Thursday, December 09, 2010

Video Game History - Final Fantasy VI

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990's on this blog. Today, I pander with Final Fantasy VI, or Final Fantasy III for those of you who only played on the SNES.

In a technical sense, Final Fantasy VI offers very few major innovations over its predecessors. The most obvious is a significant improvements in character graphics, primarily accomplished by using the same intricate two-dimensional sprites for the characters in both combat and in the outside world. This allowed for plot and character developments to take place during combat - when one character uses thought-to-be-extinct magic for the first time, another character reacts with shock, bouncing around the battle screen. But this is primarily an improvement based on the creativity of the designers - more time working with the harder limits of the SNES cartridges allowed more creativity within the form.

Final Fantasy VI also added customization within the game system. Just like FF4, FF6 has several characters in rigidly defined classes. Locke is a Thief, and the only character with the Steal command, whereas Strago is a Blue Mage who learns and uses monster's skills. However, each character can also be equipped with "Espers," summonable creatures who also teach magic skills and improve certain stats when the characters level up. This would provide the model for most future Final Fantasy games, as well as games from other companies: the characters each have their own personalities and are rigid when acquired, but can be developed in many different directions.

Perhaps more importantly, Final Fantasy VI offers massive improvements in thematic elements of the game. The rough edges of the setting are smoothed into a consistent whole. The coexistence of Tolkein-esque dwarves with science fiction Moon-dwellers has become a thematically consistent steampunk setting. This mixture of science fiction and fantasy was common in early RPGs, as we've seen. The early games in Final Fantasy have D&D settings with random airships, just like Wizardry and Ultima. But in Ultima, those previous embarrassments were ignored in future installments. In Wizardry, that artificial weirdness was maintained, but it was never a major focus. Final Fantasy reveled in its setting, and built its own style of science fantasy world, where airships and magic coexist.

In FF6, that setting drives the storyline, instead of the other way around. The evil empire in this game is using corrupting pure forms of magic in order to power their war machines to take over the world. The plot of the game derives naturally from the setting, and by and large, the major characters fit into both effectively.

I say "major characters" instead of "hero" or "protagonist" because Final Fantasy VI may well be unique in gaming history in that there isn't a character who fits that description. The first character we meet, Terra, is half-human, half magical Esper, and initially seems to be the protagonist, but is soon matched and eventually overshadowed by others. Locke the Thief is perhaps the most cliched, as the lovable rogue in the Han Solo mode. On the other hand, Celes, a general of the evil empire who turns against them, demonstrates much more depth, both tragically and comically, than her rough equivalent Cecil from FF4. Edgar is the king of a small nation which is trying to resist the encroaching empire, while Cyan was a knight of a kingdom which resisted and were all slaughtered, except for him. There are a few characters who don't entirely fit in the plot consistently, particularly some of the more gimmicky later characters like Umaru or Gogo, but one of the game's greatest achievements is how its most important characters are intertwined with the world and the plot. The Town-Dungeon-Boss conceit still exists, but it works organically with the rest of the game, instead of acting as an arbitrary challenge towards continuing the game.


Anonymous said...

You're a moron. I'm going to rank my favorites:
1. VII
2. X
3. The Rest
4. VI

rowan said...

That's the spirit! But really, Mystic Quest?

wsn said...

Good point about the plot flowing from the setting organically. I've never thought about it like that but it's absolutely true.

Some other thoughts,

1) I'm not qualified to discuss it too technically, but FFVI has some of the best music in the history of video games. I know that sounds fanboyish ... but I stand by it.

2) FFVI has the bad guy "win" about half way through. That doesn't really happen in jRPG's.

Good luck on the book.

Rowan said...

Did I really misspell "Fantasy" in the header initially? Yes. Yes I did.

I don't think it's really going out on a limb too far to say that any Final Fantasy has the best music ever. It's pretty commonly agreed-upon that Square's got some of the best composers. That said, FF VII & X and the two Chrono games can go toe-to-toe with it.

Second, this is the only excerpt I've posted so far that isn't complete. I get more into the storyline (the Opera House scene and the twist you mention) and how they integrate gameplay and cinematic style, among other things.

wsn said...

VII and the Chrono games for sure. I don't remember X well enough to comment one way or the other. In Chrono Trigger I kept a save in Zeal just to listen to the music if I felt like it.

Your book sounds epic.

Looking forward to your take on Planescape.

FWIW, IMO PST : Infinity Engine :: FFVI : SNESquareRPG. That is, once the basic engine is down, the makers can do something interesting in terms of narrative or presentation. Half-Life probably fits this mold too. Is this something you've noticed? Or will I have to buy the book for that? ;)

rowan said...

"Epic" means it'll take forever to finish, in this case. Sigh.

I think your point is correct, although your examples aren't necessarily. Planescape Torment was actually developed around the same time as Baldur's Gate, and I don't think that it uses the engine as best as it can - spellcasting is annoying to do and there's the inexplicable run/walk divide. Baldur's Gate 2 is probably a better example - very little is different from its predecessor in a technical sense, but in an engine-used-for-narrative sense, it's far superior.

wsn said...

I'd say BGII's quest structure is much better than PS:T (and most any wRPG's, really)*, but I'd disagree with the overall narrative bit - I think BGII and PS:T both offer good uses of the engine, though in different ways.

I'm thinking more of the dying/!reloading mechanic, shifting alignments, lots of non-fighting EXP. To me, those are much more interesting uses of the engine for narrative purposes than spell casting optimization or run/walk. I mean, in BGII I give everyone Boots of Haste just so they walk faster.

*I think I saw that on the Vintage Game club PS:T forums. Or was it here? If I am unknowingly (lazily?) quoting you, apologies.

rowan said...

I was comparing BG2 to BG1, not to PST. Torment is its own beast. And yeah, all those things you mention are interesting, but in this case, they're not there because the engine is "mature." They're there cause the designers were doing really interesting things from the start.

wsn said...

Right, that's what I meant.

The first iteration of a game engine tends to be fairly generic. For the next few iterations the designers can tell a much more interesting narrative/story/experience because they aren't starting from scratch.

To put it another way, I don't think PS:T would have happened without the IE in place. Similarly, Half-Life probably wouldn't have happened without the Quake engine in place.