Final Fantasy XV is many things to many different people.

To me, it’s a game about relationships. A group of friends bound together by both their shared camaraderie and their inner turmoil. The cast of Final Fantasy XV is as important to the game as any line of code. The characters are interwoven into its DNA.

Spoilers for Final Fantasy XV ahead.

Throughout my time with Final Fantasy XV, the game took many different forms. It was at one moment an exhilarating action game and a zen-like exploration game the next. For most of it, however, it was an escape from reality. A reality I was afraid to confront.

When Final Fantasy XV first released back at the tail-end of 2015, my partner was in the hospital due to a spinal infection from a fusion that had taken place a decade prior. It caused a lung infection that hospitalised her the year before, but it wasn’t until then had we realised the extent of what had been going on. For the first few weeks we were there, we had hoped she wouldn't need another surgery. For as many as she's already had, on top of PTSD and other mental illnesses, everyone wanted to avoid adding another mark onto that unfortunate list.

I began playing the game to distract myself. After thinking about how everything could go wrong, I figured it was better to not think about it at all. An entire decade of build-up for Final Fantasy XV made the opportunity to escape as good as any while my brain tried to cope with the real world around me. I knew there wouldn’t be much of the game’s original vision still intact, so much of what I had envisioned for the game would ultimately be dust and memories. It didn’t stop me from looking in-between the lines anyway to see if I could find any version of its previous life as Final Fantasy Versus XIII through the cracks.

I had watched the prologue film, Final Fantasy XV: Kingsglaive, which showcased the destruction of main character Noctis’ home city, Insomnia. Knowing I’d never get to play through these moments in the game were disappointing, but the idea of a road trip with friends still sounded interesting.

About halfway through the game, you arrive in the Venetian-inspired city known as Altissia. At first, it is where you are to marry Noctis’ childhood friend, Luna. However, after some complications and revelations it instead becomes the location of one of the many summons, Leviathan, who you must ask to lend you its powers. It’s the standard fare for any modern JRPG, pitting the fate of the world in the hands of Gods and emotionally distant teenagers. When the giant sea serpent explodes from the ocean and speaks to Luna during one of the game’s set piece moments, the Leviathan refuses to give its powers forcing Noctis to prove his worth in an epic boss battle.

The moment itself is meant to be one of the game’s high points but it never hit me like one. Prince Noctis is gifted powers from his ancestors for the battle and is able to fly, fighting the Leviathan in some very cool-looking cutscenes, but I never felt like I had much agency in the fight since most of it involved simply hitting the attack button repeatedly. However, instead of beating the Leviathan to a pulp and saving the day, Noctis is knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, Luna is dead and one of your party members and closest friends, Ignis, is left blinded. It’s a moment that feels out of your control forcing you to deal with consequences that you weren’t prepared for.

It isn’t until later that you really understand the weight of these consequences, however. Your close-knit group of friends slowly falls apart, and your loyal guard Gladiolus blames your inaction for Ignis’ unfair fate. Arguments in cutscenes carry over to the rest of the game once control is given back to you in Final Fantasy XV’s tenth chapter, appropriately titled “The Heart of a King”. While your friends stay close together, watching over Ignis as he struggles walking, they continue to criticise you if you walk too far ahead. Noctis answers back with a defensive grunt, shaking off their words. His avoidance of blame is clearly hypocritical, a shield to protect him from further harm. Yet, you feel the sting of their words just as much as Noctis does.

By the time you reach the area’s boss, a giant Marlboro, your group of friends struggle to defeat the monster. Simply damaging the beast isn’t enough; as Ignis eventually deduces, the party must cooperate using magic to weaken it before finally dealing the killing blow. The royal retinue return to their quest, their bonds reaffirmed, and head towards the game’s climax.

This portion of the game is meant to slow the player down. For the first time, your friends are no longer running by your side and keeping at your pace. Instead, they ask you to go by theirs. By design, it’s a hurdle that forces the player to interact with the narrative on a direct level. We are left with two choices: to run ahead, forgoing their words, reminding ourselves that we’re merely playing a game; or we engage with the moment as we would in the real world and concede to their requests, taking things by Ignis’ pace. The game essentially is asking us: can we empathise with Ignis?

Final Fantasy XV hit a personal note with me during these moments. A character suffering an injury that I was there to support him through ran parallel to my own experience at the time, almost jarringly so. At the time I was playing the game, it made me question myself the same way it confronted Noctis in the game. Was I being a responsible caregiver?

