As I looked over what I wrote in the last part, I realized something: every single one of those music samples was from an SNES game.
I guess that was because I grew up a child of the SNES age, when rpg titles like Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and Lufia & the Fortress of Doom ruled my playtime. Each of those titles influenced my preferences in rpg video game narratives (all but Lufia & the Fortress of Doom—which was more of a personal favorite—had critically acclaimed narratives attached to them), and left a hefty imprint on my musical tastes.
Every one of those titles listed have musical pieces that just left me utterly enthralled as a young gamer, and some still do:
Secret of Mana – Fear of the Heavens
Secret of Mana, composed by the talented Hiroki Kikuta, will always have one of the greatest opening theme songs of any game, in my opinion. This tune really set the mood for the game’s story, filled with an incredible overarching plot, awesome characters, each with their own reasons for undergoing the game’s incredible journey—plus, one of the most effective self sacrifices I had seen to that point in an rpg (matched only by the Sage Tellah in Final Fantasy IV [You're the fucking man, you old bastard!]).
Final Fantasy VI (III in America) – Awakening
There is a considerable amount of debate about which game in the Final Fantasy series is, in fact, “the best.” However, in my opinion, Final Fantasy VI deserves to always be in contention for that title.
With some of the most unique characters I’ve ever played in an rpg (Celes, Terra, Locke, Cyan, Sabin, Relm, Strago, Shadow, Gau, Setzer, Umaro, Mog, Gogo, Edgar—that’s right, they all made such an impression I can remember them all by heart), along with THE most iconic (or at least effective) villain in the entire series (Kefka, who, unlike most villains who merely TRY to wreak havoc, actually tore the world asunder and ruled atop it for some time before the heroes finally regrouped to face him), FFVI remains in my top 3 of rpgs that I have played.
Breath of Fire II – Nightmare
I’ll never forget the feeling I felt when I heard this music for the first time. Awe, wonder, dread, all rolled up in one.
This is the tune that plays while you descend into “Infinity”, the inner sanctum of the dark God Deathevn in BoFII. This place was so different from the other areas you traverse in Breath of Fire II, it actually caught me off guard the first time I ventured in. The difficulty level ramps up the second you enter, making it feel like a dimensional portal crawling with horrific monsters just waiting to spill forth into the world. For the MMO players out there, I liken it to exploring the world fighting monsters, then suddenly walking into an endgame raid. It felt like another world; it was definitely something you had to experience for yourself to truly grasp the magnitude of it.
And for all your toil, for all the turmoil you endure to reach the bottom of this chaotic abyss, what do you get for a thank you?
Final Fantasy VII – Main Theme
Now, I know I said above that I consider FFVI one of the very best games in the Final Fantasy franchise, but that is like saying $1million is better than $999,999—the important thing is, you’re rich as fuck either way.
Final Fantasy VII is easily in the top 3 for the franchise in my book, right up there with Final Fantasy IV (#1 for me) & Final Fantasy VI (sometimes #2 for me, sometimes #3). With a pretty complex plot, several twists along the way, cutting edge cutscenes for the time, and a truly iconic villain (Sephiroth), FFVII really led the charge for console rpgs out of the SNES era and into the Playstation era.
Phantasy Star: The End of the Millenium – Various
Phantasy Star: The End of the Millenium was not the only Genesis rpg that I enjoyed, but it was the one that had the biggest impact on me as my rpg tastes grew.
I’m not sure what exactly sparked my love of this game. Partly, it was because the character I thought was the main protagonist, the huntress Alys, dies fairly early in the game’s narrative. This leaves only her young assistant Chaz to continue forward into a story that ends up spanning the entire galaxy. (I also think my love of snow worlds in games may have begun on Phantasy Star IV’s “Dezolis”, an ice world where the adventurers crash land.)
