5 Unique Narrative Devices in the Final Fantasy Series

(WARNING: This article contains spoilers!)

If modern games like Bioshock, Journey or Gone Home have taught us anything, it is that not only does story-telling matter in games, there are ways of telling stories in games that cannot be utilized by any other medium. Telling a story through visual metaphor takes talent, and there have been some terrific examples of this.
Some of the earlier Silent Hill games come to mind here.

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Yet, while you can read documents, listen to recordings or simply show developments happening on-screen, these are all narrative devices that could be applied to books, radio or films respectively and be equally as effective in those mediums.

To really get the most out of this relatively young medium, you need to be original. I can think of few places where story-telling is more creative than in Bioshock’s “Would you kindly…” twist. Taking a well established gaming trope and turning it on its head is a stroke of unrivaled genius, and one that few games have dared to try and replicate.
Similarly, both Journey and Gone Home manage to tell a story, not through the actual happenings on-screen, but through the experience of actually playing. You simply cannot get the same emotional impact from Journey by watching someone else playing; it is a unique experience to that player.

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So with that in mind, I have compiled a list of my top 5 favourite narrative devices in the Final Fantasy series, instances where the story is developed specifically through the medium of gaming.

(N.B. Most of these examples come from Final Fantasy VII, so kudos to game director Yoshinori Kitase for his story-telling abilities.)

 

5. Expanding Your World

Some might see the title of this paragraph and argue that this is not unique to video-games at all. That any medium could expand the created world by adding little details or by introducing characters who are not crucial to the game’s plot, but add… well, character to the world.
And you would be right, it is not unique. However, only in games can you expand the world to your liking and specific to your gaming session.

A good example of this occurs in Final Fantasy X, probably the most cohesive game of the entire franchise. The protagonist of the game is Tidus, a gifted athlete in the fictional sport of ‘Blitzball’.
Already, the universe of Final Fantasy X has expanded outwards with this little detail. To tell the story of FFX, we need only know that Tidus has a troubled relationship with his father, who disappeared years earlier. Their rivalry in the sport of Blitzball is a perfectly adequate vehicle for this.

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Blitzball has a function in the narrative of the game, and players can experience it as part of this narrative, and nothing else, if they so wish. You are required to play one match, and one match only, to progress the story.
However, Blitzball also functions as part of the game as well. Previous installments in the franchise saw mini-games shoe-horned in for the sake of simply having more to do in the game world. The card games of VIII and IX are perfect examples of this, as they do next to nothing to expand the world of the game.

It is stated in-game, however, that one of the only distractions the denizens of Spira have from Sin is Blitzball, and this is true for the player as well. Blitzball is a distraction, a mini-game that you can take part in whenever you need a break from the main quest, thus immersing you into the world that little bit more.

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This is probably the most subtly effective example of expanding the worlds of Final Fantasy, but the process is present throughout almost the entire series, in the form of side-quests.
Sometimes, these have nothing to do with the narrative at all, tasking you with simply finding a special item. Other times, these quests have no other purpose than to expand the universe however much, and sometimes, however way you like.

A rewarding example of this occurs in Final Fantasy IX, where you are given the opportunity to delve into the back-story of Vivi, one of the games most beloved characters. If you bring Vivi to his childhood home, with Quina in your party, then you will initiate a cut-scene that changes your perspective on Vivi’s sinister-sounding adopted Grandfather.

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Another prime example occurs in Final Fantasy VII.
Cloud is tasked with find some ‘accessories’ in the Honey Bee Inn, during one of the more ‘adult’ moments of the game. Again, this is a totally optional side-mission.
You are asked which room you would prefer, ‘The Group Room’, or ‘The &$#% Room’. Both rooms lead to different scenarios. Picking The &$#% Room gives the player a hint Cloud’s past, at this early point in the game.
The Group Room, meanwhile, revels in the comedy that this section of the game is so rife with. The choice of how to expand your FF7 universe is entirely up to you.

And speaking of which…

 

4. Loaded Gameplay choices 

When playing a Final Fantasy game, there are some choices you make that progress the story or expand the world, and often these choices don’t have any major impact on the overall narrative (as seen above).

However, a lot of the time the choices you make are not based on narrative at all but on the game itself.
What spell do I use on this creature?
Who will I bring with me into this particular dungeon?
Should I fight or run away?

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These simple choices are what make a game a game, and not some weirdly rendered, 30-hour long film. And sometimes, these choices are deliberately weighted, seducing you into selecting one particular option.

One moment where this loaded decision making shines is on the third disk of Final Fantasy 9. You and your party are tasked with hunting down the villain, Kuja, in his desert palace.
However, your entire party ends up trapped and forced to make a deal with him; to retrieve the Gulug Stone from the Forgotten Continent. His reason for not going himself is that there is an anti-magic barrier there, which would render him helpless.

