Hope: A Welcome To Night Vale Fan Episode

If you haven’t heard of Welcome to Night Vale, it’s a podcast that tells the story of a creepy desert town where Lovecraftian horrors exist alongside everyday people, and the madness that ensues. It’s normally told through radio broadcasts, narrated by the voice of Night Vale, radio presenter Cecil Palmer. While listening to several episodes, I was really amused by a lot of the humour, and just started writing down some notes for jokes of my own that I thought would fit into an episode, and before I knew it I had a brief little fan episode written out. So I thought I’d share it with you. Enjoy!


Roses are red. Violets are red. Red is everywhere. Everything is red and there is no going back.

Welcome to Night Vale.

Good mourning Night Vale. Good morning to you, and to all the other mourners in the procession of mourning. Mourning is a good thing. Only through mourning can we heal and grow and find the strength to live.

City council has announced that the ancient temple on the outskirts of town, hidden deep and unreachable within a cluster of trees whose oaken trunks are older perhaps than time itself, will be demolished to make way for a parking lot. The parking lot will not be attached to any businesses or attractions, and will also be unreachable. As always, any attempts to park cars in a parking lot will remain illegal.

Wednesday is currently lost. Because of this absence of a day of the week, a time vortex has opened in the town square, which threatens to engulf the entire town. The sheriff’s secret police have promised a reward for the safe return of Wednesday, or any information leading to the recapture of Wednesday. Remember that if you find Wednesday, it is be to returned to the sheriff’s secret police alive, or else you will be unable to claim the bounty, and the time vortex will consume us all.

The body shop is offering a two for one sale for a limited time. Any body you purchase will come with a second body of equal or lesser value.

The Night Vale PTA bake sale has raised just a hair over $300. Really. The bake sale brought in $300 and a long stand of hair. Dark hair. Hair that looks suspiciously like the dark hair of that girl you met in college. You know the one. You shared an intimate night together and forgot to get one another’s names, and the next day you saw her on the front page of the school paper, momentarily excited to learn her name before you realized that the story was about an annual memorial for a girl who had been hit by a bus years before, and who you discovered had in fact lived in your very dorm room.

The bake sale continue tomorrow, but city council would like to remind you that there will be metal detectors. Anyone found to contain traces of common bodily metals will be detained indefinitely.

Listeners, I don’t often talk about the details of my personal life, being a radio professional and all, but since Carlos vanished into a desert otherworld, he’s only been able to communicate by occasional phone calls, or by drips of strange blue liquid, leaking from my ceiling, landing on the kitchen floor in rhythmic drops resembling Morse code. And frankly, I’m feeling a bit down about the whole thing. With Valentine’s day just around the corner, I know that many listeners will be feeling lonely as well. After all, Valentine’s day can be difficult for those of us with significant others, as we are required each Valentine’s day to sacrifice whoever or whatever it is we love most in the world to the creature in Grove Park, only to have them returned to us the next day, changed in unspeakable ways. But this year I won’t be able to make my offering, because the person about whom I care most is currently trapped in a desert otherworld.

I crawl into bed at night, look over to my nightstand where, amongst my collection of antique doll heads and bone-hewn knives from the Before Times, sits the stethoscope that Carlos gave me on our anniversary. I myself don’t quite understand how to use a stethoscope, after all who has the time to bother learning how to properly throw stones at passing birds with a stethoscope, as is customary in science, but I always enjoy listening to Carlos explain it to me. Sometimes it’s nice just to hear his silky voice, even if I don’t understand what he’s saying. Carlos, if you’re listening to this broadcast, know that I miss you, and I eagerly await your next coded message, dropping in blue rivulets into an undulating quivering mass on the kitchen floor.

The absence of Carlos has caused me to spend a lot of time thinking about hope, dear listeners. Hope is a fickle thing. When it is absent, we despair and long for its presence, lamenting that we’ve lost something we didn’t at first realize we had. And then, over time, we find that we had hope after all, only it was a tiny hope, a little flame that burned in our chests, growing larger and larger, photosynthesizing the sunlight of our thoughts and pumping out the will to continue. When we wake up one morning to discover we have hope, it can be alarming. After all, after you’ve lived so long without any hope at all, how are you to deal with finally having it?

Being able to see a light at the end of a tunnel is, in its own way, more difficult than giving up, and accepting the endless darkness of the tunnel. But hope is a responsibility, a responsibility to ourselves. It is a gift we are given by that little flame within us, which always burns, no matter how small it becomes, and we must hold hope, burning and sometimes singing our weary fingers, and carry it with us. It can sometimes be a burden, in the vast vast darkness, it can illuminate our path, while we wait for the sun to rise. The night is long, listeners, and hope may sting our hands, but still we hold the flame aloft, and let it guide us through safer paths, to shelter, to safety. When the morning comes it begins with a chill, and then as the dew settles in on the wet grass beneath us, we see the sun reaching its bright tentacles up over the distant mountains. And we have morning.

Morning is how we heal, how we grow, how we find the stength to live.

Be safe. Keep hope alive, even when it stings.

And good night, Night Vale.

Good night.

Why I Like Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII is undoubtedly the black sheep of the Final Fantasy series. And when I say black sheep, I mean that the majority of people, both casual fans and hardcore followers of the series alike, really hate it. And I mean they REALLY hate it.

