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.
- 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