Final Fantasy 6 is one of my favorite games, so we are going to have seven different articles about Final Fantasy 6 over the course of the next three weeks. We’ll have two weeks of articles on Monday-Wednesday-Friday, and then the finale the following Wednesday (just to be confusing). The Wild Arms 3 Let’s Play will resume two weeks from today. In the meanwhile, we are starting with…
The Rise and Fall of the Gestahlian Empire
The Fantabulous Career of One Celes Chere
It’s an RPG, Stupid
So let’s look at how Final Fantasy 6 is either brilliant or flimsy as hell.
Kefka is the villain. Period. Even before he becomes the mad god of a broken world, Kefka is presented as the omnipresent threat that represents the empire. Kefka is the second “main” character to have dialogue (in Terra’s initial flashback), he is the envoy of the empire when they come knocking at Figaro, and his presence is felt in each of the three branches when your party is split. When skulking around their base, he can be found in Vector scheming, and then, when the war seems to turn around, you can visit him in prison. In fact, complete with his prison stay, he has a little “hero’s journey” of his own, going from high to low to as high as it gets over the life of the World of Balance. It is no wonder that Kefka is fondly remembered as one of Final Fantasy’s best villains, because he arguably has more of an arc than many of FF6’s “real” protagonists. Gau get stronger on the Veldt, Kefka gets stronger from actual development.
Arguably as a result of this, though, “Kefka’s” evil empire and his boss get much less development. What do we know about Emperor Gestahl from the actual text of Final Fantasy 6? Well, he is a scholar/historian (or employs a bunch of them) that was able to uncover not only the ancestral home of the espers, but also the secret Phoenix Magicite cave. He has an unquenchable lust for power, and gains strength through technology and eugenics. He is super okay with exploiting magical babies in various forms. He is a compulsive liar. Past that? We got nothing.
And that is rather important, because Gestahl’s quest for power through magic is… weirdly confusing? Surface level, “evil empire seeks ultimate power to conquer the world” is a tale as old as time, but the world of Final Fantasy 6 doesn’t really support such a global march. Doma appears to be the only castle full of warriors that are going to fight that evil empire toe-to-toe. Past that, Castle Figaro plays neutral until it has to hide (leaving its southern town to fend for itself… poorly), Narshe has six wolves and a snail for defense, and Zozo protects itself by being a basket full of deplorables. Jidoor might not notice being conquered if they keep the opera house open, and Thamasa has one old man bubble bobble‘ing the place afloat. It is noted that Vector pre-conquered the three other towns on its continent before everything got going, and that kind of world building is great for the shading of “half the soldiers you already slaughtered were poor dudes conscripted from towns that didn’t even like their leader”, but the Battle for Albrook was probably over before it started, because the best that place can say is “has a boat”. It didn’t work for Black Manta, and it doesn’t work for you, Albrook!
So, yes, Gestahl has been amassing untold power the likes of which his world has not seen for a thousand years… to conquer Mobliz, home of dried meat. You have endangered the entire planet to hydrogen bomb a coughing baby. Good job, idiot.
And, as we all know, he makes the extremely common historical blunder of amassing a destructive amount of power into one centralized person/position, and then leaving it to “the next guy” who is crazier than a hornet in a molasses spill (104 years later, never forget). But! Did the emperor have a successor in mind? Someone to keep the empire going after his geriatric ass (according to the Ultimania Guide, he’s 50; according to Final Fantasy VI Settei Shiryō-hen, authored by Square in ’94, he’s 72; according to vibes, he’s “grandpa poodle head”) finally expired? Well, let’s look at Celes.
On a personal note, I feel like Dissidia and similar “post Final Fantasy” games have done Celes Chere dirty. I love any Dissidia game that doesn’t include Ramza flying, but the way that “franchise” (I’m including Theatrhythm as part of the Dissidia extended universe) seems to singularly assign Terra to Final Fantasy 6 ignores how Celes is central to so much of the FF6 narrative. Never mind how she is the Elwood Blues of the second half of the game, she is central to many of the key events of the first half, and is the rare FF protagonist that winds up on both sides of the aisle in a convincing way.
To wit, here is the résumé of one Celes Chere:
Raised by mad scientist, infused with experimental magical tech
Most of my Adult Life
General for Gestahalian Empire
Reason for Leaving: Unknown, though probably something to do with an ethical dilemma involving a coworker blabbing about poisoning an entire kingdom
Immediately After Firing
Seemingly Minutes After That
General in Returner Resistance Group
Successfully commanded new recruits to repel previous employer invading Narshe
Tracked and discovered a missing/magical woman in a dangerous neighborhood
One Night Only
Upon being back at Vector for, like, a half hour
Accused of duplicity by previously mentioned difficult coworker
Left Returners, reinstated with Empire
As a General, Again
Aided in the investigation of Thamasa
Didn’t die, Leo. Was that that hard?
