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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 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.

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