— Leviathan, frontispiece
BEFORE IT BECAME other things — an interactive road-trip buddy movie, a cooking game, a simulator of days spent staring at the metal rails of highways — Final Fantasy XV was a Hamlet adaptation. The game was first announced at the Electronics Entertainment Expo in 2006, in a trailer that began with a portentous epigraph from the play itself: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” At that point, it was called Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and its scope was defined in simple, Hamlet-like terms. It was a game about a young, moody prince, dressed in black, who tries to avenge his father.
As the years passed, the game transformed into something different with every new trailer. It became “open world,” a buzzword for the game design philosophy of our moment, predicated on a large, sprawling, freely explorable map. Then it became open road: the focus shifted to four bros — Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum and his bodyguards Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto — in a car. In a 2014 trailer, they drive by lush, unremarkable deep-green foliage that looks as nice and as boring as Rockland County. The Hamlet plot is still there, but it’s crackling over the radio. The King is dead. The Empire is at the gates.
It made sense to expect the game to become a monster in the literal sense of the term: a hybrid creature composed of heterogeneous parts. FFXV is a Japanese role-playing game, a genre well known for throwing anything and everything into a heady aesthetic stir-fry: opera, decadent Catholicism, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, giant robots, sky pirates, the life story of Frédéric Chopin, World War II. As Clayton Purdom wrote in a paean to the genre, “for pure bang-for-your-buck eccentricity, there are few analogs in contemporary culture.”
But I don’t think even connoisseurs of JRPGs were prepared for the incoherent creature that FFXV ended up becoming. Half of it takes place in the open world that was promised — a place suffused with mundane detail and governed by the realistic passage of time. The other half sends you down cosmic corridors through concept-art fantasylands, fighting “daemons” and gods and the Evil Empire. Half of it tries to be On the Road, the other half Paradise Lost.
One thing, however, has remained coherent about the game throughout its transformations: it’s still just as much a Hamlet adaptation. And it’s a Hamlet adaptation not just because it cribs the plot of Hamlet, but because it’s messily, chaotically divided. The game yokes together two worldviews that are aesthetically and philosophically incompatible. In equal measure, it fetishizes American freedom and absolute monarchy, and never resolves the tension.
It would be a little misleading to say that Final Fantasy XV takes place in the United States. For one thing, many Japanese players were disturbed to find urban elements — especially apparatuses of the state: squad cars, toll booths, emergency vehicles — copied directly, and uncannily, from present-day Japan. But the meat of the game takes place in “America”: an Occidentalist fantasy cobbled together from stereotypes. Retro, chrome-clad diners dot the landscape, piping country through tinny jukeboxes. You end up interacting a lot with a woman named Cindy, a trucker’s fantasy who speaks in a Southern drawl, wears Daisy Dukes, and fixes your car. The game is deeply committed to selling the Americanness of its landscape — a combination of Southwestern aridity and Northeastern lushness, overseen by the bald eagle — and the authenticity of its road trip. All the camping gear is Coleman, proudly made in the USA. At the same time, into this vision of America, the game incongruously inserts the flamboyant fantasy tropes of its long-running series. To take just one example, every Final Fantasy game has featured “chocobos,” big yellow ostrich-like birds that you can ride. Here, you rent them at gas stations and clomp them through highway tunnels, trying not to get hit by cars.
The game’s trailers promise a “fantasy based on reality,” and this oscillation between the two extremes is novel and exciting for a series that has never been particularly interested in telling a story at a real-life scale — a series that, 20 years ago, depicted diminutive 2D figures with the proportions of bobbleheads traversing entire continents. And it’s important that the “reality” part has an American feel, because the game offers freedoms that no other game in the series has been able to offer: the freedom to go where you want, do what you want, even eat what you want.
Of course, much of the game’s vision of the United States’s present resembles an all-too-familiar dream of America’s past: a dream of bright red Coke machines, nickel coffee everywhere, and monoculture radio. A dream of political unity predicated on social homogeneity, or maybe the reverse: social unity predicated on political homogeneity. And here a deeper tension between “fantasy” and “reality” emerges into view.
Is it a fantasy of America with chocobos, or of America without democracy?
There’s a certain kind of scene that appears in many fantasy movies and video games. Our hero wakes up in a netherworld, on an abstract plane of color and light. Silence reigns; the din of combat, a war taking place elsewhere, has been left behind. He — it’s almost always he — is without his noble companions. They remain in the terrestrial world, gritting teeth and clashing swords in an endless montage. But he is not alone: he comes face to face with a sage who finally explains the order of the universe and the nature of the prophecy that concerns him. Their dialogue creates tension by delaying the outcome of a major battle. At the same time, it provides catharsis in the form of much-needed exposition.
In Final Fantasy XV, the scene of cosmological exposition takes place after our hero, Noctis, gets trapped in a magic crystal. After passing out, he wakes up floating in a void of blue, and finds himself faced with one of the minor deities who appear throughout the series, a giant metal dragon named Bahamut who looks and speaks like Optimus Prime. With earthshaking gravitas, Bahamut explains Noctis’s role at the center of an ancient prophecy, and his place at the apex of creation: “The King of Kings shall be granted the power to banish the darkness.”
