Final Fantasy VI in 2021
or, the love we share; or, your hand in my hair; or, should I play FFVI in 2021?
After a very bizarre comedy of traversing a South Korean city while my appendix ruptured, I finally got to wait in a hospital for a surgeon to rip that bad buddy out of my throbbing thorax.
I think of three people whenever I think about my appendectomy.
The first is a man who never introduced himself but seemed to be the only doctor present who spoke English, or at least the only one who spoke English to me. I mean, I’m assuming he was a doctor because he was at a hospital and, while they rolled me onto the mobile operating table and wheeled me into an operating room, this man followed me in and kept asking me rather mundane questions about my life while they shoved needles into my arms and connected those needles to tubes connected to bags, which is, you know, my nightmare. I guess he was doing this to distract me from the strangeness of the situation, the grotesquery of watching my own body connected to machines and bags filled with liquid. If that was his only purpose, he did a pretty good job!
He talked to me inanely until I went under and dreamt of nothing.
When I woke up, he wasn’t there. No one was there. I didn’t know that many people in Korea at the time and the only people who knew where I was were my coworkers and employer1, but it was Easter Sunday and they had normal things to do.
The second person I remember is the nurse who came to me the next day while some TBS show I’d never even heard of was playing on the TV across the room. I was in a room with a dozen men in a dozen beds. She smiled at me in a way that I’d grown accustomed to. Korean women do this specific kind of smile to foreigners who they assume don’t speak any Korean, especially if they don’t speak any English. She smiled at me like this and I tried to remember the last time I’d heard anyone speak English2 and it was that one guy who was asking me about my childhood dog while the anesthesia took me. Then, in a sort of pantomime Konglish, she asked me if I was in pain.
She nodded with that smile for foreigners and left. I assumed she was going to get, like, drugs or something. A painkiller of some variety3. But instead the rest of the morning went by. When the nurses came in with foodtrays for breakfast, they didn’t give me one but also didn’t tell me why so I didn’t eat anything until that evening. When a nurse came to check on me later that day, she was a different one than the one who asked me if I was in pain, but this one asked me if I was in pain as well.
She, too, nodded and smiled that smile for foreigners and left.
No one ever gave me painkillers and I honestly have no idea why.
I think it was the second or third day that I was in the hospital when I woke to someone stroking my hair. I opened my eyes to the third person I remember—and think about often—from my time in a Korean hospital where almost no one spoke to me. He was an older man. Or, old to me, then. Probably he was in his fifties.
When I opened my eyes, he didn’t stop stroking my hair. He just stared down at me and said, “My son,” with great meaning.
You reading this now may respond differently to this memory than I did then. I wish I could give greater context. It probably seems profoundly strange and even, maybe, a little alarming.
At the time, it made so much sense to me. It makes sense to me, here, now, remembering it. He said it again:
Great feeling and significance were in his voice as he stroked my hair and I felt that I knew him. Knew that he knew me for the son he had who maybe would’ve been my age and there with him if a few things had gone differently in life.
The moment reminded me of when I spent a weekend near comatose after freefalling forty or fifty feet off a literal cliff when I was sixteen. Every time I woke up, even if only for a moment4, my dad was there, whether it was 3pm or 3am and he was curled up on the too-small couch. The nurses at that hospital called me miracle boy, which was a whole thing to have to go through5.
This third person and I found an understanding in one another. A comfort, maybe. He stroked my hair and I laid there, my hair stroked. We didn’t share a language but we shared space and found a type of comfort in one another6. Eventually I fell asleep again and when I woke, he was gone.
I never saw him again.
Those hours with that man—I cherish that memory. I think of him often. If I could, I’d thank him.
What does this have to do with Final Fantasy VI?
Art unfurls over our lives, weaves through the moments that make up a life.
Let’s jump to it—should I play this ancient game?
Probably. Yes, if the history of videogames or this specific genre of videogames is interesting to you. Yes, if you want a story that unfolds in wild directions, takes bold narrative choices you’re unlikely to see in any other game, whether it was released thirty years ago or thirty minutes ago.
The game is more polished than FFIV and FFV and also, I think, more fun from moment to moment, from battles to dialogue to setpieces. Honestly, it’s a more polished game than FFVII or FFX or FFXII, even. More fun, too. The game flows effortlessly, pulling you into the stories of a dozen people whose lives twist and weave together to form a tapestry that stretches over an entire world bubbling with ancient and new magics while a sort of industrial revolution takes place.
Thematically, it’s heavier, even, than FFIV, but it has all the vibrancy of FFV. It’s a game that knows when and how to have fun, that knows how to twist the fun into a knife to tear at your emotions.
