I was at the end of the world, only it wasn’t the end of the world: one story was about to unfold, which would set aright a world gone wrong; and another, which would fill in all the gaps in that story, would be left to my imagination.
The story I’ve just outlined occurs in the middle of a video game I’ll always know as Final Fantasy III, but which was the sixth release in the Japanese series. The game I played was a translation, prepared by a guy named Ted Woolsey, that seemed sparse and esoteric and challenging, but was only apparently so. See, Woolsey had limited space on the cartridge to include the dialogue he was translating; re-releases of the game have expanded the English script but also compromised it, much as swapping the gorgeous 16-bit sprite art for flat, cartoonish images and high-definition backgrounds has forever decimated a landscape that would otherwise have remained intact until about 20 hours into the main plot, when the bad guys blew it up. But that forced economy of dialogue, those gaps in character backstories and exposition, stole my heart. I didn’t want this fantasy to be final; I wanted it to last forever.
Final Fantasy III’s main plot is simple enough. A thousand years after wars among magic users had reduced the planet to a smoldering ruin, the Gestahlian Empire rediscovered magical technology and began using to power its economy and its war machines. As the destructive power of this technology increased, people in imperiled regions teamed up to stop it. This resistance group, the “Returners,” caught a break when extremely powerful imperial agent Terra Branford is knocked unconscious in the caves behind a small industrial town after an attempt to acquire additional magical resources backfires. Branford awakened in the house of a resistance sympathizer, who removed the mind-control device that kept her bound to the Empire, eventually escaping with Locke Cole, an Indiana Jones-style thief, from the soldiers who had been sent to recover her. In classic quest style, Terra and Locke traveled from place to place, evading enemies while recruiting other good guys to launch a final assault on the Empire.
Unfortunately—and this was a first for me, as a consumer of fantasy literature—the heroes failed and the world actually was destroyed, leading to the game restarting on a beach seemingly in the middle of nowhere and leaving you there for a solid 30 minutes of playtime. Because Terra went missing in the disaster, the player is put in control of one of her allies, former imperial officer Celes Chere, who’s been left to care for her creator and “grandfather,” the dying scientist whose magical research had caused all of these problems.
That’s the summary, anyway. My attitude regarding this particular bit of nostalgia has, of course, been inflected by feelings of intense loss: you can’t really go home again, at least not to the old stories you used to own. I once lived inside Final Fantasy III, perhaps for thousands of hours after accounting for all the unshared fan fiction saved on the hard drive of my Compaq computer. I’d never written fanfiction before and never would again, but something about this narrative burrowed its way into my brain and ordered me to script my own prologues and epilogues. These bits of literary ephemera spawned their own prequels and sequels, leading me further down a rabbit hole of world-building that went much deeper than the sandbox that the designers at Square, the company that produced the game, had given us. I’m 35 now, as far away from 12 as my 12-year-old self was from my then-47-year-old mother, and yet I still long for a lost world that can’t be recovered—not today, not ever again.
The animator Hayao Miyazaki, writing in his memoir Starting Point: 1979-1996 about the conclusion of his sprawling, decade-long manga series Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, refused to see a mere ending as an end: “Ending a story doesn’t mean that everything has come to a conclusion... I ended [that] story at the same point as we are now, the starting point of an incomprehensible world.” Nausicaä, like Final Fantasy III, lacked finality. Only the main plotline was resolved; everything else was left hanging. The story was strangely similar: only a super-powerful girl, in this case Nausicaä, can stop two powerful empires from fighting one another and wreaking ecological disaster in the process. Over the course of a long, meandering quest, she succeeds, but the fates of the kingdoms she saves and the people she meets are left largely unresolved. Miyazaki just stops after a thousand pages, with Nausicaä left standing amid the wreckage of an ancient temple that had once contained the seeds of her world’s undoing. By then, most of her old enemies had seen the light and sacrificed themselves for her cause, even the leaders of the two feuding empires, but readers are deprived of an epilogue that informs us all’s well that ends well. Instead, Miyazaki withholds the happy assurance that most of us crave from escapist literature, the point when the author draws back the curtain and announces: friends, this will never happen again (and it certainly can’t happen here!).
In fact, as he explained in Starting Point, Miyazaki believed that not only had great destruction already taken place in our world, such catastrophes—like the two atomic bombings of Japan that occurred four years after his birth, bringing an end to World War II—could happen again. He wanted to give readers an opportunity to ponder that, to provide an opening through which they might perceive our shared world through the lens of Nausicaä’s.
