"I just want to kill the bastard," Dad explains as he lays into Final Fantasy XV's muscle-bound wearer of mullets, Gladio. He cheers a little when the target of his ire falls over, hit too many times on the head. I've already told him that Gladio is a mate, and that this is a tutorial teaching players how to block, but he thinks he's doing well. I let him continue. He's enjoying himself, it seems, during the least interesting part of the boy band's adventure.
But like the game's story kicking off by introducing Ifrit, I'm getting ahead of myself.
My old man, Ray, is a soon-to-be retired insurance executive. For most of my life, I've assumed we had nothing in common beyond our penchant for sarcasm and a love of Turkish Delights. Over the last five years, however, he's has started to come to terms with the fact that he actually likes superheroes, medieval battles, and nonsense involving magical lizards.
The man who once rolled his eyes whenever I gushed about Lord of the Rings or the latest comic I brought home with me now joins me on weekly lunches to swap Game of Thrones theories or talk about the latest CW superhero crossovers. It's great that it's this, specifically, that we share, but that it's anything is important. A proper shared interest is something that eluded us for a long time.
I've never been able to get him remotely interested in gaming, though. He tried ZombiU once but got bored and frustrated after too many zombies tore him apart. Then Final Fantasy XV came along with a challenge. It opens with: "A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers." I wanted to put it to the test. Could this be the game that changes his mind?
For all its eccentricities, Final Fantasy XV has some points in its favor, namely the fact that it's essentially a giant road trip. Dad travels a lot, bundling Mum and the dog into their caravan because that's just what happens when you hit your 60s. Road trips were also something that we used to do together, when my sister and I still lived at home. Trips over to France with nothing but The Proclaimers and Runrig in the cassette player, terrible Scottish cliches that we were. He still wasn't really sold on the idea, but we came to an accord: I promised not to ship him off to a grotty old folk's home if he played Final Fantasy XV with me.
So here we are: Dad trying to kill his combat teacher, and me waiting for him to realize that Gladio is currently invincible. He gets it eventually, after adorably reading the instructions aloud.
With the tutorial over, Dad is introduced to best boy Prompto, and the other ones, and we hit the road. It takes a moment to get moving, stuck between Insomnia and Hammerhead. He has no reason to assume R2 means accelerate, or in this case push, and the button prompt on the screen is hard for even me to see. He figures it out and the car starts rolling. As I start sing along to Stand By Me, he briefly looks at me and shakes his head, disappointed. Like he has a better singing voice.
After leaving the Regalia in the safe hands of Cid and Cindy, we take in the sights. It's… slow going. Throughout our adventure, the camera proves to be Dad's undoing. It spins and lurches and gets him so lost that, if he's not stuck to a wall, he's running in circles. I watch him try to enter the diner for several agonizing minutes, trying not to laugh, but he starts, and then neither of us can stop. He does, to his credit, get in and out eventually, hardly grumbling at all. At times, he just ignores the camera entirely, even if it's facing in the opposite direction from where he's going.
"If you weren't explaining it to me, I wouldn't know how to steer my way through the game," he tells me, staring at the controller. "The stick that you use… the handheld thing… wasn't easy. Too many buttons."
We bid farewell to the rest stop, not for the last time, and head out into the wilderness. We have a quest and a bounty, and the old fella is keen to test out the combat skills he learned in the godawful tutorial. Wait mode turns out to be an incredible boon. He uses the breathing room to ask me questions and, more importantly, think about what he's doing next. I honestly expected him to just smash buttons—it's what he told me, later, that he thought all games involved—but he actually puts some thought into his actions.
As he equips magic based on enemy weaknesses gleaned through Libra and hoofs it to cover when his MP is depleted, I start to feel a bit of pride. Sure, he stumbles, and he still needs occasional help, but his instincts are spot on. He's even better at remembering to dodge or block than I was back when I first started playing. The real joy, though, comes from watching him really get into it.
"Bastards!" he shouts again, laughing as yet another beastie knocks Noctis over. This is at least the fortieth thing he's called a bastard so far. Eos, Land of Bastards. We're in a shed that's bursting with monsters, but Dad was prepared before we even step foot inside it.
