(EDIT: Bringing this back to add one more scene! 7/29/14)
As video games progress along the path towards the status of “playable movie,” I want to take a fond look back at the storytelling style in the 2D setting. Specifically, I’m talking about the Super Nintendo’s Final Fantasy VI. Surprisingly (or maybe not), video games have always striven to be cinematic with their narratives, and I believe Final Fantasy VI represents the pinnacle of 16-bit cinematography, with probably the only possible exception being Chrono Trigger.
Now the reason I chose to discuss Final Fantasy VI is because all of the powerful scenes from Chrono Trigger are massive spoilers. That, and I’ve been watching a Let’s Play of Final Fantasy VI lately so it’s fresh in my memory. To give you a better idea of what I really mean, we’ll take a look at four of my favorite scenes from the game. While I hope I don’t come off as one of those nostalgia-crazed fools who adamantly insists that games and their stories have gotten worse over the years, I will say that the style in which stories are told has changed dramatically. Video games have always been cinematic, but advancements in technology, particularly the shift from 2D sprites to 3D models, has greatly altered how emotional connections are made with the audience.
The following scenes are, of course, spoilers for someone who has never played the game. However, they have no real significance to the “main plot.”
The Phantom Train’s Departure
This scene, occuring right after you best the Phantom Train itself in battle, is a short yet emotionally captivating one. Cyan, a servant who recently lost his family and king when the insane clown Kefka poisoned their kingdom’s water supply, finds himself helpless as he watches his wife and child board the Phantom Train to the land of the dead. The simplicity of the scene adds to the weight. Cyan’s unable to do anything, even feeling responsible for their deaths, and can only watch as they’re taken away by the train.
I think the most heartbreaking part about the scene is when he tries to chase after them, and he can’t bring himself to say goodbye. There’s no need for long-winded dialogue, no gushy music. Only the persistent clacking of the Phantom Train and Cyan’s wife and son’s final words to him. It’s a thin needle that stabs you in the heart, rather than a giant hammer that beats you over the head.
Edgar’s Coin Toss
This is a scene that made me fall in love with Final Fantasy VI. Like many of the character developing scenes, it’s completely optional, and it explains a bit about the past between the twin brothers Edgar and Sabin. The scene itself is brilliantly composed, triggered by Sabin’s first return to Figaro Castle in ten years, where his brother Edgar is the king. I love the way the scene begins with Sabin sitting on the throne and then panning down to a flashback, where court members are panicking over the King Figaro’s death, ten years prior. The camera then pans around the castle as the news spreads, making great use of the black space that sprite-based games are known for to create seamless transitions from one room to the next.
What makes the scene for me is the music, which is a sentimental arrangement of the Figaro Castle theme and the theme shared by the twin brothers. Edgar’s choice to use a coin flip to decide their fates is heavily symbolic of their relationship, as they are essentially two very opposite sides of the same coin. The coin flying high into the night sky and then fading away to the present is very poignant.
The Opera Scene
Perhaps the most memorable scene in the entire game and maybe the most famous in the whole franchise (save for one little death scene in FFVII). The opera scene has been described as a story within a story within story within a game, and it’s easy to see why. The entire plot of the opera, particularly the words from Celes’s aria, embody many of the themes that pervade throughout the game. Final Fantasy VI is all about lost love, rekindled passions, and finding your place in the world.
The aria portion of the opera is, to put it simply, elegant. Here we have a woman who used to be a general of the enemies’ army filling in for the missing lead and performing the role beautifully. In between acts, the game has your other characters running around backstage to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. Of course, some ad-libbing becomes necessary thanks to a certain octopus. Like the game itself, the entire opera sequence has wacky moments interspersed with some very sincere subject material.
Celes at the North Peak
I was originally only going to choose three scenes, but I couldn’t ignore one of the most powerful moments in the game. This is an optional scene that occurs if you don’t manage to save Celes’s grandfather after the world experiences its makeover. Believing her friends to be dead and losing the last important person to her, Celes contemplates suicide.
When I think about how this scene would be realized in 3D or live action, I just imagine it would be much less powerful. The subtle sprite animations, in addition to the music, whose melody is borrowed from the opera, gives this scene its impact. Seeing Celes fall from the cliff, with sparkling tears trailing behind, gives me chills every single time.
Resurrecting Daryl’s Falcon
This is the scene that got me thinking about making this list. Like the scene between Edgar and Sabin in Figaro Castle, this scene makes great use of the black space on the screen as well as subtlety in the dialogue. As you make your way down the stairs, visions of Setzer’s past fade into the backdrop and we get a look at his relationship with his first love, Daryl. I get the feeling that Setzer challenges her to the race to get the dangerous Falcon out of her hands.
Ultimately, Daryl is killed in the race, and Setzer is left alone on their hill at sunset. This is the only time when the track “Epitaph,” a melancholic arrangement of Setzer’s theme, plays and what an amazing track it is. Once Setzer is able to finally put the past behind him, the Falcon is resurrected and we’re triumphantly introduced to the new overworld theme, “Searching for Friends.”
Outdated as it may seem to some, I genuinely believe that there’s a lot of magic available in 2D storytelling, even if you’re just experiencing it today. When I watch scenes like these four, I like imagine what they would look like if they were ever animated or turned into a live-action movie. Although it might sound contradictory, I would kill to have a Final Fantasy VI anime. However, that’s not to say I think the game’s presentation is obsolete (quite the opposite, actually). It’s a lot like the difference between reading a book and watching the movie. Anyone who ever reads the book first will already have an idealized version in his or her head, and that’s why adaptations rarely ever live up to our expectations. When 2D sprites are involved, so much is left up to your imagination. In this way, you become the director, the cinematographer, and maybe even the actors too.
“It’s maybe strange to say [this], but I miss the limitations of making games in those days. The cartridge capacity was so much smaller, of course, and therefore the challenges were that much greater. But nowadays you can do almost anything in a game. It’s a paradox, but this can be more creatively limiting than having hard technical limitations to work within. There is a certain freedom to be found in working within strict boundaries, one clearly evident in Final Fantasy VI.” ~ Yoshinori Kitase, Co-Director of ‘Final Fantasy VI’
Things like the limitations of sprite animation or the memory space required to hold music tracks were turned into strengths in Final Fantasy VI. Subtle facial expressions, black space, and even silence were utilized creatively to birth one of the most heartfelt games I’ve ever seen. As far as I’m concerned, a game doesn’t have to try be a big blockbuster to connect with a player on an emotional level. The expression “less is more” applies to games as much as anything else.