Search

VG Story Reviews

A Unique Look at Interactive Stories

Why Final Fantasy VI’s storytelling is still innovative today (part 2): Celes & Locke

Warning: This essay contains HUGE plot spoilers and discusses suicide

Read Part 1 here

After discussing the story of Final Fantasy VI as a whole, I’m going to be writing multiple articles analyzing the characters and themes. Here is the second part in my analysis of Final Fantasy VI. Furthermore, I’m going to do a VG Story Review of Final Fantasy VI which will address many of the same points, so if you prefer video content, then make sure to check that out!

Romance is something that we simply don’t have enough of in gaming. And I don’t mean the silly romance where a character is designed just to fawn all over the playable character in an attempt to make you feel good. That kind of blatant pandering misses the nuances, the challenges and the day to day struggles of interpersonal relationships. Even Yuna and Tidus, my favorite couple in gaming, are a bit too ‘perfect’ and devoid of interpersonal conflict. And that’s why Locke and Celes will always have a special place in my heart.

A guilt-ridden man compelled to save distressed damsels

Very early on in our adventure, we are introduced to Locke. A thief treasure hunter who goes around the world searching for long lost artifacts. Since the immediate focus of the story at this point is keeping Terra out of the hands of the imperial soldiers, it will be a while before we learn more about his actual character. Nonetheless, we get a bit of foreshadowing: He immediately makes a promise to protect Terra. Given the urgency of the situation, this is a pretty logical promise to make, but the actual reason is far more interesting. Much later on, Locke channels his inner Solid Snake and sneaks around South Figaro, now under imperial occupation. Along the way, he encounters yet another woman in distress and he can’t help himself.

Now Celes is easily my favorite characters in all of gaming. When we meet her, she’s in chains (and getting beaten up by the guards, a scene that got censored in the GBA port), about to be executed as punishment for speaking out against the empire1. Celes’ character is based off of one of the most influential Final Fantasy archetype: The Penitent Knight (as I call it), or “character who works for the bad guys, realizes they’re bad, and goes on a quest of redemption”2. The first incarnation of this archetype is Final Fantasy IV’s protagonist, Cecil, whose character development was beautifully represented in the gameplay with a class change from Dark Knight to Paladin. But while she follows this archetype, Celes’ journey is less about the internal conflict and more about the aftermath. We don’t really know what her personality was like as a general, but at this point, it’s pretty clear that Celes suffers from low self-esteem, meekly accepting her title of ‘traitor’ and resigning herself to her own execution.

Naturally, Locke isn’t going to let her just die so he frees Celes and makes a vow to protect her as well. Now Terra was being actively hunted by the empire so his protectiveness made sense. But this time? He could have just freed Celes and sent her on her way. After they escape Figaro together, she even asks him why he did it.

Of course, as is typical with romances, we get a love triangle… with a dead girl. While the party is searching for Terra, Locke visits his former love, Rachel, whose body has been preserved in Kohlingen. Here we learn how Rachel fell through a bridge, while pushing Locke to safety. After the incident, Locke was kicked out of Kohlingen and blamed for what happened to Rachel. To make matters worse, Rachel was eventually killed during an imperial raid (but not before uttering his name in her final moments). As a result, Locke carries tremendous guilt in his heart, and always seeks to protect the women he meets, as a way to make up for failing to save Rachel. If you happened to have Celes in the party at this point, you get a bonus scene that lasts all of 5 seconds, but beautifully demonstrates that it’s clear she has some feelings for him and now understands the weight on his heart.

A momentary lapse in trust

It’s quite fitting that the Maria & Draco Opera would be a pivotal moment in Celes in Locke’s budding romance. After Celes, who is definitely not an opera floozy, gets cast in the role of Maria, Locke visits her in her dressing room and here Celes confronts him, asking Locke if he merely views her as a replacement for Rachel. A blushing Locke deflects her question and compliments her pretty bow, mostly because it’s a pretty valid assessment. Locke’s promise to save Celes is done because he failed to save Rachel. This interaction makes one thing clear: these two have feelings for each other, but neither is ready to come forward.

And then, as the party makes it to the heart of the enemy base, Kefka ends up sowing the seeds of drama by ‘congratulating’ Celes on being a spy. Now, Celes’ loyalty is a bit of a touchy subject. Most of the group was suspicious of her joining the returner’s cause, especially Cyan who was deeply affected by the empire’s reprehensible actions. Unfortunately, when Kefka accuses of her of being a spy Locke takes the bait and believes him, which deeply upsets Celes. Her relationship with Locke helped her believe in herself, but that one moment of doubt was all it took to shatter her newly-found confidence. In order to prove her loyalty to the returners, she teleports Kefka, the soldiers and herself away, but the damage is already done.

celestraitor

The next time Locke sees Celes, things have changed. The empire has surrendered, she’s reclaimed her title of general and there’s a totally-not-at-all-an-evil-plan peace treaty between the espers and The Empire. In the middle of this, Locke tries to apologize but Celes gives him the cold shoulder. In this moment, both characters clash due to their flaws. Celes, while physically strong and capable, is very insecure. And whilst Locke merely doubted her for a second, that was enough to seriously hurt her feelings and cause her to doubt herself. Locke, on the other hand, has a hard time accepting when things go badly, and does everything he can to try and ‘fix’ the problem no matter what. In this situation, he felt guilty for doubting Celes so he immediately brings it up, not considering that maybe this isn’t the best time or place to discuss such a sensitive topic. Each of them could have handled this situation better, and I’m sure both would regret it, as it could have been the last conversation they ever had.

At the Floating Continent, Celes’ loyalty is put to the test. She is given the chance to rule the world with Gestahl and Kefka. Her response? She declares “I wish I’d never been born” and stabs Kefka. This enraged Kefka who breaks the statues’ alignment, which leads to the destruction of the world. Now, I’m no psychologist, but someone who has low self-esteem declaring “I wish I’d never been born” makes me wonder if Celes suffers from clinical depression. It’s certainly consistent with much of her previous actions and this would mean Kefka and Celes share something in common: Mental illness. Kefka is a sociopath who would eventually become nihilistic, while Celes suffers from depression and would eventually become suicidal3.

A woman who conquered her own darkness and brought hope back to a dying world

After seeing the end of the world, I understood why this game was so celebrated. After witnessing solitary Island, I was inconsolable. Suicide is an incredibly difficult topic to do well, and many examples of suicide in fiction are atrocious because they author wants to make the character feel ‘heroic’ and/or ‘honorable’. But for Celes, there’s nothing ‘heroic’ about it. After Cid dies from eating bad fish, Celes is in complete despair. In tears, she climbs to the highest peak, and throws herself off a cliff in an attempt to end her own life because she is simply tired of living. That’s it.

celesdarkesthour

And what gets me every single time is: can you really blame her? The sheer amount of emotional trauma she’s suffered would drive most people headfirst into the abyss. At the very least, she must feel enormous guilt. She was a Gestahlian general who did some (unspecified) bad things, she was branded a traitor and beaten, rescued by a group that saw her as an enemy. Worse yet, she stabbed Kefka which would drive him to do the unthinkable. In other words, she is indirectly responsible for the destruction of the world. Just as Locke feels enormous guilt from Rachel’s death, Celes clearly feels tremendous guilt for indirectly creating the World of Ruin.

Now, this renowned suicide scene is only accessible if Cid dies on Solitary Island4. You, the player, must play a fishing minigame that will determine his fate. Feed him the right fish and he’ll recover. Feed him the bad fish and he’ll slowly die while giving some gut-wrenching snippets of dialog. But why go through all this trouble? Why have the player do a fishing minigame to trigger this emotional moment? I have a theory: You, the player, are expected to fail. Even knowing which fish to catch, this minigame is brutally difficult. A lot of people have completed FFVI without even realizing you can save Cid, as it’s almost impossible to figure out without some sort of guide. Whilst it could just be classic ‘90s bad game design, I suspect this is intentional. You, the player, are expected to fail this minigame so that you would experience the guilt, sorrow and hopelessness that Celes is feeling in that moment. Through an interactive sequence, Final Fantasy VI allows you to empathize with Celes in her darkest hour.

When I said “their love would mend the world” I meant it literally. After her suicide attempt, Celes encounters a seagull with Locke’s bandana tied around it. This ray of hope, that Locke is still out there somewhere, inspires her to leave the island and search for her friends. Final Fantasy VI is a game about failure, and how sometimes, despite how hard you can try, shitty things will happen. But it’s also a game about overcoming that failure and moving forward. Even when the world itself seems like it’s about to die, life is still worth living. It’s at this point that Celes becomes party leader and slowly picks up the pieces of this shattered world. Little by little, she rallies Sabin, then GeradEdgar, then Setzer and eventually Locke.

After the end of the world, Locke has gone back to his initial quest: searching for a way to bring Rachel back to life. Whilst he clearly has feelings for Celes, his love still belongs to Rachel and after navigating the incredibly confusing Phoenix Cave (alone, somehow), he actually stumbles across the Phoenix magicite. Thanks to its power, he manages to bring Rachel back to life but only for a short time. In her brief revival, Locke finally hears the words that he needed to hear a long time ago: That she doesn’t need to forgive him because he did nothing wrong. All he did was love her, and while he was blamed for it, her death was never his fault. Rachel reiterates how happy she was with him and gives him the closure he needs to share his love with Celes.

Finally, after confronting the nihilistic God of all magic, the entire party proves that even in shattered decrepit world, it’s the day-to-day challenges and the times we spend with friends that make life worth living. Each party member explains the lesson they’ve learned and how they’ve grown as characters. Here, Locke recognizes that he has learned to celebrate life and the living. He’s no longer bound by his own perceived failures. Thanks to Celes, Locke is able to move on and lift the guilt off his shoulders. Conversely, thanks to Locke, Celes has overcome her insecurities and become happy with herself. She has she has found someone who accepts her, and loves her, for who she is.

Conclusion

In the end, what makes Locke and Celes’ love so special is that they clearly are attracted to each other, but their love cannot blossom until they sort out their own emotional baggage. Final Fantasy VI was drastically ahead of it’s time, showcasing some incredibly mature themes. The romance portrayed here is shockingly realistic and neither character is a ‘token love interest’ to the other. Rather than some fantasy ‘true love that never falters’, Celes and Locke’s romance is messy, unclear and even a little awkward. Despite that, their love is persistent and after Kefka’s tower crumbles, Locke catches Celes just before she falls, this time determined to never let go.

In part three.

