TBT – Final Fantasy VI – Sociological Commentary in the Opera House
Mention Final Fantasy VI to any veteran game audience or critic and the opera scene will often jump to mind. It’s not irrational: the sequence was revolutionary for the medium in 1994, prompting a very cinematic narrative experience which also happens to directly involve player interaction to urge it forward.
It’s a scene that requires a player’s involvement to function both technically and thematically, positing a vision of the future for the entire medium. Over two decades later, it also proves just as enlightening an experience as even the most impressive modern titles have provided.
RPGs are intrinsically a stage performance in which the role assigned to the player is one they themselves create. How they react to the given situations written by the developer (the director/playwright) forges their own sort of individual story, arising from the contexts of a pre-written world and overarching narrative. A successful RPG always considers player choice as the most important function, especially regarding functionality and character skills.
Final Fantasy VI’s infamous opera scene can then be viewed as a self-aware deconstruction of player role in a videogame universe. A sort of meta-commentary on the ever-evolving nature of art in general. A sequence designed to demonstrate ‘just how far we’ve come.’
2007 was arguably the year everything changed. Mainstream videogames, especially first-person shooters, finally proved capable of delivering provocative experiences bursting with cinematic proportions. BioShock messily delved into philosophy with an emphasis on worldbuilding. Portal defied genre tropes and achieved its lofty narrative ambitions. Even the mediocre Uncharted pitted players in the role of an action movie hero.
But no other 2007 game from so accurately mirrors Final Fantasy VI’s ‘vision of the future’ quite like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Balancing cinematic presentation with engaging assignments, COD 4 is essentially interactive dramatic theater, offering players a variety of roles in which they carry out grand acts of heroism.
Soldiers line up, waiting for the player to breach a door. Breaking the game a bit, I decide to run off and wait for as long as I can until the characters demand action from me. Jets stream by overhead in the bright blue sky. Bombs impact all across the distant city locale, while guns blaze from afar, implying further strife we are perhaps moving towards. I stood in a spot for roughly three minutes until a faint voice finally responded to my disengagement: (to paraphrase) “Let’s get moving, soldier.”
The game pulls back from demanding anything from its player, regardless of any necessary action. Whereas Modern Warfare quietly reminds its audience of their significance, FF VI’s opera scene functions as a deliberate timed experience, adding a metaphorical tinge of suspense to its theatrics.
FF VI wants the player to understand the weight of their role, by illustrating its world as a communal production, necessitating as much attention and consideration from the player as from the NPCs. And it provides this all without ever allowing the weight of presentation to diminish its accessibility, as many games influences by the original Modern Warfare so shamelessly do.
My first experience ‘performing’ the opera scene was shadowed by legacy. I had been awaiting its reveal for the entirety of my playthrough thus far, excited to see just how much it lives up to the hype surrounding it to this day. Frankly, my expectations were muffled, as it was impossible to not get excited but I also worried I’d be gravely disappointed. Surely age and technical development over the years would have taken away most of its impression?
Those muffled expectations were blown away. I had initially questioned why the previous scene forced the player to join Celes and Locke to their party, and hesitantly assumed the opera sequence would not work otherwise. However that worry diminished, as soon as Celes was pressured into disguising herself as the lead opera singer to infiltrate the performance, to her dismay.
In the current progressive era, it’s fascinating to see a decades-old game directly condemn the egocentric male oppression of female performers. Locke hatches a plan to trick the pilot into kidnapping Celes by disguising her as Maria, star of the show. Instead of discussing the concept, he fails to recognize Celes as her own voice, using her as a conduit for execution. “W…wait! I’m a GENERAL, not some opera floozy!” she cries, since it is demeaning to her to be disregarded as such.
She reluctantly goes along with the plan, her newfound contempt for, as well as disappointment in Locke readily adorned through her silence. The opera officially begins, and the player takes Locke backstage to see Celes before her premiere entrance. It’s a significant conversation, illustrating Locke as the chivalrous male concept personified. He feels he needs to be a hero to a woman he adores because that is the fantasy realm in which he lives. The role his society has subjected him to. Unfortunately, he fails to realise Celes not only as a capable heroine herself, but an individual as well.
The first stage (or act) has the player memorize some lines in which they are tested to recite. In this day and age, I simply took a picture of each line of dialogue before entering the stage so as to not mess up, whereas years ago I can imagine someone jotting them down with pen and paper or perhaps simply memorizing them.
The entire musical sequence reminds me quite a bit of Act III of Kentucky Route Zero, featuring the enigmatic Junebug Johnny performing in the bar. Both games emphasize the wonder of performance and the narrative parallels between music and worldbuilding, only one has a fail state.
It becomes another instance of “look how far we’ve come” when one considers the act of failing an archaic gaming principle. However it is arguably necessary for a sequence like in the Opera House, for it ignites a tension similar to stage fright for those less than able to carry out the scene as intended.
A later instance of this ‘stage fright’ concept (read: role strain) arises when a timer suddenly jumps on screen, and the player is tasked with defeating that nuisance, Ultros before he ruins the show. Maneuvering through the scaffolds and annoying enemies had me cursing and shouting at nearly every turn, for good reason. The opera scene not only demonstrates the role of a performer in a state of anxious performance, but also the backstage operators managing everything the audience does not necessarily see, which can be just as stressful.
FFVI literalizes Goffman’s Dramaturgy concept, specifically the “front stage,” in which Celes is performing a constructed role where she maintains an impression appropriate to traditional female standards within her society. That society is a fantasy realm in which female characters are traditionally relegated to side characters, healers (in the case of RPGs), or damsels in distress. FFVI over 20 years ago was challenging gender roles and social constructs through a medium directly involving the player.
While more contemporary titles are essentially based around the idea of resocialization through functionality, FFVI remains a pivotal example of sociological commentary by way of player involvement. The Opera House sequence is just as effective an experience today because it illustrates timeless universal social concepts through groundbreaking methods of storytelling.
A developer’s focus should always be on how players will respond to given situations. When that timer jumped onto the screen for the second act of the opera, my heart immediately began to race. It’s impressive for a game to make a player feel anxious, but especially when that anxiety is emboldened by progressive cultural commentary, in order to promote a way of looking at the outside world in different context.
It’s even more impressive for a decades-old title to still so boldly go where most later games lack the intellectual design to do so.