The Great Escape: A hard day’s night

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[Ed Note: For this month’s Musing, chaotical shares how Final Fantasy IX helped him get through a really difficult year. Want to post your own article on this month’s topic? Publish it now on our community blogs. – JRo]

Finally the days of uncertainty have drawn to a close. Its time to say goodbye to seemingly random blog posts and a timely hello to the return of the Monthly Musing, an initiative designed to bring the Destructoid Community together writing about a common theme with the prize of a spot on the front page the potential reward. 

This month’s Musing is to discuss how video games have helped us to escape the harshness of reality in order to provide relief, relaxation and repose. Perhaps I ought to think twice about delving too far into my personal life, but the community has shown itself to be quite respectful over the years. Read on as I describe the worst year of my life and how I managed to overcome such misery with four discs of awesomeness.


It’s All Too Much 

As a young child growing up I had been afflicted with a skin condition known as Eczema, essentially causing my skin to dry out much faster than normal. The severity of the condition varies with each passing year, sometimes requiring a plethora of creams, potions, and lotions to keep it under control. For the majority of secondary school, my skin was perfectly fine and manageable, but in the year 2000 things drastically took a turn for the worse. 

The pressure of impending exams and school life caused me to break down, with my skin baring the brunt of it all. After being administered to hospital for a few weeks the scale of the problem became all too apparent. Amongst the cuts and scars I saw that what was once smooth was now rough, my skin more akin to that of a reptiles. Being sent home following treatment resulted in a strange feeling of detachment from real life. I couldn’t go back to school until the pain of my old wounds had subsided and that left me with lots of free time to play video games. 

By early 2001 I still hadn’t recovered well enough to go back to school and I was on the verge of finishing secondary education with no qualifications whatsoever. 

I almost decided to accept dehands…or is it defeat? 

In any case, a copy of Final Fantasy IX came into my possession when the game released in the UK and I couldn’t of been happier after thoroughly enjoying FFVII and FFVIII. But FFIX was somehow different, deeper and distinguished. FFIX felt more than just another video game. It felt like an experience to be savored like a trip to the theatre, a Sunday morning breakfast or 15 minutes with a lady of the night. The game had me enthralled from start to finish, allowing me to relax whilst I recuperated.


Her Majesty 

Final Fantasy IX starts in jovial fashion as the kingdom of Alexandria celebrates the sixteenth birthday of Princess Garnet. The bright fireworks and whimsical music in stark contrast to the reality within which the game was played. Zidane and his band of merry men (Tantalus) are given the audacious task of kidnapping the princess during the festivities and it’s here where I realized just how immersive the game is. 

I was slowly being drawn into the world of FFIX, picking up tidbits of information and lore as I wondered around the city streets talking to all and sundry. Everyone has a story to tell it seems, with NPCs only too happy to share their stories with you. Because of this, Squaresoft added a surprising amount of personality to characters you might have otherwise thought to be superfluous as they reinforce the overall atmosphere of various locales. 

Zidane reaches the princess, only to find her a willing participant in spite of all the danger that awaits them when they attempt to leave. Queen Brahne is not too happy at Tantalus’ plans and retaliates in full force, sending their airship falling from the sky.


The Long and Winding Road 

Traversing the landscape and discovering new areas revealed a world of interesting and diverse individuals. Whilst you were not free to go here, there and everywhere right from the beginning, entering a new dungeon often provided a unique challenge. For instance, Ipsen’s Castle flips the script entirely (and literally) as weapons with the lowest attack properties end up causing the most damage. 

I never went on holiday that much in real life, so seeing so many different places in FFIX was awe-inspiring. There were several modes of transport available including Chocobos, a boat called the Blue Narciss, and the Hilde Garde airship…but unfortunately there were no submarines to utilize. 

Globetrotting came with a sense of trepidation due to the amount of boss fights Squaresoft put into the game to punctuate key plot points. Figuring out how to overcome such powerful foes required good strategy and deft touch, unless you set the ATB to “wait” then you could take all day to make a decision.


A Little Help from My Friends 

Fights in FFIX are also engaging due to the relatively simple battle system. A great aspect of the system was the fact that each character is treated as an individual with their own skillset and abilities. This meant that the characters each have a specific role to play in battle rather than the “everyone is kind of the same” approach of subsequent Final Fantasy games. 

Learning new skills was very different from other games, FFIX saw characters having to equip weapons and items in order to have immediate access to the abilities the item was imbued with. Once enough AP had been accumulated from success in battle, a character could learn a skill outright and make use of it without having to equip the item beforehand. This meant that choosing equipment for your team had some strategy thrown into the mix. You could always go for the strongest items that you have available, but chances are that you would miss out on several useful abilities which may make upcoming battles needlessly difficult.


While My Joypad Gently Weeps 

Another feature I devoted an obscene amount of time into was the side quests and mini games, none more so than Chocobo’s Hot & Cold. Not only can you find numerous items throughout the world but you can also uncover “chocographs” that mark the location of all manner of powerful weapons and accessories. 

Once an item had been discovered, you then had to dig it up using a combination of willpower, determination, and furious pummeling of the square button, an act that ended up destroying two of my controllers. 

Other diversions included a QTE sword fight, frog catching, a hunting festival, and a card tournament. All of which averted my attention from my skin condition, preventing me from scratching and making it worse than it already was.


Happiness is a Warm Moogle 

Jokes and visual gags are interspersed throughout cut scenes to lighten the mood. A day in the life of Zidane and his accomplices rarely passes without incident. Whether that’s because of Vivi’s constant slips, trips and falls or Quina’s insatiable appetite, I enthusiastically watched each new scene to bring a smile to my face. 

I particularly liked the script which seems snappier and more informal than before. Dialogue between the various characters was often filled with quips, snide remarks and back-handed compliments to keep the player from getting bored. While Final Fantasy IX probably cannot be considered ROFLOL worthy by any means, paying close attention to every little thing people say during cut scenes reveals plenty of humorous material.


Let It Be 

Hours turned to days. Days turned to months. I slowly progressed through FFIX as my skin started getting better. Eventually I would have to go back to school and (somewhat ironically) deal with an even greater amount of stress as the GCSE exams loomed. This time was different, in FFIX I now had a way to relax leaving me with a clear head to tackle the exams. 

Walking into the examination I realized that everything had started to come together, I was intent on just doing my best and not really worrying about the results. Considering I missed about seven months in the final year of secondary school I honestly wasn’t expecting to pass any of the tests. I couldn’t have been any more wrong, as I received four passes grade A-C. My performance in other subjects was…less than stellar, but I was still glad all over, relieved that my perseverance had paid off in some way. 

And yet, as I sit here today playing the downloadable version of Final Fantasy IX echoing my actions from nine years ago I suddenly have a revelation. Back then I played video games to escape the stresses and strains of life, to omit the darker days from memory and enter a world of elation, excitement and exultation. 

But sooner or later, the power button must be pressed and time spent within a polygonal safe haven must end. No longer am I as free as a bird, reality now surrounds me once again as the lush hills and strawberry fields fade from view. Real life welcomes me home with open arms, the canary is returned to the cage from whence it came. 

Video games might help us to escape our problems and offer brief respite, though they cannot solve our problems or put things right. 

When it comes to burdens, we must learn to carry that weight ourselves…

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