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.
Final Fantasy I was a dungeons and dragons campaign reimagined as a video game. It sounds absurd, but it was a major success for series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team. However, there were no named characters, and the story was thin. The first sequel, Final Fantasy II, was a valiant attempt to tell a harrowing story of war and sacrifice on an 8-bit console in 1989, but it fell a bit short due to unremarkable characters and troubling gameplay mechanics. And Final Fantasy III, the last installment released on the Nintendo Entertainment System, introduced many Final Fantasy gameplay and world building staples that are still seen in releases today. However, the story and characters in the game were still lacking.
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.
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, 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. While the characters themselves feel like stock JRPG characters by today’s standards, the fact that they were conceptualized and programmed into a video game in the early 90s 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 and archer, and a crucial member of the squad from both a gameplay and story perspective. 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 magical abilities. However, both Rosa and Rydia insist that Cecil is full of it and convince him to let them come defeat Golbez once and for all.
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, and the piece of music that Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu writes 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. It’s understandable though, the guy did destroy her home and kill 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.
Final Fantasy as a franchise is all about setting precedents and taking risks, both within the franchise and for gaming as a whole. Final Fantasy IV is no exception – this game shows that there is opportunity to tell compelling stories in video games. And more importantly, there is room for rich, interesting, fleshed-out female characters in this art medium. All future Final Fantasy installments follow this trend, creating even more interesting and iconic characters than the last.