between the cracks

life between tragedies in final fantasy: crystal chronicles

by tony

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is a slim, personal memoir that sits between two bookends of weighty tragedy. The game, arguably Square’s most emotionally intimate title, is set some time after a global cataclysm that left no family untouched. A mysterious, foul Miasma has spread throughout the world, and has taken the lives of all who have inhaled it. Those affected are transformed into aggressive monsters who completely forget their homes and loved ones and exist only to consume and survive. However, enough time has passed that the cataclysm is no longer a fresh wound, but instead is a darkness that persistently pulls at the frayed ends of the lives of the survivors. But first, let’s take a step back to before the Miasma.

As a delicate, withdrawn seven year old, I wasn’t often welcomed into the games other boys would play. When forced into these games by the machinations of my elementary school teachers, disaster tended to follow. One conflict over who would retrieve the kickball resulted in an aggressive, popular boy named Bryan grabbing the neck of my favorite tee shirt and yanking on it while he called me a sissy. When the red in my eyes subsided, I saw him on the ground sobbing and holding onto his injured hand. Me and the Bryans of the world, we didn’t get along.

My mother introduced me to the son of one of her close friends, a sweet and happy boy who I’ll call Kenny. I didn’t know what “leukemia” was, but I knew that Kenny had a Sega Genesis, and I knew that I loved to play as Tails in Sonic 3. Our hearts pounded as one as I’d whir my tails and rescue Kenny from drowning in Hydrocity Zone while our brothers listened to the Secret Track on a Green Day cassette in the next room over. We’d spend hours doing tricks outside on the trampoline and praising each other’s good form and acrobatic innovation. Although our homes were separated by a 30 minute drive, our mothers would schedule these playdates as often as they could, and I was oblivious to the urgency underlying their frequency.

i learned a lot of new words around this time: “bone marrow transplant” and “remission” became a part of my vocabulary.

My mom’s face would light up when we’d talk about Kenny and his mother and brother, and I shared in her joy and relief. Kenny and I continued to grow closer, and I looked forward to our visits like nothing else in my life, save Christmas. We took a trip to his grandmother’s beautiful house in the country and romped through the Florida wilderness in the morning, then walloped each other in ClayFighter in the afternoon. He always had a new game or toy to show me, and I was always willing and eager to be his P2. We hugged each other more than other boys did, and this innocent intimacy helped to cement our bond. I overheard our mothers whispering about our closeness one afternoon with concern, and I never stopped feeling overly conscious of it.

My vocabulary continued to expand: “The Make-a-Wish Foundation” became a part of our lives. Kenny excitedly told me that we were going on a trip to Disney World, and I was the only friend that he was inviting along! I remember almost nothing of that trip except for the pitying look the parking lot attendant gave Kenny’s mom when she handed the Make-a-Wish branded all access pass to him. Time moved quickly, then-- Kenny got sicker, and we stopped seeing each other. I suspect my mom was trying to protect, but I just grew more and more frustrated that my once-ubiquitous friend had all but vanished from my life. But I much preferred that frustration to the abject confusion that she elicited with her assertion that “It’s time to say goodbye.” The last time I saw Kenny, he was unable to leave the bed or even sit up, but he still smiled and laughed with me as I sat by his bedside.

Time passes. The citizens in Crystal Chronicles try to maintain some semblance of their former lives, and they get pretty good at it. However, the Miasma still lingers-- just beyond the protective sphere formed by their guardian crystal. Each town is veiled by a different crystal’s soft glow, but this protection is not freely given-- towns must form a caravan of young, able adventurers who venture out and seek “myrrh.” This precious liquid can be gathered from sacred sites spread throughout the world. However, this finite resource takes two years to be produced, and the caravans must continue to explore outward, shielded solely by a tiny crystal shard, to ensure that they can supply their hometown’s crystal with sufficient myrrh. In the game’s affecting opening moments, you part ways with your parents and sibling, uniquely generated with each game. You might not return, in which case they would be consumed by the Miasma. Nothing is certain except for lingering, patient death.

Throughout each in-game year, you encounter the caravans from other towns. Some are of a different race, some are bandits, some are generous farmers, some are highly-regimented soldiers. But all remember the cataclysm, and their lives play out in front of the backdrop of that loss. And they must, for there are reminders everywhere. The most forlorn location in the game, and one that every FFCC player remembers, is Tida Village. Tida presents a stark reminder of what happens should a caravan fail-- the village is a necropolis. Once-peaceful, safe homes become havens for grotesque monsters who immediately attack intruders. Every citizen of Tida has been lost, and the only reminder of their humanity is a pair of torn letters you might find among the rubble. All that remains are the desperate, asynchronous last words of lovers who would never see each other again.

time passed in our world, too.

Kenny and I were separated by an ever-expanding crevasse, and I was tasked with shouldering our shared memories alone. As I grew through my teenage years, these memories began to swirl and blur-- faces were swapped, details were lost, and gaps were dubiously filled in. I tried to place distance between myself and his funeral, and I thought I was doing a great job of it, too. I blithely played Crystal Chronicles in my off-campus housing, wrapped in a tangle of Gameboy Advances and Link Cables, and did my best not to perceive the heavier themes of the game. Time was able to obscure the sharp pain that Kenny’s loss inflicted on me, reducing it to a dull ache buried deeply in my heart.

I didn’t lose anyone in my family for almost a decade. We were all in relatively good health, and my “Sita” (Syrian for “grandmother”) happily reigned as our family matriarch. But with each family hospitalization, my terror grew. My father was put in the hospital by a spider bite; my uncle was in a serious car wreck; my grandmother had a fall. The old scar was aching and I felt the inevitability of yet another loss pressing in on me. Like the Miasma, the mortality of the ones I love was a trauma that I suffered once and never stopped dreading. There were the distractions of adolescence, college, and young adulthood, but I never truly forgot what it felt like to look at the face of someone for the last time.

Like my caravaneer, I expected that my job was to do everything I could to protect myself and my loved ones from the oppressive spectre of loss. I rationalized Kenny’s death as a bizarre outlier in the human condition-- nobody had passed away since that, and it was unthinkable that anyone could. But this belief was ruthlessly struck down when my Sita passed away in 2014. I was thousands of miles away in rural Sweden, but the pain couldn’t have been sharper and deeper even if I were holding her hand. That loss (and the aftermath) were transformational and significantly harder than I could have foreseen, but the world is still here.

Crystal Chronicles is not only set amid the anticipation of death of your loved ones, but presents a beautiful message about how to cope with that death. The final bosses are a pair of sprites that feed on memories. The benevolent sister, Mio, is a mischievous being that nibbles on memories, causing typical forgetfulness. Raem, a bird-like beast, ravenously feasts on painful memories, and is responsible for denial and amnesia. When you threaten to eliminate the Miasma, and thus spare people the dread and loss they constantly face, Raem panics and attempts to preserve his food source. You are eventually able to overcome Raem by preserving and wielding your own memories of your loved ones, and those of the caravaneers who shared your path.

before and after a loss, we scramble to hoard memories. we try to catalog every “last” thing.

How did her hands feel the last time I touched them? What did he smell like when I last hugged him? We panic when faced with the realization that we alone will be responsible for caring for a lifetime of shared memories, and we’re worried we won’t do a good enough job. I don’t think this is necessarily unhealthy, but we must take care not to feel deficient if we lose some things along the way. Mio will still be there, innocently nibbling on the edges of our memories, gradually lightening the burden that we choose to shoulder when we lose someone. But she’ll always leave enough for us to ward away that heavy air that we feel pressing in.