Categorized | Uncommon Catalysts

Uncommon Catalysts: Final Fantasy VI and the Female Protagonist

Posted on 12 November 2015 by AE Matson

Metaphor Publications is pleased to present Uncommon Catalysts a series of guest articles sourced in the catalytic intersection between fantasy fiction and role playing games (RPG, or  RPG’s). Irregularly, we’ll be reaching out to irregular writers and gamers and getting their irregular perspectives on how fantasy/speculative fiction and RPG’s compare, contrast, overlap – and lead to new ways to enjoy both.

Our third offering comes to you from  Alexis Radcliff, author of the steampunk novel  A Vanishing Glow and gamer. We were so pleased that Lexi accepted our offer to write for this series, because the more diverse voices we have in this fiction/gaming dialogue of ours, the better and richer all our offerings will be for it. In the article below, she lays out her argument for nominating Final Fantasy VI as  “the most forward-thinking and mature game of its generation.” Don’t be afraid to tell us what you think in the comments!

Fantasy Fiction for Role Player Gamer


What is it that was so special about Final Fantasy VI? This game, more than any other, is the one I hear referenced in awed tones of teary nostalgia by a generation of RPG fans who grew up with a Super Nintendo in their living room. It’s also, in my experience, overwhelmingly the RPG from that time period that female gamers liked best. It’s not the battles or the dungeons that they rave about, but rather the personal, deeply touching stories: Final Fantasy VI, with its strong themes revolving around love and belonging, demonstrates characters of startling emotional complexity and depth for its time. More than that, it features two incredibly strong and nuanced women as protagonists in an era when female video game characters were too often written as cardboard caricatures in supporting roles.

Today I want to discuss the character arcs of those women, Terra Branford and Celes Chere, and take a look at how Final Fantasy VI was ahead of its time in terms of its complex and thoughtful treatment of its entire cast of multi-dimensional, deeply compelling characters.

Terra Branford

Terra’s journey is an ongoing search for love and acceptance in a world that fears and rejects her simply because of what she is: a being with magical powers, a result of her being only half-human. The symbolism of her heritage is poignant. Terra literally feels less than human as she struggles to understand how, and even whether, she can truly love someone.

When we meet her, she’s a victim and slave of a controlling and abusive state. Terra is confused and afraid at first, but as she learns more about her origins and finds her confidence, she increasingly becomes more opinionated and assertive, though she still yearns to feel love and questions whether she’s capable of it.

It’s not until the second act, when the world has ended and Terra finds herself thrust into a role as a protector and mother-figure to a group of orphaned children, that she truly discovers her own capacity for love. She decides that the children are worth fighting for and steps up to fulfill her heroic destiny so that they can grow up in a world where hope exists.

What I love about Terra’s character arc is that they could have easily taken it in a direction where she discovered the meaning of love by getting swept off her feet by one of the men, but the writers instead chose to explore the love of an adopted mother for her children as being sufficient and fulfilling for Terra’s character. Terra doesn’t need romantic love to make her life complete. Her children and her willingness to use her strength to fight for them are enough for her.

final fantasy fiction gamers role players

Celes Chere

Celes’s initial setup, on the other hand, has a classic love-story “will they or won’t they” aspect to it, though Celes is no simpering princess. When we meet her, she’s introduced as a magitek knight and a former general who’s about to be executed as a traitor for standing up against the evil actions of the Empire. The charismatic thief Locke releases her from captivity. Though she presents a hard exterior and appears to value the power and prestige of being a general, we also get to see flashes of her femininity at times, and we come to discover that she values both justice and loyalty.

Celes has problems with trust and vulnerability. She slowly opens up to Terra, bonding over their use of magic, and deepens her relationship with Locke, but her feelings are hurt when she’s accused of being a double agent and Locke voices his doubts about her. Her decisive moment is when the emperor eventually offers her the chance to rule the world with him: she rejects him and defends her friends, preferring the relationships she’s formed with them to the offer of power he presents.

When the second act opens, Celes’s story takes a left turn: she develops a grandfatherly relationship with the aging mechanic Cid in a world that seems destroyed and devoid of hope. Though they agree to care for one another, this ends in tragedy when Cid grows ill and dies.

Celes spirals into despair and attempts suicide by throwing herself off a cliff in a moment of weakness. She wakes up on a beach, her attempt thwarted, and finds a wounded bird wrapped in Locke’s bandana. She realizes her friends might still be alive and sets out as the central figure of act two in order to gather her friends and try to restore hope to a hopeless world.