Footnotes:

  • 1. The reason for her arrest and death penalty are never explained. There’s a popular theory that she objected to the poisoning of Doma, but that event takes place while Locke is sneaking around South Figaro, so it seems unlikely they’d even have time to bring her all the way over South Figaro. Furthermore, I don’t think she would have even been arrested for speaking out against the poisoning of Doma, since Gestahl had to distract Leo (who also objected) just to get that plan going.
  • 2. Aside from Celes, other examples of this archetype include Beatrix from FFIX, Balthier from FFXII (Like Celes, his defection happened before we meet him) and most recently Aranea Highwind from FFXV.
  • 3. It should be noted that depression is a very frequent cause of suicide. Furthermore, we know that Kefka’s mind was broken after being infused with magic because the process was not sufficiently refined. We know that Celes went through the same process, so to me it seems plausible that her mind was broken (maybe not to the same extent) by this as well.
  • 4. I adore Final Fantasy Record Keeper, but this is my biggest criticism. They cut out Celes’ suicide and went with the “she feeds Cid the proper fish and he gets better” outcome in their little story snippet… Seriously!? I was so disappointed!

VG Story Review – Pokémon Sun Moon

This is the best storyline that the Pokémon series has done (Disclaimer: I still haven’t played Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky). Witness one of the most successful video game franchise tell the story of Lillie, an shy girl who carries a Pokémon called Nebby in a duffle bag. If that wasn’t enough, Pokémon borrows from real-world biology once again and provides regional variants of Pokémon we’ve become familiar with.

Why is Time Travel so Common in Video Games? A Case Study with Final Fantasy I

Quick! What do The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Chrono Trigger, Life is Strange, Undertale, Prince of Persia, Braid, Jak 2: Renegade, Quantum Break Final Fantasy I, Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2 all have in common?

…ok, I guess the title of this post is a bit of a giveaway: Each of these games involve time travel either in their gameplay, storyline or both! Sometimes it’s our character traveling through different eras, sometimes we have the ability to reset the timeline. Either way, time-travel shows up surprisingly often in video games and I have a few theories as to why that is.

But first, we need to talk about Final Fantasy I. I’m sure everyone by now is familiar with the story of the original Final Fantasy: how it was intended to be Square’s swan song, how it was designed with no sequel in mind (thus paving the way for each Final Fantasy having a unique world/cast) and how it would define not just the series but the JRPG genre as a whole1. Whilst the gameplay of Final Fantasy was similar (albeit more complex) than other games at the time, the sheer size and scope of it’s storyline was unprecedented. This is one of the first video games that actually cared about narrative and, what a surprise, it also happens to involve time-travel!

At first, Final Fantasy’s story seems painfully generic: You play as four warriors of light who must rescue the princess from the evil knight. The most hackneyed storyline in gaming. But wait, that’s just the introduction!. By the end, you’re left with a perplexing tale about a knight who created a timeloop and attained pseudo-immortality. Many common Final Fantasy tropes, such as the ‘technologically advanced society who was destroyed X number of years ago’, started right here. But what stands out the most is that Final Fantasy I is a story where the villain is the time-traveler rather than the hero. Whilst the Warriors of Light do get to time-travel at the very end of the game, for the most part their job is to clean up the mess of the actual time-traveling antagonist.

Time Travel allows games to explore prior events and show characters change over time

Flashback sequences are a staple of literature for a reason: They allow us to take a look at prior events and see how the characters were shaped the way they are. While video games certainly can make use of flashback sequences in a cutscene, these lack the interactive component that make video game stories so unique. Instead, what a lot of video games will do is have a character tell a story of events that transpired before and allow you, the player, to experience this as a ‘playable flashback’. For example, as Cloud tells the rest of the party the dark history of Nibelheim, you get to play through his experience alongside Sephiroth. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Captain Price recounts his experiences as a sniper on an assassination mission in ‘All Gillied Up’, in what is easily the game’s best level (at least in terms of narrative).

While this approach of creating interactive flashback sequences is one I highly encourage, there’s another way to achieve the same effect: Give the player-character(s) the ability to time-travel. Even though Final Fantasy I barely even has characters, the biggest plot-twist in Final Fantasy shows one of the earliest examples of this phenomenon. As the Warriors of Light, we travel 2000 years into the past to confront Chaos, the evil mastermind responsible for sending fiends into the future. Shockingly, Chaos is revealed to be Garland, the knight who planned to Knock Us Down way back at the beginning of the game. With merely two dialog sequences and a bit of time traveling, Sakaguchi created a villain who actually developed over the course of the story, at a time when most video games stories consisted of “Go kill robo-Hitler”.

What’s more, this time-traveling does a good job of justifying the “prophecy” that foretold the Warriors of Light’s arrival. “You play as four warriors of light who were foretold by some prophecy to save the world” sounds contrived… until you meet the prophecy-teller himself and he reveals the existence of the timeloop. Suddenly, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched; the sage simply has awareness of the timeloop.

Time travel allows video games to depict change in the environment

Although it would be years before we coined the term “environmental storytelling”, plenty of video games in the 90s discovered the value of using setting to tell a story. Two, in particular, are still considered among the best video games ever conceived: Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Chrono Trigger.

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time features a 7 year timeskip where our character turns from child to adult and Ganondorf has wrecked the entire world, drastically altering the landscape. Bustling villages with cheery music are replaced with ransacked houses and howling wind. While some video game villains long for the day they rule the world, here we witness the impact of Ganondorf’s rule firsthand through the eyes of our time-traveling protagonist. Whilst Ocarina of Time’s plot is extremely basic, the way the storyline is experienced by the player is what makes it so renowned.

