Dot Matrix Story: Final Fantasy Legend
Let me tell you about some dumb kid:
Imagine it’s 1993 and it’s summer and it’s time for this kid to go to California. So the kid’s parents buy him a new game for his Gameboy, to waste away the time spent in cars and airplanes.
He’s made this flight once a year since he was born, so he knows what the boredom is, and it’s not the airplane ride so much as all the baggage around it: getting up at 7AM, riding the taxicab to the airport, checking bags, waiting to board, waiting for takeoff, disembarking, finding the rental car, and then the hours and hours on the highway until grandma’s house.
This kid’s Midwestern home is nested by an airport too modest to take them farther than Chicago. So the kid and his family fill the back of a taxi full of suitcases and all three of them pile in the back. He’s a grumpy kid; their flight is early and he had to wake up before the sun and help lift the luggage in the car. He’s too sleepy to play his Gameboy. But once they check their bags there’s still an hour left to takeoff, and the wait bores him awake. So he turns the dim liquid crystal green screen on.
This is a special game. This kid’s wanted it for a long time. His best friend told him about it. His best friend is four years older than him and has taught him about all the coolest things in life.
This game takes place in a tower. The game tells the kid that at the top of the tower is paradise. The tower is full of doors, and each door is full of worlds and people. He gets to be four of those people.
This kid got his Gameboy for his eleventh birthday. It’s big and clunky but he’s super proud of the translucent plastic shell. He can see right through to its naked circuits and diode guts. Gameboys ran on AA batteries. Before this trip, he forgot about the Gameboy for a few months. Then his friend lent him Metroid 2 and once he switched it on to play, the Gameboy’s screen went out with a hiss and a pop. He turned it over and liquid was foaming from the batteries. He threw them out and put in new ones and it sputtered back to life. He didn’t tell his parents. They would have been skeptical of stories of exploding batteries.
It takes almost as much time for them to fly from their modest airport to Chicago as it does to get on and off the plane, and airlines don’t permit portable electronic devices for the first and last fifteen minutes of flight. He barely has time to name the characters.
When he starts the game, it asks him to make up four people. The first is him, and the rest are his friends. They can be boys or girls, but their names can’t be more than four letters long. Four letters is too short. He doesn’t know of anyone with a four letter name. He cuts his own name in half: And, it fits. But then he stops, looking at the pixilated little figures. He has a choice in this game. Boy or Girl. M or F. Four letters, four characters. It’s hard to decide; there are so many combinations, and though he can have them all, only one gets his name. Which one will be And? Boy? Girl? When he gets older someone will point out to him that it’s a weird thing to do, to think about it before you choose, but whatever. His best friend, Luke, who’s like his older brother, also has four letters. He gets to be a boy.
It’s time to go, so he saves and shuts it off. His parents are always afraid of being late, and he just wants to sit down and get back to the lightless green world in the Gameboy.
At O’Hare neon lights stream out as far as the eye can see under the ground, above the moving walkways. The moving walkway is now in service, the voices repeat. The sounds and lights that go with the voice are pleasant, but insistent. They take walking very seriously there.
While he’s on the moving walkway he tries to take out his Gameboy. He has enough time to pull it out and turn it on and see the dot matrix flood with crystal before it’s time to hurry hurry run don’t walk to the next terminal. He shuts it off but can’t put it away. Is it too much to ask to rest for a minute? He should be patient; they’ll be plenty of time for that on the plane.
Up on that plane, the sun is so naked, so unbearable, that the kid cannot look away. You can’t render a sky like this in dot matrix. The pixels are too big, and what passes for color are varying shades of an ugly yellow-green. What comes out of dot matrix is more like a cave painting. What’s supposed to be a river is a crude parade of moving dots. But this kid isn’t stupid. He’s seen rivers before. He can see them out of the airplane window now. He can put two and two together. The dot matrix river is more real than the ones below, and if his game could show him a picture of the sun, it’d have that same unbearable light too.
The kid reaches a world where people live on clouds. The monster king of this world, the white lion, rules from a floating castle and no one is safe from him. There are a pair of twins who are resisting him. But one betrays the other and the monster king kills her. The sisters hold each other while the wounded one dies. The living one is sorry, and she cries. She gives her tear to the kid and his friends.
The game lets him kill the white lion but, as if to remind him he’s not the one in charge, won’t let him save the girl.
California’s landscape, unlike the Midwest’s, goes up and down, twists around and around. In California, the roads grip the landscape where they can. California is beautiful year round, green in the winter and gold in the summer, so to the kid this place is a bit like paradise. He imagines, from the dot matrix green, that the place he’s looking for at the top of the tower must look a bit like California.
Most of his family lives in California, and those who do not have died here. His mother’s mother died in Sebastopol, up north. His father’s father died in England, but they buried him in California.
