Welcome to Christmas in Narshe! I plan to revive my Character Study series as the month progresses and as I play enough of Final Fantasy VI to gather insight into its many characters, but as the first editorial to usher in the very exciting playthrough, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about a subject already touched upon in the comments section of the feature. Out of all the things I see praised about Final Fantasy VI – and there are many – the opening sequence is almost always brought up. I think it is very telling that the opening hours of a game that can last dozens of hours has such staying power.
The director of the music theatre program I attended in high school (yes, I went to a music theatre high school, is anybody surprised?) used to preach that all that really mattered in a show were the opening and closing numbers. First and last impressions stay the longest, she would say. It was exaggeration and a tool used to keep everybody’s enthusiasm up, but there was also truth to it that applies to all art mediums, including games. The opening of a game has to set up so many elements. It has to hit all the right notes for character, setting, music, and tone so that the player knows exactly what the game is about, even if she knows very little about locations or plot or even gameplay elements. The opening to an RPG is a thesis statement, and this is something that Squaresoft was certainly aware of in three of my favourite four games in the Final Fantasy franchise: Final Fantasy IX, VII, and VI.
Lusipurr has already pointed out the in medias res nature of all of these openings. But Final Fantasy X and XIII employ the same technique without the same effectiveness, so there must be something else needed to create a successful opening. The most obvious common theme is the use of a fleshed-out location that is important to both the game’s plot and personally to some of the characters. Final Fantasy VII starts in Midgar and spends a lot of important time there and it is the hometown to half the cast. It also sums up important themes of the game, showing class struggles, beauty in darkness, and the price of greed. The setting of the opening is not a throwaway. The case is almost identical in Final Fantasy IX. The kingdom of Alexandria is just as central to the story and characters as Midgar is. The feel of the town is much different, but its purpose is the same. It makes the player take the location that best sums up the game in the moments when they are likely to soak the most information in.
Final Fantasy VI is interesting in that Narshe is not a major political stronghold in the game’s world, but it is still an important location thematically. It is where Terra wakes up, where players meet Locke, and where they learn that the most humble corners of the earth can hold the greatest wonders. A player instantly feels conflicted as she controls characters that do not seem rotten to the core, but are still enough to rally a small town’s forces in defense. Narshe is immediately a moral grey area and makes the game more about character’s personal choices than about a blanket good versus evil battle. And to set such a dramatic opening in a quiet town covered in snow – usually symbolic of peace or new beginnings – is very effective.
In fact, the opening is a little Shakespearean in the way the game opens to expositionary text followed by an understated scene with two extremely minor characters – albeit accompanied by a third mind-controled major one. It adds mystique, builds a full world, and draws players instantly in. None of this is to mention the excellent use of sound; both silence and Nobuo Uematsu’s detailed score. In fact, Terra’s theme so chalk-full of letimotif that it almost serves as an overture.
Add in the fact that the player gets extremely quick access to the battle system – with proper battle rewards – and it is easy to see why Final Fantasy VI‘s opening is held in such high regard.
I think the opening of a RPG is usually very telling of how the entire game is going to pan out. A well-realized universe and set of characters will almost always lend themselves well to a compelling opening, and Final Fantasy VI not only adds to this idea, but is a fine example of gaming as its own story-telling medium. A truly inspired opening to a truly inspired game. Do you agree, LusiNarshes?