When I was a kid, I sometimes took weekend trips to my grandparents' house. I told my parents it was to "visit" and "spend time with them", but really it was so I could binge on JRPGs.
I get a little wistful thinking about those mini-holidays: I'd lug a big backpack with my PlayStation and some Calvin & Hobbes comics, then shut myself in the guest room for 14-hour sessions with games like Legend of Legaia and Xenogears, only stopping for the occasional Nickelodeon break. (Meals did not require a break.) On Sunday afternoons, bleary-eyed and exhausted, I'd spend the drive home planning out when I could go back to that fantasy world of unlimited video game time. It was wonderful.
These days, life is a little bit different -- the gaming is always unlimited, but now I have to pay for nonsense like "food" and "living expenses" and "spending time with people." I have a job, and a relationship, and friendships that can't be maintained just by showing up at school every day. It's harder to get away with binge gaming, and consequently, it's harder to play through the 50-hour epics that dominated so much of my prepubescent life.
And while gaming might have evolved into more of a mainstream hobby than it ever has been, there are still all those stigmas attached. To many people, World of Warcraft is still a punchline. Japanese role-playing games are not a frequent conversation topic at cocktail parties or water coolers. The box art for games like Lightning Returns or Bravely Default isn't exactly... well let's just say I wouldn't hang it on my wall.
Earlier this week, BuzzFeed's Rachel Sanders wrote an article that really resonated with me. It's called "I Was A Final Fantasy Addict" and it's a very personal look, tinged with embarrassment and self-deprecation, at childhood habits left behind. Sanders used to binge on role-playing games -- to the point where she wrote a GameFAQs guide about Shadow Hearts: Covenant -- but she gave up that hobby in college, discarding it for more acceptable pastimes. She recently revisited geekdom to check out Bravely Default, and decided it wasn't worth the trip back.
"Bravely Default doesn't really scratch the same itch as the RPGs I used to love, but I don't know that anything could," Sanders concludes. "I don't think I have that itch anymore. I have a job that challenges me. I have good books and fancy cocktails and television shows that keep me entertained... But playing the game has certainly made me feel a real nostalgia, not exactly for those old games themselves, but for how fiercely absorbed in them I was. I'm not sorry to be living a complicated, fascinating, grown-up life that I find more interesting than any all-consuming role-playing game. It's just that sometimes I miss saving the world."
Whew. It's a great piece, and you should really read the whole thing, particularly if you're an adult who grew up on games and isn't sure exactly how to fit them into your life. It's also a little depressing. Sanders concludes, in the end, that she can't have a normal, balanced life while also embracing her JRPG habit. That phrase -- "a complicated, fascinating, grown-up life" -- might come off as condescending, but I totally get it. RPGs, more than any gaming genre, demand your undivided attention. Sure, you can sometimes get away with some Persona 4 Golden on your daily commute or while doing laundry, but for the most part, these games are just too time-consuming, too absorbing to fit in a regular routine.
And, hey, let's face it: they're also kind of embarrassing. Unless you only surround yourself with people who play video games, there's a stigma to the hobby that can't be cleanly wiped away with a few assurances that "yeah, adults play video games too," particularly when you're playing something like Bravely Default , which, for all of its merits, has a few more creepy perv moments than it should. Or Tales of Xillia, a solid game that I'd never want to play in front of other people, thanks in no small part to outfits like this.
Even if you don't mind sharing your hobby with people who don't understand it, video games -- particularly role-playing games -- are personal, somewhat intimate experiences, and I've always found it a little uncomfortable when people watch me bumble around the latest Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, like they're observing me as I write a novel, or, err, watch porn. "Hey, this is my moment." That sort of thing.
This is pretty much a problem exclusive to RPGs. There's something inherently geekly about spending time in someone else's body. Maybe that's why our culture has declared it acceptable to binge-watch House of Cards but "bizarre" or "weird" to binge-play Ni no Kuni or World of Warcraft. "Why are you spending so much time pretending to be someone else? Don't you have better things to do?"
It's hard to come up with a really great answer to that question, and for a gamer it might be tempting, after reading that BuzzFeed article, to get angry and defensive at the idea that video games are childish pastimes to be discarded along with the LEGO sets and action figures. It's more valuable to soak it in, though.
What to do when you, Final Fantasy addict, become an adult with friends and interests and hobbies outside of gaming? You could grow out of the genre, like Sanders did, and find other things to do during your spare time, or you could get a job writing for Kotaku and start a weekly JRPG column. Most people will wind up somewhere in between.
In theory, it's all about balance. Gaming time in small doses on the weekends and before bed; prioritization of real people over fake people; that sort of thing. But can you really blame Sanders for leaving JRPGs behind? Can you really not relate when she ponders, guiltily, how many foreign languages she could have learned, how many books she could have read with all of those hours she devoted to the world of video games? These things creep into my head sometimes. Am I wasting my time? Is life too short for level grinding and shitty dialogue? Couldn't I be doing something more productive? Am I just chasing nostalgia, pointlessly trying to recreate the unvarnished euphoria of those childhood trips to Queens? Why am I still doing this?
I don't think I'll ever do what Sanders did. I've never felt the urge to cut video games out of my life, and as RPGs get better and better, I want to work harder to convince inexperienced players that some of these games are just as worthwhile as a good read or a Netflix binge. I just hope I've convinced myself.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.