I’ve been feeling a little bit under the weather these last few months and so I decided to make a post on something a bit more light-hearted but still bring to it the usual philosophical analysis I like to spread across my work. Here is a game that is dear to my heart, among many others, but remains a nostalgic experience, no matter how many times I play it.
An adventure unlike any other
This obvious catchphrase that I’m using here is to hook you toward what comes next. Final Fantasy 6 hosts a roster of characters that is varied and unique. Compared to a lot of RPGs of then, such a large roster was not as widespread for North Americans, as we were used mostly to games like Contra and Punch Out (at least, in my area). The Super NES was still hitting the market hard when this thing came out, and I recall playing it for the first time at my cousin’s place. I’d frequently gone there and played games like Mario Bros. 3, Mortal Kombat, Lethal Enforcers, etc… But Final Fantasy 6 was particularly strange to me, because I’d never seen an RPG like it before, and just the way it was being presented to me was intriguing, to say the least…
As an eight year old, this was the first time I’d been exposed to such a dramatic entrance for a video game. Most games just started off nice and cuddly or just popped the title screen in your face. I’d compare this to the title screens I was used to seeing in Ken Griffey’s SNES titles, Super Punch Out!, Super Mario World, Link to the Past… And now this? Oh it was on! I had to see more of it.
I have to say I was a little bit dismayed at first, because from that title screen, I was thinking all-out war, with guns and robots exploding left and right. That’s what I’d been used to. For those who have played the game, we all know what this title screen is meant to image, and it isn’t just some kind of foreboding sensation. It is literally a perfectly illustrated entrance as to what is to come: Orchestral, ominous music, distant lightning in storm clouds, and the game title appearing with fire behind it. When you actually start the game, it gives you this long background about things that transpired in the past, so… Lame, right? No way I can go back to that infamous Magi War that nearly destroyed the Earth?
So, no, we’re not going to be partaking in that war (yet!) but we are going to be taking control of a group of people:
- An unnamed woman
Two soldiers and a “witch”, apparently. So, from the get go, the eight year old in me was already starting to get bored. Yet these guys were sporting the latest in Magitek armor! Those robots they were controlling were already giving me hope of much ass-kicking to come.
The mechanics of an RPG are different than the usual games I’d been accustomed to, and so when I’d skipped that engrossing shot of the three magitek armors approaching the city of Narshe, I was introduced to a rather straight-forward fighting system: Turn-based combat. Acting in real-time, TBC was showing me how important it was to correctly planify an attack, based on the enemy being faced. For example, that lady is capable of hitting multiple enemies at once, so it’d be best to use that extra force to convince my enemies to die faster, when in large groups.
It turns out, however, that after some rampaging, that the reason we’re here, is to find an Esper. This thing is supposed to hold a lot of power, and as such, the Magitek armors are presumably capable of fighting and detaining one. After battling some kind of slug…
We are faced with the Esper itself. Now, this is no mere Esper, but as we’ll find out later in the game, it is the all-powerful Tritoch, which holds extremely powerful spells. It quickly dispatches Wedge and Vicks, and then apparently destroys the unknown woman. When she eventually wakes up, the woman, henceforth known as “Terra” is revealed as having been controlled by The Empire, the game’s primary antagonist. As such, the Narshe guardsmen know that she survived her encounter with the Esper and hunt her down to her place of resting. Arvis, the man who nursed her back to health, allows her to escape from the back door of his mansion and out into the mountain.
From this point on, the game takes a much more epic turn, and before long, you’re embarked on a journey that hardly ever pauses to let you breathe, when there’s always so much going on. My interest here will not be to gush about the game’s enormously enjoyable gameplay, but rather about the philosophical underpinnings of the themes approached in it.
History Repeats Itself
The main talking point of this game is that history works like a cycle. Characters, in the story, are the unwitting actors of a fate beyond their understanding. Most of them are unrelated to one another, and only become so as a sheer twist and alignment of their destiny. Locke is a treasure hunter, who would have no business wanting to be around a strange woman who is able to light people on fire, except he has a thing for helping people in distress, and a large network of friends to help with. In helping Terra, Locke basically saves the world, as his actions are key to her survival and to letting everyone know that The Empire, the game’s primary antagonist (at that point) is going to unleash some kind of monstrous force upon the world. It brings awareness to the risk of the world falling back into chaos.
Yet, we can probably assert with some amount of certainty that this same ploy probably led to the Magi War. Even the game’s worlds are separated as such: The first half of the game takes place in the World of Balance, while the later half takes place in the World of Ruin, showing a kind of cyclical change of hands between light and darkness. The World of Ruin is how things were when the three Magical beings on the Floating Island were at war and unable to win the conflict, resulting in mass destruction everywhere. In a way, Final Fantasy 6’s world is constantly cycling between Ruin and Balance. That puts a rather grim outlook on the game’s ending, doesn’t it?
