Dragon

Hear a raging storm, hear gale and thunderous wave, and then see it. Grey sea and spray and pelting rain, and there, amongst it, rocking and swirling, a small rickety boat with a single sail. Now watch a wave build and build and toss the boat as if it were a toy. A flash of thunder. See a hooded woman and child struggling to pilot the thrown boat. Another flash: note the anguish writ on the woman’s face. Black and cut to a waking princess: a silver crown of knots and jewels, a strapless ballgown. Rosegold light streams into her bedroom and now hear music for the first time, hear doves chirping, as the princess rises and pushes open a window. See a castle, its great walls and gates and four turrets, and further on the moat and canals, the packed-in townhouses with brick-red roofs and shuttered windows, the windmill and gushing waterfalls, the mist bubbling up from the gorge below, and see too the gigantic sword protruding heavenward from the centre of the castle. The music is building now, but the full orchestra is yet to play. The strings swoon and instantly drop, and then trumpets and drums suddenly sound. Now see another ship: an impressive galleon. A stone mermaid is perched on its prow, and the doves are sailing alongside it. See spinning propellers, see the wheel and levers in the bright windows above the deck. Watch the galleon fly astoundingly through cloud and sky and towards the castle as the music swells. And now be the boy with the monkey tail, sliding down the firepole inside the galleon. Listen to the groan of the airborne ship as you control him in a gloomy screen. Move and discover the stash of Gil stowed in the far corner, then pick the potion hidden on the opposite side. Now heed the ghostly prompt and light the candles in the middle of the room. Appreciate the slowly revealed background: the railing hooked with outfits, the dim portrait on the wall, the boxes and knickknacks stuffed on shelves and atop wardrobes, the rug beneath the boy’s ankle boots with the heart and the ornate lettering spelling out TANTALUS. Now be ready to rename the character correctly, be prepared to battle the dragon-man: the first boss.

*

Attack

Final Fantasy IX is the best RPG, the best video game ever. Its story is frantic and fun—it unfolds with a whimsical scheme to kidnap royalty and climaxes with you, the player, battling Death to save the world from annihilation—and yet it often slackens this headlong pace to linger on tinier character moments, quieter scenes of introspection. The world of Gaia, the world you are given to explore, is crammed with secrets and moody dungeons and treasure chests to kick open. The locations you visit on your adventure are wonderous and wondrously strange: a sprawling clock-like city, an upside-down castle, a religious sect atop a tree. The inhabitants are sometimes anthropomorphic, sometimes rotund Disneyesque figures, and always charming. The music is sublime: eerie at stages, and at other stages purring to your ears like a half-remembered lullaby. The eight main characters become your friends: they are defined by their fears while simultaneously appearing like cartoons. The monster design is kooky, the big bad dungeon bosses are threatening with just the right amount of quirks. The progression of your party’s fighting skills is immensely satisfying: from Fire charging to Fira, then to Firage, a Do-Re-Mi of magical spells. The baddie possesses menacing gravitas at the beginning, is sympathetic by the close. Each new screen you advance upon is baroquely detailed due to the pre-rendered backgrounds: from the lifeless blues of Terra’s walkways and its towering tree-like saucers to the architect’s study in the ravaged city of Burmecia with a candle flickering by the drawing board. Throughout FFIX, the stakes are kept excitingly high—you carry the fate of Gaia; you must confront murky questions of existence and purpose—and comically, splendidly low: will you please assist Quina in eating ninety-nine frogs so that they are bequeathed the legendary Gastro Fork?

*

Steal

A fat boy of nine creeps inside a garden shed. Watch as he checks over his shoulder once, twice, before crouching beside a heap of brooms and shovels and rakes in the corner. He rummages. He tests the weight of a broom and discards it, then pulls out a shovel, a twist of wrist, discards that too, and now he reaches for a sweeping brush. The boy stands, taking the handle with both hands, and swings it. Swings it again, faster. A floating wad of cobweb. Oxblood bristles. The fat boy needs to make sure that this stick isn’t cumbersome, that it is not splintery to grasp. Satisfied with his choice, the boy unhooks a saw from a nail on the wall and, like a doomsday beaver, scurries out of the shed, the saw and brush under one crooked arm. He hurries to the narrow strip of garden which—he has checked, he has confirmed—lays concealed from any nosy eyes in the kitchen window. His face is blushing. He drops the broom and checks over his shoulder, once. Twice. Now he grips the saw.