I admittedly didn’t come to answer that question during my partner's months-long stay at the hospital. I was looking for an escape from reality, not a reaffirmation of it - so I quietly put my thoughts in the back of my head and made sure to get to them later.

After my first playthrough of Final Fantasy XV, I found myself confused and lost. The first time I had seen any promotional material for the game, I was around thirteen or fourteen years old. I still remember watching the announcement trailer for Final Fantasy Versus XIII for PlayStation 3. It was probably the last game I had seen from my childhood that I was still excitedly waiting for. Finally finishing it in the context of that hospital room felt like I was saying goodbye to the innocence of my childhood. I struggled finding my place in that transitional period amidst the swirl of medical tests and family crying sessions.

As her stay in the hospital continued, my partner eventually had to have spinal surgery to remove the source of her infection, a portion of dead bone. It was scheduled for just after Christmas, inbetween the small break before New Year. It was scary, something she and I feared would add another complication to her already complicated medical history. I remember how frustrated I was, angry that the doctors couldn’t do more to find a better solution.  Upset that the nurses there weren’t doing more to relieve her pain.

Normally, she hides her pain under a mask – one she learned to wear since she was just a kid. Her life dealing with chronic pain has built up an iron wall of resilience that only those closest to her can see through. At home, it’s barely noticeable most nights. Even when things would get so bad that her pain would be clearly visible, I always felt there was something I could do. Puppy videos on the couch or bowls of mint ice cream would usually do the trick. Not that anything would ever take the pain away, of course, but it was something. Here, I felt useless. At the whim of others who seemed indifferent to my partner’s pain, only concerned on her overall wellbeing.

Final Fantasy XV touches on this, too. In the tenth chapter of the game, when Ignis is still struggling to walk while blind, Noctis and his friends are there worrying for their friend. Our instinct forces us to react when our loved ones are in pain by helping share the burden, or trying to relieve it all together. Humans are social creatures, after all. Our empathy makes us try and do something to help friends in need. For Ignis, his blindness can’t be cured. It’s something he will have to live with, which the game shows us as it time-jumps ten years into the future. It’s frustrating in the moment knowing there’s nothing you can do, but by the end of the game Ignis has learned to live with his disability. Eventually, everything was okay.

While my first playthrough had left me emotionally empty and disappointed that the game was unable to answer questions it was never meant to raise, by the time I had returned to it in a second playthrough it resonated more clearly. Never before had my experiences reflected themselves so heartbreakingly in a video game. It felt as if the game was reaching out to me, trying to tell me something.

My partner suffered through the remainder of the hospital stay, making it out of the surgery and toughing out the difficult readjustment period. I try not to let those months be defined by the difficult times. Instead, I like to remember the times when we laughed. There was a moment while she was in the ICU with a ventilator down her throat. She couldn’t communicate outside of the little ASL she knew (which I could not read, unfortunately) and writing things down for people to read. She didn’t speak much, but one of the things she did think was important enough to get across was how grossly overgrown my facial hair had gotten. Which, for the record, she was right to say.

After we returned home from the hospital, she worked hard to regain her strength. She spent the first few nights on our living room couch, unable to make it to our bed. I stayed with her the first night and as both of our lives slowly returned to some semblance of normalcy, I returned one more time to Final Fantasy XV, this time determined to achieve the Platinum Trophy.

I’m sure she was sick of it at that point, watching me play the game for hundreds of hours by then. We argued every now and then, our tempers and frustrations needing their own forms of release. I think that, at the end of the day, we made it out the other end as a stronger couple. If I had to do it all again — which I hope is never is the case — I would have done things differently. I took too much time for myself, trying to find the place between support and self-care. I wouldn’t have found that balance, however, if it weren’t for Final Fantasy XV. That realisation came late, some portions of it even now as I am writing, but I’m not sure I could have made it here without the game speaking to me in the way it did.

My partner survived the medical crisis like she has many times in the past. She’s a badass who hasn’t let anything ever slow her down, but it’s never easy. Anyone in a relationship with someone who has a disability knows the difficulty of watching a loved one go through so much pain regularly. The characters in Final Fantasy XV struggled to find their own balance of support and self-preservation. In some ways, that’s what the game was all about. The game proved that not all relationships are built upon easy footing. For some, they’re all the stronger for it.

As the game ends and the credits roll, Noctis and his friends sit around a campfire. Ten years older than when they started their journey, Noctis stands up to give his final farewell to them, and to us. “You guys are the best.” It’s a game about relationships. I’m just lucky enough that it made one of mine even stronger.