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Not so Final Fantasy is a new, triweekly column dedicated to all things Final Fantasy; from specific aspects of specific titles, to the universal features that set Square Enix’s inimitable JRPG series apart from the rest.
Cecil Harvey, protagonist of SNES gem Final Fantasy IV, is widely regarded as one of the series’ finest characters. Brave, compassionate, strong, selfless, honourable, haunted by a dark past. In short, he ticks all the right boxes for a classic fantasy hero.
Yet, with so many excellent characters to choose from in the series’ 30-year history, to say he is unequivocally the best, most compelling protagonist to ever appear in a Final Fantasy game is quite a bold statement. One that, I have to say, I initially disregarded as hyperbole.
Until, that is, I began to compare Cecil with the likes of Cloud, Terra, Zidane etc., and realized that perhaps this statement is true after all.
Take Cecil’s immediate successor, Bartz, and Final Fantasy IX’s Zidane, for instance.
A pair of easy-going adventurers caught up in a series of world-changing events by accident rather than design, their happy-go-lucky demeanor and unselfish concern for their companions make them firm favorites among fans.
But, charming as they are, they make for slightly one-dimensional protagonists.
Bartz rarely displays anything edgier than the occasional outburst of righteous anger, and though Zidane’s mini-breakdown upon discovering the truth about his origins shows a darker, almost nihilistic side to his character, it turns out to be only a fleeting departure from his otherwise optimistic and noble personality.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this kind of squeaky-clean, morally infallible protagonist is inherently bad. I think they’re both excellent characters in their own right; in fact, despite sharing a name with irascible ex-Real Madrid midfielder Zinedine Zidane, I’ve always had rather a soft spot for IX’s personable young hero. The problem is, neither possess the same level of depth or complexity as Cecil; they’re the Goku to his Vegeta, if you will.
Cecil is wracked by self-doubt and uncertainty. He’s haunted by his past actions, and, most significantly, struggles to reconcile his sense of duty and loyalty with the dictates of his own moral compass. Consequently, the story of Final Fantasy IV is as much about Cecil’s personal journey toward redemption as it is a standard fantasy tale of good vs evil. And the game is substantially richer as a result.
Conversely, Squall and Lightning of Final Fantasy’s VIII and XIII respectively, are the polar opposite of the irrepressibly upbeat Bartz and Zidane. The kind of aloof, introverted protagonists that are so popular today and generally, therefore, tend to fit the role slightly more comfortably.
Squall’s story is particularly interesting. Plagued by abandonment issues that are not entirely clear to him in the beginning, Squall’s evolution from standoffish, fiercely independent loner to the inspirational leader of Balamb Garden is one of the most satisfying character arcs in the entire series.
However, even though we come to love him by the end of the game, Squall doesn’t exactly make a good first impression. In the early stages, he comes across as an angsty teenager, rather than a sympathetic young adult struggling with unresolved childhood trauma and the pressures of his military education. Awkward inner monologues detailing his true thoughts and feelings, punctuated by the constant refrain “whatever” should anyone challenge his behavior, give him an uncanny resemblance to the sort of character you’d expect to see portrayed on One Tree Hill, not the engaging hero of a modern RPG. If it was possible to read a diary chronicling his experiences on disc one, you’d expect it to be filled with maudlin comments like “nobody understands me”, badly written poetry, and excerpts from Good Charlotte songs.
It’s a similar story for Lightning. Though rightly acknowledged as the otherwise lackluster Final Fantasy XIII trilogy’s best character, thanks to her forthright attitude and courageous refusal to go down without a fight, the painfully saccharine script, absent of an adequately detailed backstory, and somewhat unconvincing personal evolution prevents her from reaching the level of the Final Fantasy protagonists that came before her.
We don’t have to suffer through hours of passive-aggressive dialogue, self-pitying comments, or cheesy, pseudo-inspirational speeches before we’re finally able to understand why Cecil finds it so difficult to come to terms with his tragic past and accept who he is. His character arc is consistent, believable, and relatable, making it far easier to invest in him and his story far more compelling.
There’s not such a noticeable gulf in class between Cecil and VI’s Terra Branford or VII’s Cloud Strife, however. Indeed, there’s little to separate them in terms of quality.
Terra, the first female protagonist in Final Fantasy history, out of interest, actually mirrors Cecil extremely closely. Both are the orphaned offspring of an unusual union with little to no recollection of their parents; both feel an obligation to atone for their past actions; both are continuously gnawed by self-doubt; and both are somewhat afraid of their prodigious martial powers. There’s really only one key difference that gives Cecil the edge: free will.