Final Fantasy XIII is a departure in so many ways from the history of the series. There are times when the fact that it’s a Final Fantasy game is indiscernible. It was directed by a series newcomer, Motomu Toriyama, instead of series favorites Hironobu Sakaguchi and character designer Testuya Nomura. Legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu, who created nearly all of the music for the first eleven Final Fantasy installments, was no longer working with Final Fantasy at the time, and the music was handled by Uematsu collaborator Masashi Hamauzu, who had previously helped with some of the music on Final Fantasy X (his work is usually characterized by stacatto piano and violins, atop lush string arrangements, as opposed to Uematsu whose work feels a bit more like pop rock music in orchestral form). The story took on similar themes as previous installments: a group of ordinary characters fighting extraordinarily powerful forces they shouldn’t by any right be able to handle, characters who harness magic and summon powerful creatures, and as always, the ever present religious allegory and the final battle against god (no really, the final battle in most, if not all Final Fantasy games, is against either the god of that universe, a symbolic god, a literal god, or a character who has become a god or seeks to do so).

Battle concept from the E3 2007 trailer

Battle concept from the E3 2007 trailer

Final Fantasy XIII had a lot going for it before release: fans were excited about the new protagonist, Lightning, who was shown off in an E3 concept trailer that showed an early version of the battle system in which battle was entirely active, though still featured menus and magic commands like previous games. Initially, the story was going to be focused on Vanille, but after the positive response to Lightning, the developers switched focus to her. I think that was a good choice because Lightning is a fantastic character. I do often find myself a little aggravated when she is referred to as “the female Cloud Strife.” Despite the opening scenario bearing a lot of similarity to Cloud and Barret’s battle agaisnt the Guard Scorpion, and the fact that she’s an ex-soldier with a moody personality, I don’t actually see much resemblance between the two. Cloud was, in general, a pretty positive character, who actually had a lot of compassion for people’s problems, despite constantly shrugging his shoulders and flipping his hair. Lightning is steely-faced and determined, not at all emotionless but refusing to give in to her fear. Cloud stopped every few minutes to fall to his knees and spazz out with his hands shaking to hold his head still, whereas Lightning almost never loses her drive to push forward.

At any rate, fans liked Lightning and the developers went with it.

The story was written by director Motomu Toriyama, and suppoedly he’s notorious for creating plots that make very little sense. The story of Final Fantasy XIII is so convoluted and bogged down in it’s own terminology that even a dedicated fan who’s played the game several times finds they didn’t really have any clue what was happening on the first play through. Characters communicate with one another, but they seem to always be side-stepping what they’re actually talking about, and no one really gives any clear idea of what’s happening, aside from constantly repeating a few choice phrases (those phrases being, “We’re Pulse l’Cie, enemies of Cocoon,” “If we don’t fulfill our Focus, we’ll become C’ieth,” “Pulse is hell on earth,” “We’re puppets of the fal’Cie,” and “Serah wanted us to save Cocoon”).

Backstory is provided in sporadic chunks that don’t seem to form any clear narrative, and the premise of the final boss fight makes little sense at all. Basically, the villain WANTS the main characters to kill him, because if he dies, Cocoon will be destroyed and he will win. So their response is… to try and kill him. The party shouts about how they refuse to do what he asks, all while doing what he asks. Even weirder is that he fights BACK. His goal is to be killed, yet he attempts to defend himself. It’s a very strange thing. Lightning gives a speech about how they refuse to be bound by their fate, how they refuse to be puppets and do what they’re told, but then she does exactly what they’re told and kills the fal’Cie, with seemingly no idea of how to handle the consequences of what to do when Cocoon falls out of the sky.

The ending also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Throughout the story it’s explained that l’Cie who fulfill their focus become crystal for eternity, unless they’re awakened from crystal stasis by a fal’Cie who gives them a new focus. At the end of the game they fulfill their focus, which was to become Ragnorok and knock Cocoon out of the sky (despite the fact that they did save it), and they turn to crystal because… they did what they were told? Even weirder, it’s never explained how someone can be saved from crystal stasis unless called upon by a fal’Cie, but in the end the entire party turns to crystal and then, with the exception of the characters who held up Cocoon, they’re released fromc crystal with their brands gone, and receive no explanation. This will be half-heartedly explained in the sequels, but Final Fantasy XIII is a self-contained story, and doesn’t mention how this could be possible.

Then there’s Fabula Nova Crystalis.

You see, Final Fantasy XII takes place in a sub-series within the Final Fantasy series called Fabula Nova Crystalis. This is kind of like the Ivalice Alliance from earlier in the series, except that Final Fantasy Tactics wasn’t created with the intention of making a sub-series. Basically, Fabula Nova Crystalis games share the same lore about the creation of their universe, but… not much else. They contain similar themes, they contain fal’Cie, but apart from that they don’t seem to have much to do with one another. The gods serve different functions in different games within the subseries. For instance, the goddess Etro has a different function in Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Type-0, and Final Fantasy Versus XIII (we’ll come back to that in a moment). They don’t all actually happen in the same universe, they happen in different VERSIONS of the same universe. So Final Fantasy XIII and it’s direct sequels are a sub-series (The Lightning Saga) within another sub-series (Fabula Nova Crystalis), within a larger series (Final Fantasy).

Even as a dedicated fan of the series, I’ll admit it’s all very contrived and pretentious.

Then of course, we have Tetsuya Nomura.

Nomura is the character designer for Final Fantasy. He works alongside Yoshitaka Amano who does almost all of the concept illustrations (you might recognize his style from the Final Fantasy logo illustrations, the art of Vampire Hunter D, or his collaboration with Neil Gaiman on a Sandman spinoff). Amano’s style is very unique, his characters tend to have angular pale faces with dark-colored lips and flowing garments that look like watercolor even when they’re pencil sketches. Nomura’s style is a bit more reminiscent of anime. His style has actually become something of an RPG trope.

