what will you fight for?

Foggy memories of being a kid playing the GBA port of Final Fantasy IV are really the only truth I can claim about my history with the game. I can’t tell you how or where I got it from: I probably convinced my parents to buy it for me at some point because I had played the GBA port of Final Fantasy I. They knew I loved things like Pokemon and Zelda, but I can’t imagine them picking it out for me on their own.

Apparently the GBA port of Final Fantasy IV came out in the US in 2005, which would have made me 12, which meant I was either a 6th or 7th grader in Southern California: a displaced Midwest girl, deep in the throws of puberty in an unfamiliar state with my brother in college in New York and my friends thousands of miles away in my childhood neighborhood in Ohio. Single-player games became increasingly important during these two tumultuous years in which I lived out West: I needed stories I could experience on my own, because—as melodramatic as it sounds—I was the only person I had in that regard.

My parents were never really into video games the way my brother and I were: we had a Mattel Intelevision that my mom would play this first-person Advanced Dungeons & Dragons dungeon crawler on, and she was also a bonafide Dr. Mario master. I remember buying the GBA port of Dr. Mario around the same time and hooking it up via the Game Boy Player on the GameCube so she could play it on the TV (a huge and bulky CRT monstrosity; this was right before plasma and LED became the Thing for televisions).

I picked up Final Fantasy IV again the other day because I never quite beat it as a kid. I got close, but had orchestrated a situation that would have required hours of level grinding to get through the end, and it’s likely I got distracted by something else. I can’t tell you if that was because of bad pacing or just me being a complete dolt in terms of how you should play an RPG, because 23-year-old me hasn’t really gotten stuck at all in this play through, so I’ll let you be the judge of that. Maybe I’m just more dedicated to fighting every random encounter I run into now?

On the surface, the story of Final Fantasy IV is pretty unremarkable. Bad guy wants to take over the world, a bunch of heroes all band together to stop him and in turn relationships form as they’re whisked away to different fanciful locales (including but not limited to: forest villages, islands, mystic caves, the underworld, a dwarf kingdom, the magical land of summons, the moon). If you strip down the details of pretty much any fantasy RPG, you get the same formula, for the most part (plus or minus the moon). Replaying it last weekend—with a little more life, a little more experience under my belt as 23 year-old person (but not a huge amount by any means, don’t get me wrong)—I struggled to understand why this game captivated me as a kid. It seemed so basic and barebones, but I have vivid memories of playing this game, curled up in a beanbag chair in the loft of a house that didn’t feel like a home, and being in awe as I piloted a little 10×10 pixel airship around a sprawling fantasy realm.

And then it hit me.

This will involve spoilers, so you might want to stop reading if that’s important to you: Final Fantasy IV is mainly the story of Cecil, a dark night from the kingdom of Baron—a kingdom that has grown more and more imperialistic under the rule of a corrupt king. The game opens with Cecil carrying out some pretty heinous deeds under the orders of the king: the village of Mysidia is invaded and innocent people are murdered in order to claim the crystal they protect, and one of the first actions you do as the team of Cecil and Kain (Cecil’s childhood friend, dragoon, and eventual certified douchenozzle) is travel to the village of Mist and inadvertently destroy it with a hidden bomb you were given (to give credit to Cecil (and I suppose, yourself), he didn’t know any of this: he was simply ordered to go to Mist).

Basically, in the first twenty minutes of the game, you witness our hero commit murder in the name of a corrupt kingdom, and then you as our hero destroy an innocent village.

Uplifting, right?

Shortly after this, Cecil renounces the king he thought he once knew: this was not why he became a dark knight, this was not why he dedicated himself to the king, the man who raised him as a child who was know unrecognizable to him (you later find out the actual king’s been dead for a while and the acting king is one of the four elemental lords so like, no hard feelings Cecil, you couldn’t have known, I guess?). He pledges himself to destroy the empire Baron has become and eventually gathers a motley crew of rebellion: Rosa, a white mage and his love interest; Rydia, a young summoner and the only survivor of the desolation of Mist; Yang, a devout monk of the kingdom of Fabul, and Edward, a sheepish prince who has lost both his kingdom and his lover in the wake of Baron’s reign.

The story’s on an upturn from here: the party secures a ship to sail back to Baron and infiltrate the castle in order to steal an airship, when Leviathan suddenly intercepts the boat, causing the group to scatter. Cecil wakes up in Mysidia—the city he personally seized in the beginning cutscene of the game—alone.

There’s some stuff about prophecy here that ties into later story junk, but what strikes me in this moment now is Cecil himself: a dark knight trying so hard to redeem himself, to set right what once was wrong, who is now completely and utterly alone in a place that hates him (rightfully so; he admits this himself). The love of his life, the young woman he swore to protect after being the cause of her hardship, the monk and prince that he fought side by side with against the armies of the place he once called home are all—as far as he knows—dead. He has nothing.

And yet, he strives for good. He rolls into a town that despises him, wishes him dead, and yet continues to ask “How do I become better?” He travels to Mt. Ordeals—a harrowing journey that few return from—just based on the hope that he may renounce the dark sword that lead him down this path. And he returns from this journey a paladin, a holy knight. In order to do this, he fights himself—his reflection and dark knight persona.

Except he doesn’t. You can’t win the battle if you continually attack Dark Knight Cecil. The only way to progress is to defend or heal for five or so consecutive turns. After this time, the shadow addresses Cecil before disappearing:

Some fight for justice.

Some fight for love.

What will you fight for?

12-year-old Emily lost her mind at this, by the way. Sure, the “fight your shadow double” is a pretty wrote trope in genre pieces, but I hadn’t encountered it, and it completely enthralled me. Even if I didn’t fully grasp the character of Cecil the way I do now (because, let’s be honest here, the writing is bare-thin throughout this whole game, especially compared to how lore-heavy recent Final Fantasy games are), there was a gravitas to this moment that I couldn’t shake, because I had never witnessed such an about-face in a character before.

And here’s the kicker, the thing that video games allow you to do that books and movies don’t: I wasn’t just watching this character go through this transformation. I was a part of it. Both 12-year-old and 23-year-old me allowed Cecil to progress through his struggle through our input. I don’t think 12-year-old me really appreciated that agency, but 23-year-old me certainly does.

The dialogue, in retrospect, is cheesy. The plot is filled with cliches and stereotypical struggles between good and evil. The gameplay—like most RPGs—is repetitive and tiresome. The whole “twist” near the end is absolutely ridiculous.

But it doesn’t make this game’s impact on my life any less important. I wrote differently because of Final Fantasy IV. In some respect, the artist I am today has Final Fantasy IV to thank for opening my eyes to writing characters that exist beyond the binary of good and evil.

Also, the whole “going to the moon” thing is pretty cool.