Although I have the honor of publishing stuff here at the fabulous Nova Crystallis, I’m just one Square Enix fan among millions. Perhaps I’m a bit wordier than some — and that’s not always a good thing! — but otherwise? Writers and readers alike, we all visit this website because we’re perpetually thirsty for all things Square.
But how did we reach this point? And indeed, what is it about Square Enix’s catalog that’s compelling enough to have triggered the creation of sites like Nova Crystallis in the first place? There’s bound to be a story behind every fan’s first encounter with these games, and I’d be willing to bet that many of us also have heartfelt stories about how the games have been here for us through thick and thin.Each and every story is worth telling.
Why, then, am I sharing mine? Well, I suppose for starters I simply enjoy writing. I probably wouldn’t be here at Nova Crystallis if I didn’t! But this runs deeper than that. You see, I’ve seen people ridiculed all my life for loving fictional worlds. “Snap back to reality,” they’ve been told. “Get more real friends.” It’s important to acknowledge reality and to take care of ourselves and others. And friends are precious and absolutely worth seeking. But there’s no good reason that that should stop us from finding escapism in unreal realms. Especially those of us who yearn for connections we cannot at times have in real life.
As a child, I didn’t always have all of the connections that I needed. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I virtually never did. Children who are deprived of vital outlets can sometimes lash out at the world around them. They can grow up without learning pivotal lessons to carry them through adulthood. Some will turn toward self-harm and other dangerous modes of “feeling.” I bore witness to this among some of the other children I knew. We desperately needed role models.
Nothing I’ve said thus far is unique. The world is far from perfect; I’m sure many of you experienced similar childhoods. What I’m choosing to share today is, simply put, the story of how Square Enix gave me many of those role models. More importantly, some of the legendary studio’s games gave me the sense of belonging that I perilously required. If even one person reads this and recognizes something of themselves in the telling, I will be glad to have shared these words with a kindred spirit.
Always remember: there have always been stories meant to inspire.Be they oral, written, performed, or — in recent decades — played, they are invaluable.
In the summer of 1996, I left my old world behind. My grandmother had gained custody of me because my mother was incapable of raising me; subsequently, she moved out of New York City and down into Central Florida. I knew people in the Bronx. Good people. Despite my near-complete lack of parental guidance, I found a measure of crucial education in the words and ways of older kids and their mothers and fathers. Due to certain unsavory circumstances, I did not attend school for over two years. Without those noble souls in my life, I would have been so far behind in so many ways that — in conjunction with other issues — I’m not convinced I would have gotten through school in the years to come.
For over a year, my mind drifted. I failed to find kinship with any of the students in Central Florida, not least of which because I was ridiculed for lacking a foundation in science and mathematics. It’s not easy being a kid, and sometimes kids will behave ruthlessly toward their peers in the misplaced hopes of validating themselves and their own achievements. I get that now, but back then it felt like my classmates had a vendetta against me. The clothes I wore, the accent I had, the way I styled my hair; none of it escaped notice. In hindsight? It was kind of extra.
One day, a kid with a Cloud Strife shirt took pity on me. I clung to the guy for dear life. Not literally… I think? I told him the guy on his shirt looked cool and that “I wish I had a sword like that.” (It’s probably for the best that I didn’t. I didn’t need to add “stabbed fellow children” to my list of problems.)
My grandmother and I were dirt poor. She lived on housing assistance and we subsisted on food stamps. But I was bound and determined to find out more about Big Sword Guy, and my newfound friend promised he’d let me borrow Big Sword Guy’s video game if I could acquire for myself one Sony PlayStation. The mountain seemed insurmountable, but after roughly 25 local lawns mowed, I pulled it off. I slapped the first of three discs into my new Favorite Thing Ever and began Final Fantasy VII.
Heroic Interlude: Terra Branford
Along the way through my story, I want to spotlight a few Square Enix characters who in many ways embody the spirit of what I’m discussing here.
Take Final Fantasy VI‘s Terra Branford, for example. All alone in the world with no memory of the violent actions she was forced to take, this most excellent heroine is forced down a path that prompts her to question the very meaning of life. Setting aside for a second that she’s ultimately revealed to be A Very Special Person, a bridge between two races who have known nothing but war, and we’re left with a young woman desperate to find her place in the world. Not one of the people whom she befriends is related to Terra by blood, but rather, by a shared appreciation for the common good and the belief that mankind is not beyond salvation. Later on, Terra even takes a turn as the de facto matron of an orphanage; here, she shares her love with children who have nowhere else to turn. Bless you, Terra.
More than just letting me borrow the game, my friend even lent me his strategy guide. I was stunned by how huge it was. After all, the only games I’d previously played were of the Sega Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog variety. What blew my mind, however, was the length of the game’s walkthrough. I flipped the pages, wisely opting not to read much text, and found it nigh-unbelievable that the walkthrough continued past Shinra Tower. With each passing page, I began to realize how early into Final Fantasy VII that was, and how long this tale would be. I’d never heard of anything quite like this.
