The Endless End of the World: Queering the Eco-Apocalyptic Narrative of Final Fantasy VI
youngbloodj [at] easternct [dot] edu
Eastern Connecticut State University, Department of English
(Published October 24, 2018)
This paper focuses upon developing a queer ecological reading of 1994’s Final Fantasy VI (FFVI), particularly in how the title establishes a central trope of the long-running roleplaying series in positioning a singular queerly resonant villain at the heart of a conflict that poses a direct threat to the “natural” world. FFVI positions ecological crisis as the fault of a specific individual: Kefka, a sociopathic court jester who fits the model of what queer theorist Lee Edelman deems the “sinthomosexual” and seeks to destroy the vision of a life-giving, child-centric future represented by the player’s band of plucky adventurers. The game’s narrative and gameplay mechanics literally divide the gameworld into a “before” and “after” of environmental devastation wrought by Kefka specifically—and its ending suggests the “before” can be easily and instantly restored by the player’s engagement in a systemic loop of consumption and battle, along with a narrative adherence to family, friends, and the hope of the heteronormative. I counter this narrative by drawing upon writers like Timothy Morton and Jane Bennett, who suggest a vision of ecological thought not marked by a return to some impossibly pure “origin” of nature via whatever means necessary, but a more complex mesh of matter, pollution, and debris that we learn to dwell within. The language of purity and fecundity has often been used to demarcate the queer as well, much as it does in FFVI. In playing with a mind towards resisting easy solutions and salvific narratives about the natural in a variety of forms, we may see the possibilities of how both narrative structure and gameplay systems in Final Fantasy and games beyond the series could push past idyllic visions of ecology and confront messy, fluid, unexpectedly queer landscapes we may dwell in both physically and digitally.
This paper focuses upon a common trend found in the Final Fantasy series of video games and, more largely, the genre of Japanese role-playing games: namely, a central threat to the sustained health and livelihood of a given planet represented by a clearly identified villainous figure who must ultimately be defeated to “save” the world. Specifically, I want to call attention through an analysis of one central title—1994’s Final Fantasy VI—to how these games, in presenting ecological crises to the player, particularly center its solution around the elimination (or even rehabilitation) of that villain, whose characterization repeatedly resonates deeply with what Lee Edelman calls the “sinthomosexual:” a queerly configured individual whose desires link with the denial or destruction of a life-giving, orderly future for the heterosexual social order, “endanger[ing] the fantasy of survival by endangering the survival of love’s fantasy” (No Future 74). Rather than seeing ecological issues as a complex web of interlocking issues that may refuse the idea of an environmental “origin” point we can ever return to, or complicate our meaning of the “natural” in general, the Final Fantasy model of narrative construction and gameplay mechanics as encapsulated by Final FantasyVI ensures that, even in the midst—or the wake—of total devastation, a purer, better world can be (re)made by simply locating its queer corrupter, defeating them, and restoring life back to how it was, how it should be.
Players must consider how their play, rather than simply bringing about a series of abstract game outcomes from experience points to inventory items, cooperates and sustains this model of ecological thought on an active level. If, as Alexander Galloway argues, games “exist when enacted” (Gaming 2), Final Fantasy VI enacts a politics, one built on the necessity of a queer outside, and brings that world into being each time players reboot the software. To be aware of the rules of the system offers the chance to resist it; as Edmond Chang suggests in his exploration of queer gaming practices, “[W]hat would it mean to play against the intent of the game’s design, to repurpose or resist the rules, to play as a collective?” (Queergaming 19). Playing and reading games queerly is to push against the grain on multiple levels, and in the case of Final Fantasy VI’s ecological edicts, play with a mind towards resisting the binaries of pure/tainted, restored/polluted, natural/unnatural so often centered around the game’s central objective: get strong enough to beat the central menace that is the final, queer, boss, and “save” the world. To play Final Fantasy VI with a critical eye towards saving nature is to establish a pattern of critical gaming drawn from queer theory that resists binaries, complicates salvific narratives, and calls for future games focused less on a “return” to the apparently natural and more on an embrace of the slippery, expansive mesh that binds us together now.
By “queer,” I do not mean specifically that the character is linked to LGBTQ issues or that their sexual orientation is made explicit, but that their identity is marked in opposition to the norms, social standards, and expectations that characterize and habitually form heteronormativity. Similarly, to read (or perhaps, to play) queerly does not mean purely an emphasis on representation or sexual orientation. In this sense, I align myself with the larger paradigm for queer game studies suggested by Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw in Queer Game Studies, one built on refusing tendencies to only build “taxonomies of players, create narrow definitions of games and play, and reduce the importance of a medium to commercial success” (xviii). Queerness as method and category is a point of rupture, destabilization, and potential resistance, though not necessarily so—as Jasbir Puar crucially notes, queerness cannot be defined solely “as dissenting, resistant, and alternative,” though in all of these attributes “queerness importantly is and does” (Terrorist Assemblages 205; emphasis added). Nor is it to mark queerness as destructive or anti-survival; rather, it is to see how heteronormative narratives habitually turn to the emergent, unfixed nature of the queer as a means of establishing an “other” against which to define its own future, often by apparently threating heteronormativity’s sustained existence.