Of course, you would be hard pressed to find a better example of “time travel in a video game” than Chrono Trigger. This cousin of the Final Fantasy series uses time travel as a central game mechanic and major plot device, effectively allowing us to experience the world in five separate epochs from prehistory to post-apocalypse. Each ‘era’ is a unique environment with a unique conflict but each influence the other and by the end of the game, we have learned the entire history of the world by personally experiencing it ourselves.

chrono-trigger-time-travel

Whist it was nowhere near as sophisticated, this technique is present in Final Fantasy I. When we begin our adventure, most of the story’s main events have already happened: Garland has already seized the princess, Tiamat has already destroyed the Lufenians and the Elven Prince has already been sleeping for years. Guided by a prophecy, we set out on a series of fetch quests taking us to a variety of environments where we can witness the aftermath and clean up the mess. It isn’t until much later on that we learn that these fiends were sent from the past by Chaos.

When the plot twist is finally revealed, our warriors of light head back 2000 years in time to the origin point and here we get to see the Chaos Shrine before it was decayed and became the first dungeon we explored, thus bookending the story.

It’s a perfect justification for player agency

Playable video game characters can be extremely difficult to justify in a storyline. They are typically drastically more powerful, drastically more tough and anytime they die they can just open up a save file and go back in time to try again. This puts a constant strain on our suspension of disbelief, especially if we’re playing as someone who’s not a god or superhero2.

Saving the game and resetting the game is especially difficult to justify in the narrative unless you decide that your character has the ability to control time. One of the best examples of this in a modern video game would be Undertale. In the story of Undertale, the creature with the highest level of Determination has the power to ‘save’ and ‘reset’ the timeline. When you begin the game, your player-character gains control of this power. Thus, the ability to save your progress is part of the storyline. This turns the simple act of “I’m going to reset the game to try out the bad ending” into an intense moral dilemma where one of the key characters literally begs you not to reset (warning: this link contains undertale spoilers).

Now, Final Fantasy I is a very old video game and I can’t say for sure that this was the developer’s intention, but I do have a theory that could justify our ability to reset the game after the game over screen: Every time the Warriors of Light are defeated, they are dead in that specific timeline. Each new attempt at beating the game represents a separate iteration through the timeloop.

Remember, Garland is the ‘main’ time-traveler in this story. If we look at the events from Garland’s perspective, anything that the warriors of light accomplish after defeating him (aside from defeating Chaos) doesn’t actually matter anymore because Garland has already gone back 2000 years, become Chaos and initiated a new timeline. Therefore, for example, on one of the timeloops’ iterations, the warriors died to the Lich. In another, they all died in the unforgiving ice cavern. In each iteration through the timeloop, the warriors of light die and the world is destroyed. However, Garland has already initiated the next timeloop thus rendering the current one (that the Warriors of Light are currently in) irrelevant. The timeline we play in doesn’t actually matter until the Warriors of Light successfully travel back 2000 years and defeat Chaos, thus breaking the timeloop once and for all.

Could it be that each attempted playthrough of Final Fantasy represents separate iteration of the timeloop? I guess you’d have to ask Sakaguchi himself if that’s what he was going for. Of course, this theory is contradicted if you lose the game before even getting to Garland in the first place and it only explains our ability to reset a new game, not reload a save file.

Conclusion

In the thirty years since it’s release, we’ve now seen tons of video games use time-travel to enhance their world, show character development and even go so far as to provide narrative justification for the player’s own behavior. Overall, I find it very fitting that Final Fantasy, one of the very first games that gave a damn about storytelling, featured a plot involving a time-traveling knight and was experienced from the perspective of 4 prophetic warriors would would eventually defeat him.

Footnotes:

1: Ever wonder why JRPGs became known for text-heavy video games featuring long epic storylines with tons of dialog? (and why that distinction has disappeared in modern video games?) It’s because the Japanese language is character based. Writing with Japanese characters takes up far less space (per word) than writing using the arabic alphabet. This means you can fit way more text on a game cartridge and made a world of difference during the 80s and 90s. It also made the act of translating Japanese video an absolute nightmare.

2: Okami is a great example of a video game where you play as a goddess, thereby justifying your extraordinary powerful abilities.

How Final Fantasy IX explores the non-human condition

Warning! The following contains HUGE spoilers for Final Fantasy IX

Storytelling in the video game medium can be challenging, but it comes with some unique benefits. You, the player, will typically empathize with the playable character since we see the world from their perspective. Because of this, you will often see video game stories feature plot-twists involving the identity, mental state or even physiology of our playable character. Final Fantasy X used Tidus’ naive perspective to shock us with a revelation that every other character already knew about. In Final Fantasy VII we got a gameplay sequence told by an unreliable narrator. This type of plot-twist is also fairly common in Western RPGs, such as Knights of the Old Republic or Bioshock.

However, I would argue that Final Fantasy IX makes the best use of this effect. Whilst it may not be my absolute favorite (that would be FFVI), there is no doubt that it wins the award for “most underrated Final Fantasy”; it’s critically acclaimed yet its fanbase is comparatively small. As many of you may know, Final Fantasy IX alludes to every single Final Fantasy game ever. Not only that, but Hironobu Sakaguchi himself considers Final Fantasy IX to be the “closest to my ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be.” After having finally played it in 2015, I can definitely see why.