Time was of the essence. I wanted to be able to chat with my friend about Cloud and his compatriots as soon as possible. Yet even with the walkthrough pages fresh in my brain, I could scarcely comprehend that over 60 hours passed before I completed the adventure. Video games were supposed to be about jumping up and down, weren’t they? There wasn’t a jump button to be found, but the tradeoff was more than worthwhile. I found, instead, a beloved cast of characters who, in surprising ways, oftentimes felt like the friends I’d left behind up in New York. At other times, they felt like me. I could relate with them. Their struggles were of the near-cosmic variety, whereas mine involved algebra. It somehow didn’t matter.
There had been an awakening. In short order, I borrowed Final Fantasy Tactics and felt further mystified. Xenogears was right around the corner. My friend also taught me how to do not-entirely-unquestionable things with my computer that allowed me to access SNES Square games as well; Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3 (ahem, Trials of Mana now), Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IV, and Final Fantasy VI were under my belt within months. To be sure, we dabbled in (read: became obsessed with) certain non-Square fare, like Pokémon Red and Blue. But by and large, my world was Square.
Only a Plank Between One and Perdition
If we stopped here, my story would seem trite. I was a needy kid who found solace in JRPGs. It happens everyday. Only, things got a little rockier in the coming years.
My grandmother’s mental health was fading. She had been involved in an automobile accident — as a pedestrian, no less — and over time, prescription painkillers just weren’t doing the trick. Let me be clear here: she was a good woman and in the few years we had together before she turned into someone she was not, she helped me in so many ways. She couldn’t be a father for me, and in many ways she wasn’t quite a mother, either; but she instilled in me a sense of family that, at the time, I thought was otherwise completely absent.
Before long, I simply could not stay with her anymore. I was 13. Foster care awaited. I was shipped wayward. Far, far wayward. I didn’t get to see my friend anymore, nor the other friends we had made. It was only then, bitterly and with great anguish, that I began to realize I’d had family all along. My friends were that family. We didn’t need to share blood. They had always been there for me, and now I would no longer have that in my life. What hurt me more was the fact that I could no longer be there for them.
I don’t want to make things overly morbid here. You’re on (the best!) Square Enix site on the net. You’re probably not here to feel morose. Suffice it to say, things weren’t good.
Heroic Interlude: Billy Lee Black
Xenogears is no stranger to tackling dark themes with an earnest and critical eye, and few characters in the game’s sprawling cast epitomize those themes quite like Billy Lee Black.
A gun-toting priest obsessed with bringing down the horrific abominations called Wels after they murdered his mother at a perilously young age, Billy’s only other drive is to protect his little sister at all costs. While there’s a by-blood family tie here, I believe that Billy is a prime contender in the list of Square Enix characters who band together with folks from separate walks of life. Bitter toward an alcoholic father who he believes is beyond salvation, Billy is a bit of an edgy recluse toward Fei, Elly, and their allies for quite some time. Only through seeing how far they’d go to defend anyone, regardless of lineage, does Billy truly begin to come around. As with Terra, there’s even an orphanage involved in the proceedings. Go figure, right? To me, Billy is emblematic of many of the friends I made during my childhood. He had close ties with a “real” family, but they fell apart almost entirely. And yet he is saved by strangers from foreign shores who have far more in common with him.
To make matters worse, my new foster parents were given to the belief that video games of every variety were problematic at best and had no place in anyone’s household. One of the few things I felt like I could look forward to was the pending release of Final Fantasy X, and every time a commercial came on TV I tried to explain how meaningful the series had been to me. Deadpan stares, followed by laughter or scolding. Honestly, I preferred the scolding.
I’d like to say being away from gaming at least had some measure of helpfulness for me, but the fact of the matter is, it was my grandmother who had the impressive bookshelves chock full of imaginary worlds. It was my grandmother who got me hooked on relatively optimistic visions of the future like Star Trek. My so-called family couldn’t get enough of reality television shows instead. And no offense intended toward reality television fans, but the stuff these people watched, at least, was built on the premise of tearing down decent and lovely individuals for humor’s sake. It was like watching folks get tossed into a Roman coliseum.
So there really wasn’t anything there for me whatsoever. In retrospect I suppose it was inevitable, though at the time it felt daring and utterly unexpected — one night I ran away from home and never returned. When I got picked up by police, I pleaded my case; I wasn’t sent elsewhere right away, of course, but the foster parents pretty quickly grew tired of my antics and fate lent me a card of kindness. My grandmother’s neighbor opted to look after me. She wasn’t around much, and was seldom warm; but she let me use her son’s PlayStation 2, and by god, I felt saved.