"Just head in there, where the quest marker is," I nudge him impatiently.
"I know, I know. I'm just sorting out my weapons."
The shed is a trap and he intuitively knows this.
He jumps when the monsters attack, but the scene is designed to startle, even if you're expecting it. And he is. Noctis' spear flies through the air immediately, and while this many enemies in a small dark shed is never going to be anything less than a clusterfuck, Dad handles them with surprising alacrity. I give him some well-deserved applause.
It's time to head back, and since he seems to have a handle on things, I decide to pop to the kitchen and have a quick cigarette. No sooner than the lighter is back in my pocket, I hear shouting and yelling in the living room. Rushing back in, I find Dad staring at the paused screen. "What do I do!?" Dad's just met the Hurricane, a gargantuan avian fiend. He's not quite ready for that fight yet, but thankfully this is just a teaser. I promise him that it will just fly off. He unpauses the game and it does indeed go on its way, clearly to his great relief.
Despite that moment of fear and surprise, the combat is his favorite part, the "exciting" part. It's those moments in between, however, that actually keep him engaged. The snippets of story and amiable cast, certainly, but more so the ability to just soak in the world at his own pace. Wandering around, getting into trouble. Never running, either.
"I know I can run, Fraser, but I like to saunter. You can tell that to people on the internet: old people enjoy sauntering."
Road trips are a perfect time for dad facts. Anyway, he sticks to his guns and continues to keep a leisurely pace, stopping to pick flowers and get stuck on rocks in a failed attempt to grab some minerals.
"Come on, boys," he calls to Prompto, Ignis and Gladio once he pockets the ore. He's still just getting to know them, but I see the flicker of a blossoming friendship. He even stops to let Prompto take photos. And I don't mean the proper scenic spots where Prompto takes group snaps. When Dad sees Prompto with his camera out, he hangs around waiting for him.
"I know I can run, Fraser, but I like to saunter. You can tell that to people on the internet: old people enjoy sauntering."
After mucking around for a while, we eventually hop back in Regalia. We're off south on a delivery job when I point out that we can listen to some tunes as we make our way across the desert, and we fall back into our traditional car roles: me, the annoying passenger who keeps fiddling with the radio; Dad, the grump who wants some peace and quiet. We come to a compromise where I turn off the terrible dubstep and we listen to some serene, relaxing beats instead.
He's been imagining how gaming could fit into his life as we drive.
"Age isn't an obstacle to it, but time is. I find that, as I've gotten older, I've got more commitments, and while I'm enjoying it, I wouldn't want to give up my three nights of tennis for three nights of gaming," he says. But he appreciates that games like Final Fantasy can be broken down into more manageable chunks of time. "If the whole game takes 20 hours to play, you can still pause and save it and go for a cup of tea, or go for a walk with the dog, and then get right back into it. I like that."
Up until this point, I've been guiding Dad through the game, but he's become considerably more confident and is now picking his own adventures. He's even perfected the gamer slouch and hasn't looked away from the screen in hours. Every new location is an opportunity for him to get more invested in the world and meet its eclectic denizens. He wants to go catch up with our feckless hunter pal Dave, however, for the first in a series of quests that I ditched pretty quickly in my own playthrough.
There are a lot of garbage quests in Final Fantasy XV, mostly drawn from the worst that open-world games offer. This one in particular is supremely dull, tasking the boys with rooting around for hunter tags. Apparently, that's what people do on road trips when they've run out of world-famous diners and giant balls of yarn. I explain to Dad that we can skip this nonsense with no consequences, but he's keen to give Dave a hand.
"I want to get the experience," he says, heading to the diner to get intel on the hunter tags. It's got its hooks in him—though I'm not completely sure that he knows what experience points are actually for. Since he's in charge, we go off on a trek in the sweltering heat of the midday sun.
On the way, we get a bit lost, Dad finally starts to get a handle on the controller, and we both get a fright when we're laughing at Prompto and a monster pops out from behind a rock, knocking Noctis over. Again.
