I almost despair at having something new to say about Final Fantasy VI. Although it isn’t the most popular JRPG ever made, many debates over what the best JRPG evurr is have boiled down to a match between this title and the near-contemporaneous Chrono Trigger. But on a whim I was inspired to pull my old copy off the shelf and fire up a new game. The resulting few hours with the game have felt surprisingly fresh, almost as if I were seeing the thing for the first time.
FF VI‘s story is not particularly ingenious and it makes no secret of how beholden it is to Star Wars. But it’s also a good testament to how a game can be emotionally involving even without the most stellar writing. It takes place in a fantasy world where magic, which was once commonplace, has died out after a disastrous war one millennium prior. At the game’s opening, we find the world in the middle of an industrial revolution. An evil empire (of course) has ascended to power and is revitalizing the use of magic as part of its plans for world domination. A rag-tag group of rebels (of course) is assembling our protagonists in the hopes of fighting back.
But it’s also an unusually bleak riff on Star Wars. For most of the game, the villains always seem one step ahead of the heroes. None of the heroes’ victories really succeed in turning the tables of the conflict. The game’s principal antagonist, Kefka, seems to always have a way of bending the outcomes to his benefit. And by the second half of the game he has, for all intents and purposes, won; he brings about a cataclysmic event which destroys most of civilization while granting him enough power to rule over the world – or destroy what’s left of it. This victory is even made galling to the player, as it disbands all the characters in your party and destroys your only means of transport, leaving you stranded on a small island.
From this point on the adventure is really just about damage control. And even after Kefka is defeated, we’re left less with a sense of definitive triumph than one of hope for the world. The heroes, after all, now live in a profoundly broken world. It’s The Empire Strikes Back without The Return of the Jedi.
What defines the heroes, then, isn’t their victories but rather their hope in the face of total defeat. This makes the game feel oddly suited to the season of Advent.
Advent, for liturgical Christians, is the season that leads up to Christmas, having a similar relationship to it that Lent has to Easter. While the commercial world has already given itself over to Christmas muzak, many churches instead sing more somber hymns like “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” The season is about the anticipation of the coming of the Lord – both the first coming celebrated at Christmas and the second one that will happen at the end of time.
Looking back at ancient Israel waiting in anticipation of her messiah, we already see a people who had been ransomed from slavery only to face the grievous political and moral loss of the Babylonian exile, where even their homeland seemed lost. And afterwards were the blows struck by Alexander’s heirs and the Roman Empire. This was already the Israel that had produced Ecclesiastes and Job, texts which express such deep spiritual anguish. Nevertheless, hope survived. FF VI has something of this character to it – its world is one in need of a redemption that still hasn’t arrived by the time the credits roll. But the ending note is one of hope rather than disillusionment. This is a world where redemption is still possible.
But this also isn’t something that relates only to biblical history. Christ’s sacrifice has nullified the the ultimate victory of sin and death, but inasmuch as we live in time, their effect still lingers. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote quite movingly in one of his letters that,
I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory. (Letter # 195)
This is a melancholy thought, but also a consoling one. Many of us are rightly concerned about how violent and politically volatile the world seems, and about the place of the Church in a culture which is increasingly indifferent or hostile to Christianity. The Church is indeed a great rebellion against the spirit of the world. But there is always the temptation to measure her in terms of temporal successes, as if the Church were simply another political faction in the arena. But that way leads to despair.
The fate of the world does not rest on our shoulders, and we are not given any promises that our worldly plans – however noble – will come to fruition. God remains the author of the world he created, and redemption is in his hands. If we can accept this, we can no doubt find it much easier to fulfill the tasks he has given us in faith, hope and charity, even in the face of what may look like utter hopelessness.