This game featured comic book style cutscenes, an excellent soundtrack, a pretty layered story for the time, incredible environments, and funny enough it introduced me to a staple of MMOs that I would experience much later (a macro system for queueing up spells and actions—a first for a console rpg that I can recall).
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Looking at what I just wrote, it could be said I’ve been creating a ”best of” list for rpgs, but that is not my intention. Each of those games listed above added something else to the list of reasons why I have come to love incredible narratives in video games.
-Secret of Mana taught me that it is okay, and sometimes even more effective, to have a clear plot from beginning to end. I don’t often love the stories without too many twists and turns (it is pretty clear all throughout the game who the villain is, and that the hero will likely turn into one of the “destined hero” archetypes), but the plot is so crisp and well-crafted, it hardly matters. This story definitely taught me that creating a story based on a familiar formula is not a curse. It’s all in the execution.
-Final Fantasy VI had one of the most effective villain ascensions that I can recall in a video game. I’ve seen a 2nd-in-command suddenly turn ambitious and attempt to strike down his/her master, and I’ve seen a clear cut villain rise to become something unspeakable, but until FFVI, I can’t say I ever saw someone I thought was nothing more than a clown turn into a legitimate villain.
Kefka, the main villain of FFVI, begins the game as what appears to be a neurotic more than a psychotic. Even as he shows signs of his true madness, it still doesn’t prepare you for the unimaginably awe inspiring villainy he wreaks later.
By the end, he has literally turned the world inside out, burns whole cities simply for pleasure, and has created a massive tower made of the ruined scraps of the world, drawn together by his twisted magic. So yeah, this guy turns out to be one fucked up villain.
Plus, he has a wicked theme—and probably the most legendary laugh in all of video games:
-Breath of Fire II started off in a way that I can hardly recall any videogame beginning. You begin as a child who wanders off and falls asleep near a dragon who died years ago to protect the village where you live. But when you wake up and wander back to town, nobody there recalls you, your father, or your sister EVER having lived there. Needless to say, it started off trippy, and only got more strange after meeting another ”orphan” named Bow, a dog person (this an rpg, after all), who is also a child, who convinces you to leave the town with him. Which only seemed like the right thing to do since nobody there had any memory of you. The two of you leave town and eventually wander into a cave where some giant behemoth demon worm is waiting… Then you wake up as if from a dream, a young adult.
What I learned from BoFII is, creating a tasty mystery at the beginning of a story can be quite satisfying when you get to see it unveiled, little by little, as the story progresses. I learned this from books and films, too, but it was awesome to get to have such an interactive experience with the story that only a video game can really provide.
-Final Fantasy VII let me play a character who was living as if his slain best friend’s memories were his own. All the while, the main character Cloud uncovers more about his true past, delves into the pasts of the people he is traveling with, and features one of the most well-executed death scenes in the history of rpgs. If anything, FFVII taught me that the death of a main character isn’t always merely for sensationalist purposes; sometimes, it is what needs to happen for a story to advance in a real way. Death has as much of a rightful place in story as love, pain, glory, or any other emotion—perhaps even moreso.
That said, it also made me realize that a meaningful death in a story can’t be too obvious. It has to be handled delicately.
-Phantasy Star: The End of the Millenium let me start the game out with a clear idea of who the main protagonist was, who was the sidekick, and who was the main villain. Fast forward about 2/5ths of the way through the game and, suddenly, the “main character” is dead, the sidekick turns out to be the true hero, and the “main villain” was merely a pawn for some dark God chained up in a neverending void plane that wanted to break free of its prison. Add to that the fact that there is little to no hint your story will even leave the planet you start on, and it makes for an excellent entry to a galaxy wide saga.
Later, you wind up traveling to other worlds, learning more about the great evil that plagues these places, and you also learn more about the history of the Phantasy Star series. Despite this, you never lose the sense that this is your character, your story, and the concerns of the galaxy are just a well-connected set piece that enhances the overall story. I think the most important thing I learned from this game is: don’t be afraid to get grandiose in your vision for a narrative. If you work it just right, it is possible to create something that spans worlds, yet still feels kind of insular in its own way.
