Characters, Music, Meaning and the Design Process
The Short Version This section assess the center around which the game was created: characters. Each character has a job class, all of which are discussed. These classes, however, are often defined by superficial or irrelevant characteristics, because of the diminution of character classes. This is explained for each character, below. Additionally, a synopsis of the personal motivations, thematic concerns, and role as actor in the plot is provided. These character elements constitute a large measure of the plot, especially as it unfolds atypically in the second half of the game. The character themes of composer Uematsu, are also closely examined (with links to audio) for each personage. These musical themes are often wrought with incredible skill and great subtlety, and so embellish and elucidate themes relevant to the character's place in the game as a whole.
Having established that they wanted to make a game that was centered around a large playable roster, the FF6 team was faced with a problem. How do you make an worthy, lean product and still do all those characters justice? To give each character a reasonable amount of time in the spotlight, the structure of the World of Ruin became fairly non-linear. Obviously there are a few events in the beginning that have to happen in sequence, but after acquiring a new airship, there is no mandated order. As many television shows remind us, if you don't have a strong plot, you can get away with it by having strong characters.
The FF6 team wasn't just writing a drama, however, they were making a game. So the two unavoidable concerns were: how do we make everyone useful, and how do we make everyone interesting? They couldn't, of course, but by making some fairly revolutionary design decisions they came very close. The biggest decision was to diminish the differences between character classes. Cyan is a heavily armored melee fighter, and Strago a frail, gimmicky magic user, but with their best items, they have almost the same durability. Terra and Celes are magic users, but they also can equip heavy armor and all of the game's most powerful weapons. The point of this was to make it so that players didn't have to change their strategies markedly when the roster shifted, as it often does. Play can continue more or less as normal.
Of course the other decision has already been discussed--that the game is centered around characters rather than a linear plot, particularly in the second half. That being the case, there's a lot to deduce from each character's design choices.
With many of the character design summaries, I have included some discussion of the music by composer Nobuo Uematsu. I did this because, obviously, music and its usage are part of the design. But less obvious is how Uematsu's score is able to brilliantly embellish themes and nuances intended in the game's script. I think the reason for this is that videogame composers often have a much different schedule and requirements than their TV or film counterparts. TV and film require the music to be written after the final cut is made, at which point the composer must hurriedly write music that matches the on-screen action. Videogames require some of that kind of music for cinema scenes too, but most of the music in a game is not like that. Most game music is a background track that has to play for an unspecified amount of time, because there's no telling how long a player will be in an area, or doing some kind of accompanied activity. Thus, game composers have a lot more time to think about the meaning of the scenario they're writing for. Character music is particularly in this regard, which I hope to illuminate below.
Terra is, statistically, more incined to be a caster. Her weapon and armor selection, however, defeats this; she's able to equip heavy armor and most of the best weapons. Her biggest advantage--perhaps the biggest advantage in the game--is her ability to use the Morph command, which effectively doubles her damage output for several turns. Inasmuch as she's a total beast in Esper form, she's the character you want with you in tough fights. But I'd argue that the Morph command is the only overpowered ability in the game.
Although Terra is often considered the main character, she doesn't speak nearly the most words, ranking 5th behind Kefka. She does, however, speak the second-most words in the World of Ruin, right behind Celes. Certainly, she becomes a much more rounded character than the "magicl plot-cupon girl" she is in the beginning. Inasmuch as she embodies the themes of hope and resolve in spite of disaster and loss, she does so in the second half.
Terra's musical theme is a variation on the main theme of the game (also called Terra), also in the same key, A minor. (Careful though, the intro hook starts in D major.)
The chatty thief, Locke's weapon selection saves him from being a poor choice. The advantages you might expect from a thief--stealing items, high evasion, fast battle speed--aren't terribly good. That's probably just part of the diminution of character classes, however. The Steal ability is only useful if you're using it all the time. Outside of the final dungeon, there aren't too many enemies who are in any way marked for theft. In other words, it's fairly random which enemies have good loot. It comes down to the neophyte player stealing early and often, and finding out that it can result in good gear.
