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Of artistry and video games, one often is hard pressed to find when the defining moment had been created. Could it be when the first avatars of game players were created for Pong? Or perhaps when the console Nintendo Entertainment System's (NES) Super Mario Bros. was released dictating one of the first stories and finest craft seen for a game? Perhaps when Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior appeared on the arcade scene and reviving it with a gameplay artistry that was impossible to ignore.
Ideas of gameplay skill being artistic the same way as a basketball player weaves through defensemen for a slam dunk, or how a figure skater lands a triple loop, the problem we find is that it was still based on skill. Skill in a limited fashion of the world created which cannot improve beyond it's technical limitations whereas those sports analogies continue to grow, change and innovate. No in this essay I propose that the 6th entry of the Final Fantasy (FF6) series was the first game to have birthed artistry in gaming like Venus from the sea foam.
To start, it was a game that pushed the technical limits of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Even though 3D pologonic gaming had started to arise in the industry, this was at a time where the skills of the game designers were at their peak at the era, but knew that they didn't have unlimited resources to tell a story but instead they needed the limited resources of their imagination. As I said before skill found in playing a game is not artistry because of the technical limitations and but it's through the design to create more than the sum of it's parts that made FF6 artistic. One only has to look at FF7 as a game that they wanted FF6 to be, but didn't get a chance to do so at the time.
Taking a cue from Opera, they created a show that is half in reality and half in the mind of imagination. Offering not just bigger everything from it's previous entry but BIG in general. This was a game that was meant to be heard from the front rows of Japan to the back rows of North America.
But from the beginning, we get our Heroine of the stage. Like a grand diva she is escorted even treated like royalty with a crown and enters into the town of Narshe. This is truly surprising because this is almost a prologue to the first act, even becoming a sort of behind the scenes look of the opera of FF6 as if seeing the paparazzi trying to get a glimpse at the star of the show before she takes the stage.
After a tough entry into the theatre, she ends up in a house of what we could really see it as, a dressing room. She is resting, revived and reborn as Terra! I don't use reborn lightly since you can literally assign her name like a parent. Working on two levels, it's appropriate that she started out as ?????? as a blank canvas. Because as we progress through the game we see her character built through your actions (the beforementioned artistry of gameplay skill) but also through the game designer's intention.
But as we see Terra escape from the Narshe warriors, it's merely saying that it's almost time for curtain rise. She exist to backstage and appears on the first stage! To emphasize it's breaking the mold of games of being the first artistic one, we find her on a stage that can be seen from both sides for the audience. Drastic almost impractical stage set ups have to be created in order to equal to anything in reality but still it makes sense. Innovation demands experimentation.
More things happen, Locke appears and in our first multi party battle, the truth is revealed. It's actually an appearance of a Chorus of moogles, which fulfill the purpose of a chorus by summarizing the types of weapons available throughout the game. Is there any other reason why Mog has the technique "dance"?
But what of the Nihlism you ask? Interestingly our avatar for Nihlism is through the form of Kefka Palazzo. It's interesting how we first are introduced to him properly through him in the middle of the desert. A useless empty stage, much like his viewpoint on motivations to exist. If there was anything to solidify that video games are art is by the sheer existence of Kefka's laugh sound. Now notice I say "laugh sound" not his laugh. Why you ask? Ask yourself the question if you heard his laugh from any other voice actor or different technical level of sound, would it evoke the same feeling. Would it actually his be laugh? No. Kefka's laugh has been engrained into the very technical speakers and hardware of the game. True art could never be recreated, perhaps remade or paid homage to, but never recreated to be exactly like the original.
But what is commonly evoked as the most artistic for the game is the Opera scene. To be fair the singing sounds like wails and squeaks and warbles. But why does it evoke such a sense of power? Is it because it's a game that dares to have an opera in it, perhaps being the first opera a lot of game players have ever seen let alone want to be involved in? Or is it because it actually sounded good despite it's limitations? I think it goes deeper than that. It's because this inception of an Opera is an homage to itself. From the Act 1 of the Returners reuniting, this beginning of the Act 3 states that you are already playing an opera. Like L'OrFeo, Locke being Orpheus looking to bring back Terra from the brink of her own hell of being half esper or unloved and unknown.
The opera scene is pivotal because it summarizes the feelings you have been having about the game already. The cast has been set, as if every new character was an audition in itself. From Cyan's solo one man act of kicking ass, to taking in a true Diva of the opera Celes. Now the game engages us the way we have been engaging it. It is moving and we have to react with our outputs to it's inputs. We have to produce the right outputs lest the game gives up in it's own "controller throwing" moment and resets the scene. Like how the game follows the script when we play, we have to follow the script when it plays us.
Finally after Setzer appears, being an obvious homage to Don Giovanni, the Impresario states
Unforeseen twists at every turn! Just as we think Maria is to become Locke's new bride, she's dragged off by Setzer instead! What fate lies in store for her now? Be sure to come back and see Part Two!
We are literally told that there is more to come. And with that. I leave Act 1 of this essay and will think about Act 2 at another time.