Flew around the world, fought an octopus
Maybe forgot to inform previous employer of absence during this period
Emperor Gestahl’s Final Moments
Was nominated as potential mate for horrible coworker
Finally decided to stab that guy
It didn’t take
End of the World – Present
And… the fact that Celes switches sides seemingly routinely without any real acknowledgment is barely ever addressed. Well, it is addressed by one guy, and…
Well, I guess we’ll look into Locke.
Locke Cole is a thief… nay… treasure hunter. Prior to FF6, he had a hard life protecting exactly one (1) woman, and failing miserably. He has apparently joined up with the Returners, and is their official guy that they call when a woman is in danger.
Like, was he the only person in the vicinity of Narshe when Terra fell down a hole? Edgar’s entire kingdom is right there! But, no, Alvis rang this weirdo in a bandana, and he fixates on Terra like his OCD kicked into hyper mode. Did Banon… Edgar… Alvis? Did someone in charge know that Locke had this pathological obsession with damsels in distress, and figured he was the right man for the job? Because he wasn’t. He had to repel an army’s worth of angry Narshians, and he was only saved because a group of eleven teddy bears happened to be in the area (and the question of why they were so willing to fight the local human population on behalf of one green-haired stranger is never answered. Did Ramuh telepathically summon Mog and friends? Why is Ramuh’s only active move in this plot to magically speak to albino bat-penguins?). But Locke does save Terra, and, when he is taken off the case at Returner HQ, he then finds and fixates on Celes. This infatuation seems to be more mutual, and the two spend the rest of the story orbiting each other like someone cast the worst version of graviga.
And, at one point, Locke doubts the loyalty of Celes thanks to Kefka making a comment that implies Celes is and has always been a spy. This is integral not only to the plot, but also the theory that Final Fantasy 6 is stupid.
Let’s center back on Locke. If you ask any Final Fantasy fan to describe Locke, they will likely recount how Locke is a noble thief. Sure, he steals, but he is doing it because he has a heart of gold, and thievery is just the route he takes to his ultimate goal: protecting every woman he has ever spoken to. He really is a treasure hunter, because he is hunting for the treasure that will bring his (first) beloved back to life. There are even odds that Locke joined the Returners because he heard Emperor Gestahl had found this magical treasure. And, side note, this is all bullshit.
Locke is a noble thief. There is exactly one situation in Final Fantasy 6 where this is important, and that is “Locke’s scenario” where he sneaks out of South Figaro through cunning and stealing a bunch of dudes’ clothes. Other than that? Locke has to brute force his way out of Narshe with Terra, and if he had to use careful infiltration techniques to get there in the first place, we never see it. Escaping from flaming Figaro could have used some finesse, but it was mostly just jumping on birds. Does Zozo, the town full of thieves, have anything to do with your resident thief? Not unless you count finding a treasure for him that he doesn’t even have to be present to receive. And there is not even so much as a comment that Locke, who is required for the whole Opera scenario, maybe does not belong with high society during our time in Jidoor’s favorite entertainment venue. Similarly, he is mandatory for sneaking into the Magitek factory, but it’s some rando on the street with a tummy ache that gets you in there. And, finally, Terra’s escort for Thamasa does not do anything in that town, and exists primarily to be “the human” in a town full of magicians (and one ninja). Thank The Triad that he doesn’t fixate on Relm like some protagonists…
So why do people immediately recall that Locke is a thief when the overall narration paints him more with the archetype of “knight” than anything else? Well, because he’s got a “steal/mug” command. But also because Final Fantasy 6 still wants to toe the line of RPG even this “late” in the franchise…
Let’s double back to the betrayal of our heroes at the Magitek Factory. Locke says a thing, Kefka says a thing, Celes says a thing, Locke says a thing, Celes does a thing, and then Celes and Kefka are gone. Locke doubts Celes, yes, but it is a line of dialogue before we talk to gramps and hop in a minecart. We do not get any further comments from Locke regarding his state of mind or thoughts. FF6 does not shy away from characters shouting their internal monologues at you (“Yes, Terra, you want to love, we get it”), but we get no such moment with Locke. It is addressed again some time later when Locke and Celes are hanging out before departing for Thamasa, but even the point of that scene is that Locke won’t say what he is thinking. He appears to be angry, but is he angry at Celes? Angry at himself for doubting Celes? Angry because he just realized he missed 2 for 1 Apps at TGI Figaro’s? We have no idea. And we even have no idea how much Locke ever “believed” Kefka at the initial betrayal. Was that the comment of a man that genuinely believed he did not know the woman standing next to him, or someone who just realized for the first time that Celes might be duplicitous? Maybe this was the first time he thought of Celes as a person beyond a damsel? Maybe this is the first time he thought of any woman as a person and not an object?
