Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Final Fantasy games defined by one song (Part 2)

Part 2!

Final Fantasy VII
Aeris's Theme

An easy one. Whether you spell it with an "S" or a "T-H," Aeris's theme is easily the definitive music from FFVII.
It's no spoiler now to say that Aeris suddenly gets the axe at the end of disc one. It comes as an absolute shock to the player. Sure, deaths have occurred before in Final Fantasy games in the past, but Aeris was something special. Tellah and Galuf were both old men who went out in blazes of glory. Leo was a secondary character that the player really had no emotional connection to. Aeris, for all intents and purposes, had nothing about her that would suggest that she would be departing from the game so early. She was the innocent of the group. While a bit annoying, she kept spirits high around mopey Cloud, angry Cid, and morose Vincent.
With one scene, Aeris became the unforgettable spirit of the game. She cemented Sephiroth's place, perhaps undeservedly, as he never did much else in the game, in RPG villain history. Aeris's theme served as a reminder to the player that Sephiroth was willing to destroy everything good in the world for his own purposes.
After Sephiroth dies by Cloud's massive blade, the theme plays again over the ending. The player is reminded of Aeris's death and, perhaps for the first time, realizes that without her death, even is they had stopped Sephiroth, the world would be doomed. It is because of her that the Lifestream fights off Meteor. She binds the Lifestream together in some kind of FFVII-esque "Force" that flows through the planet's veins. Cloud didn't save the day, Aeris did. She was never intended to be in your final party. She always had to die.
If FFIV is a story about redemption and self-discovery, FFVII is a story about loss and acceptance.

Final Fantasy VIII
Eyes on Me

I debated this one for a long time. It just feels so... easy. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it's the theme for a reason.
Every good RPG has love as an ingredient in its plot. Final Fantasy is no different. While FFV was very light on love, great romances thrived between characters like Cecil and Rosa, Kain and Rosa, Celes and Locke, Terra and the Mobliz children, Cloud and Aeris, Cloud and Tifa, Cloud and Yuffie, Cloud and Barret... you get the point. But love had never taken center stage until FFVIII. While the game seemed to revolve around the emotional journey of Squall and his change from cold, uncaring student to brave, likable leader, that change could not have taken place without Rinoa.
Many FF fans shun FFVIII because it failed to live up to the standards that FFVII had set. They may feel that the plot was too confusing, Squall was too unlikable, and the love story was too prominent. While other FF games focus on the saving-the-world aspect, FFVIII got more personal. It showed us that Squall DID have a heart under all that gruff. Moreso than FFVII and its literal delving into Cloud's mind, FFVIII told us all about Squall. We know why he was distant and why he opened up. It also led us slowly into the relationship. He and Rinoa's interactions seemed normal. He went from seeing her as nothing more than an employer to someone he had to protect. When he used the Ragnarok to go to space and save her, she finally shattered that emotional block and he finally let her in. Final Fantasy VIII is a character study. It's a drama. It's arguably the most cinematic of the FF games and it's more personal than anything we had seen in a video game up til that point.

Final Fantasy IX
You're Not Alone!

Final Fantasy IX is a direct reaction to FFVIII. Fans grew tired of the depressing main character. After the unlikable protagonists like Cloud and Squall, Square created Zidane. Zidane is ever the optimist. While Garnet battles with the abuse by her mother and Vivi struggles with who he is and Freya longs for her lost love, Zidane serves as the character who pats them on the back, telling them to chin up and assuring them that everything will be ok. He's cheerful, he's fun, he cares. Zidane is the anti-Squall.
So why the depressing music?
Well, near the end of the game, Zidane discovers where he is from in what has become an old Final Fantasy standby. Like Cecil and Terra before him, Zidane is from another world. He seems to take it pretty well at first, but when he realizes he was created only to kill, he, for the first time, loses hope and becomes depressed. He mopes in Pandemonium and wonders if his whole life has been a lie.
But then something special happens. While any other Final Fantasy game would allow its protagonist to mope and cry and philosophize, Zidane is instead convinced out of it by the friends he has made. Garnet, Vivi, Quina, Freya, Eiko, Amarant, and even Steiner comment on what a great friend he is. They talk him out of his depression by helping him realize that he, in fact, is not alone in all of this. When Zidane reaches his lowest point, the people he has surrounded himself with and kept going for all this time return the favor. Continuing with themes in the games, Final Fantasy IX is a story about friendship. Someone could make the argument that ALL of the FF games are about friendship and I wouldn't disagree. However, FFIX spends the most time building those relationships. Like FFVI before it it doesn't really allow any one character to steal the spotlight. Instead it is shared. We equally see Zidane's depression, Garnet's relationship with her mother, Vivi's struggle with his mortality, Steiner's unrequited love, and Freya's loss of home, and Eiko's fear of solitude. Final Fantasy IX is an ensemble piece where all of the characters work together to strengthen the story. In the past we could only infer relationships between Cecil, Palom, and Porom or Sabin and Cyan because of memory limits in the games. Final Fantasy IX helps you feel for its characters.
In some ways, as much as it is a reaction to FFIX, it is also a companion. It shows the differences between a cold character and the friends that want him to open up, and a group who become more tightly knit as we reach the end. If one gets too grim, we can turn to the other. If that gets too sweet, we can go back.
Because that's what life is; a balance between the grim and the sweet.

So that's that. I didn't intend to garner some kind of message from the games as I went, but I did. Maybe you liked them, or maybe you think I'm some kind of hack reading too deeply into some video games. That's ok. More of you may be asking why I didn't include anything after FFIX. Well, that's another blog.
For now, go back and revisit a classic. And this time, enjoy Uematsu's music as much as you enjoyed the characters, the plot, and chopping off monsters' heads.

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