SPOILER WARNING: This blog gives away major plot elements of the video games Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the gaming world will be forever divided into two camps: Those who believe Final Fantasy VII is the greatest video game of all time, and those who are wrong. Okay, that’s more than a little hyperbolic, and I don’t really mean it, but I think it’s safe to say that Final Fantasy VII, as arguable as the quality of its strengths and innovations may be, remains one of the most divisive video games ever made, inspiring spirited debates about elements both within the game and compared to other games (both inside and outside the Final Fantasy series) that are still going on over seventeen years since the game’s first Japanese and American release. There hasn’t been another Final Fantasy title that has inspired the sheer volume of debate over its merits.
When comparing Final Fantasy VII to other titles in the series, Final Fantasy VI is the title that invariably gets brought up. Not only were the two titles released relatively close to one another, but they were the two console RPGs that turned the genre into something truly mature, with characters and storylines that began approaching those found in literature. The games also share enough themes in common that they kind of invite comparison. As much as I try to adopt a “live and let live” attitude towards these kinds of debates, though, there’s still a part of me that gets drawn into arguments about Final Fantasy VII, particularly those that try to argue Final Fantasy VI is better in some way. It’s the same part of me that gives my students a handout of “some really, really good music” at the start of every semester because I’m still a bit of a music snob; it’s not a part of myself that I’m proud of, but at least I can admit that it’s there and it shouldn’t be.
To be clear, I think Final Fantasy VI is one of the best video games ever made. In my opinion, though, it was more evolutionary than revolutionary, and ultimately I’d even rank Final Fantasy IV (even with its myriad flaws) above Final Fantasy VI when it comes to the Super NES/Super Famicom games. A full discussion of the merits of Final Fantasy VII over Final Fantasy VI would probably end up being close to book-length, and even I don’t have the enthusiasm for a project like that, so for the purpose of brevity let’s just focus on the merits of Final Fantasy VI’s main villain Kefka, as written about by Sara Goodwin in the article above, versus those of Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth.
Kefka has always enjoyed a sizable fanbase because of his character design and psychotic, unpredictable behaviour; I’m not sure there’s been a good parallel to Kefka in broader pop culture except for Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, which came well over a decade later. Whereas Ledger’s Joker character had well-planned comic moments, though, Kefka’s comedy comes mostly from the kinds of lines that we were getting, albeit inadvertently, in previous Final Fantasy titles due to translation issues. (Final Fantasy IV’s “You spoony bard!” may be the most transcendent bad line in video game history.) Between that and Kefka’s evil behaviour before his gradual descent into insanity, Kefka ultimately comes across as one-dimensional, just an evil guy who gets more and more crazy as the game goes on. Contrast that with Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII learning during his time in SOLDIER that he’s the result of a bizarre medical experiment by Shinra Corporation, which ties into the game’s themes of man versus nature in a way that ultimately, even given all the horrible things Sephiroth does later, makes him something of a sympathetic character. Even by the standards of the time, Kefka was just too generic of a “pure evil” character, especially when put side-by-side with Sephiroth.
Looking at Kefka’s character arc more closely, the fact that Goodwin uses the phrase “Whedon-worthy” as a compliment almost makes me want to dismiss her arguments off-hand. She talks about the reveal of Kefka being the actual villain of the game instead of Emperor Gestahl as if it were an unprecedented twist, even though Square had done the same thing in Final Fantasy IV years earlier with Zemus and Golbez. Plot twists can be wonderful when they’re used sparingly and to good effect, but Kefka’s actions, apart from being a couple of degrees darker than what had been seen in previous Final Fantasy games, weren’t really that remarkable. The killing of General Leo, in particular, lacked any emotional impact because they literally introduced his character about four minutes before killing him off. (As for that being somehow unprecedented, has no one heard of Miami Vice? Seriously, the way some Whedon fanatics talk, you’d think the man singlehandedly invented surprise, when all he did was overuse plot twists and fourth wall-breaking so self-consciously that his shows descended almost immediately into sad self-parody, and not the funny kind of self-parody, either. By the time I finally forced myself to watch his “brown” series, I was not only able to predict all the plot twists before they happened, but about half the dialogue as well.) Compare that to Final Fantasy VII, where the first half of the game is spent building up Aeris as a central character to the narrative so that when Sephiroth kills her, we care (oh do we care) to the point where not only is Aeris’ death unquestionably one of the most iconic scenes in video game history, but it’s often talked about as the first video game scene that made players cry. Even after all these years, that scene still hasn’t lost its emotional impact.
One of the thing that sets Kefka apart from other Final Fantasy villains, and one which Goodwin spends a great deal of space talking about, is the fact that Kefka is ultimately successful, halfway through the game, of largely destroying the world, leaving only a handful of survivors. As a plot device this was unprecedented (in video games), yes, but again, the potential emotional impact of this is lost by the fact that the pre-apocalypse world wasn’t really developed that well to start with, and most of the characters you know who die in the game do so before the apocalypse. It creates stark visuals, but little else; players aren’t going to get emotionally invested in “that NPC near the flowers who talked about wanting to travel the world but isn’t there now.” The old line about a single death being a tragedy but a million deaths being a statistic is true; there’s just no reason for players to really care about Kefka’s apocalypse, whereas Aeris’ death in Final Fantasy VII invests not only the protagonist Cloud, but players as well, with a desire to see Sephiroth pay for what he’s done. It doesn’t help that the second half of Final Fantasy VI has very little in the way of narrative structure, in order to give players options in terms of which party members they seek out after the apocalypse to defeat Kefka; what that mechanic gains in open-ended storytelling, it more than loses in its inability to further develop Kefka, whereas Sephiroth continues to develop after killing Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, all the way up to the game’s final battle.
The epilogue after the game’s final battle also shows the danger of having a villain succeed in his apocalyptic vision. Final Fantasy VI doesn’t even have that much of an ending (again, a tradeoff the game developers made when they wanted to let players decide which party members to bring back for the quest to defeat Kefka, since it was basically impossible to write developed endings for all possible party setups), but in the end it feels hollow. There’s no ability to travel back in time and undo all the damage and killing Kefka has done; the world is still a shell of its former self, just a shell that no longer has the big villain to deal with any longer. Contrast that with Final Fantasy VII’s ending, where even after Sephiroth’s death the players still have to watch Meteor rapidly approaching the planet, and players are left with a couple of deliberately ambiguous scenes that allowed them to wonder whether or not the world was saved, and if so, how (possibly even by the dead Aeris). That possibility that the world wasn’t ultimately destroyed by Sephiroth’s actions gave players a sense of really accomplishing something, whereas Final Fantasy VI just ended without a palpable sense of fulfillment.
All of this is just my subjective opinion, of course, and I try not to get involved in these kinds of debates because I do get more involved in them than I should, for reasons I still don’t understand completely. I don’t mean to tick off fans of Final Fantasy VI, and I don’t know what compelled me to respond to Goodwin’s article like this. Maybe I just needed a break from talking about politics for a bit. Still, I had to say something, so there you go.