Critical Eye: Final Fantasy IV

The Final Fantasy series of games, developed by Squaresoft,[1] have proven to be one of the few places one could consistently go to for a reasonable narrative within a story. The games are simple in terms of interface, and ludologically speaking generally don’t need a great deal of timing or frenetic pace. Final Fantasy IV was originally developed by SquareSoft in 1991 for Nintendo’s Super Famicom game console. Shortly afterwards, it was localized (translated), and brought to the U.S. as Final Fantasy II for the Super Nintendo (the original Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III never left Japan). This was really the first console based video game to heavily emphasize narrative, and enjoyed moderate commercial success for it.

Final Fantasy IV is a story centering around Cecil, a dark knight in the service of the king of Baron. After questioning a particularly brutal order, Cecil is stripped of rank and sent off on a courier mission, which ends with the destruction of a village. This is the last straw for Cecil, and he begins his quest to put an end to Baron’s villainy. The plot takes several twists and turns, and ultimately ends on the planet’s moon, where an evil being known as Zemus has been manipulating the chain of events transpiring on the planet. As far as subtle and complex story lines go, it’s pretty simplistic. The dialogue is on par with a high school fantasy adventure, and none of the plot twists really take you by surprise at all (I should mention that I can say this about even the first time I played this game, when I was 11). Yet it still managed to immerse the player, encouraging attachment to the characters you enlist the aid of in the course of the story.

Each character is almost a caricature of a real personality, mannerisms and behavior taken to an extreme in a similar fashion to early Vedic mythology taking traits and aspects of gods and accentuating them to emphasize the role of that god (or in this case, the character). With unfailing persistence, Palom and Porom, twin wizards from the town of Mysidia, are arrogant or respectful appropriately. Tellah, a respected Sage, is the epitome of grumpy old man. Cid, a master engineer and inventor of airships, is quirky and blunt to a fault, but fiercely loyal to his friends and his principles. In the same way that a supporting cast in a theatrical performance is often filled with accentuated personalities, so is Final Fantasy IV, and much in the same fashion that Puck can be the favorite character of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, these characters quickly become endearing to the player because of their distinct personalities.

There are several occasions within the game where individuals in the player’s party sacrifice themselves, and there is a genuine sense of loss felt when this happens. This accentuates the dramatic nature of the story, and further draws the player into the game, since these characters are the same ones that you spent several hours of gameplay becoming endeared to. During the course of the game, the party becomes trapped in a room with shrinking walls, threatening to crush them all. The twin wizards, Palom and Porom sacrifice themselves to save the party by casting stone on themselves, turning into statues and thus blocking the walls. Later in the game, the sage Tellah sacrifices himself in order to cast one particularly potent spell in the hopes of defeating the man who had killed his daughter (in a case of bittersweet irony, the attempt fails, and the villain survives). As yet another example, during a high speed pursuit by enemy forces, Cid jumps off of the airship and detonates a bomb in mid-air, destroying the tunnel they were being pursued through. The player feels the impact of these sacrifices because the game has succeeded in being immersive thanks in large part to the story.

The game owes a great deal to having a compelling story, but that isn’t all that was used to create an immersive game. The graphics are far from realistic, but succeed in being effective enough to convey emotion within characters and contribute to a distinct character construction of the cast of characters. Another major element in creating an immersive, story-driven game is the music or soundtrack of the game. Final Fantasy IV (and really, all of the Final Fantasy games) has a strong, compelling soundtrack that succeeds in generating nuance to a scene despite the limitations of the technology at the time (this was well before we had the technology to embed MP3s or other traditionally recorded music within a game; all music of this era was essentially a series of machine created beeps called MIDI — Musical Instrument Digital Interface). The technological limitations of game making at the time were quite significant: the capabilities of the hardware of the period put restrictions on what could and could not be done (the average processor speed of the Super Nintendo was 2.68MHz and had 128 KB of memory[2]. For comparison, a computer now might be 2GHz, with 1 GB of memory), and was further limited by space restrictions of early cartridge technology; ALL game assets, from game code, graphics, music, and anything else, had to fit in an 8MB space. Now, a modern game is generally made to fit on a 9GB DVD disc, over a thousand times more space. Games can even take up multiple DVDs, which was available with cartridge games.

I think it says a lot that one of the most successful early story-centric games based a great deal of its narratological aspects around a theatrical form of writing rather than an extended prose form. I strongly suspect that stage plays in particular are ultimately the closest form of established literature to that of narratological games. We as developers would probably do well to further examine this concept, and explore where this could be taken in the future. An early pioneer in the genre, Final Fantasy IV hit on a narratological chord; so early in the history of the industry, it may have gotten the narrative metaphor right.

Work Cited:

Final Fantasy IV. Sakaguchi, Hironobu. Squaresoft, 1991.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

[1] Squaresoft has undergone several name changes, becoming Square Co., Ltd for several years, and now recently merged with another game developer (Enix) to become Square Enix.
[2] Technical Data for the Super Nintendo can be found on Wikipedia,

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