Retrogamer: Killing the Man
Michael B. Tager
Nostalgia is the enemy of contentment. It’s the emotion that rips us from the present—from our lives—and reminds us that life used to be better. Maybe it was high school football; maybe it was that time in Seoul when you met the Italian barista; perhaps the nostalgia is dedicated to when your parents were alive. Whatever the case, nostalgia romanticizes a time that no longer exists and never will again. And that stings.
I spend an inordinate amount of time avoiding nostalgia. Maybe I’m alone in this. I suspect I’m not, but if so, it’s because I have a hard enough time enjoying the present. I don’t need to worry about how much I miss the past.
Typical mid-life crisis shit aside, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (FFTA) made me nostalgic in the best way imaginable.
When I was a child, I daydreamed about being special. I daydreamed about being Percy Jackson before that was a thing: I wanted to be a demi-god like Hercules or Perseus. Later, when I discovered X-Men and The Silver Surfer, I imagined realms where I was a mutant or flew through space. When I began to read fantasy novels, I daydreamed about being a prince, or maybe a ninja. It didn’t matter what, it was just that I was other than I am.
I’m not alone in this. This I know for sure.
As I aged, I was drawn to a classic trope in fiction: a child finds an item that is both ominous and compelling. Coraline opens a locked door and enters a mirror world; Alice falls down a rabbit hole into Wonderland; the Pevensie children utilize the magic of a wardrobe and find fauns, an eternal winter and a magical lion. We all know the stories.
I always wanted it to be me. And when I started playing video games, the dream didn’t go away—I merely projected them onto the game. The first story I ever wrote was a faithful, step-by-step piece of fan fiction based on Final Fantasy IV, except I wrote myself into the game.
This is not unusual in fan fiction.
As I aged, I didn’t stop projecting, I just consumed media intended for older people. Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is no different from little Alice. Neither is Thomas Covenant in Lord Foul’s Bane or Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Just because we age doesn’t mean we don’t have the same fantasies, the same desire to escape. Philip Jose Farmer went a step further and wrote himself into To Your Scattered Bodies Go; he just renamed himself. Stephen King named a character in his Dark Tower series … Stephen King. Who wrote The Dark Tower.
In other words, this is common. I’m not the only one who stopped wishing. I just stopped hoping it would happen, because I’m an adult and when I stop to think about it, I quite like my life. But when I was playing FFTA, I forgot about the end of hope. And that’s why I enjoyed it so much. It was a return to the purity of wish fulfillment. That it’s a good game by itself is almost a side note.
FFTA is a strategy role-playing game. The player controls a team of characters and deploys them on an isometric grid that’s basically a beautifully decorated chess board. The characters move from square to square and hit each other with swords, arrows, or magic. When they hit each other enough, they gain levels and grow stronger and learn skills to make themselves more powerful. From time to time, the player can recruit more people to their team. The mechanics are simple on the surface, deep underneath, and appeal to those who deem themselves strategic, who enjoy playing with stats and exploits.
It’s not a terribly difficult game. I received the Game Over screen three times over 50 hours, entirely due to carelessness. It’s not meant to be difficult; the goal is not to win, but to win with style and finesse. It’s a land where there is (virtually) no death, where the worst that normally happens is going to jail for a few days and where true death only happens in certain, designated places. The leveling system is meant to be complicated and complex (which it is and which we won’t talk about here) and it’s meant to be a story. And there it succeeds on a different level entirely.
FFTA begins with a snowball fight. Of course, because it’s a strategy game, the player controls the pieces on the board and launch icy missiles. It’s a cute and clever way to engage with the world and the characters—I was hooked from the jump. I named my avatar Dreyfuss and guided him through the battle and into the subsequent cut scene that explained everything and everyone we need to know.
The player character is the new kid; Mewt is bullied; Ritz is an outcast tomboy; Doned is handicapped and envious of his big brother. One of them finds a magic book and the next day, we’re in a fantasy land called Ivalice. Dreyfuss is suddenly a hero, part of a clan of adventurers that quests all over the land, both for glory and also to solve the mystery of why he’s there. He’s happy with the new world, happy to be accepted and to be a hero. I get that. I get that a lot. It’s the next part that befuddles me. That has always befuddled me.
Dreyfuss’s quest, after the world is established, is to get home. He wants to leave this world and return to the real world. It’s supposedly obvious that home is better than this magical land. It’s what Dorothy wanted to do the entire time when she was in Oz. When I was a child, that decision flummoxed the ever-loving flummox out of me. Why would anyone want to leave a world where they’re important, loved, respected, happy? Oz is dope. What’s this moralistic shit? Whose morals, anyway?
Arthur Dent and Richard Dreyfuss had the right idea. Get outta Dodge, man. And in the pilot episode of Futurama, that trope is happily turned on its head. For those who don’t know the premise, Futurama is a cartoon where the hero, an idiot of Falstaffian proportions, falls into a cryogenic container and sleeps for 1,000 years. He awakens in a (for all intents and purposes) magical future, where there is no death except in certain designated areas. Early on, he’s faced with the moment where he realizes everyone he’s ever known is dead; where everything he knows is gone; where every rule he follows no longer applies. What does he do? He cheers. Because he knows something that should be apparent: he was a failure in the past. Now, he has a chance. And does he spend his time looking to go home? Hell no.