Crisis Core

It’s become pretty common that if there’s an RPG, the main character will have some or all of the following characteristics: a tall, thin but slightly muscular male, with spikey or otherwise outrageous hair, usually blonde. His facial features will be somewhat androgynous, and regardless of his age he’ll look like he’s seventeen. He’ll probably be wearing a constant scowl and gazing longingly into the horizon, or moping in the rain. He’ll be carrying some kind of enormous weapon like a sword that looks like it’s a chunk of metal ripped from the side of a skyscraper, or something eqaully obstuse like a techno-sword or transforming gun. He’ll be wearing outlandish clothes, usually covered in belts that don’t serve much purpose, accesorized so much that you wonder how he can walk around without jangling like a set of house keys, he’ll probably have a pauldron on his left shoulder and the left side of his outfit will be far more decorated than the right side. He’ll also be wearing either combat boots or large sneakers, and if he’s done in the style of animated character, he’ll probably have giant hands and feet and a thin, lanky body.

Oh and also sometimes angel wings. Don’t ask me why.

If you recognize this archetype, you have Tetsuya Nomura to thank. I don’t mean to imply that he created Bishounen or the style of Doujinshi characters, but his influence on the video game world is pretty undeniable. Nomura was involved in the development of Final Fantasy XIII but only as far as character design, after that he stepped away and didn’t want to have anything else to do with it. In fact, he was so opposed to the game, that he started working on his own game, which he titled Final Fantasy Versus XIII, because it was created in direct opposition to Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy Versus XIII was a bad name, but it stuck, and for years, fans had only scraps of information and a few brief concept trailers relating to the game. No one really knew what it was like, who these characters were, what kind of game it would be. Information was so slim that after nearly a decade, fans began to wonder if it hadn’t been cancelled altogether. Then it was announced that Final Fantasy Versus XIII would be rebranded as Final Fantasy XV, and fans collectively lost their shit with excitement, especially those who felt put upon by the radical departure of Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t just different in it’s scenario design, it played unlike any in the series so far. One of the big complaints fans had for Final Fantasy X was it’s linearity, the fact that players mostly walked a (very pretty) straight line from end of the game to the other, and that any time the world opened up, it was really only the illusion of space. When an ariship was provided for exploration, it only allowed players to warp to previous locations in the game, since there hadn’t been an overworld since Final Fantasy IX. Final Fantasy XII attempted to remedy this problem by opening the game up so much that traversing the world map meant slogging through several screens of wide open land. Both of these approaches worked in some ways and failed in others. In Final Fantasy X, the focus remained on the story, while traveling the straight path allowed some time for random battles and character customization. The wide open areas of Final Fantasy XII meant a larger opportunity to grind for experience, money and items, but a longer wait for the next story segment.

Final Fantasy XIII decided to adapt the Final Fantasy X strategy and keep things linear. Very linear.

Very, VERY linear.

No really, the number one complaint about this game is that it’s virtually on rails. And the people who made that complaint are absolutely correct. It really is. The areas are breathtakingly beautiful, but most of the time the paths you travel are tight hallways or catwalks, overlooking a gorgeous landscape that you can’t explore. Many of the paths serve only as set pieces to highlight the beautiful surroundings, which you cannot experience up close. Rather than random battles, enemies prowl around in real time, but approaching them moves the game to a battle screen. This method has been used in plenty of RPG’s before and it works, but it’s ultimately up to the player to decide whether they prefer slogging through endless random battles or choosing which battles to partake in. I admit that if the developers had chosen to use random battles, the linear pathways would probably have been unbearable for me, and the huge surroundings would be barren and lifeless.

Battle

Battles themselves turn the RPG formula on it’s head. You still have the option of choosing commands from a menu, but it’s really only the illusion of choice. Most of the time you’ll be using an “auto-battle” function. Now, I know it seems ridiculous to even include an “auto-battle” option, but there is a reason for it. Final Fantasy XIII’s battles are not actually about choosing which individual abilities to use on which character, they’re actually about choosing which CHARACTERS are performing which KINDS of actions. Characters are given six roles: Commando, Ravager, Medic, Saboteur, Synergist, and Sentinel. What these ultimately equate to are: Tank, Offensive Mage, Healer, Debuff Mage, Protective Mage, and Damage Magnet. Different characters have different combinations of access to these roles, so constantly changing your style to fit the situation is a necessity. You then focus all your effort on one enemy at a time, attacking them and building up a Chain Gauge, which when filled entirely, will send the enemy into an incredibly weak “staggered” status, which allows your characters to do double, triple or more damage, launch foes into the air, hit them with debuffs they were previously resistant to, or in the case of some behemoth superbosses, knock them on their side so you can pound away at them or heal yourself.

Different roles have different staggering capabilities. Commandos basically don’t affect that chain gauge at all, and during my first play through of the game I somehow managed to completely miss this, often throwing three tanks at a single enemy and wondering why they just weren’t doing enough damage. Ravagers are the best at building chain gauges, but if you attack with only ravagers, the gauge will rapidly drop down to zero, so you need a Commando or a debuffing Saboteur to stabilize it so that it drops much slower. The entire battle system is built around monitoring your opponents chain gauge, buffing yourself and debuffing them, and keeping yourself healed while you wait for them to hit their stagger point and then go in for the kill.

Healing items basically don’t exist. You are given two healing items the entire game, a simple Potion, and an incredibly rare full-healing Elixir (there are something like five obtainable Elixirs in the entire game). The Potion is obsolete even by the third chapter or so, it only heals a set number of HP, and there are never any upgraded Potions available at any point during the game. It’s like they’re only there to taunt you. You absolutely HAVE to have a Medic in your party, healing you almost constantly, or you will go down quickly. This makes party customization (when it becomes available extremely late in the game) very difficult, because there are only two apt Medics in the entire game, Hope and Vanille, and they happen to be the characters with the lowest HP, particularly Hope, you will have to spend a good amount of your time either healing or bringing back to life with Phoenix Downs (luckily those are still pretty useful, if expensive).