In establishing this “other,” each of the individuals representing it in Final Fantasy are also deliberately shown to be modified or “unnatural” in a way that links to Giovanna di Chiro’s acknowledgment of the “toxic” rhetoric at the heart of certain ecological discourses, where bodies that encounter chemicals, toxins, or pollutants are also linked to disruptive, dangerous threats to what she deems an “eco-normative” system (Polluted Politics? 202). They are also clearly distinguished against similarly “corrupted” individuals who choose a purer, orderly, “natural” path—which is often distinguished by their involvement in a biological family or heterosexual relationship. It is not for nothing that “love” usually saves the day in a Final Fantasy title, and what Edelman sees as “the survival of love’s fantasy” relies upon the conquering of those who have rejected its normative terms. If considering the player’s gameplay participation—pursuing a singular deviant cause which can be located, defeated, and cured before it can achieve annihilating the world—as analogous to the narrative’s perception of ecological thought, Final Fantasy ends up establishing a clear separation between Nature and that which is outside it, and in so doing epitomizing what Timothy Morton calls visions of “eco-apocalypse”: a singular, destructive event that divides a pure “before” from a polluted “after” rather than seeing the relationship between humanity and its environment as an always-already complex mix—or “mesh”— of decaying matter and discarded objects. Similarly, it resists what Morton suggests elsewhere is the possibility of queer ecology, a disruptive model of environmental thinking where “all life-forms, along with the environments they compose and inhabit, defy boundaries between inside and outside at every level” (Queer Ecology 274).
In The Ecological Thought, Morton, in discussing eco-apocalypse, notes that its formation “is always for someone. It presupposes an audience. What kinds of sadistic ‘you asked for it’ fantasies does it promote? To what extent does it leave everything the way the same as it ever was, the day before the day after tomorrow?” (100). By the very paradox of its title, a Final Fantasy game may be exactly the type of fantasy—and its players the type of audience—that eco-apocalypse promotes: an end brought about in a perpetual “not now” by specific, identifiable sources able to be distinguished from the core cast, but dealt with in such a way that the player both never has to deal with the lingering ecological labor of the post-saved world and also can also leave it to move on to the next “end” to be thwarted in the following title. There is an “us” and a “them,” an outside and an inside; everything is the same as it ever was, and the comfort of that playable narrative in both its endlessly repeatable and unchanging fashion as the encoded gamestate of one specific title and its repetition across the series allows for the perpetuity of days before the day after tomorrow. Identify the queer threat, pursue it, and kill it, and the end of the world is staved off—at least until it can be constructed again.
Previous examinations of ecology in the Final Fantasy series have focused on one particular title: 1997’s Final Fantasy VII, produced for the original Sony PlayStation by Squaresoft. This is both due to the game’s immense popularity as the title which introduced Final Fantasy to a wide-scale audience and the game’s explicit focus on the main cast fighting a large corporation literally siphoning life-force out of the ground. These articles range in focus from Robbie Sykes’ “Those Chosen by the Planet’: Final Fantasy VII and Earth Jurisprudence,” which critiques legal philosophy on ecological matters by reading the game’s plotline in light of Slavoj Žižek’s writings on the natural world, to Jay Foster’s chapter on “The Lifestream, Mako, and Gaia” in Final Fantasy and Philosophy: The Ultimate Walkthrough, which explores the game’s depiction of its central planet, Gaia, as a homeostatic environment. Most striking, however, is Colin Milburn’s “There Ain’t No Gettin’ Offa This Train: Final Fantasy VII and the Pwning of Environmental Crisis,” which highlights the inherent tension between exploring environmental issues via a medium that consumes immense amounts of resources both in its creation and its sustained usage. For Milburn, Final Fantasy VII is an opportunity for players to think critically about their potential complicity in environmental destruction, a “final fantasy of recuperation and rehabilitation” that is brought about by the player’s experience of completing the game’s challenges (87). By linking mechanics to message, Milburn expands beyond simply applying a philosophical model to the game’s ecologically-centered storyline and moves into the language of gameplay, algorithm—or, as popularized by Ian Bogost, procedure.
