Often – not always, but in the vast majority of cases – you read a JRPG best by looking at the journeys the characters take in it. Not any kind of metaphorical journeys, but the literal movements through space, and the identities of the places they move towards or away from.
Mikhail Bakhtin gives us the idea of the chronotope, the time-place, originally as a way of looking at and classifying the novel. He says, rightly, that advanced physics tells us that space and time are inseparable, and rightly again that they are inseparable in the novel (the physics is almost irrelevant to this claim; it could just as easily be made in terms of the structure of prose itself, but it would be hypocritical of me to condemn others for indulging in physics metaphors).
The point is this: when something happens, it happens in a time and place, a place-in-time. So for example, of the road, Bakhtin writes:
“Encounters in a novel usually take place “on the road.” The road is a particularly good place for random encounters. On the road (“the high road”), the spatial and temporal paths of the most varied people – representatives of all social classes, estates, religions, nationalities, ages – intersect at one spatial and temporal point. People who are normally kept separate by social and spatial distance can accidentally meet; any contrast may crop up, the most various fates may collide and interweave with one another… The chronotope of the road is both a point of new departures and a place for events to find their denouement. Time, as it were, fuses together with space and flows in it (forming the road); this is the source of the rich metaphorical expansion on the image of the road as a course: “the course of a life,” “to set out on a new course,” “the course of history” and so on; varied and multi-leveled are the ways in which road is turned into a metaphor, but its fundamental pivot is the flow of time.”
(he wrote this in about 1937, and yet… ‘random encounters’; ‘the high road’. This translation is by Michael Holquist, from 1981, of a collection of Bakhtin’s essays published in 1975)
The configuration of concrete time and place described in the prose of a novel is not a metaphor for the human, psychological or aesthetic reality; rather it is the other way round. Arrange time and space in a particular way, and what you get is a meaning-structure.
If this goes for novels, in which the author’s work is bound by the reader’s willingness to play along with the prose, it goes much more so for any game that literally creates a spacetime (so-called ‘virtual’ spaces – spacetimes – are actual concrete spaces; they have every property of the space we exist in except for a privileged relationship to us). The majority of what are conventionally called ‘video games’ are pocket spacetimes (not, it must be clarified, pocket universes but pockets of discreet spacetime within a universe).
A journey is not quite a chronotope. Genealogically, videogame journeys inherit more from dance movements than from the novel, though what distinguishes a videogame journey from all but the most explicitly narrativized choreographies is that a journey passes through and responds to chronotopes. The home village; the local cave; the burned-down home village – the classic JRPG journey begins with this curlicue of place-moments. It continues in a series of similar, but expanding, loops, town, dungeon, transformed town, and outward again until the world is encircled.
Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t share in the archetypal JRPG journey structure, but it is, nevertheless, essential to read it through its journeys. These offer a much more compelling understanding of its structure than the hills and lines of its ludic resistances, which locate its major turning points in the confrontations with its chief villain, Barthandelus, at the ends of chapters 9, 11 and 13. Final Fantasy XIII is a story in three parts, but the three parts are journeys, ending respectively with chapter 7, part-way through chapter 11 (Dahaka marks the last boss of this journey, though not its end) and the end of the game.
The first journey is Hope’s, his hike from the traumatic loss of his mother in the Hanging Edge sequence in the game’s opening to his home in Palumpolum. The second takes Vanille from her confession to Sazh at Nautilus to the ghost town of Oerba. The third brings all the l’Cie back to their maker, Orphan.
Final Fantasy XIII, then, is a game about journeys home. Home, or rather the homecoming, is a distinctive chronotope, as is the way home. The homecoming concerns the entry of a person into a space, and always a tension between the two; there are joyous homecomings, in which a tension is purely released, but these are relatively rare. More common are frictions of varying levels of anger, suspicion and alienation.
Home makes the unbearable inescapable. The familiarity of home strips away the ambiguities and crises of the wilderness, the distractions from underlying incompatibilities and conflicts.
The way home is always arduous. There are no easy journeys home – home, in a sense, is the place that is hard to get to. Partly this is because the journey home is symbolically counter to the flow of time. It is antientropic.
Hope’s journey goes through the following locations:
- The Hanging Edge, which is both a warzone at the start of the game, and the fragmentary remains of where the shell of Cocoon was shattered during an ancient war; a space consisting primarily of a spiderweb of bridges, many of which collapse in the fighting.