Even though each character has a unique set of three roles available to them (ability to unlock other roles becomes accessible later, but the amount of experience required makes it nearly impossible, and even still, not all characters can excel in every role), there are essentially three presets: tank, mage, and all-rounder, and you are given two of each. In order to succeed, you basically need to have one of each kind in your party if you want to win. For example, the two all-rounders are Lightning and Sazh, the two mages/healers are Hope and Vanille, and the two tanks are Fang and Snow. This means that it’s almost impossible to have a successful party setup WITHOUT Hope or Vanille, and attempting to use both Sazh and Fang at the same time means you have to subtract Lightning, or if you want multiple tanks in your party your other character can’t be an all-rounder, they need to be a healer. This isn’t about Paradigm roles, it’s the way the characters are designed.

I personally like characters to have limited designs (for example: Vivi is the only black mage in Final Fantasy IX, and cannot be turned into a tank no matter how hard you try, whereas Zidane is a physical attacker and can’t learn magic whatsoever), it’s definitely preferable to the blank slates of Final Fantasy VII, where each character is an interchangeable carbon copy of one another and the ability to overpower characters with Materia makes the characters themselves inherently pointless with no noticeable stat differences. However, the battles are set up in such a way that you simply CANNOT survive without having an adept healer, so Lightning isn’t good enough, and if you unlock the Paradigm roles for them, neither are Sazh, Fang or Snow. Only Vanille and Hope can be counted on to reliably heal the party, so this means you HAVE to use one of the two of them at all times. I don’t mind these characters, in fact Vanille is one of my favorites, but you can see how this becomes limiting quickly. This preset character type also means that the only way to viably use Sazh in your party is to replace Lightning, in which case you have an all-rounder that can’t heal, or replace your tank, in which case you have to repurpose your all-rounder in a tank.

Odin

Characters level up through “CP,” or Crystogen Points, which you use to increase their stats and abilities in the Crystarium, which is more less a very limited version of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. The Crystarium actually caps at a certain point in each of the game’s thirteen chapters, and you don’t actually unlock the entirety of the Crystarium until after the game is completed. Grinding for crystogen points can be incredibly monotonous, particularly if you don’t have the Growth Egg accessory which doubles CP and is very difficult to acquire when it becomes first available. Though each character is eventually granted access to every role in the Crystarium, each Crystarium is different for each character, and no matter how much you grind, certain characters will never be able to excel at certain roles or obtain certain abilities. For instance, the healing ability Curaja is available to only two characters in the game, the dedicated healers Hope and Vanille. So, no matter how hard you try to make Sazh a capable healer, he will never have access to that spell, basically making your efforts to turn him into your parties dedicated healer useless unless your incredibly overpowered. Lightning and Hope both have unique versions of the Sentinel role which allow them to sidestep enemy attacks rather than take them with the damage mitigated, but you don’t really get the chance to use Lightning in this role until after the game’s completed and you’ve already got plenty of other capable Sentinels, and Hope manages to be a damage magnet with the lowest HP in the game even when he isn’t a Sentinel, so making him one would require incredibly careful repurposing of your other party members.

Because of how limited the characters are, it’s incredibly difficult to choose a weapon. The weapon in system in Final Fantasy XIII is probably my favorite aspect of customization, despite how flawed it is. No weapon in the game is truly bad, they’re all just suited to different purposes, and each one has a catch. If the weapon has incredibly high strength growth, it’s probably at the expense of magic growth, and if it excels in both, it will probably come with the Stagger Lock property which prevents that specific character from being able to stagger enemies. Some weapons have great secondary bonus effects like improved healing or extension of buffs/debuffs/stagger time, but this usually comes at a cost of hugely cutting the weapons stats, to the point that you can’t rely on that weapon to increase your stats at all and you have to use accessories, of which you have a limited amount of slots.

Because you can’t really tell what the stat growth for each weapon is like upon receiving them, you’re basically forced to use a guide to tell which weapon will have the stats you need for the role you’re intending to use that character in, and if you make a wrong choice you can waste a LOT of resources leveling up a weapon that doesn’t suit your purposes, with no way to get back all that money you spent on it. And money is an incredibly limited resource in Final Fantasy XIII. LITERALLY the only way to get money is to sell items that you find in the field, usually weapons you aren’t using. This is frustrating if you’re attempting to get the Treasure Hunter achievement/trophy, which requires you to possess every single item in the game, and it’s upgraded form, at one time or another. Either you sell the equipment now and buy it back later to upgrade it for the achievement, or you give up on the achievement altogether. Ultimately it’s an achievement not truly worth breaking your back over, you don’t get any other in-game reward apart from the achievement itself, but for die-hards who want to unlock everything, it’s very frustrating.

So, put all of this together and you can see where the criticism comes from. Final Fantasy XIII is a game with a contrived plot, which takes place over several linear chapters where you travel on rails from point A to point B, fighting battles in which you’re forced to keep everyone in their boxes without much chance for customization, given incredibly little money or resources to upgrade your equipment or buy new items, a character growth system which provides only the illusion of customization (every character will cap out with the exact same stats every time you play the game) and level caps for each chapter, and a system in which truly excelling at battles isn’t permitted until after the game has been completed.