A bunch of misfits seeking to understand who they are

Since Final Fantasy IX is a reflection of the series as a whole, the characters are each deconstructions or subversions of the common Final Fantasy archetypes1. For example, Yuffie, Selphie, Vanille, Rikku and XV’s Prompto (and Iris) all come from the same mold: A foreign, typically younger character who’s cheerful attitude contrasts with the oppression and/or genocide of his/her people. For Final Fantasy IX this character is Eiko: she comes from Madain Sari, she’s the last of her kind (until we discover Garnet’s true identity) but compared to someone like Rikku she exhibits a much wider range of emotions such as loneliness, love and jealousy.

Steiner is probably the most interesting example; his character is almost a satire of ‘generic goody-two-shoes’ Final Fantasy protagonist. He tries to do what he thinks is ‘right’ (i.e. rescue princess from thief who kidnapped her) but he’s such a stubborn stick-in-the-mud that he refuses to listen even when Garnet is trying to tell him not to ‘rescue’ her! Naturally, over the course of the game, he would become more open-minded and willing to think for himself and forge his own path rather than just do what he’s told.

While the cast of FFIX don’t actually have a lot in common, they do share a common trait: Each of them experiences a loss (or change) of identity. Freya travels the world seeking her lost love only to discover that he doesn’t remember her. Garnet escapes her life as a princess and even changes her name to Dagger in order to create her own identity. Amarant is a loner who becomes perplexed by Zidane’s desire to help people regardless of circumstances.

Over the course of the story, each character forges a new identity, but there are two in particular who stand out from the rest. Both of these characters end up bonding over the course of the story without realize just how much they have in common. And both are used to demonstrate the game’s central theme: What does it mean to be alive?2

How Vivi became one of the most beloved Final Fantasy characters

Vivi is an obvious call back to the original ‘black mage’ of Final Fantasy, but his personality and demeanor is akin to the ‘child’ character (see also: Hope, Red XIII and Gau). Vivi came aboard the airship accidentally, and spends the first few hours of the game tripping over himself and hanging out with Steiner who respects him as a powerful Black Mage. Then, we arrive at the village of Dali and this is where Final Fantasy IX becomes the game that deserves its acclaim.

This scene in question is a phenomenal example of “show, not tell” in a video game. All we see is an assembly line of black mages, an unnerving melody and Vivi who’s just standing there shaking, unable to process the discovery that he is an artificial being. From here, things only get more difficult for Vivi. He tries to communicate with the other black mages to find out more about himself, but instead just ends up watching in horror as the Black Waltz III’s Thundara causes all of the black mages to fall off the airship in one of the game’s most beautiful scenes.

Later, on a faraway continent, Vivi discovers a village of Black mages who, like him, have become self-aware and have created a community. Here, Vivi learns yet another horrible truth: He doesn’t have much longer to live. After about a year or two, Black Mages just ‘fall down’ and are buried underground in a cemetery. Vivi, who’s finally discovered his identity, is now forced to accept that in the near future, without any warning, he will die.. Despite his melancholic story, Vivi is able to remain positive with the help of his friends who stay by his side and comfort him during these harsh events, and inspire him to live the remaining few months of his life to the fullest. Zidane, especially, serves as a role model and it’s very fitting that he does.

Vivi, it turns out that you’re not alone

As far as main characters go, Zidane is drastically different from the more aloof Cloud or Squall. He doesn’t keep to himself and instead just acts according to how he feels. Overall, he feels most similar to Locke, although he doesn’t try to pretend he’s not a thief! His entire personality is best defined by his most famous quote “You don’t need a reason to help people” and his constant hitting on Garnet. But ultimately, there is a reason he focuses so much on others: He knows nothing about himself. The only clue to his origin is a flash of blue light. He’s so quick to accept other people regardless of who they are or where they come from because he has no idea who he is or where he comes from.

And then, as our party makes our way to Terra, a planet that exists inside of Gaia, we are greeted with a flash of blue light and a bunch of humanoid creatures that all have tails like Zidane. This is the climax of the story and by far the most shocking revelation: Zidane is a genome. We’ve been playing as an artificial being this whole time. For the first time in his life, Zidane doesn’t know who he is anymore. Not only is he an artificial being, he was designed with a specific purpose: To spread the seeds of death and destruction on Gaia. This goes completely against who Zidane considers himself to be and after getting brainwashed by Garland, he has his own identity crisis.

It’s a brilliant twist. We’ve been watching Vivi discover and come to terms with his artificial existence. Now, suddenly, the character we’ve been controlling this whole time is revealed to be just the same. Fortunately all his friends, and particularly Garnet, remind him that as much as he tries to be an independent free spirit, he depends on his friends just as much as they depend on him. Realizing this, Zidane is able to come to terms with his own artificiality and now stands against his own creator.

But Zidane has a foil. In a brilliant reference to Final Fantasy IV, Kuja is also revealed to be a genome much like Zidane. Suddenly, Kuja’s atrocities (a hearty mix of Kefka and Sephiroth) makes a lot more sense, he was literally created to eradicate life on Gaia. Even his extreme cruelty towards Vivi and the black mages make sense. He despises them, and considers them nothing but tools because that’s all he is to Garland.

