I don’t know if there’s a term for this, but it’s a sensation I’ve been keying on a lot lately, so I’ll try and describe it. It’s something that happens in JRPG’s – generally when you’re younger, playing for the first time – before you’ve mastered the mechanics, or have played enough of them to really GET the need for grinding or system mastery. You just get pulled forward by the story, by the colors, by the sense of momentum – until you find a point in the game, generally a boss battle – where you hit that first difficulty spike.
I’m thinking turn-based Final Fantasy style games here – so you know the sort of boss I’m talking about. Stratospheric HP. They attack three or four times as much as you can. They have special attacks that target the entire party and reduce your health by 60-70%. They cast DOOM too early in the game – long before you can easily heal that status. They take out Sabin in the first turn, then Terra – and you get trapped in the Phoenix Down Loop of trying to bring your characters back to life, but then the boss goes again and knocks them right back out. You finally wear the boss down to half and IT HEALS ITSELF.
Turn based games are all about developing patterns. Little algorithms. Little pathways of strategy and victory that carry you to the next turn of the page, the next point on the horizon, the next treasure chest gleaming in the dark. This boss battle EATS your algorithm, shatters your pattern. The plans you’ve laid, the habits you’ve developed – nothing works anymore. You’ve got to scramble, improvise, and —
Now, here’s the part I’m trying to describe.
All of your old patterns don’t work anymore. Most of your party is dead – the gambler, the rune knight, the ninja. You just have one random character left and they have no healing abilities – so you start digging around in your Item screen.
In games like this – you pick up all sorts of things. Potions, tonics, elixirs, shiny rocks, trinkets. And in these moments, you desperately start digging through your bag – hoping there’s something in there you’ve forgotten, some random bottle gathering dust that can save the day – or at the very least get you back on your feet to keep fighting. It’s a feeling of desperation. Your best characters – the best pieces of you- are toast and all you’ve got left is that final slot trying to play it cool while they are elbow deep in the item sack. Magus is casting Ice 2 every turn with grim patience and watching you falter.
And sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you find an Elixir you forgot about. Or an X-Potion. But most of the time you’re just throwing whatever you have – Phoenix Downs and Tonics, the better characters breathe and then die again under the boss’ onslaught. Maybe you can hold out, but every time you reach into the bag you know there’s less and less to pull from – less and less of a chance of the perfect solution.
Then there comes the moment. The moment when you know.
You know you can’t win. You know that there’s only so many Hi-Potions left, only so many turns before you fall. The logical choice would be to quit. Reload from the last save and try again. But for some reason, I don’t. I keep throwing whatever is left in my bag – turnips, sacks of candy, broken nails, status effect causing items that never ever land on a boss. I think it feels like if I can buy more time, more moves, more turns – that the boss will falter. A new strategy could reveal itself, a chink in the armor of the world. I’m locked into a Hi-Potion Standoff – all I can do every turn is choke another one down. Heal up just enough to survive the next attack, then crack open another. Until they are gone.
Life is not Final Fantasy VI. It’s both way more complicated – and seriously moogle deprived. But I wanted to describe that feeling – that weird hopeful desperation. No moves left but this, hoping for a forgotten chance somewhere deep down in the bag. And the determination to make the boss earn it.