Community Discussion: Blog by Studakris | Game Mechanics as Aspects of Characterization: A Study in Final Fantasy VIDestructoid
Game Mechanics as Aspects of Characterization: A Study in Final Fantasy VI - Destructoid

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Been playing games since I was a kid. Mainly portables until recently. Have a PS3, Wii, DS, Mac and own games for all formats. Into all genres, but mainly JRPGs, fighting, and party games. Don't get to play as much as I'd like, but I can throw down with the best of them. Grad school is a huge time sink.

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I don’t hide that my favorite Final Fantasy game of all time is VI for the SNES. There’s a whole lot that’s done right with it, from the music, to the storyline, to the memorable ensemble. I find it remarkable that Square was able to craft 14 unique playable characters with touching stories and unique game play mechanics. It is this system I will focus upon, and also touch on how it has been misused and over looked in later games.

In addition to the standard, “Attack”, “Item”, and later, “Magic”, each playable character in FFVI had an action command special to it. In addition to providing a variety of different attacks, each command had a unique method by which it was implemented, which subtlety alluded and affirmed aspects of the character’s personality. Before the introduction of the Espers system, each potential party plays incredibly different depending on the characters included.

In order to best demonstrate the link between game mechanics and a PCs characterization, I will list each party member and their unique action command, and how it links to their overall presentation in the game:

Terra- “Morph”
This power unlocks only after Terra discovers her Esper heritage. Selecting “Morph” will temporarily turn Terra into an Esper, as well as doubling her stats. However, the effects of morph are not permanent, and the player has no real control over its duration. This ties into the game’s characterization of Terra; although she recognizes the undeniable power of her Esper side, it is portrayed as uncontrollable and sporadic. Additionally, the cool down period of “Morph” in-battle mimics the exhaustion Terra suffers following her Esper transformation.

Celes- “Runic”
Celes joins the party with “Runic” already available, and it shows its potential in the battle with Tunnelarmr. Selecting “Runic” absorbs the next magic spell cast and changes it into MP for Celes. Additionally, the spell cast can be from either an enemy or ally. While this ability is useful in the fight with Tunnelarmr, since Locke does not have magic attacks at this point, it becomes a double-edged sword (pardon the pun) later in the game. Strong magic attacks meant to strike down a foe can be co-opted by Celes “Runic”. However, the ability plays into an element of Celes’ characterization, her capacity for magic suppression. The game does not hide Celes’ willing (albeit increasingly disillusioned and ultimately forced) involvement with the Empire, and her role in the experiments upon Terra. She has the ability to negate magic, regardless of its source. By not being selective in the magic she absorbs, she iterates her initial outsider status within the group. Additionally, as the game goes on, “Runic” becomes much less useful, which mirrors Celes’ growth as both a magic user, and her bonds of camaraderie with the other group members.

Locke- “Steal”
Locke is a thief…er…I mean treasure hunter, and is unapologetic for his choice in vocation. His battle command “Steal” allows Locke to eschew dealing damage for a chance to steal items from an enemy. Additionally, Locke has very high evade stats. These elements mirror the storyline’s presentation of Locke as a rather individualistic fellow, who is quite willing to avoid fights and gain plunder.

Edgar- “Tools”
Edgar is the king of Figaro, and ultimately devoted to his people’s survival. The technological advances of Figaro castle are made under the banner of self-preservation, all under the supervision of King Edgar. “Tools” are an offset of this technological development. These weapons attack without magic, and are highly effective against most enemies. Additionally, a great many tools are purchased from Figaro castle, which reiterates Edgar’s devotion to his people and unwillingness to accept their free gifts.

