How Final Fantasy VI lets players create their own protagonist.

I’ve finally finished Final Fantasy VI for the first time. I’ve been a fan of the Final Fantasy series for a long, long, time. Despite getting FF6 on the Final Fantasy Anthology back in 1999, and again on GBA 2007, I never made it more than halfway through the game. My feelings about the game ran hot and cold over the years. The magazines super hyped it up to me as a kid, but I kept bouncing off the actual game. It’s also seems to be the #1 fan favorite amongst the FF community, but I could never understand why. Now, in the year 2018, I’ve got FF6 once again. This time on the SNES Classic. I’ve finally beaten it! With many more years of experience, and a much closer analysis I think I finally understand what makes this game so special. I’ll be going all in on spoilers, so if you haven’t played this game yet, go play it. It’s a classic for a reason.

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[Background]

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FF6 marks an important shift in the Final Fantasy development team. After the success of the fifth game long time series director, Hironobu Sakaguchi, was promoted to producer. To replace him two directors were called up, Yoshinori Kitase & Hiroyuki Ito. After FF6, Kitase would go on to direct Chrono Trigger, FF7, 8 and 10 (basically all of my favorite RPGS ever). Another important promotion during production was Tetsuya Nomura. He went from monster designer on FF5, to character designer alongside Yoshitaka Amano for FF6. Nomura would eventually become lead character designer for 7,8, and 10, and later on direct the Kingdom Hearts series.

This crew had a specific goal in mind while creating FF6: make each character the main character. To accomplish this each character’s story was created by a different member of the team:

“I can’t say that I conceived the complete story,” he recalls. “Locke and Terra, for example, are greatly coloured by Sakaguchi’s influence. Meanwhile, the background and in-game episodes for Shadow and Setzer were mainly devised by Tetsuya Nomura [character designer for the Final Fantasy series from the seventh game onwards], while Kaori Tanaka [AKA Soraya Saga, illustrator and co-creator of Xenogears] provided suggestions for Edgar and Sabin, among others. I devoted my time and effort to creating Celes and Gau.”

Kitase to Edge Staff. (May 08, 2015) The making of… Final Fantasy 6 https://www.gamesradar.com/making-final-fantasy-6/

From here it was Kitase’s job to take each individual story and weave them together to form a cohesive whole. While writing was an important step in their goal of creating where any of the 10+ main characters could be seen as the protagonist, it wasn’t the whole picture. FF6’s entire design is focused on this goal, which it accomplishes to a remarkable degree.

[Overview]

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Final Fantasy VI is about the rise of an evil Empire, and the group of rebels that oppose them. The gameplay is typical for a JRPG: you wander around the map and engage in random turn-based, menu-driven battles. On the surface level FF6 is pretty standard, but the devil is in the details.

The “World of Balance” tells a familiar tale of rebels vs empire to allow the story to shine a light on each character. You learn their backgrounds and their reasons for fighting. Later the story gets more complicated when the Emperor’s lieutenant, Kefka, decides to betray him. Kefka then destroys the known world and rules the ruins. After a one year time skip, you return to this “World of Ruin” alone and lost. From here you are reacquainted with each character, seeing how they have dealt with this new world order, and what they plan on doing about it.

[Characters in the plot]

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Each of playable character has a storyline that goes across both “Worlds” in which they are the star. For example, Cyan’s story begins as a quest for revenge for the war crimes committed by the Empire against his country. Including the deaths of his wife and son, adding themes of loss and mourning to his plot. Celes starts the game as a general of the empire, until she becomes disillusioned by the empire and defects. Just a couple examples, but everyone has their own unique tale.

What unites your party is their struggle against the Empire. In the more linear “World of Balance” section of the game, characters cross over each others storylines. Depending on who the “star” of that segment is, other character’s fulfill supporting roles. It works a bit like an ensemble TV series.FF6 manages to find the correct balance of making each character’s storylines distinct, without feeling totally unrelated.

Each character has additional hidden story scenes outside the main plotline. These are relatively subtle, the game doesn’t indicate that they exist or explicitly signpost them in anyway (contrast with ATEs from FF9). Not to say they are hard to find. Just bring a character to a location that’s important to them. For example, bring brothers Sabin and Edgar back to their home castle, and they will have an additional scene. What I love about this system how you will naturally gravitate towards finding additional scenes for the characters you care about. Your going to put your favorites in your party, and special scenes can only trigger for character’s in your party.  This gives them more screen time, cementing their place as the protagonist. For characters you care less about, you may miss out on their scenes, reducing their screen time and pushing them into a supporting role in your head.

