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Tribute to Final Fantasy VI

So I recently collected some game soundtracks, and one of them was the soundtrack to Final Fantasy 6. Listening to these songs brings back vivid memories of the game, and that’s undoubtedly at least partially due to Nobuo Uematsu’s ungodly ability to bring about emotions through musical notes. Whether it be the mysterious uncertainty of The Phantom Forest, the relaxing homeliness of Kids Run Through The City Corner, or the crushing despair of Dark World, this game’s soundtrack never ceases to bring about an emotional response from me. In any case, listening to these songs has really caused me to reminisce.

What a wonderful adventure, that game was.

I’m not normally one to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses. Most of the games I loved as a kid I can acknowledge now are not all that amazing. And besides, when I finally got around to playing through Final Fantasy 6 it was, what, only three or four years ago? So no, I don’t think this is nostalgia. Final Fantasy 6 is a great game.

It doesn’t particularly stand out in the gameplay department. The gameplay was solid, but it wasn’t really innovative or amazing in any specific way. I think the storytelling was what really drove it home for me. FF6 has one of my favorite video game stories ever. Part of that is because of its interesting setting, its distinct and memorable characters and its epic, almost operatic tone, but most of it is because of a big twist right around the middle of the game that changes everything.

No, this is not one of those M. Night Shyamalan style twists where the support character was evil all along, or you were an evil dictator before you got amnesia, or the whole game was a flashback up to this point or whatever. It’s not some revelation where you find out some bit of information you didn’t know before, which changes your perception of the story. No, this is simply a plot event that changes everything up, and it’s one you could not possibly have foreseen without having consulted a plot synopsis or FAQ beforehand.

And that twist was so brilliantly executed that it sweetened the entire story for me, and it’s probably why I still hold up FF6 as a better storyteller than most games out there, including the good ones.

CAUTION: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Final Fantasy 6 has a fairly standard plot for Japanese RPGs. A ragtag group of adventurers is trying to stop an evil warlord from using magical artifacts to destroy the world. You travel across the planet, acquiring more warriors to join your collective party and encountering various empires, factions, feuds, betrayals, deaths, etc. All cool stuff, but pretty straightforward.

The main bad guy, Kefka, is a pretty interesting villain. Not in that he has relatable motivations or an intriguing backstory, but in the sense that he’s just really “out there.” He’s a ruthless dictator who dresses like a clown, commits genocide, and seeks to tear the whole world apart. You find out toward the end that his motivations are rooted in nihilism; he wants to destroy the world because he doesn’t believe any of it matters in the end. And you get the impression that he hates people because they don’t think the same way he does.

The most effective way I’ve thought of to describe him is The Joker crossed with Hitler.

But at about the halfway point something big happens: Kefka actually succeeds. He rearranges various ancient magical runes, which throws off the balance of the entire world. The whole planet is ravaged, continents are rearranged, cities are toppled, and many people are killed. Your party falls apart, and the character you follow is put in a coma.

One year later you wake up in the post-apocalyptic world. I was expecting to find all the characters hanging out one town over so we can continue the fight against evil, but here the game shifts from linear, story-focused RPG to open-world sandbox RPG. You’re only required to find two of the other characters of your former party, and it’s up to you whether you want to find all the other player characters scattered throughout the world (14 total) and do any of the other side quests that tie up the loose ends and subplots, or whether you want to just go straight for the big finale.

Seeing the world in its newly devastated state is heart-wrenching since you just spent hours and hours getting to know it, and especially since you traverse it now to the tune of Dark World. The way the story is told in the second half, combined with the gameplay shift, just gives you the feeling that the world is broken beyond repair and all you can do is pick up the remains. The gear shift is so poignant that it still makes my heart drop thinking about it now.

I remember the episode of Spoiler Warning where each cast member said what their most memorable moment was as a gamer. I asked myself the same question and almost immediately knew the answer: it was that moment when the world was torn asunder.

