Final Fantasy XV's development history is long, messy, and a story unto itself, but the project was brought firmly on track by the idea of making the ultimate Road Trip experience. Road trip stories are generally defined by a mix of wistful nostalgia and camaraderie as a group of people progress on a very physical, landmark-based journey. Although the final 1/4 of the game gets away from the road trip idea a bit, the overall Final Fantasy XV project never strays from one core theme: brotherhood.
More impressively for an RPG, a genre whose systems and storytelling often never converge, FF15 expresses this theme not just through its writing, acting, and story beats, but through the unique rhythm of its interlocking gameplay systems. Let's take the simple act of leveling up as a prime example: in most games, leveling up is pretty mechanical fare. You fight enemies, tally up points, watch a bar fill, and then a happy sound plays as your stats increase. FF15, on the other hand, adds an element of strategy to one of gaming's oldest mechanics while grounding it in the story's themes.
When you earn experience points in FF15, it isn't instantly "spent" like in other games, but rather pocketed away. Your characters don't actually benefit from accumulated XP until they decide to settle in with each other at a camp site in the wilds of Lucis or rest in a local hotel in one of the kingdom's more settled areas. Only when the game's characters decide to rest and unwind for the night do they benefit from the day's labors, as all of your XP you've been stowing away pours into your characters and the player experiences pure joy as the cast levels up multiple times in a row. The strategy I mentioned earlier lies in seeing how many full days and nights you can survive in order to horde as much precious XP as possible, before resting at a local inn or hotel to take advantage of the insane multipliers that they provide.
It's tempting to just horde all of your XP and spend money on these multipliers in towns, but if you do so you'll miss out on another interesting part of FF15's camping/resting mechanics: Ignis' cooking. As the chamberlain of the royal family Ignis is, among other things, an incredibly accomplished cook, and will find all sorts of inspiration for new recipes throughout your travels in Lucis. Camping in sites found throughout the wilderness will allow players to prepare meals that provide a variety of truly meaningful stat buffs and bonuses, and this is the kind of game where eating the right meal before a particularly tough battle (of which the game has many) can make all the difference.
In addition to Ignis' love of cooking, each of your characters has a key ability that helps out the team throughout the course of the journey and promotes a sense of camaraderie between them. As the crown prince Noctis, players can indulge in fishing all over Lucis when they're not trying to reclaim their stolen kingdom. Obviously, fish are potent ingredients in Ignis' meals, but it's your crew's adorable commentary while you fish that sticks most clearly in my mind. Gladiolus digs up items wherever you go, and only gets more proficient as you progress through the game, so he does a good job of keeping the party stocked and prepared.
It's Prompto's love of photography, however, that still has the internet abuzz and stands as one of FF15's most distinctive features. Prompto is the perky, upbeat friend who is obsessed with selfies and wants to chronicle every detail of the road trip in visual form. Whenever you elect to rest, part of the ritual becomes pouring over Prompto's pics for the day and selecting which shots you want to keep in an ongoing album. It's completely adorable, as the guys trade jokes and compliments with each other, but it's also used to incredible effect later on in the narrative, when the rigors of the journey leave the group unwilling (or unable) to comment on photos at various times.
FF15 is a staggering technical achievement in a variety of ways, but none are perhaps more impressive than the artificial intelligence the team developed for Prompto's photography. Through a variety of complex factors, Prompto takes into account scenery and lighting, makes use of filters, finds interesting or weird stuff, frames shots in unique ways... he's an absolutely convincing amateur photographer, right down to the fact that he ends up with just as many misses as hits. Through recent updates players have more control than ever before over the photos Prompto takes, but that doesn't detract from the fun of just letting him do his own thing. He constantly surprises with the moments that he chooses to focus on, and it's his obsession with the little details that makes his character feel so full and alive.
Really, the same can be said of FF15 as a whole. It is a game obsessed with tiny details. The way grass and trees sway in the wind, characters commenting on each others' (lack of) combat prowess or outfit changes, how characters stumble and help each other to their feet during battle, the way that Ignis' glasses blur what appears through the lens when he takes them off to clean them. All of these little things, when multiplied throughout the dozens of hours you spend with Noctis, Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto, make the journey feel special.
By the time you reach the game's heartbreaking and emotional finale, you really feel like you've been on a road trip with dear friends. The way that Final Fantasy XV uses its game mechanics to enhance and elevate its narrative themes is to be lauded, and will hopefully inspire developers in the years to come.