*

Skill

In theory, an RPG is a more thoughtful experience than your average video game. It is a genre built on wits and cunning and the comprehension of statistics. You can customise your characters to function how you prefer them to function. You are encouraged to plan and defuse rather than button-bash. It is not essential to outgun your adversary, but to outthink them.

In FFIX, this cerebral mediation occurs from the principle of turn-based combat and random encounters. Frequently, as you are scampering through whatever destination—be it across the distinct grain of the 3D overworld, or the glossy sheen of a pre-rendered background—you will hear a sudden suck of air, witness a whirlpool slurping down your screen, and you’ll be whisked to a stage and a battle against a skeleton, or a glum owl, or a small furious ram, or a zombie whale, or a multiple-tentacled demon called a Malboro…

A turn-based battle is a deferential dance, an adorably unrealistic representation of hand-to-hand combat. A typical fight: the chuck-a-chuck-a of guitar and the camera spinning to a closeup of your enemy—let’s say it’s the boar, Zaghnol—before a panning shot of the four characters you are using. A list of names appear at the bottom of the screen, animated bars start to chug from one end to the other. As soon as the time bar fills, a pyramid popping over the readied character, you guide a gloved hand along the four-stacked menu of command and select your wisest move: if controlling Vivi you’ll perhaps pick a spell; if John you might steal ore from the furry pockets of this tusked enemy. You make your choice, you press X, and you watch for the stilted animation to begin—watch Steiner hopping forward to slash at Zaghnol, or Eiko using her flute to summon a Phoenix to scorch this piggie. A number flashes—white means pain, lime-green means replenishment—and you repeat this process until the foe is vanquished: you wait for your bar to fill, you get hit, you attack or cure or use an item, and hopefully the trumpets of victory blare and your band will pose heroically for the swooping camera at the end.

In practice, during my first playthrough, I understood none of an RPG’s distinctive complexities. Zero skill was involved, zero reckoning with strategy or the nuances of spells beyond the rush of their cinematics. I didn’t match armours to garner add-ons that could nullify debilitating curses. I didn’t consider how the buff of a lowly dagger could be more useful than the blade higher in attack power. Instead, I kept the core party—because I liked those four characters the best—and I selected whatever helmet or robe sent my character’s stats shooting up. I pressed attack and watched my character bonk the heads of baddies. I presumed that blunt force would win out, and when it didn’t, when I was put on my arse by Kuja, or devastated by the security system in the Desert Palace, I would grind until my level was so high, my hit points so superior, that I could, once more, barrel tactlessly forward.

*

Summon

I wasn’t bullied for being fat. I felt the pressure of it, yes, felt a searing and judgemental gaze, imagined or otherwise, upon my repulsive body, but I was not routinely called a fatty, or jeered at for owning a pair of tits, or shoved about the yard. I was lucky: I was a decent-sized obstruction in goals and had high-ranking friends. There was only one moment of abuse that stands out. I was in third class and my gang were annoying a sixth-class boy nicknamed Peacock. It had been occurring irregularly over a couple of weeks—giddy, egged on by our older brothers, we would pester this unfortunate boy at big break by shouting insults—but then it escalated. I can’t recall what our taunting entailed—no doubt it was horrible, probably borne from prejudice about Peacock’s social class or, ironically, how he looked—but, of course, I remember when Peacock ultimately snapped back one afternoon. He swung for the loudest of us and connected and sent him tumbling, kicked out at another, and then he said to me: Fuck off, Fatty. Simple, brutal. I went cold and backed away to our share of the yard, head lowered, lip wobbling. For the rest of lunch, my group didn’t mention our comeuppance. The fella who was punched pretended he had not been punched. However, once home, I squealed to my older sister. I must have exaggerated and lied, I must have guessed she knew who Peacock was from town, and that weekend she ate the poor lad. She informed Peacock to stay well clear of her brother. I was playing Final Fantasy—honestly—when she arrived home and told me I won’t be bothered by him anymore.