What’s so clever about this moment is that you have the option break the cohesion of the story at this point, but it is no way beneficial to you. You are tasked with bringing four party members to the Forgotten Continent, so it makes sense from a gameplay perspective to bring those who don’t rely on magic.

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This means that Vivi and Dagger will most likely be left behind, and Eiko, the physically weakest party member, almost certainly will be. Vivi and Dagger are the two characters that Eiko communicates best with, as we see at several points throughout the story. This section allows her to play through a bit of the game with these characters, have interactions and exchanges with them.
Ultimately, it cements her relationship with one, if not both, of these two characters, giving her character arc a nice sense of flow.

There is another moment where this form of story-telling is applied in Final Fantasy VIII, in which selecting the less obvious choice can break the flow of the narrative. It occurs near the beginning, when the team are taking their Field Exam.
Here, towards the climax of the exam, the crew face the X-ATM092, a seemingly unstoppable robot arachnid. After a brief struggle, you are prompted to run for it, which leads to a adrenaline pumping escape.

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However, it is possible to keep fighting and beat the boss. Few people tend to take this option as doing so is risky. The creature has a lot of Health and you are also on a timer, which spells Game Over if it runs out before you finish the fight.
If you do beat it however, you are awarded extra points on your Field Exam, but at the expense of a very impressive cut-scene. This FMV is suitably climactic for the end of this section, and it also slightly develops the relationship between Squall and Quistis.

So, you just need to decide what’s more important to you.

 

3. Loss

All right, all right, we all know where this one is going, surely.

There is, of course, one very obvious example in the Final Fantasy series that deals with loss, and that is the Death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII.
Imagine, for a moment, that you lived beneath a rock the entire time playing the game and did not know of this cataclysmic event. The time spent building up Aeris’ stats, making her a more effective fighter… all of this time could never be retrieved, making the moment when Sephiroth drove his sword through her an absolute gut-puncher.

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While this is one narrative device specific to gaming, it is not the most effective narrative device that is applied at this point, for the emotional gut-punch. It would take an emotionally warped player to admit that they were saddened by Aeries’ death simply because it meant they had lost a fighter. That’s part of it, but far from all of it. No, the emotional cues at this point stem from cinematic story-telling.

As the White Materia falls from the ribbon in Aeris’ hair to the floor, Aeris’ Theme begins to play. Though slightly modified, the tone and beats of this song are near identical to the song ‘Flowers Blooming in the Church’, which plays in the background when the relationship between Cloud and Aeris is first established, during their second meeting.
This is a narrative device seen in a lot of films, and while hugely effective, it is neither original, nor unique to gaming.

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There are some examples where loss is portrayed in such a way that is game specific, and Final Fantasy VI is a good example of this. There are two significant deaths that occur in this game, one that can be prevented, and one that cannot.
The one that cannot be prevented is that of General Leo. In the moments leading up to his death, the player is given control of Leo, tasked with stopping the villain, Kefka, from burning down the village of Thamasa.
In doing this, the player is briefly teased into believing they have a new fighter, and a damn strong one at that! (Few people will see Leo’s Shock move and not be impressed). Considering how little development Leo is given, the sense of loss is very much ‘game’ based more than anything.

The other death, which can be prevented, is that of playable character Shadow. When leaving the Floating Continent, you are shown a timer that suggests you have very little time to evacuate. If you leave immediately, Shadow is left behind and lost.
However, if you wait until the very last moment, Shadow will catch up to your party and leave with you.

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The wonderful thing about this development is the fact that the death can be prevented, though often this isn’t realised. Another favourite character, it is unfortunate when Shadow is killed but we assume it is inevitable, much like the death of a character in a film. Indeed, you can go through the game, and your entire life, believing this is true.
The only way to realise that this is not the case is through word-of-mouth with other players, or online walkthroughs (or reading this article…sorry for the trauma).
The knowledge that Shadow’s death could have been prevented was more affecting to me that any other point in the franchises’ history, and this is a very game-specific narrative device.

On a side-note, it is not only the loss of characters that can affect the story. At one point in Final Fantasy VII, all of your Materia is stolen by fellow team member, Yuffie. In most circumstances in a game, loss of equipment won’t elicit an emotional response; it’s simply ‘that part of the game’.
In this case however, (as I’ve been informed by numerous fellow gamers), it tends to elicit an intense dislike for Yuffie at that point in the game, a development that slots in nicely with her overall character arc.

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2. Using the World Map

This is narrative device that, sadly, Square-Enix doesn’t seem to know the merit of, seeing the world map as a technical drawback rather than any sort of advantage. As a result, we haven’t seen a proper world map since 2000’s Final Fantasy IX.

