Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Final Fantasy IV

Fairly recently I found myself replaying Final Fantasy IV. This game has always had a soft spot in my heart; I can remember my pre-10 year old self staying indoors away from the insane Texas heat, popping this into the old Super Nintendo and playing it until I was dragged away by disapproving parents. What is funny was that my copy of this game had a rather nasty flaw; I could never save my game. And so, every time I played it, I would be playing it from the very beginning. Now that is determination.

Thus I never actually finished Final Fantasy IV until I was much older and managed to get my hands on an emulated version (playing it on my computer using a special program). I was afraid that the rose-tinted glasses of times past would be removed and that I would see it now as a piece of adolescent garbage. I feared that I wouldn't be able to tolerate the old-school graphics. And, perhaps most of all, I worried that the story, which I had remembered as fantastic, would be revealed as painfully simple tripe.

But I discovered quickly, in fact, that I had nothing to worry about. And, with this review, I've decided to focus on that story and one special instance of it that made it resonate with me and my much younger self such a long time ago.

Dichotomy of Light and Dark

FFIV is set in a fantastical medieval world filled with magic, knights, airships, and all sorts of creatures, terrifying and bizarre. It is a setting typical of the Final Fantasy games; people ride giant yellow ostriches for transportation, throw around gouts of fire and shards of ice as if such things were an everyday occurrence, and take part in stories that are as melodramatic as they are truly epic.

Yet, despite the oddly cheery sound of such a world, it conceals a far darker and complicated tale. In FFIV, we follow a dark knight named Cecil Harvey, a man who works as captain of the airship fleet for the powerful kingdom of Baron. He is commanded by the King to execute raids on neutral territories to gather certain artifacts of power with which Baron can take over the world. The overarching plot of the game involves Cecil turning against the empire he serves in order to, essentially, save the world.

But what is truly interesting about the story is its focus on Cecil. Cecil is a man tormented by what he has done in the name of duty. Perhaps even more important than saving the world is Cecil's need to save himself; first and foremost, this is a story of redemption. And it is an astonishingly hard and painful road. The people of FFIV's world greet Cecil with a truly nasty amount of prejudice and hatred for what he has done, and you can't help but empathize with both sides. After all, this is a man who has ordered entire cities to burn. And yet Cecil's commitment to atoning for his sins is absolute. Even though the limited graphics prevent true indications of emotion, it is clear from the text alone that Cecil is tortured every day by what he has done.

The Path to Redemption

This culminates in an arduous trek up the side of a mountain conveniently named Mt. Ordeals. Cecil is told that in order to overcome his past he must reach the summit of Ordeals and “embrace the light”. Despite such vague instructions, Cecil fights tooth and nail to reach the blustery heights, facing some truly disturbing monsters along the way. As he reaches the top, he finds an odd door that takes him into a hallway filled with mirrors. It is here that he must face what he has done.

Now I want to pause here a moment to point out that, in video games, powerful stories with depth are not the norm. In general, the focus is on the gameplay. It is this which makes the Final Fantasy games stand out as exceptional, as they provide greatness in both categories. But it is important to note that in video games we expect that, when faced with a monster or foe, we must fight to defeat it.

When Cecil enters the hallway of mirrors, he is commanded by a disembodied voice to take the sword of the Paladin, which lies at the end of the hall. The moment he does, he is embraced by light which alters his dark armor and replaces it with more benevolent looking regalia. But, at that same moment, a figure steps forth from the mirrors, the reflection of what Cecil fears himself to be; it is a perfect replica of Cecil, adorned entirely in the dark, jagged armor which he had been wearing for the entire game up to this point. The dark knight responsible for raids, massacres, and holocausts.

Now what is tricky here is that, when you are set up in the game to fight Cecil's dark doppelganger, trying to defeat it conventionally does not work. Fighting it only seems to make it stronger and, if you struggle to the end, then you will get killed. To defeat it, you have to fight your own instinct and... simply let it hit you. Because, like in life, the only way to overcome your past is to accept it as part of yourself. By confronting what is essentially his own dark side, Cecil has stopped running away from it. And, in the process, he finds himself in doing so.


After Cecil (and, by extension, the player) realizes this, the doppelganger fades away, leaving Cecil with the power of the Paladins, which translates as power of the purest good. From that point onward, Cecil leads his friends and various neutral territories in fighting the evil empire that once made him into a monster. The story, at this point, becomes melodramatic and predictable, but still manages to resonate through sheer virtue of what Cecil and the other characters have had to go through in order to get this far. As a consequence, on top of the addicting and deep gameplay, Final Fantasy IV becomes a truly memorable game and a story to remember.

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