I’ve been thinking about story-telling a lot recently. After all, we’re surrounded by stories; movies, television, books, and video games, not to mention the stories we tell each other every day.
What makes a story work? Ultimately, the answer differs from person to person, but it’s clear some stories work for a lot more people than others. Take Harry Potter – it’s something anyone, of any gender, of any age, can fall in love with. Others, like Twilight, have a more narrow appeal, but seem to really nail a couple particular groups.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about what should be a far simpler question – what makes a story work for me? Sure, I can point to what I like and don’t like and I can stack them in arbitrary (but still oddly satisfying) rankings, but none of that gets to the heart of the question.
In the interests of trying to work through this, I thought it’d be fun to go through some of my favorite video game stories, ones that have really stuck with me (and many others), and try to pin-point some of the qualities that give them that staying power.
Final Fantasy VI
Warning – the discussion below contains spoilers
IGN recently released a list of their top 100 RPG’s ever made. Topping it was Final Fantasy VI (originally released in the US as Final Fantasy III), a game released for the Super Nintendo in 1994.
I think I got it the following year for my 11th birthday. I haven’t played it in 16 years, yet I remember the plot, from beginning to end, every character, every scene, every battle. Terra, being escorted through the snow by two soldiers. The dashing thief Locke who rescues her. Brothers and princes Sabin and Edgar (who now live on as my cats!) forced to abandon their kingdom to try to save the world. The general Celes who betrays her empire. The knight Cyan, who’s family was murdered by the emperor. The mysterious mercenary Shadow. The feral child Gau. Gambler and air-ship owner Setzer. The young magical-artist Relm and her grandfather Strago. And of course, Mog the moogle.
These are the characters who unite to try to save the world from the Empire, led by the power-hungry Gestahl and his insane advisor, the evil-jester-like Kefka, who want to use the power of the Espers to rule the world.
The game proceeds as one might expect, at first; Terra and Locke travel the world, gathering allies and preparing to battle the empire. They finally confront Kefka and Gestahl on a floating island, where the two are preparing a ritual that will ruin the balance of magic in the world.
A year later, Celes wakes up alone on an island, in a ruined world. She searches among the few surviving towns and castles for her friends, and eventually they once again confront Kefka in his fortress. The final dungeon is one of the longest and most memorable in RPG history, with I believe thirteen unique boss fights, culminating in a final battle against Kefka, who’s transformed himself into some kind of grotesque fallen angel.
So, why does this story work so well, not just for me but for millions of video game fans around the world?
Structurally, I think there are two things going on here that I haven’t seen executed nearly as well anywhere else. The first is the large cast of characters. Though Terra is the protagonist, at various times she’s not even a member of your party. Nearly all the characters are given a clear history and personality. Whereas many RPG”s focus on a single character’s personal journey, Final Fantasy VI feels much more like a multiple-point-of-view epic fantasy.
The second is the fact that the world ends about halfway through the game. Abrupt, unexpected twists like this are risky. Epic fantasy stories carry the implicit promise that the heroes will succeed at saving the world in the end. Players may feel betrayed by this type of turn.
On the other hand, when they work, the story is usually seared into your brain. A more well known example of this unexpected turn of events is the death of a major character in George R. R. Martin’s game of thrones toward the end of the first book. For many people, that made the story more memorable. For a few, it ruined it. I wonder if the same is true of Final Fantasy VI.
I’m in the group where this choice worked. It elevated the story to a new level that I still don’t think I’ve come across. It’s very likely that rose-colored glasses are in play here, so I do want to distinguish between execution and impact – I imagine if I sat down and nit-picked the game’s story, I’d find all sorts of flaws. But who cares about those, if the players are still happily remembering the story fifteen years later? I’ve played a number of games the last couple years where I thought the story was great, but now I have trouble recounting all the details. Yet I still remembered Figaro Castle, the bazillion floors of the stupid Mage’s tower, the secret time you had to put on the clock in Zozo to find Edward’s chainsaw, the opera (yes, there was opera!).
It’s odd to me how far away from this type of storyline the more recent Final Fantasy games have gotten. Though there are some great characters and moments, most of them fall short, especially at the end. Final Fantasy XII and XIII, both of which I did enjoy, have absolutely befuddling weak climaxes to their story, almost as if they had to cut the story short to fit the game.
Once again this has gone on longer than I anticipated. I plan on doing this again in the future with some of my other favorite games. I think story in gaming is something with a lot of room to evolve and I look forward to see what designers come up with in the future, hoping one day something comes along that surpasses Final Fantasy VI.