- Lake Bresha, frozen by the resolution of events in the Hanging Edge; freezing being the bluntest symbol of the arrest of entropy or disorder.
- The Vile Peaks, a mountainous and confusing junkyard of antiquated military equipment. Frozen in time in a different sense, but nevertheless symbolically the end of a civilisation.
- The Gapra Whitewood, a closed nature reserve where wild beasts are tamed for military use, but in a state of decay such that some of the beasts are loose, including the ‘tamed’ Aster Protoflorian (a creature so clearly symbolic of nature that it frequently gets compared to Bulbasaur).
- The Palumpolum subterrain, a clinical and slightly dreamlike laboratory environment in which a primal fal’cie somehow generates sustenance for the city; this marks the crossing from chaotic nature to civilisation, first entered through a waste pipe where material is usually understood as flowing in the opposite direction.
- And finally Palumpolum city itself, an urban environment almost indistinguishable from any number of real-world cities. It might be tempting to say that Palumpolum, being a city, is more chaotic than its pristine subterrain, but it is also much more familiar, less fantastical, and this, too, in the countertemporal sequence of the way home, is effectively antientropic.
Hope moves from a chaos that is traumatic but pacifying (it renders passive – Hope can do nothing to save his mother) towards an order which stifles until explosive action becomes inevitable. When Hope lashes out at Snow, it is because, close to home, there is no longer space to hide the truth. It is inevitable that Snow will discover that his victim, Nora, is Hope’s mother, when Hope actually reaches his father; Hope has less and less room to dissemble his feelings.
What home provides to Hope, then, is actually a denial. It is hard to describe what is denied without terms like ‘convenient fictions’ or ‘ways out’ that make him sound weak and non-confrontational. To be more empathetic, we might say it denies him the possibility of healing without force, in the same way that a steam engine’s boiler denies the heated water the possibility of release without driving the pistons.
When I began my transition, I came out to my family a month before I was due to spend the Christmas holiday week with them. I came out to them then because coming out was inevitable; I could not have gone home without them knowing, and leaving it any longer could only have made the process more intense. An ambiguity in which I had existed for twenty-eight years was squashed flat. In the home – in a house in which I had never lived or grown, my parents having moved from the last building in which I had lived with them some years earlier – I felt palpably the absence of the expected returner, the son that ambiguity had allowed to appear for so long, whose absence could no longer be overlooked; just as Nora’s absence could not be overlooked once Hope crossed the threshold of his home, alone.
Vanille’s journey is a different kind of regression sequence. It begins in Nautilus, a land of fantasy and leisure, and thus a place of play, which is to say a place of life. To be precise, though, its absolute beginning is not the start of the Nautilus sequence but its climax, the moment at which her guilt is forced to the surface and she admits to Sazh her role in Dajh’s fate. It’s the closest to honesty, to accountability – to genuine vulnerability – that she comes until almost the end of the game; and because of that, it is perhaps her deepest and most meaningful act of agency.
From there, it is Vanille’s – and the party’s – agency that regresses. In the next chapter, their acts of self-determination take a more conventionally narrative mode: the defiance of a dramatic jailbreak aboard the Palamecia. This makes demands of their courage and determination, and is a clear moral assertion, but there’s no openness to it, no ambiguity. It is heroes as unstoppable force, authority as movable object.
From there the next step backwards is to the Fifth Ark, where the party explores an ancient ruin that has been set up to test them. In a sense they challenge themselves, but while they maintain their hostility to the force that has determined their environment, they never confront it directly.
The descent to Pulse robs the party of an imminent authority to define themselves against or in contrast to; instead there is only a world coded as ‘natural’, unstructured. Of course there is no such thing as a world with this feature, but the characters don’t have time to consider that. They become cast as explorers, which is the most suspect form of agency, the most dangerous.
Fortunately this phase doesn’t last; you emerge onto the Archylte Steppe to find an environment commendably resistant to exploration. The party are far too weak to conquer this territory. The options are to press ahead, fleeing from almost everything and arriving at the next areas underlevelled and underprepared, or follow the daisychain of sidequests provided by the Cie’th Stones, simple objectives involving a journey to a particular set-piece combat encounter.
