I don’t know if an open world has ever counted for more than a gimmick. Currently, it’s driving an emergent narrative trend; a long time ago, it was a way to fake an expansive world by crawling across a 2D map with a pixelated character. Now we have marketing compaigns that praise the amount of time it takes to cross a continent, a planet — the actual minutes hyperdrive takes in a spaceship. The “open world” is a spectacle. Final Fantasy XV gave its spectacle a soul.

Eos is, of course, beautiful, which is common enough. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is beautiful, but beauty isn’t a requirement for an open world, as we see in the Fallout series. FFXV is also filled with seemingly endless side quests, from fetch quests all the way to bounty hunts. That is where the bulk of the game is, too, in this optional content that more fully fleshes out the world. For this first half of the game, Eos seems just as conventional as a planet in No Man’s Sky or a city in an Assassin’s Creed game. But halfway through the game, and certainly after finishing it, the open world in FFXVundergoes a tonal shift; Eos, the open world, is a narrative mechanic. Unlike an open world Bethesda game or an Assassin’s Creed entry, where place is never considered anything more than a geographic feature or a stage for a certain flavor of plot — Boston gives Fallout 4 a cultural touchstone and Damascus or Firenze gives Assassin’s Creed its historical touchstones — Eos is a memory and an ideal: it is representative of youth and youthful escapism and it encapsulates everything that a road trip movie and Journey to the West is — culturally, historically, geographically and narratively. Final Fantasy XV could not have the impact it has in the second half of the game without Eos. Fallout and Assassin’s Creed can happen anywhere.

Eos exists entirely within and without the narrative and, if a player so chose, could be entirely ignored. Even when during my play through, I often used the automatic driving sequences as a break — most of my exploration and appreciation for the open world came from riding Chocobos, running around random points on the map, or fulfilling sidequests. Why design such a large world to contain a relatively straight forward plot line? More than that, why risk the poignancy of a narrative by submerging it in mechanics? Eos is only as fleshed out as the player explores and takes on tasks, allowing emergent narrative opportunities to be created or exposed — which, by the way, are some of the most joyful points in the game (see any player’s response to Prompto asking for a photo by a landmark you probably didn’t even see, or the immense fun in discovering and completing the “outings” you can do with each party member). Those moments are what makes the game very good, more than the success of the plot’s writing and the overall pacing of the story. The way the open world is used, how nuanced this mechanic is tuned, is fun and adds worthwhile weight to the 40–60 hour experience.

The dramatic shift in tone, setting and pacing from the first half of the game is impactful and gooda mechanic is introduced right before that allows you to travel “back to the past,” as it is framed in the game (which is just a quick travel back to the open world, the only way to get back to that part of the game after the second half), that seems aloof at first, but understandably and gracefully becomes an escape from the escalating harshness of the plot. It is a reprieve to return to the open world continent on Eos and chase after some sidequests. Otherwise, you have to go back to saving the world.

Final Fantasy XV is about coming of age and responsibility. The game uses nostalgia, framed within this open world, to the same effect as nostalgia in a coming of age film. Wistfulness over childhood, bitterness about leaving it and mantling true responsibility, changing relationships, heartache…when you go back to the past in Eos, you return to a moment in time frozen in the game, when you were only on a roadtrip to get married. For politics, sure, but it’s not so bad. At least you have your car again.