A distinct advantage to having a World Map, in 6-9 at least, was the feeling of ecstasy the player received when they finally got their hands on an airship. In all four of those games, the obtaining of an airship tended to coincide with an emotional up-lift, where the characters had a strong sense of purpose, such as making the decision to rescue Rinoa in Esthar in Final Fantasy VIII.
This sense of revitalization was mirrored by the new gameplay element of the flying airship, allowing the player to soar in all directions on the World Map, with no restraints. Final Fantasy IX is an excellent example of this, boasting a terrifically uplifting soundtrack that synced neatly with the sense of freedom.

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On the flip side of the coin, the World Map could also be used to elicit a sense of dread and, again, Final Fantasy VII applies this narrative tool to great effect, specifically towards the end of Disc 2.
Prior to this point, the World Map has simply been a wide expanse of green, with the only distinguishing features being forests, mountains and towns. Until, of course, the Weapons are released.

The scene in which we are introduced to the colossal Weapons is an impressive one. In a mighty explosion, we see a cut-scene that features each of the five Weapons emerging from the Northern Crater, each one gargantuan in size. You fight many monsters in Final Fantasy VII, but these look to be among the biggest.
This is confirmed shortly before the Attack on Midgar.

Just before parachuting down into Midgar, Diamond Weapon emerges, like Godzilla, from the sea. Crucially, this is not an FMV sequence. This occurs on the World Map. Prior to this, only natural landmarks and entire towns have been big enough in size to merit being visible on the World Map.

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Not only is Diamond Weapon big enough to merit appearing on the World Map, but he TOWERS over the city of Midgar, which he intends to attack.
And it is at that point that you are tasked with fighting the damn thing.

Few moments in games can elicit a genuine sense of dread, but this is one of them. Another instance is the first time you approach Ultimate Weapon, floating above an enormous crater that, one presumes, he created himself upon impact. This is a creature so powerful that he actually altered the physical landscape, unchangeable now for the rest of the game.

 

1. Creating a Perfect Villain

Dread is something that these games, Final Fantasy VII in particular, excel at. What is interesting about the seventh installment is that Sephiroth is almost undoubtedly the easiest final boss in the entire franchise.
He is miles easier to defeat than Final Fantasy 8’s Ultimecia, a great deal easier than Final Fantasy 6’s Kefka. Even Final Fantasy 9’s tag-team of Kuja and Necron, each of whom have a measly 60,000 health, provide more of a challenge. And yet, for some reason, Sephiroth endures as the most memorable Final Fantasy villain of them all. Why?

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Damn good story-telling, that’s why.

Consider for a moment his entire introduction. The first time we hear his name is a throwaway reference, in an early flashback. Cloud, as a boy, daydreams of becoming a SOLDIER.
“The best there is, just like Sephiroth”.
“Sephiroth,” Tifa replies “The GREAT Sephiroth?”

He isn’t referenced again for quite some time, when the President of Shinra has been killed. Again, this is excellent fore-shadowing, but it is cinematic story-telling rather than game-specific storytelling.

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It isn’t until we reach the town of Kalm that the utterly sublime double-whammy of narrative devices establishes him as such a fearsome foe.
First of all, Cloud has the flashback of his time working with Sephiroth. For a brief spell, Sephiroth becomes a playable character and, like when we could control Leo in Final Fantasy VI, it is hard not to be impressed by his jaw-dropping skill. He is quite literally ten times more powerful than Cloud (as can be viewed statistically from his health and the damage he inflicts on enemies).

This is impressive, but it isn’t the killing blow.
Without a doubt, the greatest video-game specific narrative device in Final Fantasy is the use of the giant snake, the Midgar Zolom.
When you leave Kalm, you go to a Chocobo farm and learn that it is impossible to cross the swamp-lands without a Chocobo. If you try, you will be attacked by the Midgar Zolom.

The first time a player reaches this point, they will almost always take the opportunity to try and cross the swamp, regardless of this warning. Unless you have spent a ridiculous amount of time leveling up your characters, you will end up fighting the Zolom and either A) have all your characters annihilated or B) flee with next to no health remaining.
It is established that the Midgar Zolom is far beyond your abilities. You go back to the Chocobo Farm, catch your own Chocobo and cross the swamplands as fast as your Chocobo is able.

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And that’s when you see the other Midgar Zolom. Towering over your characters, he lies still, impaled on a giant tree trunk. He doesn’t move, he is long dead.
“Did Sephiroth…do this?”

At no point in the game (or, I would argue, any game) will you feel as ill prepared for what lies ahead than at this moment. You fought the Midgar Zolom, and you can try as many times as you like, but you will almost certainly never beat it. In gameplay terms, it’s a simple statistical fact. You are just not strong enough.

But Sephiroth beat it…. The Midgar Zolom was barely a speed bump in his path.
And this is the villain that you plan on challenging? On beating?

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Good luck…

 

So, those were my top five narrative devices in the Final Fantasy series.
Thanks for reading.

Written by Stephen Hill

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