Don’t play this game, though, if random battles are still bumming you out. I think the fighting is more interesting here, but it’s still full of random battles every few steps. Like, a lot of them.
So many of them.
Kefka. I wrote it right there under the picture.
You’re going to remember him for the rest of your life.
Ah, so he’s, like, a really well drawn villain.
Oh, no, absolutely not that.
Do you remember the first time you watched Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight?
Ah, okay. I get it.
No, like—Kefka’s not like an Oscar performance. I didn’t mean that. He’s more like the Joker from the animated Batman series. Sort of wild and slapsticky, but then, at a sudden turn, profoundly menacing.
So why mention Heath Ledger?
I think it’s clear in Ledger’s performance that playing Joker was maybe the most fun he ever had acting. Yes, yes, I know about all the apocryphal stories of how playing the Joker led directly to his death, but I think maybe people love a story more than they love reality.
And so what I mean is that Kefka is having a hell of a time being Kefka. You can almost hear the cackling of the designers in his theme music7. Kefka is a wonder, a delight every time he’s on screen. He almost seems like a joke. And then, very abruptly, he is not joking but instead—
Well, you just gotta see it, man. It’s wild, especially for a game ostensibly made for children in the 90s. Of course, though, that’s maybe the real thing here: this game wasn’t made for children. Not really.
So this is what people talk about when they talk about JRPGs having good stories.
Yeah, basically. Probably no one would have ever thought such a thing had this specific game not come out and so thunderously redefined a genre that began flourishing in the US. While many of the tropes and genre staples already existed, FFVI grabbed the bag of tricks and made them nice and shiny while sneaking in a few new genre defining staples8. FFVI takes such daring narrative leaps that it transforms everything that comes after.
I mean, I could sit here and list a bunch of games that I don’t think would exist or that would exist so radically different had there not been this little JRPG that was willing to do whatever it wanted to tell its story.
Okay, we get it. The story’s good.
It’s not just that. I mean, that matters, yeah, absolutely, but, like, we’re 25 years later. People have written better stories since then. In some ways, going back is to step into a more childish medium than the one most of us now know.
But I don’t know that God of War could have been all that it became had Sakaguchi and Kitase not just gone for it, thrown everything at the wall and let it all stick there.
This does, though, make a sort of narrative knottiness and messiness that leads to a very lethargic final quarter of the game.
The narrative reaches wondrous heights and power and boldness, but then we sort of quagmire for a few hours while we wander the world9 until we race towards the finale.
Speaking of which, we really need some music here.
Buddy, if I could LIVE in this song, I would, and my son would be there, too, rocking out. He loves this song and I love watching him love this song. Love the way it rises and moves and transforms. Love the way this groove gets him to move the way that only little joyful bodies can.
But the whole score is a wonder. While I talked about Uemetsu’s brilliant and haunting simplicity in FFIV, here he really leans into a wide variety of classical genres, but also including progressive rock and many more modern flourishes. Check out footnote 9 for a resource to really dig into this.
Uniformly, the music is just great. I’ve actually been listening to this score since I was a kid, well before I ever played the game itself10. And I have always loved it, even hearing it disconnected to the narrative its tied to.
I mean, it’s videogame music. Come on.
Do you even hear yourself? Do you want me to slap your ears with some tunes to groove to? Because I have buckets of youtube videos here queued up to make you scream and weep in utter awe at the majestic compositions found in nearly every single game, from indie to AAA, across all genres.
If you’ve never tabbed over to a playlist of music from videogames and just lost yourself for hours, then I don’t even want you in my house.
Are we going to get back to that bit about Korea?
I want to tell you about Terra but I don’t know how.
There are twelve characters with narratives (and two who kind of fall in real late, depending on how much exploration you do). Some are better than others, with a few seeming more as supplements to some of the core narratives.
It would be easy to argue Terra is the main character here, but I think it’s easiest to get caught up in Locke and Celes, in Edgar and Sabin, in Strago and Relm and Shadow11, but I always find myself returning to Terra.
So first I’m going to talk around it.
Seriously? How long is this review?
Locke is a bit of a Han Solo, a loveable rascal, and Celes is severe and distant, but they find themselves in a story full of tragedy and beauty, in hopelessness and love. I find this the easiest to grapple with, in terms of the various narratives happening.
Sabin and Edgar give us the story of brothers who, at a crucial moment in life, took drastically different paths. Honor, love, desire, hope—they both feel these define who they are, and yet how they respond to and relate to those four words determines everything, and highlights how they are different, but also how they’re the same.