Sabin- “Blitz”
To be honest, this is the command which made be start formulating this article and the meta-game of the unique commands altogether. Sabin joins the party as a capable, but still learning martial arts aspect. His “Blitz” command, although based upon magic stats, are selected by unique button combinations inputted by the player. Most of these start out simple, with “Pummel” being a simple back and forth motion, and the most advanced, “Aurabolt”, being a fireball motion very recognizable to anyone familiar with fighting games. However, as Sabin grows in his capacity as a fighter, the Blitzes become more complex. No longer are they simple button presses, but force the player to remember the movements. This culminates in his final “Blitz” the “Bum Rush”. Although undeniably powerful, the command is initially a challenge to input correctly in the time allowed. However, as the player keeps practicing the motion, the attack becomes more familiar, and more likely to succeed. I will admit it took me several tries to successfully input the “Bum Rush”, and had a surge of excitement upon finally correctly getting the move off. This “training” of the player mimics Sabin’s training as a fighter, and truly demonstrates the development of Sabin throughout the game.

Shadow- “Throw”
Shadow joins the party under the promise of payment. He has no initial loyalty to the team and comes and goes rather sporadically. However, he has great physical prowess and is more than capable of holding his own in a fight. His “Throw” skill tosses a weapon at the enemy at high damage. Additionally, items thrown are permanently lost from the inventory. This mirrors Shadow’s demand for payment from the party with the player’s cost of using Shadow. In order for Shadow to be used to his maximum potential shurikens, scrolls, and other items must be purchased by the player for Shadow to throw. Since using Shadow effectly costs the player gil, there’s a correlation between the player’s and the party’s treatment of Shadow.

Gau- “Rage”
Gau is a wild boy, raised on the Veldt amongst some of the fiercest monsters in the world. Although uneducated and not used to the social mores of human interaction, he has immense potential to be force to be reckoned. His “Rage” ability places Gau outside the player’s control, mimicking Gau’s wild and unpredictable nature.

Setzer- “Slots”
A gambler and rapscallion with a flair for the dramatic; he joins the party after his initial attempt to capture the opera star Maria was foiled. However, always the wild card, he takes the failure in good humor, and decides to take a risk with the Returners. Setzer’s “Slots” skill reflects his gambler persona. It has the potential to either very powerful, or possibly kill the entire party. The risk in choosing “Slots” mirrors Setzer’s general demeanor.

Strago- “Lore”
Strago falls into the classic Final Fantasy Archetype of the Blue Mage, common in many games. Strago has spent his life studying monsters and learning their skills. His “Lore” skill straight-forwardly demonstrates his knowledge of monster spells. Additionally, the spells can only be learned once Strago “sees” them being used in battle by a monster, which verifies his skills as a monster scholar.

Relm- “Sketch”
Another rather straight-forward correlation, “Sketch” allows Relm, an aspiring artist, to draw a replica of an attacking enemy. Additionally, Relm’s young age is alluded to with some enemies being “too hard to draw” with her young skill set.

Mog- “Dance”
Mog is a moogle, an element well familiar in the Final Fantasy series. Like most moogles, he is fond of saying “Kupo!” and serving as light comic relief. He remains irreverent throughout the game, never fully acknowledging the gravity of the situation. His “Dance” technique is similar. Although the dances have great potential, they can be fickle, and the individual actions are not under the player’s control. Regardless, Mog remains a useful companion, taking to account the player’s and party’s inability to fully have him under their control.

Cyan- “Swordtech”
Cyan is an aging warrior, one who has served his kingdom for many years and has acquired great skill with his sword. His demeanor is polite to a fault, considerate, and respectful. Although not as young as the other party members, his years of experience make him a significant fighter. Selecting the “Swordtech” action brings up a timed bar. As more time passes, Cyan’s attack becomes stronger. Although enemies can hurt the party while waiting for Cyan’s bar to charge up, the patience demonstrated in holding off will ultimately serve the player and the party. The waiting until the meter rises mirror’s Cyan’s personality. He is a man who is willing to bide his time until making the ideal strike.

Additionally, as magic and the Espers system are introduced for all party members, a second level of customization comes into play. By assigning different Espers to each party member, the player controls the party member’s development. Over time, due to a player’s preference of certain characters and their mechanics over others, not only will a particular character be stronger, but it will invariably have Espers magic assigned to it by the player. In short, although two different players might like the same character, the individual character will come out unique to the player by game’s end. By coupling the Esper magic system and these unique action commands, a playing of Final Fantasy VI ultimately results in a party which is shaped not only by the character’s abilities, but also the player’s preferences and choices; in short, an ideal system.