So… why do I like it so much?

archylte_steppe_-_central_expanse

It’s hard to tell. I once had a friend who accused me of being in an abusive relationship with Lightning, that I had convinced myself the game was fun and stayed with it even though it was doing absolutely nothing for me. And I’ve actually wondered that a few times too. I see the games flaws, I’m not ignorant of them. I’ve sunk SO many hours into this game, replaying from the beginning many times, that I recognize these problems probably more than casual gamers who gave up on Final Fantasy XIII (and I have met a lot of people who said they gave up and never finished the game).

But there’s something very charming about it. The story is mostly nonsense, but it’s fun nonsense, and there are some worthwhile concepts being explored, even in Final Fantasy XIII’s obtuse way. The characters are fun, Lightning herself is an awesome heroin, Fang and Vanille provide the first example of an LGBT relationship in the Final Fantasy series, even if it’s entirely subtext. Snow annoys the hell out of me, but at least I get to see Lightning punch him and Hope call him out on being such a chummy douchebag. Sazh is one of the most well-rounded characters in Final Fantasy, humorous and emotional at once, with perhaps the most believable motivations in the game. The flashbacks are odious, and the game drags at several points, but there’s something about Final Fantasy XIII that makes me want to put in some headphones and listen to podcasts or an audiobook while I while away forty hours trying new things that I didn’t before. I’ve replayed the game many times, and I’ve been impressed by the versatility of the characters if you know what you’re doing and put it to good use. It’s possible to make Lightning a better tank than Fang, to have Sazh excel in either damage dealing or magic (he happens to have the best weapon/ability combination for building chain gauges in the game), to use Snow… at all.

No really, I would estimate that I’ve probably put a combined… three hundred to four hundred hours of my life into this game, and I only recently on this very last playthrough ever used Snow at all, for anything. Previously I had only used him as my human shield while Death-spamming the Ochu that gives you the Growth Egg. Fun fact about that, by the way: it usually takes me hours to get Death to work on it, this past attempt it worked on my FIRST try. Sorry, I just needed to share that.

Final Fantasy XIII, for all it’s limiting narrow linearity, actually has a fair amount of versatility. If you go into it wanting it to be Final Fantasy X, you’re going to be disappointing. But if you accept it for what it is: a deeply flawed but still fun game, with stunning visuals, a mostly excellent score (even if it is repetitive), and an immersive world, even a silly immersive world, then you can have fun with it. After my first time conquering the game, I thought maybe I’d be done with it, but found that I had much more fun in the post-game than I did during the story. The world DOES eventually open up, even if it opens up to the Archylte Steppe, a huge (gorgeous) sandbox filled with wolves and Adamantoise, and several hours worth of monster hunts.

Final Fantasy XIII will never be the open-ended, super customization adventure that most RPG’s attempt to be. But it wasn’t actually trying to be. It was trying to create a method of playing so streamlined that it felt like an interactive movie, where battles happen in the illusion of real time, the characters traversing narrow catwalks are actually experiencing this real journey on foot, and the story takes precedence over everything. It is riddled with flaws, and I wish that there could be a re-release of the game that just fixed a few choice issues: lack of customization in the Crystarium, lack of money, and better access to weapon customization materials. It isn’t the linearity that bothers me as a player, it’s the lack of ability to make each playthrough different from the last. It’s possible, but the differences are subtle.

I genuinely don’t know why I learned to love this game, but I did. I see it’s flaws, and I enjoy it anyway. It is not as immediately fun to pick up as past Final Fantasies, but for some reason, when I want to binge on an RPG and mindlessly level up a character for hours while I’m listening to audiobooks, I tend to choose Final Fantasy XII.

This post was initially meant as an overview of why I like the entire Final Fantasy XIII sub-series, but it accidentally turned into a review of the game, which is fine because I attempted to review it once and made a huge mess. So, maybe sometime I’ll come back for “Why I Kind of Like Final Fantasy XIII-2” or “Why I Mostly Like Lightning Returns.”

 

#121: For Zack

meandzack

Hi Zack

It’s about 9:30 at night, I’m sitting in the office on my new laptop. Jake is on the floor next to the chair. I’ve had kind of a weird day. I went out to find something to eat this afternoon and I ate a frosty from Wendy’s, and due to being diabetic I learned the hard way just how bad of an idea that was. I’m probably lucky that I’ve just had a headache, and the constant feeling that my ears are popping.

What I’ve done all day to occupy myself is very similar to what I did when I first got here, almost one year ago. I’m going through my music collection, and adding to it from your CD collection. When I first moved here I was stunned at how many CDs you had, because I was convinced I was the only person who still had a collection of CDs. I imported way more of your music than I ever actually got around to listening to, though I have discovered quite a lot of new artists since meeting you.

The day we met has been on my mind today. I guess I didn’t notice until just now, but it’s probably related to a dream I had last night. Last night I dreamt that I was walking into the train station again, and seeing you waiting for me, holding a book (I can’t remember the name but it was a mystery crime novel you got from the library). I don’t remember much of the dream, just the vague notion that I was there again, and I KNEW that I was there for the second time, and I thought to myself, “I have to make this work this time. I have to do this again, and make sure to keep my job, so that I don’t have to go back to my mom’s house.”

Hold on, I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, just stay with me here. I’ve been thinking about how I felt that day, when I met you in that train station. The first thing that struck me was how cute you were, and I instantly had a crush on you. In fact I was really infatuated with you for the first couple of months that I was here. On that first day, we didn’t talk very much. We didn’t know what to say. You didn’t know how to start the conversation and I was so overwhelmed that this was ACTUALLY happening, that I didn’t know what to think. I remember us walking to the parking garage and loading my bags into the car, and I remember the drive on the highway. We were listening to one of the rock stations on Satellite radio. It was the first time I’d heard Stitched Up Heart. I know we eventually started talking, I just don’t remember much of what it was about. I remember poking you. Partially it was to get a conversation started and partially it was just because I wanted to touch you.

