Wrong. Absolutely wrong. Just because Mario is for appropriate for all ages doesn’t mean that he’s targeting kids. Just because Skylanders is a video game that exists to sell toys doesn’t mean that video games = toys. These intellectual properties do not represent the entire scope of what is increasingly becoming a much broader entertainment form. Gaming can and has tackled some seriously heavy material over the years. To prove my point, I’d like to take a look at some of the character journeys undertaken in Final Fantasy VI (Sigh. Okay, “Final Fantasy III (US)”, if you prefer.)
We’ll start with the Brothers Figaro. Two brothers, one forced to grow up too soon and one left free to pursue a life of his choosing. Edgar and Sabin’s story is all about maturation and the burden of responsibility. The King and Queen die and it’s up to one of the twin Princes to accept the burden of the crown at a young age. Neither want the responsibility of ruling their parents’ kingdom. Sabin in particular is repulsed at the cold necessity of having to determine the succession quickly in order to provide continuity to the government and people of Figaro. The kingdom needs to move on before the sons have even had a chance to grieve over their parents’ passing. The twins settle the matter by flipping a coin. Edgar, knowing his brother’s desire to live a life unshackled by the burden of rule, cheats by using a double-sided coin, condemning himself to the unwanted responsibility and leaving his brother free of it.
Cyan’s tale is one of impeccable honor and tragic loss. A stalwart retainer of the Kingdom of Doma, the brave samurai meets his match in an enemy of an unfathomable evil. By that I mean that the method of violence (poison) employed by Kefka against the people of Doma is one that a straight forward, look-your-enemy-in-the-eye, honorable combatant like Cyan simply cannot imagine let alone anticipate. It is a cowardly weapon with no body to attack and no honor to appeal to. The entire kingdom dead, including his wife and child, Cyan throws himself at the enemy in a brave last stand. Saved by Sabin and denied the easy way out, Cyan spends the rest of the game coming to terms with the depths of his sorrow over his family’s murder. This includes an extended sequence where the game makes you play through his coping process, as he traverses the Phantom Train that ferries departed souls to the afterlife, searching for those of his wife and son. Even after having a chance to say a final goodbye, Cyan spends a good portion of the remainder of the game in mourning.
Gau may be the poster child for having a rough childhood. His mother died in childbirth. Labeling him a “demon child,” Gau’s father abandoned him, leaving him to die on the Veldt. Growing up the the wild, Gau’s language skills are poor and he often exhibits the same kind of frustration we see in the real world in people that are trying to express their thoughts in a second language. After being recruited into the party, Gau latches on to Cyan, seeking to fill the void in his life left by his father. Cyan, having recently lost his son, is helped in the healing process by his developing friendship with this young wildling. Gau’s story is that of any adopted child that has ever felt unloved; that has ever asked, “Why didn’t my parent(s) want me?” While his story doesn’t end in a stable foster home or a formal adoption, he is eventually able to make peace with his father and find solace for his life of loneliness in his new-found friends.
Similar to Cyan, Locke’s journey deals with trying to move on after the death of a loved one. While the Garamonde family is unequivocally dead, murdered by a cackling madman, Locke still bears hope that his love, Rachel, might still be revived. Blaming himself for her death, he is convinced that if he can only locate the Phoenix magicite, everything can be as it once was. When all is said and done, Rachel tells him it’s time to move on and gives her blessing to the new lady in his life, Celes. Locke is living in a state of denial, trying to cope with loss by insisting that it’s not over yet; that he can just hit ‘undo’ and everything will be alright. While it’s not necessarily easier to come to grips with a loved one’s passing in the real world, at least we don’t have to deal with the sticky logic of Phoenix Downs and Raise spells and their selective effectiveness.