*

Item

FFIX was released in 2001 for the PlayStation. It was SquareSoft’s final hurrah to that specifically grey console before crossing over to the future and PlayStation2. The game came in a blocky double-decker case (the heavy click to open each case and inside two shiny white discs atop one another; four in total). The cover image was plain and regal: holy-white apart from the runic-like lettering of the title with a mysterious crystal jammed in the middle.

*

Trance

I was addicted to the game in the weeks and months after purchase. I was suckered in by the scope, the characters, and I played till my eyeballs crisped. How hours fell in this trance. How ridiculous was my temper when I was instructed to switch it off. In bed, my head fried, I’d hear in rotating echoes the music of locales and characters from the game—the ragtime piano of Treno, the plucked strings of Steiner’s theme alongside his clanking chainmail. Soon I begged for the official guide, and would study it daily once received, delighting in reliving the game through text. I started to envision the video game world seeping over my drab real one: the thorns over the backwall of school were actually part of the Evil Forest; I surmised that one of my detested friends would be a rat from Burmecia, and wasn’t the girl I talked to not the spit of Princess Garnet? I would finish the game and take a few days off before once more climbing inside its tale of thieves and genocidal eidolons, into its gameplay loop of battling and levelling.

*

White Magic

The family had moved four times before we settled in Macroom, County Cork. I was eight and would receive FFIX about a year later. By then, I had changed school twice, had come to see friendship as a fleeting experience. I was a shy boy. In public, when not with family, I started to despise myself in abstract ways—it started with my weight but then it plunged deeper. The opening musical theme of FFIX—this pump-organ hum that you hear at the start menu—is entitled, ‘A Place to Call Home’. The overarching motif of the game is the quest for a home—figurative and literal—and the purpose such a place can provide: John is searching for his forgotten birthplace, signified by a blue light; Eiko is apparently the sole survivor of her tribe and wishes to belong to somewhere else. Even if these concerns skipped over my mind when I was an obtuse young buck, it must have affected me subconsciously, like sugary-sweet Calpol to quench a pain in your ear. It would have clicked.

*

Help

An RPG stands for role-playing-game. An offspring of dice-rolling adventures, it is a genre with particular emphasis on worldbuilding and character development and story. A novelistic video game, if you will.

Ok, so, in terms of geography, Gaia marries picturesque fantasy in its greenery and cutesy settlements with some gibberish sci-fi features: two moons, a tree funnelling the souls of another planet called Terra to replace the souls of Gaia. It is a medieval society: farmers and small shopkeepers and wealthy nobles. Health is administered through flasks of potions. Creatures of incomparable power—the eidolons—were summoned once upon a time by a tribe with horns poking from their foreheads. A crystal at the centre of the planet is the source of all living things. There are large rideable birds named Chocobos, helpful cats called Moogles, and a family of hippos who run a popular hotel.

Now bear with me: FFIX follows the cheeky but endearing John (he has a monkey’s tail, wears a sleeveless top with a dandy jabot, and his name might not be John in your own playthrough) as he arrives on a theatre ship to Alexandria to perform a play—but really, John alights to kidnap Princess Garnet (she is capable of summoning eidolons, she used to have a horn). Garnet, as it transpires, wants to be abducted so that she can find a way to stop her mother, the Queen—who isn’t Garnet’s real mother—from inciting war between the kingdoms ruling the continent. Garnet and John are pursued by the bumbling knight Steiner (no tail or horn), and, through his own clumsiness, a magician named Vivi (picture a pointy hat and underneath a black void with yellow eyes). As the plot becomes increasingly convoluted, as war indeed breaks out between the kingdoms, further characters join this foursome: the gluttonous Quina (clownlike with a floppy tongue), the imperturbable warrior Freya (rat with a spear), a six-year-old named Eiko (she can also summon eidolons, still has her horn), and the bounty hunter Amarant (human with teal skin). The main villain in all this is Kuja (he has a secret tail and is sort of the brother of John), whose motive advances from warmongering alongside the Queen so as to quicken the replacing of Gaia’s souls with that of his home planet Terra—oh yeah, which is John’s home planet, too—to simply wishing to obliterate all life once he learns his mortality is prearranged and approaching.