Locke's constant (and often over-wrought) chatter annoyed me, although I recognize that he enjoys general goodwill from the fandom. He's far and away the most talkative character, especially in the WoB. More than a decade later, though, I realize that this is an intentional effect. For all Locke's bravado and bluster, when he finally revives his deceased girlfriend, he's completely unable to speak a word to her. Brought to life by an Esper, she lives long enough to tell him she loves him, and to forgive himself for not saving her, and then dies. Stunned, he says only her name three times. Ask yourself, if your love had 60 seconds to live, would you be eloquent?
All during this scene, composer Nobuo Uematsu plays one of his best tracks, "Forever Rachel," which quotes Locke's theme, but changes it from G major to G minor. To this day I'm still amazed how uncanny (and moving!) it is to hear this back to back with Locke's theme.
Edgar the engineer and Sabin the monk are very popular among new players of FF6 for an obvious reason: they have MP-free attacks that can hit all enemies on screen or hit one enemy with damage that ignores armor. I wouldn't describe them as the best characters in the game, especially in the WoR. Then again, part of the thesis of this section is that the character classes don't matter that much, and I maintain that opinion. Edgar and Sabin are easy to use, but they're not significantly stronger than their counterparts anywhere else.
The creations of eventual Xenogears co-creator Kaori Tanaka, the twin brothers Figaro share a musical theme. Have a listen to it, because it's another shining example of Uematsu's cleverness. There's a big rallantando at the end of the first section (0:22) which sounds like it's about to lead us into a B section--but no! Instead the whole thing repeats again, once for each brother. (When it does transition to the B section, there's no rallantando. Uematsu, you sly dog!)
If you've already viewed their flashback in the WoB, neither Edgar nor Sabin speak many words in the WoR. Chances are that you will view the flashback too, as it only requires bringing both of them to the castle at the same time, and it's very likely you'll be doing that anyway during the search for Terra quest. (Figaro is part of the path there, and you'll probably include them in your party since both have MP-free attacks that hit multiple targets for a lot of damage.) You might say they're the most well-adjusted characters, but who's counting?
Celes is an interesting case, although you might not notice it at first. She's virtually identical to Terra, being a heavily armored mage, although her special ability quickly becomes useless due to a huge design flaw. "Runic" causes the next magic spell or lore to be nullified. Unfortunately, it's almost always the player casting those spells, not the enemy, so Celes will frequently absorb that Cure 3 you really needed for someone else. Still, her weapon selection is great, and she makes a terrific fighting healer.
Celes suffers from a lack of characterization in the first half. This turns around a little bit in the second half, when she speaks the most words of anyone. I wouldn't call her a brilliant, rounded character, but one of the slyest and most clever scenes in the game involves Celes: the opera. Ignoring the contrived coincidence that Celes resembles a famous singer--and that she can actually sing--take a look at the symbolism. The plot of the opera involves a woman, Maria, who is torn between two warring factions. She's officially a subject of a distant ruler, but her heart belongs to a rebel. Does this sound familiar? The opera (which, if you've heard the orchestrated version, is lovely) foreshadows Celes' departure from the party and return to the Empire, but will also clue observant players in to her conflicted feelings and ambiguous allegiance.
The opera also gives us the only real insight we have into her character in the first half: she's acting. Celes lacks characterization because she lacks character; she's lived for the purpose of being a super-soldier all her life. I personally love how Uematsu highlights this with the score. Her scene in the opera is in D major, and her personal theme (which we hear for the first time after the opera) is one half-step higher: E flat, not even a full degree removed. I attribute the decision to start with Celes in the WoR to her lack of characterization. Because the Empire--the only identity she had--is gone, she's free to be whatever character they need her to be. Raised in the military all her life, she awakens on an island with her first father figure, "Granddad" Cid, and is born anew.
Of course there had to be a ninja in a game with a big roster, and there is. His Throw ability is nice, although occasionally a pain to supply. Shadow's real advantage, however, is that he has a 50% chance to evade all physical attacks, and to counter with an attack from his dog. He's a great fighter, handles magic decently, and has an array of weapons unique to himself. I find Shadow to be the second easiest character (behind Terra) to use at a high level in the World of Ruin. His natural evade, unique weapons, and throw damage all mature very nicely.
