The Backlog (7): Road Trip

Freedom, friends, and points of no return in Final Fantasy XV

Story and gameplay spoilers for Final Fantasy XV

There’re wearing too many layers for being at the beach (FFXV/Square Enix)

44 hours, 28 minutes, and 49 seconds. That’s how long I played Final Fantasy XV before I finally sailed to the second continent.

I’d already hit the recommended level for the final boss and turned off XP collection. I’d taken hundreds of photos, trekked thousands of miles, and upgraded the Regalia as much as I could manage. It’s insane to me, sometimes, that a game where I spend a significant amount of time watching an AI babysitter drive me to my next destination, is one of my favourite games of all time. I’m cheating, by counting it in my backlog; I’ve definitely played it more than almost anything else I own.

The thing is, though, I don’t think I’ve deleted Final Fantasy XV off my PC for a really long time. I don’t have a ton of storage, and I generally rotate bigger ones out to be able to play other things. Final Fantasy XV is 105.14 GB on my computer. That’s a 10th of that hard drive, dedicated to a game that basically serves as a surrogate road trip.

I love it so much.

Hey, does that cloud look like a dragon to you? (Final Fantasy XV/Square Enix)

I knew way in advance of Final Fantasy XV heading to PC that I wanted it. It twanged a bunch of my heartstrings, with its friends and star-crossed romance and driving. I love driving (which makes me a bad member of my generation since I can’t afford an electric car and as such guzzle gas in a Ford Focus that feels like its constantly shivering). Driving lets you be alone, blasting music or absorbing podcasts; it lets me feel like I’m exploring, taking in the scenery as I drive through the outskirts of my hometown. It’s fanciful, I know, but Final Fantasy XV scratches that itch like no other game I’ve played. That’s part of the beauty of its auto-drive mode, because you get the travel, exploration, and scenery without worrying about steering. One of my favourite things to do is just cinematically spin the camera as the car drives over one of the games elevated highways. The driving itself is kind of clunky, giving your convertible a sense of weight and momentum that feels real but not designed for pure bliss as a player. It’s got the weight of the Batmobile in Batman: Arkham City, but without its speed, weapons, and your own ability to launch into the sky at any given moment. It forces you to take travel at a very specific pace, one which isn’t so slow it always feels like a waste, but is slow enough you feel like you actually travelled. For the solo road-tripper, it’s almost meditative.

Dancing King, feel the beat of the tambourine, oh yeah (FFXV/Square Enix)

Even that, however, has limits. The thing that elevates Final Fantasy XV’s long drives are your companions. As Prince Noctis, you bring your tutor Ignis, bodyguard Gladiolus (Gladio, for short), and best friend Prompto along for the ride. It’s Prompto that brings the camera, which he wields automatically, as you set on your adventure. Eventually, you can manually take photos, making your road trip scrapbook that much more personal. Your little Gang of Four are unique individuals, and their personalities come across in every photo, every slow curve of the highway as Gladio reads voraciously and Noctis tries to sleep. They fall into tropes, assuredly, but each one is given enough nuance and depth that you want to chase down as many interactions and side quests as you can to hang out with them. The closeness of the quartet is what kept my endless road tripping fun, along with the gorgeous scenery and delightful breadth of soundtrack options.

Teamwork makes the dreamwork! (Final Fantasy XV/Square Enix)

Final Fantasy XV puts a lot of effort into the quality of life as you drive: you can shop for supplies, control the soundtrack through the radio, switch between multiple camera perspectives (from first-person to drone distance), and switch destinations as you travel. It also let’s you skip this completely — it usually costs money, and requires you to know where you’re going, but it lets players for whom the driving is less intoxicating get across its world efficiently. Mostly having run it off of a spinning hard drive with an GTX1060, loading times meant it often took me less time to drive anywhere than it did to fast travel. That’s why I started to even focus on the driving at all; because I couldn’t just skip to the place I needed to go. And I’m very grateful for that.