Then there’s Strago, Relm, and Shadow. A haunting story of what it means to be a parent, the lengths we go to protect our children, the immense weight that rests on children trying to protect their parents. I think this story is very easy to miss when you’re young, but, buddy, I’ll tell you—heck, I heckin’ cried like a heckin’ dog at a certain moment. There’s a great deal of humor here in this story, too, and this is definitely what I noticed when I was younger. It reminds me of sitcoms in the best ways. We get slapstick and situational humor that manages to work very well. But the older you get, the more Strago feels more tragic and less ridiculously broad.
FFVI is an intensely human story for its time. It lacks some of the modern touches inspired and influenced by this era of Prestige Television that you find in games that have a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but FFVI still makes you believe in these tiny pixelated people. Whether it’s a story of love and loss, of family and fidelity, of war and genocide, of imperialism and revolution, of a child protecting her grandfather, of a grandfather risking everything to protect his granddaughter.
When I think about Terra, I’m reminded of someone I loved a whole lot who died days before turning 26. When I think of Terra, I’m reminded of the month I spent in South Korea so depressed that I could barely leave my apartment or open my laptop. When I think about Terra, I remember being young and so full of hope and belief and love that the casual brutality of existence threatened to tear me apart.
Terra’s is a story of isolation, of coercion, of colonization, of violence and desperation, of the demons trapped inside our chests, howling through our lungs, demanding we destroy ourselves because we never learnt to love ourselves. Hers is a story of brutalized hope and alienation, of finding oneself despite everything.
Hers is the story of humanity writ large and then miniatured into pixels, into a single person. Even her theme is the theme of the world. The music for the whole game derives and follows the motifs that define her character from that very first introduction, that absolute killer opening of the game full of drifting snow and Terra’s Theme.
What I’m trying to say is that I know Terra. Have always known her. I’ve been her. I am her. I will never forget her because, no matter how I try, I can never forget the worst moments of my life.
Bit dramatic there, fella.
I meant to write about life, only death came breaking in as usual.
Terra’s story is the tragedy of humanity, the inherited trauma of history, but it is also one imbued with hope. For all the pain she endures, for the life she makes for herself after everything and everyone is stripped from her, hers is always a story of hope and determination to live. And life shines out of her, like a beacon in the sky, a star racing through the night.
I love her.
Hey ydde, you okay?
I feel like I don’t know what to think about this game.
Yeah, same. I mean, I love it. I do. But it’s also not the dream people remember it being. When it’s good, it’s transcendent. When it’s bad, it’s very messy and sloppy and ill-defined. It suffers from too many characters, too many narrative threads, and too much detective work sifting through single sentence clues handed out by NPCs from around the world about where to pick up the narrative once the story opens up real wide.
It’s also old, so you’ve seen so much of this already. It defined so much of what came after it that it can be strange to go back12. And while it wears its age well13, it is still very old. It’s maybe older than you reading this on your screen now.
Let’s take a step back, okay?
I think so.
Best version to play?
They’re all good, probably. I played the Game Boy Advance version. I played the Playstation version years ago.
If you’re still with me here, reading along, I hope I’ve at least gotten this point across.
So…should I play it?
I used to know someone who breaks my heart to remember. He was my best friend for years. I used to spend nearly every day with him for the most important years of development in life until he moved away for college. I even drove him 2,000 miles to drop him off at that college in rural Virginia.
I used to call him on the phone and he used to call me and we’d talk, sometimes, for a few hours, but that day I dropped him off was one of the last times I saw him.
I don’t know why. We didn’t get in some fight or have a huge falling out, but I wasn’t invited to his wedding a few years later. Ten years after I dropped him off in Virginia, I didn’t invite him to my wedding either.
We drifted apart. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault. We just became less who we were together and more who we are now that we’ve been apart.
His brother and I were very close too, but I drifted farther away from him as well.
And this is the one that hurts the most. Because he needed me. I think he still needs me. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have come to love Final Fantasy the way I do.
We played so many JRPGs and spent so many hours talking about them and listening to Uemetsu’s scores. I loved him dearly, but I didn’t help him when his life began to fall apart.
I saw the hopelessness in him, watched it seep up through his skin and slowly swallow him.
I don’t know what I could’ve done. I was sort of dying my own strange death nearly every day back then. Sometimes I tried. I’d go over to his house and try to get him to do…something. I don’t know. I wanted—hoped, maybe even believed—that just showing up would make everything okay, would make us both all right.
The last time I saw him was at my little brother’s wedding six years ago.
It broke my heart. I still hoped, vaguely, that he would have found his way out of the clawing grasp of whatever howling demons were consuming him. But I think they got him. Have him still.
I loved them both so dearly, these two brothers who shaped so much of my adolescence. Nearly every memory from the age of eight to seventeen involves one or both of them. Now? I don’t even know where they are anymore.
Virginia, I guess.
It’s possible they’ll even read this. If you are, I’m sorry. Not for anything specifically but because this is real awkward for you to read. For me to have you reading it.
