The Formula of Final Fantasy: An Introduction

With the recent announcement of Final Fantasy XVI, I thought it would be interesting to take an in-depth look at the series and examine those recurring elements that truly define Final Fantasy. While this may just be a summary of the major themes that populate the franchise, I am going to spend the next year or so writing individual posts for each topic. I hope, at any rate, that I’ll have this project completed before the release of Final Fantasy XVI.

The Warriors of Light at the Water Crystal, Final Fantasy III

Crystals are the symbol of the Final Fantasy franchise. They are perhaps the most recognizable feature of the series, making an appearance in every game regardless of the premise or setting. The crystals are used in several different ways, usually revolving around some type of magic or supernatural capability, and are often quite integral to a game’s plot. In most of the early Final Fantasy titles — those being FFI, FFIII, FFIV, and FFV, all of which are set in high fantasy medieval worlds — there were sets of elemental crystals (four or more crystals depending on the game) that maintained the natural order of the universe and must be protected. In later Final Fantasy titles, crystals began to take on a whole slew of new functions and identities, although their overall importance to their respective stories varied greatly. One could say that crystals took a backseat from being central to the plot between Final Fantasy VIFFXII. In those games, crystals were used predominantly for world-building, set design, and gameplay mechanics, with relatively few being essential to the plot. The Fabula Nova Crystallis (meaning “a new tale for the crystals” in Latin) — a collection of games that included FFXIII and its sequels (otherwise known as the “Lightning Saga”), as well as Final Fantasy Type-0 — revitalized and re-conceptualized the crystal mythos of the franchise, while FFXIV took a bit of inspiration from each of its predecessors. Final Fantasy XV, which was originally intended as a game within the Fabula Nova Crystallis, used elements from the collection in its narrative and world-building to develop a story focused on locating and protecting the Crystal of Lucis, the holy jewel granted to humanity by the gods. And while there is little known of Final Fantasy XVI, it has already been established that crystals will have a prominent role in the narrative of this soon-to-be-released title.

Main cast of Final Fantasy XII (sans Basch)

The phrase “David and Goliath” refers to one of the oldest mythological and literary motifs in human history. It comes from the biblical tale of the young shepherd David’s triumph over the giant Philistine champion, Goliath, having been anointed by God (Yahweh) to be the next king of the Israelites. In the Final Fantasy franchise, this classic underdog story is often retold as a small band of rebels that must set aside their ideological beliefs and personal experiences in order to defeat a malevolent force and restore peace and justice to the world. Take the cast of Final Fantasy XII for example. Jokingly referred to by fans as the “Star Wars [A New Hope]” of the franchise, FFXII features a motley crew — a princess-in-disguise, a disgraced royal soldier, a pair of [sky] pirates, and two childhood friends — attempting to liberate a kingdom from the clutches of a domineering empire in the midst of world conquest.

Of course, the forces of evil are never so docile and simple to be defeated easily, and they often take on a menagerie of different forms. Gods and demons, power-hungry kingdoms and greedy empires, rogue knights, disgraced siblings, and even extraterrestrial beings. The heroes and heroines, referred to as “warriors of light” in oldest titles, must do everything in their power to cleanse the world of evil and darkness. Naturally, as the franchise evolved and developed, that collective phrase went out of use as it no longer fit the settings of future games. Final Fantasy VI took more influence from steampunk than medieval fantasy and the subsequent release of Final Fantasy VII abandoned that classic setting entirely. Remnants of the “warriors of light” phrase have persisted, however, and can be seen most clearly in the cosmogony of Final Fantasy XV.

Yuna performing a Sending, Final Fantasy X

The archetype of the Princess, often looked upon as the “Damsel in Distress”, is perhaps one of the oldest and far-reaching archetypal figures in literature and mythology. The figure is portrayed as a young woman, either caught in a helpless situation and needing rescuing (of some kind) or as a promised reward to a conquering hero. She is defined by her beauty and grace, her fertility, and her virtues (or those which she represents). The Princess is also commonly tied to some kind of power, be it a secular power like the right of kingship through marriage or something more supernatural and spiritual. By saving or joining with the Princess, the mythological hero acquires this power, something which malevolent forces either lust after or would gladly see destroyed.

There also exists the Maiden archetype, an innocent and youthful girl who is otherwise ignorant of the world around her. By comparison, the Maiden often finds herself on a “coming-of-age” adventure, setting out into the unknown world and discovering, not only her identity, but also what she is capable of achieving and learning her role in society (or the world). It is during this journey of self-discovery that the Maiden “grows up” in a way, losing her sense of ignorance and naiveté while gaining some level of wisdom and understanding, and in so doing becomes an adult.