There are many things to like in Celes’s story arc: Her actions make it clear that she has a romantic interest in Locke, but it’s not the defining trait of her character. Celes is strong and decisive, tough and uncompromising. She stands up for what she believes in even to the point of risking her own life, and is driven more by duty and compassion than romantic attachment. Her character, with her moral complexity and slowly broadening vulnerability, is both realistic and sympathetic.

Love and Family: Ongoing Themes

Not only the women of Final Fantasy VI grapple with themes of love, family, and belonging. The entire cast struggles similarly: the brutal mercenary Shadow silently pines for a daughter he was forced to abandon, Cyan battles with survivor’s guilt after all his friends and family are poisoned, and Sabin and Edgar worry about whether they’ve lived their lives in the way their father would have wanted for them. Each of the characters have their own tragedies to contend with, all of which tie back to the important relationships of their past, romantic or otherwise. This serves to remind the player that love and family are deeply human concerns rather than just feminine ones, which is a message other games of this time period rarely conveyed as well.

Between this sentiment and the game’s extremely strong and well-drawn women, cast as pivotal plot characters rather than supporting players nearly a decade before it was in vogue, Final Fantasy VI might have been the most forward-thinking and mature game of its generation. It demonstrated to a generation of gamers that it wasn’t only men who were capable of taking heroic, leading roles in RPGs; women could do it too, still be feminine, and end up being every bit as awesome as the guys were.


About the Author:

Alexis Radcliff is an author, gamer, unashamed geek, and history junkie who spent the better part of a decade working in tech before dedicating herself to her first love, literature. Be sure to check out her novel A VANISHING GLOW, an exciting blend of steampunk and flintlock fantasy with mature themes.

Alexis lives and works in the Portland area with her adorable (if surly) cat and her equally adorable fiancé. When not writing, she spends her time reading, running, playing way too many video games, and thinking too much about everything. | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon


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2 Responses to “Uncommon Catalysts: Final Fantasy VI and the Female Protagonist”

  1. Adam says:

    An excellent piece on an excellent game.

    An important thing to remember about this game is that it’s one of the few games to ever get female characters “right.” The writers chose not to portray them as simple background love interests, which was fantastic for the time. Neither did they go the opposite route and turn them into unfeeling badasses refusing to stand beholden to any person, which is often the politically correct model for female characters today. As the author noted, the characters are intensely feminine. They are viewed not through their ties to one of the protagonists, but instead by the ways they ardently strive to fulfill the duties inherent in their many deep and trusting relationships. These are two women not defined by their relationships, but choosing to act in love and service to those relationships, and the people reliant upon them. This is not a case of “women being women,” but of people being people.

    Terra discovers her abilities and her responsibilities, strides forward to meet them, and becomes a beacon of hope for others. But she also doubts, struggles, and seeks comfort in others, including her father. Ceres is powerful and confident, but also vulnerable. Too often today, female characters are not allowed to be vulnerable, or are not allowed to feel responsible. Anything short of ice-cold independence is considered passé. Yet Terra and Ceres stand as testament to the fact that there is a balance point between “sobbing mess” and “isolated fortress.” It just takes a skilled storyteller to build real characters of any gender (or in this case, it took a team of storytellers).

    Perhaps, then, we can say that the skill of all writers in all mediums needs to improve so that they are capable of creating fully nuanced people. In a time when the majority of storytellers were men, these writers went beyond writing about character types as they’ve experienced them (in this case women), and instead learned to write about women as they actually are. This is an oversight which authors often do not realize, because their writing makes perfect sense to them. However, it can cause that part of their story to fail to resonate with some of their audience.

    In the case of video games, female characters written by men often fail to resonate with female players, because they are portrayals of women from the external viewing experience of those men. They may have the external trappings and many basic behaviors of women, but none of the internal reasoning, depth, nuance, or feeling of real women, because the writers lacked that perspective, and did not recognize this gap in their storytelling. This game is an excellent and enduring guide to any who seek to learn how to step outside of one’s experience and write about people as they truly are.

    • Alesia Matson says:

      As someone who’s only ever watched these games being played, it had never occurred to me that the protagonists in these games had backstories, development arcs and often, places in a larger universe of games that had story arcs and development through time – until I started making contact with gamers around the world via Twitter. I get excited to see writers and gamers discussing these issues and to see how storytelling just continues to evolve based on the sophistication of the audience. Gamers seem to be less and less content to “settle” for boring stories and flat-line character development, and to insist instead on living, vibrant four-dimensional characters (with Time being the fourth, in this case).

      Is it a direct consequence of the diversification of the gaming audience/customer base, do you think? I seem to remember reading much commentary on the lack of good/depthful development for protagonists in general (and female protags specifically, of course). I’d be interested to read what folks think about that.

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