It’s one of the reason I’ve never really moved passed this part of the game. I’ve been able to sail to the next continent for what might be years (I’ve owned this game a long time), but I’ve also known that when I got there, this experience would be over for a little while. The game has a tendency to call things “points of no return” without really meaning it; anyplace I visited (that I didn’t subsequently destroy) I could go back to, and most of the people I met were still accessible after whatever plot event had introduced then to me. These false endpoints created a sense of anxiety, and I found myself double-checking that yes, I will be able to get back on the open road after this. After setting sail, though, I won’t be able to go back — not for a decent length of time, anyway. I also don’t really think it’ll feel the same, afterwards. Maybe that’s just because I can feel the ending coming towards me.

“Why are half your photos selfies?” — An in-game line I’ve heard 2 dozen times (Final Fantasy XV/Square Enix)

I slightly spoiled the game for myself — hard not to, when it’s released a year before I could even start it and I then take 5 years to play it— and though I’m hazy on the details, there’s been a tone of melancholy hanging over the whole thing ever since. Every sun-kissed beach and sunset drive has a nostalgic undercurrent, as if the characters — and the game itself — know that this will probably be their last ditch at freedom, the last vestiges of a more innocent time before the burden of the massive global conflict that they are technically in the middle of crashes down on their shoulders. As the story progresses, we discover that Noctis’ father took a similar trip, with similar companions, and things were never quite the same afterwards. You meet them on your journey — a stoic, grizzled warrior, a gruff but genius mechanic — and you get the sense that they know exactly the kind of journey you’re on. It’s a theme that pervades the story from the very beginning, when Noctis’ father is killed and his kingdom claimed in the name of the insert-Germanic-name-here Empire. Elders die, children are orphaned, and there’s a sense that there’s no going back to your life before.

The previous generation seem chill (finalfantasy.fandom.com/Square Enix)

Ending the road trip feels like an acknowledgement of those themes, a resignation that you can’t quite escape the future. In real life, I knew that setting sail meant I was heading towards linearity, where my chill little road trip would no longer be a buffer to the character’s emotions, and the narrative would take over just a little bit more than I wanted. It’s not quite a point of no return, but it feels like it. I must have sat down, fully intending to pull the proverbial trigger, but found myself distracted — on a hunt, finishing a side quest, fishing — from that mission half a dozen times, and I knew I was subconsciously avoiding it. I didn’t want this part of the game to end.

I’ve never been good at finishing things. Books, games, TV shows, you name it, if I really love it I’m probably not going to see it through. I don’t want it to be over, because then I can’t experience it for this first time, and I don’t want to discover that it loses something on the replay. Dune by Frank Herbert sits waiting on my shelf for me to pick up and start for the third time in as many years; Parks and Recreation is currently in stasis midway through Season 4, with Leslie and Ben living a permanent state of relationship uncertainty; and I am stubbornly refusing to let Breath of the Wild witness Link run towards Calamity Ganon and save Zelda, because I’m slightly worried it’s going to make me cry as much as Twilight Princess did. I’ve avoided my pristine little Blu-Ray collection of Avatar: The Last Airbender since I bought it in 2019, because I’ve watched the show before and if it’s not as good the second time I think my childhood might evaporate.

Sunset vibes (Final Fantasy XV/Square Enix)

There’s probably some psychological connective tissue between that sensation and the proverbial end of youth that seems to creep over you in your twenties. The sense of loss and growth that run in parallel; that life is going to start moving faster, whether you want it to or not; that your responsibilities are slowly encroaching on the freedom that you didn’t quite realize you had. And when you figure out it’s going to slip away, you kind of feel like you need to hold on to it a little bit longer. This is the plot of dozens of college movies and other coming-of-age-in-adulthood narratives. It’s built from the idea there’s a special spark of youth, and life’s tragedy is that it cannot be reclaimed — you might never find the same joy again. Holding on to that spark, though, can suffocate it, twist it, can ruin it, so that if you ever do come back you are only reminded of its loss rather than its joy. The game, eventually, needs the player to make that choice, to take that step forward. It lets you come back to that road trip nearer the end; to revisit that joy, much later on, with the benefit of hindsight. But I’m not there yet, and as I wave goodbye from the ridiculously large boat we’re travelling on, the future of my love for this game feels unsure. It takes a little bit of trust, I think. Sometimes you just need to take it on faith that you’ll still feel the same when it comes back.

And sometimes you just have to set sail.

Canadian he/him who likes video games, writing, and music; has more than one job, which isn’t this.