But it wasn’t just that Final Fantasy III contained openings that allowed for further exploration. It also had to do with the nature of the video games I played, which had evolved considerably from the 8-bit Nintendo of the 1980s to the 16-bit Super Nintendo of the 1990s but were still in their infancy as storytelling vehicles. Planescape: Torment was five years away, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion even further off, Fallout 3 the stuff of another lifetime entirely. Games in 1994, particularly cartridge-based games, had small stories or no stories. Mario rode a dinosaur and chased coins; Sonic hustled after his rings; Street Fighter bore witness to two-dimensional street fighting. But Final Fantasy III was big, so much bigger than anything I had seen before: 14 playable characters, each with a backstory as twisting and open-ended as Yoshitaka Amano’s impressionistic concept art, and a huge world to explore... twice, because it gets blown to bits halfway through.
Prior to this, I wasn’t a kid who collected things, re-read books, or had favorite movies. Every leisure activity was one and done, a task to complete. Video games were no different. I played my way through the challenges, then took the cartridge or CD-ROM to Electronics Boutique and traded it for store credit. But that began to change: in 1993, I had played Final Fantasy II, the previous US release for the Super Nintendo, and gotten hung up on it. Instead of challenges, you could “level” the playable characters in a somewhat mindless way, winning one turn-based battle after another and thus making your final, world-beating party of heroes impossibly strong. In other words, your characters started on level 1, and with each fight, they edged closer to level 99, at which point they exercised godlike powers.
To level up, no button-mashing skill was required—fast-twitch reflexes were the sort of thing you needed for punching out Mike Tyson, not beating Final Fantasy II’s last boss, Zeromus—only a willingness to walk around, taking turns in pitched battles against randomly generated groups of monsters, slowly but surely becoming unbeatable. You didn’t have to do any particular thing exactly right, like jumping on a box a certain way or hitting buttons in a certain sequence; you merely had to devote many hours to fighting monsters, which you ended up doing with metronomic regularity as you wandered around the map. Since Final Fantasy II’s accompanying narrative wasn’t fleshed out and its translation was basically incomprehensible, I didn’t really care about the game—only the act of leveling, during which time I immersed myself in whatever story that leveling allowed me to tell. In other words, I could sit back and relax, putting the first-order part of my brain, the part actually playing the videogame, on autopilot while I amused myself with daydreams about the characters I was using.
Final Fantasy III offered much more: not merely a tabula rasa but a series of gorgeous character sketches left for me to ink and paint with my own embellishments. I had something to go on, unlike with the sui generis case studies I undertook of Final Fantasy II characters such as the wise sage Tellah and the Lunarian elder FuSoYa—both magnificently bearded and each quite adept at using magic, but with little else to go on. Admittedly, even Final Fantasy III’s improved dialogue was constrained by text boxes to such vague remarks as this game-ending line from madman Kefka, the primary antagonist: “Life...Dreams...Hope...Where do they come from? And where do they go?” Yes, it was clichéd, the sort of thing any Joker-style chaotic evil character might say at an opportune dramatic moment, but there was the hint of something deep there, something great and universal about which I could speculate endlessly.
And I suppose that’s how it works for every new story, as well as the ur-stories, the peasants’ tales and sailors’ yarns, from which they had sprung. Characters are archetypes that fast become stereotypes, and quests are essentially the same; ripeness is all. What distinguished Final Fantasy III was the fact that there were so many characters, resulting in a surfeit of side quests that obscured the main narrative thread. Sure, the planet was in danger from the exploitation of a long-buried magical power and the evil Gestahlian Empire was... well, doing something to increase that danger. But at its essence, Final Fantasy III concerned the chance interactions of a bunch of oddballs with troubled pasts—gambler who has lost it all, thief whose heart is stolen, assassin who kills to fill the gaping void in his soul—thrust into a world that crumbles beneath their feet, eventually separating them for an entire year amidst the ruins of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. As a pre-teen, I had plenty of time to meet these people on their terms, and everything that happened to them seemed exciting and new.
