Saturday, September 19, 2015

Final Fantasy 6: A Character Focused Narrative

I am no expert on narrative critique. No objective authority on how to craft a story. This post I’m going to explain what makes good writing as though it were objective fact, because to do otherwise would diminish my point. This is something that no one else would make a disclaimer for, but I’m slowly weaning myself off my crippling addiction to qualifying statements, so cut me some slack on this one. I’ve only been writing this blog for over three years, surely I’ll get better at it eventually.

Today we’re going to talk about the story to Final Fantasy 6. Specifically, we’re going to talk about why I think it’s well-written and engaging, despite having notable problems. Many issues I have with it stem from length more than anything else. I want more development on this character, or more banter and interaction between characters, or more exploration of some concept in the world. Curious and looking to confirm a suspicion, I found a transcript of all the game’s dialogue up on the internet. It came out to about 18,000 words, not counting optional interactions with non-player characters.

So it’s about half the length of one of my articles? HEY-OOOOOO!

This may seem like a lot, but consider the following. This is a game I spent over 40 hours on. It has a cast of fourteen playable characters. That’s not even counting important non-playable characters like the major villains. On average each of your party members has about 100 lines in the game, not counting the 3 secret characters. Those have so few lines you can literally count them on your fingers.

Not only does the game have a limited amount of dialogue for each character, much of it is wasted on very utilitarian lines. Things like asking basic questions, giving exposition, or curt verbal responses. Even when saying something worthwhile, the dialogue is often mediocre. No doubt in part due to poor localization, a lot of it feels awkward or stilted. It’s rare that I see a line which both conveys character and sounds natural.

Although the dialogue does have its moments.

On top of that, the story and characters in Final Fantasy 6 are all pretty simple, conceptually. Magic used to be everywhere, but there was a big war and now it’s not. A big mean evil empire wants to use the power of magic to rule everything. You stop them. There are some twists along the way, but apart from one fairly novel turn the story is as cliché as they come. The characters all start as really broad and trope-heavy. Yet plenty of people have fond memories of this story, and I don’t think it’s merely nostalgia. So what is it? Why is this story with so many flaws memorable and well-executed?

The short answer is: Final Fantasy 6 absolutely nails the basic elements of storytelling. The shorter answer is: Characters. As for the long answer...

Why Characters Matter

Characters are the single most important part of storytelling. Not the setting, not the plot. Those things matter, certainly, but if you have to sacrifice one of the three, it should never be characters. Plenty of good stories feature uninteresting or standard settings. Many feature archetypal or predictable plots. But if a story has dull, one-dimensional characters, then it is no longer a story that people want to read. Emotional investment drives everything, and characters are the conduit that delivers it. A good setting is the canvas for an interesting story. A good plot is the blueprint for an interesting story to step through. But the stories themselves are all about the characters, and how they react to that setting and plot.

To keep this focused on video games, I have an example in mind. Mass Effect is a series of sci-fi action RPGs from the company BioWare, who are often praised for having some of the best writing in games. Mass Effect 2 is the highest rated of the trilogy, and is extremely well-loved throughout the gaming public. It won all sorts of awards, to the point where it has its own Wikipedia page solely for listing them. It’s frequently called one of the greatest games of all time.

Here’s another interesting fact: The main plot of Mass Effect 2 is a mess of steaming, smelly garbage. The game starts by tossing out an unestablished deus ex machina that abruptly rips apart the entire status quo the first game built up. It then immediately uses another unestablished deus ex machina to restore most of said status quo. The game forces you to work with a former enemy for poorly justified reasons and gives you little opportunity to even voice concern. Said enemy is a hollow all-knowing exposition machine who has little personality beyond that. The majority of the main plot consists of tired video game tropes such as going to a place to find a MacGuffin. The story is also entirely pointless in terms of the trilogy itself. The beginning of the game establishes a filler villain who we have no investment in, they’re defeated by the end of the game, and the original antagonists are still out there completely unchanged. You could skip it and lose nothing of the overall plot. This isn’t even a complete listing of the flaws with the main story, and I’m not the only one who feels this way about it.

“Shepard, as your known enemy I have an important task for you.”
“Is it stopping the dozens of reapers bent on destroying all intelligent life in the universe?”
“What? Reapers? No I’m sure that’ll sort itself out when they get here. We’ve got these bug-men that killed a couple towns, and if we’re not careful they’ll be as threatening as an entire reaper!”

I’m not saying this because I have something against Mass Effect 2, but to prove a point. In spite of this plot which is mediocre at best, Mass Effect 2 is widely adored. It’s often specifically praised for its writing. As you may have seen coming, the reason for this is the characters. Mass Effect 2 has some fantastically well-written character moments. The majority of Mass Effect 2 isn’t spent on the main plot. Instead, it’s spent on:

1. Building a team of unique and interesting characters for a mission.
2. Going on side missions with those characters that flesh out their backstories and character arcs, while letting you discuss things with them.
3. A climax that, though it has no effect on the greater plot or setting, has life-or-death consequences for your team of characters based on the choices you make.

In spite of how important they are, many video games don’t spend enough time on the characters. Games, particularly those with a narrative focus, are pretty lengthy. Unlike movies, they have to spend dozens of hours stretching their premise to provide appropriate amounts of gameplay. This is difficult enough to do while maintaining any sort of pacing to a story, but the writers often make things worse by keeping digressions focused on the plot. They’ll have you go after a MacGuffin, circumvent a door, perform side quests for people whose help you need, and so on. It’s preferable to avoid filler like this altogether, but failing that far more of it should be about characters.