Here, Kuja experiences the same thing that Vivi experienced back in Black Mage village. Unfortunately, while Vivi had friends to help him accept his impending death, Kuja has  and thus he simply cannot accept his own mortality. Instead, he lashes out violently destroying all of Terra out of jealousy. And yet after his final defeat, in spite of all the suffering Kuja brought onto both words, Zidane extends a hand of friendship. Zidane was also designed as an angel of destruction but, as a result of Kuja banishing him to Gaia, he made friends and discovered a new identity for himself. After his journey, Zidane understands that all Kuja really needed was a friend.

wall_ix_29

Final Fantasy IX is far more than just a bunch of nostalgic references; it’s a story about finding one’s identity even if that means going against your prescribed societal ‘role’. It’s a story standing resolute, even when your kingdom falls right before your very eyes. But most of all, it’s the story about what it means to be alive.

Footnotes

1 This analysis of FF archetypes is heavily borrowed from Oracle Turret’s blog.

2 Hiroyuki Ito is the director of both Final Fantasy VI and IX. It’s no coincidence both of these games feature life and death as motifs. VI asks “what makes life worth living?” while IX asks “what does it mean to be alive?”

Why Final Fantasy VI’s storyline is innovative even by today’s standards

 Warning, the following contains HUGE plot spoilers for Final Fantasy VI

In the interest of being upfront about my biases, let me make it clear that Final Fantasy VI is probably my second favorite video game of all time right behind Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials & Tribulations1. I adore this video game, I love its characters and I dream of making musical renditions of key FFVI scenes as a proof of concept for video game musical adaptations. Now, this infatuation isn’t terribly shocking because FFVI routinely shows up on almost every “top 10 RPGs of all times” lists, but it does beg the question: Why does it have such universal acclaim? (outside of Japan, at least).

I ask this question because if you look specifically at the gameplay of FFVI, it’s good… but not spectacular. While you get a ton of options, most of the combat is just “spam [insert character’s best move] until everything dies”. If you’re familiar with the game, you can probably see where I’m going with this: FFVI is a video game that is renowned specifically for its storyline. Gameplay is important, but Final Fantasy VI shows why one should never underestimate the ability for video games to tell compelling tales.

A story about a group rather than an individual

While “Let’s make our story have a protagonist the audience follows” seems like common sense in most storytelling mediums, in video games this is a trap; it’s hard to create a well developed playable character without taking away from the player’s agency. It’s no coincidence that the story-heavy JRPG genre usually2 features a party of characters. Often the best solution to this problem is to cast the playable character and the protagonist as different characters (i.e. Tidus is our playable character but Yuna is the one driving the plot forward) or have the protagonist become temporarily unplayable so their character can be developed (i.e. You control Tifa so that Cloud’s character can develop). But FFVI did something even more unique and more video games need to try this: Having no protagonist at all.

Even if we try to sort by “most important” or “who you start the game off as” then the answer is “Terra and Celes”. Final Fantasy VI stands out already by having an extremely large cast, and it works specifically because FFVI is not the story of any single character. The implications are huge. First, it means that FFVI can develop any character without risking taking too much control away from the player; any character can leave the party and the story can carry on unaffected (Terra discovers her esper side and flies off. Then, before we get Terra back in the party, Celes has teleported away!). The only other game that I can think of that takes this ‘no protagonist’ approach to heart is Undertale and, what a surprise, Undertale parodies Aria De Mezzo Carattere, right down to the white dress with blue ribbons.

Second, it allows every character to have their fair share of memorable moments. When I think of Terra, I think of how overwhelmed she must have felt during the first part of the game, trying to discover who she is while the empire is searching far and wide for her. When I think of Setzer, I immediately imagine walking down those stairs and seeing memories of Daryl. When I think of Relm, I wonder what Shadow was feeling every time he saw her. When I think of Edgar, I think of the tremendous sacrifice he made for his brother. When I think of Sabin… ok obviously I think of this. Mandatory jokes aside, I think of when he yelled “That’s inhuman!”, blew his cover and bum rushed Kefka at the imperial camp. Even Gau, a character who’s only tangential to the main plot, makes me tear up when I merely think of him saying “f-f-f-father alive. Gau happy”. And of course, when I think of Celes, I think of her darkest hour, and how despite everything that she had been through, she found hope long after many heroes would have given up and uses that hope to inspire her friends and save the world.

And if that wasn’t good enough, there is a specific reason why Final Fantasy VI has no singular protagonist. It’s also the same reason why Final Fantasy VI has such a large cast of characters from all four corners of the world.

“Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.” – Jean Rostand

One of my biggest regrets in my gaming life is that I never played FFVI when it first came out and as a result I was well aware of the epic twist before I even started the game. I wish I could know just how it feels to have the rug so thoroughly pulled out from under me.

So after many adventures, the empire has ordered a “truce” and declared the war to be over. It’s an obvious ruse and not intended to be surprising. After Kefka absorbs all the espers, Leo has decided he’s had enough. From the get-go, Leo has been portrayed as an opponent but not as a bad person; a foil to Kefka. Once you get a chance to play as him, it seems almost guaranteed that he will join the party!

And then he dies. What? That wasn’t supposed to happen! Leo dying is presented as “the shocking twist” but actually serves as a distraction from the real twist of the game. With Leo down and Celes in our party, Kefka and Emporer Geshtal are the only imperials left and now it’s time to assault the floating continent. That setting is no coincidence. “Floating Continent” is not just an exotic location; it’s a common gaming trope usually reserved for “The Final level”. Even Uematsu’s music track for the Floating Continent just screams “final level”. All of this is designed with a specific purpose: To fool the player into thinking this is the end of the game.

