Tucked away in a corner in Cornelia, by a shady grove of trees, there’s a well. I really love that well.
Back up. Cornelia is a T-shaped town—thicker at the top, with a stubby trunk. A stream runs along the rightmost boundary of the town, and cuts across the northern-middle. There are three bridges that cross it at various points. Cornelia boasts an Inn, an Item shop, a store for weapons and one for armor, a church, and vendors for both black and white magics. At the center of the town is a fountain; if you’re weary and dirty from travel, wash your face here. After that, if you turn left at the fountain and walk around the nearby tree, it’s 11 paces to the well. Before you go, Arlyon, the Dancer, may interrupt you. She doesn’t have time to dance, she’ll say. But she may offer you some advice, before kicking her knees high and resuming her lively movement around the plaza. Such a vivacious gal in a red dress! And there are other people in this town as well, people you’ll want to talk to. Old men with prophecies to spout like local gossip. Royal guards on duty to provide protection before, and especially if, the walls should ever fail. Cornelia is a lush peninsular town with its few avenues lined with trees and surrounded by grassy lawns. Despite its proximity to the castle, it’s more provincial than the bustling brick-lined port of Pravoka. This is, after all, the city of dreams.
Now, about that well. You might think it’s something special, but it’s not. It’s just a well, tucked away in the corner of a town laid out like a stubby T. If you inspect it, a message will pop up explaining exactly that. I’ve thought about that well for over 30 years. In that regard, it’s a very special well.
Final Fantasy is the first RPG that I ever played. And, because of that, Cornelia is the first town I’ve ever ventured into. But it’s not the only one. In the years that have followed, I’ve visited somewhere around 180 towns throughout the Final Fantasy series. (I counted, roughly).
Final Fantasy isn’t just a game about towns—towns are everything to Final Fantasy.
Towns have always been a part of the core RPG game loop, all the way back to their earliest tabletop incarnations. Adventuring parties need towns, without them they’d have no place to spend their hard-earned loot, or rest and recover in safety from their adventures, or hear a tavern rumor that leads them to more adventures. Wizardry codified this loop in videogames by giving players a fixed town and dungeon to travel between, and the success of Wizardry and its popularity (particularly among Japanese game developers) ensured that it would form the basis for Final Fantasy’s core progression as well.
The difference between Final Fantasy and Wizardry is that in Wizardry the town itself is almost purely mechanical. It is a place where items are bought and sold, parties are managed, spell charges and hit points are replenished. The town in Wizardry exists as a series of contextual menus; it’s not a physical space to be traversed or interacted with beyond its codified functions. Also, and this is important, there is only one. One town. One dungeon. Feeding each other until the game runs its course.
Borrowing from tabletop campaign design that itself borrows from Tolkien and other epic fantasy writers, Final Fantasy moves across vast continents and sometimes significant amounts of time. Even in this first game towns don’t just serve a mechanical purpose by providing the party with goods and services; they tell the story of the world. Elfheim introduces an entirely new species to the game world, and the crisis of their slumbering prince, and a home base for hours and hours of grinding to support multiple multi-phase dungeon delves. Melmond, a ruin beset by vampires where the very earth is rotting, upends the notion of security and sanctuary (even while it provides necessary services to support adventures deep into the Earth Cave). In many ways, towns in Final Fantasy draw more from earlier adventure games like The Portopia Serial Murder Case and Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom. Towns are places to be poked at and investigated. Every town provides for at least some measure of respite, advancement, progression, and enlightenment.
As the franchise persisted and technology advanced, the scope and purpose of towns in Final Fantasy would only grow stronger and more apparent. The more experienced Square’s developers became and the more freedom that hardware and software tools provided them, the more elaborate and crucial towns became. Sure, dungeons developed and expanded too; as graphics and narrative scripting capabilities increased they took on some of the burden of storytelling and world-building. But towns became more prominent still. They were no longer just part of the loop, a place of return and sanctuary, or a message board for plot beats. Towns that previously would be revisited to open once locked doors would shift entirely in response to world events. As Final Fantasy VI obliterated the world of the first half, towns responded in kind. Sanctuary became rubble and adventurers reacted to both the loss of the old paradigm and the reality of the new, ruinous one. Where a general tone would be evoked by a town like Melmond or a particular plot point articulated in Elfheim, Final Fantasy VIII would feature branching narratives and multiple subplots within a town like Fisherman’s Horizon while also having a deep, thematically resonant meaning in the place itself and the people who built it. In Final Fantasy VII, Kalm isn’t just a waypoint for weary adventurers after fleeing Midgar; it’s where we get our first glimpse at the relationship between Cloud, Tifa, and Sephiroth. We get a vision of another town, Nibelheim, and its deeply formative importance in the lives of these three characters. We’re given a remembrance of a town within a town—one that shifts from haven to trauma then back again.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for the importance of towns to Final Fantasy is when they are conspicuously absent. The towns which had become so instrumental to the series almost barely exist in Final Fantasy X. There’s a narrative reason for this; the world of Spira is too frequently beset by Sin. Towns are impractical and near impossible to maintain, as the game is all too keen to demonstrate. Towns get obliterated. Instead, Rin’s Travel Agencies frequently take on the mechanical functions previously ascribed to towns. But more than something purely narrative or a bit of worldbuilding, this decision forces players to reflect on the purpose of towns and how integral they had become to the series. It is, in a way, the flattening of Final Fantasy’s expansiveness back into Wizardry’s original premise. Even side quests can be picked up in these small huts that dot the critical path of Yuna’s journey with her friends. Since the very first Final Fantasy, Square’s developers have always played with the notion of what towns could be and their meaning. The towns of Final Fantasy remind us that these are all road trip adventures, something literalized in the spring break lad’s vacation of Final Fantasy XV. In Altissia, Noctis and his bros ride gondolas around this hyper-neoclassical imaginary of Venice, stopping for petit dejeuner at a bistro across town from their hotel, marveling at a populace committed to only the most state of the art pret a porter. Later they’ll take selfies at vendor’s stalls in Lestallum, a sort of Lisbon if it was organized around a power plant, while Gladio sees just how much Peanut Sauce Skewers he can consume in one sitting from Surgate’s Beanmine (as much as Noctis’ royal bank account can afford, it turns out). As Lestallum goes to sleep, the lads pile back into their car, Gladio sprawled across the backseat and full of meat, and head off to the next port of call.
Towns exist for a comprehensive list of reasons. But all those reasons end up back at the guys. Towns are the framework where the guys exist to do more than fight monsters. It expands the verb set of the field to include conversations with townsfolk, rest and recovery at the inn, learning about the world and why it matters. These are where guys come alive while shopping and peering down old wells together wondering about the possibility and shape of their world. These are the safe spaces for guys to bare their hearts to other guys, and remind themselves of why they set out on these journeys anyway. The core of Final Fantasy was never about villains and melodrama, it’s not whether the combat is strategic or arcade-y. No. Final Fantasy has always been about towns and guys…
Even if sometimes those guys have to leave towns to kick ass together—it is what all their shopping is for after all.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.