I will now look at later games and their shortcomings in utilizing or ignoring this system:

Final Fantasy VII-
While there were some differences between the individual characters, mainly through limit breaks; their standard attacks were virtually identical. Furthermore, the limit break mechanics didn’t necessarily fit into the character. While slots made since for Cait Sith, was there any aspect of Tifa’s mastery of martial arts which would lend itself to also using a fickle slot system? Additionally, the materia magic system gave the player extra control over their parties composition, at the cost of eliminating character individuality.

Final Fantasy VIII-
There were elements of character individuality used, particularly in the limit breaks. However, the limit breaks were too rare to constitute major differences in game play. Likewise, the “Duel” command for Zell suffered in comparison to Sabin’s “Blitz” since “Duel” did not reward character and player development. Although later “Duel” uses gave both more time and complex attack commands, the system was broken by constant use of the basic “booya” and “punch rush” for the most damaging battle plan. Additionally, the draw/junction mechanics put character stat composition entirely within the player’s control, giving the character’s almost negligible individuality.

Final Fantasy IX-
It returned closest to the system put into place by VI. Parties made up of different characters do indeed play differently, and special commands are indeed prevalent. Additionally, the ability system personalized the characters to player’s usage. The only major set back with this game was the horribly broken “Trance” system. But still, the advances made in IX made it seem a return to form was possible in future installments.

Final Fantasy X-
It’s going to be hard to strongly criticize this game, since it’s my second favorite in the series. Indeed, the character swap system made the group feel like an actual “party” and not “three characters chosen to fight enemies while everyone else hangs back on the airship”. Additionally, by letting characters have marked advantages over certain enemies, it was ensured all characters would be placed in heavy rotation. The system weakens a tad when it comes to the “Overdrive” commands. Like the limit breaks of VII, a great many of the “Overdrive” inputs in X don’t feel true to the character. For instance, although Wakka is of a sunny disposition and takes things rather likely, it doesn’t necessarily translate into using slots for his most powerful attack. Likewise, would a veteran such as Auron struggle with memorizing button pressing to unleash a tornado of fire? (Which remains one of the coolest specials I’ve ever seen in any game ever) I know it sounds nitpicky, but the advantages of the characters in X don’t ring as true to their characterizations as those in VI.

Final Fantasy XII-
Pretty much a rehash of VIII’s preference of player control over character individuality. Additionally, the “Quickening” attacks of XII truly have no difference between the characters except for visuals. Although the characters of XII were characterized outside of battle rather admirably, this isn’t reflected in the battle system.

Final Fantasy XIII-
I actually liked this game, and elements of the “paradigm” mode ring true to the example set in VI. However, the differences between the characters are subtle at best. For instance, Sazh has “Haste” available much earlier in the game than other synergists and his “Blitz” attack hits for multiple times as a commando. Other than that, it’s fairly similar. Additionally, the Crystarium System was quite linear and didn’t give players much control over the character’s development.

Mass Effect 2-
I’m actually going a bit out of the JRPG genre to show how the Final Fantasy VI model of character actions reflecting their characterization can apply in other types of games. In Mass Effect 2, each member of Shepard’s crew has a distinct personality and this is reflected in the abilities available for the player’s use. Additionally, as certain characters are favored over others, and the player completes their loyalty mission, more abilities are given for their use, as well as an alternative costume. The changes in appearance and combat actions reflect both their development as a character, and the player’s preference party members. This system mirrors Final Fantasy VI’s method of coupling character individuality and player’s choice.

In all, the system implemented by Final Fantasy VI represents a template still useful for creating a game mechanic system which compliments both player preference and character individuality. One can only hope Square Enix, and other game developers will utilize this system in creating further wonderful gaming experiences.
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