Studying Storytelling: Final Fantasy III (or VI)

This is Volume 9 in an ongoing series called Studying Storytelling where I look at HOW stories are told, not the stories themselves. For more on the inspiration for this series, start here. For an index of previous entries, go here

There's no overstating it. The Final Fantasy video game series is among the chief reasons I write today. For those who grew up seeing only books, movies, and TV as meaningful forms of storytelling, I imagine the idea that a video game series could approach the same level of significance might seem ridiculous. But this is a generational thing I reckon, and our half-android descendants will surely count games among their most important stories as they enjoy them in virtual reality via cybernetic implants and positronic brains.

Role-playing games like Final Fantasy, ones in which you inhabit the life of a character or characters, develop their skills and abilities over time, and make decisions on their behalf, can take the epic scope of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis stories and make them interactive. Instead of reading to find out what trouble the Pevensie kids got into or how Aragorn saved the day, I got to choose those actions myself. This was empowering. Final Fantasy and its ilk made me confront questions of morality, ethics, and personal values that day-to-day life would not present me with for years, if ever.

Of these, Final Fantasy III–it was volume VI in Japan but we didn't get all of them in the US–remains my favorite. It was a long and massive story, full of subplots, backstory and intrigue, and it unfurled in ways I had not experienced before. Here are three key attributes of how Final Fantasy III told its story that have stayed with me in the years since I first played it.

You Mean the Bad Guys Can Win?

In general, up until Final Fantasy III most RPGs followed a fairly predictable script, one inherited from the fantasy stories that inspired such games. Here's the gist of it:

Everything was fine and dandy in the world. No war, at least not since the previous big, bad, evil guy was defeated. People lived their lives peacefully and happily and la la la everything was cool, man. Then, one day, some guy, often a king or maybe a rogue sorcerer:

  1. Discovered the Thing of Power and/or
  2. Decided he was destined to be Ruler of Everything and/or 
  3. Meddled with Things Beyond his Understanding

Then everything went to crap. But fear not! For a hero was born in some provincial town and he alone can wield the Doohickey of Awesomeness to defeat the Thing of Power and restore peace.

FFIII is not so different at first. There's an empire, and the Empire is bad because things called "The Empire" are bad and evil in precisely 100% of stories in science fiction and fantasy. It's a law, I'm sure of it. The Emperor is trying to become all powerful by harnessing the powers of Espers, magical creatures from a sort of parallel world who can do amazing things. He falls into #3 and #1 above especially, but really hits all three. It is, of course, the charge of the heroes to stop him, and we never doubt that they will.

But a funny thing happens about halfway through the game, a thing that, as a 11-12 year old, I sorta saw coming and didn't totally believe it could be possible. The game builds toward a climax that leaves you thinking, "that's it?" It feels like you're heading to the final battle–one you will surely win, of course, but it arrives in underwhelming fashion. It seems rushed, too soon, like the game designers ran out of budget. So you start to wonder if it's a trick. Maybe you defeat the bad guy but he escapes before you can finish him off? That happens sometimes, right?

Instead, everything goes to hell. You learn that the real bad guy is the Emperor's right hand man and he wins. Or he succeeds at his goals, anyway. Which in this case is to kill the emperor, throw the world into chaos, cause rampant destruction, and use that to assert control.

Because games are interactive, because you have control, it feels like you should be able to stop the bad thing from happening. But in this case, you couldn't, and I could scarcely believe it as I watched the world I had explored permanently decimated. The game doesn't end there, of course. Your characters survive the cataclysm and regroup to defeat him once and for all, but the world is never the same. Your characters are changed and damaged. You cannot undo the destruction. It's a more realistic depiction of the limits of what we can control than we often get in fantasy stories.

There is No Main Character

Who's the hero, and what's his name? These are the basic questions of most fantasy stories, and the use of the "he" pronoun is not coincidental. The vast majority of video game protagonists are men, and the exceptions are notable often because they are exceptions. There's nothing inherently wrong with male heroes of course, but it becomes pretty predictable after a while. By age 12 I had been taught that if there was good-looking blond guy in a leading role, he was gonna get to save the day (unless he was Ivan Drago).

Final Fantasy III turned that this model on its head in a few ways. For one, although it included good-looking blond protagonists (two brothers, actually), neither is THE ONE TRUE HERO. Second, the game elevated the roles of its female characters from their usual spots as damsels in distress, sidekicks or troublemakers tempting men with their wicked ways. Though the quantity of characters still skewed heavily male, the female characters that did exist were strong and interesting on their own, with real motivations and impacts on the story.

While those are deviations from the archetypal fantasy story, it's not as if FFIII was the first to do them. What was more remarkable was that the game had fourteen "permanent" characters you could control as well as several others who joined the fight temporarily before going off to continue their lives elsewhere. This huge ensemble made it feel like there was no true "main" character.  Some of those fourteen have meatier roles than others, but it was a notable departure from either having ONE TRUE HERO or having a small band of rabble rousers that have to stick together. The characters have interesting histories and reasons for fighting the Empire, but having so many of them raises the importance of the collective struggle over the personal ones in a way that few stories I had experienced up to then.

The Random Insanity of Evil

Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight is well-loved by many, and rightfully so I think. He's terrifyingly convincing as a nihilist agent of chaos who serves as a counterweight to Batman's emphasis on order and responsibility. But for all that, he's got nothing on Kefka Palazzo, the true villain of FFIII. Like the Joker, Kefka just wants to watch it all burn, man. And as I point out above, he gets his way. He ravages an entire planet.

He's often ranked among the very best video game villains of all time, and he's always been my personal favorite. What makes him remarkable from a storytelling perspective his how he violates a key rule of thumb in fiction writing: that your villain should be relatable. We may detest the actions of villains, but we often empathize with their motivations. A bad childhood, the loss of a loved one, or sometimes a misplaced belief that he/she knows what's best explains why this person wants the right thing for the wrong reasons.

You learn a little of the reasons Kefka is the way he is, but mostly he's evil because he loves being evil. The only thing that makes him relatable? He makes occasional off-color jokes. But that just serves to make you feel bad about yourself if you laugh. Wait, did I like something that guy did? What does that say about me? These were powerful things to think about as a twelve-year-old, and it absolutely informs how I think about writing villains today.

The game slow plays his madness and power perfectly. Up until the midpoint, he seems pretty useless. He's an envoy and ambassador of sorts for the Emperor, but he doesn't seem very good at what he's supposed to do. He fails to retrieve Terra, whose half-magical ancestry makes the Emperor believe she is the key to gaining control of magical power. He laughs too much and seems too out of touch to be a threat.

So when he makes his move, you're forced to reevaluate the entirety of what happened before hand. The doddering version of Kefka you thought was inserted as a bit of comic relief looks much more like a brilliant feint that allowed him to slowly assert power without anyone suspecting. He's a genius, but a lunatic, and there's nothing scarier than that.

This Game is the Best Game

I have not played FFIII in a very long time, but just digging into the story and characters to write about it has been so much fun. It's amazing what stays with you, even if you're not aware of it at the time. I loved FFIII when I played it, but there's no way I could have understood how influential it was on me as it was happening. The three storytelling elements discussed here are clear deviations from convention, but they are pulled off masterfully. It's a reminder that the rules are there to be broken, and it's a lesson I think I've benefitted from relearning.

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By Bryan Ochalla (Flickr: Final Fantasy VI (Japan) box) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons