As the people here grow colder
I turn to my computer
And spend my evenings with it
Like a friend
I was loading a new program
I had ordered from a magazine
(Are you lonely, are you lost?
This voice console is a must)
I press Execute
“Hello, I know that you’ve been feeling tired
I bring you love and deeper understanding
Hello, I know that you’re unhappy
I bring you love and deeper understanding”
Kate Bush’s 1989 song “Deeper Understanding” is about the dangers of technology that seems to understand us too well. Importantly, it’s not a lack of real people who care about her that drives Bush’s character to seek solace in the companionship of a computer program. Rather, it’s that she feels more clearly seen and understood in the virtual relationship than she does in her real connections. She later sings,
I’ve never felt such pleasure
Nothing else seemed to matter
I neglected my bodily needs
I did not eat, I did not sleep
The intensity increasing
‘Til my family found me and intervened
But I was lonely, I was lost
Without my little black box
Of course it’s an attractive and tempting fantasy, this idea of a relationship in which we are perfectly understood. Two games of 2016 made me think about how so many games want to fulfill this fantasy, trying to create relationships in which our own impulses, desires and actions are clearly seen and seamlessly responded to. One game did so by fulfilling this trend, and the other by wonderfully resisting it.
Final Fantasy XV
Much has been made, by myself and others, of this quote from FFXV director Hajime Tabata on the absence of female characters in the game’s core party. By the time the game was released, I wasn’t upset about this reality anymore. Instead, I wanted to give the game a chance to actually do something worthwhile with this premise. I wanted to see real sincerity and honesty between men, as well as real warmth and compassion for each other. Connections and communication that challenge our patriarchal notions of how men can and should relate to each other. And when the game used the song “Stand by Me” in its title sequence, I thought it might just deliver that. It was a bold choice, but one I tentatively admired. I wanted the game to earn it.
It doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. In retrospect, its use of “Stand by Me” feels arrogant and ludicrous. Prince Noctis, the player character, is not a blank slate; he’s a black hole. He gives us, and his companions, less than nothing. His sullen, disengaged routine is obnoxious and tiresome. Yet his companions seem to have genuine feelings of warmth toward him. Why? What is it he gives them that lets them feel any affection toward them? If I were stuck on a road trip with Noctis, I’d find him insufferable.
The companions aren’t real characters either. They’re simple character traits that have been given human form. Ignis, the smart one. Gladio, the strong one. Prompto, the exuberant one. Final Fantasy XV tries to convince us of deep connections between these characters through canned dialogue exchanges that repeat again and again over the course of your quest, which only erode the feeling of companionship rather than reinforcing it. These are soulless animatronic robots doomed to go through the same motions with each other forever. In the most grating of these canned exchanges, Noctis asks Ignis about his favorite coffee brand. “I might have asked before but is Ebony really all that good?” Believe me, Noctis, you have most definitely asked before. Many, many times.
Often we don’t see the value in games not giving us what we want, or giving us what we don’t want.
The game also uses Prompto’s photography in a feeble attempt to create a sense of camaraderie. Each night when you camp or stay at an inn, you see Prompto’s photos from that day, which often depict moments of warmth between the companions that didn’t actually happen during your gameplay. But their failure does not lie in the fact that they depict moments you didn’t experience–I’m more than willing to accept the idea that my gameplay doesn’t represent the entirety of our journey together. Their failure lies in how rapidly the algorithms that govern the creation of Prompto’s photos begin to reveal themselves.
Very quickly, we begin to notice the same poses, the same reactions, the same framing, appearing over and over. “Well taken,” Ignis says for the thousandth time when regarding a picture of himself. It reveals itself as a trick, a bad illusionist’s unconvincing ruse designed to convince us that feelings of warmth and closeness exist here, feelings that the game isn’t interested in taking the time to actually develop. Photos can be a powerful way of creating a sense of history and connection. The photographs of the three friends and colleagues at the center of the wonderful 2016 PC game Quadrilateral Cowboy succeed at this because of their specificity. Final Fantasy XV’s photos fail because of their lack of specificity.
Undercutting the feeling even further was the way that Prompto would sometimes ask me who I wanted him to take more photos of. I always wanted to respond, “Prompto, what do you really want to take photos of?” I wanted him to express his own interest in taking a particular kind of photo, to say that he wanted to capture the working people of a particular town or the fashions of a particular group or the atrocities being committed by the empire. But that might have made Prompto seem too much like his own person.
Most of all, Final Fantasy XV fails to create a real sense of connection between its four male leads because there is no real separation between you and them. They don’t feel like unique individuals, but like extensions of you. A meter fills up in combat, and you press buttons to command them to perform special attacks, which they always do. The attack doesn’t always land, but they always do it, immediately and without hesitation. Like your dog in Fable II, like your squadmates in the Mass Effect games, they understand you perfectly. They obey you completely. Here is a world in which you are perfectly understood, because you are all of these characters. There is no real separation between you and your companions, any more than there is a separation between your soldier and your gun in a Call of Duty game.