Of the characters who actually speak something meaningful, Shadow says more words than only Gau and Mog. His laconic tendencies are played relatively well, and so he appears deliberately silent rather than overlooked. Kudos to the design team for not over-selling the fact that he's Relm's father. I think the game would have suffered if he'd had a tear-filled admission.
Cyan, Samurai by class, is a solid melee fighter who suffers from weapon mismanagement. For one thing, his Sword Tech ability frequently ignores his weapon--especially the lower-tier abilities. For another, his "final" weapon drops just before the final battle. Because he's so reliant on personal stats, it's hard to make him terribly strong before the acquisition of vigor-upgrading Espers, and the Hyper Wrist accessory isn't numerous until roughly the same point. Still, Cyan's most basic ability ignores enemy armor and so he will be a very valuable asset for most of the game. Toward the end he is outclassed (as are many characters) by the super weapons that Celes, Terra and Edgar and Locke can use, but the fact that his ability is free of cost and easy to use means that he'll often be in the primary party.
Cyan shows up relatively early, and we hear a lot from him in the inital adventure that he and Sabin go through. After that point, however, his dialogue drops off quite a bit. He's not terribly talkative, and yet I feel that he is perhaps the most developed character in the game. Cyan, although not exactly taciturn, speaks with his actions as much as he does his words. When you encounter him in the WoR, he doesn't provide a long explanation about his contact with Lola, although it's perfectly clear what he was doing any why he was doing it. Cyan also benefits from a secondary quest--that is to say, he has a quest and dungeon dedicated to his story which can only be completed after doing a first dungeon to acquire him. During this secondary quest, we learn much more about Cyan, but it's not because he tells us. His deceased family appear inside his soul and inform us of his condition, his guilt, and his struggle to live in a world without an order to uphold.
In my opinion, Cyan's theme is the cleverest piece of music in the whole game. It starts as a kind of martial dance, a percussive cluster of compact notes (G, Bb, C) that repeats over and over: disciplined, guarded, unchanging. You can almost hear the whoosh of the blade in the melody of the flute that plays over it. Then at 0:28 there are two phrases of parallel fourths--a chromatic harmony the ear can't miss--that sound for all the world like the wailing of the people of Doma. Then the track breaks into a transcendent mode at 0:41, and transforms from a guarded dance into a vulnerable song. The tight, percussive cluster of the dance rhythm literally opens up into a fluttering arpeggio on the EbMaj7 chord. The timpani too begins to move, changing with the chords, and it and the sleigh bells fall into an alternating rhythm that sounds like feet staggering under a load, irregular, weary, unsure. It's a beautiful and moving summation of Cyan's internal struggle with his guilt, his honor, and his loneliness.
Setzer is a middle-of-the-road character who became somewhat legendary because of a reliable exploit. Without a lot of practice or exploitation, his Slot skill is occasionally useful. His stats are okay, but he wears good armor. He arrives fairly late to the game, long after the other, more useful characters have started learning magic. Accordingly, he doesn't get a lot of play from people who aren't using the game-breaking exploit on Slot.
Setzer speaks relatively little, and his real story moment comes when he flashes back to his girlfriend upon retrieval of the second airship. As with Locke, the music in this scene is an arrangement that borrows heavily from Setzer's personal theme. Rather than being sad, "Epitaph" is a charmingly nostalgic piece, that, much like the feeling of nostalgia, doesn't resolve. Uematsu builds sequences of bittersweet minor 7 and major 7 chords, leading up to the long, slowly resolving suspension at 0:57--although even this only resolves into a tonic chord upon the return to the head! Considering how much personality this squeezes out of a relatively minor character, it's a shame this track only plays once.
