By Michael W. Harris
There are a few recurring things that appear in (almost) every Final Fantasy game: chocobos, some character named Cid (usually a non-playable character), and Nobuo Uematsu’s “Prelude” theme. In some ways, these, and a few other, elements are the only thing that tie the series together—at least until SquareEnix decided to start doing spin-offs and entire “series” based upon games in the core series. The Final Fantasy series isn’t an on-going story, rather it is an anthology series, and as such features more thematic ties than on-going character stories.
But underneath those recurring elements, as much call-backs as they are in jokes for those in the know, the music of Uematsu really does help to draw the series together with a singular musical voice. Well, it did for installments I through IX, at least. Starting with Final Fantasy X, other composers started to work on the main series, though the score for XIV was composed entirely by Uematsu—however, as XIV is an on-line game, other composers have contributed music through add-ons and expansion packs.
If you want to know the importance of the music in the franchise, look no further than Wikipedia. There is not only an overview article of music in the series, but also individual articles on each of the games, spinoff series, and even one for the live concerts series that have been performed featuring the music. The music for the series is nothing less than a cultural phenomenon.
Which is maybe one of the strongest reasons why Final Fantasy VI stands out so much from the rest of the series. Sure, its music was created on the (now) primitive Super Nintendo sound chip, but music was an integral part of the game’s story. Not only because of the famous opera sequence (discussed more in-depth later in this series), but also because the game itself can be read as an opera. It was part of an integrated whole, and Final Fantasy VI helped shape the musical integration that we see in later games (especially VIII and IX with the integration of a recorded pop song into the storyline and heard as diegetic music in the game).
The idea of Final Fantasy VI as an opera is not nearly as crazy as it seems on first blush. Ludomusicologist (and friend) Ryan Thompson proposed such a reading in a paper he gave at Music and the Moving Image in 2013, and his argument is more than just compelling. In my opinion, it is probably the way the game is meant to be read by those who care to look deeper. But don’t take my word for it, you can listen to an interview Ryan gave to the Top Score podcast in 2015 and judge for yourself.
Thompson’s outlining of the game in three acts, each demarcated by a character waking up in bed, is very well presented. And when we do consider the additional operatic elements—short character introductions given in game, like a program; the large cast of characters, still the largest number of any main series entry of the Final Fantasy franchise; and each character getting a unique musical theme, like in both opera and film—we have a persuasive reading for not only the game, but also music’s importance to the game and player experience.
I am so taken by Thompson’s argument, plus my abiding love of the opera scene in Final Fantasy VI, that I have even named the posts in this series as “acts” in an opera.
Beyond character themes, though, we can sense the importance of music within the game by the care and craft given to each tune in the game, no matter how infrequently it is heard. Some themes, like the music for Zozo (called “Slam Shuffle” on the soundtrack album), which I mentioned in the first post, is heard in only one location in the game. Yet, for me, it is one of the most memorable tunes outside of the opera and Kefka’s theme. Uematsu demonstrated a level of commitment to the entire soundtrack that is staggering consider the amount of music composed (the soundtrack album stretches over three CDs).
But this music has a life outside of the game that has lasted for over twenty years. It has been orchestrated for full symphony, arranged for heavy metal bands, and otherwise recorded and performed in a number of guises. This life after SNES is what I will primarily be exploring in the posts to come, while also looking at how the music integrates with the overall plot and how the themes come back and change.
And with that, the curtain falls on our first act. The players have been introduced, the basic set up for the plot has been given, and now we are ready for the real action to get started.
~End Act I~