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.

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