However, while Milburn points the way towards analysis driven by a fusion of gameplay system to narrative model, no analysis of Final Fantasy VII has explored the queerly destructive ecological presence of its central antagonist, Sephiroth, in relationship to its mechanics of play—nor, certainly, the origin point of his model of villainy. Ben Hourigan, in an analysis of tropes of love and friendship in the Final Fantasy series, identifies 1994’s Final Fantasy VI (hereafter FFVI) as the series starting point of an emphasis not only on the “disruptive effects of imperialist warfare, magical apocalypse, and environmental degradation on the lives of common people, in particular on their social relations,” but also “an intense engagement with the figures of the orphan and misfit” ("You Need Love and Friendship For This Mission!": Final Fantasy VI, VII and VIII in Generic and Social Context). In FFVI, the model of the “misfit” sinthomosexual is established for the first time in the series via the lunatic clown Kefka: a murderous, vain, failed magical experiment who takes particular pleasure in poisoning innocents, killing the virtuous, and by the end of the game, lording over a burning tower of discarded trash and rubble he declares “a monument to non-existence” in the original English translation. The world itself is largely seen as a reflection of his deviance, as his rise to power literally splits the game from “the world of balance” to “the world of ruin”; his tainted nature as the first human infused with magic artificially makes him a suitable threat to that balance, and his rejection of social values like love, friendship, and family—what he deems “lines from a self-help book”—in embracing isolated and all-encompassing annihilation further mark him as a twisted threat to both humanity and the ecological order. The two are intimately fused; as Edelman argues, “what’s missing from nature, what the figure of naturalization attempts to secure, is the system of values, the moral economy, [subjects are] made to value as nature itself” (58). Upon his defeat, birds take to the sky, plants emerge from the ground, and a baby is born; the coincidence of each, along with their disappearance at his rise, marks the end of ruin and the restoration of a normative tomorrow.
In performing this reading, I want to pay particular attention to Alenda Chang’s call for game studies that take into account how “game environments extend beyond surface appearances to the underlying mechanics with which programmers establish the ‘rules’ of game universes. From motion physics to seasons and climatic zones, from resource availability and creature ‘spawn’ rates to concept art and ambient sounds, players operate within a multitude of environmental parameters that determine not only what the game world looks like, but also how it responds to player input” (“Slow Violence”: A Proposal for Ecological Game Studies). Chang’s system of analysis follows the pattern of Bogost’s famous definition of procedural rhetoric, which focuses on how arguments are made “not through the construction of words or images, but the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models. In computation, those rules are authored in code” (Persuasive Games 29). For Bogost, to play a game critically is to play “with an eye towards identifying and interpreting the rules that drive that system” (64); thus, it is not merely the plots of Final Fantasy games that demand visions of defeatable eco-apocalypse, but the very mechanics of the genre they hail from: the Japanese role-playing game, or JRPG. In a game model that is built upon the expectation of battling, leveling, and improving the core characters’ various statistics and equipment until a terminal point where the game is “defeated” and ends, the series often finds itself drawn down paths demanding reasons for sustaining and expanding combat until reaching the final threat—and providing a suitable reward for doing so in the form of a gratifying, salvific ending. In this model, games are not passive objects acted upon by the player, but active systems guiding and constructing an interpretive meaning that the player has the illusion of control over.
This also changes the player’s connection to the surrounding environments, where objects, events, and even individuals are largely viewed as means towards improving the character. Utilizing Jane Bennett’s work in Vibrant Matter—a book meant to complicate the lines between passive, “dead” matter and active “living” agents—I argue that FFVI, through its sustained gameplay mechanics, develops a pattern in which the player is encouraged to treat its gameworld as a place of “dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter [which] feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption” (ix). Here, it is an ostensibly earth-saving (final) fantasy that demands we consume and conquer, and to do so, all of the world provided to the player to use is fair game. This is in direct contrast to Bennett’s view of all matter as “actants:” “quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (viii). To play upon Galloway and Bogost and their emphases on action, it is wise to consider games themselves as actants with trajectories and propensities of their own which may be produced through non-critical engagement with actants within their digital environments. In viewing the disconnect between what the plot sees as vibrant, self-defining matter and what the game systems transform into instrumental matter, a further ecological schism forms at the intersection of narrative, gameplay, and player agency. It is through this schism, however, that a queer counter-reading can develop: one that refuses a mix of utilitarian and apocalyptic ecological thought and seeks out a different kind of fantasy.
