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Food and photos: the simple things that connect you to Final Fantasy XV

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Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy XV’s world is a fantastical place filled with magic-powered robots, flying cars, towering monsters, and powerful weapons locked away in ancient tombs. But it’s also a game where you can sit by a campfire and slurp some instant ramen with your buddies. For all its grand ambitions and epic narrative threads, at its core Final Fantasy XV is about people and the tiny, intimate moments they share. And it really drives this home through two key aspects: photography and food.

Without getting into spoilers, the game stars a cast of four best friends, each of whom has a unique skill. Noctis is a great fisherman, for instance, while Gladiolus is a survival expert, capable of scrounging up useful supplies while you explore. Prompto, meanwhile, is an exceptionally enthusiastic budding photographer. While you’re out in the world — whether it’s exploring a town, sitting around a campfire, or even in the midst of battle — he snaps plenty of pics. Then, at the end of the day, when you settle down for the night, you’re able to flip through his camera roll and select a few photos to save. (A day can last anywhere from minutes to hours depending on how often you give your team a rest.)

Read next: Final Fantasy XV review

Final Fantasy XV

This could have easily been a throwaway feature, a fun-but-unnecessary diversion in a game that’s full of them. But Prompto’s photos are a critical narrative tool, helping you tell your own story while creating a deeper connection with the main cast of characters. What makes the camera feature work so well is how natural it seems. The photos feel like pictures taken by a real person, in terms of both composition and content. A day’s worth of shots might include a posed group picture in front of a landmark, someone laughing in the backseat of a car, or a snap of some wildlife running across a busy highway. There are photobombs and selfies. Some shots are completely out of focus, making it unclear just what the subject was. It’s a lot like looking through the camera roll on my phone — but with a lot more chocobos and giant swords.

The fact that these photos are unique to your game makes them feel more personal. They’re not just canned shots developer Square Enix wanted you to see. They’re pictures your friend took while you were on an adventure together — or at least they feel that way, even though you rarely actually see him take them. Photography even weaves its way into the game’s story. Some sidequests will have you helping Prompto set up the perfect shot by visiting a specific location, and toward the end of the game his photos reveal a curious mystery. More important, though, is that all of these images create a document of your time in the game. Final Fantasy XV is a long experience, and it’s easy to forget some of the smaller, sillier moments. Your saved photos serve as a highlight reel of your grand adventure, something you can flip through to remember the good times.

Final Fantasy XV

But it’s not just photography that makes these characters feel like real, relatable humans. The other member of the Final Fantasy XV quartet is Ignis, and he’s the only one of the group who knows how to cook. And like most skills in a role-playing game, Ignis’ culinary techniques are constantly evolving. When you stumble across a new ingredient, order a new meal at a restaurant, or buy a new cookbook, Ignis will concoct a recipe. There are more than 100 in the game, and I found myself going out of my way to try to uncover them all, scrounging markets for unique varieties of peppers and mushrooms, and spending far too much money on diner food. Each of the meals is rendered with an almost obsessive level of detail; they’re some of the most realistic looking things in the entire game.

These meals serve a gameplay purpose, giving you temporary stat boosts. It’s a good way to prepare for a big battle, for example. But just like in real life, they’re also a bonding experience. Noctis and friends can spend their evening in motels or beat-up Winnebagos, but it’s a lot more fun to camp out under the stars (if it’s not raining, of course). If you do, Ignis will heat up the portable stove and make any dish you choose, provided he has the recipe and ingredients. You can then watch a quick scene as the quartet gulp down some mystery meat sushi or a nice breaded cutlet with tomato. Each character has a selection of favorite meals, which earn them even greater bonuses, but you can only learn them by trying out lots of different food.

One of my favorite side missions in the game involves Gladiolus, Prince Noctis’ beefy bodyguard, extolling his love for instant ramen. It’s his favorite food, but he wants to enhance the flavor by using only the best ingredients. This being Final Fantasy, that meant I needed to help him slay a behemoth — a massive beast with huge horns and an intimidating mohawk — to get just the right cut of meat to make the ramen perfect. The whole experience was silly and frivolous, but also heartwarming in a way. Here are two friends bonding over a simple cup of ramen. Prompto even managed to snap a pic as the whole group enjoyed the meal.

Neither of these elements dramatically alter the way the game plays. You won’t have a significantly easier time in battle if you eat the right foods (though it helps), and collecting selfies won’t help you level up faster. But these features enhance the best part of FFXV: its characters. These seemingly mundane activities help keep the fantastical world grounded, and make the main characters much more relatable, creating deeper and more meaningful connections.

Going into the game, I expected Final Fantasy XV to be filled with unforgettable experiences — I just didn’t expect so many of them would involve selfies and Cup Noodles.