The old cliché goes, “it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey that counts.” I would argue that this also applies to most of the games in the Final Fantasy series.
The main plots, regardless of individual strength, usually revolve around preventing a bad guy from gaining superpowers from crystals or some otherworldly source. There’s nothing wrong with this tried and true formula; a villain gaining divine abilities certainly raises the stakes for a group of heroes. And if the player gets emotionally attached to the heroes, then the story becomes that much more gripping. That’s where the subplots come in.
With more than a dozen installments, the Final Fantasy series has treated fans to many unforgettable characters and story lines. With Final Fantasy V just being released for Android, and Final Fantasy XV being somewhere on the horizon, I thought it’d be a good time to honor some of the subplots we have been treated to thus far.
These are the ten sub-stories that I consider the most effective in expanding on the series’ fictional universe and emotionally investing the player in the characters.
10. Red XIII and Seto (Final Fantasy VII )
This image alone is one of my favorites from the series.
Red XIII unfortunately doesn’t get much screen time in FFVII, but he certainly gets an interesting backstory. After indirectly rescuing him, the party later learns Red’s real name is Nanaki and that he is one of the remaining survivors of his species. Nanaki holds great pride for his mother, but thinks his father is a coward who abandoned him when enemy armies invaded their home. He eventually learns that his father, Seto, gave his life to protect Cosmo Canyon. The father and son share a redemptive moment together as Nanaki howls in sorrow and the petrified Seto begins to cry.
Words don’t do the scene justice, and the exposition is awkwardly revealed by Nanaki’s floating adoptive grandfather named Bugenhagen (I don’t know either). Still, it is one of my favorite subplots in the game. The history of Cosmo Canyon and the Gi Tribe makes the world within FFVII feel bigger and more involved. This scene in particular also helps humanize Red XIII, who in many ways, is a very alien character. It’s very emotional to watch the young canine come to grips with both his father’s death and his new-found purpose in life. Just watch the scene and try not to cry. Seto certainly couldn’t.
9. Laguna’s awkward date and rise to presidency (Final Fantasy VIII )
FFVIII had the ambitious goal of showcasing two major protagonists. In the spotlight was everyone’s favorite emo kid, Squall, whose most famous catchphrases include “whatever…” and “…” And on the sidelines was Laguna: a likable, goofy, kind-hearted solider who later becomes a journalist, then a movie star, then the president of a city. And he suffers from leg cramps when he’s around beautiful women. Yes. There is a clear winner here.
Laguna’s subplot may get muddled by FF8′s confusing, late-game narrative twists, but it was Laguna’s tale of a would-be hero that kept me interested.
8. Steiner’s romance (Final Fantasy IX )
Steiner plays the role of the flustered straight man exceedingly well throughout the early discs of FFIX. He is not unlike a chubby C-3P0, clinking rabidly about in his armor and trying to retain order as the plot dives further and further into chaos.
Still, despite his constant complaining, Steiner is an inherently moral character whose loyalty to his companions overpowers any feudal obligations his knighthood holds upon him.
Surprisingly, his vixen of choice is Beatrix, one of the main antagonists during the early stages of the game. She is presented as a ruthless, vain, and dangerous foe who is partially responsible for the destruction of two major kingdoms. Any time the group engages her in battle, all you can hope to do is cast ‘Slow’ on her to postpone your inevitable loss. I’m not kidding. She’s the only boss you can’t possibly beat, which is saying a lot since you eventually fight death itself.
So Steiner and Beatrix get the award for most surprising Final Fantasy romance ever. It’s a very nice addition to the plot that keeps the player questioning who the real “bad guy” is. Extra points to the scene where they fall in love, which is all due to a series of comedic Shakespearean misunderstandings.
Yes, I just compared FFIX to Shakespeare.
7. The Besaid Aurochs vs. The Luca Goers (Final Fantasy X )
This is a bit of a silly addition to the list, but I stand by it. FFX is a world that lives in constant danger of obliteration by Sin, and any fun way for Tidus, Wakka and friends to pass time is sacred. And Blitzball is certainly sacred to all.
Wakka and the Besaid Aurochs are on a losing streak before meeting Tidus, and by extension, the player. Their next match is against the abrasively snobby Luca Goers who are just begging to be punched in the face.
Whether or not the Besaid Aurochs win is up to the player’s Blitzball skills. Though it’s a small event in the main plot, it’s a nice feature that lets the player’s actions determine the outcome of the underdog story. It makes their potential victory much more powerful than a scripted cut-scene. Their win represents hope against all odds; a microcosm of the game’s main plot.