Of course, neither the Princess nor Maiden archetypes are mutually exclusive. In fact, depending on the tale, the two archetypes may even intersect or coincide within the same individual. One might say that where the Maiden’s story ends is where the Princess’ begins. And within the Final Fantasy franchise exists several capable and awe-inspiring young women who, regardless of the archetype they embody, re-conceptualize and redefine the conventional roles of women in modern storytelling.

Lightning and Odin preparing for combat, Final Fantasy XIII

Within the Final Fantasy franchise is a menagerie of immensely powerful creatures that are often referred to as “summons“, “espers“, or “eidolons” (from the Greek meaning “phantom” or “likeness”). These are creatures inspired by mythological and folkloric beings from around the globe, often taking characteristics from their real-world counterparts and evoking the Japanese belief of the kami, or divine spirits. In essence, the kami are the beings that exist in all aspects and elements of life. They can be forces of nature, actualizations of ideas or emotions, the souls of the dead, or higher beings. Of course, all ancient civilizations and long-lasting cultures have had their own versions of the kami and the Final Fantasy franchise has blended these interpretations to create vibrant and exotic worlds.

In the Final Fantasy universe, summons, as they will be discussed, have taken on a number of different roles, from gods and demons, to artificially created monsters and even endemic life. As gods, they charge the warriors of light with restoring stability to the world, while as demons they seek to throw it into chaos. As artificial beings, they are bound to the will of others, while as endemic life they act as stewards of nature. Thus, summons exist to be respected and revered and will offer their strength to the warriors of light, should they complete a trial of spirit or be conquered in battle. In some titles, however, summons are intrinsically linked with the Princess/Maiden figure who uses her power to invoke and tame them.

With regards to design, every summon and every iteration of a summon shares similarities and differences, though they still retain some recognizable feature from their real-world counterpart. The Phoenix summon is a vermilion bird with restorative and resurrection abilities; Leviathan is always a sea serpent with control over the oceans; Odin is a knight who rides into battle on his eight-legged steed Sleipnir and wielding the lance Gungnir. Regardless of their designs, the importance of the summons is what they represent and their roles in the narrative.

Twins Reynn and Lann, World of Final Fantasy

Family is perhaps the most extensively used thematic device found in the Final Fantasy franchise. Every title in the series challenges itself with questions like “what is the meaning of family?”, “is family a matter of blood or trust?”, “does my family define who I am or is it my choice?”, “what can I do to protect those I love?”, and so many more. Heroes and villains, alike, must tackle these questions and, having come to a conclusion, live with the decisions they make. As a result, family is often used as a tool for character progression, providing them with a sense of depth and understanding, while also allowing the audience to have moments of relatability. The multifaceted ways in which this thematic device is used, however, does not take away from the simpler ways that family are depicted. Some titles feature siblings and half-siblings, mothers, fathers and grandparents, friends who become lovers, and even pets. Regardless of the form, a family is always present in every game.

The theme of family is often interwoven with concepts such as, camaraderie and friendship, love (romantic, platonic, or otherwise), trust, forgiveness, envy, legacy, protection, and passion. And the ever-lasting tropes of literature and mythology — the conflict between father and son, restoring the honor of one’s family, the tragedy of losing a loved one or sibling, etc. — are all represented in the Final Fantasy franchise. Given the real world nuances and complexities of families, it is important for the stories of this all-too-fantastical franchise to have something familiar and relatable so that audiences can connect with the characters.

Sephiroth, Final Fantasy VII Remake

Antagonists come in all forms and guises in the Final Fantasy franchise, from amorphous entities of darkness to once-noble warriors and even corrupt gods. And while the warriors of light are often pitted against some greater worldly power, set up as the face of opposition to the heroes, those forces are usually nothing more than distractions from the real threat. The true enemy or villain is the antithesis of the heroes, working to achieve destruction, chaos or apotheosis. Their powers and intentions are commonly seen as opposite to those of the Princess/Maiden figure or the hero/ine, either in theme or substance. As it often so happens, the villain does not make their face known immediately and can remain unseen or unrecognized for the majority of a game, though they have likely been acting on and observing events from behind the curtain.

