The majority of my patchwork highschool crew joined the Navy after graduation. Each of them, from my oldest Street Fighter II rival through later compatriots in the chaos of pre-adulthood, independently reached this decision for the gamut of usual reasons many end up serving. Before then we bickered and pontificated, agreed on a few key cultural touchstones, and mostly collaborated on artistic juvenalia and supported each other’s wild theories and philosophical schemes, filling the cracks in every late-night diner in a fifty square radius. Eventually we meandered on separate paths, and while I still keep in contact with a couple, most have drifted away or explicitly cut themselves off from their teenage buddies, going incognito and evaporating out into the world.
Losing that group was profoundly distressing. So much of my identity was tied to these friends, though at the same time we were quite different. I asked my Vietnam veteran father if he thought I should consider joining the Navy, and he politely smiled and said “I don’t think the military is the place for you.” He was right, unsurprisingly, and when these friends came back on occasional leave or after most of them declined to reenlist, our differences were much more stark. Time, that blink of molasses, cracked what seemed to be an unassailable bond. To see such a friendship reflected in Final Fantasy XV affected me much more deeply than I expected. I was glad to read a glimmer of positive male bonding, something that was an honest blessing in my turbulent cross into adulthood, in a videogame.
This should have been a walking simulator about building healthy relationships between men with an occasionally enjoyable (if thin by genre standards) JRPG crashing in. An attempt as stripping an M and the O out of massive multiplayer online RPGs, where other Final Fantasy games often overstuffed the cast and crew Final Fantasy XV attempts to tell a macro story through a micro lens. There are cutscenes of major events in the news or heard through the grapevine from barely established side characters while our boys in black carouse through a beautifully detailed diorama of a world, the camera almost always trained on the four of them exclusively. This isn’t exactly a slight, I appreciated cruising through the vistas, tourist traps, and affectionately rendered pseudo-national parks. It’s watery in the worst ways that open worlds often are, with plenty of icons and out-of-place elements to drag your team across rather than naturally stumble on, having you spend a lot of glance-time pointed up a the minimap. But I forgive all of that, because for the most part I felt the road trip vibes hard.
The sense that the road is what carries you between destinations is what XV embodied, not that every peak and crevasse was my playground but that I could appreciate the vastness of my surroundings as a traveller. I was here to tool around with my homies, and this game delivers that chill thrill for about 75% of its playtime. Each of the four party members has a subtle but distinct class relationship to each other, with the main player character Noctis as the exiled royal son and his three companions never grousing about their assigned duties to the crown. In this main game at least, the three companions rarely ever interrogate their place in this royal world, what part of life they’re giving up so that the vaunted crown may benevolently reign infinitely. I wish there was more to this, but I’m still engrossed by the tiny scenes around the campfire meals, dudes cracking smart while I’m trying to get my angler on, cheering and roasting each other through battles—it’s hard to argue that there’s a lot of on-screen character growth for this gang but I felt their camaraderie, and it struck familiar beats in me.
When the player eventually capitulates to the needs of the narrative things begin to barrel along, and after a particular mission your group is emotionally frayed. is shaken to his core at the refrigerating of his bride-to-be Luna, one of his teammates driven blind while defending a strange city, and the biggest bodyguard turns to misplaced tough talk. Throughout the travels you are given many chances to have small scenes of growth with your buddies, so when they are later lost, beaten down, ground up by the enormity of the task before you, it was that much more wrenching. I did not want to see my friends suffer, and this seemed like the first Final Fantasy to at least attempt some intra-party bonding through something more than mere proximity.
When the band is eventually reunited, it’s bittersweet. A lot of time has been lost, things changed, we grew apart, as to be expected. And while Final Fantasy XV seemed to rush through this to the end, having your best friends and bodyguards glad to see Noctis finally step up to the curse of the crown and sacrifice himself to the save the world, I was almost let down. While the team grew close throughout the game, it’s rare to see men express platonic love or affection, and here was another team stepping up with stoic resolve to save the world. It was sweet to go through all our photos, hearing their comments one last time as I had Noct choose one final piece to carry with him into the beyond, but while I could feel it between the four of them in this game, I wanted something concrete. By the time the final chain of bosses was struck down I was sure I’d been let down.
But I was given one last campfire scene, where Noct struggles to verbalize his love for his three lifelong friends, and they all finally let tears of familial bonding flow. They had always stood by him and each other, snapping on occasion, with plenty of good-natured ribbing, but for the most part supported each other and demanded the best without getting petty or aggressive. Final Fantasy XV does a lot wrong with over-hungry eyes for gameplay and a weird fetishization of Cindy at the core of an overall distressing lack of positive female representation. But the main party was a refreshingly drawn group of friends invested in their shared goals and distinct interests like photography or cooking, imposter syndromes and charming vanities, interacting as a team with well-wrought dialogues and narrative exchanges for nearly 40 hours, a representation of positive male friendship that is hardly reflected in any media, let alone videogames. I teared up with the boys as we reflected on the photographs of our journey, before the Navy, life, or dynastic curses scattered us all on our respective destinies.