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There are a number of different things that affect how you are going to react to a story. Narrative is only one part. Music is another one, but just as important as the music and the narrative, a story’s setting informs how the rest of the story is going to feel. If the world feels dead, why should you give a rat’s ass about it?
One thing about all the games I’ve played that really stuck with me, maybe even more than the overall narrative, was how the setting felt. For me, setting is maybe the most important part of a good story. Just a change of scenery can have a drastic effect on the feel of a story. You might even say a profound effect. But even deeper still, the marriage of music and setting is probably the aspect of video games I enjoy most. It’s what often makes the game for me.
All the games I’ve played have incredible settings, and incredible themes to support them. As I type this a couple come to mind:
City of the Ancients (Final Fantasy VII)
There was something about being in this city for the first time that really grabbed me. The music was a big part of it.
This piece was so different from the other pieces in this game’s soundtrack, I think that was one reason why it felt like stepping into another world. The architecture of the city—the empty, archaic buildings—definitely sold the rest. I remember wandering through this place just to hear the music and take in the feel. I can even recall leaving my character standing idle in the city just so I could sleep to this music once.lol
The City of the Ancients in this game became the archetype for me on how an olden city should feel. When I play new games with a similar setting, this is the game and theme I always return to for a comparison.
Dezolis (Phantasy Star IV)
I can say with 100% certainty, Dezolis is the setting that began my love of ice worlds in video games. There were so many things about it that I enjoyed, the ice caves, the indigenous animals with snow themes that you couldn’t find on any other world, the towns with bonfires all about filled with parka-adorned people milling around—and people inside the buildings remarking on how bitterly cold the weather had gotten outside.
Then you had the ice and snow drifts that made travel on the world a nightmare for normal citizens—including walls of ice that could only be broken through with a vehicle called the “Ice Digger”. PSIV really went the distance to make you FEEL like you were on an ice world, and I have nothing but respect for them for that.
When it comes to ice worlds, I find the most effective music has a “crystalline” quality to it, similar to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy“ from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (which is still, to me, the archetypal “inviting” winter song that can be heard in many winter-themed musical pieces even more than a century after it was written).
There are two ways to really portray winter: inviting or oppressive.
Do you focus on the beauty of winter, or the bitter cold? The clear ice, or the blinding blizzard?
This is why in a game like the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic, Alderaan is my favorite ice world and not Hoth. While both are technically “winter worlds”, Alderaan comes across as more of an “inviting” winter, while Hoth just feels like it will be more “oppressive”. The same could be said of zones like Winterspring (inviting) and Dragonblight (oppressive) in World of Warcraft. Both have their good sides, but my tastes tend to shift toward inviting.
Dezolis managed to give you both. When you first reach the planet, they are in the grip of a terrible blizzard that doesn’t cease. Even on a natural snow world, this blizzard begins to threaten the lives of the people. Early Dezolis is what I would call an oppressive winter world. Later, after you have destroyed the creature causing the blizzard, Dezolis becomes more of an inviting winter world. The music above reflects the change: Dezolis Field #1 is the oppressive world map theme when you first arrive on the planet, while Dezolis Field #2 is what plays on the world map after you’ve halted the blizzard.
Dezolis was the archetype for a good winter environment, on both sides of the inviting/oppressive divide, for me. It was a world that I loved, and anytime I go into a new game with winter environments, I hope to see at least one winter place that is inviting.
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This seems like a good stopping point. I feel like my nostalgia needs to die down for the moment.
I hope this was somewhat entertaining to anyone who happens to come across this piece. I certainly had a good stroll down memory lane while I was writing it.
Part 3—the final part—will be incoming in the next week or so. With PAX East on the way tomorrow, I don’t dare promise more (even if I’m not going, I would hate to miss the coverage).