World-Building Series – Final Fantasy VI

We’ve talked about the importance of a story’s opening scenes. We’ve talked about what makes a stellar cast of characters. But there are still more story elements for us to explore. Oh yes. The video game well will NEVER run dry!

It goes without saying that a plot needs a setting in order to play out. Nothing happens in a vacuum, after all. But just as you need characters with depth and consistency, you need to be sure your world operates with cohesion as well. When the details of your setting come into conflict, it can jar your audience’s immersion in the tale. It’s like if a chef put a great big peppercorn in the middle of a rich slice of cheesecake.

The needs of world-building can range anywhere from developing cultural customs at large, to figuring out how the residents take out their garbage. It all depends on how much information your story needs, and each story does have its own unique needs. How much sway will your world’s details hold over the plot?

Well, I hope to explore that question and more in this series. And why don’t we start the fun with a staple game from a staple franchise:

Every time I think I don’t have more to say about Final Fantasy, it comes creeping back into my mind with all its melodrama, over-the-top villains, and outrageously-dressed characters. Underneath all this decorative appeal, one thing the games have done well since the SNES era is world-building. And for me, the pinnacle is Final Fantasy VI.

Yeah, I still live in the classic FF era. Deal with it.

See, before this point in the franchise, the Final Fantasies took place in fairly generic fantasy realms – with their own dashes of flavor, of course. But the worlds had only as much influence on their stories as needed to create otherworldly villains and epic heroes. Could the stories have existed in another setting? With some minor adjustments I’d argue – yes. The worlds primarily existed to generate fantastical appeal.

Then in comes Final Fantasy VI, and it’s a game-changer. The classic fantasy realm gets scrapped; in its place, a gritty steampunk world rises. Soldiers raid cities in magitek machinery; a tech-savvy king reinvents his castle with the mechanics to submerge underground; magic itself is a relic siphoned to power the technology and consequent rising military force our heroes hope to quash.

The greatest point about VI‘s setting, though, is it works in stride with the plot. I’d argue you couldn’t have Final Fantasy VI‘s story without the steampunk world. It’s a tale of the beauty and abuse of technology, and all the gray areas in between. You can watch the cautionary tale unfold as the Gestahlian Empire obliterates a cornerstone race of beings – the Espers – to twist their innate powers into methods of advancement. Terra, our leading lady, serves as an icon of this era in conflict, being half Esper herself. You can’t have her character without the world she inhabits.

Does it help me look less dated if I use screenshots from the iOS version?

Likewise, characters such as Celes and Cyan face griefs created by the nature of their world and the corruption born of it. Could you adapt to an advanced world if it caused the destruction of all you held dear? Or if it had shaped you into nothing more than a weapon? The characters are inextricably bound to the world they inhabit. It directly influences their lives, their choices, and the circumstances they face as the game progresses.

The world is, in a sense, its own character – with impact and interaction. Other Final Fantasies have developed equally extensive settings for their stories – especially once VI set the groundwork for broader innovation – but there’s something about this particular installment that has felt completely immersive even now that nine Fantasies have followed it.

Of course, Final Fantasy VI has memorable characters in spades, and its story plays out in epic fashion. But when I think of that game, what first comes to mind is its setting. And THAT, I think, is the mark of skilled world-building.

 

Final Fantasy VI is the property of Square-Enix. There are many ways you can play this game.

Final Fantasy: The Legacy

[Currently listening to: Mannheim Steamroller. It’s Christmas, yo!]

Final Fantasy is a Goliath in the video game industry; that goes without saying. This month marks its 29th anniversary, so I figured it’s only due that I give it proper homage.

But I must confess a sad truth: Final Fantasy hasn’t aged well for me. I only ever enjoyed VI and IX growing up, and now even those stories have mostly lost my interest. As for other releases in the series…well, there’s only so many reiterations of K-pop hair that I can take.

But for many, these games are pure gold, even with all the changes they’ve undergone through the past three decades. I’m hardly here to bash any series that’s had an impact on gamers, so instead let me do my best to talk about some of the characters I loved best from Final Fantasy, and why they’ve left a lasting impression on me.

(I caution you, my scope will be limited.)

Cecil Harvey – Final Fantasy IV

This lead protagonist embodied “light vs. dark” in his own journey, from serving a corrupt kingdom to accepting his ultimate role as paladin. I remember when I first played Final Fantasy IV how much I appreciated Cecil’s story. How his questions of right and wrong led him to seek the truth. How the pain he witnessed (and caused) turned him on a redemptive path. He’s no Frog from Chrono Trigger, but his character growth is admirable in its own right.

Locke Cole – Final Fantasy VI

Dashing, chivalrous, clever – Locke knows what the lady gamers love. His character was even pretty much carbon-copied in Zidane six years later, but Final Fantasy IX‘s lead male didn’t have quite the depth of Locke’s character. Why? Well, while Zidane’s helpful nature was based in…pretty much nothing, Locke desperately sought to protect his loved ones because his own past mistakes caused suffering for his beloved, Rachel.

For a game to address relationship “baggage” like that – I think Locke was a pioneer in exploring such themes. Watching him move from loving Celes as a means to clear his conscience to loving her in a way that could let go of past mistakes was a moving story arc.

Kefka Pelazzo – Final Fantasy VI

THE best Final Fantasy villain, hands down. (Suck it, Sephiroth.) Kefka wanted all the clichés: power, destruction, absolute authority – but his motives were so wonderfully…ambivalent through it all. He didn’t have any deep or personal reason for his actions; he just enjoyed manifesting chaos.

Plus, that outfit is outrageous, and I love it.

 

 

Vivi Ornitear – Final Fantasy IX

I had so many feels for this cutie. I loved Vivi for his mix of childlike wonder and grown-up understanding of the world – which makes me realize that I hated Eiko (his six year-old female counterpart) for almost all of those exact same reasons. (I don’t know, man. I can’t make sense of my preferences.)

Looking back at the game recently, I was amazed at how almost nothing goes right for this poor boy. I might even say the game pushed that point a little TOO far to make sure its audience properly sympathized with the little black mage. Still, Vivi was one of the first characters whose psyche I really enjoyed exploring, so I suppose he’ll always have a special place in my heart.

Freya Crescent – Final Fantasy IX

The first of a couple strong female characters to round out the list. You might wonder why I’ve picked the rat woman instead of one of the many leading ladies of the franchise. What about Terra, who’s technically the main protagonist of Final Fantasy VI? What about Aerith, Rinoa, or Garnet?

Here’s the thing: leading ladies in Final Fantasy don’t typically have much control over their own story. Even when they try – like when Garnet sets out to stop her mother on her own – the plot tends to move them instead of vice versa.

I like Freya (and Beatrix, as we’ll see) because she enters the picture with a pre-established quest that has nothing to do with the main storyline as we understand it so far. She has her own drive, which, to me, makes her far stronger as a character.

(And she does it all without flaunting a large/barely-concealed chest.)

Beatrix – Final Fantasy IX

(Speaking of large chests…) Beatrix is like the female version of Cecil, in that her questions over whether she’s acting in the right eventually lead her to abandon a path of destruction. She is also the master of her own destiny and makes her own choices, living by fealty to Alexandria’s royal family.

And her romance with Steiner is more frickin’ adorable than any lead romance of any Final Fantasy ever. Try and prove me wrong.


Of course, there are numerous characters I haven’t covered in this post, so if you’re a FF fan, feel free to add some of your own favorites in the comments below.

(Wow, I think I chose a picture from every Final Fantasy art style out there.)

 

Final Fantasy belongs to Square-Enix. I can’t even condense the many ways you can play these games…