Story in Games: Final Fantasy VI

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.

They fail.

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.

 

 

 

 

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14 thoughts on “Story in Games: Final Fantasy VI

  1. Cody says:

    Really excited to see future posts on this 😀

  2. James Gillis says:

    I’ve actually been trying to get back into FF6. Way back, I started it, but never finished.

    I just have this horrible, horrible feeling that I’m going to miss a character somewhere, or I’m going to forget to *Spoiler for anyone who hasn’t played following this warning* save Shadow, or screw up getting Gau.

  3. Elijah Whitehouse says:

    An argument can be made that one or two of themes at play here (depending on how you look at it) are that of loss and sacrifice. Think about it:

    -Terra’s humanity was stolen from her prior to the game starting.

    -Locke lost the love if his life and sacrificed much in order to bring her back only to be told to move on with his life.

    -Sabin decided to sacrifice his right to the throne because he didn’t want to compete with his brother.

  4. cflickster says:

    Great post! Never got around to play FFVI but there is something about that particular era of games that has better story telling. I think a big part of it is probably because, the story is the only other thing besides actual gameplay that could carry the game. Graphics didn’t have that big of a role yet. There are great stories in games that also have amazing modern graphics but there are also many more games that put their graphics above the story when trying to make a “successful” game.
    One of my fav stories in a game is earthbound (mother 2 in jp). The story ends by referencing you as the player, breaking the 4th wall. There are many other games I love just as much for similar reasons, but earthbound is always the one I think of first when I think of the classic games in my life.

    • I very much enjoyed earthbound as well. I think a good part of the reason the 16 bit games are so memorable is we were forced to use our imagination more than in modern games, since the world wasn’t as fleshed out.

  5. Mary VP says:

    The video games that become my absolute favorites almost always have a really good story. Stories are what make me want to play a game over again. I remember when I was a kid, and my mom played the game Loom from Lucasarts. I would just watch her play so I could see how the story unfolded. I didn’t even need to play myself; I just wanted to know what happened. Years later I’ve played the game on my own and still loved the story. Loom is a bit disappointing though because the story is unfinished. I still want to know what happens!

    My blog posts are always longer than I expect too. Luckily I’m blogging about my experiences abroad so I usually have pictures to break things up. Your posts are interesting though so it doesn’t matter if they’re long. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your favorite stories in the video game medium!

  6. Brandon Riese says:

    I love a good story! As a Creative Writing student in college and somebody who is currently working on a book, nothing is more important to me than a good story!

    Also FF6 was my favorite RPG as well!

  7. Raphael says:

    You say you have not played the game in 16 years. Maybe you should do so again, and reevaluate the story. In my experience, perception changes over the years but memory of *feelings* stays the same. You may therefore remember the game better than it was/is, and certainly differently.

    If you like that type of story, I think you might enjoy Katzenbach’s “The Analyst”.

    • That’s undeniably true, Raphael. What I’m trying to get at here though is that *this* game, over hundreds of others, is the one that I remember. Given that there are dozens of things I’m sure I could nitpick about it’s execution, why does it still persist so vividly not just in my memory, but so many others?

      • Raphael says:

        I understand that; I have similar stories in my mind from years ago. They were great *then* and that’s why they stick. However, for some of them I know now that they are actually not that good.

        One case is extreme: I reread the book years later and thought it was a different book. There still is the image of the remarkable story I read back then in my mind, and then there is a second, staler one of the reread, and they just don’t match. It is as if I had read two different books.

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