“This Broken World That Just Won’t Die:” Final Fantasy VI
In the first paragraph of the chapter “Forward Thinking” in The Ecological Thought, Morton opens with a declaration about “the end of the world:”
Environmentalism is often apocalyptic. It warns of, and wards off, the end of the world. The title of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring says it all. But things aren’t like that: the end of the world has already happened. We sprayed the DDT. We exploded the nuclear bombs. We changed the climate. This is what it looks like after the end of the world. Today is not the end of history. We’re living at the beginning of history. The ecological thought thinks forward. It knows that we have only just begun, like someone waking up from a dream. (98)
Throughout the chapter and much of his other work, Morton repeatedly invokes this question of a liminal point, a clear “end of the world” and where it began, and how to dwell within it. When speaking of climate change, Morton asks, “What if it’s not a huge catastrophe worthy of a Spielberg movie but a real drag, one that goes on for centuries?” (118). The prophecy of a forthcoming end of the world pushes things into a forever-coming “then” rather an existent “now,” and as Morton notes, the singularity of a discrete “end”—a boom, a bang, a specific event—overlooks the far larger temporal scale of ecological damage and collapse. It also demands a vastly different view of Nature and a discrete “world,” where a clear delineation can be made between its states. As he puts it, “the more you’re aware of ecology, the more you lose the very ‘world’ you were trying to save and the more things you didn’t know or didn’t want to know come to the fore” (133). Morton calls the idea of a “soft, squishy, irrational, authoritarian Nature” that can be retained, restored, or saved a futile one, and, in a rather evocative phrase for this essay, remarks that “[l]osing a fantasy is harder than losing a reality—just ask a therapist” (133). Instead, he calls for an understanding of the world “outside the charmed circles of Nature” as a “charnel ground,” which is a “place of life and death, of death-in-life and life-in-death, an undead place of zombies, viroids, junk DNA, ghosts, silicates, cyanide, radiation, demonic forces, and pollution” (Hyperobjects 126). By doing so, the illusion of “saving the world” fades, and the tougher, longer, more necessary task of ecological coexistence within the “emergency room” of our environment emerges; what is needed is to “enter the charnel ground and try and to stay there, to pitch a tent and live there, for as long as possible” (126).
As any player of the Final Fantasy series can tell you, the world typically inhabited by the player is decidedly close to a charnel ground. Zombies, both as enemies and as a status effect, have been a series staple for years; ghosts dwell in its various dungeons and field maps, demonic forces grapple for dominance alongside other occult workings, and various locations show the residue of pollutants from poisonous muck to industrial waste. And players can certainly pitch a tent in the middle of the map or at a convenient save spot for a spell. Yet despite the immersive powers of the series, and the undoubtedly massive amount of time spent wandering through its various environments by its players, the charnel grounds of Final Fantasy are not dwelling places: they are testing grounds, experience locations, sources of weapons, items, and characters. What one does there is not observe, but fight, conquer, overcome obstacles. Putting up a tent means restoring your hit and magic points for more battle, not to contemplate the union between player, environment, and object. The animation for a tent is roughly five to ten seconds—a sprite appearing, a fade to black, and a comforting musical tone signify its completion. The game does not want to linger too long on this sequence; after all, what is important is not the rest itself but what it provides to the player in the form of renewed fighting capabilities. And unlike its competitor Dragon Quest, there is no option to recruit or befriend encountered enemies in the field. The visual demarcation is clear: they stand there, “you” and your teammates stand here, and battle takes place until either side is dead.
Additionally, the game’s model of storytelling ensures that players, rather than crafting the fate of this new world, more or less bring into being its already-determined future; the average player of FFVI will spend a lot of time reading, receiving information activated by arrival at pre-assigned plot points. The world must be saved, but it must be done in a very specific order and by talking to very specific people. While the player may feel in control of certain aspects—movement, inventory management, the general flow of battle—the game can (and will) repeatedly take the reins in a variety of pre-scripted situations. Drawing from Jesper Juul’s distinction between progression (movement between predefined events) and emergence (a larger web of possible outcomes from a set of rules), FFVI is a game skewed heavily towards progression, where control is held particularly on the side of the game designer and emergent possibilities are limited to small iterations between major plot points (Half-Real 74).
The reason for all this fighting and talking tends to be either in preparation for, or in reaction to, the impending “end of the world” Morton articulates. In this regard, FFVI offers one of the clearest, most decisive dividing lines in the series between the before and after of that event, along with a specific, identifiable cause to blame and ecological markers of its occurrence. The game’s opening crawl in the 2006 Game Boy Advance1 re-release makes this apocalyptic logic clear, establishing a world built around cycles of salvation and destruction:
The ancient War of the Magi... When its flames at last receded, only the charred husk of a world remained. Even the power of magic was lost... In the thousand years that followed, iron, gunpowder, and steam engines took the place of magic and life slowly returned to the barren land. Yet there now stands one who would reawaken the magic of ages past and use its dreaded power as a means by which to conquer all the world. Could anyone truly be foolish enough to repeat that mistake?