Memory Erased by a Storm
My first order of business was to see my old friends again. We were, to a tee, uniformly thrilled. My second order of business was, of course, to get cracking on Final Fantasy X. What happened next was one of the greatest epiphanies I’ve experienced.
It was sometime around the middle of Yuna’s Pilgrimage that things crystallized for me. I had been glued to Square Enix’s stories because they told not only epic journeys, but journeys of self-discovery among bands of people who were often strangers before becoming family to one-another. Art reflected life. So thrilled was I to see my friends again; profoundly, I was equally thrilled to see Yuna and her Guardians endure trial after trial, struggle after struggle, and survive because they held a bond that had nothing to do with their DNA and everything to do with their dreams.
Just like my real-world friends, Spira’s saviors felt like brothers and sisters to me. As their tale came to a terrifically bittersweet finale, I shed tears I never knew I had. Curious about this self-discovery, I returned to Final Fantasy VII. The number of moments that made me cry — joyful cries, ugly cries — had expanded tenfold or more since last I saw Midgar and the world beyond its walls. Other FFs held similar results. Xenogears in particular positively slew me. Whereas previously, these were merely “my favorite games and places I could escape within,” now they felt like a long-lost lifeline. I devoured every RPG I could find that even remotely seemed to hold these themes dear, including damn near every Square Enix title in their catalog.
Heroic Interlude: Delita Heiral
Well, I suppose whether or not we label Delita a hero boils down to personal taste.
In many ways, he’s more of an antihero. But then, aren’t antiheroes cool? And more to the point, isn’t Delita cool? Most pointedly of all, he is an outstanding example of the sort of Square Enix legends whose characterization is rich with familial diversity. Alas, in Delita’s case, this doesn’t manifest in as heartwarming a tale as with Terra and Billy; Delita finds a surrogate brother in Final Fantasy Tactics‘ true protagonist, Ramza Beoulve, but after losing his sister he drifts away from his dear friend and sets out on a journey often rife with loneliness. That loneliness, that failure to truly connect (or as with Ramza, to reconnect), haunts Delita even as his star rises in the eyes of Ivalicians the realm over. Although Princess Ovelia falls in love with the man, I’ve never gotten the vibe that he falls quite so deeply in love with her in return. And in the brief, fleeting moments when Delita shares a scene again with Ramza, there is clearly a part of him someplace hidden beyond his Machiavellian exterior that wishes he could have what Ramza found — trusted allies from various bloodlines who keep his friend’s conviction in check and help to steer him on the right path. Would that Delita had all that as well, but he nevertheless overcomes a meager early life and makes positive changes in the world around him.
The Waking Sands
I’m not well-versed in Japanese and I often worry that I’ll repeat something I’ve heard secondhand only to learn that it was in error. That said, I believe there is a word for this in the Land of the Rising Sun: nakama. “A very good friend or comrade that one considers as family, even if they’re not necessarily related.”
At the risk of sounding like a vintage weeb, nakama got me where I am today. The friends I met in Florida, who thereafter introduced me to the friends found in Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Kingdom Hearts, Chrono, and all that jazz; all of it, the sum total and every instance of it, helped me to see the light at the end of so much darkness.
It surprised those around me and downright shocked myself, but I managed to acquire my GED at the age of 16. As an emancipated minor, I learned to work hard and make challenging adult decisions at an earlier age than many. Without parental figures to teach me these things, I relied on the themes of perseverance, of tenacity, of the right kind of stubbornness that occupied the minds of Celes Chere, Fei Fong Wong, Zidane Tribal, and even Big Sword Guy himself. Sure, none of these fictional characters had the good graces to teach me how to balance a checking book, but I do not believe I would have had the willpower to make it far enough to find out without their stories to help guide me.
Don’t let them tell you video games can’t make a positive difference in our lives. Don’t let them chide you for digging into 60-hour adventures rather than simply the latest best-selling shooter. Freely tell them what Square Enix’s games mean to you and why. If they chuckle and waltz away in ignorance, that’s their problem.
I’m in my early thirties now. I’ve learned to express myself first and foremost through the written word. One day, I’d like to include international calls to action for help preventing cases of modern genocide, of mass displacement, of systematic racism and other unsavory matters. I’d like to do my small part to change the world for the better. I wonder where I got that idea from?
For the time being, I will write about RPGs. I write about the wonderful sagas that studios like Square Enix have gifted us with. I write about what it was like being kid Quinton, and why we don’t always need blood relations to forge lasting, life-saving relationships whilst drawing inspiration from similar stories within the gaming medium.
Step outside when you can. Breathe in fresh air (where it’s still available). Go for a hike. Go to the beach.
And keep popping discs into PlayStations. Sometimes, those discs are as important to our development as any park or beach ever could be.