My man-toad 10th grade English teacher taught me little, but one thing I've retained from that class is that whenever I read a book, I have to reflect on what I've gained from the experience. Admittedly, I'm not much of a reader, but when it comes to RPGs, I always ask myself this question. When I crave a good story, movies and books are fine, but nothing has ever compared to an RPG. This movie-book-orchestra amalgamation with a heavy dose of interaction has titillated my need for philosophy and intellectual insight since I started learning how to read. I owe much to RPGs, but what I've gained the most is a healthy, positive outlook on life, when in the midst of my adolescence I was excessively critical and bitter about reality.
"That mucilaginous negativity had morphed into a cold lump of apathy and fatalism."
Although my viscous pessimism didn't start until middle school, my life throughout elementary school likely served as an impetus. My family had always struggled financially, and this reflected in the clothes I wore to my suburban school. For those unaware of elementary school culture in suburban areas, not wearing brand-name clothing is akin to pulling yourself up the flagpole by your underwear. Despite this, I embodied a great deal of resilience, and studied hard throughout school. Much of my spare time was spent playing with friends and holing up in my room with RPGs – the original Dragon Warriors, Final Fantasy IV and VI, and Chrono Trigger. I had no idea at the time, but these games would follow me for the rest of my life, leaving firm impressions on many aspects of the person I'd become.
When I made it to middle school and started to form some solid friendships, I had a sort of intellectual awakening that was probably developmentally appropriate. I hungered for philosophical ideas, and after my family got the Internet, I scoured the wires for moral sustenance. A rough school and home life left me wanting for answers as to why I had experienced trials that no one else I knew had to. What I found in chat rooms were other youths like myself who had the same philosophical yearning. We threw ideas around, and, lo and behold, discovered that we played similar games.
An immature understanding of philosophers like Nietzsche and a hard upbringing birthed my cold, unfeeling view on – well – everything. What's more, the old escapist entertainment I used to rely on provided a soap box for the ideas I began to foster. At this point, Kefka seemed to have a clear view of the big picture. I twisted his lunacy into logic by grasping onto key quotes, like how people continue to rebuild that which is destroyed, the impermanence of life, and, most of all, the ultimate meaninglessness of it all. I sat there building on Kefka's lines: we live, do nothing, and rot in the ground. And what for? What will we have to show for it? That mucilaginous negativity had morphed into a cold lump of apathy and fatalism. Some people have a good run, while others suffer. I knew I didn't have the worst of it, but I couldn't help feeling cheated.
When I got a PlayStation and Final Fantasy VII, I was in the prime of my hate. I never smiled, I often felt nothing when I heard bad news about people getting hurt or dying, and I unabashedly communicated brutal honesty to anyone outside my group of friends. Sephiroth was someone to admire. He understood how selfish people were, and how they used and mistreated those who were otherwise helpless. At the time, I didn't fully comprehend FFVII's plot, but I knew that Shinra symbolized everything I hated about people; human nature was vile, and needed to be eradicated. I saw proof of this in everyday life. Self-serving people surrounded me, and billions of others had contaminated the world. Nevermind the irony in playing as the protagonists trying to save the planet from being cleansed, staving off Meteor in the name of Good.
"I owe much to RPGs, but what I've gained the most is a healthy, positive outlook on life..."
Final Fantasy Tactics only served to further engross me in my disgust of human nature. Of course, I enjoyed Delita's character: manipulating those to his will after he realized just how repulsive humanity can be. However, Wiegraf was my favorite character because he was a small character who got swallowed up in a torrent of greed that he could never hope to combat. This greed led him to desperation and a desire for power in order to thwart those who had wronged him and those he cared about. He wasn't the most complex character, but that was why I liked him – I felt like I could relate to his powerlessness.
Then, one day, with no stimulus whatsoever, I had the greatest feeling of enlightenment that I have ever experienced. A wealth of knowledge either awoke in me or rained down from the Heavens all St. Augustine style. I realized that the antagonists I had admired – Kefka, Sephiroth, and Delita – were all miserable. These characters reflected what I had come to know – or what I thought I knew – about people, yet they were just as miserable as I was. The protagonists fought, and even though their travels were hard, they smiled and fought for the well-being of others; they embodied a sort of altruism. Simply put, good vs. evil was oftentimes happy vs. anger. Which is the more enjoyable emotion? Which do we enjoy feeling?
At this instant, I decided that the meaning of life is to be happy. We strive for nothing else other than to be happy, or, at the very least, to choose the least painful option if all choices are terrible. I had set a course for misery and disdain toward all things. Why? Probably because anger is easy and pleasing on a baser level. However, any rational, intelligent person would venture toward happiness. This I learned in brooding protagonists who changed over the course of a game – the kinds of iconic JRPG heroes that annoy so many grown up Westerners. Cecil had this sort of awakening, Squall stopped pushing others away, and Cloud formed his own identity – these lessons came sweeping in all at once.
I went to school the next day with eyes wide and teeth a-struttin'. My friends immediately noticed the difference, and I dodged all of the questions – pretty embarrassing to admit some video game characters got me out of my years of despondency. A week later, I had a rush of new friends and popularity as I felt a more charismatic person pop out of me where an intentionally mean-spirited one once resided. A girl friend of mine told me rather unashamedly: "Bob, I used to be kinda scared of you, but you're actually a pretty cool guy." Another: "Bob, you should smile more! You have a great smile." I am and I do. Thanks, pixels and polygons.
Stop pressing attack.