Celes has several complicated storylines going. First, there’s the question of loyalty; as a sworn agent of the Empire, what does her fealty mean to her when she’s presented with undeniable evidence of the nefarious motives of the Emperor? Initially, the word “traitor” sticks in her throat. Swept away by circumstances (like imprisonment) or not, she’s reluctant to throw in with the Returners simply because they are the opposition to everything she’s ever known. Eventually, she comes to recognize that there is a difference between turning coat and reassessing one’s loyalty based on new information. A second theme running through Celes’ storyline is the slow progression of her relationship with Locke. At first, she chooses to resist her interest in this new ‘bad boy’ mercenary freedom fighter, however intriguing he may be. She’s simply too busy. The world’s going to hell; there’s no time for love. To say nothing of the fact that his heart still belongs to his vegetable girlfriend. Eventually she gives in to her feelings; or at least acknowledges that she’s not a total ice queen. A third, and very adult, theme in Celes’ story is her contemplation of suicide that occurs shortly into the World of Ruin. Having lost all of her friends and now her “grandfather” (if you, the player, couldn’t manage to nurse Cid back to health (Hint: catch the speedy fish)) she goes up to the highest cliff on her little deserted island to take a long walk off a short ledge, dashing herself on the rocks below. She jumps, but survives, only to wash up again on the beach. She is awoken by a seagull bearing a bandana that could only belong to her will-we/won’t-we, it’s-complicated paramour, Locke. With renewed hope that her friends may still be alive and that there is something worth living for, she escapes the island on a raft. Celes has a CW soap opera’s worth of stuff going on, and that’s not even counting the SyFy channel twist of her being, essentially, a test-tube baby. Fortunately, the game doesn’t go there; refraining from exploring the personhood equality of a genetically-created Magitek Knight.
Strago is a man compelled to live in denial of who he really is. As a resident of Thamasa he is forbidden from utilizing the magical talents he was born with by mayoral decree. He and his people are in hiding, unwilling to risk drawing the attention of the outside world, so they must appear ‘normal’ to any outsiders to avoid persecution. Strago is forced to blow his cover when his granddaughter Relm is trapped in a burning building and the party of outside adventurers see him using magic to combat the flames. Once outed, he becomes comfortable showing the world who he really is.
Terra’s overriding theme is one of self-identity; who she was born as, who she chooses to be and who she is needed to be. The homosexuality metaphor also works for Terra’s realization of her nature as an Esper. If Strago is in the closet, aware of who he is but unable to share it, Terra is an an earlier stage where she is still coming to terms with the person she was born as. A third of the way into the game, Terra comes to realize that she was born of an Esper father and a human mother. Dubbed by some a ‘monster’, this realization that she is a magical creature – that she is different – proves unsettling to both her and her companions at first. It’s a lot to process. She’s confused. She doesn’t have anyone to talk to about it. She yearns to make contact with other people like herself, as the party goes in search of the Espers that have survived beyond the Sealed Gate. Over the course of the game she comes to terms with her true nature and realizes that she is not abnormal, just different. Terra also has a story thread dealing with brain-washing. During her time as a magic-possessing pawn of the Empire, Terra’s free will was stripped away by use of a slave crown and she was forced to massacre countless people via her suit of magitek armor. There is a period of de-indoctrination for her, not unlike the deprogramming experienced by former cultists once they have been extricated. Over the course of the game she manages to come to terms with the things she has done and recognize that she was not responsible for them. She also spends a great deal of time finding out who she wants to be now that she once again has a choice in the matter. A final theme for Terra is that of finding one’s place in the world. Having arrived in the village of Mobliz after the destruction of the world, she realizes that she is needed there as a caregiver to the orphan survivors of Kefka’s Light of Judgement. An unexpected obligation, she finds that ‘Mama-hood’ suits her. There is a place for Terra in Mobliz and her Esper nature is irrelevant. Having found a new love for the children, she also loses her will to fight. Faced with the threat of a creature named Phunbaba, Terra eventually realizes that it is because of that love for the Mobliz children that she must fight; so that those children may have a future. As a surrogate mother she sees, like so many real-world parents, that she would do anything to protect her children.
So lets recap: Final Fantasy VI explores mature concepts like identity, loyalty, honor, love, responsibility and atonement. It deals with heavy issues like grieving, child abandonment and suicide. And this is allegedly a ‘kid’s game’?? I don’t think so. As a final thought: the ESRB description for the Wii virtual console port which rates the game E10+. It cites “a jailed character getting punched” and “moderate amounts of cleavage” as factors determining the rating. Now, I’ll admit I may be reaching on some of the themes I’ve mentioned above, but really?? Did the ESRB evaluators and I even play the same game?