His mother’s mother died when he was much younger, and his dad told him this when he was playing in a sandbox in his uncle’s backyard in California. His dad broke the news gently, as if setting down a great weight.
But his son was serene, continuing to move his toy truck back and forth in the sand. He nodded. He understood. He asked if his cousin would come out and play. She wouldn’t; a few years older than him, so she knows what to feel, which this kid now understands. He pushed the truck again. He has to master the simple things in life before the simple facts of death.
Well, years later, that day comes, and the kid is scared of the big nothing, the void, the zero, the off switch, the out-of-batteries. He doesn’t still doesn’t understand church, but he knows what it means. He knows he doesn’t want to die. He stops thinking about it by chanting prayers every minute of the day. He stops it by not stepping on cracks, adding up numbers whenever he sees them, and trying not to worry. He stops it by playing video games. It works.
It’s almost five hours of driving from the airport to his grandmother. The heat in the back of the car suffocates him. The new car smell stews in the heat. It’s dizzying. Sometimes he’s too sick to play Gameboy. Sometimes he’s too sick to do anything but play Gameboy.
Here are the buttons: On switch. Volume. Contrast (he can make the green as pale or dark as he wants). A. B. Start. Select (Select what? Mysterious things).
It’s hard for him to leave the game alone. Trips are restless things. He turns it off, puts it down. Looks at it. Reaches for it, picks it up. After a few minutes he sets it down again.
If he walks around enough, monsters are sure to find him. He can’t see them, but when the screen flashes white-green he knows they’ve come. They all line up in a row and he and his friends take turns fighting. When he’s walking around, the monsters look small and kind of cute. But when he fights them they menace from the screen; bugs, fishes, robots, dragons, and big floating eyes.
This kid wanders through the tower and stumbles on a door to hell. The background tiles look like burning stars. Every step burns him and his friends. There are devils there. They won’t talk to him. The screen flashes after every step. He suffers.
Why is there a hell? It bugs him. It itches. He likes forgiveness. Hell feels like revenge. Why punish someone who’s already dead? How is this supposed to make anything right again? He’s heard there’s a hell outside of this game, but he prefers not to believe in that. But the thought of it is still there, and it won’t go away.
There are people in the game’s hell. When he asks them why, they tell him. It’s not because of anything they did. They’re here because they want to be. They think the stars will burn their sins away and lead them into paradise, whenever that will be. He can come back whenever he wants and they’ll still be there. He can’t get them to leave. They’ll never leave. They’re trapped forever. The door is a few steps away. But only he can go in and out.
He only ever saves the world by accident. The tower is full of worlds of foolish, suffering people. He’s climbing away from them, to somewhere happy.
Death lies lazily in the California sun. This kids thinks about it from time to time. He doesn’t want to, but he can’t forget. Midwest: the four seasons of sex, life, harvest and death. California would be a thoughtless paradise, eternal life and eternal summer, except his family keeps dying here and inconveniently reminding him.
The tower ends for the kid at grandmother’s house, surrounded by eucalyptus groves. This kid helps his family unpack, but he’s too tired for anything else. Together, tomorrow, they’ll all go down to see his cousins. But crowds of adults, even small crowds, are no fun. So he goes to the kid’s bedroom to finish his game.
At the end, there’s another monster, the six armed devil of war. He offers the kid and his friends a piece of the world, guarding the gate to paradise. When the devil of war dies, the kid takes a step forward. And he falls, down, down, down, to the foot of the tower. The door to paradise disappears, and he hears a voice asking, “Can you climb back up?”
He’s back at the beginning, but it’s different now. All his friends are here. And the tower’s different too. No more twisting passages, no more halls full of doors, just stairs leading up, moving faster than he can breathe.
When he gets to the end, again, there’s just an empty field. At the end, there’s a little bridge, and on the other side of the bridge is a table. At the table is a man, and he offers the kid a cup of tea, and tells the kid he created everything. He wants to let the kid know how happy he is that you survived the game. He’s proud of the kid.
The game calls this man Creator. He tells the kid the world got too boring, and so he made up every evil thing so someone would come to remind people what courage and determination meant. The kid’s done a good job, so now he wants to give the kid a wish. But the kid doesn’t want it. He doesn’t want to just be a toy. Creator doesn’t understand what his problem is. He created everything, after all. But he thinks it’s funny, that the kid wants to challenge him. The screen turns white, and there he is, the Creator, covered in flowing robes, radiant even in dot matrix green, looking like the sun, looking like God. And the kid is afraid.
The kids saves the game and turns it off. He’s not sure he can go through with it. He wanders to living room and sits around with his parents and grandma. He wanders around the backyard. It has an apple tree, and wooden ducks his grandfather carved. Their legs spin around in the wind. This place is close to the ocean. If it was earlier in the day, there might be fog, but it’s sunny now. A small lizard suns itself. The kid crouches next to it. He reaches down to touch it, and it scurries away.