Oftentimes the villain finds enjoyment in their anonymity, taking time to help the heroes succeed in some part of their quest before a sudden betrayal or acting through others to harass and stress their journey. The villain also tends to hide their actions and scheming behind the worldly power that opposed the heroes, even going so far as to use them as a decoy or puppet. Sometimes, this manipulated authority becomes disposable (or, in few cases, an impediment to the villain’s plans) and is promptly destroyed upon the revelation of the villain’s true intentions. This is shown best in FFVI, when the harlequin court mage, Kefka Palazzo, kills Emperor Gestahl and ascends to godhood, destroying the world with his magic. Alternatively, in FFVII, the fallen hero Sephiroth, having taken advantage of an experiment by Shinra Co. scientists, frequently manipulates Cloud Strife with false memories and illusions in order to gain the power of Meteor while preparing his own resurrection. Thus, the revelation of the villain, be it their true self or physical appearance, marks the beginning of a game’s climax.

Concept art of Ardyn Izunia’s “Palm Sunday” procession, Final Fantasy XV

History, as a narrative technique, is quite varied in Final Fantasy. Just as in the real world, the universes of Final Fantasy are filled with remarkable mythologies, cosmogonies, revisionist histories, forgotten histories, tragic backstories, lost civilizations, and dark ages. In some titles, these histories are added simply for the sake of world-building, to create a more enriched and fleshed out universe. In most others, however, they are intrinsic to the narrative being told and experienced by the player, as they help to infer the thoughts and actions of certain characters, providing context for events as they unfold and perhaps even having personal effects on some of the characters. There are a few Final Fantasy titles that are written as recitations or rediscoveries of past histories, the frame narrative being the present and the game’s plot being the in-universe past.

Naturally, the histories of the franchise take some degree of inspiration from real-world history and mythology. Undoubtedly, “the Lion War” of Final Fantasy Tactics — later re-released as FFT: War of the Lions — which exemplifies revisionist history and censorship, were inspired (at least partially) by the “War of the Roses” in Medieval England during the mid-late 15th century C.E. Concept art and backstory for the character of Ardyn Izunia, from FFXV, are evocative of the New Testament Gospels regarding Jesus Christ, including his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, The Agony in the Garden [of Gethsemane], and his Crucifixion.

Bahamut emerging from Dalamund, Final Fantasy XIV

Meteor is widely regarded as one of, if not, the strongest black (offensive) magic spell in the Final Fantasy franchise. The spell is often depicted as summoning one or more meteors from the cosmos to devastate one’s enemies or destroy whole worlds. Despite first being introduced as a combat spell in FFIII, its origins are often attributed to FFIV where it played its first significant role as a plot device, the ultimate magic that must be sought to defeat the warlock Golbez. One could argue, however, it was really FFVII that popularized Meteor as a recurring and significant plot element, given its role in the game’s narrative, as well as being featured on its title art. Regardless, Meteor continued to exist as a powerful type of magic, while also evolving to fit new roles and forms.

Eventually Meteor, both as a spell and celestial body, became synonymous with a global cataclysm, an event so awesome and destructive that it completely changes the world. This idea is partially fulfilled in the “Lightning Saga”, where in which the crystallized planetoid Cocoon (also featured on FFXIII title art), which acted as substitute for Meteor in the series, plummeted to Gran Pulse. In FFXV, the “Meteor of the Six” crashed into Eos during ancient times and is believed to have brought with it a plague that not even the gods alone could cleanse. These two examples, however, pale in comparison to Meteor’s role at the end of FFXIV in which it acts as the literal catalyst for the birth an entirely new game — FFXIV: A Realm Reborn.

Gilgamesh Ashur, Final Fantasy Type-0

Amidst the many other re-occurrences in Final Fantasy is a small group of characters who appear throughout the franchise as several different, yet similar incarnations. Gilgamesh, not to be confused with the Mesopotamian epic hero (though not wholly dissimilar in some cases), made his first appearance in FFV as an antagonist. This weapon-master warrior has since made more than fourteen appearances across mainline titles and spin-offs (sometimes even “breaking the fourth wall”), either as an enemy, ally, summon, or boss encounter.

Next, there are the many iterations of “Cid“, the oldest recurring character in the franchise and someone who is almost always associated with scientific research or technology — namely the famous airships. The most popular iteration of “Cid”, of course, is Cid Highwind, the foul-mouthed airship pilot and party member of FFVII. Given their numerous appearances, it is difficult to precisely parse whether Gilgamesh or “Cid” is the single most recurring character in the franchise.

The final recurring characters are a running gag in the franchise — Biggs and Wedge. A homage to the Red Squadron pilots from Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977), these two characters appear almost exclusively as a pair, usually taking the role of tertiary or background characters of relative little importance. Biggs and Wedge are reminiscent of the “thin man and fat guy” trope found in literature and popular culture.

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