FFTA plays out differently. Dreyfuss, while enjoying his sudden freedom and importance, starts wondering how to get home, and fighting to do so, by eliminating the magical crystals that keep the world of Ivalice together (and magic crystals solve everything in these games). He, of course, encounters his friends who are each enjoying this new realm, for different reasons. Doned is no longer wheel-chair bound. Mewt’s father is no longer a loser (!)—he’s a prince (!!)—and his mother is no longer dead (!!!).
Ritz… well, in this world, she doesn’t have to dye her hair. That’s something, I suppose.
The point is that his friends are all happy living in this world. They’re working, being productive and enjoying support for the first time in their lives. And Dreyfuss wants to mess it up.Why? What moral compass is this game going by? What’s so great about home?
My mother likes to tell a story to illustrate the difference between her sons. When my brother was little, he told her that she was welcome to join him when he went to the Army. It’s a cute thing kids say. But when a similar conversation arose, what I said was, “When I move out, you can come over to my house. Sometimes.”
In 2004 I joined Americorps for a year and moved to Denver. It wasn’t magical, but I discovered aspects of my personality that I didn’t know existed. That I could be productive, that I could have friends, that I could lead. Part of that was entering a situation I didn’t know and finding a place with different rules. And I enjoyed growing in ways that weren’t possible before I left.
I didn’t want to go back home at any point. Why would I want to? I missed my friends and family, of course, but not enough to want to go home. I loved them just as much as always; I just loved the new version of me more.
There’s a saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” It just means that no one can escape themselves. We bring our inner person wherever we go. If we’re happy one place, we’ll be happy another, if we’re miserable one place, we’re miserable another. But it doesn’t examine a different question: what if we find our inner self by leaving?
That’s the point of living, right? It’s not by staying near the hearth, basking in the glow of the familiar. If that was so, then staying at home and playing video games while watching network TV would be the ideal life.
There’s a central irony or meta-level of FFTA that I appreciated and that child-me would have also (he didn’t understood the words irony or meta, but he grasped the concept). One central tenet of video games—and entertainment as a broader ideal—is that of escapism. We play video games in order to escape. We play as a master soldier or a dungeon crawler or as godhead or even as other versions of ourselves (a la The Sims). What they all share, what all games share, is a conceit that we are better than the selves we wear as skin. Whether we’re playing plastic guitars or moving men on a battlefield like pretend Rommels or Hannibals or Stonewall Jacksons, we’re guided by the same principles of improvement and goals. Everything we lack in the real world. And here’s a game where the whole point is to return to the real world, away from the land of make-believe, back to where we aren’t exceptional.
While we’re doing this in FFTA, while we’re trying to escape back to normality and mediocrity and where no one knows your name, every person we care about is telling you to stay.
“No, Dreyfuss,” they might have as well have said. “It’s better here. Here we have a goal, we have a purpose, we are better than we are.”
For the cynic, it’s a dream come true. Cynics believe everyone is the worst, but they often forget to include themselves. No, in the world of Ivalice, you are the destroyer of worlds. You are the one tearing down happiness.
It’s brilliant. And deeply cynical and nihilistic. It’s the Alpha and the Omega of adulthood gloom. Which is all these wish-fulfillment stories are: stories to convince us that childhood is something meant to be locked up and turned away from.
It’s a false narrative I have never wanted part of. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (Corinthians 13-11). Even the Bible operates as propaganda to tell us our dreams and our fantasies are something we give up when we hit adulthood. It hits the same notes as The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and all those other stories that tell us to move on, nothing to see here, move along, leave your childhood behind as a rotting corpse.
Thank you, no. I’ll keep my childhood as a part of adult-me. Because they’re not mutually exclusive. Adulthood simply means the acceptance of responsibility. It doesn’t mean the abdication of dreams. Neverland and London can co-exist. And Ivalice doesn’t have to be destroyed for Dreyfuss to grow. Killing the boy so the man can live is the argument of straw men. Sometimes, we have to kill the man instead to let the boy breathe.
To take it back to the beginning, this is one of the few times where I was nostalgic and happy about it. Because child-Michael—the one who dreamed of magical adventure—knew that this glorification of home and the rejection of childhood was bullshit too. When he was finished reading Alice in Wonderland, he said, “That’s so stupid. She could have stayed.” And while playing FFTA, I for a moment, connected with the cynically hopefully child I used to be. It was like we were enjoying the adventure, questioning the thesis with raised eyebrows.
Since I was a kid, I’ve had the same recurring dream. I find a rabbit hole/magic book/door into another realm and step into a realm filled with wonder and remember, just as I begin my adventure, something I left behind. And I rush back to the real world to grab it—a book, my homework, whatever I’m anxious about that week—and when I return, I can’t get back through the gateway. I missed my chance.
I wish I had played Final Fantasy Tactics Advance as a child. I would have dreamed different dreams and hopefully, would have realized that I didn’t need whatever what was in the real world holding me back. I would step forward, without hesitation, come what may.