Mom, ‘Final Fantasy’ and the Language of Gaming

As a kid born in a Dutch-Egyptian household, I’ve grown up with language all around me. Kids growing up in the Netherlands -a small European country that speaks Dutch, a language spoken by under 25 million people on Earth- are often taught Dutch and English as part of their basic education. In higher education they are taught French, and German, and in even higher education levels, students can opt for Classical Latin and Greek. On top of all those, I was taught Egyptian by my father, who immigrated to the Netherlands a decade before I was born.

When you’ve been using a language for all of your life, parts of it become natural enough that they are all but invisible to you. I was reminded of this early on in my relationship with my now-wife, who was born in the United States and is practicing her Dutch as her first, second language. She sometimes constructs sentences in way that are logically correct, but not correct Dutch. She will ask me questions about how to say something, and then ask me why that is correct. To my frustration, more often than not, I do not have a satisfying answer: That’s just how it is. At the same time, I’ve learned a lot about the oddities and history of my native language listening to her figuring out how to speak, read, and listen.

If you speak English as your first language, chances are that you speak more Dutch than you think. Pretty much every naval term – ship, sea, anchor, haven, river – are words the English language imported from the Germanic and Nordic tribes that lived in the linguistic crossroads that is now the Netherlands. As language evolved over thousands of years, sometimes from common roots, sometimes separately, ideas of sounds, phonemes, words, structures, grammars fragmented into smaller languages and mixed as people imported and exported words – first on a tribal level, but then as humanity started traveling the globe, on a global level.

My parents instilled in me a love of language and history throughout my life. As I was growing up, my father often shared his exhaustive knowledge of non-Western history – stories and perspectives of how the world came to be as it is that I was never taught at school. My mother could translate the strange words on the ancient churches of the Netherlands because she read Latin, and kept stacks of books on history and historical languages hidden under a cabinet in a room of our’s when I was still too short a kid to see what was on top of the cabinet.

There has always been one language I control that I knew my parents do not, and it’s the language of computers. From childhood, I used the hand-me-down computers that our household could afford, and through MS-DOS terminals, games, and programming, I became fluent in computer long before I became fluent in English. By the time I was programming small interactive story games at age six, I could not translate the phrase ‘if-else’ if I tried, but I could write programs using those phrases without a second thought. MS-DOS commands like “REN” for rename, “DEL” for delete, and “CD” for change directory would not make sense to me as abbreviations for years, but they made total sense to me as command I could use to manipulate the computer. Over the years, my increasing fluency in English, math, electronics, and computers taught me the structure of a computer, and the words, concepts, structures, and grammars of using, manipulating, building, and programming these increasingly complex devices.

So where my parents taught me Dutch and Arabic, I tried to teach them just enough computer to use the devices properly. The truth is that in modern days, you don’t really have to be fluent in computers to use them – the devices are smart enough to do most of the heavy lifting for you when you try to communicate. While their computers, networks, TVs, mobile phones, tablets, and other such devices functioned properly, if something stopped working, I am usually the person that can fix them. My parents did a lot for me in raising me and ensuring I had opportunities in life. I really don’t mind fixing the Wi-Fi.

Everything but the heart of it
I’ve been a game developer for as long as I can remember, and professionally I’ve been the co-founder, manager, and programmer of independent games studio Vlambeer for almost a decade. We’re a small team, but our games have reached international success and acclaim, and I spend a majority of each year traveling to other game development communities around the world to learn, share knowledge, and assist in establishing creative industries in South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Throughout those travels, I’ve met most of my current-day friends, colleagues, business partners, and my wife.

I visit my parents every weekend that I am in the Netherlands, and after a long trip, I return with the stories of my travels and the people I spent time with. One visit during the holiday season last year, I told my mother a story about visiting “Phil,” to which my mom inquired “Phil? Tibitoski? Or Fish? How’s Octodad doing?”, and it dawned on me -and it really shouldn’t have been a surprise- that my mother had been reading up on games news and industry news to stay in touch with what was happening in my life, and in the lives of the friends she heard me talk about so frequently.

I grinned, and halfway through my amusement I suddenly realised that while my mother could read up on the games news, there was another language that my mother did not speak: the language of games. For all her enthusiasm and knowledge of the medium, she had never once held a controller, or booted up a video game. We had been talking about games, the business, the people, and the stories and moments that impacted me for almost a decade, and my mother had nodded along understanding everything but the heart of it: the games themselves.

Thus, I decided to find my mother her first-ever videogame, to introduce her to one of my favorite languages. I was not interested in teaching her the language of games on her mobile phone, or board-game equivalents – I wanted to teach her the language of the games I grew up loving, the big games full of stories and worlds and characters, the games with twists and intrigue and interesting gameplay ideas. I wanted to start her on a Metal Gear Solid rather than a Spelltower, even though I adore both.