We are immediately informed of a “husk” that was, a thousand years prior to the game (and conveniently left out of the player’s goals to help fix). Good and bad technologies, with “magic” on the side of the dangerous and “iron, gunpowder, and steam engines” on the side of “life,” establish an order to be followed, and a specific, singular “one” stands as a direct threat in using its “dreaded power.”2 That new end is coming, and the restoration of the planet to “life” undone. The player’s role, if not to stop the repetition, is to at least limit its duration, and players of FFVI will find that, in comparison to the thousand-year cycle preceding the game, the game’s characters only have to endure roughly a year of the process.
What activates the new cycle is, as the prelude hints, a destructive, nihilistic force in white face paint and polka-dotted yellow robes. Though he is not yet named, Kefka first appears walking across the screen in direct tandem with the line marking his future destiny, and his first named appearance is using a device called a “slave crown” to command a young woman named Terra to burn a group of soldiers “to a crisp.” He is constantly surrounded by or utilizing “bad” technology, first in the form of the slave crown and large robotic walkers known as Magitek Armor,3 and later evolving to giant crane arms, condensed magical material known as “magicite,” and a destructive beam he dubs the “Light of Judgment.” Across the course of the game, Kefka poisons to death the wife and child of a party member (along with apparently hundreds of others in the same location), attempts to burn down a castle and two towns, murders a fellow general while masquerading as an emperor, singlehandedly wipes out a group of magical entities known as Espers, kills the emperor he previously imitated, and eventually rips apart entire towns and countries using the Light of Judgment. The scene of him poisoning the castle of Doma makes his relationship to the world clear, as he turns a previously pristine blue steam into a neon purple glowing mess, all while delightedly commenting, “Nothing beats the sweet music of hundreds of voices screaming in unison!”
Extensive villainy is nothing new in fiction, video game or otherwise. That Kefka is sociopathic in nature allows him to join a long list of prior destroyers of things on a large scale. Yet what FFVI takes such pains to establish—and what shifts him from symbol of insanity to something queerer, deviant, truly unsettling—is the pleasure he takes in removing the idea of futurity from the world, and how often the game juxtaposes that impulse to those similarly infused with magic but following a different path. Terra, the young girl he was previously controlling to burn others, turns out to be a hybrid of human and Esper, and possesses magical powers too; yet unlike Kefka, who revels in his inhumanity, she spends the majority of the game attempting to learn how to love and act like a “regular” human girl. Initially, this is linked to feeling heterosexual desire, as a meeting with a flirtatious king leaves her feeling that “I suppose a normal girl would have felt something from those words. But... not me... ” She is directly linked to Celes, a fellow Magitek Knight like Kefka who retains her humanity; when they first meet in the plot, Terra immediately asks her, “...Is it possible for you to love other people?” Within Terra’s mindset, they have been tainted, altered, made unnatural by proximity to magic. The relationships she can forge are, in her mind, decidedly different, and her later question to an older man—“If a human and an esper can love one another... Do you think a human and I could love each other?”—further mark out lines of the natural.
While Celes initially dismisses Terra’s question, demanding “Are you mocking me?” her plotline too is quickly linked to a need for love: in her case, a heterosexual connection to a plucky treasure hunter named Locke. Their relationship becomes the cornerstone of her characterization; while initially somewhat cold and professional, Celes’ growing affection for Locke is largely used to humanize her, along with an extended opera scene where she performs the role of an abandoned lover in wartime. Later, that connection will draw her out of a depression after Kefka’s destruction of the planet via a message seemingly brought to her by nature; having intended to commit suicide, she instead survives her jump from a cliff and finds a bird at the bottom watching her. Asking first, “Were you watching over me? Why would you want to help someone like me? I've already given up hope…” Celes abruptly turns to the bandana wrapping a wound on its wing, deducing “He's alive... Locke's alive!”4 Given that the game has just noted prior to her jump numerous others not surviving that fall, having “flung themselves from the northern cliffs in despair,” the natural world, it would seem, is presented as having a vested interest in keeping her love alive in comparison.
