As a general rule, I don’t like my writing to become too negative. I want to keep things positive and constructive enough that it eases the reading experience. I don’t want to sound like a petulant, whiny child. But it’s easier to talk about why something doesn’t work than why it’s good, and easier to make that fun to read. So you may experience some trepidation and brace yourself for the coming storm when I say...
Final Fantasy 4 is a good game.
But it is a good game. Final Fantasy 4 is a widely regarded classic. It had solid mechanics and a much more involved narrative than most games of its 1991 release. It influenced the rest of the series and an entire genre for years to come. I respect its legacy and even had fun replaying it. And yet we all know what’s coming, don’t we? You’ve all read the title of the article. I enjoyed Final Fantasy 4.
A decade ago, Final Fantasy 4 was re-released on the Game Boy Advance. A decade ago, it acquired some very positive reviews from those who remember its history, and who ranked it among the greatest games of its kind. A decade ago, a younger version of me received a copy of Final Fantasy 4 with all the excited expectations of experiencing a new game in one of his favorite series. A decade ago...I remember being quite frustrated.
It’s a good game...not a great game.
It’s true my intentions were suspect from the start. Half the reason I replayed FF4 was to confirm that the story was a mess. But another half of me just wanted to enjoy a nice turn-based adventure, and was open-minded to proving the first half wrong. The first half was not proven wrong. Final Fantasy 4 is not a well-written game. The narrative is passable, some of the time. But there’s one thing the story does repeatedly that drives me up the wall, and that’s what we’re here to talk about.
Before we go any further: SPOILERS! SPOILERS AHEAD! THERE WILL BE MANY SPOILERS FOR THE GAME FINAL FANTASY 4 WITHIN THIS ARTICLE SO IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO EXPERIENCE SPOILERS FOR THE GAME FINAL FANTASY 4 I ADVISE YOU NOT TO READ FURTHER! BECAUSE THERE ARE SPOILERS! ONE SPOILER TWO SPOILER RED SPOILER BLUE SPOILER!
YOU GOT THAT?
Sorry, what was that?
Oooooooh, that’s what he said.
The death of a main character is something that writers should take very seriously. When executed properly it can be great. These moments can form pivotal turns in a story that drive home themes, elicit strong emotions or if nothing else, are hugely memorable. It takes a lot of careful set-up to make a character dying feel right. FF4 has 11 playable characters in it. In the roughly 20 hours, all of these characters except the lead protagonist leave the party at least once. All but 3 are at some point presumed dead. Those remaining 3 are the main character, a character kidnapped once and dying of sickness another time, and a character introduced so late that he has no impact on the story whatsoever.
Does that sound a bit rushed? Bingo! Most of the problems with this story can be summed up by these moments. So let’s go through the most irritating character “deaths” in Final Fantasy 4 and examine where things went wrong.
You’ll note that I keep saying “death” in quotes. That’s because there’s only one character in FF4 who stays dead, and that’s Tellah. Fittingly enough, he’s the character whose death I feel the most fitting. Tellah is an old mage searching for his lost daughter, who ran off with a bard from another kingdom. You soon find his daughter died in an attack from the antagonist Golbez and Tellah furiously swears revenge. He leaves you, saying he doesn’t need help.
Later you find him searching for the ultimate spell, Meteor. From the moment Meteor is mentioned it’s implied that casting the spell will kill Tellah. This is brought up multiple times, as well as the fact that Tellah is stubborn and set on revenge. In spite of the warnings, when you encounter Golbez Meteor is cast, Golbez is hurt but alive, and Tellah dies. Now Tellah isn’t a fantastic character. His death isn’t that unique either. It’s fairly standard to have hubris and drive for revenge being your undoing, and the dialogue isn’t brilliant enough to elevate that.
But you know what? That’s fine. Tellah isn’t crazy original, but he was executed well enough. His death wasn’t just an arbitrary raising of stakes or shuffling of party members. It was a character moment that was built up over a long period of time. Everything about it made sense, not just in that it lacked plot holes but that it fit what you’d expect the character to do. It helps that he stayed dead. If every character had a death scene with as much thought put into it as Tellah, I wouldn’t be writing this article.
