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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!

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

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