In drawing both its potentially “other” characters closer to the question of love and affection (or, as Edelman puts it, love’s fantasy), FFVI uses this proximity to play up fears of magic threatening the ecology of the planet—and how only proper adherence to orderly behavior will maintain balance. Early in the game, just after Terra has transformed into an inhuman form for the first time, she flies away in a terrified panic; the party finds her near an Esper who, while noting that “[s]he is afraid of what she is, and that is a painful thing,” reminds those present that “if our power is used for destruction, the skies will darken and life will fade from the earth.” Later, after the world has fallen to Kefka, Terra only rejoins the party after she spends time with a young family with children; it is from them that she fully learns “love,” and in her goodbye statement to them, fuses a social and an ecological future together: “Thank you... You all helped me understand what it means... to love. I'll fight! I'll make this world a place where life can flourish, and children can grow up in peace!” Edelman’s view of the future as that held in perpetuity for the figure of the Child, that which explicitly makes the future worth fighting for (3), here is given direct voice by Terra—just as she uses it to distinguish herself from Kefka: “The very day the world collapsed, Kefka turned his Light of Judgment on this village. The adults... these kids' parents... They all died trying to protect their children... ” What restores Terra to that fight for the future is recognition of that which she possesses and the very thing that Kefka cannot, will not do: love and protect children. Rather, it is what he actively attempts to destroy. If, according to Edelman, “queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the value of reproductive futurism” (3), Kefka makes for a decidedly vigorous proponent of this policy.5
Thus, Kefka is the marker—down to the very day—of the world’s end, and the direct problem facing our party of love. Morton argues that “the beautiful soul is dissolved when we recognize that we did it, we caused environmental destruction, not you, whoever you are” (Ecology without Nature 185), but FFVI allows for the continued fantasy of a distinct and definable “you” of the world’s fall that can be located, defined, and eventually defeated. Kefka’s rise to power literally reorders the environment, as well; upon first unleashing the Light of Judgment, continents shift across the map, towns vanish into the sea, caves emerge from unexpected places. Kefka, in essence, carries the singular load of negative human influence over environmental change; it is only through him that places become polluted, eroded, or altered in any significant way. Compare this to the sand-burrowing, continent-shifting Figaro Castle—which undoubtedly must have done something to the environment—and the reaction is decidedly different; its king, Edgar, who joins the player’s party early in the game, is introduced as “champion of the technological revolution.”
Kefka’s final grandiose speech atop his titular Tower, seated among the statues of the gods, solidifies his anti-futurity stance while further binding him to physical and ecological destruction. To the party’s regenerative cry that “people can always rebuild, and new lives will always be born,” Kefka turns to the inevitability of decay: “And time will destroy all of those as well. Why do people insist on creating things that will inevitably be destroyed? Why do people cling to life, knowing that they must someday die? ...Knowing that none of it will have meant anything once they do?” To quote Edelman again, Kefka “opposes the fantasy that generates endless narratives of generation” (82), which is particularly fascinating in a game series based entirely on a Fantasy that can generate endlessly, both within itself as iterations of the same encoded narrative on the cartridge and later as its reproduction in later versions of the franchise. Thus, in his attempts to twist the knife further, asking the party, “And did you all find your ‘somethings’ in this broken world that just won't die?” it is not surprising Kefka is met with answers all about generations:
Locke: A person worth protecting.
Cyan: A life and child who live on within me.
Shadow: Friends...and family.
Edgar: A peaceful kingdom.
Sabin: A loving brother who always looks out for me! Gah-ha-ha-ha!
Celes: Someone willing to accept me for who I am.
Strago: An adorable little granddaughter.
Relm: An obnoxious grandpa...who I couldn't live without!
Setzer: Wings from a dear old friend!
Mog: New pals, kupo!
What can be reproduced is family, love, kinship, government; people and institutions offer surer bets than, say, the broken world itself. Every answer turns to the human, and what was found among those tents in the charnel grounds was not a landscape to be dwelled in but other (human) beings to be sustained. Morton calls the “idea that we want to stay with a dying world” a “necessarily queer one,” making the group’s affirmative answer to staying with a “broken world that just won’t die” a seemingly queer embrace of dark ecology (Ecology without Nature 185). Yet if Morton’s hope of “the end of the world” is that “it is the end of the human dream that reality is significant for them alone” (Hyperobjects 108), FFVI’s narrative finds that dream decidedly still active, and driven predominantly by human reproductive ties.
In a way, however, this should not be surprising, given how the game teaches the player via gameplay to treat objects other than the controllable characters. I return here to Bennett’s idea of “vibrant” matter, particularly in how it relates to the game’s treatment of an Esper’s final form: magicite. In looking at how humans engage with non-human material, Bennett notes how “[t]hough the movements of stem cells, electricity, food, trash, and metals are crucial to political life (and human life per se), almost as soon as they appear in public (often at first by disrupting human projects or expectations), these activities and powers are represented as human mood, action, meaning, agenda, or ideology. This quick substitution sustains the fantasy that ‘we’ really are in charge of all those ‘its’” (x). While Bennett never invokes it, the idea of an RPG inventory screen is perhaps one of the purest examples of sustaining that fantasy; as players, we arrange, dismantle, sell, equip, and discard items entirely based on their abilities to “impede or block the will and design of humans” (ix). “Its” are placed upon character bodies to increase statistics such as attack power or defense, and subsequently are discarded or traded in when better options present themselves; in an added convenience, rarely do they ever disrupt or stymie human expectation, but purely benefit the player’s core goal of defeating the game.6 Similarly, the player may enter into whatever locations or homes they like, take items from those locations, and promptly put them to use in her quest. The source location is irrelevant; in FFVI, the player does not have to account for the object’s role in the community—what Bennett, drawing from Bruno Latour, deems its role as an “actant”—but only its eventual purpose as “a resource, commodity, or instrumentality” (viii) in either battle or accessing different environments.