Plus he says this, and that’s pretty great.
Well, time to keep writing this article.
#5. Kain: Heel-Face Turnstile
Kain starts off the list because his actual “death” isn’t that bad. You travel with him early on but are separated after an earthquake. It’s left ambiguous whether or not he’s alive, but it’s a safe bet given the lack of ceremony to his disappearance. If that were the only moment Kain left the party, I wouldn’t have issue with him. But as long as we’re here, I’d like to discuss something else related that bothers me about Kain: Mind control.
You see, when you next see Kain, he’s working for the bad guys. Only after you wound big bad Golbez is it revealed that Kain was under his mind control and is now willing to work with you again. Here’s where it gets frustrating: Later, Golbez re-activates Kain’s mind control. He does it from a great distance, with no effort, and no build-up. You eventually free Kain from the mind control again so he can join your party for the end-game. My first issue with this is the constant party swaps are really annoying from a gameplay perspective. Turn-based RPGs like this are heavily rooted in character progression. When you lose a character it’s disappointing, because they’re tied to your own progress. When they arbitrarily pluck Kain from you again, they’re also stealing the equipment and experience you put into him.
If I could describe Kain’s personality in a few words: Dark, brooding, gloomy, dark-broody, and gloom-darky. Oh, forgot the most important one: DULL.
Not to mention, mind control strikes me as a pretty lazy way to write this. There’s no explanation of how it works, and no part of Kain’s character reflected in it. He’s not weak-willed. He doesn’t have some villainous past or motivation for changing sides or anything like that. So instead, it becomes “the writer wants you to lose this party member and for the good guys to suddenly be losing again”. It takes up so much of Kain’s screen time that he doesn’t get time for actual character development, and is just a really unsatisfying way of doing things. This makes it all the more frustrating that the person mind controlling him is ALSO being mind controlled, but that’s a rant for another time.
#4. Twins: Doorstops of Destiny
Sometimes, what kills a scene is not a single flaw. Instead it suffers a death of a thousand paper cuts, wearing down the viewer with constant little questions. People will nitpick your writing no matter what you do, but you can at least keep the problems from all popping up during a pivotal moment of the story. Case in point: The “deaths” of twin mages Palom and Porom.
The party was leaving an enemy castle through a fairly nondescript passageway when a trap activated and the walls start closing in. The young twin mages nod to each other and turn themselves to stone to stop the walls. Tellah attempts to heal their petrification with the spell that normally does that, but claims it isn’t working since they cast it on themselves. The door at the end of the hall unlocks and you continue after a brief moment of sadness.
I’d make a rock pun, but that would be stone cold of me.
This moment isn’t that bad. They actually attempt to explain something concerning the petrifaction and there’s at least some degree of mourning. We didn’t know the twins that long and this is kind of abrupt, but it at least it some sense. Although why did the door unlock when the trap stopped moving? Why couldn’t we just break down the door if we have the power to stop giant stone walls? If the petrification is only permanent when self-inflicted, when not cast it on each other and heal yourselves afterward? And finally, my biggest question: How is it they’re alive later?
Y’see, late in the game there’s a moment where a bunch of characters previously thought dead or incapacitated all come forth with a big army to aid our heroes. Here is the entirety of the twins’ dialogue during said scene:
Porom: The Elder restored us.
And that’s it! Apparently the elder of their mage village could just heal them somehow! And so he does, off-screen, and it’s never mentioned again! Little strange that Tellah, a great sage of his time, had no idea that there was a cure. But then, I can’t complain much about the information given, because we were given no information. I don’t think I’m nitpicking to ask more than four words to explain how our heroically sacrificed allies were brought back from the dead.
Even if this had a satisfactory explanation in terms of technical details, this wouldn’t be satisfactory in a narrative sense. Imagine if in Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi partway through the final battle Obi-Wan shows up and says that C3PO found a way to bring Jedi back from the dead. And that’s the only explanation they give it! Sure the parallel isn’t perfect, but I think we can agree that this could use some extra information.
“This kind furry person explained to me the existence of ‘Phoenix Downs’, master!”