Or, no. I am sorry. I’m sorry I let you go. I’m sorry I wasn’t the friend you needed me to be when you most needed a friend.
…is this a game review?
I like to think I’m a better person than I am. I like to think I’d do anything for my friends, that I’ve done so much for them. But all I seem to ever remember are the times I failed so many of you.
I remember being asked if I was in pain. I remember someone talking to distract me.
I remember a man stroking my hair and seeing the son that I was, needing the father he was.
Just earlier today, I was stroking my own son’s hair while we listened to music, while I read him a story, while he described the stories he saw captured in the Amano artwork for a series of games that has meant so much to me for so much of my life.
I remember Terra finding her home and witnessing her people’s genocide. I remember being up all night in the glow of my TV while I played games made in Japan, wishing my life was something grander than what seemed possible.
I remember writing my first stories and feeling so much shame that the images in my head somehow never made it to the page. All that beauty, all those awesome visions playing behind my eyelids, came out as nothing but ugly, useless words. Shame and sorrow. I had failed my own dreams.
But I keep writing. Keep dreaming.
We’ll get through this.
Do you remember?
Yeah, man. I remember. I was there. With you.
When I came to the end of FFVI this summer, I told myself it didn’t need to mean so much to me. I told myself that this was just a game. That these imagined people didn’t need to mean everything to me.
But I still remember a stranger calling me his son while he stroked my hair and I let him. I let him because, even though it shouldn’t have meant the world to me, I think it meant even more to him.
And I wanted to make him happy, to forgive him, for all our brokenness.
It never ends, edward. It never ends.
The entire time I lived in Korea, I never had a phone. This made me elusive, I guess, but it also made many things sort of inconvenient for me.
I mean, I was in South Korea. I never had any expectation that people speak to me in my native language while I was living in their country, but, still, almost everyone seemed to speak English and I knew most people took English courses from the age of six until they graduated high school at eighteen, so nearly everyone had some facility with the language. My coworker didn’t even consider it a second language the way she might think of French or German or Italian because it seemed so normal to her to know English.
Days later, when I left the hospital, they gave me a bag of pills (yes, a bag) and gave me almost no explanation as to what they were, why I should take them, or what taking them would do. The bag was separated into smaller packets that I could open individually, so I assumed I was supposed to take one bag per day. All the pills were white and circular and I no longer even remember if I took them when I got home to my apartment.
My heartbeat kept dropping below 40bpm, which set off an alarm and so I woke up every few minutes until my dad positioned my bed so I was nearly sitting upright, to make my heart work a bit harder.
Imagine your death and then not dying and people telling you that you experienced a life changing experience and then you just have to go on living as if this event that happened really did change the way you felt about life when all you really felt was awkward over all the fuss. I mean, I only almost died. I didn’t really die.
This was a very common experience for me in Korea. I often found myself among people who didn’t speak English but who were kind to me, shared their joy, their love and kindness with me even though I was a stranger, didn’t even speak Korean well enough to form complete thoughts.
You really should read Sebastian Deken’s excellent book about the music of FFVI. It touches on many more Uemetsu scores, but it’s primarily about FFVI. I could write a lot about it, but you may as well read him say it instead of me imperfectly describing in a few sentences what it took him 200 pages to say well.
I want to link to the greatest moment in Final Fantasy history, but to do so would spoil the greatest moment of the Final Fantasy VII Remake. So, I mean, I’ll sneak it in here without context and let you be amazed if you’re bold enough to click. But this moment of extravagance and wonder simply could not exist had Uemetsu not composed a literal opera for you to perform in FFVI.
People love to talk about the promise of open world design, but I think they almost always kill narrative pacing.
To some extent, I basically lived without the internet until I went to college. But my bestfriend downloaded all the Final Fantasy scores and burned them onto dozens of CDs for me to listen to. He also played all the games on emulators, but I never could because I just didn’t have a computer, except for the family computer that my dad used for work, which meant basically no one got to use it but him until the evening. But we also traded the games on Playstation so that we could each play them all, talk about them all, live inside them forever.
The first time I played FFVI, I missed this one entirely. If you find yourself wanting to know more about Shadow, I will just say that at a certain moment of extinction level danger, you need to be very patient.
Ever watch Casablanca? It’s strange watching it because you’ve already heard all these lines. You’ve soaked in every minute of the movie through cultural osmosis before you’ve ever seen it. FFVI is kind of like that.
I meant to write a whole section about graphics and technological development in the series, but I’m reaching the apparent limit of how much essay can be delivered in a single email according to the notification in the lower left corner of my screen on this here dang darn website. So maybe I’ll write a different thing about that some other day. Maybe when I eventually write about FFVII.