There are obvious Christian overtones to Bahamut’s mumbo jumbo. But what’s striking about the line is that it’s completely literal. Noctis really is the King of Kings, and a king in the old sense of kingship, not a symbolic head of state but a true sovereign with divine authority. The game is obsessed with this idea. Noctis’s father is named “King Regis,” which literally means King of Kings. His car, a sleek black convertible in a world of dumpy pickups, is unsubtly called the Regalia. The player is reminded often that his buddies are his royal bodyguards.
The game’s fetishism of royalty is weird even by the standards of medievalist high fantasy. But somehow it doesn’t feel weird, perhaps because games so often return us to feudalism. Chess operationalizes the hierarchies of a feudal order. So do card games in which the king trumps everyone else but the ace. The landscape of contemporary videogames gives you endless ways to be a monarch: sweeping strategy games that represent kingly decision-making from a top-down perspective (Crusader Kings II); RPGs, both Japanese and not, that represent it from a third-person perspective (Fable III); the mobile game Reigns, which cribs the card-swiping design of Tinder to present kingship as an endless series of face-to-face interactions with insistent, and sometimes gnomic, advisors. You die often in Reigns, because you made a decision that allowed the church, the military, the oligarchs, or the people to gain too much power and usurp you. But like any mobile game, it’s designed for replayability, and its replayability subsists on the decidedly feudal idea that the “King” as a rank, a position, outlasts the king as a mortal. The king is dead; long live the king.
In FFXV, being the king isn’t about commanding armies, enacting policies, or collecting sycophants. It’s about wielding the awesome power of an unseen order, and being radically, ontologically, different. For reasons both developmental and, I suspect, philosophical, FFXV is the only game in the mainline series that only lets you play as one person (new downloadable episodes aim to change that, but the main game will always be that way). You have your bodyguards, and you can give them commands, but you are otherwise alone in the body of Noctis. Because the game unfolds in real time, rather than in a system of abstract menus, you control him in an unmediated way. Yet you also watch him, as much as you control him: you watch as he does things no one else can do, dancing around his foes and assaulting them with a rotating arsenal of spectral weapons that contain the spirits of his ancestors. He isn’t invincible. He actually feels fragile in a blue-blooded way. But injury just gives him — and you — the opportunity to abuse his greatest inheritance: the power to summon a major deity to his aid, which in this game causes enough destruction to constitute an ecological event. Only Noctis has that power. Only Noctis has that privilege.
But FFXV also wants you to drive, to wander, to discover the open world. It never stops being a feudalism simulator, displaying the absolute difference of the king through systems of weaponized privilege. Yet it also reaches for the road trip as an experiential template, aspiring to give its characters (and its player) a kind of freedom that feudalism doesn’t permit, the freedom to decide who you are by itinerant travel, rather than being assigned a “place” at birth.
Over the course of the game, this tension between worldviews becomes a real problem, polluting every meaningful exchange between Noctis and his bodyguards. In one poignant scene, he sits atop the roof of a dingy motel with Prompto, the meth-head-looking gunslinger who contributes to the group mostly by taking pictures. In extremely JRPG fashion, they start talking about their friendship, a bond that goes back to elementary school, and Prompto bares his soul — about awkwardness, loneliness, self-loathing. He tells Noctis how much their bond dissolves the feelings of inferiority that define his daily life: “But when we hang out, it’s so much fun I forget what I’m not.” Noctis listens, generously, as a friend and a peer. But the illusion of equality snaps when he tries to offer reassurance, and only ends up underscoring his own power: “You think I just make time for any old loser?” Rank comes roaring back.
But this disjunction is also the problem at the core of Hamlet. In a famous essay, the literary critic Arnold Kettle argued that Hamlet turns on a conflict between the Renaissance humanism preached and practiced by Hamlet himself and the entrenched feudalism of the Danish court — a conflict that reflects the divided era in which the play was written, under Elizabeth yet after Montaigne. The world of the court is so defined by rank that even in the text of the play, Claudius appears never as “Claudius” but always as “KING,” and courtiers such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have little identity beyond their interchangeable position. Hamlet, by contrast, a sensitive intellectual schooled in the latest Continental philosophy, perceives people through a humanist lens, as humans first and foremost. He considers who they are in a personal sense rather than what they are in a political sense — often to the point, paradoxically, that he obsesses over what they are in a bodily sense. Rank means everything to the other characters, and means nothing (or “stench”) to him. “The king is a thing,” he says, after imagining Claudius getting eaten by worms.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet speaks this line, and it’s a humanist idea: he locates the source of morality in the mind of the thinking person. The line is hard to imagine as the rightful epigraph to a fantasy game that arranges the terrain of American freedom under the structural certitudes of medieval Europe, and identifies the “good” with the rightful exercise of sovereign power. But FFXV seems to want that feeling of incongruity, that sense that something “is out of joint.” It seems to want that quality that Hamlet has always had: a messiness that demands revision.
Why have there been so many adaptations of Hamlet? The short answer is that it’s easy to adapt. But the more complex answer has something to do with the way the play itself mulls over questions of adaptation. It’s hard not to think of Hamlet as source material, as an original, but the play was a reworked version of a Thomas Kyd revenge tragedy, now lost, which scholars commonly refer to as “Ur-Hamlet.” And despite the “ur” prefix, the Kyd play was also an adaptation, based on the legend of “Amleth” in the Historia Danica of 12th-century author Saxo Grammaticus, which in turn was based on sources buried further in the mists of time.
Everything has sources. But Hamlet himself is particularly vexed by the idea that his own life is informed by source material: both the model of his father and the plot arcs of revengers past. He feels estranged from the bellicose Viking with whom he shares a name. He feels both attracted to and repulsed by the image of Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, who killed the king of Troy to avenge his father:
The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
When he lay couched in the ominous horse,
Hath now this dread and black complexion smear’d
With heraldry more dismal.
The fact that he speaks of “heraldry” — the iconography of rank and lineage — as a “smear’d,” greasy substance proves Kettle’s point all over again. He can’t stand the feudal order. He imagines it here, as he does elsewhere, in the terms of corruption. But he still feels an anxiety of influence. He still defines himself by comparison to a prior model. He can’t escape his own predecessors, either as a prince or as a revenge-tragedy protagonist. He can only revise them.
Noctis’s story derives pathos from the same condition — the weight of the crown, the pain of a legacy. In one of the game’s final scenes, his kingly ancestors appear as ghosts, for the last time, and take turns penetrating him with their swords, axes, and spears — a bizarre ritual of incestuous masochism that captures the anxiety of influence in even more violent terms than Hamlet does.
But the game, like any good Hamlet adaptation, is a little like Hamlet himself, defined as much by its adherence to the source text as by its desire to revise the source text. Like The Lion King, it revises Hamlet by shifting genres. Hamlet is a tragedy; Final Fantasy is a fantasy. And like any fantasy, according to J. R. R. Tolkien’s rubric, it provides “escape” as well as “consolation,” correcting for problems that are deeper, more entrenched, than “the noise, stench, ruthlessness, and extravagance of the internal-combustion engine.”
In the play, feudalism is what’s “rotten” in the state of Denmark. In the game, sovereignty cures what’s “rotten” in the state of Lucis, not just because the game’s plot resolves with the king ascending to his rightful throne, but because the game asks its player to “banish the darkness” through the mechanics of kingship. Even the most action-packed games boil down to puzzles and solutions, locks and keys. In this game, the puzzle is the decentralization of power, represented not just by the enemy Usurper but by a wild and free American landscape. The only solution — as it was for George III — is to bring the open world to heel.
This fantasy sounds more hellish than consoling, yet it derives nonetheless from all the qualities that make monarchy so compatible with games in the first place: the clarity of its rules; the fixity of its ranks; the enchanting rectitude of an order beyond the human, carved in light by another hand. Part of the aesthetic appeal of Final Fantasy games involves seeing its rich bestiary of imaginary beings take on new form and meaning in a different kind of world. It seems almost aggressively on the nose that in this world one of the six major gods is Leviathan, a beast best known for its starring role as a metaphor for state power in the work of Thomas Hobbes. In Leviathan, Hobbes makes a case for absolute monarchy on the basis that life in the alternative, a “state of nature,” is “nasty, brutish, and short.” We need laws, he says, and they need to come from a being on a higher plane. The people must choose to subject themselves to a sovereign for the same reason that “gamesters” agree to play by rules: because it gives the world order and clarity. “It is in the Lawes of a Common-wealth, as in the Lawes of Gaming,” Hobbes writes: “whatsoever the Gamesters all agree on, is Injustice to none of them.”
The paradox of Leviathan is that the system it prescribes requires humans to invest a human ruler with a status approaching inhumanity. As Tobias Menely points out in The Animal Claim, “sovereignty’s structure is ambivalent” in Hobbes’s account because “any sovereign, whether individual or corporate, becomes the guardian of the law, the preserver of the just polity, only insofar as he is not fully of it.” The king is as much master of his domain as he is an outsider, exception, aberration. That may be why in FFXV Noctis’s ascension ends up foreclosing every kind of humanity that his friendship and the open road entails. The game really is a fantasy — a Hobbesian fantasy in which absolute monarchy vanquishes the disorder of a “state of War.” But it’s also a kind of tragedy, ambivalent about its own certitudes. To reach for the sovereign is to reach for structure, but only ever at a perilous cost.
And we reach for the sovereign. We reach for it with jokes (“Queen Offers to Restore British Rule over the United States”); we reach for it in jeremiads about the limitations of democracy and the dignity of the presidency, desecrated or restored. We reach for it when the world seems to be sliding into a “state of War,” hopeless and inchoate, of our own devising. Even Horatio reaches for it at the end of the play, with that famous line uttered after a scene of senseless carnage: “Good night, sweet prince.”
Most of all, we reach for the sovereign in games. FFXV understands. That may be why it reaches for freedom, and reaches — so incoherently — for Hamlet.
Matt Margini is a writer and a doctoral student in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Kill Screen, and Public Books.