"Maybe you'd like this," said my friend, one afternoon in 1999, almost furtively handing me a copy of Final Fantasy VIII. "I don't really get it". So I evicted a dusty copy of Tekken 3 from my PSX, gawped at three minutes of stunning, incoherent eye-candy, and suddenly it was four in the morning. I'd never quite felt so far away or at home at the same time. What became an almost 20-year-long compulsion began with a feeling that, even now, I can't quite explain.
For Final Fantasy, inexplicable might be the only reasonable response. For years, each new game has served up stories that were impossible not to be swept away by, worlds of imagination where the amount of sense they made was never as important as the experience of getting lost in them – a place that was always changing but always familiar. Even when set on a would-be modern-Earth-alike, FFXV – the next main installment, due at the end of November – is still a world full of crystal-based kingdoms ruled by ludicrously-haired monarchies and features a main character, Noctis Lucis Caelum, whose name sounds like sneezing in Latin. Its opening plot is a series of regal macguffins about armistices and invasions that takes itself as seriously as it makes no objective sense – and yet, even knowing all this, I’ve pre-ordered the thing because: Wasn’t it always this way?
It's a series that, over 30 years, has sold almost 120 million games and yet still feels like a private language: second nature to those that already speak it, and utterly impenetrable – if not actively off-putting – to everyone else. For many, the series remains something as personal as it is incommunicable; personal despite the way its stories run on scripted rails or the fact that Square Enix's 30 year-old franchise is a gigantically-budgeted mainstream megabrand. Perhaps that's why there are so many private definitions of Final Fantasy's essence – and why neither the fans nor Square Enix seem capable of deciding how to balance its past with its future.
It's undeniably easier for fans to cherry-pick memories than it is to dwell on the series' more recent history. If you ignore the critics and look at Metacritic's user ratings, every numbered Final Fantasy game since 2001's Final Fantasy X can be found skulking around in the lower third of the series' all-time ratings.
What's certain is that, for me, no other series provokes such a potent mix of anticipation, nostalgia and dread as the prospect of a new Final Fantasy. And if dread seems an unusual word to use, all you need to do is look at the series' upcoming releases.
Largest, loudest, and most recently delayed, Final Fantasy XV is a franchise gamble eight years in the making and as fraught with expectation as it is submerged in pre-ordered fan-squabbling. Foreshadowed by a film as awful as any so far made by the company, the future of the series seems to rely on the success of a cast of charmless, blabber-mouthed bro-mannequins airlifted in from a fetish-themed All Saints catalogue. Worse: judging by the trailers, its sexual politics amount in their totality to giving a be-hatted tomboy an embarrassment of cleavage and then obliging her to bend over a German sports car.
Most of all, though, FFXV's ambition is as palpable as it might be misguided. Who knows what it will add up to when it arrives.
And yet, outside that disastrous demo, its combat zings with potential while still appearing to be underwritten by a familiar tradition – one that allows you to stop, think, plan and improvise – or just mash buttons, if you've leveled up enough. Having watched the series spend years retreating into corridors from its vast, world-spanning pomp, it's also the first new entry in the series to offer anything that looks like a modern definition of a sandbox – even if, like the forthcoming Zelda, that might be as much a symptom of how their newfound uncertainty is forcing gaming titans to look outside themselves for the first time. Most of all, though, FFXV's ambition is as palpable as it might be misguided. Who knows what it will add up to when it arrives.
At the opposite end of FFXV's muddled spectrum, World of Final Fantasy – due in October – wants to play dress-up with my memory. One part chibi-styled fan service, the other a cannily niche-marketed reimagining of 30 years of resonant iconography, World of Final Fantasy feels like home despite looking nothing like it. The game's two new characters – siblings bestowed, like the series itself, with hidden powers and amnesia – are thrust into the world of Grimoire, if for no other reason than to encounter a roll-call of the series’ heroes and villains in bobbleheaded form. It's nothing if not aware of how to push some fans' buttons – in particular, the ones directly connected to monetizing our pre-existing fondness and affection; the question is whether it's any more than that.
Expressly designed to evoke the feeling of pre-FFX games, it's difficult to tell if the game's aimed at kids or the kind of people who grew up with the series and now have kids of their own. As one reddit user said, hinting at the identity problem at the heart of the series' ongoing appeal, "I don't know what the hell it is, but I want it."
And last, in more ways than one, is the remake of the classic 1997 Final Fantasy VII, a game that long since stopped being a thing anyone actually played, instead becoming first a cultural reference point and finally a self-perpetuating act of nostalgia. Depending on your perspective, this remake, which has no confirmed release date, is either the ultimate reward for those who fell in love with it or the epitome of futility and resignation from the pretense of progress. There's an undeniable market for those who yearn to re-experience a feeling that they cannot, by definition, experience again for the first time. Square Enix have, nevertheless, promised a forward-looking throwback in familiar new clothes; I can't help but expect something as coherent as that description isn't. But if anything illustrates the paradox of making new games for old fans, it's the remake of FFVII.
It's by no means the case that all fans want the games to live up to – or be hamstrung by – the expectations the series set almost 20 years ago. But it's equally undeniable that the continuity of the series depends as much on the ability of the new games to inspire fond memories as it does on moving things forward. Legendary Square Enix producer/director Yoshinori Kitase almost admitted as much in an interview with US Gamer when he said, "when people play the game and feel that sense of nostalgia, to me that indicates that we've managed to successfully bring out Final Fantasy's essence."
For all the contradictions, it's impossible to watch a trailer for any of the new games without recognizing them as being Final Fantasy to the core – even if you can't define exactly what that core is. But the danger for the series is that the essence of each game ends up being solely reliant on prompting nostalgia rather than producing it in future players.
But Final Fantasy's essence was always more than a plot summary and a list of game mechanics. At its best, the series grew into a strange kind of home for gamers like me: one that changed every time I returned there and only recently starting feeling like somewhere it might be time to leave, somewhere I wasn't sure I got anymore. But most of all, the thing I vividly remember from the hundreds of hours I spent in the company of its huge worlds, oversized swords and bonkers, labyrinthine plots is always wanting to find out what came next.