Theirs was an incomprehensible world to which I labored to make sensible, tangible, real to me. I spent hours triggering the assassin Shadow’s dream sequences, sleeping in as many beds as it took to learn that he was actually the father of a young girl named Relm, another playable character, with a talent for painting. But even that bit of knowledge—an Easter Egg at a time when such hidden novelties genuinely meant something, if only because they were not discoverable via a quick Google search—availed me nought, since the relationship was never acknowledged by either character and Shadow apparently decided to commit suicide when the final stage of the game collapsed around him.
Nearly every sub-quest concerned matters of the heart. Lost lovers, dead lovers, a lust for love, a reluctance to love... these were the principal motivations animating the decisions of Final Fantasy III’s heroes, along with a shared love for rehabilitating a world that they had already failed to save. Terra Branford, a half-human, half-Esper, was the game’s protagonist as well as the first female protagonist in any Final Fantasy game: she’d been raised in captivity and wanted desperately to know what the writer C.S. Lewis characterized as “the highest form of love, charity,” discovering it by chance when she began raising a group of orphans in an otherwise-abandoned city. General Celes, the deuteragonist initially portrayed as a heartless, ass-kicking “Magitek knight” who was “forged by the Empire and tempered in battle,” develops an erotic bond—the experience of being in love—with thief and outlaw Locke Cole, who wins her over by bantering with her in classic rom-com style. Others, such as womanizing king Edgar Figaro and noble Cyrano de Bergerac-style swordsman Cyan Garamonde, develop bonds of friendship. And the entire cast, forced together by fate, develop the kind of empathetic love for one another that so many ad hoc families do, shooting the breeze in a casual, friendly manner on the deck of an airship that ferries them around the world.
If there’s any single theme that distinguishes this game, otherwise loosely plotted and thinly written, it’s love emerging from loss. The haunting score by Nobuo Uematsu, best experienced today in piano form, alternates ragtime pastiches with wistful, minor-key melodies, imbuing the act of wandering around and fighting monsters in turn-based combat with a kind of darkness and sadness I had never experienced in a video game narrative. Zelda II: The Adventures of Link probably came close, with bleak pixelated visuals and a misery-inducing MIDI score, but I was too busy coping with the game’s insanely difficult dungeons to care much about its grim mise-en-scène.
That was it, I think: this was the first game I ever loved, and it was a game about love. I took to WordPerfect to extend these stories. How could I leave things, as Hayao Miyazaki had said of Nausicaä, at the “starting point of an incomprehensible world”? Echoing the villainous Kefka, I wanted to know where the characters’ dreams had come from and where they were going. So, for the first and only time in my life, I began to write my way into someone else’s universe. Page after page of Shadow’s backstory was poured out into a password-protected document on the family computer’s hard drive: I wrote the stories so that I could forget them, then re-read them later as if they were new novelizations I’d purchased from the indoor mall’s WaldenBooks. This was the fiction I craved, at least as a 12-year-old, as well as the fiction I couldn’t stop reading—but I was also forced to write it. In retrospect, that job of writing for myself was the best one I’ve ever had.
Then in early 1996, I stopped. I never played Final Fantasy III again, never wrote another word about it. The Compaq’s power supply had blown, so it was dead, off to the junkyard. I built a new computer to replace it, my first attempt at ever doing anything like that. High school proved a competitive and confusing time, and this central story of my pre-adolescence had no bearing on it. But it was an abrupt and confusing break. I had lived in this story; could I perhaps live in others? The answer was no. There would be more stories, more video games, but they all felt like work. Work was work; leisure was work. While I had been writing fan-fiction, other students—top students—had been reading the Great Books and steeling themselves for brighter tomorrows. Nothing could be the same, for the pace of life had accelerated. Few concepts lingered in my mind beyond the time it took me to become inured to them. I was running out the clock, stalling for precious minutes when I could, but it didn’t matter. The future had once seemed far beyond the horizon, but now it was history.
Yet the ghost of Oliver Bateman, like the ghosts that wander through a mystery train the heroes board during the first half of Final Fantasy III, has lingered behind. That ghost is the part of me that shrugged as Uematsu’s score played during the composition of this essay. “You can’t put your arms around a memory,” cautioned the singer Johnny Thunders, “[so] don’t try.” But I’m not sure that’s right. Final Fantasy III wasn’t a video game, but an actual landscape I’d inhabited. It had meant something to me, although I can’t quite remember why, and it’s a place I’ll always enjoy missing, even if I can never go there again. Memories of this old story are all I have, and somehow they’re enough.