Of course, you can absolutely tell a story about an insufferable central character. If Prompto, Ignis and Gladiolus had hated Noctis but felt honorbound to accompany him on his travels, that could have been fascinating. If that’s the way Noctis is going to be, I wanted the game to acknowledge it. Let there be real tension and discomfort between these characters. Or focus on his privileged immaturity and his evolution into someone who assumes responsibility. But no, this game doesn’t dare to be about anything, and it certainly doesn’t dare to make you feel disliked or misunderstood. Instead, it functions as a headcanon generator, giving you an assortment of images, a handful of personality traits, a few sterile interactions, and expects you to do all the work of creating a story and imbuing it with some kind of significance. And because we’re so desperate for this kind of adventure, we do it, and that process can be meaningful to us as individuals. But let’s not pretend there’s actually anything there.
The hardest thing Noctis does in this game isn’t defeating the final boss. It’s telling his companions that he kinda sorta maybe actually cares about them. His mouth quivering with the effort to express a genuine emotion, he finally musters the strength to say “You guys are the best.” Gladio then congratulates him. “You spit it out,” he says with admiration. As if it should be this difficult for men to express real feeling for each other, to communicate to each other that they really care. As if men should be so guarded and reserved, and should only admit their love for each other in times of real danger and desperation, at which point expressing love for each other becomes an act of manly heroism. There is nothing challenging about the relationships Final Fantasy XV purports to be about. The relationships, and the characters, barely even exist.
The Last Guardian
I spend a lot of time taking care of my friend’s cat. This cat doesn’t always do what I want her to do. Often, I’ll be trying to get work done, and she will stand there on the couch next to me, staring at the laptop in my lap for several seconds as if to say, “You’re going to move that, right?” And I do, and she curls up in her rightful place in my lap so that I can stop working and pet her, and I say, “You know, cat, for some reason I really let you make my life more difficult.”
But of course it is meaningful and valuable to me, this time spent petting this cat who is curled up in my lap, or who stands expectantly next to me on the bed waiting for attention and affection in the middle of the night when I’m trying to sleep. I like having responsibilities and obligations to her. It is meaningful precisely because she is not me, or an extension of me. Because of the space between us. Because she is something other, and by being something other, she is able to make me feel like my love is worth something, like my existence is worth something. And precisely because she is not me, because she sometimes does things that surprise me or confuse me frustrate me or entertain me, precisely because I cannot understand her completely, I can love her in a way that I cannot love myself.
The imperfection of our understanding was part of the cost of having any understanding at all.
I was immediately reminded of this cat I love by the animations of Trico, the creature who accompanies you throughout The Last Guardian. I saw so much life in his movements, so much expression of comfort or satisfaction or fear or agony, and through this alone, he began to feel like a separate entity, one with his own feelings and desires. But far more significant than this was the fact that Trico resisted me. My commands to him felt more like suggestions, cast out into the uncertainty between us. “Trico, will you jump up there for me?” I was asking. “Will you stand on your hind legs so I can reach that ledge?” The seconds would pass with me wondering if he’d even do what I’d asked.
Of course it was frustrating, not being perfectly understood by Trico. Wondering if I was making sense to him, and if he’d be willing to do what I wanted him to do. It was a negotiation. Somewhere in the space between him and me, we met. We may not have understood each other perfectly, but we understood each other enough. The imperfection of our understanding was part of the cost of having any understanding at all. This is the way it is. That perfect, seamless understanding, that deeper understanding that games so often try to offer us is a myth. Because my connection with Trico was not like this, because it was an imperfect negotiation in which I felt that the two of us were always hoping for some sense of mutual understanding that was not guaranteed to us, it felt real, and being with him, petting him, caring for him, was meaningful to me.
And yet I see so many people complain about Trico’s resistance of us in The Last Guardian. Players and critics alike wish Trico responded the way companions in so many other games respond. Games have trained us to view being seamlessly, flawlessly understood as inherently good, and the possibility of misunderstanding in the space between us and our allies as inherently bad. We want games that give us what we want–a world that caters to us, characters who respond to our beck and call–and often we don’t see the value in games not giving us what we want, or giving us what we don’t want. Struggles that make us feel powerless rather than powerful. Relationships in which we feel frustrated, misunderstood, or invisible.
But if there isn’t the possibility of this, if the other character doesn’t feel at all separate from us, then what are we relating to? How can feeling connected, understood and seen mean anything? When I took a leap of faith in The Last Guardian, I was scared that Trico wasn’t going to catch me in his jaws or swing his tail out for me to grab onto as I fell through the air. I was scared that the connection I felt with this creature was all in my head, that my trust was misplaced, that although he could rely on me, I could not rely on him. And when he did catch me, the reassurance and the connection I felt was more powerful than anything Final Fantasy XV offered me in the 50-plus hours I spent with it.
The truth is that The Last Guardian would have been far more deserving of “Stand by Me” as an opening song than Final Fantasy XV, because coming to believe that we can trust and rely on each other is only meaningful if there’s a space between us. We take comfort in the companionship of another. Trico is another. Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto are not. I want more games that resist me, more games in which other characters, be they human allies or animals or fantastical creatures, don’t behave as mere extensions of myself. I want more games that make me feel like there’s a space between me and the other, and that we’re overcoming our fears, leaping and fumbling toward each other across a space of uncertainty in the hopes of finding some kind of imperfect, beautiful understanding.