Are you still with me?

*

Black Magic

In writing about this video game, I am writing about me as a boy playing this video game, and in replaying FFIX today—which I am doing on the pretext of research—I am experiencing it as that boy once more. A video game as hardened memory. My adoration for FFIX ascends beyond the game’s strengths. It is about the safety and security that swells up when I periodically wonder if I should dip back into Gaia. In other words, it is now nostalgia. It is the exact rot that I associate with the legion of superhero flicks—a cultural item that is unsurprising and intellectually boring. I play FFIX because I don’t want to be challenged. I play FFIX because I want everything to be under my direct control. I play FFIX because I want to be a child—carefree, innocent, etc. It is a reactionary impulse. I should stop but I will not; I will continue to play it, year after year.

*

Focus

It was in fourth class in my all-boys school, when we turned ten and started to smell a little sour, that I became fat. Before then I was tubby, was breasted, was double chinned. But it wasn’t until girls transited from slight novelty into the essential variable within our equations for what we should do against what was considered lame and shitty, that I felt fat to the world. My weight was now public, intentional. I was an embarrassment not only to myself, but to my friends. I was a stink as we glared up at the girls’ school on our hike to the library. I was the reason why girls were unattainable to us. And on those rare times when we encountered girls, I could sense trouble, I could interpret my new troubling position: now I swayed between friend and useful target. If these girls were to speak to us, I was a ready-made punchline for my boys to fill space with. I was sure about this tacit betrayal because I was searching for a lad beneath me to use. I was just as traitorous.

*

Sword Art

In that unspyable slice of garden around the side of the house, I chopped the head off the stolen brush. Tossing the bristled end, I picked up the handle and slashed it left and right. The air whistled. I thumped the stick against the coal bunker, smiling at the drum of impact. I held it at one end and let the stick slide through my palms until I grasped it at its very centre. I twirled it then like a baton before bringing it to rest aside my hip as I pivoted into a samurai stance—left arm forward and fingers gesturing coolly for my enemy to come get some.

While I played like this, I was constantly checking for watchers in the windows, in the surrounding estate. I would throw the stick aside if I heard approaching footfall, or the backdoor, or tyres flinging gravel along our road. I would keep a football close by—an inconspicuous out. At some point, my Nana came to stay with us, and I recall coming to despise her—my beloved Nana!—because she enjoyed sitting by the sunlit window in the spare room. In this, she threatened to reveal my bizarre world. She would wave as I stamped about damning her soul, the stick stiff in my hand.

Obviously, I was nowhere near as discreet as I presumed. My father has a video of me thrashing my stick at no one. You can hear him whisper before he unlatches the window: ‘We’ll see now if he has his stick with him.’ A space was arranged in the shed where I could deposit my deadly arsenal, my parents would shout to check that I was alive in my patch of garden, my sister lumped me over the head with one of my secret sticks during an argument.

*

Sword Magic

So, what was I at with the headless brushes and brooms? It was quite innocent. It is mortifying. Simply: the numerous sticks I collected became a knight’s broadsword, a dragoon’s javelin, a thief’s dragger in my private theatre. It wasn’t so much imagination: rather they were those weapons to me then. How do I explain that? Prove it? I can’t. Once I picked up those sticks they were pronged and weighty and I was whatever hero in whatever current act of my drama. For those hours spent swinging my weapons, I would mutter the voices and narration for tales inspired by FFIX—I’d employ the same peaks and troughs of its plot, use its varied landscape—but with sprinklings of originality: I’d make up a new evil baddie, new backstories for those characters I thought were underdeveloped, new dungeons. No audience, but I was immersed in these performances. Like when playing the video game: I wasn’t me.

All these stories concluded in much the same fashion: the hero discovers love in the princess from Alexandria. After he has defeated the climactic boss, he pledges devotion to her for now and forever—the Ultima Weapon still in his hands— and this princess declares her own love for him. These romantic moments never rushed beyond the promise of an unbreakable bond, a cuddle. It was simple confirmation that one person loved the other person, and my story would end right there—to be started all over again the next day.