When the game ends, the characters have finally defeated evil once and for all, it is believed, as Kefka had taken it upon himself to become God on Earth, and without the heroes to stop him, he would have effectively ended all life on the planet. Can we bring this sort of cyclical interpretation of history to our real life? We absolutely can.
The Strauss-Howe generational theory has four stages to each cycle:
- High: Institutions are strong and individualism is weak; the people are held together by a form of bond and reciprocal altruism is key to this cohesion. Peace has been realized and the previous cycle has ended, for good, it would seem. The people are filled with hope. Final Fantasy 6 does not take place initially in this part of the cycle. Yet, it would seem to indicate that such a “High” would have happened at the outset of the Magi War, with people deciding to forsake magic for good and live within the world of technology.
- Awakening: The Empire is solidified under Gestahl, and rather than continue in this world of relative laziness and technological progress, a man seeks to restore a form of spirituality, of belonging, and as such, unites an entire people under his rule to one goal. Corruption ensues, as The Empire tries to convert others to its cause. Unable to do so politically, Gestahl goes into war against the Kingdoms of Balance.
- Unravelling: The institutions that held together the free worlds are being broken apart by the conflict, and this cohesion that once held each continent together is being ripped apart, as more and more people side with The Empire, mostly out of intimidation. The Crisis is near, as the Empire now manages to gain footholds everywhere, apparently unstoppable. Culminating with the release of the Espers, through the machinery and machiavellian manipulations of Gestahl and Kefka, this cycle leads inevitably toward the Crisis part of the cycle.
- Crisis: The world has gone into the end of this cycle and what once was an idyllic world has been changed into a bitter, merciless world of pain and suffering. The World of Ruin has replaced the World of Balance, and only the most fit survive. Danger abounds and humans are restrained to very small hamlets, scattered about the world and dwindling. Those that try to restore society are struck down by Kefka’s almighty power. Others are enslaved to his will, and a small band of heroes now rise to challenge his authority and overthrow his regime. They succeed, after much sacrifice and after much failures, and bring a return to peace in this barren world. Lessons have been learned, it would seem and mistakes are foretold never to be made again… Until the next cycle.
Does that give the “happily ever after” trope a run for its money? It should, because that is essentially what all Final Fantasy games are about, really. They all happen in one part or the other of the cyclical theory of generations, and they all somewhat inspire themselves from real-world evils. For example: Gestahl could be the ancient Nazi Regime of the Great War, whereas Kefka would be Hitler, essentially destroying everything in his path and bringing ruin to the world for his own misguided dream. Across the game, Kefka shows evident signs of psychopathy, in how he despises human feelings (of love and friendship, for example) and seeks to destroy existence for no other reason than doing it, like some kind of psychopathic nihilist, who would take Nietzsche far too literally.
Our Differences Bring Us Together
Across the game, the idea of “The Other” or “The Strange” is used both as a pejorative and to make a statement about nationalism or hatred of the outsider. Many characters appear strange at first, outliers and outcasts. When they are known a little better, the mirror is shattered and what we see in them becomes nothing more than a projection that we wished fulfilled.
Shadow is apparently a heartless mercenary who kills without regard for allegiance, but upon looking into his background, we find Clyde, a man whose heart was broken by events beyond his control.
Celes, a woman who is seen as a spy and as a betrayer by all sides, manipulated through her apparent emotionless demeanor into guilt by Kefka. She, like Terra is a byproduct of “biological” engineering, where she has been infused with esper properties but to a lesser extent than Terra. Her “difference” is brought into account many times, and in the opening stages of the World of Ruin, her vulnerability is open for all to see, when she nurses a dying Cid with fishes she catches in the ocean. This “humanity” is what serves to then paint her as just one other pawn in the game, but one that is as necessary as the more charismatic members of the party.
Setzer, apparently a self-serving gambler, with a darker past than we might imagine, is presented initially as some kind of conniving criminal, but then turned into a key member of the gang and his Falcon airship is instrumental in helping the team reach the Floating Continent, when Gestahl and Kefka launch it into the skies, already causing a sizeable amount of distress across the planet.
Gau, a young Mowgli sort of character, living on the Veldt, learning how to act like monsters and other creatures he encounters there, joins the heroes on his first encounter with them, when they give him a piece of “dried meat”. An uncanny action that allows Sabin and Cyan to escape capture and reach Narshe, for an ultimate confrontation between the Returners and Kefka. Initially, he’s seen as some kind of weirdo, but after seeing that he is mostly harmless and (quite powerful), he is made into an ally. His weirdness is instrumental in making him stick out like a sore thumb in the massive Veldt.
Each character has strengths and weaknesses that another character somewhere can use to support themselves. This theme reappears toward the end, when the entire cast of characters (depending on who you managed to grab with you for the adventure) defies Kefka at his tower’s summit, each giving him their own outlook in life after their engrossing adventure.