I’m just still not sure what an Auroch is…
6. Kain and the love triangle (Final Fantasy IV )
One could argue that there aren’t any subplots in FFIV; it’s a pretty linear game that doesn’t allow too much time to deviate from the main plot. And the main plot, of course, deals with preventing a bad guy from getting magical crystals. The sub-plot that that deserves more attention, however, is Kain and the love triangle that exists between him and the game’s leading man and lady: Cecil and Rosa.
The main theme of FFIV seems to be redemption. Cecil turns from a Dark Knight to a Paladin in a truly genius scene that combines gameplay with story very cleverly. Kain shifts between being an ally and a villain at a frantic pace. He too seeks redemption, but in a much more sporadic, nonlinear way. Part of the reason Kain becomes a villain is due to Golbez’s mind control, but it doesn’t seem to take much for him to want to steal Rosa from Cecil. Kain’s ambiguous morality make him and his story one of the more interesting parts of FFIV.
5. Barrett and Dyne (Final Fantasy VII )
Around halfway through Disc One, the fate of Barrett’s hometown and his best friend Dyne is revealed to have been caused by the never-ending evil of the Shinra Corporation. Later on in the game, Cloud and crew meet up with Dyne in prison. Dyne is also lucky enough to possess a gun arm, but unfortunately he’s also gone a bit insane.
The tragedy of Barrett’s hometown gives the player even more reason to hate the villainous Shinra, as well as explaining why Barrett is dead set on revenge. Additionally, the player sees a softer side of Barrett. He continues to care for his fallen friend’s daughter even after their severe falling out (no pun intended).
4. Cyan and the Ghost Train (Final Fantasy VI )
FFVI could’ve taken every spot on this list. The game features a complete ensemble of characters, so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who the main protagonist is and whose story is paramount in the plot.
Regardless, I think many would agree that one of the most memorable scenes in the game is the ride on the Ghost Train. After a tragically dark moment where Kefka poisons Cyan’s entire kingdom and family, Cyan ends up joining forces with Sabin and Shadow on a strange and haunted train. It’s a nice source of comic relief that’s followed by a bittersweet moment between Cyan and the ghosts of his family.
And as others have lauded, Sabin suplexes the train.
3. Locke and Celes (Final Fantasy VI )
Like I said, anything from FFVI could easily be on this list.
The love between Locke and Celes is another fantastically forbidden romance, not too different from Steiner and Beatrix. The major difference here is that Locke is a thief with a heart of gold, and Celes is a genetically altered solider that doesn’t trust anyone. You know, that kind of reminds me of someone.
It might be a bit of a trope, but the love story between Locke and Celes simply works. And who can forget that opera scene followed by the dramatic kidnapping?
2. Cid’s dead dreams (Final Fantasy VII )
Amongst a plethora of divine beings, super clones, and sentient dolls, Cid Highwind is just a guy. And that’s why I love him.
Cid beats Barrett for most profanities spoken in FFVII and lives right in the heart of his mid-life crisis with a woman named Shera in Rocket Town. At one point in time, Cid had the opportunity to go into space, his lifelong dream. Unfortunately, right before liftoff, Shera got stuck in the engine room. During the ten second countdown, Cid had to choose between his lifelong dream or Shera’s life. With nearly one second left, he chooses to save Shera, sabotaging the mission and ending his career.
I might like this scene a little too much, but just look at Rocket Town! It’s a perfect visual metaphor for Cid’s rusted, dead dreams that loom over the town and haunt his hostile home life with Shera. Genius stuff. Eventually, Cid does get to see outer space, and finds it a bit more underwhelming than he thought. Maybe some dreams are best left as ideas.
And speaking of best…
1. Vivi’s Existential Crisis (Final Fantasy IX )
Vivi is often hailed as one of the series’ greatest characters and his story deserves no less credit.
Very early on in the game, Vivi discovers that he is no more than a manufactured weapon that has around a year to live. Obviously, this news throws him into an existential crisis he spends the whole game battling. Thankfully, with the help of his friends and his own strong sense of identity, he proves that he is more than just a mass-produced doll.
Identity is a huge theme in FFIX. The main character, Zidane, also faces the truth about his origins later on in a similar fashion. Even so, Vivi’s tale felt more organic and less forced.
Regardless of the borderline sci-fi happenings near the end of FFIX, I was still invested because I cared about Vivi. Regardless of whether or not he had a soul.