Don’t make your story about the magical orb or master sword. Make it about the person using it.

At every single point in a story you should be asking yourself: How will this affect the characters? Can I use this part of the plot to build characters, or give them interesting interactions with each other? If the answer to those questions is no, you probably want to rewrite that part of the story entirely. Good characters don’t have to be that complex. You can have very standard character tropes like noble warriors or charismatic thieves, and then give them simple tweaks. Not every character moment has to be a big production, either. You could have characters talk about things as simple as their favorite foods and still provide more interesting scenes than any plot door.

So hopefully I’ve convinced you of the importance of character-building in video games and stories in general. Now let’s final-ly bring this back to Final Fantasy 6.

The Advantages of an Ensemble Cast

Final Fantasy 6 is fairly unique among games in that is has an ensemble cast. What this means is that there is no main character in the game. This is enforced in a number of ways. The first half or so of the game frequently changes perspectives to different groups of characters. None of them are made out to be more important than the others. After some events I refuse to spoil, the party goes separate ways for the last leg of the game. In this portion, you can go to the final battle at any point you desire, with as few as 3 party members. But all the 8 other main characters (and 3 secret ones) are out in the world somewhere. They’ve all been doing something in your absence, often things that reflect upon what type of person they are.

For example, one you find doing paintings for people because, uh...she’s a painter. Look not everyone has an equally satisfying arc.

I think this is a great way to structure a game. That isn’t to say that all or even most games should have ensemble casts. I think far more should give it a try though. Such stories are rare yet uniquely suited to games and their lengthier run-time than movies. But even if a story has a single protagonist, most video games have a supporting cast. In RPGs, that supporting cast is often playable and gets plenty of screen time. And yet most games squeeze in character development when they can, in the cracks between their labyrinthine series of plot developments. Focusing a story on the characters should be the rule, not the exception.

Again, FF6 doesn’t succeed due to masterful storytelling or even spending a huge amount of dialogue. It merely executes the basics of character development, and does it well. All 11 main characters have a backstory. By backstory I don’t mean an offhand mention that they were doing something before. I mean every character has some past life, usually with some pivotal event, that defines who they are. The backstories aren’t really anything revolutionary. A suspiciously high number of them have tragically deceased loved ones. But the game makes it clear that past events affect the character, and inform the arc they go through in the game.

Speaking of, most party members have character arcs as well. By the time they travel with you to the final encounter, they are different people than they when you first met. They’ve confronted their past problems, concluded things about themselves, and moved on with their lives. The sequences where they do so aren’t long. They don’t give massive walls of text about each person, but they get what’s important. They hint at more complex characters then they actually have space to describe.

For example, Kefka’s portrayal hints at him being an enormous god damn psychopath.
...I feel like I’m not choosing the best images to illustrate my points.

This is how the simple nature of the story and characters in FF6 actually works to its advantage. By making each character so familiar and understandable at their core, it becomes very obvious what type of personality everyone has. This makes it clear when they confront problems and grow as characters. It’s easy to overcomplicate characters when writing them. If you try to write them as complex from the outset, they typically end up muddled and fail to leave a lasting impression on people. Especially in a setting like this with so many characters and so little dialogue between them, starting with a defined archetype and building on it is far more successful.

Something interesting to note is that the previous Final Fantasy games did not have the quality of writing this one did. I have yet to play Final Fantasy 5, but 1-3 had barely any story at all, and the story in 4 was fairly rudimentary. The characters weren’t as vibrant, many didn’t have backstories, and only a few had fumbling, questionably executed character arcs. The staff didn’t change either. I don’t know what happened in the mere 3 years between FF4 and FF6, and I’m not saying that they became expert wordsmiths in between. But whatever lessons they learned about writing were important ones.

Pictured: The complex character arcs of Final Fantasy 4.

It’s worth mentioning again that the writing in FF6 still has problems. I find it a shame that the secret characters get nothing to work with. I’m sure development budget was tight, but making an hour long dungeon leading to a character with a unique gameplay mechanic, you’d think they could give him more than 3 lines of dialogue. Even some of the non-secret characters have rather rushed or insubstantial arcs. The freeform character recruiting of the last act has several advantages, but it also causes a couple problems. Since its unknown what characters are in your party at any time, inter-party member dialogue almost stops entirely. The villain is tossed aside at this point as well, reduced to waiting for you in the final dungeon. It would be nice if they could at least give them a distant presence by having them send troops after you or something. Speaking of troops, the gameplay can screw with the pacing. The further you get into the game the more the long treks through dungeons full of random encounters wears on you.

Having said all this, the writing in Final Fantasy 6 is good, and it’s a big part of why the game is so beloved. I’ve avoided spoiling anything because I can recommend the game and it is abundantly available. FF6 can be found on the Super Nintendo, Playstation 1 (and consequently Playstation 2), Game Boy Advanced, Nintendo Wii (and consequently Wii U), Playstation 3, and even a recent Mobile release with updated visuals. Give it a look if you like the sound of it.

I’m not done talking about the game yet though. In my first post I discussed the gameplay mechanics, which were average, with upsides and downsides. In this second post I discussed the writing, which has some problems but is still great in its own right. If this series were to follow a natural progression, my last post would have to be me just gushing excitedly about something for a thousand words or more. post I’ll be talking about the music of FF6. Look for it soon.

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