The only other game that’s come close to affecting me as much is Chrono Trigger. That game dealt with similar themes (post-apocalypse, dystopia, trying to save the world, etc.) but had a very different, arguably more interesting premise. You know, I’m starting to wonder if I just like seeing the world blow up.

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7 responses

  1. I, sadly, never managed to get into Final Fantasy VI the way I read some people on the Internet have. I tried, twice; both times I just quit in boredom after a while. The characters never really jived with me, and without that, the gameplay is just your basic JRPS slog. I might give it another try at some point, as long as it’s on a decent emulator — one that allows me to speed up all the random battle nonsense.

    I will say that the World of Balance overworld theme is amazing, and that I would often sit and listen to that for minutes on end.

    August 2, 2011 at 4:30 AM

  2. Agree with everything! Nobuo Uematsu is an amazing composer and FF just hasn’t been the same since he left.

    “No, this is not one of those M. Night Shyamalan style twists where the support character was evil all along”

    I find this funny because a typical FF plot twist would sort of be the opposite, an evil character is actually good, but under the control of the real villain whom you haven’t even heard of before. FF8 did this, FF4 did this twice, and I’m sure there are more instances.

    FF6 is one of my 3 favorite games and I think you covered all the best stuff about it. The gameplay wasn’t very interesting, but the important thing is that it wasn’t bad. If you focus on story but have terrible gameplay its still a bad game even if the story is amazing. Story driven games ought to have at least pretty good gameplay.

    Incidentally Chrono Trigger is another f my 3 favorite games, any chance you’ll write about that one as well? Arguably the gameplay is a little more interesting in Chrono Trigger but I guess that’s a matter of opinion.

    August 2, 2011 at 9:12 AM

  3. David T

    I actually just beat this game for the first time a few weeks ago. I agree that the overall plot is somewhat generic, but it’s the journey that counts! (So “after school special”-like i know, so sue me.) What mainly drew me in was the fact that the cast was HUGE, yet still managed to give back-story and character development in all of them (except the optional ones), and the music. Everything has already been said about the music, so I won’t add more to that except that it is a very good soundtrack. I still have yet to play Chrono Trigger, but that’s probably going to be the next game I purchase. I’m in a very RPG mood as of late, having completed FF6 and FF12 in the same month, and now finally beating KotOR (I got stuck and put it away for 4 or 5 years, and am just getting back to it).

    August 3, 2011 at 2:29 PM

  4. Falcon

    Interesting take, but I have to disagree with you a bit.

    The plot twist was not unforseeable. In fact it was quite clear the big bad was trying to destroy the world. In the literary realm this would be a big ‘so what’. In the game world though usually they are designed to make the player feel powerful and in control.

    It’s kinda like the twist to Jade Empire.
    *spoilers*http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=1055
    The actual twist isn’t a surprise narratively speaking, it’s a surprise because a game did it</i

    August 3, 2011 at 5:05 PM

    • JPH

      It’s not a surprise that the bad guy is trying to destroy the world; it’s a surprise that he succeeds. You’d normally expect the heroes to stop him at the last second, but in FF6 it actually happens.

      August 3, 2011 at 5:09 PM

    • Falcon

      Bah, hit publish on accident.

      I know it is mostly semantics but it does provide an important distinction. Both game narratives resonate strongly because they defy player expectations. Both are (deservedly) held in high regard. The lesson is if you want to pack punch in the narrative don’t make a ‘clever’ twist (a.k.a. Pulled out of your ass). Do something that the player won’t expect, failure. Used well it carries a lot of heft.

      Side note Uematsu is awesome. Personally I love his metal remixes he did as The Black Mages. Awesome stuff. Plus Dancing Mad is a 12 minute Kefka tribute.

      August 3, 2011 at 5:14 PM

  5. krellen

    You know, I’m starting to wonder if I just like seeing the world blow up.

    So clearly Fallout’s big failure was not having you play through doomsday first. :)

    August 4, 2011 at 10:55 PM

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