#3. Several: Oh Them? They Drowned
Four party members are sailing across the sea to get to an enemy castle. Suddenly, a whirlpool appears in the water in front of their boat. The following lines occur:
Sailor: Holy mackerel!
Sailor: The lord of the sea!
Sailor: Is that?
Captain: Yes! It's Leviathan!
Then the ship shakes and one by one they all fall off the boat. The protagonist wakes up on an unknown beach and continues alone. Leviathan was never mentioned before this point. The weather wasn’t even stormy. If this was actually a scene where characters permanently died? I would be pissed. This isn’t a story about nihilism or the futility of existence. It’s a big grand adventure narrative to stop an evil sorcerer. It’s very strange to just throw people off a boat and say they drowned.
“Rawr.” *Sploosh* They’re totes dead, trust me on this.
But wait, you say, clearly you weren’t supposed to think your allies were dead! It’s true that the abruptness of their “deaths” left me skeptical. However, here’s an interesting bit of dialogue the protagonist gives soon after:
Tellah: Kids from Mysidia, eh? Cecil, where are Rydia and Edward?
Cecil: We were attacked by Leviathan on our way to Baron and...
Tellah: What? They aren't dead, are they?
Cecil: I'm afraid so. On top of that, Golbez has captured Rosa.
Pretty damn nonchalant there, Cecil! They just continue the conversation after that! It seems even if the player isn’t buying it, our hero is. And yet he doesn’t seem to care much. I mean three of his friends are dead, one of whom was a little girl he was guarding after he accidentally murdered her mother. You’d think the game would take a minute to slow the narrative down and have the protagonist give a damn. This deserves more than “aw, that’s a shame.” Seems to me like the writer knew they were all coming back, and didn’t bother to separate his own feelings from the characters.
So Edward the bard and Yang the monk both rejoin the party within a couple hours. Young summoner Rydia takes a bit longer however, and how she’s handled bothers me. Sometime later, your party is struggling with a boss fight (due to it being technically impossible). At this point Rydia jumps in and saves you. But now instead of a little girl, Rydia is a young adult who somehow arrived deep in the underground kingdom of the dwarves. Here is her explanation of what happened:
Rydia: Leviathan took me to the Land of Summons, a world of summoned monsters. We became friends during my stay. I learned a lot there. I can't use white magic anymore, but I've grown strong as a summoner. Time flows differently there, so I may have aged quite a bit.
And that’s it. Years of her life passed, there’s an entire world of summoned monsters, the lord of the oceans is actually a swell guy, and that’s all we get. Literally nothing else is said on the matter unless you do an optional side quest to visit the land of summons at the bottom of a dungeon. Even then, it’s the size of a small town and offers no further explanation or world-building. It’s just a place you can acquire some extra summon spells. The only change this gives to Rydia? Well, she seems even blander than before and when another character hits on her it’s less creepy than it could’ve been.
I don’t like this, but I don’t like anything about it. I’m not sure what angle to approach the twisted wreckage. I’ll just say this: If you have a major event in a characters life, or a new dimension to the world you can build on? Do that. It has the potential to be a hundred times more interesting than your parade of perfunctory plot points and bland exposition dumps.
#2. Yang: Punch Repairman
We’re escaping the villain’s underground tower, and find that the army of dwarves we’re working with is getting slaughtered. So we stop by the cannons on the way out to prevent them from firing on our allies. There are some goblins running the cannons. We kill them easily, but back in cutscene-land they remain alive long enough to walk back to the controls and destroy them.
Goblins: Nothing can stop the cannons now!
Rosa: What are you doing?
Yang: Leave this to me! Go! Get out of here!
Cecil: It's going to explode!
Yang: Go now!
Then Yang pushes the party out of the room and the room explodes.
...I have no idea why that happened.
To this day, I’m unsure why Yang stayed behind. He’s a monk. A martial artist. He doesn’t have any expertise with machines. Even if he did, I don’t know how he could repair exploded control panels. The goblins specifically said that nothing could stop the cannons now. Oh sure, I get the intent of the scene. But the execution...where to start?
