Whether you are rescuing the princess, saving the galaxy, or retrieving your diamond skull, the role you play in a video game is essentially that of a hero within the context of the game’s story. The term ‘hero’ is a tricky one however; it’s something that everybody intrinsically understands, but uses different vocabulary and examples to describe. To me, a great video game hero is one who struggles both internally and externally during the course of the story. Seeing an unlikely or unlikeable character develop into a heroic figure is something I never get tired of, and the Final Fantasy series is one that specializes in this kind of thing.
Final Fantasy VI is a game that is not short on playable characters; there are over a dozen featured within. While some of them are optional and not necessary for completing the story, this is one of the rare games where you really want to find them all. Its ragtag group of rebels is made up of an incredibly diverse mix of individuals with unique and useful abilities who come together to try to save the world, fail, and then try again. There really isn’t one definitive character who is established as this game’s protagonist; one could easily make a case for any of at least six of them. Having played through this game multiple times, the one whose personal heroic journey affects me the deepest is General Celes Chere.
First a little bit of background to this game if you haven’t played it — and if you haven’t, you really need to get on that. Final Fantasy VI picks up in a world where magic has been outlawed by the ruling empire. People predisposed to it are rounded up, enslaved, and forced to use it for nefarious ends. We first meet Celes a few hours into the game as she is being held prisoner by her own people for speaking out against atrocities that she has witnessed. After being freed, she joins your party but is treated with suspicion and even outright contempt by most of them. It’s not unearned either; one of her intriguing characteristics is that her loyalty is never really assured, at least for a large part of the game. She seems sincere about her motivations when you first meet her, but doubts arise as you progress and I actually found myself reluctant to use her in battles because of it.
Celes bears some thematic resemblance to Cecil, the hero of Final Fantasy IV. Like him, she is a powerful and high-ranking soldier of a tyrannical leader who, by following orders, ends up causing the deaths of innocents and has a change of heart. Where they differ however, is that while Cecil transforms into a higher-level being who steps back from his story’s focus in favor of his companions, Celes remains painfully human. Throughout the game, she struggles with her mixed loyalties to her superiors as well as to her new friends. Her path is a difficult one, and it is a credit to this game’s writing and design how it is so well conveyed through minimal dialogue and 16 bit graphics.
Final Fantasy VI is most notable for its big plot twist about 2/3 through the game, in which Kefka’s plan to destroy the world succeeds and the characters are scattered throughout the planet. One part of this development that most people miss however is that it reveals Celes as the primary hero of this story. Having to start from scratch, Celes tends to the ailing Cid, sets out to find her companions, and is instrumental in bringing everyone back together to take on Kefka one last time. None of this would have happened had she not decided to set out from her remote island and take charge of the situation.
Celes is a rich and fascinating individual who manages to evoke a number of conflicting emotions, but it would all be for naught if she were useless as a playable character. Thankfully, Squaresoft got that memo; she also kicks all kinds of ass. She is incredibly useful because she can use magic from very early on, but is also a good melee fighter. Her design as a playable character is perfectly in tune with her being a general in the Empire’s army. In the final battle, you need to break your team up into groups of four. The way I do it is to have one leader, a healer, a melee fighter, and a wild card. Celes is always the leader of my primary group because of her versatility and toughness — not to mention the resonant stake she has in taking Kefka down.
It’s funny how in a time when the video game industry is (rightly) taken to task for its handling of female characters, the Final Fantasy series has in its own way been a beacon for this sort of thing over the last 20 years or so. There are examples of great female characters throughout; Terra, Quistis, Eiko, Yuna, and that’s just off the top of my head. With all of them however, I’d wager Square has never accomplished a female character as well as they did with Celes. She manages to be distinctly feminine, tough as nails, emotionally complex, and articulate without ever coming across as contrived. We need more characters — no, more heroes, like Celes Chere in video games.