It was, all in all, a brief but fun adventure, and that's when it hits me: there's a lot about Final Fantasy that Dad's able to appreciate far more than I am. For me, the hunt for tags is a particularly uninspired iteration of a quest I've done ten thousand times before. For him, it's new, a fresh adventure; a treasure hunt that inspires him to do more sauntering and enjoy the striking world. The tag itself is largely irrelevant.
"What do you want to do now?" I ask him when we get back to Dave, and he knows immediately. He wants to go fishing. Ever since I pointed out that Noctis' road trip skill is providing fish for dinner, he's had a glint in his eye. Now, with the beach mere minutes away, he's determined to hunt down some scaly food. We get some more quests when we arrive at Galdin Quay, then we head to the pier. There's a cat in our way, unfortunately, but Dad's been warned. He's terrified of them.
I have yet to meet another human so deathly afraid of cats. Whenever he even thinks a cat is around, the defenses go up. A cat that my sister and I entirely made up once chased him out of a restaurant. All it took was some barely convincing cat noises. I am certain that he will be happier now, knowing that more people are aware of his greatest fear.
This particular cat is hungry and looking for some food. Since we're going fishing, I suggest that we can do the quest and I can teach him how to fish all in one go. This turns out to be our greatest trial.
Fishing in Final Fantasy XV is, like so many fishing mini-games, just awful. Fiddly, boring busywork. Lines break, fish get away, Dad starts to get properly frustrated for the first time. I'm up by the TV, pointing at things and doling out instructions that probably don't make a lick of sense.
Father and son fishing trips are always disasters. Still, I feel like we're encapsulating the teamwork that the game places so much importance on. He refuses to give up, staring at the screen with grim intensity, willing the fish to jump onto his hook.
Finally, he catches one, a big bugger that could feed a family of four (or one greedy cat). Dad's reaction to catching it is halfhearted at best, until he sees the size of it and notes the words: 'New Record'. He's thrilled, taking it at face value. He has just set the world record for biggest fish caught, in his mind. He's crestfallen when I reveal that it's his personal record. For a moment, he was the best fisherman the game had ever seen. After all that effort, he has no interest in giving the fish to the cat.
"I'm going to have it for my dinner."
Speaking of dinner, it's now dark outside, in the real world. This has been the longest I've ever seen Dad stay in one place.
"You get pulled into it," he tells me as Ignis turns the fish into a tasty meal. "You want to know more about the world. It's more of a treasure hunt than a fight, and there's an interesting storyline. I thought I'd just be pressing buttons to kill people all the time, but there was more to it. It required more intelligence. And I really liked the concept—it made me really feel like I was part of the characters. That's us been sitting here for four hours, and I don't think I've ever done anything for four hours on the computer before. And I wasn't looking at my watch. It flew by because I felt engrossed in it, and I was really focused on trying to learn the game."
With both of us realizing how late it's become, I assume the reverie's been broken and Dad will be off home to apologize to Mum for being late for his actual dinner, but as it turns out, he's not quite ready to bid Eos farewell for the evening. "One more," he tells me, and with that we're off to grab a final quest.
So we set off on another hike, a ramble across the countryside and down a quiet road until we come to the nest of the very beast that gave Dad such a fright hours ago, the Hurricane. There's some sneaking, a miscalculation leading to an unfortunate stumble off the cliff, and no small amount of swearing as we flee from an enraged and very, very big bird. And in the middle of the whole thing, we get a poorly-timed phone call from Mum, wondering if Dad is ever going to make it home.
After a couple of attempts, Dad scratches that last quest—for today—off the list and we're forced to call it quits, saying cheerio to Noctis, Gladio, Prompto and Ignis. But not, it seems, for good.
"Can I save it so I can come over and keep playing?"
And with that, Final Fantasy XV seemingly lives up to its initial promise, managing to convert a 63-year-old man with no interest in games. I loved Final Fantasy XV when I first played it, Chapter 13 notwithstanding, but I've enjoyed sharing it with the old man even more.
I enjoyed recreating our old road trips. Selfishly, I was more pleased to be able to show him the sort of thing I spend the better part of my day doing or thinking about; the subjects and games that inspire me to write. I'd like to think he understands me just a little bit better, and that strikes me as the best possible destination for a road trip.