Sunday, March 1, 2015

Final Fantasy VI: A Story Retrospective

[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introductionThe first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]

Final Fantasy IV may have been the Final Fantasy that I played, but Final Fantasy VI (initially known as Final Fantasy III in the West) was the first Final Fantasy I anticipated.  I read (and re-read and re-re-read) previews in gaming magazines, studied the advertisements (featuring a moogle with attitude), and counted down the days until the game's release.  And then on October 11th, 1994, that day finally came...

The Opening

Final Fantasy IV was adventurous high fantasy, and I popped the Final Fantasy VI cartridge into my SNES expecting the same: brave knights, colorful spells, adventurous music.

This is the opening I saw instead.

From the opening narration with its dirge-like bells, to the beautiful and haunting credits music (skip to 2:30 in the video to hear it) - it was apparent that FFVI had a different, weightier substance to it compared to FFIV.  And truth be told, as a teenager I was both perplexed and a little disappointed in the change.

Still, games were hard to come by in the era before Steam.  And so I soldiered on.

The Rest of the Story


Another difference between FFIV and FFVI: the former is clearly the story of Cecil, the dark knight-turned-paladin.  FFVI has no main character, instead offering the player fourteen choices (some of which need to be discovered), including:
  • the half-Esper Terra, who starts the game under the control of the evil Empire
  • the twin royals Edgar and Sabin, who once flipped a coin to determine who would rule their kingdom
  • Celes, a disgraced former imperial general 
  • the mercenary ninja Shadow
  • the brooding knight Cyan, whose family and homeland were devastated by the Empire
  • Relm, an orphan girl with incredible artistic skills
  • a yeti named Umaro
 The first half of the game has fixed parties that explore the various histories of these characters and how they come to fight the Empire.  How does such a story play out?  Well, if FFIV is an epic novel, then FFVI is a short story collection, and that suited me just fine.  The "stories" have a fine balance of mood and characterization, ensuring that no one bit grows too tired or overstays its welcome.

Oh, and there's also a relatively famous opera scene (here's an orchestrated version with live voices - my favorite part starts around 4:55).

Naturally, the opera scene ends with a monster octopus falling from the rafters.

Eventually the stories all converge.  With Emperor Gestahl on the verge of gaining control of the three goddess-statues that are the source of all magic in the world, the player characters come up with a final desperate plan to stop him.  And they nearly succeed!  Except...

... in one of the greatest twists of FF lore, the Emperor's mad jester Kefka assassinates the Emperor and usurps the goddesses' abilities.  Wielding near-limitless power and unburdened by sanity, Kefka promptly raises oceans and crumbles mountains and wrecks the entire planet.

Fade to black...

When the game continues, the player's once magnificent cast of characters is reduced to one: Celes.  Lost on a remote island, Celes spends her days taking care of a sick friend.  Day after day the player scrambles around the beach catching fish, witness to both Celes's outer cheeriness in support of her friend, and her growing inner despair.  This balance tilts more and more as the friend's condition worsens.

One thing that video games do well as a medium is this: they force a sense of culpability upon the player.  Celes is not the only person failing to save her friend; the player is as well.  And so the impact is greater on the day that the friend finally and inevitably dies.

With nothing left to live for, Celes throws herself into the ocean to drown.

Instead she washes up on the mainland, a memento of Locke's miraculously appearing next to her.  With hope restored that she may yet find a reason to live, she resolves to find her missing friends.

And from that point on, the player is set upon a wildly open-ended quest to discover what has become of the missing party.  The analogy to a short story collection is once again appropriate, except now the stories all share a similar journey: that of learning what it means to live and be defiant in the face of heartbreak and despair.

This is FFVI's central theme, one exemplified by the party's ultimate fight against Kefka, who has become the embodiment of unreasoning chaos.  "Why do people insist on creating things that will inevitably be destroyed?" he asks.  "Why do people cling to life, knowing that they must someday die? ...Knowing that none of it will have meant anything once they do?"

I don't have a grand and all-encompassing answer to these questions.  I don't think there is one.  But, like the characters in FFVI, I've discovered that there are millions of little things - a friend's greeting, a stranger's kindness, my daughter's laughter - that lighten my heart each and every day.  And so far that's enough.

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