I remember when we pulled into the garage for the first time. I remember that you told me to wait while you brought the dogs out to meet me. While you were inside the house I noticed a snow shovel on the wall. I kind of smiled, because I realized that we actually lived in a place where real snowfall was something to be prepared for, because I’ve lived in the south my whole life and it’s never been much of an issue. It also struck me that I was suddenly in “the north,” and even though it’s debatable whether or not Delaware is considered to be a northern state, I was so relieved to have some distance between myself and the south. The place I grew up, where people had thick accents and chewed tobacco and churches littered every corner, and you got funny looks for doing anything even slightly atypical. A place where I had to keep my head down and avoid eye contact.

I remember when the dogs rushed out into the garage and jumped into the trunk of Robert’s car, sitting on my luggage. I remember when I first walked into the house I was so impressed with how spacious the house was. I don’t remember much else about that first day, except for Robert coming home and how I didn’t really know him as well as you, so I wasn’t sure what to say. He seemed a little more serious than you, and I think I might have been a little afraid of him. I found him intimidating for some reason, but it was probably just because he’s a little more reserved.

I don’t remember much else about the first day here. But I have all sorts of memories about the first few months. I remember that something happened which I didn’t expect. I kept having these emotional breakdowns, and I didn’t know why. I would go off at any little thing and just start crying, I took any excuse to dramatically storm out of the room and run into my room crying. Every time, you followed me. You held me. You promised me it was alright now. That I never had to go back. I told you how afraid I was that you guys would get tired of me and send me back. You promised me that wouldn’t happen.

Stop it, don’t start feeling guilty again. I’m really not trying to guilt trip you here. I’m just telling you what I remember.

I remember getting a job at Barnes and Noble and being so excited, and I remember the horror as my excitement turned to anxiety and I started having panic attacks at work, and before work. I had trouble going to sleep, sometimes trouble eating. On Thanksgiving I couldn’t concentrate all day, and I ended up walking outside and sitting on the porch, eventually just laying down on my back and trying to breathe. I realized that working at Barnes and Noble was too stressful for me, that I needed to find something else, that I needed some kind of office job. I remember the immense relief when they fired me a few days later. I really was upset about it, I was being genuine when I told you I was upset, and it was because I didn’t want to disappoint you. But I was very relieved that it was over, and that I could crawl back into bed where it was safe, that I didn’t have to go back there, to a place where I felt like I was in chains.

I remember the excitement of getting hired at Avalanche, and how proud you both were of me. One of my favorite memories is when we were setting up the Christmas tree in the living room, and we baked Christmas cookies while we were watching the Simpsons. I often go back to that memory when I need to feel stable and safe, and have hope for the future. I remind myself that there can be more times like that night, and I can feel as safe as I did then. I remember getting used to the routine of driving to and from work every day, and truthfully I never got used to working 45 hours a week. It was so MUCH, even if I wasn’t doing very much work. I had never had that kind of responsibility before, even if it was an easy responsibility.

I think if I tried to describe all of my memories from all the trips we took to meet the other people from the Patreon group, I’d be rambling on for pages and pages about it. But my favorite thing was always the beginning. I love road trips. I love them even more with friends. I’ve had so few opportunities to go on road trips with friends. I love stopping at the gas station at the beginning, getting supplies, choosing CDs to listen to on the trip, I even love falling asleep while you’re driving. I love listening to you sing while your favorite music plays, even if some of the heavier metal is kind of indiscernible to me.

I felt safe. I have always been safe with you.

It got harder when I quit Avalanche. Looking back, it’s such a big regret of mine. Because at the time I genuinely thought that I could make it without that job. I wish I had understood then how important it was for me to have that job, for me to have something full-time, and I wish I knew then that office stress was MUCH easier to manage than retail stress. I wish they had hired me back when I applied again, and when I called and called. I’ve probably called them at least once every month or so. No matter how many times I call the managers, none of them pick up their phones. I even left one of them a handwritten note at the front desk once, but never got a call back. I tried texting my old manager but he stopped responding. There was just no hope of getting the job back. And yeah, it wasn’t the best office job. I wish I would have immediately set my sights on finding another office job, or going to a temp agency or something.

I wish a lot of things. But it did feel good to leave Avalanche. And it did feel good to start working at Staples. Admittedly the feeling didn’t last very long. I remember the stress building and building, becoming worse with each failed attempt at a job. I tried working at two stores for Staples and I still didn’t have enough money, I tried working full time at the pawn shop and I was absolutely miserable. I moved back to my mom’s house and I missed my family so much, my real family, you and Robert and the dogs, and the sloths. You welcomed me back.

Letting me come back means more to me than you can realize. Even if it only lasted a couple of months, the fact that you welcomed me back home when I asked, that’s something important. It shows me, looking back on it, that you weren’t afraid to take another chance on me. That you were willing to put yourself out on a limb for me.

This recent job hunt didn’t work out much either. I got the job at Target and hated it, but I tried not to complain to vocally, because I didn’t want to upset you guys. I know how tight money was getting, I know that I was becoming a burden on you. I know that in one year I’ve paid rent maybe three or four times.