Now that the trap is in place, our party arrives at the Statues of the Gods. Here, you’d expect to fight Emporer Geshtal but instead you get to experience one of the greatest twists in video game history: Kefka, enraged after getting stabbed by Celes, kills Geshtal and destroys the world. The bad guy wins, and the world will never be the same. Even nowadays, this is an incredibly audacious twist. JRPGs might have the villain inflict easily fixable damage towards the end of the game. But this time, there is no fixing. There’s no going back. The World of Balance is gone. Forever. Just as Sabin and Edgar had to accept the death of their father, just as Cyan had to accept the death of his wife and child, now you must now accept the death of the entire world.

I hope that someday Final Fantasy VI gets remade as an open world video game for this exact reason: Can you imagine getting familiar with a virtual world and have it get destroyed!? Imagine doing quests, helping people, traveling around, then suddenly seeing that world and all it’s people get destroyed before your very eyes! Creating such an experience would be a huge risk, but I think the resulting storyline would be incredibly worthwhile.

It’s a story about the meaning of life

At a time when most video games were still considered “toys” for children; Here’s a game about war, mass-murder, genocide, teenage pregnancy, survivor’s guilt, suicide, sacrifice, depression, accepting the death of a loved one, the apocalypse, how power (magic) corrupts, inter-species relationships, nihilism, and most importantly: The meaning of life.

And this is where Final Fantasy VI goes from being an “incredibly ground-breaking” video game to “one of the greatest games ever created”: The video game where the world gets destroyed is a story about why life is worth living. The heroes of FFVI have each experienced some form of tragedy either in their past (Setzer, Shadow) or during the game (Cyan, Celes). The Opera sequence represents this thematically: Maria is trying to move on from Draco (“Must I forget you? Our solemn promise? Will autumn take the place of spring? What shall I do? I’m lost without you. Speak to me once more!”)

Final Fantasy VI is full of tragedy, sadness, and loss, but what makes that so impactful is that the ultimate morale is one of hope. Kefka becomes nihilistic as the game goes forward. He’s the most powerful being on the planet, is worshiped as a deity, and yet he’s empty inside. Raining light of judgement down on people must have lost its luster a while back, and eventually Kefka doesn’t see the point in anything. Despite being a god, he lets our heroes make it all the way to his chamber3 and greets them like old friends.

Here, he challenges our heroes about the purpose and meaning of life because his mind is incapable of love and empathy4. What’s the point? We’re all going to die anyways, why even bother? Why create anything, knowing it will eventually just be destroyed?

But our heroes know better because they’ve each found that, even in a decrepit and devastated world, even if your BBF/lover has died, even if your own father has rejected you, life is still worth living because it’s the day-to-day experiences and the times we spend with friends and family that really matter. That’s… incredibly inspiring. At a time when video games were looked down upon as ‘wastes of time’, here’s a game that teaches the player the value of life. Of course, this answer makes even less sense to Kefka, and he vows to destroy life itself, thus initiating one of the greatest boss fights ever conceived.

So in the end, if you’ve ever wondered why Final Fantasy VI is so critically acclaimed, here are three ‘overall’ reasons why. Of course, these are far from the only reasons, so you can expect more posts on the topic (and a VG Story Review) at a later time.

Footnotes:

  • 1: Notable example of a game where the playable character is separate from the protagonist of the story. See my VG Story Review of Trials and Tribulations here.
  • 2: Notable exception is the Pokemon series, which simplified the story and sacrificed a party of characters for the ability to turn random encounters into characters with a near infinite possible combinations. See my VG Story Review of the first Pokemon game here.
  • 3: During world of Ruin we never see Kefka until the end of the game. I like to imagine that he had the opportunity to finish off our heroes but chose not to because, in his twisted minds, he considers them ‘friends’ and knowing they’ll come to challenge him gives him something to look forward to in his boring divine life.
  • 4: This is very similar to Flowey from Undertale. Kefka and Flowey are both sociopaths. Toby Fox, and many other designers, have taken inspiration from Final Fantasy VI

Why Tidus and Yuna are my favorite couple in gaming

Warning, the following contains HUGE plot spoilers for Final Fantasy X

Two worlds, both alike in misery,

In fair Spira, where we lay our scene,

From Yevon’s grudge born the beast of the sea,

Civil blood is spilled where Sin goes free.

From forth the fatal loins of this divine foe

A pair of star-cross’d lovers throw their life;

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Do with their death bury Yu Yevon’s strife.

Whilst romantic video games are few and far between, the 10th installment of the Final Fantasy series stands out in my mind as one of the finest. Final Fantasy X, released in 2001 on the Playstation 2, is the story of a young lady and her journey to bring peace to a world in suffering, told from the perspective of the young man she falls in love with.

The two heroes that fall in love

So on one hand we have Tidus. He’s our playable character (you will notice how I did not say main character). He gets a lot of flak but I actually like him because I strongly identified with an overly-emotional rebellious teenager. He’s impulsive, he follows his feelings and will not accept an outcome unless he feels it makes sense. At times this makes him courageous (his battle command “Cheer” stacks with itself 5 times). When told not to enter Besaid temple he yells “Like I care!” and barges in. When Rikku tells him that summoner pilgrimages must stop, he questions her answer because (from his perspective) it doesn’t make sense.