My mother is a huge fan of narratives like Lord of the Rings, the stories about a struggle against a primordial evil by a small group of reluctant heroes that meet through fate. Games, even though they’re coming up on a century of history, have retained most of their love and respect for the Dungeon & Dragons fantasy table-top games. If there’s one thing you can depend on, it is that the medium is overflowing with exactly that type of narrative, in that type of world. I presumed that a ‘realistic’ visual style would help, and that gratuitous violence against humans would be a no-go. That left far fewer games for consideration, and to my distress, most of them were complex and deep RPGs with infinite possibilities and menus.

One challenge I expected to face in selecting a game was nausea. My mother often complained about nausea while watching video game footage or trailers, and I had long ago established that first-person cameras seemed to cause her nausea much faster than third-person cameras did. I theorized that having a character to anchor the movement to might help, so the game had to be third-person.

While gamers often could control a character without ever even glancing at a controller, my mother had never controlled anything. Back in 2013, I had tried to teach a good friend to play Assassin’s Creed II, a game that I considered deeply accessible, only to learn that navigating a character in 3D space with twin sticks is a skill that people aren’t inherently born with. She quit the game in frustration after dying for the hundredth time because she couldn’t turn towards an enemy fast enough. For my mom’s first game, I wouldn’t make that same mistake. I needed a game that would tolerate failure gracefully, a game that would mitigate inaccurate input in some way, and a game that didn’t have timed sequences or similar challenge-based failure states.

It just happened that I had finished a game that I absolutely adored that fit all these qualities: Final Fantasy XV – a story of a crown prince banished from his throne, his three friends, and road tripping through a world in peril. More importantly, I recalled that Final Fantasy XVdoes not actually require complex inputs, nor does it require players to maneuver the main character during combat. If you hold the attack button, main character Noctis automatically closes the distance between himself and the selected target before attacking continuously. If you hold the block button, Noctis will dodge, and automatically increase the distance between himself and the selected target. That evening, I booted the game back up and played around a bit with the settings and gameplay to see if I wasn’t misremembering anything, a difficulty that would get my mom to bounce off and reject games forever. To my relief, I indeed found two accessibility options convincing me that this game was perfect. In the Easy mode, getting a Game Over fully heals your character once a battle, and enabling the Wait Mode means that letting go of all controls pauses the game.

I went to a store and bought an Xbox One and a copy of Final Fantasy XV. The next time I visited her, I surprised her with the console, installed it, and explained to her how to turn it on. My mother expressed some disbelief that she would be playing a video game, and I reassured her that if she didn’t like it, I would simply take the Xbox One with me again, no hard feelings whatsoever.

The language of video games
In what would become a frequent scene over the next year, my mother sat on her living room couch, slightly tensed up and awkwardly holding the controller. I sat down on the other couch, just far away enough to stop her from passing on the controller to me to do the thing, just close enough to her to guide her when necessary. I explained about the left and right analog stick, the differences between bumpers and triggers, and the names of the buttons – and then I directed her to boot up Final Fantasy XV.

The first thing my mother ever thought about a video game was that Final Fantasy XV’s logo was gorgeous, and that it had a Jugendstilquality about it that she could absolutely appreciate. The second thing she ever thought about a video game was that the music of the main menu – the Somnus theme – was gorgeous too. We clicked “New Game”, and on January 21st of 2017, my mother started on her first video game.

Final Fantasy XV starts in media res, at one of the climatic battles at the end of the game. The game introduces Noctis Lucis Caelum, at which my mother giggled “is this man named ‘Night Light Sky?’”. I knew that that was what Noctis’ name translated to, but since overly literal Latin names are a Final Fantasy trope, I had not giggled at it. Noctis is in peril as he faces down some sort of fire giant, and while the scene is meant to be imposing, we spent the first few moments trying to establish how the left stick moves the character. The game then introduces Prompto Argentum (“Quick Silver”), Gladiolus Amicitia (“Blade of Friendship”), and Ignis Stupeo Scientia (“That makes no sense”) as Noctis’ friends fighting alongside him. The game then skips back an undetermined amount of time to the start of Noctis’ journey, when the group needs to get their car fixed.

To help with this, we find Cindy at a nearby garage. Cindy knows who Noctis is, and offers to fix the car in exchange for killing some critters that have been a pest to the garage. It then occurred to me that she had no sense of geometry, distance, or user interface, and that her every attempt to walk towards the objective was in a straight line, whether there were rocks in the way or not. She did not know how to read the terrain, and thus I coached her through by saying “left,” “right”, and “forward.” We then ran through the camera controls, and decided after a good fifteen minutes of messing around that we would only adjust the camera if absolutely necessary. Mom dispatched the enemies by holding the Attack button, and was quite impressed with her performance.

After completing the quest, Cindy returns the car to the team all fixed up, and offers a second opening quest of the game: to bring a box of goods over to the next village. It’s meant as a driving tutorial, explaining the systems of the car and the world map, and my mother promptly turned it down – “Absolutely not, I’m a prince, do it yourself”. I sat staring at the screen in surprised shock, and my mother looked at me and asked me “now what do I do?”