The World of Ruin in FF6 is oppressively bleak, but the glimmers of hope in this classic RPG feel more needed now than they ever have.
Content warning: This article discusses subject matter pertaining to mental health including anxiety, depression, and self-harm.
At the almost-exact midpoint of Final Fantasy 6, the classic 1994 RPG from Squaresoft, the power-hungry Gestahl Empire has raised the Floating Continent, where it intends to use a powerful magical field to consolidate its power and rule the world. At this point, what had been a familiar "evil empire versus scrappy rebellion" story takes a turn, as one of the Empire's lieutenants, Kefka, overthrows his emperor and intentionally throws the magical field out of balance, ushering in worldwide darkness and destruction. There is no master plan at play here. Kefka is pure nihilistic glee, destruction for the sake of destruction. When he emerges as the game's primary antagonist, it's no longer an evil empire but sheer wanton devastation you're fighting against. At this point in the game, death and destruction wins.
Today, we know how that feels. Death won here in our world too, at least for a while.
A New York Times data project from June 2020 called How the Virus Won showed in excruciating detail the way the COVID-19 pandemic manifested and spread throughout the population, largely unchecked in the United States, catching political and scientific leaders flatfooted until it was too late. As of the time of publishing last June, approximately 480,000 people had died worldwide. Currently, that figure is well over 3 million.
This has been one of the bleakest periods in modern history. Millions of people have lost their lives, and many millions more have lost loved ones or friends or coworkers. An economic collapse has cost people their livelihoods. The mitigation measures that have suppressed the virus have had their own unintended side-effects, like loneliness, depression, and exhaustion. Remote work for those who can perform their jobs has been an overwhelming challenge for single people and families alike, who increasingly find the lines between work and home life blurred.
There's also a sense of trepidation that the world we're about to re-enter is going to look different, feel different, than the one we left
The world is starting to heal now. Vaccines are starting to become more widespread and accessible among the larger population in many countries. There's a sense of collective relief as people celebrate their immunizations and make plans to socialize and visit family. But there's also a sense of trepidation that the world we're about to re-enter is going to look different, feel different, than the one we left in March 2020. For those prone to anxiety--and who isn't, after what we've all been through--it can feel intimidating.
I believe in the power of art to help us understand the human condition and how to engage with the world. I care about video games because, aside from providing a satisfying distraction like any other hobby, they have power to make us active participants in storytelling and foster a connection with the subject matter and characters in a way few other mediums can. And so as hokey as it may seem, I find it comforting to look back on Final Fantasy 6 and how it portrayed the second half--the World of Ruin--and how its characters learned to re-engage with a broken world.
When the World of Ruin segment begins, the game subtly shifts our perspective. Its first act in the World of Balance opens with Terra, the half-magic being enslaved by the Empire. This cues the audience into associating with Terra, the game's main protagonist even among its ensemble cast. She is central to the events of the world, tied to both the magical Espers and the evil Gestahlian Empire. Following her story is the path through which we understand the world and its events. The game features more than a dozen playable characters, but for the first half, Terra is the one person whose eyes we're really meant to see through. Everything is framed around her.
When the second act begins, it no longer stars Terra. The perspective shifts to Celes--an important character, but no more so than many of the other members of the ensemble, like Locke or Sabin. This partially closes the book on the centrality of Terra's story. She represented the conflict between a magical race chased underground and those hellbent on exploiting their power. We essentially already know everything we need to know about Espers, and the Empire no longer even exists. Kefka used his position in the organization to decimate the world.
Celes, then, represents a new lens through which to see the world. She's a former Imperial officer herself, who became disillusioned with the Empire's methods long before Kefka's nihilistic heel-turn. She wasn't an oppressed figure breaking free from her constraints, she was an oppressor looking for redemption. She worked right alongside Kefka, in fact.
She wakes up in the World of Ruin, nearly alone in a desolate landscape. Her one companion is Cid, another former Imperial and the creator of the powerful Magitek armor that helped the organization put its boot to the neck of several kingdoms. He explains that it had been a year since the cataclysm and that others on their small island had either passed away or thrown themselves from the cliffs in despair. Celes and Cid are the only ones left.
These two, who both must be carrying around guilt for helping build the Empire that brought Kefka to power, rely on each other. Cid provides companionship and support, and Celes is tasked with catching fish to nurse him back to health. The game briefly becomes routine and monotonous as the pair focus on survival, and they form a de facto family unit to the exclusion of contact with any other humans. Celes even takes to calling Cid "grandfather."
If you catch bad fish, Cid can pass away as well, leaving Celes completely alone. In this version of events, she even attempts self-harm by throwing herself off the cliff, just like the other despondent survivors Cid told her about. But whether he lives or dies, in-person or via a posthumous letter, Cid gives her a raft--the key to emerging from her accidental exile and reconnecting with the world.
The game briefly becomes routine and monotonous as the pair focus on survival, and they form a de facto family unit to the exclusion of contact with any other humans.
From there, the game becomes much more open than it had been in the World of Balance. You travel the world seeking out your companions, but many of them are optional. Terra is especially resistant to rejoin the cause, having found a new purpose taking care of orphaned children. But this is also the game at its most hopeful, as you progressively rediscover all of your party members in this new context. Each of them has found a new reason for living or something to strive for in this broken world, and each can join, however reluctantly, to protect the new lives they've built for themselves.
This context makes the final confrontation against Kefka that much more significant. The villain, having ascended to god-like status from magical energy, is downright jubilant in having taken so many and destroyed so much. This is where Final Fantasy 6 reaches its emotional climax, in a moment that may seem maudlin but in-context feels entirely earned:
Party Member: People will keep rebuilding the things you take from them!
Kefka: Then I'll destroy those too. Why do people rebuild things they know are going to be destroyed? Why do people cling to life when they know they can't live forever? Think how meaningless each of your lives is!
Party Member: It's not the net result of one's life that's important! It's the day-to-day concerns, the personal victories, and the celebration of life...and love!
Party Member: It's enough if people are able to experience the joy that each day can bring!
Kefka: And have you found your joy, in this nearly dead world of ours?
Kefka isn't really asking. He's taunting them, along with the very idea that they could possibly find purpose in the corrupted world he's made. But one by one, each party member you've recruited answers. They've each found their own joy in the broken world, and they resolutely tell Kefka they won't allow him to harm another living thing. A final battle ensues, the villain is ultimately defeated, the heroes are triumphant.
But the world remains destroyed. There is no magical wish for everything to be as it was. The World of Ruin isn't converted back to its former lushness. The landscape is still brown and desolate. Vegetation is sparse. Lands are still swallowed by water.
Those who died are still gone.
And that's as it should be. Final Fantasy 6 isn't a game about a band of heroes who solve the world's problems and set everything right. It's about emerging from lonely isolation with a renewed sense of purpose, engaging with society on its own terms, and accepting that some crises are too big to reverse. It's about finding joy and hope and meaning in a broken world. It's about the resilience of humanity to keep rebuilding what is taken from them. As we start to emerge from our own islands, this quarter-century-old game can help to inspire us to do the same.