Twenty years is a long time. Especially in the video game industry, which in the last twenty years has seen a growth and shift in cultural perception virtually unimaginable back in 1994. In those days video games were still largely considered kids’ stuff, at least in North America. Parents’ views were that video games were at best trifling time-wasters, or at worst actually damaging to impressionable young minds.
Final Fantasy VI was released in North America on October 20th, 1994. I was eleven years old. It was the sixth entry in the series, but only the third outside of Japan, and so was originally known here as Final Fantasy III. Confusing numbering continuity aside, one thing was clear: the game was a landmark; not just of the RPG genre, but of video gaming as a whole to that point. It was an immediate critical and commercial success, and has continued to this day to be regarded as one of the best video games of all time.
Themes of alienation, isolation, discrimination, love (unrequited, misguided, doomed), a desire to belong, and, above all, humanity’s will to overcome. These were not new to the Final Fantasy franchise, but never had they been so aching, so immediate. By turns melodramatic and understated, solemn and comic, hopeful and despairing. Never, though, anything less than engaging.
Set in a world divided by the ways of the past and ever-encroaching industrial technology, a land where magic once existed and has been all but forgotten, become legend; where those few who possess the ability of magic, whether innately or through genetic engineering, are feared and hated. They are sought out by the rising Gestahlian Empire, taken control of and enslaved for militaristic purposes, and despised by the general public for being different.
This was some heavy stuff, if a little hamfisted at times, for an eleven-year-old. I was on the cusp of adolescence, at the point when one begins to carve out a real personality, form the ideas and ideals that will set them on the path to the person they’ll eventually become as an adult. It was no small impact that this game had on me in those formative years, when I played and replayed it. Rushing home from school to get as much time in as I could before I was told that was enough for one night. Getting up early on Saturday mornings and not realizing until I was called for dinner that I hadn’t eaten anything all day. To say Final Fantasy VI had an influence on me would be like saying Kefka had a slight emotional imbalance.
So, into this pixelated world of tenuous political balance and burgeoning civil unrest walks Terra, the de facto main character of the game, a young woman with the gift of magic, under the control of the Empire, with no clear memory of who she is or where she came from. After escaping the Empire’s clutches, she’s thrust into centre stage of a struggle between her former captors and an underground resistance group, The Returners, who see her as their greatest hope to turn the tables in their favour. As the game unfolds and Terra is forced to confront her past and choose her future, we’re introduced to one of the largest casts of characters in the Final Fantasy series.
Locke, an adventurer and treasure hunter with a complex stemming from events in his past which causes him to compulsively fall for women and try to rescue them. Celes, traitorous former general of the Imperial army, gifted with magic ability through genetic tampering, and distrusted by everyone but Locke. Kefka, a demented clown who doesn’t have a qualm with murdering an entire kingdom, because he’s bent on not just taking over the world, but destroying it. Gau, a feral youth raised by beasts in the wild, but with a heart filled with boundless kindness and a love of shiny things. Shadow, a black-clad mercenary assassin with a dog and a tragic past who it’s said would “slit his own mama’s throat for a nickel,” coming and going from your party if the pay is right. And Ultros, a toothy octopus who’s, well, just kind of an asshole.
And so many more. Their paths crossing and uncrossing and crossing again as they weave through the sprawling narrative. Boarding a Ghost Train on its voyage to take the dead to the other side. Navigating the buildings of an Empire-occupied town, disguised as merchants and soldiers to avoid capture. Invading the industrial clangour of the Imperial Magitek Research Facility, where the terrible secret of genetically engineered magic is discovered. The opera house.
Oh, the opera sequence. To infiltrate the Empire undetected your party needs use of an airship. But, alas, the only airship in the world belongs to the notorious gambler and womanizer, Setzer. How will you ever convince him to let you use it? Well, it so happens that the ever-put upon impresario of the opera house has received a letter from Setzer himself, declaring that he will kidnap the opera’s star, Maria, at the climax of the next performance! But, wait! It also just so happens that Celes looks just like Maria! And so, a great switcheroo is pulled, with no real mention of how Celes can sing at a professional operatic level.
Have you ever heard such a delightfully contrived plot point? It’s magnificent in its refusal to submit to its own ridiculousness. The resulting events, a madcap chase during an opera-within-a-video-game, is one of the most memorable scenes I’ve seen in my life, in any entertainment medium.
But what sets Final Fantasy VI apart from RPGs of its time, and even many after, is that for every zany adventure and world-shaking event, there are many moments of quiet humanity. These are not the typical band of noble-hearted wizards and warriors setting out on a quest to vanquish a terrible evil. They are profoundly human characters who are doing what they’re doing because for their own personal reasons they feel they need to. The triumph of the human spirit is what rests at the heart of Final Fantasy VI. A phoenix rising from the ashes of a world torn apart by greed and lust for power. But that triumph, that redemption, is woven into the story on a much more intimate scale as well.
It’s that humanity that makes the game so enduring. It’s impossible to play through it without becoming emotionally invested in these characters. Many, if not most of them, are grappling with some kind of inner demon, real or perceived. And their internal struggles mirror those of the larger story, as they learn to allow themselves to love, to be loved, to let go of the past, and to figure out, when the world is saved, whether there will be a place left in it for them.
And who can’t relate to that? At any age. No matter how old the story. Or how many times it’s been told.