Friday, October 23, 2015

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Final Fantasy VI is a good game. That's not a controversial thing to say at this point. It enjoys nigh- universal praise and often comes out near the top of many “Greatest X of All Time” lists, beating out the RPG juggernaut/little brother that is Final Fantasy VII . Despite its 16-bit limitations, FFVI manages to accomplish in storytelling, theme, and characterization what some films today can only dream of. FFVI has so many strong character moments, that if you ask any fan of the game what the standout moment of the story is, you will get a range from “Kefka vs. General Leo” to “Sabin suplexing a train!”, but far and away, the most popular, game-defining, number-one beloved scene is the opera.

But why?

In relation to the rest of the game, the opera is a blip on the radar. It sticks out as an unrelated segue that links two major plot points. Any writer could have snipped this portion out and written around it, and the story would have progressed exactly the same way without any story lost. In fact despite the heavy romantic themes of “Maria and Draco,” none of the characters involved have any emotional investment in the opera at all, and your party's role (pun only mostly intended) in it is solely based on manipulating a character that they haven't even met at this point. So why did the opera make the cut? Why do so many fans point to it as their favorite part of FFVI's story? What is the purpose of this sequence at all?

Before Celes Chere masquerades as the actress, Maria, in the opera “Maria and Draco,” she is found by the thief--er, treasure hunter--Locke Cole, chained up for treason in a basement in the occupied town of South Figaro. We learn that she is an ex-general in the Gestahlian Empire and has recently been sentenced to execution. We're not quite sure why, but it may have something to do with her objection to a preemptive act of war on the neutral kingdom of Doma. Then, just like every other character we've met thus far, we're given a short summary of Celes and the option to name her.

The character introduction screen.

The English translation of Celes's text describes her as a “Product of genetic engineering, battle-hardened Magitek Knight, with a spirit as pure as snow...” which invokes an air of innocence about her. Though, the fact that we later find out that Celes led an assault on the city of Maranda contradicts the narrative. The real meat and potatoes to this scene is actually in the original Japanese text, which describes Celes as “Artificially built by the Empire, and specially trained, born a warrior, a Shogun who has fought many battles, and yet, beneath the mask of her rank, she is nobody...”

While it's easy to see how the English translator could conflate “emptiness” and “uncorruptedness,”- after all, words like “pristine” and “immaculate” teeter on the line between both, the descriptions imply very different things. The English translation would lead you to believe that Celes is a noble character, but a victim of circumstance who would be a saint if not for the fact that she's a general for a violent regime. The Japanese text implies that Celes's only identity is the rank that she carries, wracked with insecurity. 

The second detail that interests me about Celes's introduction is the music that accompanies it. Every character, save Celes and the primary protagonist, Terra, have their theme songs playing when they are introduced. Thematically, the song that plays over Terra's introduction, “Awakening,” which features a leitmotif of her theme, makes sense because at the time, she is suffering from amnesia. It suggests her identity is bubbling up from below the surface, breaching momentarily, but obscured. For Celes, the song that introduces her is “Under Martial Law.” This same song also plays in any Empire-occupied town in the game, and suggests that Celes, as a person, is currently “occupied” by the empire. Celes still identifies as a general when the player meets her, despite having lost the title officially. Her true theme isn't heard until much later.

Celes describes who she is.

It's also interesting to note that Celes has an artificial presence to her. Not that she is purposefully misleading the player or the other characters, but, like her introduction screen, she constantly proclaims herself to be something that the narrative demonstrates she isn't. She protests that she is a general and not an “opera floozy” or a “love-starved twit,” but she eventually becomes both, an opera star and the lover of Locke. Additionally, everything about Celes is manufactured. Her magical abilities, which Terra has naturally developed, are the result of an infusion as a baby. Her special skill, Runic, lets Celes absorb the magical abilities of others and use them for herself. The emptiness inside Celes is so all-consuming that everything about her, from her misconceptions of who she is, to the way she has trained herself in battle, to the ease that she becomes an opera singer, all suggest that she is floundering without her title and actively drawing from everything around her to discover how she should relate to the world.

Celes absorbs the abilities of those around her

In the story of “Maria and Draco,” the titular characters are lovers residing in the Western Kingdom. The West is defeated during a war, and the spoils for Ralse, Prince of the East, include Maria's hand in marriage. Ralse keeps Maria atop his castle where she pines for Draco. Eventually, Draco arrives to stop the wedding and defeats Ralse in a duel to save Maria. The climax of the play showcases Maria's solo and dance sequence with a phantasmal Draco before she tosses a bouquet, a symbol of her love, from the balcony of the castle. During this scene, in which Celes stands in for Maria, we finally hear Celes's theme play for the first time as she sings "Aria di Mezzo Carattere." She has finally shed her identity and imperial occupation as a general and has now, after becoming Maria, begun to find herself. It's as if the game held off on her theme until we got to see the “real” Celes.

In opera, the phrase Aria di Mezzo Carattere is the name for a piece that is mid-way between seriousness and comedy. While this could be a metaphor for Final Fantasy VI as a whole, I believe the literal translation of the phrase, "Aria of Half Character," is a direct reference to Celes. Before this point, Celes is a blank slate, "pure as snow." "Maria and Draco" leaves a lasting impression on Celes and allows her to become a whole character long after the curtain closes.

A few gameplay hours after the opera, the world ends. And not hyperbolically, either. The villain causes an apocalypse that kills most of the population of the world. Celes wakes up on a solitary island in the southeasternmost point on the map with her surrogate grandfather, Cid. As far as they know, they are the only two remaining humans on the planet. Even the monsters outside the small hut where Cid has taken refuge succumb to death moments after they are encountered without any input from the player.

"Maria and Draco" (L), and Celes's suicide (R).

Shortly thereafter, Cid dies, leaving Celes alone, and the importance of the opera comes to light. Celes resolves to kill herself (despite what the English Super Nintendo translation says. Nintendo notoriously censored any references to death on their systems.), and heads to the cliffs to the north. As she does, Aria di Mezzo Caratterre plays, bringing the importance of the opera full circle. Celes pauses, thinks to herself, makes her way to the cliffs, and throws herself to the mercy of the ocean in a near-identical sequence as "Maria and Draco's" climax.

Celes soon finds herself on the shores of the Solitary Island, reborn in the post-apocalyptic world as a complete person. It is in this moment, she resolves to set out and save the planet.

“Maria and Draco” is the way Celes learns to cope with the world after the apocalypse. Celes begins her story as a blank slate with no title or identity, despite her protestations, and absorbs from those around her to feel whole. By becoming Maria, Celes adapts the message of the opera to her own life and eventually becomes a complete character, full of drive and purpose. Seemingly inconsequential at first, "Maria and Draco" becomes the impetus that allows Celes to save a world that she finally feels she could have a place in.

1 comment:

  1. Cid doesn't have to die! Feed him the fast fish, and he recovers :)

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