To celebrate National Video Game Day, Books Forward author Mark A. Alvarez II is dishing on how one popular game became the catalyst for his creative pursuits and ultimately led to the 10-year endeavor of crafting his first novel.
“Why defy your fate?”
“Is the will to live that powerful..?”
These are words from the ending of “Final Fantasy IX,” the first Final Fantasy game I ever played and the first ending to any story to make me cry. I still remember it so clearly, watching every scene, listening to the score, feeling so moved by the words that came across the screen. It mesmerized me in such a way, it’s hard to forget.
To this day, I’ve yet to come across a game that has affected me as much as “Final Fantasy IX” (which is soon to have its own animated series). Granted, I was 8 when I first played and beat this game, but the ending to this game and the story overall would impact me long after that as I became more and more obsessed with the themes it exposed to me.
I know this might seem unlikely or rather unheard of, but the day I watched that ending would shape me as a writer more than anyone could ever know. But come on … a video game? How does that even happen? What can a writer learn from a video game, especially a budding one at the tender age of 8?
Even if I didn’t know it at the time, that game would sow the seeds of inspiration I needed to explore the darkest parts of myself, the parts of my life I struggled to face alone. This story spoke to me for reasons I was oblivious but obviously drawn to. And it did so with brilliant writing, a colorfully immersive world and an amazing score — among the best of any game I’ve ever heard.
Which brings me to “Dutybound: Light Wings Epic Vol. 1,” my debut novel. In reality, I started writing this story in 2009. But the story’s conception started long before that, while I was a kid fantasizing about building my own world, my own fantasy, my own game with a story as compelling as that of my favorite role-playing game.
Originally, I imagined Light Wings as a video game, inspired by “Final Fantasy IX.” I drew storyboards. I wrote character profiles. I even fleshed out roles, abilities and weapons for each of my characters.
Little did I know this would be the foundation I would build “Dutybound” upon. Pieces of this imaginary game would become the backstory as I introduced a new generation of characters by my freshman year of high school, the year I started writing my first draft of what was then called “Light Wings: Sinful Wishes,” desiring a fresh take on the philosophies I so eagerly sought to understand.
The connections between “Final Fantasy IX” and “Dutybound” lie in the themes they present and how each applied to my distinct outlooks and philosophies of life.
“Final Fantasy IX,” as light-hearted as it is, dealt with some of the darkest topics to be explored in a Final Fantasy game. It posed questions of life and its purpose as many of the game’s characters had to come to terms with their creation and, ultimately, the finality of a death that was inevitable.
Its ending theme, “Melodies of Life,” presents something similar: a song about grief and loss that illustrates it as something bittersweet rather than tragic and all-consuming.
As an 8-year-old, I had already faced two near-death experiences. First, as a newborn and then as an infant when I was shot in the face by my younger brother. It’s no surprise why I would be drawn to these themes. Even if I didn’t quite understand them, they resonated because in those tight moments within my childhood, when things felt the most dark and hopeless, I often wondered why I survived those experiences. I pondered whether my life held a purpose because I was born into a life that felt nothing more than a series of mistakes. My birth, potentially, being one of them.
In truth, I was born of infidelity. My mother was unfaithful to her husband and had a son, a fatherless child, who was given a name that should have not been his. My younger brother was Mark Aaron Alvarez’s true-born son. Mark Aaron Alvarez II, however; I was a bastard. Nothing more, nothing less. At least that’s what I believed at the time. Despite this, it was in not knowing that second half of myself that I found myself exploring new possibilities and seeking to define my place, my destiny, and my purpose.
“We do not want to forget this. We want your memory to live on forever… To remind us that we were not created for the wrong reason — that our life has meaning.”
As I began to construct my somber tale of light and dark, I faced these challenges within myself, seeded by the imaginative and epic game that filled me with so much inspiration. I had to come to terms with aspects of my life I could not change, while also finding meaning in these events, as unfortunate as they may seem. Not knowing my real father or lineage. Being born of infidelity. Feeling like a mistake. Surviving tragic events that in some ways made my life feel meaningless. These issues, along with everything else, is a lot for a child to process. And in hindsight, I can say “Final Fantasy IX” was my first escape. Its story was the first I ever felt truly connected to.
The game was an accessible way for me to cope with issues I didn’t quite understand, while my writing became a medium for me to explore my own doubts and fears about living in a world where I felt I had no place. A world where I felt alone. Where I could not find answers within my favorite video game, I sought to answer on my own, within a story, world, and fantasy I created, my second escape.
“What to do when I felt lonely, that’s the only thing you couldn’t teach me. But we need to figure out the answers for ourselves.”
“Dutybound” is a unique story, but it is also a personal one. My ego played no part in writing it. I didn’t write this story because I wanted to write a best-seller or be seen as an incredible writer, or even pitch it as a video game. The Light Wings Epic was written as a personal journey of introspection, as a means to come to terms with an unpredictable and turbulent life. And it would not exist if I never played “Final Fantasy IX” or been exposed to those themes of life, death and finding a purpose.
And for that, I’m immensely grateful. Because it was in not knowing that I found myself stumbling into something incredible, discovering that life is more than the circumstances we are born into. Our lives and our light come from the inside, from our own convictions, from our own choices. We will always hold the ability to choose the way we’d like to live our lives. And our choices will always be intricately connected to the things we desire most out of life.
“How did you survive?”
“I didn’t have a choice. I had to live. I wanted to come back to you. So… I sang your song. Our song.”