*

Jump

The triumph of hearing the ping that confirms you have levelled up. The excitement of seeing your HP jumping from 930 to 971 as the corner rolls from level 19 to 20. Can I explain this rapture properly, when all it really means is that I’m a little bit harder to kill, a little bit more powerful? How do I convey the buzz in studying the slightest increase in stats like Attack and Defence, Magic and Spirit? I suppose it is like scoring a goal: no words can do justice to the elation. So you must go do it: you must grind, have your character run in circles and fight the same crop of enemies again and again and again and again and again. Only then will you soar as I soar when the experience points drop and the level springs up.

*

Eat

The two emotions I associate with being fat are fear and shame.

The fear sprung from the knowledge that if I spoke out of line in a group, I could be, I would be, slapped back down into my lowly place. Without much thought on their part, without much malice, I could be made to feel ugly, pathetic, worthless—which is what I felt about myself. Everyone could do me. I could perform the greatest feat imaginable—saving a peno, throwing a rubber at the back of someone’s head in the middle of class—and still with one half-baked insult, I would be done.

The shame arose in trivial matters. In the dressing room, for example, I would panic over which jerseys were bundled inside the duffel bag: the newish ones, which were comfortable and baggy? Or the woollen jerseys, which were long-armed yet skin-tight, which made me look like a freak? And as a result of the trivial becoming degrading, shame came to slowly warp all public bouts of spontaneous joy—I could never fully experience happiness while surrounded by others, because it could scald as soon as it cheered.

Take Speech and Drama in school, a class I adored: the chance to act the maggot and be clapped at. Each year, there was a competition held in Cork, and on the day when we were due to sing and dance to the ‘Circle of Life’, I was informed I would be wearing an off-the-shoulder Lycra top with leopard print. (I still question what they were thinking in pushing such clothing: was it a sort of joke for the overseeing adults, the fat kid in Lycra?) The top clung to my body, highlighted the rolls along my stomach, built sacks out of my chest. In the bathroom, I cried while staring at the mirror, and once backstage in the theatre in Cork, I hid in a corner and hoped I’d be forgotten, that my space would be automatically filled by somebody else. When the bell sounded, when the teacher angrily told me to get ready pronto, I asked could I please not wear this top. For the first time in my life, I admitted aloud to the humiliation of my body—how excruciating it was to have this type of body. Before classmates dressed as animals and Tarzans, I pleaded, and I was told to cop on. This woman said: Will you hurry up and change.

*

Blue Magic

In my bedroom, I would practise John’s poses from cutscenes and in-game set pieces. I’d mimic his leave-it-to-me-chest-thump, his ready-for-a-brawl-squat. I’d even attempt to run like him: the OTT lope like a rocking horse. I had changed the name within the game to my own, and now I sought to adjust the real-life John to be more like FFIX’s superior version.

*

Flair

While I was pitching this essay, my editor remarked on a Final Fantasy title he himself had loved: Final Fantasy VII. VII is the loftier brother of IX. It is a darker RPG: the ‘princess’ in VII is impaled by a katana. The editor mentioned that his experience with FFVII had been more affecting than with any book he had encountered as a teenager. I hadn’t considered this notion or thought it could be a notion to consider—that a game could have a valuable impact on imagination and creativity—but it was strikingly true for me as well. I can remember only one book I read during the blurry run of five to eleven years old, but I recall every character beat that happened in FFIX, every little scene. The style I look for in books today, the very stuff I seek to replicate in my own work, can be traced back to FFIX and what it introduced me to: slightly off-humour, tiny character moments, perplexed protagonists, the concurrent High and Low.

More broadly, when I peel beyond narrative preferences, when I look truthfully at myself as a person, the game has had an undue impact on how I consider life. It is shameful to admit this, but a lot of my deliberate ‘philosophical’ outlook is derived from the John in FFIX, and his moral tagline: You don’t need a reason to help people. It is a simple credo, naïve—Barney the dinosaur probably pronounced similar in a song—but it is an attitude I cling to.

