Final Fantasy III
"The Best Game Ever Made"
The Opera Scene
One needn't look far to understand why Final Fantasy III, an RPG released by SquareSoft for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1994, became so celebrated so quickly among gamers. The most well-known scene in the entire game comes about a quarter of the way through, when the characters visit a renowned opera house. Due to a series of plot points, they decide to pass off one of their own number, Celes Chere, as the prima donna of the opera. Despite some reservations, Celes agrees to this plan. After showing her preparing to go onstage, and allowing for some conversation between her fellow travellers, the game then shows the first three scenes of the opera. This sequence goes on for quite some time, but none of it has any bearing on the plot of the game proper. It is, basically, a complete diversion from the plot, yet it's the one scene that everyone remembers.
If one thinks about it, absolutely every aspect of this idea was ridiculous if not insane. RPG fans are not known for their discerning taste in classical music, so the entire notion of putting an opera into an RPG should seem absurd, the more so because the placement of this scene was completely gratuitous. In the game, the denouement of the scene ends up providing the characters with the means to get to another continent, but this purpose could have been accomplished in any number of more conventional ways. In Final Fantasy V, the immediate predecessor of Final Fantasy III (due to the idosyncrasies of the numbering of the Final Fantasy games in the United States), for instance, the characters get their airship the time-honoured RPG way, by going through a generic dungeon and fighting a boss at the end. The plot could be advanced just as easily that way, so the choice of an opera was made purely for its own sake. Then, the choice having been made, a technical question presents itself. Opera, you see, requires very good voices. The vocal samples used in SNES games, on the other hand, were all very short and of poor quality. So, instead of trying to record actual opera singers, the game designers would have to use the console's low-quality hardware to make a drawn-out synthesized drone that would kind of sound like an abstract representation of a voice. There is, one would imagine, no way to do this and not make the result look and sound laughable. Despite all of these objections, which should have turned all rational individuals away from the whole idea, the opera scene is the most recognizable moment in Final Fantasy III.
More than that, it is an extremely influential moment. First, the opera scene was really the first scene to be put into an RPG for purely aesthetic reasons. For the most part, previous games didn't stray from the main "beat the big bad guy and save the world" plot, unless it was to go on a deliberate "sub-quest" to find rare items or accomplish some other task of gameplay; they also kept the player constantly occupied by the unending dungeon-boss-plot point pattern. Usually, this was because their storylines and characters weren't really meant to hold up under prolonged examination. Their towns consisted of shops and inns; the purpose of their townspeople was to repeat plot-related clues; their plots were just ways to prolong the gameplay. They had no purpose for characters who, say, might take an interest in opera. After Final Fantasy III, however, games suddenly began to take the time to develop their characters and feature dialogue that didn't solely advance the plot - now, they could be love stories or epics or mysteries first, and games second. Often, this resulted in a slower pace and more "cut scenes," leading to such RPGs being labelled with the term, "interactive movie," which could be meant as a compliment or an insult, depending on who was speaking.
Final Fantasy III wasn't entirely responsible for this development - some of its contemporaries (Illusion of Gaia) and predecessors (Phantasy Star II) were already moving toward more character-oriented stories - but there was another area in which it had a great impact. The vocal songs featured in later RPGs all trace their roots straight back to the opera scene in Final Fantasy III. The later games use these songs to highlight their most important scenes: Final Fantasy VIII, for instance, holds off on its much-hyped "Eyes on Me" until late in the game, when the two protagonists get to spend some time together while drifting in space by themselves. Because Final Fantasy VIII was billed as a love story even down to its own emblem, which depicted these characters embracing, this scene is arguably the centrepiece of the whole game.
The next two Final Fantasy games also had their own songs, as did games like Xenogears. On the whole, these songs are probably much better written, musically and lyrically, than Celes' aria in Final Fantasy III. However, the later songs are all basically fluffy, easily accessible pop numbers, occasionally with a little rock edge, whereas their venerable predecessor reached all the way into the classical aesthetic. Sure, the libretto of the opera in Final Fantasy III itself resembles a pop song more than an actual opera, but Final Fantasy III somehow manages to evoke the atmosphere of an opera anyway, thanks to its flawless presentation of the opera house, the stage and seats, the lighting, and the aria itself.
What Good Direction Can Do
Aside from improved graphics, the newer games had access to rotating and moving cameras looking on their settings from different points of view. Even if a game had two-dimensional graphics, it could always use FMV to add a little directorial flair to the most important scenes. Three-dimensional games relied heavily on these techniques from their first moments: the opening scene of Final Fantasy VII derived its effect from the way the camera first panned slowly over the city of Midgar, then gradually picked up speed along with the Midgar train until it hurtled straight into the train station, beginning the first sequence.