I just want you to know that I never intentionally used you or Robert. I never TRIED to live off of you. I will admit that there were many times when I knew the two of you would be forgiving, and that you probably wouldn’t make me leave if I fucked up, so I didn’t always make the best choices because I knew you could be counted on to pick up the slack. That was abusing your kindness and your trust, and I’m sorry. I truly am. I guess I didn’t realize how fucked it up was that I did that until just now. But please understand that I wasn’t trying to live off of you, to be a leech. I just knew that if I failed or gave up, there was a good chance you guys would take care of me in the interim of a few weeks while I searched for something new. I fell into a pattern, and it was an unhealthy one. I started using you in the same way I’ve used other people: my family, and at least four ex-boyfriends that I can think of immediately. I have always trusted other people to take care of me when I can’t take care of myself.

I told you earlier today that I’ve come to the realization that I seem to need to be parented. It happens in relationships and in friendships. I need for someone else to be in control, and to have a steady grip on things, someone I can rely on. I think this is because of how unreliable my own parents have been. One of my biggest fears when I was a teenager being shuffled from house to house was that I didn’t know where I would lay my head down the next night, and I felt that the reason was because I had a mother who didn’t, or couldn’t, love me.

And that’s really the thing. You saved me. Robert saved me too, but it was you who took the first step, you who reached out to me, you who listened, and you who suggested that I might be able to stay in your guest bedroom. You asked Robert. You paid for SO much. You bought me food, and you bought me a car, you got me set up, you put me on my feet, and you hugged me and held me whenever I cried and told you I was afraid.

You promised I would never have to go back.

And I’m not going back.

That’s the thing. Right now, because of the situation, I’ll need to move in with my mom for a short while. I’m hoping it will be only a few months before I figure something else out. But I’m still not going back.

I’m never going back again, to the place I was when you met me. I’m never going back to being that terrified boy, who had no one in the world he could trust. I’m never going  back to that place of desperation and fear.

Because I have a home now. Because I have love now.

Because I have a FAMILY now.

You made good on your promise, Zack. I never have to go back to where I was when we met. I never have to go back to being afraid that there’s no one in the world who cares about my well being. I never have to worry that I can’t have a loving family who cares about my thoughts, my feelings, my voice, and who encourages my talent and my future.

No matter where I go, you are a part of me now. No one can take that away from me. Not my mother. Not my father. No distance can stop the way I feel about you and Robert, and no distance can stop this house and this atmosphere from being my home.

I wish I didn’t have to go to my mom’s house, and I know you do too. I’m afraid. I’m not so much afraid of what she’ll do (I have plenty of experience deflecting her vitriol), the thing I’m most afraid of is that I might, unforgivably, for even a moment, forget you, or forget how I feel being here, forget my home, forget the love I have here. I fear that I might give in to despair for just a moment and forget how many people love me, and how many people encourage me and want the best for me. And the truth is, a large part of that is because of you. The sloths have opened their hearts to me because they’re wonderful people, but if not for your bold act of kindness, with no expectation of reward or returned favor, I wouldn’t have gotten to meet them, at least not when I did. I wouldn’t have had this year with you.

It’s funny, so much terrible stuff has happened in the world in the past year. I always pause when I see people saying things like “I just want 2016 to be over,” and believe me I identify with them and I’ve said it myself. But truthfully, despite all the trials I’ve faced over the past year, I’m glad that it was here, with you, and with Robert. I’m glad that I had you to come home to. I’m glad that I had you to show my music, my writing, and my ideas to. I’m glad that you listened to me ramble about my interests, and that you shared your interests with me. I’m glad that you cared about me, that you guarded me ferociously when you found out about my blood test results and came to the doctor’s office with me to help me make sure I understood my diagnosis and what to do next. I’m glad that you took me with you to so many place, to concerts, to gatherings, to meet your family.

I went through a period earlier this year when I felt suicidal. I think a big part of that had to with how much suicidal stuff I was surrounding myself with: I was getting really involved in Emilie Autumn’s art, which has a lot of examination of suicide, the mythology and morality questions surrounding it, and I think I wanted to identify with her, as someone who was suicidal, because it helped me to feel that I had an identity to be proud of, even if that identity was a mental illness. I know you’ve worried about me hurting myself. I can’t say that I’ve honestly not considered hurting myself, but I know that I’ve not really come close to TRYING anything. Just basically sunk into the depression and daydreamed about it. I guess I want you to know that I’m sorry if I scared you with my talk of being suicidal, and also that I don’t want you to be scared that I’ll try to hurt myself if I go to my mom’s house.

I promise, if I hit rock bottom, if I lose all hope, I’ll call you. And if you don’t answer I’ll wait until you do. And if absolutely nothing works, I’ll sell my video games and drive here with the gas money before I try and hurt myself. But just so you know, I really don’t think I’m going to hurt myself.

I wish it weren’t my mom’s house. And it is upsetting in many ways. But the thing that really makes me sad, is losing this. I know that I’m not REALLY losing it, I’m not losing the fact that I have a home and a family, I’m not losing the love I feel for you and Robert, or the trust I have in the two of you, or the way either of you feel about me. But it will be a change. It’s hard to imagine I won’t allow some feeling of dread that I’ve turned back the clock sink into me when I’m in South Carolina. But I know that I can overcome those feelings because I have you here, and I have Robert, and I have the sloths.

I’ll miss Jake a lot. I’ll miss having him in bed with me every night. I tried to sleep with Butterscotch in my bed before but her fur is really thick so petting her makes my hands feel icky. It’s not her fault. Just, Jake is easier to sleep with. I like to cuddle with him. I feel safe and comforted having Jake near me, and I think he feels the same. I’ve never really bonded with a dog the way I have with Jake. I’ll miss Roxxi too, and Apollo. Apollo is finally starting to warm up to me as much as he does to you. Roxxi’s started following me around a lot more in the last few months too. I hope they’ll be okay. I hope they won’t be too upset that I’m not here. It breaks my heart to imagine Jake laying on my bed in the guest bedroom, wondering when I’ll come home.