*

Change

We said good luck to Cork when I was twelve, moving to Galway to live with my grandparents. Over my last summer in Cork, without any dietary change, I lost a power of weight. It was never remarked upon at home; it didn’t feel like an accomplishment on my behalf, it just happened. So, when I arrived in Galway, I was no longer podgy, chubby, fat. While not skinny, I was not notably titted in my new school jumper, not figured for a goalie in the yard. As I went about in public, it didn’t seem as if strangers wanted to destroy me. I made new friends. I joined a football club as an outfield player.

My obsession with video games ebbed away around this point, too. I still bought a couple, but I stopped getting the magazines. Games were not considered cool in primary school nor in my secondary school, and to fit in, I suppressed all gaming knowledge beyond the latest FIFA and GTA—in the same way I would pretend to enjoy techno music for a stretch in my teens. I did try out the new Final Fantasy games and enjoyed X—John now had blonde-tipped hair—but never got on with the rest: the freedom and self-expression I had found in IX wasn’t present in the newer ones, mainly because voice-acting was dominant, character’s names were set in stone, and so your own imagination was less useful.

*

Throw

Occasionally, throughout my teens, I would throw up after a meal. Now and then, I would feel certain that I was becoming fat, fatter, and I’d find myself kneeling by a toilet with my head tipped forward and two fingers in my throat. I would gag and retch and vomit bile and chunks of food. The sudden slosh of this acidic mixture, the gasp for air between rounds. I’d repeat this action five to six times and once content with the amount of food discharged, I would wipe the slime from my mouth and the rim of the toilet, unstick wayward nuggets of food from the bowl. I’d flush then and flush once more for luck.

This expulsion wasn’t done regularly enough for me to think of it as a problem. I just would do it, as I said, now and then, because I didn’t want to be fat, get fatter, I didn’t want to experience being that John again.

*

Defend

Oh, FFIX is undeniably a slow game. And yes, the persistent random encounters become a pain. The battles themselves are often formulaic affairs—hit the attack button, wait for your turn, hit attack once more. The plot relies on the villain explaining his scheme to the camera while atop a dragon. The limitations of the hardware—how much the PlayStation could handle on screen, how many unique models it could process—are a further hurdle to traverse. Yes, Chocobo Hot and Cold is an arduous side quest. Fair enough, the dungeons are quite straightforward: the puzzles never exceptionally taxing. And on closer examination, FFIX is nowhere near as wonderfully expansive as you presume it to be—in fact, it is quite linear: the story shuttles you briskly along to point A to point B to a boss battle; repeat.

*

Escape

… is the purpose of Final Fantasy, the purpose of video games. To escape and explore a more interesting world. To escape and accomplish things I could not accomplish in real life. To escape and not be myself—or, better, to be somebody else.

In the years since my first lumbering playthrough, I have replayed FFIX an insane number of times. I have beaten it on the PlayStation2 and 3, the lappie, an iPhone after a day spent selling schoolbooks. I have perused the Final Fantasy Wiki into the wee small hours. I have read nonsensical theories that seek to fill FFIX plot holes, to enhance the lore. I listen to the game’s soundtrack when writing, while writing this essay. When I feel uncommonly sad, I search for my favourite cutscenes on YouTube—and while watching all thirty-nine minutes of the ending sequence, I still swoon like a lonely child when the princess leaps into John’s arms. I know the game off by heart—and when I suffer a memory lapse, I will pause and consult my guide. There is no challenge, I want no challenge. It is an automated experience. And yet, despite the many years, as soon as the theme music chimes, I’m no longer me. Instead, I am that better John, whose personality is charming and brash, whose actions are virtuous, who is skinny and likeable. There is glory when I step through the Ice Cavern and the entire world of Gaia opens up and out for me and my party of adventurers: the domed huts of the bucolic village of Dali in the distance, the lump of rock that is Observatory Mountain, the foggy valley far below and its deep and dark woods, the field of stippled green and olive that I must now traverse, the nooks and hollows that I must explore, the mightiest monsters that I must slay.