Final Fantasy III was made before those days, when the directing was still limited to pans and cuts, and it's quite impressive to see just how much the game does with so little. Even the most important story scenes are very laconic; where another game might have had a five minute FMV depict the destruction of the World of Balance halfway through the game, complete with impressive computer-generated explosions and pages of dialogue, Final Fantasy III uses just a handful of cuts. First, it shows the ground splitting as ordinary people look on in terror; then it cuts to a mountain range, where a couple of people are running around in panic; then it cuts to a wider view of the same mountain range, showing one of the mountains fall; then it cuts to a view of the fire-ravaged Earth from space. All of these images come with no dialogue, and the camera cuts between them quickly, lingering only on the last one. Later, when the characters visit a certain destroyed town, the game forgoes lengthy description and simply shows the charred ruins of a house jutting out of the water in a flooded part of the town. Instead of adding pages of dialogue, the game relies on the dramatic power of images.
Graphics, Sound and Translation
The graphics in Final Fantasy III are unlike those of any other game in the series. This is actually a strong statement, as the game's two predecessors on the Super Nintendo looked very much alike. Final Fantasy V even directly reused some sprites from Final Fantasy II, but even aside from that, the two games depicted their worlds in the same way: little square tiles and people in the field, slightly more detail in the battle scenes. Final Fantasy III made the dimensions more realistic by turning the little squares into little rectangles, so that the people were somewhat more correctly proportioned, being more tall than wide, trees and animals were bigger than people, and houses were tall structures with angular roofs. These apparently simple changes made the game much more lifelike: now, the sprites could exhibit much more body language and detail. In addition to more detailed sprites, all the main characters in the game (and even some supporting characters) had detailed portraits drawn by the famed Yoshitaka Amano. Though not quite realistic, Amano's art has a very distinctive style, and even though subsequent games copied this idea of portraits, the faces in Final Fantasy III still stand out from the rest. Final Fantasy II also had portraits, but they weren't rendered as well, and the portraits in the later Final Fantasies were filtered through one Tetsuya Nomura, a less idiosyncratic artist, and thus looked more like generic anime characters. While no less stylized, Amano's portraits seem much more real: Celes looks fragile and forlorn, Cyan looks like the weary yet still loyal knight, Edgar is the perfect image of the aristocratic dandy (complete with charming smile and frock-coat), and so forth. Sure, the graphics aren't as good as those in today's games, but striving for perfect realism in a game is a mistake anyway: games are by nature highly stylized, using exaggerated gestures and actions to convey their points, and all that matters is achieving a high enough level of detail to be able to do this.
It's no surprise that the most iconic moment in Final Fantasy III takes place in an opera house, since music plays an enormous role in the game. Together, the soundtracks to Final Fantasy III and its PSX successor comprise Nobuo Uematsu's creative peak. However, the music in Final Fantasy VII was much more overtly electronic, whereas in Final Fantasy III it has a definite classical influence. Uematsu wove easily recognizable leitmotifs into various tracks in the game, and his character themes are an important part of character development, since the emotional response they elicit determines how one reacts to the characters. They even help make the towns more distinct; the theme of Narshe is just the thing to complete the town's wintry setting. Every single track in the game has a memorable melody of some sort, even the ones that are usually throwaways designed for generic RPG areas (towns, caves, and so on). With the partial exception of Final Fantasy VII, no other game has reached this musical height. It seems that more recent games are content to use really simplistic loops, chugging "orchestral" bits which pound without melody, or endless waves of soft ambience that are pretty but insubstantial; Uematsu himself has been somewhat guilty of doing this in games like Final Fantasy VIII.
The game was translated by Ted Woolsey; the fact that anyone even remembers his name these days (and many folks do) already speaks to the uniqueness of his work. He makes grammatical mistakes here and there, and sometimes he uses peculiar expressions ("Son of a submariner!"), but despite these rough edges, or maybe because of them, his script has a distinct human voice which later games lack. Like Amano's art, his translation may not be the best ever (keep in mind that all the dialogue had to fit into those little boxes), but it is intelligently crafted and has a great deal of personal style. Some lines are quotable in real-life situations; I particularly like Setzer Gabbiani's line, "What's the most important thing in life? Being free of obligations! Otherwise, you lose the ability to gamble..."
The Little Things
Final Fantasy III has a larger cast of characters than any other game in the series to date. It also has the most well-developed and interesting cast in the whole series, without the questionable benefit of extra pages of dialogue. In fact, there aren't that many moments where the characters get to sit down and talk to each other at length about matters unrelated to the central plot. The biggest standout moment of this sort occurs about halfway into the game, in the form of a brief conversation between Terra and General Leo regarding the nature of love. So how does a game manage to make its cast so extremely memorable while remaining extremely succinct in its dialogue? By paying a great amount of attention to small details.
