[Editor's note: "A Critical Ear" is a new series analyzing music in videogames by SWE3tMadness over on the Community Blogs. -- CTZ]
As you may recall from my analysis of Dancing Mad, leitmotifs are themes used in a soundtrack to represent characters, places, events, or other parts of a story. That article attempted to explain how one song could combine many of those themes to create a piece of boss battle music that is much more emotionally evocative and thematically appropriate. However, a large reason why that technique of combining several recognizable motifs into one song works is that the player is already emotionally attached to those songs in the first place. If you don’t recognize the tune or don’t associate it with anything else, then the combined theme as a whole loses its significance.
In this article, I will attempt to explain how a leitmotif gains that emotional attachment in the first place by comparing and contrasting three different character themes, all from the Final Fantasy series again. (What can I say? Uematsu loves his repeated musical cues.) Specifically, I’ll analyze the three character themes used for the villains of Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI, and Final Fantasy VII and explain why they’re effective at representing the villain, where they might fall short, and how it changes the way we view the villain’s character itself. I’ve included links to the songs in question in the text and the embedded videos show the scene when the villain’s theme first shows up in the narrative of the game itself, for extra reference.
Since this article examines the villains of these games in great detail, there will be prominent spoilers included. Proceed at your own risk!
I already wrote one piece on the final boss music from this game, which uses this theme for much of the piece. However, the first time we hear this swaggering circus march in VI, the overall impression is much different from the epic medley we hear during the final battle. Kefka when he first appears is really no more than comic relief, and this song reflects that with a jaunty, playful tune that’s sure to get stuck in your head all day. It’s bombastic, flamboyant, and generally over-the-top, representing Kefka’s hamminess as a character originally in the story. This theme sets Kefka up as a memorable villain, but not necessarily one that poses as a significant threat to the party at first.
Of course, after finishing the game, you now associate that same theme with the unrepentantly and gleefully evil villain that Kefka turns out to be, and the contrast between this clownish theme and his real characterization adds a bit more of a sinister undertone to the catchy tune.
The only problem with this theme is that once Kefka actually does become the main villain of the game, you never hear the theme again until the very last battle! A large part of an effective character theme is repetition. If a certain song plays every time a specific event occurs or a character enters, the viewer starts to associate that event or character with the theme, and remembers that connection whenever the song is played. It’s Pavlov’s conditional response applied to storytelling basically. But in the World of Ruin, we see the full extent of destruction that Kefka has wrought upon civilization, but he no longer has any direct bearing on the story, and his theme doesn’t appear either.
This distances the character so far away from the main action of the narrative that he loses much of the intimidation he had in the first half of the game. Then when the party finally does confront Kefka again, the heinous deeds he’s perpetrated against the survivors aren’t really associated with him any longer, because his theme wasn’t present when he casts his Light of Judgment down on them! See for yourself here at the 2:52 minute mark. It’s amazing how the exclusion of this simple detail changes the event from an evil act that is directly caused by a real and tangible being, to just an unfortunate hazard of living in the World of Ruin.
”Those Chosen By The Planet”: Final Fantasy VII
Despite what Square-Enix seems to think nowadays, Sephiroth’s character theme is not “One-Winged Angel”, it’s this song. It’s kind of sad that it hardly gets used in his numerous extraneous appearances in spin-off games like Kingdom Hearts and the Advent Children movie, because this song always had much more of an emotional impact on me personally than "OWA" ever did. And even though I like Final Fantasy VI over this game, “Those Chosen By The Planet” is in my opinion, a more effective villain theme than Kefka’s.
One of the reasons why Kefka and Sephiroth are compared so often is that while they have similar origins and motives (product of an experiment to create supersoldiers, went crazy, tried to become god, etc.), their actual personalities and portrayals in their respective games are light-years apart from each other. Where Kefka is a prancing, rude jester, Sephiroth is stoic, reserved, and enigmatic. Reflecting this characterization, “Those Chosen By The Planet” is a more atmospheric, minimalistic piece, backed by a continually beating drum and tubular bells that are almost reminiscent of an heartbeat. It’s this more subdued piece with a more obviously sinister mood that marks the character as powerful, deadly, and mysterious.
