Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nostalgia: Final Fantasy VI Is An Allegory (And, "When I Was A Paperboy")

I just today realized this.  It goes without saying that there are major spoilers ahead for FFVI, so if you haven't played that game yet you should stop reading.  And go play that game.  Right now.  To me, it's the best game ever made.

But I digress.  I said it was an allegory.  Usually when people say some story is allegorical, they mean it has some hidden political, religious, or parallel-to-current-events meaning.  FFVI goes deeper than that -- it's an allegory for a key part of the human condition.  That is, that the world changes around us, and things are irrevocably lost.  Back to that in a second.

When I was a kid, I had a paper route from right before third grade until just after 10th grade.  Eight years almost to the day, of delivering a free paper called the "Ad Pak" once a week to 152 houses in my neighborhood.  I rarely missed a week (just one or two weeks per year when my family was out of town for vacation, and occasionally when I was sick on a Wednesday), so its fair to say that I made my deliveries about 400 times per house in all those years I was a paperboy.

The point is, when you visit any house -- or 152 houses -- so very many times, you come to know them extremely well.  I probably knew the front yards and front stoops of those houses better than many people know the front yards of their grandparents' houses.  And I knew many of the families that lived in those homes fairly well, and some of them very well.  I doubt there is anyone else alive who knew those streets remotely so well, simply because I was the paperboy for so very long, and because I often stopped to chat when people were amiable and I had time.

It's been twelve years since I made my last deliveries.  It was a job I was quite happy to be done with when I finished it.  Now I miss my closeness to those houses, those streets, terribly.  A lot has changed in the last 12 years.  Many of the older people who lived on my route have died, and others have probably moved to nursing homes.  All of the kids have grown and moved away.  Some of the parents remain, but many of them are grandparents now and a lot of them have left, too.  New families have moved in to close to half the houses, bringing with them lively new children and young families (which is great), but at the same time making huge changes to the properties in terms of home decor, landscaping, and so on.

Those decor and landscaping changes are actually also great, looking at this in an unbiased fashion, but it makes me feel that much more distant from the properties I once knew so well.  Many of them bear little resemblance to the homes I could still sketch from memory.  As I'm sure you can tell, as it practically drips from these last few paragraphs, this whole process makes me extremely nostalgic.  Things have changed at those houses, almost entirely for the better, but since I know longer recognize the world I grew up in, it feels more like a tragedy to me.  You can't go home again, and all that.  This is perfectly familiar to anyone over a certain age.

And this is also what Final Fantasy VI is an allegory for.  On the surface it's about saving the world (or what remains of it after failing to save it the first time).  But underneath, what it does is make the player intimately familiar with the World of Balance -- and then utterly destroy that world.  The World of Ruin is an almost entirely tragic place, of course, and this, coupled with everything from the music in the WOB to the colors to the characters and story elements, serves to make the player nostalgic.

The characters are often nostalgic as well, and much of the later side-quests involve surprisingly deep exploration of backstory.  As a kid, I think that perhaps Locke's backstory resonated most highly with me.  Now I think probably Cyan's does.  It's these layers of depth, and the fact that the game manages to make the player go through echoes of the character's emotional turmoil, that make the game so bloody brilliant.  A shallow, world-sweeping allegory is fairly simple and trite to set up -- but FFVI goes the extra mile by also making it a personal story for a dozen main characters and dozens of supporting cast members that we also care about.

Much like my paper route, the World of Ruin is littered with remnants from the past.  Some whole towns, parts of others, and many people that you recognize from the WOB remain in the WOR.  Some families still remain on my old route, and the very basic structure of all the houses and yards are achingly familiar.  It's these discordant similarities mixed with the Unfamiliar that make the nostalgia factor so high.  If nothing had changed, of course we wouldn't be nostalgic, but if everything had disappeared or changed completely it would also be hard to really comprehend what was lost in the same way.

Final Fantasy VI touches on a great many universal themes, a lot of underlying truths about humanity.  It manages this despite the fact that its wording is spare and simple because of the limitations of the platform it was written for.  The simplicity makes it almost poetic, really, which is a lesson a lot of more modern RPGs could learn from.  But the attention to making the story recognizably human, at playing off so many deep-seated emotions that players can relate to in different ways at different stages of life, is the core of FFVI's brilliance.

My extreme fondness for the game is well established, but I've spent the last 16 years trying to figure out just what exactly it was that made that story so powerful for me and so many others.  I still haven't figured it all out, but I think that this is one key piece of the puzzle.  It kept the emotions real, human-sized, and understandable.  And it had a killer hook for making the players really feel what the main characters were going through in a visceral way (the end of the World of Balance).

I don't want to duplicate what Final Fantasy VI did, but I do want to someday create a game narrative with the same sort of emotional impact and depth.  Eventually I'll hopefully figure out enough to do so.  It's an amazing achievement for the FFVI team that I feel almost as much nostalgia in connection with their game as I do regarding my lost youth delivering papers to families I no longer know.  As amazing as Chrono Trigger or Silent Hill 2 are, for me they just can't touch that level of emotion.


Anonymous said...

Great piece, of course Zelda: A Link To The Past and FF7 have this similarity also. The before and the after, no turning back.

Christopher M. Park said...

Indeed. Another two classic games I love, and for similar reasons, I suspect.