Characters' personalities are hinted at here, not explained outright. In the opera house, Celes sings the aria of a princess who mourns for her lover. The sentiment of the song mirrors her own feelings of isolation and loneliness; her attempt to find her place in the world is one of the themes of the game, yet she never explicitly talks about it. It helps that the characters are relatively old compared to the protagonists of, say, Final Fantasy VIII. It makes sense that the eighteen-year-old Squall isn't a very deep figure, but it doesn't make for a very interesting story. In Final Fantasy III, most of the characters have led lives prior to the beginning of the plot: the knight Cyan, for instance, was a loyal soldier and a family man, and the game shows this extremely effectively with a couple of tiny flashbacks in the second half of the game, in which he is seen proposing to his wife and talking to his son. These scenes last less than a minute, and it's extremely easy to miss them altogether (I actually first saw them only the last time I played the game), but they're all the more poignant for being so short. The ninja Shadow has a dark past which is only revealed by a series of very short, cryptic dreams and by a curious property of a certain relic that he can equip. Unless the player visits an inn several times with Shadow in his party, he will never see these flashbacks. People used to spread false rumours about the game on the Internet; often, other people believed them, simply because the game contains so many little secrets that rumours of more are perfectly plausible. I've been playing this game since the day it came out, and I still haven't seen everything in it: I hear that if you return to Setzer's airship after it crashes, there's a hidden scene there concerning Setzer's past.
The very world that Final Fantasy III takes place in seems to have a life of its own. In most RPGs, the world is limited to only a few towns whose function is only to advance the plot. Xenogears is an especially great offender in this regard, as its overworld contains a grand total of five towns, one of which is destroyed in the first two hours of the game. When this sort of thing happens, regardless of how detailed the five towns are, it's a little hard to believe in the importance of the characters' mission, since it's not entirely clear that there is anything in the world for them to save. This is not the case in Final Fantasy III, whose world contains ten towns, not counting assorted castles and military bases. The characters visit these towns multiple times throughout the game, so the player is constantly invited to see how the towns are changing as the game progresses. While the townspeople still don't contribute anything deep to the game's dialogue, their short pronouncements help give each town its own recognizable character. Thus, South Figaro is a proud, patriotic town, not much fond of being occupied; Jidoor is a rich, cultured town, as can be seen from its well-dressed citizens; Tzen and Maranda are downtrodden, due to being ravaged by war, occupation, and a military draft; Narshe is something of a wintry Venice, independent, wealthy and unwilling to involve itself in conflicts. These qualities emerge from the words of the townspeople and from the designs of the towns themselves. Improved graphics help quite a bit here: the houses, no longer little grey rectangles, have more realistic proportions and detailed appearances. (People sometimes forget that, even in the SNES era, Square's graphics designers strove for maximum realism using the resources they had.)
As a result, these towns convey the impression of places where people could conceivably live, and even the most commonplace RPG locations become memorable. Narshe, a snowy town at the foot of a mountain range, is especially stunning. Ice levels are common in video games, but they tend to look similar to one another. In Narshe, however, the snow is painted in dusky blue hues among stark black mountains, giving the environment a haunting, shadowy look. (The whole game is painted in subdued colours; even in the first half of the game, the world map consists of dark greens and blues.) In the town itself, houses are situated on plateaus covered in this snow and connected by bridges; the ground is paved and covered in steam vents; vaguely named "geothermal devices," looking like big stoves, stand at every corner. The technology doesn't have the modern look of Midgar in Final Fantasy VII; rather, Narshe resembles a scene from Jack London's Yukon stories, a town in the era of the Industrial Revolution located in a harsh climate. The town contains numerous passageways leading to a maze of mountain paths and caves, emerging onto a summit looking out over mountain peaks. Thus, with good set design, the game makes the Narshe environment look vast and impressive with the aid of only a few maps - that is, it does more with less.
The Main Event
All these things combine to create a game with a sweeping feel. The plot uses an extremely simple and effective device to draw the player in: it throws him right into the middle of its conflict, and puts him on the defensive. The first half of the game concerns a rebellion against the archetypically-named "Empire," but the characters spend a good portion of this time regrouping, retreating, or otherwise trying to defend themselves. The opening scene is actually told from the Empire's point of view: Terra, the de facto protagonist, is forced to participate in the invasion of Narshe, and quickly finds herself on the run from the town's defenders, the very people whom the story sympathizes with. When she finds the group of rebels known as the "Returners," securing Narshe is the only plan on anyone's mind. In trying to do so, the characters are split into three groups (the game focuses on one group at a time, in any order the player desires), and have to find their way back. When they finally find a firm footing, it's already several hours into the game, and the player is hooked for life.