Kefka’s reaction depicted above is reminiscent of cynical and pessimist doctrine, where these aspirations to a form of happiness are seen by some as fruitless make-believe hogwash, meant to be discarded with their contrary claims: Things ARE hopeless and we shouldn’t be trying harder than we have to to make things better.
In this case, however, Kefka’s not offering an equivalence in meaning, as his share of the bargain will result in everyone else dying. So, their attraction to life and survival is not merely philosophical, it is very much grounded in reality. They don’t want to die, and while Kefka thinks they have no reason to persist on living, they give him plenty of reasons for such. In short, Kefka’s just massively disillusioned and thinks everyone else should be as well. The difference he has with everyone else, that makes him unable to be on their side is that he does not acknowledge difference, rather he only acknowledges himself. He is the only character in the whole game that goes against this idea of unity, and as such, he is the main antagonist.
Growth is essential to self-realization
The entire cast is at a moment in their lives where things are at a stalemate. A volition outside of themselves pushes them into action, and through this, each faces traumatizing and life-changing events that solidify their resolve. Cyan is initially neutral toward the Empire and still thinks it is possible to seek peace, when his people, the King and his family are killed by Kefka poisoning the water supply. Thinking it to be the Empire’s doing, he tackles the bulk of Empire forces head-on, aided by Sabin and Shadow. This changes his character from being the cool, calm and collected knight, to a rather rabid vengeance-seeking avatar.
In the opening stages of his fight, the player is unable to control Cyan, who is still part of the fights, but visibly separate from the party. He is simply marauding through the enemy’s forces and realizes that he needs help part-way through the conflict. With no way out, Cyan has no choice but to follow the heroes out of the Empire’s outpost, not far from Doma Castle, his place of residence. A short while later, he helps Sabin and Shadow to escape the haunted Ghost Train, witnessing the souls of the departed leave with it, as they are finally released.
This is what, in philosophy, we call “wonderment” or moments in one’s life where we realize something about it that simply shapes our future philosophical meanderings. Cyan later devotes himself to preserving the love of a person, by delivering letters for them, on a mountain.
Terra, throughout the first half of the game, wonders about human emotions like love and happiness, being personally closed off from these herself. When the World of Ruin is realized, she ends up thrown in a small haven where children, now orphaned due to the arrival of monsters from the Floating Island and released from within the Earth’s depths, and immediately discovers what her calling is: She wishes to care for these lost children, who have all lost their mother.
She becomes a matriarch and her lack of confidence from the World of Balance has all but vanished, replaced with a motherly protective nature for these lost children. Even then, after having refused to help the surviving characters, she returns to the cause later on in the game. Still, this event where she was faced with the responsibility of taking care of these children, severely set her priorities in opposing directions than to that which she had prior o the World of Ruin.
Terra has grown considerably by then, and recovering her toward the end of the game seems to both show the characters’ growth and the player’s as well, as by then, we’ve pretty much mastered the game mechanics and have helped the cast level up considerably, to become forces to be reckoned with on their own: They’ve mastered multiple levels of magic spells and many Espers now back their plight to restore Balance to the world. With a renewed resolve, the many characters, with their side-quests fulfilled, can concentrate on fighting Kefka, having dealt with all their worldly worries.
A very recent game used a similar tactic: Mass Effect 2 basically had this story-telling element tied into the success of the final suicide mission. If Shepard does not get all the main protagonists’ side-quests fulfilled, with a proper closure, their minds will be fraught with doubt and during the last mission, may end up being killed due to a presumed mistake or simply because of self-doubt, due to this lack of closure. It serves as a motivation to complete the side-quests. Final Fantasy 6 does not necessarily have this tied into its endings, but it does help the player to identify with the many members of the cast and it humanizes them in ways no other games really ever had done before that. You get to know the many characters in the game so very intimately, that when you fight Kefka, you WANT them to succeed, and you WANT Kefka to go down.
Any doubt you might have had by then that maybe there’s any worth to fighting to restore balance has been maimed by the tragic aspect that life on the planet has taken.
I would be lying if I told you NO OTHER game is capable of stirring these emotions from within you, as I am guilty of fanboyism here. Other games are quite capable of stirring emotions from within us, Mass Effect being one of those, but as far as jRPGs go, I cannot say it’s happened all that often, for me. The main reason being that JRPGs often exaggerate character traits to such a satirical extent, that none of the characters really feel personable. You don’t really identify with them beyond the goal that they’ve all set together.
In Chrono Trigger, a game that I also cherish, the main characters all appear to be stuck to the end-goal of the game, but their common goal does not unite them all that much, I’ve felt. You can finish the game without Crono. The game can be finished WITHOUT the primary protagonist! I rest my case…
Either way, tongue-in-cheek humor notwithstanding, if you have yet to play Final Fantasy 6 or have but have never looked at it from this angle, I hope this was a worthy read for yourself and has sparked your interest to play the game (again). I still need to go to Darryl’s tomb, so if you’ll excuse me…