Final Fantasy is one of the most famous video game franchises in history. The first game in the series came out so long ago (1987) that I wasn’t even born at the time, and several entries that followed have become classics in the role-playing genre. Final Fantasy 16, the latest installment is one of the biggest games of the year now in 2023 – it’s a franchise that has shown an impressive level of success and longevity.
One of the various classics in the series is Final Fantasy 6. When FF6 was released in Japan and North America on the Super Nintendo in 1994, Yoshinori Kitase (the game’s director) was not quite able to travel overseas and get a feel for the game’s reception outside of Japan. On international PR tours years later, however, he was surprised to find that many Westerners – unlike Japanese fans – actually seemed to prefer FF6 to the much more famous Final Fantasy 7.
I realized that too, maybe even around the same time as Kitase when I was a teenager browsing gaming forums in the early 2000s. I grew up loving FF7 on PlayStation (my first console), so the idea that the previous game was just as good, if not better, was exciting. I couldn’t play FF6, however, until it had a hugely delayed release in Europe in 2007, via the Game Boy Advance.
And, honestly, I wasn’t bowled over in the first part of the game (although there were definitely some standout moments). I just didn’t feel a strong connection to the characters, maybe due to the absence of Kazushige Nojima’s work. (Nojima is a writer who has been involved in later games in the series, including FF7.)
Halfway through the game, however, something remarkable happens and my opinion changes.
During a battle against the antagonist (Kefka, one of the series’ most famous villains), the world is ravaged and, as the game puts it, “changed forever.” According to the developers, this was not even planned at the start; it’s something they discussed and then were able to add because they had more time than expected during development. This last segment of the game is called the “World of Ruin”.
The only sounds, when the first scene of the World of Ruin opens, are those of strong winds and the ebb and flow of water. There is an unsettling red hue around you, as if everything has frozen in a permanent sunset. You wake up at the controls of one of the main characters, Celes, an ex-general involved in the fight against Kefka. You are in a partly destroyed house on an almost completely deserted island, and the only other person there (an old man named Cid, who has known you since childhood) tells you that you are in a coma, and that a year has passed since the battle.
There were other survivors on the island, he says, but desperate for their situation, they threw themselves off a nearby cliff. Celes, worried about the sickly Cid (she warmly calls him “grandfather”), goes to find him some food while he rests. You go to shore and catch fish for him while he lays in bed, offering you a little commentary each time. After a few trips, he suddenly doesn’t say anything and Celes realizes he’s passed away.
The music that begins here, named Celes’s Theme, has an eerie opening feel; it’s like a panic of building, escalating and escalating. Celes begs Cid to wake up (“You promised to stay here with me!”), before running out of the house, the music shifting seamlessly from panic to defeat and sweet grief. Celes scales the nearby cliff. She hesitates for a long time at the edge, then moves away.
It’s an utterly dark and utterly compelling segment. Maybe it’s the intimacy of it all; in a game with multiple main characters, it’s a moment where it’s all about the desolation of one woman as she struggles, alone and in a mangled world. She somehow survives the fall and continues to escape the island, but Celes’ desolation is the moment that stands out. It’s probably one of the most memorable moments in a series full of dramatic and emotional scenes.
Much later, however, I was surprised to discover that this powerful moment may not even occur during your playthrough. It’s secretly changeable; the game doesn’t tell you specifically, but the type of fish you collect and give to Cid will determine whether he lives or dies. If Cid lives, the whole scene where Celes throws herself off the cliff never happens: Cid recovers from his illness and Celes leaves the island promising to come back for him. I find myself fascinated by the difference between the story between the scenario where Cid lives and the one in which he perishes; there is a greater sense of peace in the former and an eerie isolation in the latter.
Kitase, in the same interview linked earlier, explains that Cid’s death was actually the original path, and that’s why there are deliberately no hints in the fish mini-game. He, however, decided to give players an alternate route where Cid lives, but a more difficult route to earn. Games featuring narrative journeys are nothing new. Why is it this specific use of the concept that appeals to me then?
This may be due to the way the game itself doesn’t call attention to this shifting quality – in fact, it hides it. Many of us don’t really make a choice, because we’re completely unaware of how the Celes section works. There’s something fascinating about how the whole feel of the game changes depending on something the player isn’t even aware of, and something a little surprising too, about how my choice for the FF6’s most memorable moment (and one of the most memorable in the Final Fantasy series as a whole) may not even happen while playing the game.
The part of me that likes to tell traditional stories instantly warns me that this is a risky idea – this concept of making such a great scene editable, even if the game is “loaded” to follow one path more than the other. And yet, another part of me, a little more open to new approaches and experimentation, is much more hesitant to criticize the idea of Kitase. Does inserting a different path for the scene automatically diminish the original? (That’s certainly what some argue about an unchanging critical death scene in the next game, FF7, and how that should be left alone in the new remake.)
I don’t have an answer to that yet; it’s just something I dwell on. I do, however, remember something I came across in connection with Roger Ebert’s well-known review of games. Writer Clive Barker wonders if Ebert can’t consider games to be art because of the changing nature of the stories, that “Shakespeare couldn’t have written ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a game because he could have have a happy ending.”
Barker goes on to conclude that this shifting quality is actually a strength rather than a weakness in the midrange, and I certainly agree. I always try to find my own answer to how I feel about narrative paths in specific scenes like Celes. Final Fantasy 6, in its mysterious and secretive way, has me gazing.
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