And whatever answer you have to that question is correct.
Said it before, and I’ll say it again: until Final Fantasy 7, no one was quite sure if the franchise should actually be a role-playing game. Final Fantasy is a Dungeons and Dragons campaign where the dungeon master watched way too much Miyazaki (editor’s note: impossible statement, please revise), and, complete with the anonymous “Light Warriors”, you are meant to inhabit those characters in this unfamiliar world. Your fighters and mages are level 1 exactly when you have level 1 knowledge of “their” planet, and you are genociding imps with Masamunes when you have leveled up with your team. Final Fantasy 3 (original, not DS) pulled a similar trick with its onion kids (and a big part of that adventure was finding out you had no idea of the scope of that “world”), and Final Fantasy 2 was so friggen shallow that its main characters may as well have been anonymous (there is a reason the most repeated “character moment” in FF2 seems to be the non-event of Firion getting seduced) with the “guest characters” pulling most of the narrative weight. Final Fantasy 4 has character-characters with a concrete plot, and Final Fantasy 5 seemed to answer this with well-defined protagonists (Faris is one of the GOATs for the franchise) with extremely variable gameplay “roles”, so if you wanted to imagine Lenna as a supportive white mage or deadly berserker, the plot allowed it. Final Fantasy 6 seemed to follow Final Fantasy 4 again, though, with characters with distinct classes that allowed for very little customization. Sabin looks like a muscled-up bear, so he cannot learn how to use Edgar’s machines. Gau can learn from monsters, but never master a slot machine. And, in the same way, you are never going to find Strago single-handedly holding up a building, nor will you see Relm catfishing a widow via pigeon. The decision was made to make Final Fantasy 6’s protagonists defined in and out of battle.
But they’re not defined that well. Brevity is the source of Fantasy. Unlike someone that would type up thousands of words just to make a Final Fantasy-based Super Friends joke, the writers of Final Fantasy 6 handed in a very punctual script. Characters say “their deal”, elaborate in the precise way that will advance the plot, and then call it a day. “Locke presses X to doubt” was probably the initial script note for the Magitek Factory, and we didn’t need anything more than that. Unfortunately, this causes any number of the problems already noted from the Evil Empire having no worthy opponents to Celes Chere having the damndest time talking to Human Resources about whether or not she still has health insurance (“Can’t you just cast Cure on yourself?” “Yes, but that doesn’t heal dental.”). But one benefit? You can still role play with these characters. Final Fantasy 6 provides a rough outline, but filling in those blanks? You are welcome to color with whatever crayons you like.
Is Terra trans? Does Locke pickpocket Edgar at every opportunity? Does Setzer have face blindness? There is nothing in the text that confirms 100% that these beliefs are true or not, so have a field day. There is a lot of time spent in Final Fantasy 6 skulking around dungeons or traversing the world map, and practically anything could be happening during these events. Cyan could be teaching Gau how to play the harmonica. Setzer could be hitting on Edgar at every chance, and Edgar has no idea how to deal with that. Locke could equally be spending all of his time post-Vector thinking Celes is a duplicitous spy or regretting the fact that he doubted her for even a second. We don’t know! And you are in control of these dudes and ladies, so you are welcome to role play the whole gang as you see fit.
It is a shame that future Final Fantasy games all but dropped this kind of loose role playing. Now, more than ever, we could use a critically acclaimed RPG with an expanded free trial which you can play through the entirety of A Realm Reborn and the award-winning Heavensward expansion up to level 60 for free with no restrictions on playtime. But, alas, that is but a dream.
In the meanwhile, the ultimate expression of role playing in Final Fantasy 6 happens in the World of Ruin, as you take Ex-General Celes Chere to save the world with no less than three, but no greater than fourteen different allies. We’ll see how that works out for everybody soon enough, but first we need to address Celes’s greatest performance.
Next time on Final Fantasy 6: All singing, all dancing
I am required by law to use this GIF