Final Fantasy VI (Part 1)

For a long time, especially during the 90s,  if you were talking about compelling video game narratives, you were talking about Final Fantasy. The series pioneered the art of cinematic video game storytelling like nothing else. 1994’s Final Fantasy VI is, in my humble opinion (and I know some may disagree), the greatest of them all.

(If anyone’s wondering why the box says “III,” it’s because at the time, only two Final Fantasy games had been released in North America (the first one, which obviously had no number, and the fourth, which was called “II”). To maintain their American numbering continuity, the sixth entry was labeled “III” in the States. By the time Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997, the world of video games had become flat enough to the point where publishers could use the actual Japanese numbering and not confuse us Americans. Stateside re-releases of the fourth and sixth entries (on the Playstation, Nintendo DS, etc.) retained their actual numbers as well. Got it?)

I distinctly remember being a child and watching my older brother play Final Fantasy VI for the first time. As an inflamed Figaro Castle submerged into the desert sands to foil Kefka’s evil plot, I exclaimed, “It’s like a movie!”

What I meant, in my youthful enthusiasm, was that the storytelling, although still using text rather than spoken dialogue, had an ambitious cinematic flair that no game before it had been able to achieve.

What makes the sixth iteration particularly remarkable is that I cannot, off the top of my head, think of another RPG that features a genuine ensemble cast. As in, there is no one protagonist. Each of the game’s characters are so memorable and well-developed that it makes you roll your eyes whenever another game forces you to play as Generic Hero Guy.

Setting the Stage:

I’m breaking from format somewhat here, because the game’s plot is so epic and lengthy that trying to summarize it would take way too long and I still wouldn’t do it justice.

(Fun fact: despite its length, the entire game was translated from Japanese to English in 30 days… by one guy.)

The premise in a nutshell – a ragtag band of heroes unite to bring down an evil empire – may sound like everything ever made, including Star Wars, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

Likewise, for me to highlight only one scene would be like picking a favorite child, so I’ll present a number of them.

The Poisoning of Doma:

Kefka is evil the way Moby Dick is long. A general of the Empire, he looks like a court jester for some reason, which is actually kind of appropriate, since, like the Joker, he doesn’t really have a reason for being evil. He just is.

Even all zoomed-in and pixelated, he’s evil.

For example: at one point Kefka’s army has Doma Castle under siege. With the soldiers of Doma, including the king’s retainer Cyan, standing their ground, a frustrated Kefka opts for a different plan. Noticing that their encampment was up-river from Doma Castle, he orders his troops to poison the river, killing everyone in the castle – soldier and citizen alike – except for Cyan, who evidently doesn’t like to stay hydrated.

(Whoever played the game in this clip decided to walk around the castle at one point, so Cyan doesn’t exactly rush to check on his family. Just know that was the player’s choice, not the game’s.)

I know they’re just 16-bit sprites, but watching Cyan pull the body of his dead son out of bed is still a spine-shivering moment.

Understandably, Cyan then goes on a mad, sword-swinging rampage through the Empire’s camp, where he meets up with the player’s party and joins their crusade.

This scene is not only powerful in and of itself, but like virtually everything else in FF6, it’s character-based. Each character acts according to their personality and in ways that set up future events.

For example, you see that Kefka is evil and doesn’t care about killing innocents. Roughly halfway through the game, he more or less destroys the world, reshaping the entire landscape and using his tower base to arbitrary shoot magic beams at the world below.


Also, you learn that Cyan is stoic, putting his status as a soldier before his emotions (notice how he checks on the King before his own family). His inability to cope with the loss of his family is explored when he must ride the Phantom Train, the ghostly locomotive that takes the souls of the deceased to wherever it is they go.

Still beats taking the bus.

Cyan’s Love Letters:

Since character drives the story, this theme is continued later in the game. After Kefka reshapes the world and scatters the player’s party to all corners of it, the player finds Cyan living on a mountain. There, you discover that he has been writing love letters to the wife of a dead soldier, pretending to be her deceased beloved to spare her the pain of loss.

This plot point accomplishes a number of things. It shows Cyan not wanting someone else to suffer as he did, even if it is a lie, and it reveals that despite his stoicism, he does have an emotional side. Also, it makes you wonder: as he writes to this woman, is he thinking of all the things he never said to his wife?

When you arrive, he has already written a letter to the woman confessing what he has been doing, and he declares that he cannot continue to live in the past, showing his development as a character since the murder of his family.

The resolution of Cyan’s story arc comes in an optional side quest in which the player rests in the ruins of Doma Castle. There, a demon that feeds on sadness possesses Cyan, and he must overcome his grief to defeat it.

Suck it, grief!

See? I told you there was a lot going on in this game. More examples to come.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: