It is the height of summer; a lush July evening, and a Friday to boot, with a free weekend stretched out before me like so much blue sky. I’m planning to spend plenty of the next two days outside, with my wife and daughter, enjoying fresh air, laughter and good food. But there’s a dark pit in this fruit of fun; a bitter kernel which grows even now on the hard drive of my PC. This black node has a name. It’s Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.
I've never played a Final Fantasy game before. I've barely played any JRPGs, in fact. But now my time has come. I've got to jump in to the second part of the thirteenth entry of a series that has spanned more than three decades, in a genre whose conventions are unfamiliar to me, and I've got to complete it by the end of the year.
This was all so avoidable. It began in April, on a stage, at EGX Rezzed. It was my first week at Rock Paper Shotgun, and as the new boy, I’d been invited to join Alice B and Brendan in recording a live edition of the RPS podcast. It was all fun and games, until Final Fantasy came up in conversation. Everyone was cracking gags about Sephiroth, and other stuff I vaguely remember the other kids at school talking about in the late nineties, and I was nodding along like it all made sense.
But it didn't make sense, and soon I began to fret. How could I call myself an authority on games, I thought - how could I do this job - with such a gaping hole in my knowledge?
For some reason, I didn’t just keep my mouth shut and let the topic pass; I felt the sudden need to blurt my confession - that I’d never played a Final Fantasy, and that I regretted my lifelong prejudice against these games and the genre they came from. Everyone was fine with that, to be honest. There were no gasps of disbelief, or roars of outrage. In fact, nobody in the audience seemed to care at all.
I cared. Even if nobody else needed a demonstration of my commitment, I wanted to prove to myself that I was the big man - that I was serious about my new position. That I wouldn’t just squat in a comfortable trench of strategy games, refusing to branch out into new territory. I’d show I was willing to play even against my strongest inclinations.
And so I stood, with my hand on my heart, and swore an oath to complete a Final Fantasy game of the audience’s choosing, before the end of the calendar year. After some wicked grins to each other, the spectators chose my fate: my journey into the constellation of Square Enix’s hit parade would begin with Lightning Returns, the third part of the series' thirteenth installment.
At the time I felt like a knight embarking on a great quest of penance and humility. In retrospect, I was more like that weird kid at school, who insisted he could eat a whole newspaper - and proceeded to - without anyone daring him, or even suggesting the feat. And yet an oath is an oath, and so I left Rezzed with a bleak conviction in my heart.
That was three and a half months ago.
In the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in England in the fourteenth century, the Arthurian knight Gawain strikes a pact with an unearthly warrior on new year’s eve. The deal is, Gawain can strike the green knight once with his axe, on the condition that the green knight be allowed to return the favour in a year and a day. Gawain wellies the bonce off his veridian foe, only for him to pick up his own head, wink, and say “see you next year mate”, before riding into the night.
Gawain spends the year that follows trying not to think about his hubristic bargain - but while he can run from the thoughts, he can’t run from time.
“And þus 3irnez þe 3ere in 3isterdayez mony,” writes the Gawain poet, “and wynter wyndez a3ayn, as þe worlde askez”. “And so passes the year in many yesterdays, and winter returns once more, as the world requires.”
One hundred and five yesterdays have now passed by since I made my pact, and as the summer nights begin to shorten, winter is on the horizon. Like Gawain, I too am awaiting my reckoning at the cusp of the new year - but unlike him, I can download my opponent on Steam, and get the fucker over and done with.
And so, like an oyster slowly enrobing a grain of dirt in calcite, my PC is spinning a tidy sphere of data from the ether as I write. Is it forming a beautiful pearl, or just a big old dog egg? I have no idea. I’ve not read any reviews of this game, and I’ve asked no opinions of people I know. I intend to go into this experience with my eyes open, and my judgement unclouded.
I’ll let you know how I get on.