Video games are often described as escapism, and for good reason. Looking around the real world it’s easy to want to go where we’re not on the brink of war or teetering on the edge of climate catastrophe. Sometimes that sense of escapism can get too strong, though, and it manifests itself as a deep and primal urge to leave our world behind in favor of a digital safehouse.
I’ve been playing a lot of JRPGs lately, and more than any other genre they are filled with places much more delightful to me than our own crumbling planet. These are places that comfort and reinvigorate the mind. They serve as bastions of respite for the wayfaring soul, a spot to visit when the unrelenting din of real life becomes overwhelming. They are headquarters for the main characters, locations that are revisited throughout the story that we get to know over time. They become familiar, as do the people who live and work there. They’re places where everybody knows your name. I’m describing fantasy Cheers, basically.
So here are five JRPG home bases that I’m only one genie wish away from living inside of.
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Thors Military Academy — Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel
Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a game about children that attend Thors Military Academy, the youngest of which is 13 years old. They are often sent on field studies where they regularly prevent war crimes and mass genocide. Despite this somewhat upsetting framing story, Thors and the surrounding town of Trista is a picturesque little hamlet that has me practically seething with envy.
There’s the student union and its pleasant little cafe, a garden near the gymnasium, a field where the riding club tends to its horses. Even the old schoolhouse with its mysterious labyrinth is overflowing with charm. The town of Trista is no less lovely, with Jane’s Flower Shop, Kirsche’s Cafe & Inn, the Class VII dormitory, and even a humble little radio station. It’s the kind of place I could see myself living in were it not completely fictional.
Balamb Garden — Final Fantasy VIII
Let’s keep that theme of “children being trained to kill” going, shall we? Like Thors, Balamb Garden is a military academy for children. Also like Thors, Balamb Garden is a much friendlier place than that conceit might suggest. It’s a City of Domes-esque place with all the amenities you’d expect from a school and then some. There’s a cafeteria, a library, a secret hideout where students can get do some illicit smooching, and a quad.
It serves as the base of operations for SeeD, the garden’s elite unit of child soldiers. Throughout the course of FFVIII, you’ll visit Balamb Garden a lot and get to know its residents, such as Dr. Kadowaki in the infirmary, and that kid who jogs through the halls and carries the Mini Mog Triple Triad card. Don’t want to leave Balamb Garden behind? Don’t worry because the entire damn thing is also an enormous airship. Now you can mobilize your child army across the globe with ease!
Motorville — Ni No Kuni
Ni no Kuni begins its story in Motorville, the hometown of main character Oliver. It’s a fictional American town steeped in the aesthetic of 1950s suburbia. But it doesn’t take long for the game to go full-on fantasy — following his mother’s death, Oliver is quickly whisked away to another world filled with magic and monsters. He’s regularly able to revisit Motorville, though, as it serves as a sort of parallel dimension to the fantasy world.
The link between these two worlds is central to Ni no Kuni. Each character in the fantasy world has a “soul mate” that exists in Oliver’s world, and many important story arcs revolve around searching Motorville for these matches. In this way, the player becomes very familiar with Motorville and its quirky residents. There’s the owner of the local milk bar, Leila, who happens to be the soul mate of a queen in the fantasy world. Rusty runs the town auto repair garage, Myrtle is a reclusive neighbor to Oliver, Denny is a downtrodden friend, and so on. Motorville a very idealistic version of America, which makes it much more appealing than its real-life counterpart.
Cafe Leblanc — Persona 5
I played Persona 5 during a formative time in my life. While learning how to cope with depression, I was in a vulnerable state of mind and needed a place where I could get away during down periods. Luckily I stumbled upon a little cafe nestled in Japan’s Yongen-Jaya district. Cafe Leblanc starts off as a cold, unfamiliar place, but throughout Persona 5’s 100-plus hour campaign it becomes one of the most important locations in the game. Beyond serving as the living quarters for the main character, Leblanc is also where the Phantom Thieves plan their heists.
Some of the best scenes take place here, like when the Thieves celebrate a victory with a collective hot pot meal, or when the owner Sojiro Sakura teaches the main character how to brew the perfect cup of coffee. Little personal touches abound as well, such as hanging the painting Sayuri in the dining area after a particularly emotional story arc. Decorating the main character’s room also lends a sense of progression and belonging to Cafe Leblanc. Looking at mementos of outing with friends placed on the shelf is an emotional roller coaster, let me tell you. There’s very little I wouldn’t give to visit Cafe Leblanc, even if was just to smell the coffee.
Headquarters — Suikoden series
Each entry in the Suikoden franchise presents the heroes with a new headquarters to build up and staff with over one hundred recruitable characters known as the “Stars of Destiny.” In Suikoden it’s Toran Castle, followed by Dunan Castle in Suikoden II and Budehuc Castle in Suikoden III. The fourth entry changed things up with a giant boat named The Dauntless, and Suikoden V featured Ceras Lake Castle. Whatever form the headquarters has taken throughout the series, a sense of ownership over your castle is paramount to the experience.
Each headquarters begins as an empty, cavernous ruin, and over the course of the story becomes a lively center of activity. As you recruit more and more allies to your army, people will open up shops and build homes. Staples of JRPG gameplay, such as inns and weapon and armor shops take up residence, resulting in a power dynamic that’s unmatched in the genre. No longer shall I travel your shop across the world. Instead, you will come to me and my beloved fortress.
They say home is where the heart is, but my heart is in every one of these places and I still can’t visit. I don’t know who I have to charge with this crime, or what crime has even been committed, but there is no justice in a world where these places exist and yet remain unreachable. I suppose that escapism is part of the appeal of video games, but that provides little solace to the homesick soul.