The wild child of the game, Gau's special ability is actually very innovative--it's just so damn unreliable that it's hard to use, especially if you're new to the game. (Naturally, 17 years of play have yielded amazing Gau builds.) Gau can be programmed at the start of battle to use the abilities and follow the (modified) behavior of a past enemy. The drawback is that you cannot control which attacks Gau will use and when, so if you're trying a precise strategy (like vanish/doom) you may find Gau to be a hindrance. The other problem is that while many characters can be made useful simply by sticking good equipment on them, Gau really needs special attention and training on the Veldt, where he can learn new monster behaviors.
Gau is certainly a peripheral character in the story, but that doesn't mean what little we see of him is handled badly. He has essentially two scenes in the entire game, his first where he meets Cyan and--despite having lived his entire life as a feral creature--immediately and very genuinely sympathizes with the loss of Cyan's family. His second scene is actually kind of heartbreaking: the party attempts to introduce Gau to his father, who turns out to be quite insane. Although he gains no familial recognition, Gau admits that he is happy to receive even the slightest bit of off-hand praise from the man.
Gau's theme is another instance of Uematsu drawing out subtexts which the script barely has a chance to develop. The cello starts in a low voice that, while melancholy, seems more like it is about an animal, with the "hiccup" 3/4 measure that subverts the phrasing pattern at 0:08. There's only a faint accompaniment. What's amazing about the theme is that all Uematsu has to do is restate it with higher wind instruments and full accompaniment at 0:48, and the piece immediately sounds like a human choking down an anguished cry and showing a brave face, with the unexpected major chord that sticks out like a sore thumb from the established cadence. It matches the scene in which it plays perfectly, and can be quite moving. (I teared up at least once.)
One telling thing about FF6 is that even the throw-in characters are worthy fighters. Mog says very little, other than that he wants to join your party, although the game frequently uses him as the Greek chorus for selection screens and instructions. Mog is actually a very well-rounded fighter. His special ability "Dance" is hit-or-miss depending on which of the dances you choose to use. Considering his stats, however, there's no reason to use him as anything except another armored mage: he gets a solid weapon and the single-best piece of armor in the game. (If you can find it.)
Strago is the Blue Mage, and as with most FF titles, his abilities can be great if you can manage to procure them. In that sense, Strago is a little like Gau, needing special attention to become the full version of himself. Even then, there's very little that Strago's "Lore" command can do which another character can't do with universal Esper magic, so he's often overlooked. Add to that the fact that he shares a terrible equipment selection with Relm. His weapons are extremely limited and generally ineffective, so he's often limited to MP-consumption attacks.
Strago speaks a lot for someone who shows up in the game so late. Part of this is that he has to provide a lot of necessary exposition about the War of the Magi and the Warring Triad, and much that will happen when Kefka destroys the world. The other thing going for Strago's character development is that he and Cyan are the only two characters to get a secondary quest. For Strago, I think, this is compensation for the fact that he's available after obtaining Relm, for almost no effort. But there's another reason: he and Cyan are the oldest characters in the game. It's easy to portray them as having hidden depths, backstories that require further development. It's not quite so easy with a typical teenage hero.
Relm, like Strago, suffers from late-arrival syndrome. By the time the player acquires them, many of the earlier characters will have learned a variety of useful magic that would make them ideal for the "main" party. Relm has the highest magic stat in the game, and this can be really useful once she learns magic. But because she's such a late addition, she's not going to learn much magic until the WoR, or maybe even the final dungeon. She equips almost all the same gear as Strago, which isn't a positive thing for most of the game. To be fair to them, both can equip the Behemoth Suit fairly early, which is about as good as the Genji Armor--more evidence of the effective diminution of character classes.
As a character Relm doesn't receive too much development; she's too young to feature prominently, although her juvenile petulance is occasionally cute and amusing. (A judgment, I admit, that I could not possibly have made 17 years ago.)
A pair of optional characters, both of them make a substantial addition to the player's fighting force. Umaro is extremely durable and will deal great damage almost all the time, although he cannot be controlled. Gogo can use any ability in the game, although his stats are somewhat meager and he can't use Espers to increase them. Still, with decent equipment Gogo is a great utility character.
