A Fine Fantasy

Videogame Christmases gave me childhood obesity, and they were worth it. Every year on December 25, while my family celebrated togetherness, giving and the birth of Jesus, I celebrated only gaming. Looking back on the history of gifts received, my Christmas mornings line up like a gallery of classic plays: Metroid Prime, Ico, Metal Gear Solid 2, Half-Life, Fallout 2, Castlevania: Symphony of The Night, Resident Evil, Donkey Kong Country, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario Bros. 3. The eagerness for the holiday intersected the anticipation of the games, annually spinning into a mad typhoon of awe and dopamine. Birthdays and Christmas were the major temporal landmarks of the calendar year, weighted with raw ludic ore. This was the form and ritual of growing up geek.

The one Christmas morning that mattered most, leaving the greatest impression on my memory and appreciation of game design – was dated 12-25-1994, the year Squaresoft released Final Fantasy III in the U.S.

The earlier fantasies were analogous to medieval literature in both setting and structure, their lineated sagas seemed brave and unique back when a few plot twists, an evil wizard, a major character’s sudden, permanent death and some crystals were all you needed to whip up a storyline. These narratives seem contrived in retrospect, largely because their conflicts between ancient demons and magical heroes lacked much indication of human feeling. This emotional indifference might be attributed to the limitations of graphics technology, or the fact that the real meat of playing a Final Fantasy involves picking off blue menus and watching numbers bounce over screen. Yet Final Fantasy III was both graphically limited in terms of emotive representation and based on a gameplay foundation of numerical dynamics, but somehow, for the first time in the series (the sixth installment in Japan), the narrative transcended the hero’s journey model centered on a young male protagonist and his friends.

Final Fantasy III marked the videogame analogy of baroque symphony, featuring a steam-punk setting laced with intoxicating, almost impressionistic, sprite-based visuals and impressive MIDI orchestral tracks. The game opens on the plight and manipulation of a woman at the hands of power-hungry men, and expands to examine a large and varied cast inhabiting all walks in life. In sheer technical terms, these characters were nothing but bins for learned spells and optimized equipments, but interspersed moments of drama, the majority written as vaguely interactive cut-scenes, provide a subtext for the character’s motivations, hopes and weaknesses, providing a glow of meaning beneath the random battles.

The prime example of this interweave between game mechanic and story aesthetic is the opera sequence found early in the storyline’s second act, now almost famous in the canon of classic game moments. Celes, a major female character lamenting her past misdeeds as a military leader, receives the lead role of an opera production for her resemblance to the star actress. Digitized voice tones sing out the story within the story while the player attempts to select the correct lines. Meanwhile, the rest of the team hurries to stop a sabotage of the production, racing against a five-minute clock while being slowed by battles. A sense of passive appreciation clashes with the active rush to save the day, building to a rupture of the in-game opera within the flow of the greater narrative.

Final Fantasy III is also notable for its treatment of female subjects. Most games, over a decade later, are entirely bound into a male avatar consumed with goals of conquest and exploration. But Final Fantasy III‘s most prominent heroes are its women, and its primary goal is returning balance and peace to a world diseased with conflict. Terra, the initial playable character, and later Celes, offer examples of strong women who are not overly sexualized, and the platonic relationships with male characters never become romantic. While the player manipulates them, the aim of that manipulation is to combat the greater malfeasance of a society that encouraged their abilities and then attempted to impose monstrosity on their otherness. Terra and Celes are in a way emblematic of patriarchal society’s attempt to control strength in women: They begin as weapons of war, but in fighting back and leading the team in its rebellion against the evil empire they become radical agents, ultimately equalizing the injustices that produced them and providing hope for survival and freedom.

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If Terra and Celes are the jewels in the game’s crown, the use of multiple perspectives is certainly the alloy that supports the overall structure. Halfway through the first act, the team disperses across the continent, and the player must choose to play each of three character’s missions in whatever order he likes. In this way, the player can express their preference to play the beguiling romantic, Locke (who may be an allusion to humanist philosopher John Locke), the motherly heroine Terra, or the macho martial artist Sabin. Each scenario has a distinct feel to it, and each character brings their own attitudes and worldview, providing a range of perspectives to the party and the player.

This multiplicity expounds in the memories and dreams of each character, sprinkled amidst the gameplay. Locke, we find, seeks the power of the Phoenix to resurrect his comatose girlfriend; Cyan, the chivalrous knight, writes love letters via carrier pigeon to a war widow so as to re-live the love of his dead wife; Setzer, the gambler, reflects on the death of a female airship pilot, the only woman he ever loved; Terra tends to a group of orphans and learns what it means to be needed. But, the sharpest of these moments belongs to Celes, who, stranded on a lonely island with a scientist named Cid (a recurring name in the franchise) must try to nurse him to health by catching fish. If the player cannot do this task, which is balanced to be difficult, then Cid dies, and Celes reacts by jumping off a cliff in despair. She awakes on the beach, washed up from her attempted suicide, and a brilliant flash of the interactive medium’s potential shines through – Celes’ despair is of the player’s failure, and thus stings even more sharply.

Midway through the game, the general antagonism of the empire gives way to a very specific figure, a man produced as a weapon by society in the same manner as Terra and Celes, an androgynous, perverted, wicked little clown: Kefka. Somewhere between Shakespeare’s Falstaff and King’s It, Kefka is one of the most memorable Final Fantasy villains because he isn’t distant or mysterious, he is present and taunting, he has personality and catchy orchestral tunes to match. Kefka, like Dostoevsky‘s Underground Man, is an unforeseen, unwelcome mutation that not only exists, but must exist, considering what civilization is based on. Kefka is the necessary bi-product of technology run amok, an Anti-Christ with a surreal laugh. He is a figure of moral abandon and apocalypse, and in this manner the game’s third act takes place.

Kefka betrays his king and unleashes Armageddon unto the world. That is why, when his combat sprite finally descends onto the screen as a flamboyant mock-angel, and the team defiantly pummels him with unceasing ultima spells, his destruction is not just an obligatory end-game ritual, but a meaningful triumph. Without Kefka, the soaring airship tour over the end credits would be a tack on, just another RPG closeout; with him, it is serene and satisfying, a glorious conclusion to one of the greatest games ever made.

Final Fantasy III‘s greatest fiction, besides its escapism for overweight geeky nine-year-olds, was a brave portrait of an enduring humanism. The game implied in its rules that individuals determined to stand outside the system and challenge its inequities must prevail, given enough level-ups and reloads. It depicted with Dostoevskian poise how such individuals, collaborating as equals, could best the worst offenses of industrial greed, environmental degradation and technological misuse – to a child or adult, this is a fantasy worth entertaining.

Patrick Dugan is a ludosophist. He runs King Lud IC, a blog regarding game design theory, memetics and interactive storytelling. He looks foward to prototyping with Chris Crawford’s Erasmatron, and to pioneering socially-oriented narrative challenge.

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