I hope that I come back here some day. I know that might sound kind of unexpected, but I hope it happens. I hope I’m able to get some kind of job, like being a writer or something that I can do online, where I’m able to do it from anywhere, and I can come back. I’m not asking for that to be on the table, I know you would need time to think about that, and besides I know you need the relief of getting back to saving money and time to get adjusted to me not being here. But I hope it will happen. It’s a wish, deep in my heart, a little secret, that one day I can come home, when I’m ready, and when I’m able. I hope sooner than later.

I’m scared. I’m excited about the drive. Like I said, I love car trips. I’ve been burning CDs all day. I’ve been getting ready. I’ve been borrowing your music. And I’ve been getting ready this past year, and borrowing from you. I asked you, and you helped me.

You can’t possibly ever understand what you’ve given me, Zack.

I may not have actually killed myself if I hadn’t come here. But I would have kept dying. I was dying then. And when you rescued me, I was pulled out of an ocean, and when you’re saved from drowning, the first thing you do is cough and pant and gasp for air, and it hurts. But it’s a good thing. It’s how you come back to breathing, and to being alive.

Thank you for making me alive.

There’s a song called Being Alive, it’s a Stephen Sondheim song from the musical Company. Whenever Nathan and I broke up, I spent a lot of time listening to songs from musicals, especially Into the Woods. But Bernadette Peters sang the song on one of her albums, and it’s a beautiful song. And it has these lyrics that I used to sing along to, and I would sing them out into the universe, hoping someone would hear them and answer me:

“Somebody hold me too close, somebody hurt me too deep
Somebody sit in my chair, and ruin my sleep
And make me aware of being alive
Somebody need me too much, somebody know me too well
Somebody pull me up short, and put me through hell,
And give me support for being alive
Make me alive, make me alive
Make me confused, mock me with praise
Let me be used, vary my days
But alone is alone, not alive
Somebody crowd me with love, somebody force me to care
Somebody make me come through, I’ll always be there, as frightened as you
To help us survive
Being alive”

Thank you for being the one who answered the call I sent out into the world. Thank you for saving me. Thank you for giving me the love I had lost when Nathan left, and for being the first person in my entire life to give me real, functional love, built on trust, with no anger and baggage and fear.

Thank you for being my friend when I needed, my lover when I needed, my brother when I needed, and my parent when I needed. Thank you for being everything for me. Thank you.

Thank you for making me alive.

It hurts to be alive. But that’s part of what makes it special.

I’m going to miss being here, and I’m going to miss you so much every day. I know I’ll see you again, and I know I’ll talk to you and be in touch with you. But the actual “touch” part, I’ll miss that. I’ll miss hugging you before I go to bed every night. I’ll even miss when you get mad at me. I’ll miss everything about this place, and you, and the dogs, and Robert, and staying up late playing video games, and going to the store in the middle of the night and coming back in to be greeted by Jake slapping his tail against the wall, and listening to podcasts all night, and driving to Wawa, and ordering pizza, and watching the Simpsons, and baking cookies at Christmas, and laughing about Family Guy jokes, and ranting about religion and atheism, and everything, everything, everything.

I will carry you with me into the next chapter. I will be frightened. But I will be safe, deep inside, knowing that I have a home. And you are my home, Zack. Wherever you and Robert are, that’s where I’m safe.

And all I ever wanted was to be safe.

You gave me everything I ever wanted.

I love you.

Death

Rain Over the Forest

One day I will die, and I will no longer exist in any way. My body will not exist, my mind will not exist, my hopes and feelings and angers and will will not exist. I will be obliterated from existent. I will not see black. I will not see anything. I will not feel fear or longing or sadness, because I will not feel anything. I will not bemoan my banishment to the void, because I will not bemoan anything, I will not regret or fear or hate or love or experience joy or sadness or pleasure. I will no longer exist. I will be utterly, irrefutably, and immutably destroyed.

And this does not trouble me. Because there is one thing I can leave behind. One thing that can live forever. My thoughts, my stories, my music, my characters, these things are said to be fanciful wastes of time, distractions from my real life. But in truth, my stories and my imagination are the only part of myself that can continue to exist. If i think back in my life, what I love most, what matters the most to me, are the stories in my mind, the moments of happiness and despair that I can capture and put down. And if I can leave behind these, I will still exist.

I don’t create to fight death, because death will be there waiting for me. Death does not come after us, it waits for us. And death will be a calm and beautiful embrace, I will relax and relax and relax until I am nothing but peaceful and eternal rest. I will no longer be troubled, no longer fear, and I will no longer have need for joy or love, because I will have reached a nirvana far greater than any heaven. I will be at peace forever and ever, and my peace will never be disturbed. And my stories can touch others if I leave them behind.

I can take comfort in knowing that no one in the history of all the world can say they know what happens beyond death, not just because I know they’d be lying if they did, but because deep down we all know the same thing: we are going to die. And that is not tragic, nor is it sorrowful, it is beautiful. Death is a hope for an eternal sleep, in death the evil and the righteous are made equal, and every one is given peace from the labors of life. Death is not a cloaked shadow to be feared, nor a pit of endless darkness. Death is the moment when you fall asleep and give over to the sweet ecstasy of relaxation, death is the feeling of all pain being relieved, death is the cure of all malady and fear and trouble.

Death is a reward for one patient enough to wade through the waters of life, beautiful and bright, murky and stagnant. We live and we love, we enjoy the pleasures of being, and then we relax, we rest forever. There is nothing here to be feared.