I have said earlier that Kefka is constructed as a character to suit a number of needs in the game. With a huge roster of characters and a non-linear second half, Kefka focuses the narrative, by drawing motivations unto himself. He is an amazing contradiction: he provides order by embodying chaos. How can a character do this, believably? Kefka manages it by being equal parts psychopath and trickster. Of course, I'm not talking about the Law & Order psychopath; I'm talking about the literal, medical kind of psychopath. Psychopathy is characterized by vanity, impulsiveness, destructive behavior, lack of empathy and an inability to self-motivate and carry through with plans. That sounds an awful lot like Kefka to me. He gets furious about sand on his boots. For kicks, he poisons the people of Doma. On a whim he betrays the Emperor and destroys the world. And yet, even after he becomes a demigod, he seems completely unable to follow through with the destruction of the world. He torches one town of no tactical or political significance (Mobliz), and only partially destroys another (Tzen) when he happens to spot Celes there. He's impulsive, and perhaps very talented, but ultimately without Gestahl to guide him, he's ineffective.
But Kefka is also a trickster, an embodiment of natural disorder and predation--the mad jester. He can conjure illusions, as with his murder of Leo. He always seems to arrive with his shrieking laugh at the wrong moment, as in the Magitek Factory. But when he is caught without his illusionary apparatus and a cadre of soldeirs, as in the Imperial Camp, he has no desire to fight. He's not a demigod of strength, he's a demigod of deceit, chaos, and perversion--even if he ends up as an inordinately strong one.
Kefka's theme song reflects all of this. Firstly, it's in Bb minor, which is instantly recognizable as only one other theme in the game is in the same key signature. The other theme with the same key signature (none were in C# major) was the Bb minor "Catastrophe" which is an obvious thematic connection. It's no stretch to call Kefka a catastrophe instead of a villain. More thematic nuance: "Catastrophe" is the first track to play when starting a new game, and Kefka is the only character to appear on screen during its play. Uematsu was very deliberate about setting these two themes apart: there is a not-quite direct (but very close) quote from Chopin's Sonata in Bb Minor--often used as a funeral march--in the beginning of "Phantom Train." (Have a listen, the line slips in at 0:22, it's unmistakable.) But that quote is instead transposed to the opposite (tritone) key of E minor, as if to say--"No, Bb minor is reserved."
Kefka's theme is also structured so that it becomes more menacing with each passing phrase. From 0:01-0:12 it's a simple melody sounding of mischief, but at 0:19 and 0:34 new layers are added that push the same melody from mischief into mania. This is exactly the pattern that Kefka follows as a character; at first he seems like a cartoonish, ineffectual villain, but as the story progresses it becomes clear that he's actually a very dangerous lunatic.
"The Empire," "The Troops March On," and "Under Martial Law," are all based around the same bit of melody, which is appropriate considering what they're about. Interestingly, "The Empire" shares the same opening chord and its exact instrumentation with "Catastrophe," even though the latter is in an unrelated key. One supposes it's a thematic connection that highlights Gestahl's nurturing of a psychopath and the resulting disaster.
Uematsu took good care not to repeat songs in the same key too often, by using major, minor, modal scales, and more than a few confusing chromatic harmonies too. One noteworthy exception: both main world map themes, "Terra" and "Searching for Friends" are in A minor. Another, probably less intentional case, is that G minor repeats a few times. Having listened to a number of other FF soundtracks, I'm beginning to believe it might be Uematsu's favorite key for non-battle music--although I could be persuaded that I just like the pieces he writes in it.
Trivia! In the first half of the game, one character is optional. In the second half of the game, eleven characters are optional. Good luck beating Kefka with just Edgar, Celes, and Setzer, though. There are sixty one tracks on the OST. I'm pretty sure that the first motif from "The Day After" is a minor version of "Kids Run through the City" played at a faster speed, but I didn't have the time and energy to prove it. I hear the main theme "Terra" being quoted as a leitmotif in "Awakening," "Protect the Esper," "Metamorphosis," (where it experiences metamorphosis as a series of diminished chords) and, of course, the ending--in which damn near everything is quoted. If anyone can spot more uses of "Terra" in other tracks, send your claim and evidence for it--transcriptions strongly preferred--to the submissions account: firstname.lastname@example.org.