Unexpected Consequences

My mother got me arrested when I was 17. The fault was mine, though, and I don’t hold anything against her. She’s the one who gave her 17-year-old son free run of the house for a week, but I’m the one who screwed up. My mother’s only condition to not hiring a babysitter was that my best bud Rich stay at the house with me. I’m not sharing this to poke fun at my mother’s parenting; all things considered, she did a bang-up job. No, I’m telling you this because of what happened afterward.

When we both came back from [the journey], with high school graduation and college and a whole life yet to be lived staring right back at us, we were forever changed.

I’ll begin with two words: keg party. That night went really well until it didn’t, at which point it simply seized up, keeled over and carted me off to my local police precinct. A few embarrassing and not-so-fun days later, I returned to school with the weight of an indefinite grounding dragging behind me. The only upside was that, once again, Rich could be my comrade-in-arms. He alone was granted entry to my prison, and he alone could keep me company during those twilight weeks of high school.

My friends are the best, always. Rich was there, night after night, to hang out, play videogames, and even slip into the night air after sleep consumed the rest of my childhood home. Then there was Patrick, a dear, trusted friend who I still game with now on a regular basis, lending me his SNES, his Super Scope and a sack full of games. Consoles were frowned upon when I was growing up, probably because my dad first turned me onto them with the Atari 2600 that he left behind in the divorce. The borrowed SNES was given a pass though.

So Rich and I could game. Patrick’s Bag of Holding spilled cartridges into my cavernous living room, but there was only one that the more games-knowledgeable Rich immediately snatched up and thrust into my hands: Final Fantasy II. You know the game as Final Fantasy IV, but back then it was only the second FF game released in North America, and so it bore the lower number.

Final Fantasy changed everything. Rich and I followed Cecil on his journey to Rydia’s village and beyond. We hooted gleefully as Tellah let loose with his overpowered magic. We raged loudly enough to earn a parental admonishment after Kain’s betrayal. We coveted an airship and we chuckled at a spoony bard. The game imprinted itself. Its characters and stories had meaning for us.

That was only the beginning, though. Eventually, Rich and I reached the moon, and I learned the meaning of grinding. Rich and I trudged forward, dying frequently and winning occasionally, but noting that the going got easier with each successive win. Eventually, we simply stopped our forward trudge and started moving left and right, left and right, in pursuit of more random encounters. The moon monster bodies piled up and our power grew. We were just kids, and grounded kids at that, but in Final Fantasy II we were unstoppable.

The left-to-right grind went on for a good, long time. We’d kill a bunch of monsters, break for a smoke, then do it all again. Night after night. The time each fight took to finish grew shorter and shorter until we finally decided that enough was enough – we had all the power. We stormed the moon’s core and put the hurt on Zeromus, leaning back in shared satisfaction as the lengthy concluding cutscene lent some closure to these 16-bit characters that we’d grown to care about. After weeks of chipping away at this mammoth story, we had reached the end of the journey. And it pleased us.

Rich admitted to me many years later that he felt compelled to keep coming back and hanging out during my grounding at the tail end of our time in high school. He felt some personal responsibility for the situation I was in, though that makes me no less appreciative of his being there. Rich has always been the best of friends. We’ve forked down different paths in the years since, but it’s like no time has passed at all whenever we see each other again. That’s the mark of true family right there, even if the connection’s founded on much more than a few months of gaming.

Still, Final Fantasy II was such an important game for me growing up. Yes, it was my first proper experience with a JRPG. I picked up ideas about leveling, grinding, random encounters and sweet, delicious loot. I came to know the joys of couch co-op as well, with every step of that 30- or 40-hour journey spent at my best friend’s side. Most of all, though, I saw very clearly how an interactive narrative can stick with you, really leaving a lasting mark on your psyche.

It’s not the names or the places or even the story beats that I remember best about that long run of nights spent at my best friend’s side. It’s the emotions. The thrill of seeing those leveled-up character models, of getting the airship, of stepping out onto the moon’s surface for the first time. Rich and I took that journey with Cecil and his friends. When we both came back from it, with high school graduation and college and a whole life yet to be lived staring right back at us, we were forever changed. The crossroads that would take our lives in separate directions was still years away, but we both knew we had reached the close of something significant.

Remembering that time now brings me to a bittersweet place. I miss the adventure that Rich and I took together and the sense that we had this whole world in front of us to conquer. That probably just means I miss being young. Do I really have any right to, though? If a long-since-played game can still summon up so many strong emotions now, almost 20 years later, maybe that lost youth isn’t so lost after all.

———

Adam Rosenberg doesn’t get arrested so often anymore. He tweets about it when he does @GeminiBros.

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