I have always felt that Final Fantasy VI is a game that benefits from multiple playthroughs due to its sheer depth. What at first appears to be nothing more than a basic story of a rebellion fighting against an evil empire, is revealed to be a rich and multilayered tapestry of complex themes and influences. In particular, having studied The Ring of the Nebelung (also called The Ring Cycle) by 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner gave tremendous insight into the themes and philosophy of this game. In fact, the two works have so many similarities I strongly suspect that Wagner’s classic suite of operas may have helped inspire the game in question.
Ring Cycle Synopsis
The Ring Cycle consists of 4 operas: Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walkure (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods). At its core, the series is about the fundamental conflict between mankind’s desire for wealth and power versus love for one’s fellow man. Power ultimately causes those who hold it to forsake love, but in the end, love endures long after those who were once powerful have come to ruin. The operas are set in the world of Norse mythology; they tell the story of a Dwarf who steals gold from Nymphs living in the Rhine River which if forged into a ring will grant whoever holds it the power to rule the world. However, to use this power the ring’s wielder must completely and utterly forswear love in all of its forms. As the ring passes from person to person it grants them immense power but ultimately brings tragedy to all those who hold it, bringing about the downfall of men and gods alike. Ultimately, Ragnarok is triggered, causing the destruction of the gods. The only way that the world can be made right is for the ring to be cast back from whence it came (if this sounds familiar it is because this story greatly influenced the works of Tolkien).
One of Final Fantasy VI’s greatest strengths is its thematic cohesion. Despite possessing a large and diverse cast, FF VI nonetheless maintains focus and consistency by focusing on a few core themes. The most prominent theme is the same that lies at the core of Wagner’s work: love versus man’s desire for power. The theme is prevalent throughout both works and each utilizes its cast of characters and their relationships to explore it with various characters exploring and embodying different kinds of love or lust for power.
Themes of Love
For one thing, both works explore the concept of parental love. In FFVI Terra’s character arc involves coming to understand this kind of love. First from the discovery of her heritage as the child born of a Human and an Esper, and later when she adopts a group of orphaned children. In the Ring Cycle, the concept of parental love is generally embodied by the god Wotan in his relationships with his daughter the Valkyrie Brumhilde, his half-human son Sigmund, and grandson Sigfried. Though both characters explore this theme in very different ways, they ultimately come to the same conclusion. Both Wotan and Terra are motivated by their love to perform acts of self-sacrifice in an effort to create a better world for future generations.
The concept of romantic love is also explored in both works. In the Ring Cycle, this is primarily shown through the relationship between Brumhilde and Sigfried, and in FF VI it exists in the relationship between Locke and Celes. Both romances begin in a similar way with both Locke and Sigfried going to great lengths to rescue their respective love interest, Of particular interest in FFVI is how their relationship are beautifully paralleled in the opera Draco and Maria.
Due to its large ensemble cast of characters, FF VI is able to go even further in analyzing the different kinds of love than that of The Ring Cycle. These include Edgar and Sabin who explore brotherly love, and Realm and Strago who embody the love between a grandfather and a granddaughter. Gau is used to explore the theme of found family, while Cyan shows the grief and emotional turmoil that results from having lost those that one loves. Shadow, in turn, utilizes a more extreme take on Cyan’s theme, showing how grief and guilt can consume a person to the point where they choose to completely cut themselves off from their emotions. Beyond the forms of love that each character embodies individually, as a whole the characters from both works explore the love of friends as well as a greater love for mankind.
The Will to Power
In turn, the villains from both works embody man’s desire for power and the rejection of love. The use of power as a means of dominating the wills of others is a trait shared by both Emperor Gestal in FF VI and the Nebelung Dwarf Alberich from the Ring Cycle. In Wagner’s work, Alberich uses his power to enslave his own people in a bid to dominate the world. This mirrors how Gestal exploits his own people in his war to conquer the world. Both characters care nothing of loyalty or love, desiring only blind obedience from those under them, and are willing to cause untold death and suffering to both their enemies and their own people to achieve their goals.
FF VI also explores a different kind of lust for power than is present in the Ring Cycle, that being power for no other reason than to destroy and cause suffering. This is embodied in the character of Kefka. When he eventually gains ultimate power he uses it to rip the world apart. From this point, he seems completely unassailable: a cruel god with absolute power over the world. Yet in his infinite cruelty lies his greatest weakness. Because he is incapable of feeling love, he is unable to understand the bonds that tie the people of the world together. Therefore no matter how much destruction he rains down upon the land the people never give in wholly to despair, they keep fighting even when all hope seems lost. In one of his more memorable dialogs at the very end of the game, he says “Why do people insist on creating things that will inevitably be destroyed? Why do people cling to life, knowing that they must someday die? …Knowing that none of it will have meant anything once they do?”
The Twilight of the Gods
It is the finale of Final Fantasy VI that most closely resembles the Ring Cycle, in particular, the last opera, “The Twilight of the Gods.” Both works present an apocalyptic struggle that sees the downfall of the gods, and in the end, the world is set free from those whose lust for power has caused so much pain and suffering. Yet this cannot be done unless the power which has caused these calamities is forsaken. In the Ring Cycle this is accomplished in two ways, the first is that Wotan, rather than trying vainly to hold on to power, accepts his fate and the fate of Aesir. The second is when the Valkyrie Bunhilde, upon perishing atop Sigfried’s funeral pyre, returns the ring of the Nibelung to the river nymphs that it originally belonged. In Final Fantasy VI this is achieved by destroying the warring triad and ridding the world of magic forever. This is done despite the knowledge that doing so will bring about the death of the espers, and in fact, through the magicite that the party wields, the espers are in effect ensuring their own destruction. Like Wotan, they have accepted their fate, and now willingly sacrifice themselves for the sake of the world. As Wagner himself put it:
“Wotan the all-powerful will to live, has resolved on his own self-sacrifice. Greater now in his renunciation than ever before in his striving, he feels omnipotent, and he calls to the earth mother, Erda, the source of wisdom that once taught him to fear his end, that no fear can bind him more, since he now wills his end with the same will that used to lust only for life. His end? He knows what Erda’s wisdom does not: that he lives on in Siegfried. Wotan lives on in Siegfried as every artist does in his work.”
It is therefore all the more fitting that Terra, being half-esper, plays a major part in bringing these events to pass. In this way, a parallel can be drawn between the characters of Terra in Final Fantasy VI and Sigfried in the Ring Cycle. As the grandson of Wotan, Sigfried is also of both divine and mortal origin, and it is his actions in breaking Wotan’s spear that ultimately triggers the twilight of the gods. Though one notable way in which the two differ is that Terra survives in the end due to the love that drives her human side. And of course, in the end, love conquers all.
I believe that by comparing Final Fantasy VI to Wagner’s Ring Cycle we can all gain a greater appreciation for the complex themes and ideas in both works. This is of course only one of many ways in which these stories can be interpreted. Indeed, Final Fantasy VI is a game of many layers and a truly comprehensive examination of Square’s masterpiece could easily fill up an entire book. In the meantime, I hope that this will inspire some to look at the game in a new way.