Today, a guest article written by Sergei Servianov, on what Final Fantasy VI meant for the youth of the time, and the fantastic musical scores that accompanied it.
There’s a lot of argument regarding the nature of games writing, with some readers craving something deeper than arbitrary scores and pseudo-objectiveness, and others decrying any attempts at floral prose. Some like hard-hitting investigative features such as those by EDGE and GamesTM, and others want something deeply personal.
Well, whatever. I’m not about to argue with where writing should go.
This article was recently posted by my good friend Sergei Servianov on The Gamer’s Quarter forums, and I felt it needed greater exposure. I’m sure different people will appreciate it for different reasons, or possibly not all, but several points made it really resonate with me.
Sergei talks about how videogames of this calibre occupied a unique time, before the internet and improved means of distribution enabled greater choice with regards to various entertainment and artistic mediums. Speaking with generations prior to mine, it was only in adulthood when they came to appreciate more artistic things – their youth was occupied by sports, cheap comics, simplified children’s books and lousy TV. For the generation who grew up with games such as Final Fantasy VI though, it granted access to artistic worlds of thought and melancholy storylines which, for the time being, had no equivalent for teenagers. (though I fully expect a whole wave of rebuttals to this statement)
I also relish any piece of writing which is brave enough to criticise Final Fantasy VII, which for me was a bloated and overrated mistake which influenced far too many developers, ruining a lot of potentially good future games in the process.
While the fabled last issue of The Gamer’s Quarter exists only in the minds of its writers, even if you never followed the publication this eulogy is well worth reading for anyone who appreciates the 16-bit era.
Preaching the Truth from the Edge of Kefka's Tower: A Hymn to Final Fantasy VI
By Sergei Servianov
Whenever I think back to my wasted youth, I can't help feeling a tang of bitterness at not having had my fair share of sex and adventure. There wasn't much of that going on in my teenage years; nothing at all, actually, if we're talking about sex. There was a lot of shame in those days and that makes me want to curse the RPGs.
I want to curse them, but I can't quite bring myself to do so. I'm listening to the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack right now and realize that you can't quite argue with something this good. Sex is one of the few things that makes life worth living, I love fucking... Even so, you can't refute Final Fantasy VI , because the argument that it presents is unimpeachable. Yes, of course, the cool guy faction in my crania sniggers at this, they're mocking me as I write. But they are wrong. They know all too well about what can satisfy the body and the steps that need to be taken to make it so. But they are the enemy and will always be the enemy. Cool is the enemy of all that is good in this world. Cool will never understand the beautiful and runs from the truths of this cold, dark universe like a cockroach running from light. I'll ally with the cool to get laid, but that's as far as my allegiance will ever go.
Final Fantasy VI is pure refutation, an argument in 32-meg form against the vileness of this world. There are few artifacts of our generation that have withstood the test of time as well as Square's Super Famicom masterpiece. I can't imagine a single twelve-year-old of my generation with any soul at all smirking at it. It's way too serious a work for that to happen. It was something that millions of people would play and declare allegiance to. And it deserved all of it. One of the few videogames that did or does.
Where else could we have found such art? Movies? Well, the Americans of my day didn't have Miyazaki's stuff on file, so that was out. The Disney films seemed pretty profound in those years, but they haven't aged well. I have a hard time justifying my obsession for the Lion King back then. Music? There was no proper music for those who hungered for more. Classical music, you say? Well, classical music was boring and didn't talk about anything that we wanted. There was something cheesy about it, too. It didn't seem serious at all. Comics? We didn't have manga back then and the stuff that we did have was beneath contempt.
No, it was in videogames and in videogames alone that we could've found our arguments.
You just couldn't help but love those characters. They were better than most of the people you went to school with. They probably still are. They had honor and meant what they said. And their wonderful personal themes, composed by Nobuo Uemastsu at the height of his power, were something that you hoped you would have for yourself one day. I know now that that's impossible, but how great it is to imagine walking into a bar and hearing Shadow's reedy music playing in your head, drowning out the shitty rap that's trying it's best to make the bar seem like the “decadent club scene” from a bad American action movie.
Yes, THAT music, it's hard to write about it now because so many horrible people have expressed their appreciation of it. Yet, that's its strength and the strength of Final Fantasy VI as a whole. It is impervious to either praise or criticism. It merely sets up its argument, presents you with the greatest graphics, music, and story that you'd seen, heard, or read up to that time and asks you if you still want to continue on in the real world; a reverse Matrix.