On the other hand we have Yuna. She’s the main character of the story. That’s right, in FFX you are playing as the token love interest. Anyways, Yuna also acts like teenager but in a very different way: selfless and compliant. Just like Tidus, these are her greatest strengths and her greatest flaws. Yuna will always try to put the needs of others before herself. She doesn’t follow her own voice and keeps things to herself because she doesn’t want to upset anyone. An exemplifying moment of her character would be after Operation Mi’ihen: While everyone else is in shock at the utter devastation, she spends the whole night sending people’s dead souls and oversleeps. When she realizes she’s the last person to wake up, she frantically apologizes to the whole party over the state of her hair. Even Auron teases her over this (Auron: “Then we’ll go, as soon as the summoner fixes her hair”.)

Tidus and Yuna are complementary opposites, both struggling to find their identity, but what I like so much about their relationship is how they influence each other. Their love is mutual and both Yuna and Tidus change drastically as characters, each trying to be more like the other. Early on it’s subtle. For example, on the walk through Kilika woods, Yuna declares that “I want him close to me”. While this goes way over Tidus’s head, it’s notable because Yuna so rarely talks about what she wants. Conversely, Tidus who only cared about going home, sees Yuna perform The Sending and realizes that his problems are pretty small in comparison to the countless people of Spira killed by a flying space whale on a daily basis. We also see them encourage each other. When Tidus is frustrated and wants to just scream, Yuna says “go for it!”. Tidus, meanwhile, is constantly encouraging Yuna to complete her pilgrimage. Of course, this is tragic because Tidus has no idea that Yuna is about to sacrifice her life at the end of the pilgrimage and because she doesn’t want to break his heart, she keeps this part a secret and simply smiles.

Our heroes are challenged

Then Seymour comes into the picture and things get… complicated. Seymour proposes to Yuna. She obviously turns him down because what the hell. Then, half-way through the thunder plains, she suddenly changes her mind and Tidus starts to feel jealous. She claims it’s ‘for the good of all Spira’ but actually she’s on a secret mission to get rid of Seymour. Yuna didn’t want to bother others with the details of her plan, but as a result things go sideways and Yuna and Tidus are separated.

So then we have the grand revelation: Tidus discovers that Yuna will die if she completes the pilgrimage. This shocks him because Tidus usually just acts according to how he feels. When he realizes he was encouraging Yuna to walk to her death, he has a crisis of faith in himself. He realizes how oblivious he was, he was so focused on himself that he didn’t even notice the immense weight of Yuna’s journey (Tidus: “Was I… the only one who didn’t know?”). The part that gets me every time in this scene is when he turns to Wakka and Lulu, asking why they hid this from him and they admit it was simply too hard for them to say.

Meanwhile, when Yuna stands trial for Seymour’s death, she has her own crisis of faith. She discovers that the religious Maesters have gone against their own teachings and, worse yet, her death will not prevent Sin’s return; she had been lied to and is now branded a traitor. For the first time Yuna cannot place her faith in others and all of a sudden, she feels completely lost.

Now we get a scene that needs no introduction as Tidus suggests that she abandon her journey. For a second it almost seems like she’s considering it, until she tearfully realizes that she can’t bring herself to let down so many people. What follows is a scene as beautiful as it is bittersweet. They’re having this moment because they know they don’t have a future together.

Our heroes switch places

Now Tidus and Yuna are at an impasse. Yuna remains steadfast in her will: even if it only brings ten years of happiness, that’s enough to for her to lay down her life. Tidus, meanwhile, refuses to accept this outcome and is convinced that he can find some other way of defeating Sin without her having to die. His determination inspires her. Her generosity inspires him.

This is where things get interesting. At the end of her journey, Yuna discovers that she must sacrifice the life of a guardian just to create the next Sin. This crosses the line, and for the first time Yuna makes an impulsive decision. She refuses to go through with this, and stands her ground before her own namesake, Yunalesca. Yuna now has to believe in herself despite a world in panic mode after she broke the only known way of temporarily stopping Sin.

Tidus, meanwhile, makes an ironic discovery. There is another option to defeat Sin but it comes at a price. He will have to forfeit his life (technically ‘become a dream again’ but same effect) and now suddenly he’s in Yuna’s place. This time, he’s the one who’s going to sacrifice himself for others to live and he tries to keep it a secret but Yuna isn’t as oblivious. She notices that he’s hiding something and calls him out at Bevelle temple (Yuna: “You’re a bad liar”). Still, she doesn’t question and he smiles like nothing’s wrong until the very end, where he admits to the whole group that after the dust settles, he will disappear.

And finally, at the very end, their behaviors are reflections of each other: Yuna shakes her head and rushes towards Tidus, refusing to believe he will fade away while Tidus accepts his fate with a smile.

VG Story Review – Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

Phoenix Wright travels to the Kingdom of Khurai’n to meet up with Maya Fey, but quickly  discovers that their court system there is so corrupt that lawyers don’t even exist. Meanwhile, Apollo Justice rediscovers his past and finally gets the game he deserves!

VG Story Review – Undertale (part 2): Genocide

Undertale’s genocide path is one of the most unique experience in video games that works specifically because of it’s narrative. It’s boring, it’s lonely, it’s depressing and it’s extremely frustrating – It’s trying its damn hardest to get you, the player, to quit because you are a heartless serial killer. And if you succeed in your quest, be prepared to have the game permanently altered.

VG Story Review – Undertale (part 1): Neutral & True Pacifist

Undertale is such an incredible video game story that I had to make this a two-part review. The premise is simple: every monster you encounter in the game can be killed or spared. Should you choose to be a heartless murderer, the game will treat use as such. Conversely, should you choose to extend the hand of friendship to each monster you meet, you may find a way to save them all.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