Because each character has a unique background and reason for fighting, they cover a wide range of character archetypes. This factor, plus some influence from gameplay elements, means players are going to gravitate towards certain characters. For me it was Sabin and Edgar. I also have a brother, and both of us ended up pursuing very different paths. My brother stayed home, while I moved away. Similarly, Edgar stayed at Figaro Castle, while Sabin left to be train in the mountains. Because their story resonated with me (and I liked their gameplay gimmicks), they were mainstays in my party, I discovered their secret scenes, and they felt like the protagonists of my FF6. But when you play, you may find the Figaro brothers boring. Instead you’ll gravitate to someone else, and have your own unique experience.

[Characters in gameplay]

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Making each character the protagonist extends into battles as well. Every character has a unique special ability that further distinguishes them for each other and fleshes out their personality. These can be obvious, like the thief Locke’s ability to steal items. Others are more abstract, like the fun loving Mog’s dance ability.

Your introduced to each character in a mostly linear fashion, with set group formations. This lets each character have their time to shine before you begin building your own parties. Once party building unlocks the gameplay experience is under your control. If you favor a more defensive playstyle, you can use Celes to absorb enemy magic. Want to high roll your way to victory? Try your hand at Seltzer’s slots. Experiment with monster AI using Gau. Personally, my favorite is Sabin, who lets me utilize my fighting game skills in an RPG.

Throughout the game you’ll acquire Relics, special accessories that allow for an additional layer of customization. Most are usable by any character, and can be as simple as increasing attack damage or blocking status effects. Others introduce drastic changes like changing your ‘Attack’ command into ‘Jump’. Relics for specific characters exist as well. An example is the Thief Glove, which combines Locke’s ‘Steal’ and ‘Attack’ actions into a single move: ‘Capture’.  Towards the end of the game super powerful generic relics begin to appear. My favorite is the Economizer, which reduces the cost of all spells to 1 MP.

A little under halfway through the game a major curveball is introduced to the battle system: Magicite. Magicite contains a summon as well as list of spells it will teach it’s holder. Each character in the game is now officially a spellcaster. Spells don’t take much time to learn, and are generally much more powerful than any character’s special ability. Each piece of magicite also comes with a hefty level-up bonus, like MP+10%.  By selecting specific magicite, you can craft each character to your liking.

The overall effect of Magicite is flattening out of each character’s usefulness and role in combat. Gau’s randomized battlestances are generally risky to use. But with magicite, he is just as capable a spellcaster as anyone else. This leads back to the main idea: every character could be the protagonist. You can choose any combination of characters for your party, and not be punished for it. Once again, this is done in a fairly subtle way. The power escalation with Magicite starts slow, but quickly ramps up. Throughout this process you will likely stick to your favorite characters based on special abilities anyways. Those favorites will accrue more and more spells, and become more and more powerful. Your favorite characters become exponentially more powerful than your less used, becoming the leaders of your party, and the protagonist of your game.

[Legacy]

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Why is this game so beloved by FF fans? It provides you with a diverse cast of characters, at least one of which you will likely identify with. Its gameplay mechanics will organically tailor those favorites into your most powerful characters. It’s overarching storyline doesn’t favor any one character, they are all united in their quest. But, with some effort, you can still expand individual plots for each character.

More so than most JRPGs FF6 places an emphasis on the player’s customization of their experience, both in story and battle. What’s remarkable is how subtle it accomplishes this. The game doesn’t feature an explicit character select screen, or force you to choose a class. It just plays out in a linear fashion and the player will naturally create their own story. This results in a much more personal, and memorable, experience.

3 thoughts on “How Final Fantasy VI lets players create their own protagonist.”

  1. Great article! I didn’t know he story behind the game’s development – it’s really fascinating. It seems like an idea that wouldn’t work on paper; “let’s all write separate stories and then shove them together.” But they executed it well and obviously this game has resonated with a ton of people.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an excellent examination. I’m in the middle of replaying FFVI so I didn’t know about the story behind the development (I usually look it up prior to reviewing). I did recently write a comparative article about VI and VII’s villain, and this has given me some new insights to ponder on so there may be an addendum referencing this piece!

    Liked by 1 person

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