The game contains fantasy elements, but they're toned down significantly for this first part. The real gameplay system, which involves learning magic from beings known as "Espers," is only unveiled about ten hours into the game. The beginning is all about establishing the plot, which it does in a realistic way: the characters express disbelief in "magic," and plot strategies using time-honoured methods like infiltrating the enemy, establishing a base in the mountains, playing on public support, and so forth. The player is along for the ride in all of these endeavours, which lead to new intricacies of the rebellion and new allies. In the process, the urgency of the rebellion is underscored by scenes depicting the ruthlessness of the Empire: in one case, the player watches as the Empire, unable to defeat a certain country in battle, murders its soldiers with poison. Watching the sheer glee of Kefka, the Imperial general in charge, contrasted with the anguish of Cyan, the sole survivor of the attack, produces a chilling effect. But the game doesn't portray the Empire in a simple light, either: just before this attack takes place, the player sees another Imperial general, an honourable man who deplores such tactics. Thus, as in all good epics, the personal story of the characters is woven together with great battles and catastrophes. As part of this, the game takes especial care to develop certain supporting characters.
When the game does get fanciful, it does so in a completely unconventional, oddly poetic way. Shortly after the episode described above, the characters find themselves in a forest; the path leads them out to...a train station, of all things. When they board the train, they discover that it's full of ghosts, and heading for "the other side." The ensuing scene is a triumph of pure set design; the train is designed with perfect realism, complete with red velvet benches, a dining car, a caboose, first-class cars with private berths, and an Industrial-Revolution-era locomotive. It flies down a railroad track right in the forest, past a background of dark silhouettes of trees and cold lakes, creating a strange and dreamlike effect. Later, when the game shows the land of the Espers, there's an equally haunting moment when one of them (Terra's father) proposes to a human girl. When she says that humans and Espers can never coexist, he replies, "How do we know for sure unless we observe for ourselves?" Then, they dance together, slowly, as the screen goes dark and this line is repeated.
Sometimes the game effectively combines realism and fantasy; after all, as Tennessee Williams said, "expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth." Halfway through the game, there occurs a great cataclysm that literally changes the face of the earth, reshaping the land masses, radically altering the climate, and causing much death and destruction in the process. For the rest of the game, the characters, ranging from the game's protagonists to the most generic townspeople, attempt reconciliation with their own past, and try to repair their lives in a desolate world that is unfamiliar and frightening to them. Of course, our planet has fortunately not yet suffered a nuclear apocalypse, but such a scenario, in which people desperately try to pull their lives together after a national tragedy, can easily be found in Japan's own history (or, for that matter, Germany's, Russia's, America's...). The game shows the depth of some people's despair by interspersing their laments with scenes from the old Empire's rule, indicating that they'd prefer even to be oppressed by the Empire than to live in the new world. In searching for contrasting symbols of hope, it reaches into world literature's store of images, showing children being born and new trees being planted.
I haven't talked much about the actual gameplay in the game, mostly because the other aspects are so outstanding compared to other games, whereas even otherwise mediocre games tend to feature reasonably clever gameplay these days. The gameplay in Final Fantasy III has several great virtues: it is easy to learn (the Esper system is much less complicated than the Materia system in Final Fantasy VII), it is fast-paced (there are no lengthy animations), it is very well-balanced, in that it doesn't give the player too much or too little power at any time in the game and gradually introduces more powerful elements as the game progresses, and it is never irrelevant (there are some twists in the gameplay that come up occasionally, like the multi-party dungeons, but there are no pointless "mini-games" as such). What's more, it actually serves to emphasize the individuality of the characters, by giving each of them a distinct skill (for instance, the thief Locke can Steal items). However, all characters can learn magic, thus striking a perfect balance between customizability and uniqueness. The difficulty of the game is similarly balanced: no area requires a great deal of mindless "leveling up," but a little bit of it helps in numerous areas. A bit of strategic planning is introduced into the fighting by means of "Relics," accessories with special effects.
The bottom line is, Final Fantasy III does absolutely everything right. It shows and tells a great deal, but it always keeps the player involved and never drags. Some gamers, in defending their favourite pastime from naysayers, argue that games are an art form in and of themselves, in no way inferior to literature or opera or painting. Well, that might be a bit of a stretch, but if games ever did come close to the level of art, it was in 1994 when Final Fantasy III came out. Superbly designed, scored, written and directed, it remains the best game ever made, ten years since.