Here at last, the agency of the characters decays to a level that can actually be modelled in the affordances of the software. The player can choose, but only whether to respond to pleading instructions or not. After the first fifteen or so hunts, though, there is really only the onward journey, which disappears into the strictly linear caves of the Mah’habara Subterra and Sullya Springs.
At Taejin’s tower, the sidequest pattern reemerges, but here there is no choice; each assignment must be completed in order to progress, since the party by themselves are powerless against Dahaka. Then, finally, from the summit of the tower and over the corpse of the monster, you see your destination, and it is void. Oerba is gone; it is the negation of agency.
Home – especially in the homecoming – has this unrecoverable quality. One never actually returns to the home one has left. This is what makes it impossible for Final Fantasy to ‘come home’, to ‘return’. Home is not only the space of childhood, it is the space of lost childhood. There can be no home without this sense of loss and of grasping at what is lost.
That Christmas, I almost gave up after two nights’ stay. I’d originally planned to stay through New Year, a couple of weeks, but on the afternoon of the second day my family went out for a walk and I found myself checking train times, planning to leave ‘home’ and return to my own flat. My nerve broke; instead I went out for a walk by myself, hoping to clear my head and promising myself that if my folks were still out by the time I got home I’d leave.
In the end I stayed five days and then spent New Years alone.
The final journey of FFXIII brings the l’Cie back to Cocoon, to a location literally called ‘Orphan’s Cradle’, to a third confrontation with Barthandelus who then merges with the fal’cie Orphan to produce a creature that is visually father, mother and child in one. There could be no clearer confrontation with parentality.
Final Fantasy XIII is a game about fate and destiny, and whether meaningful resistance to the path that has been laid out for you is possible. The heroes are plucked from their lives arbitrarily by gods to serve particular purposes, then led, manipulated and tricked into fulfilling those purposes without ever really understanding what is going on.
Home, then, is the space of the parent’s image of the child. These images are unavoidable – even the most saintly parent could not refrain from imagining futures for their child for the twenty-plus years it takes a new human to begin making their own. But to even have such an image makes dissonance unavoidable – we are never immune to or in control of our passing thoughts. I think, What if my child became a doctor? And then when they declare an intention to be a teacher, or lawyer, or artist, instead, neither detachment nor compassion can completely smother the clash under my response.
In Final Fantasy XIII, of course, the ‘parent’ is an apocalyptic force intent on sacrificing all human life to recall its own parent out of a desperate and insatiable sense of abandonment. That few parents literally try to commit their children to death cults should neither lead us to ignore the multidimensional richness of the metaphor nor to overlook the close and traumatic relationship between all the other ways our parents try to force us into their moulds and the most extreme examples.
To come home is to be forced into this confrontation. To be at home is to live with it. And it exists not only at the level of individual families but also at the level of the community, the state, the dominant culture – the ‘home country’. For many, especially for young people, especially in this economy, there is no escape at all.
Fuck your homes. At least I had somewhere else to go to if I decided I had to leave. I walked up onto the canal path behind my parents’ house, thinking about what the repercussions would be if I did – at age 28, mind – finally run away from home. It was one of those glass-clear, freezing winter days where even the sunlight feels cold.
I don’t remember what I actually thought, what process of reasoning I followed. I do remember that I was listening to a new album by a friend. I followed the canal west for a while then turned back to get the low afternoon sun out of my eyes. Track five, my favourite on the album, played. I won’t air a friend’s dirty laundry except to say the album came from a place of deep personal crisis. Track five ends with a desperate, jackhammer refrain:
The night seems like it won’t come
The night seems like it won’t come
The night seems like it won’t come
The sun was setting; night was on its way. But home is a space of warmth and light in winter, artificially postponing the night. I slept a lot and stayed in bed as much as possible the rest of my stay.
Fuck your homes, demanding so much of us and denying us even the respite of oblivion in sleep and darkness.
In FFXIII, Fang and Vanille do at least get that from their confrontation with their father. So, too, in a sense, does Lightning, although her respite opens up the complexities of the sequels. Fang and Vanille just get to sleep, a queer couple in a sanctuary only accomplished by the smashing of home and parentage.
Fuck your homes, that kill so many of us in that same confrontation.
Fuck your homes.
Fuck your homes.