Another aspect of a good character theme that this song has is its close connection to the events of the plot. Kefka also doesn’t really become intimidating until the latter half of his game, while Sephiroth’s first appearance accompanied by this theme in the story involves him burning Nibelheim to the ground and then disappearing through the flames. First impressions mean a lot, and when you hear this song for the first time as the main character is relieving memories of his hometown being completely destroyed by the man admired and looked up to, that impression sticks with you for a long time.
It doesn’t end there either, that same association is continually reaffirmed throughout the rest of the game. I explained that Kefka’s theme loses a lot of significance throughout the events of VI because it appears so rarely during the truly heinous acts he commits in the World of Ruin. “Those Chosen By The Planet”, however pops up whenever Sephiroth’s influence appears, from the above-mentioned scene to the death of Aeris, to even the final battle inside Cloud’s mind after defeating the “Safer Sephiroth” form. (which really makes this the true final boss theme after all).
So, in short, what makes this a really effective villain leitmotif is that whenever you hear it start up during the game, you know something really, really bad is about to happen, and that Sephiroth is the cause for it. Even if he’s not there personally, this song marks his influence over some of the most memorable events of the story.
”Clad In The Dark”: Final Fantasy IV]
Despite my gushing about the previous songs, “Clad In The Dark”, Golbez’s theme, is actually my favorite villain theme of the entire Final Fantasy franchise, and possibly out of all videogames in general.
The main problem with Kefka’s theme was that it wasn’t initially associated with the main antagonist of the story, and then when he did become the main antagonist, it wasn’t used at all until the end. The problem with Sephiroth’s theme on the other hand, was that while it was enigmatic enough, and associated with some truly heinous actions, the song represents more his influence over the events of the plot, not direct, physical interactions with the party. His presence in VII turns him into somewhat of a metaphor for evil and destruction, rather than a tangible being that makes conscious decisions to be evil and destructive. Kefka’s character and leitmotif are tangible and present in the first half of the story, but lost throughout the second half. Sephiroth’s theme is present throughout the story, but his actual character goes largely unseen, much like the titular shark of Jaws. Scary, yes, but it makes the cause of the conflict in the narrative abstract and distant rather than a direct threat.
Golbez’s theme rectifies that by accompanying virtually every single occasion when he shows up to completely ruin Cecil and co.’s day. Oh, and I’m not kidding about “completely ruin”. This theme first plays as soon as Golbez steps into the Crystal room at Fabul, taunts the heroes, and simply walks out with Kain brainwashed, Rosa captive, and the crystal under his control. From that point on, whenever those organ chords begin to play, you know not just that he’s causing something bad to happen, but that he’s going to physically show up and deliver your ass-kicking in person.
Also, where Kefka’s theme also uses an organ, it’s a less intimidating reed organ like what you’d hear at a circus or ballpark. Golbez’s theme instead uses a full church organ. This instrument itself is associated with so many other villainous characters that its use elicits the same reaction from the player that the leitmotif is supposed to produce. We associate this organ with power and grandure, and villains that love showing both off. The tune of “Clad in the Dark” itself is repeated numerous times throughout the story with different songs and instrumentation to symbolize his influence on events, but the full scale of his leitmotif is only reserved for personal appearances. This more effectively enforces our association between it and the character than just using it indiscriminately whenever something happens that is related to the villain, like “Those Chosen by the Planet”.
The strength of this song isn’t even diminished by the fact that Golbez renounces his villainy at the end of the game, because this theme isn’t heard again during the last act. Unike Kefka’s theme that is missing despite his status as the main antagonist, as soon as Golbez comes to his senses, “Clad in the Dark” disappears along with Zemus’ control over him. Because this theme is exclusively tied to Golbez as a villain, it isn’t impacted by the reveal at the end when he turns good, since the player still exclusively associates it with those evil acts. The exclusion of the song also helps the player to accept this change of heart as genuine, showing that he's given up his evil ways for good.
So in conclusion, a large part of what makes an effective character leitmotif is how it ties into the main story. It’s really even more important than what the song actually is, although a good song that is appropriate for the action and character is accompanies is likely to be more memorable. The quality of this theme also deeply affects how the player views the character in question, and can make a bland villain memorable or turn an otherwise-great villain into a mediocre one. It’s another example of the impact a game’s soundtrack can unconsciously have on the player, which is the main point of this series in the first place, and why I wanted to start it off with this article. (I promise I’ll talk about something else besides Final Fantasy next month!)