This is the first in a series of posts by our wonderful guest writer, Hayley Garden, whose artist interview we published a couple of weeks ago. Stay tuned for more!
Written by Hayley Garden.
Edited by Kathryn Cooperman and Catherine Harlow.
The year was 1991. A small company nestled in the heart of Japan called Square was reaping the critical and financial benefits of their budding game franchise, Final Fantasy. The first game, released in 1987, was a last-ditch effort to save the company from bankruptcy. As the turn of the decade approached, the company had released three installments of Final Fantasy games, each building on the groundwork the previous game had laid. Square released Final Fantasy IV on the heels of the invention of the 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and what a game-changer it was. For the first time in a video game, female characters were active parts of the experience, both in gameplay and story.
Final Fantasy IV is one of the first video games to have a complex story, similar to one that you would see in a movie. The tale draws inspiration from cinematic epics like Star Wars. The game is about a dark knight named Cecil Harvey who comes to grips with the atrocities he commits in service to his empire, and his journey of atonement and redemption over the course of the story. The game has a rich cast of supporting characters, and it is one of the first games ever made where there are named female characters with their own character arcs. Most video games released in the early ‘90s were glorified arcade games meant for at-home entertainment. The characters barely had names, let alone narrative growth. There were some exceptions, like Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, two of the most iconic video games of all time. However, the female characters in those games were much more passive, and did not have character arcs. Princess Toadstool, not yet given the “Princess Peach” moniker we have come to associate her with, spends all of Super Mario World trapped in a castle. Princess Zelda is a bit more active in A Link To The Past, communicating directly with Link and instructing him on how to save her, but she still spends most of the game in captivity. While the characters in Final Fantasy IV feel like stock Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPG) characters by today’s standards, the fact that they were conceptualized and programmed into a video game in the early 1990s is nothing short of revolutionary.
The game allows the player to control five characters in their party, and each one offers unique abilities from a tactical perspective. Rosa Farrel and Rydia are the two female characters in the game.
Rosa is Cecil’s childhood friend and lover. She is also the team’s white mage, which means she possesses healing magic. She restores the characters’ health when it is low, can cast protective spells that raise defense from both physical and magic attacks, and she can cast debuff spells which makes enemies easier to defeat. Rosa is also an archer, which makes her an offensive powerhouse with a bow as well as a defensive pillar with her magic. She is a crucial member of the squad from both a gameplay and story perspective. Her light and love for Cecil helps drive his journey towards atonement forward, and she keeps everyone alive in battle.
When approaching female characters in stories from a modern viewpoint, Rosa’s presence in the story definitely feels a bit backwards. She is introduced as Cecil’s love interest, and is often placed in situations where Cecil needs to rescue her. The player’s first major introduction to her is framed as a need to rescue her from a disease. She gets kidnapped by Golbez and is sort of in the center of a love triangle between Cecil and Kain (the narrative establishes the Cecil/Rosa relationship fairly early on and sticks to it). At the end of the game, Cecil insists that Rosa (and Rydia) stay behind in the wake of the final dungeon so he can “protect” them, which was admittedly frustrating to see as a player. Society has truly surpassed the need for outdated story moments like this, especially from a gameplay perspective: Rosa and Rydia are the most essential members of the squad due to their propensity for magic. Rydia can wield powerful fire, ice, and lightning magic spells, as well as summon powerful monsters that do great damage to opponents. Rosa is the team healer, and her powerful Cure and Revive spells can keep everyone’s health high during tough battle encounters. In the game’s climax, right before the team boards the spaceship to the moon to defeat Golbez once and for all, Cecil insists that Rosa and Rydia stay behind as a means of “protecting” them. The sentiment is ridiculous, for both Rosa and Rydia have been crucial presences on the team, and they do not need to stay behind to be “protected.” Rydia especially is offended, and snarks back at Cecil when he makes that request. The two of them are insulted that Cecil would ask them to stay behind. In the end, both of them stayed on the spaceship and Rosa tells Cecil that as long as they’re together, they can face any dangerous enemies.
Despite some of these outdated storytelling beats plaguing her story, Rosa is a great character. She serves as a nice foil for Cecil, a source of light in his journey through the darkness. She is also one of the first female characters in gaming to get a character theme in the music, and the piece of music that Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu wrote for Rosa is nothing short of genius. The track is tender, romantic, and a touch bittersweet. The player really gets a sense of Rosa’s endless devotion and love for Cecil, and how she will stand by him through it all, when the track plays during their most emotionally charged scenes together. The song adds another dimension to their relationship, filling in all of the gaps of their history left unsaid by the text. There are even hints of Cecil’s feelings in the music, both for Rosa and for himself. That is where the bittersweetness comes in: you can sense Cecil’s hatred of who he used to be, how he is desperately trying to atone, and how Rosa will stand with him through his journey. The song feels like a conversation between two lovers, and it’s probably my favorite piece of Final Fantasy music ever written.
Rydia, meanwhile, is more of an independent character and undergoes one of the most meaningful character transformations in the game, second only to the protagonist. Rydia is the game’s primary black mage and summoner, making her a powerhouse and truly essential member of the squad from a gameplay perspective. When we are introduced to Rydia early in the story, she is a small child whose village had just been destroyed by Cecil and Kain. It turns out that she is the daughter of a summoner, and has potential for great power. In the beginning, Rydia is angry and resentful towards Cecil, since he destroyed her home and killed her mother. However, over the course of the story, Rydia learns to overcome that rage and anger. She bonds with Cecil after he saves her life, and together they overcome their demons. Rydia’s character arc also openly addresses the concept of childhood trauma and how to overcome it. Early on, there is a scene in the game where she is afraid to use fire magic due to how her home was destroyed. With help from her friends, Rydia learns to overcome her trauma and uses fire magic to save the lives of her friends who are fighting off monsters. Both Rosa and Rydia are active characters. Instead of passively languishing away in a castle like Princess Zelda and Princess Toadstool, both Rosa and Rydia fight and grow alongside the male characters throughout every step of the story. Rydia learns to overcome childhood trauma and hatred and channels that into love and power. Rosa acts as a rock for her beloved, giving him the strength to overcome his own demons and become a better man.