This has nothing to do with Yang as a character. He has no particular attachment to these nameless dwarves we’re saving. In fact, we never even find out the fate of the dwarves outside. That’s because the dwarves outside aren’t characters. They’re plot devices. Everything about this is one big contrivance to have a dramatic moment where Yang dies. This will later be undercut when he inexplicably survives, so that they can have another dramatic moment when he comes back.
I appreciate this is getting a little heated, so here is the first google image result for “something adorable”.
When the audience is questioning the base elements of what happened in a dramatic death scene, you have failed. You have failed so severely that viewers won’t even reach higher levels of failure. They won’t be complaining about lack of coherent themes, characterization, dialogue, or anything like that. They can’t, because they’re too distracted by how one of the most important parts of your entire story doesn’t make sense! If you’re writing a death scene, be absolutely certain you aren’t doing this. Run it by as many people as you need to, rewrite as many times as you have to. If after all that, you still can’t make the scene hold up to any sort of scrutiny, then maybe you shouldn’t be writing a god damn death scene!
#1. Cid: World’s Dumbest Demolitionist
By now, teenage me is angry. All the game’s previous melodrama stuck in my head like caramel of the mind. I lacked any toothpicks of the mind to extract them from my teeth of the mind. I guess the toothpicks are reasonable explanations, maybe? And the teeth of the mind are like...my active consciousness or something? Shit, I’ve completely lost control of this metaphor. This metaphor is like a ship of the mind, for which I lack a brain compass.
To have a more competent writer bail me out, there’s a concept called story collapse. The basic gist is that plot holes aren’t singular events. Rather, a collection of technical flubs, thematic issues, and character problems start to wear on a viewer. When someone reaches their breaking point from too many of these, it’s a story collapse. Your suspension of disbelief is shattered and you no longer think of it as a separate world, but clumsy fumbles of a writer. Teenage me didn’t know it at the time, but this was my point of story collapse. I stopped viewing these scenes as dramatic deaths and more as attempts to manipulate my emotions through artificial drama. Yang started the collapse, and it was completed by this scene.
Cid’s “death” isn’t any worse than Yang’s, but it happens right after. Fleeing the villain’s tower, your Yang-less party boards an airship to fly off. But an enemy airship follows close behind you! You can’t shake them, and you can’t just turn and fight them for some reason. This random unnamed enemy ship is super deadly, I guess. You try and flee to the surface, but Cid has a plan while you’re doing that. He’s going to stop them by sealing the entrance to the underground.
That seems kind of short-sighted, not to mention difficult to pull off. This is a giant hole bigger than an airship leading into a country-sized underground realm. Seems kind of hard to cave-in. We also don’t know where Cid got a bomb. But that’s not the stupidest thing about this sequence. Ohohooo no. The stupidest thing?
Cid jumps off the airship with the bomb.
As illustrated here by these magnificent visuals.
Do I even need to point out why this is stupid?! It’s a bomb. You can drop a bomb. Don’t hug a bomb! Especially don’t hug a bomb in freefall hundreds of miles above boiling pits of lava!
A few hours later, you go back to the castle of the dwarves.
Cid is there. He’s sleeping it off.
Screw you, Final Fantasy 4.
If you have good memories of Final Fantasy 4, I won’t hold it against you. But its story does not hold up very well. It wants to be this big, drama based narrative. But it’s so focused on carrying us from set-piece to set-piece it doesn’t lay down any of the groundwork needed to make those moments great. Character-building scenes are almost nonexistent, dialogue is bogged down with constant exposition, and of course there are these deaths. The author enthusiastically dreamed up cool sequences and dramatic moments and threw them in without thought or build-up. It doesn’t feel like they earned those moments, because they didn’t.
On the plus side, this was not the final Final Fantasy. The series is still going to this day and many many people have beloved games after 4. I already wrote an article on the narrative of Final Fantasy 6 that was mostly positive. One of the most famous deaths in all of video games is from the Final Fantasy series, and though opinions on it vary it has a lot more thought put into it than the scenes in 4. So the future moving forward is bright. I just needed to vent some long-held steam on the game. Because for all the good points of FF4’s story, these “deaths” really were...
...the death of it for me.
Yes, I’m really ending the article on that one.