My parents divorced when I was nine years old. I don’t remember much of it — both up until that point and after, my life is mostly a blurred mess of adolescence. Video games weren’t introduced to me until a few years later, when my siblings and I got our hands on a Sega Genesis and played Sonic the Hedgehog 2 until our thumbs ached.
Sometime in the summer of my seventh-grade year, my brother and I rented Final Fantasy VIII from a local Blockbuster. He loved it, I didn’t; I was a squeamish, guilt-riddled child, and blood and violence sent me over the edge (oh, how things have changed). The rental period passed and I mostly forgot about it — that is until we returned to Blockbuster for another game that would change my life forever: Final Fantasy IX.
My siblings and I are close together in age, comparatively. Video games have been in our lives longer than they haven’t, with the youngest playing video games since they could barely talk. That summer, when my brother and I rented Final Fantasy IX, I can’t remember much aside from our adventures in that gorgeous world. I remember kidnapping Princess Garnet with Zidane, I remember Vivi waxing on through an existential crisis, I remember searching every corner of Gaia for every weapon and card. I remember saving over my brother’s file a few times, because he was young and some of the bosses were impossible.
I remember, as well, all the times my parents fought, yelled, and unconsciously added to my growing anxiety and depression. And Final Fantasy was there, waiting, always ready to transport me somewhere that didn’t have the confusing adolescent struggles of the real world.
Role-playing games have been there for me for as long as I can remember. A friend of mine loaded up a floppy disc of emulators and ROMs for me that very next school year. When I couldn’t play Final Fantasy IX in my strict Christian home I could load up the older titles on the floppy disc and easily save state and exit whenever I was questioned. That, too, proved to be both emotionally and culturally enriching, and was a gateway into the classic Final Fantasy games that at the time were more than a little difficult to find (I played fan-translations of the then-inaccessible Final Fantasy III and Final Fantasy V).
It would be Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger that earned their places as the most memorable, even while FF IV introduced me to the unbelievably magical and timeless worlds created by Square Enix. And there, in the midst of constant parental turmoil, the exchange of weekends, the ever-confusing altered rules of going from house to house, I was able to center myself in worlds of pure fantasy. Final Fantasy, from then until this very day, has been an emotional and psychological anchor.
I — like many millennials — suffer from a bevy of undiagnosed mental issues. I could list them all through the dangers of self-diagnosis, but it is understandable and minimal to state that I have some forms of anxiety and depression. I have a brain that, while creative, works against me daily: a brain that calls for my failure, a brain that tells me to give up, a brain that doesn’t function in the ways it’s supposed to. And — living in a country where the most basic mental needs are scorned and health-care is a privilege — I will take sources of self-medication to quiet my sad, angry brain. For many that’s drugs, or alcohol, and I’ve used a little of both in my time, but escapism through video games has forever been a positive therapy, and one I share with millions of people.
Throughout my childhood I endured the derision of adults that decried my time spent in escapist video games as a waste (although these same adults were the ones pressing me to believe in hilariously-flawed sky deities and five thousand year old religions). During the most trying times, I ignored these comments and punishments and instead focused my time in the games that would have me without question. RPGs became a way to temporarily transport myself from any bad situation to a place of wonder, magic and action, a place where characters explored themes of justice, love, and friendship.
My RPG education began with Final Fantasy and grew into an unquenchable hunger, one that has never been satisfied. After playing Final Fantasy VIII and IX and going back through the classics of the time, my siblings and I were gifted a Playstation 2 and Kingdom Hearts, where everything we loved about video games was magnified through the familiarity of our favorite Disney characters. Kingdom Hearts became the first true collective love of my siblings and I, and the first chance we had to explore many of these popular RPG themes together.
The wrath and discord of my divorced parents never really lessened, and was only compounded by the weirdness of adolescence, the issues of school and the myriad of boring, gross, and terrifying problems that come along with being a conscious young person. Through everything I had Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, Chrono Cross, Chrono Trigger, Vagrant Story. I learned about philosophy and used my religious education as I played Xenosaga. I felt the truths of romance and camaraderie through Final Fantasy X. And through every baffling moment of my life, I could come home and sink hours away into these beautiful, awe-inspiring worlds. RPGs were always there, and they always would be.
Life, inevitably, changes. You grow older. The games you loved either become classics or become forgotten. You make friends through the RPGs you play, you bond with others over Squall, you talk about the merits of storytelling in Final Fantasy, you take turns in Breath of Fire IV with your brother. From before I can remember until this very weekend I have made new friends and bonded over Pokémon, a lifelong love that has instilled positive affirmation, fun, and transports me back to being a kid like it’s a sorcery.
In this turbulent time it’s become far too easy to be absorbed into the most vile aspects of humanity, through despairing news or incessantly irate social media. Any time I want to drop out of the agonizing cycle of bills and paychecks I can pick up one of my classic favorites or start something new, and we are blessed to live in a time where our favorite RPGs return to us as remakes and remasters — these, too, allow new generations to experience what we consider “the classics.”
I’ve been steadily playing RPGs for over twenty years, and in that time life has only become stranger and more difficult. There have been more than a few times where I’ve considered giving up entirely, as the process of navigating my strenuous brain has only become more challenging. And there, unchanging, have been the RPG worlds that have established themselves as believable, beautiful, and real, places that I can continue to disappear into. Over the last seven years I have put enough hours into Final Fantasy XIV to equate learning how to fly a commercial jet, and through that gained more friends, memories, and good times in one of the most incredible worlds in existence.
I’ve made some of my closest friends through bonding over the storytelling structure, gorgeous music and unique battle systems that make up the wide variety of what we consider to be the RPG genre. These same people, who suffer their own array of mental issues, have taken solace in the truly unique self-care that role-playing games offer. There are emotional experiences in Final Fantasy that rival anything I’ve experienced in “real life,” moments that have sent chills down my spine and spilled tears on my cheeks and forced me to sit back, numb and in awe of an indescribable experience.
I played RPGs when I was ten, I play them at thirty, I’ll play them at fifty. RPGs have inspired me to be a better writer, they’ve been my security blanket, they’ve instilled concepts in me that have rivaled any lesson I couldn’t learn out in the world. They have been places where I slip in between the veil, to leave all my troubles behind and become someone else. To adventure into these beautiful, cerebral places and conquer gods and empires at the side of friends that don’t exist has been a dream — and yet, incredibly, they feel more real than anything.
I’ve slaughtered gods and toppled empires, and no RPG would be the same without those clichéd— but satisfying — experiences. Still, it has been the quiet moments of friendship and perseverance that have softened my bitter old heart and made me feel like this life does have things worth living for.
In the black depths of my worst despair, when my brain doesn’t work the way I want it to and all seems worthless, I can return to my favorite RPGs and experience something that feels more real than anything — joy, adventure and a sense of deep belonging alongside characters who feel like they’ve always existed.