Many a twelve-year-old heard that call, but few followed it wholeheartedly, boarded that Phantom Forrest train. Many more than was to be expected, though. I'm pretty sure that if you were to gather all the true believers in a single place then you could easily get a Tienanmen Square crowd scene going. I can imagine it now. Hordes of plump and skinny losers of all races, howling like mad, whacking the chained unbelievers on their way to the Gulag of the Cool with their FF VI cartridges, while a grinning “ice teeth” Hironobu Sakaguchi – Mao Suit, liberation cap – waves to them from the castle walls.
Though daydreams don't get you far in this world, so let's recall the characters, for our sake and theirs.
Make no mistake about it. They are still beyond you and will always be. If one can imagine a life as blissful and attractive as Setzer's, I'd like to hear it, lounging around a floating casino, taking his share of sex and drugs without a hint of nagging puritanism. As lame as it may look right now, that man was our libertine, our Byron. Then there's Shadow, a ninja loner, the idealized self-image of every boy that went through high school uncool, whose touching story of woe was presented with a minimalism that was ignored by RPG creators then and now. And like all good things, he was doomed to perish. You could never quite save Shadow, no matter how you may have wanted to. Or what about Edgar, who dresses like like a mix of a decadent 19th prince and a modern CEO, part chainsaw murderer, part ladies man. Kefka, while somewhat overrated as a villain, has many moments of delight as well, having the most fun of any JPRG character in history. Gleefully committing mass murder; an angel/ clown / punk rocker hybrid firing lasers from his trash tower. Yes, Square really sent in the clowns there and the clowns were scary. In fact, Kefka, despite being the villain, steals so many scenes, gets so many great lines – recall him laughing at your party during the final battle, calling them a bunch of walking self-help cliches – that you can tell that the creators' hearts were in the right place. It's no coincidence that Kefka's Tower is greatest piece of music on a soundtrack famed for great work. I don't know if it's scary or not that the appeal of Kefka is much more real to me now than as a child.
And then there were the set pieces. There are so many to recall that you can open up any random save from a copy of the game bought from a Japanese “recycle shop” and be assured of stumbling upon something wonderful. The big Moogle battle, the type of thing you kept in your head while playing Magic: the Gathering as a teenager, stuffed animals whacking werewolves on the head with maces. The struggle on the Floating Continent, with that great scene of Kefka kicking the Old Man of the Empire offstage like a bag of rancid garbage, followed by Shadow playing a lethal game of WMD goddess statue chess with our favorite clown.
Sadly, the same things cannot be said for many of the RPGs that came after it. Genius though it may be, Final Fantasy VI has given rise to many a false prophet ( though the critics rightly place the blame on the massive success of the game's Playstation sequel). The most offensive example of this is Xenogears: the pitiful banner of the most pathetic nerds of this Earth. It's so puerile that talking about it feels dirty and unsporting, like making fun of a cripple. It's just depressing to think about and that's that. It's not so much a game as the sad story of Hitler's Germany branded onto a CD: so much talent, so much great music and art wasted in the service of a laughable ideology, an insipid narrative.
Many other works have faired better. Persona 4 comes to mind, even though it's FF VI's direct opposite. It celebrates the cool, sneers at the nerds, and goes out of its way to glorify those loathsome high school days. As a counter-argument it works much better than I could have expected. Its music is poppy tunefulness compared to Final Fantasy's neo-romantic nobility, its story a big Yay !! for this world and its people. It's the closest that we've come in the Japanese RPG genre to “maturity.”
Make no mistake, I'm not mocking it. I love the game dearly, it's the only modern game that I can stomach playing these days. Though its worldview will most probably never inch out the one that Final Fantasy has instilled in me. I also have the utmost contempt for the perfunctoriness of its villain. It's a sad state of affairs that the game makers of today don't even bother making a halfway decent counter-argument against our world, won't even make the villain fun. The heroes' argument in Persona 4 boils down to the same thing that the popular kids prove wordlessly every day at school, “We're cooler and totally have more friends than you, loser.” A very bad way to cap off a game that had a lot of good in it.
The saddest thing is that we still don't have the vocabulary – nay, the poetry – to celebrate Final Fantasy VI properly. Most of the praise that this profound little anti-Earth has gotten is as clumsy as its criticism. The words aren't here yet, but we're coming close... they're somewhere, to be sure, stashed away in the brain of some basement-inhabiting uber-dweeb romantic, waiting for the right moment to emerge. Final Fantasy VI is like Lovecraft's Old Ones, bidding its time, influencing the aesthetics of the world in ways we can't – perhaps, won't live to – ever see.
The War of the Magi has never really stopped and Final Fantasy VI will no doubt continue its unseen jihad, unnoticed and unheard until our blessed day of reckoning. When the silly works of today will be nothing more than a footnote in the Final Fantasy-era of art history.