Given the narrative role of magic and Espers in FFVI as potentially deviant, disruptive forces in the creation of identity and the sustaining of the world state, it might be expected that magicite’s role as equip-able objects upon character bodies, instead of simply chainmail or a sword, would embrace more of both Bennett’s idea of vital matter and Morton’s idea of the “strange stranger,” where proximity breeds further disruption of identity categories: “Do we know for sure whether they are sentient or not? Do we know whether they are alive or not? Their strangeness is part of who they are. After all, they might be us. And what can be stranger than what is familiar?” (Ecological Thought 41). After all, magicite is literally the condensed will of an Esper, whose appearance and emergence in the world again after hundreds of years is the main source of change (social and ecological) in the game. What would this cohabitation, this union of wills between “living” matter and a human body, produce? Something disruptive? Something queerly unusual?
Quite simply, it produces spells. Equipping a magicite to a character allows them to learn whatever spells are “within” the magicite at a given rate, which can only be learned through skill points gained via battle. If the player levels up while the magicite is equipped, they will also gain a specific stat bonus unique to that particular Esper. While the act of being infused with magic is utterly life-changing to Terra, Celes, and Kefka, once the action goes from narrative centerpiece to manipulated gameplay choice, the subsequent impact and significance all but vanishes. Deviance becomes battle efficacy, and the impact to the planet and self are simply folded into stat crunching. In the same sense, characters as members of the party become extensions of their combat abilities and potential equipment. When the party offers only character connections as reasons to remain in the world to Kefka, it in some ways tries to provide a layer of “human” engagement missing in the player’s own experience of play. If anything, what has kept the player in this broken world—beyond a potential connection to the overall plot—has been the desire to build their collection of objects, abilities, and experience to a level of sufficient mastery. What objects, locations, meshes would they be invested in? Areas of high experience and gold.
Ask many players of FFVI what environment they know most intimately from time spent there, and the dinosaur-head-shaped forest filled with high-level monsters, or the sprawling field known as the Veldt, will likely come up. And since the game offers no impetus to finish in a set amount of time, the player’s grind against the environment—killing an infinite number of endlessly respawning beasts—may end up usurping the ostensible need to “save” it, producing a decidedly schizophrenic “mesh” between player, environment, and narrative. Why move on past the broken world? The fixed one doesn’t offer as much experience. To pull from Edelman, the future may indeed stop here; the “grind,” the refusal to move forward and not seek out the next stage of the plot, may perhaps be a form of queer resistance to the game’s normative model. And its own strange way, for a self-aware player, it may be the closest FFVI comes to Morton’s vision of dark ecology, where “[w]e start by thinking that we can ‘save’ something called ‘the world’ ‘over there,’ but end up realizing that we ourselves are implicated. This is the solution to beautiful soul syndrome: reframing our field of activity as one for which we ourselves are formally responsible, even guilty… Dark ecology undermines the naturalness of the stories we tell about how we are involved in nature. It preserves the dark, depressive quality of life in the shadow of ecological catastrophe” (Ecology without Nature 187). We linger in the midst of the crumbling environment, the “world of ruin,” and recognize the futility of discretely and definitively “saving” the world from its queer destroyer to begin with.
“There Won’t Be Anything Left to Dream About:” Conclusions
Yet for the player who cannot stop there, who must see the game through to its “end,” the other core aspect to be addressed in Kefka’s final stand is the game’s ultimate inability to leave the world broken. One need only look to Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken to find an articulation of a core desire for games to “fix” a broken world, to offer solutions and corrections to issues that exist in “reality.” For McGonigal, games give us the affirmative, positive life we crave habitually; as she puts it, “gamers want to know: Where, in the real world, is that gamer sense of being fully alive, focused, and engaged in every moment? Where is the gamer feeling of power, heroic purpose, and community? Where are the bursts of exhilaration and creative game accomplishment? Where is the heart-expanding thrill of success and team victory?” (3). Yet when the FFVI party offers up to Kefka their list of ecological gamer joys, of “heroic purpose and community” built out of family and futurity, he spits it right back at them: “Bleh! You people make me sick! You sound like lines from a self-help book! If that's how it's going to be... I'll snuff them all out! Every last one of your sickening, happy little reasons for living!” His lilting, off-kilter musical theme even interrupts the swelling music of the scene, gearing him up for his rejection of fantasy altogether: “I'll destroy the entire world! There won't be anything left to dream about!”
