Playing Final Fantasy VI some eighteen years after it was released is akin to reading Don Quixote in English: you can tell both that it’s a masterpiece and that something is missing in the context. The rapid development of video game tech hasn’t tarnished any of FFVI’s shining narrative, of course. It is still a tale of horror, wonder, wit, and hope. Yet even as I played through it for the first time—ever—I could see that I was going to have to dig deep to really get at the importance of the title. Something was speaking to me, I just didn’t know what.
What was it that kept me away from it for all these years? Why buy it now (aside from the fact that it is going for eight bucks on the Wii Store)? Why am I so enraged by its random battles yet so drawn to the game? Is it just the narrative or is it something more?
There are no easy ways to answer these questions (except for the first: I’m cheap). Partially, it’s because the context for the game is personal for every person who plays it, but also because the game defies easy description. It has a standard RPG battle system, a rocking soundtrack, and a cool magicpunk aesthetic to it. That much is easy to describe. Yet it’s place in history at the tail-end of the 16-bit era means that it has a whole lot of giants upon which it rests.
The game is one of two worlds. The first? An old-style JRPG that focused on statistics above graphics. These were/are games that utilized random battles, turn-based combat, and a healthy dose of the gamer’s own imagination to keep the illusion alive (unless it regrettably lapsed into FMV’s). The second? A more modern game that utilizes branching gameplay and non-linear storytelling. These put more “realistic” limits on how a game could play out, with avoidable combat and in-game storytelling that harnessed a different set of the medium’s toolkit. Both Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger—arguably the two finest examples of JRPG’s ever, but radically different in their mechanics—were in development at the same time as FFVI. They would further develop these ideas in their own, better ways. Squaresoft hadn’t yet perfected the amalgam, but it was well on its way.
It’s not that FFVI was unique, either. Final Fantasy IV had developed storytelling techniques for the 16-bit era. Square had already dished out diverging storylines, combined with mixed gameplay mechanics, with Secret of Mana (as well as Final Fantasy Adventure, SoA’s gameboy predecessor). Other companies had produced games that blurred the lines of the traditional RPG with novel concepts: Zelda II, Ys, and (oddly) Willow. They represent transitional species, if you will, between an older style and the modern action-RPG games of Mass Effect’s type.
Is Final Fantasy VI just a fossil, then? Absolutely not. Leaving aside the argument that some people prefer turn-based/random combat, it is a stunning piece of gaming narrative that weaves a millennia-old mythology into bite-sized chunks of fun that leads down all sorts of fun. It is interactive. It is responsive. It allows you to do things at your own pace. It is the kind of game that I have always enjoyed, but now I am taking it in as an adult as opposed to what a ten-year old me would think.
That is the true split. I can see how my younger self would have appreciated this game, even as my older self is experiencing it with a critical eye. I loved all of the aforementioned titles. I enjoyed them unconditionally. I didn’t look for the mechanics or for how the story works in three acts. I just went for it. Now that’s causing a bit of sadness.
Artists aren’t supposed to just enjoy art. We can’t be consumers. We drive usage, and thus, the world. We must look at art in a context and with judgment. To produce work that is of lasting (or money-making) importance, we have to know a.) what the other guy/gal is doing, b.) what shifts these people portend, and c.) what is becoming derivative/old-fashioned. To do otherwise would be to fall helplessly behind, particularly as technology is making it ever easier to produce quality-looking content.
The means of distribution is no longer in the hands of megaliths. YouTube, Amazon, and other sites allow for quick and (more importantly) cheap methods of getting content to an audience. It still takes a lot of legwork but it’s not a country club anymore. Good content can get on the market, as opposed to wallowing in slush piles. Good artists can hone their skillsets with constructive development and criticism, rather than play pretend while the big boys control the velvet rope.
The new paradigm empowers younger artists… and also terrifies old-style producers of content. The unwashed masses are hurting the bottom line. The response? Bigger (read: bloated) budgets, flashier (read: gawdier) spectacles, and event-driven (read: sell it as quickly as possible before people figure out that it’s garbage) content that the small fry can’t match. It guarantees success… except when it doesn’t. One failure is now enough to bankrupt a company. Rather than use this experience or the decades of craft that they have developed, developers continue to push down the path to harder/better/faster/stronger. It could total the industry in an opposite way of the early-80’s crash.
At least there’s still have quality content from yesteryear. Final Fantasy VI harkens back to that simpler time in the industry. A developer didn’t need a team of hundreds, or a sixty-million dollar budget to produce a top title. It didn’t need to ape cinema, because gaming wasn’t cinema. It had a language all its own. Relearning this language is a bit like my attempt to relearn French via Duolingo (the discussion of which will happen in another article), in that I didn’t forget the vocabulary of solid gaming but simply let it get rusty. It helps that, somehow, I managed to avoid spoilers for the game until now. I had no idea that…
…no, wait. I won’t ruin it for you, either.
My enjoyment of FFVI is, thus, on two levels. I am enjoying it with my boyhood self and also my artistic self. This is what great minds are capable of when the limitations force their imaginations to soar. It’s why the best art in the industry is now coming out of independent producers. That’s what’s causing the disconnect. It is not that Final Fantasy VI is of two worlds: it’s that I am. One part of me is an artist looking for inspiration. The other is simply absorbing inspiration through osmosis.
For all of the work I’ve done, I still have held onto my innocence… somewhat. In other words, my soul still speaks with the voice of a child. God bless FFVI for giving that child some time to play.