Forced to wear the aptly named ‘Slave Crown’ (a potent trinket which grants the nefarious Kefka control over her magical abilities) from a young age on the orders of Emperor Gestahl, Terra has never willingly perpetrated any act of violence or evil; for all intents and purposes, she was another weapon in the Empire’s arsenal. That’s not to suggest the feelings of guilt that plague her are unreasonable or the psychological scars caused by years of enslavement are insignificant. But all the same, she can at least console herself with the knowledge that, like a gun, it’s the user (Kefka) not the instrument (Terra) that’s to blame for the suffering caused.
Cecil, on the other hand, has to come to terms with the fact that he willingly and knowingly performed the actions for which he feels such remorse.
Yes it was the King’s decision to train him as a Dark Knight shortly after adopting him as a young boy, and yes, as a captain of the Baron army, he was only following orders. Nevertheless, as Cecil’s acute sense of contrition following the attack on Mist Village makes perfectly clear, he could have simply refused to act if he felt his orders were dishonorable, but his loyalty and sense of duty blinded him to the King’s increasingly erratic and suspect behavior.
This distinction, subtle though it may be, gives Cecil’s story an extra dimension. It makes him feel more human and adds weight to the various choices he makes throughout the game: to deny his love for Rosa so as to spare her from sharing the taint of his guilt; to refuse to execute a bewitched Kain because, like Terra, Cecil knows he is innocent of all wrongdoing. He’s flawed, imperfect; not an infallible paragon of virtue.
Cloud and Cecil share a handful of similarities too. They’re both talented soldiers (though for dramatically differing reasons), lack an accurate sense of their own identity, and, most importantly of all, trace a tremendously engaging character arc.
Though portrayed in a slightly ham-fisted way in the early stages of Final Fantasy VII (lines like “I don’t care what your names are” and “I’m here to do a job” are, I think it’s fair to say, a little on the nose), Cloud’s brash, cock-sure demeanor nonetheless immediately distinguished him from the series’ earlier protagonists, even Cecil and Terra, who rarely demonstrated anything other than affection for their comrades.
Then, as the story progresses, the arrogant ex-SOLDIER develops into a rather more vulnerable and complicated character whose murky past, nebulous connection to preposterously-long sword-wielding villain Sephiroth, frequent blackouts, and mysterious inner voice, establishes him as one of Final Fantasy’s most compelling leads in the process.
But, as interesting and surprising as Cloud’s evolution is over the course of the game, it’s far from coherent.
Before the party has even left Midgar, both Cloud and the game’s wider narrative becomes convoluted by all manner of weird and wonderful elements: genetic experimentation, clones, world-ending magical meteors, ancient space faring civilizations, and giant interstellar aliens. Much like the final two-thirds of The Matrix trilogy, the story’s salient points and most interesting themes are lost amidst a hurricane of competing, intertwining sub-plots.
VII wasn’t the first game in the series to throw players a curve ball, of course. The revelation that Cecil’s father came from the Moon and the time traveling antics of SeeD in FFVIII are hardly grounded in reality.
Even so, Cloud’s story still feels unnecessarily complicated and meandering by comparison, illustrated, in my mind, by the two protagonist’s respective moments of revelation. Cecil’s is a straightforward battle between himself and his dark side to prove his worthiness to join the ranks of the Paladin order; a battle in which victory is achieved by refusing to attack, thus demonstrating his new-found appreciation for life. Cloud’s, meanwhile, is a back-and-forth exploration of his sub-conscious during which, while floating in an ocean of toxic Mako, Cloud and Tifa examine important events from various stages of his life in an effort to reconstruct his fractured psyche.
One is a straightforward moment of personal redemption, the other a trippy journey through the mind of a tortured being that attempts to bring together the disparate narrative threats unraveled hitherto.
Notwithstanding the tone of this article, I didn’t actually set out to fight in Cecil’s corner; I was simply interested in weighing the relative qualities of some of my favorite Final Fantasy protagonists to see how they compare.
But, having thought long and hard about each character whilst writing this piece, I’ve reached the conclusion that, objectively speaking, Cecil probably is the greatest protagonist in Final Fantasy history. He’s the most well-rounded, interesting, complex, and engaging; unhampered by Squall’s teenage angst and the slightly over-complicated plot of Final Fantasy VII.
All the same, because Final Fantasy VII and VIII formed such an important part of my childhood, I think I’ll always prefer Cloud and maybe even Squall. And I imagine much the same is true of various other millennials who’ve grown up playing these wonderful titles.
That’s about it for today. Be sure to check back in a couple of weeks’ time when the topic of discussion will be why the linear structure of Final Fantasy XIII isn’t the game’s biggest issue.
Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.
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