Morton, in describing environmental rhetoric, notes “it’s sunny, straightforward, ableist, holistic, hearty, and ‘healthy’…if the ecological thought is as big as I think it is, it must include darkness as well as light, negativity as well as positivity” (Ecological Thought 16). It is potentially satisfying to think of Kefka here as a sort of perverse dark ecologist, throwing down a gauntlet to the realm of positivity, of ecosalvation dreams, and demanding better answers. As his final questions suggest, “Life... Dreams... Hope... Where do they come from? And where do they go...? Such meaningless things... I'll destroy them all!” However, no such outcome can result from FFVI’s plotline. The characters do not go back and reconsider the nature of the world, rethink their roles as saviors, or ponder their own potential implication in the process of ecological change. Instead, our nihilist destroyer of dreams, killer of children and burner of innocents, stands as the lone representative of guilt and blame; as Edelman notes, “the blame must fall on the fatal lure of sterile, narcissistic enjoyments understood as inherently destructive of meaning and therefore as responsible for the undoing of social organization, collective reality, and, inevitably, life itself” (13). And upon Kefka’s death and the collapse of his tower, within literally minutes the world begins to restore itself. A seed grows in a village for the first time in a year; flowers turn from brown to blue; towns rebuild their homes; the grass on the world map all changes to green for the first time since the world of balance; most importantly, the family that inspired Terra to fight has a new baby. Fixing the world takes only minutes, if the problems facing it can stem from only one source.
It is with Terra that we spend our last scene, her headband removed, wind blowing through her locks as two doves fly alongside the airship she rides upon. Moments before, she has watched magic fade from the earth as well; unlike Kefka, who dies in part due to his adherence and immersion in it, she and Celes smile as it disappears, being firmly tethered to the normative social order by this point. As she ascends into the heavens, “THE END” appears on screen. This is, ostensibly, the end of the player’s playthrough, meaning that whatever is left on the earth they’re rapidly leaving behind is left to someone else to hypothetically keep fixing. But it also suggests another “end”: the end of destruction, the end of deviance, the end of devastation—at least, of course, until the next Final Fantasy, where the end can be seen, arrive, and be dealt with once more. Despite being almost 22 years old now, Final Fantasy VI has been startlingly effective at setting the pattern for the series to follow; there may not be anything new to dream about, but unlike Morton’s call that the end of the world is like “waking up from a dream,” the lingering appeal of this particular fantasy of ecological play suggests we may not want to ever leave this one.
1. Due to the 2006 translation being widely hailed for restoring and clarifying lines from the Japanese original, I will be using it primarily throughout the section. If I use the 1994 translation, it will be noted.
2. In the original 1994 translation, “there now stands one” is rendered as “there are some,” making the cause less traceable directly to Kefka. “High technology” also “reigns,” but it is not given any credit to restoring life to the land. Additionally, the last line begins “Can it be that those in power” rather than “Could anyone,” further rendering it a systemic issue rather than one deviant individual who throws the system out of order.
3. In the original Japanese, the “tek” suffix is less evident; it is more like a word for “sorcery” or “demonry,” rather than an explicit link to technology. However, the “unnatural” element is still prominent.
4. This scene is missed if the player catches enough healthy fish to bring her older companion and mentor, Cid, out of sickness; the player must either use the resources of nature to save another or allow it to save them.
5. This is not to say Edelman’s anti-futuristic turn is the ideal route for queer ecological policy to take. As numerous critics from Sallie Anglin to Diane Chisholm have noted, Edelman’s view eliminates a variety of non-procreative activities that still desire an ecological future to be performed in, along with upholding a certain amount of privilege in openly letting go of a future that some queer groups have never been able to access in any form. Yet I am not arguing for Edelman’s political stance so much as I am noting how his concepts of sinthomosexuality and reproductive futurism are deeply ingrained into FFVI.
6. An exception to this rule in FFVI is the Cursed Shield, an item that lowers numerous stats and causes the equipped character to be afflicted with various status elements. However, this is a fixable problem; the player, with enough patience, can transform the Cursed Shield into the Paladin Shield by fighting enough battles, transforming it into easily the best shield in the game. It is not cohabitance with its quirks, but eventual taming of the shield, that emerges as the object relationship.
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