Forgive Me Uematsu, For I Have Sinned – Final Fantasy VI by Sebastian Deken and Boss Fight Books

When I saw this book, I was excited. Coming into 2021, I wanted to challenge myself as a writer. So earlier in the year, I reviewed Boss Fight Book’s Silent Hill 2 by Mike Drucker. I never reviewed a book before or even played a Silent Hill game. I saw this Final Fantasy VI book as an great opportunity. I was actively playing the subject matter this time before I read the book. I could understand where the author was coming from in a better way. I was jazzed. Then I quit Final Fantasy VI.

I played Final Fantasy VI (although my cartridge says “Final Fantasy III”) for the very first time this year. Actually, right at the very beginning of the year on January 1, 2021 (ironically, around the same time I was reading and reviewing the Silent Hill 2 book!). I had a tumultuous journey with my own Super Nintendo, a tale I documented in my review of the Analogue Super NT. When I decided to save up for this fancy FPGA Super Nintendo, I only bought one game before I had the console – Final Fantasy III. I bought it in May 2019.

Over the next few weeks, I played the front half of the game, meeting heroes and villains my friends and peers met in their youth. I always heard that FFVI was one of, if not the, best Final Fantasy game ever made. Having only dabbled previously, I wanted to see what I had been missing.

Just over 14 hours into FFIII (which I guess is FFVI, but my cartridge says III!). As my first FF game, it’s neat. Apparently, time-wise, I’m only half way done. Sheesh. – January 11, 2021

But I slowly became frustrated with both the game and the less-than-stellar guide I printed off of GameFAQs (I was going for an authentic experience here).

The more I play FFVI, the less I’m enjoying it? I kinda just wish it was a book. Maybe it is because I’m using a crappy guide. Maybe it’s because 16 hours in I just found out how to run from fights.

Not sure if I want to keep trucking along. Maybe I’m just not a FF person. – January 16, 2021

That’s quite the five day turn around. I made it right up to the floating continent and the fight before Kefka could plummet the earth back down to bring on the end of the world. I couldn’t beat the giant dog-looking Esper things and gave up in frustration.

So why would I review a book about Final Fantasy VI?

It came back to my challenge. I wanted to see what I was missing about Final Fantasy VI. It seemed like an interesting angle.

Then I read Sebastian Deken’s book.

Really, what came next is what I deserve. I didn’t read the synopsis/back material this time. I saw “BOSS FIGHT BOOKS” and “FINAL FANTASY VI” on the same page and was sold. It’d be about what I missed in the game, why I should return and finish this beloved classic.

Instead, Deken showed me the wonder that is Nobuo Uematsu and his music.

Never really playing a Final Fantasy game outside of a couple hours of XV and every Kingdom Hearts game, I just had no idea who Uematsu was. I know, I know. In my time of playing Final Fantasy VI, I was hearing Uematsu’s music. It was good stuff! But I wasn’t always paying attention to it and the game. Like I said, I was using a GameFAQs walkthrough that I printed out. I’d play in the morning before work, rushing to finish the next chunk. The game didn’t have my undivided attention, the music even less so. Please forgive me.

Deken took me places I never expected. I had context for the front half of the game, but no clue what happens after the apocalypse. Deken’s breakdown and exploration of the character’s musical themes weaving into the narrative, other themes, and emotional cues opened my eyes to what potential lied beneath and blow the floating chunk of earth. I kept thinking to myself “I stopped playing this?!”

To me, Shadow was a character I desperately wanted in my party. Not because I knew where his story was going, but because he was a sweet ninja assassin that had a lot of attack power. I had no clue that his life’s story wove back into others in the party. I didn’t even know you face a critical decision after fighting Kefka on the floating continent. 

And sure, I could have looked all those narrative bits online. Deken took me in deeper by explaining the music and how it is actually built. Thankfully, Square Enix has the soundtrack for Final Fantasy VI available on Apple Music and Spotify. I was pulling up tracks and listening to the cues that Deken was pointing out. Even my untrained ear was picking up on the notes and ties between songs. Even the “lit” intro du duuuuuuun from the organ when the game starts up, has a depth I never would have found or explored. What was just “good” or “cool” music now has richness and purpose thanks to Deken’s analysis and explanation.

I’d probably get in trouble for not mentioning the opera. It is an iconic scene in the game and also inspires the cover of this book. My knowledge of opera doesn’t go much further than Bugs Bunny and Ethan Hunt. Deken knows this. Guess what? There is a style and structure to opera! Deken peels back the curtain on opera and its dramatic structure. Watching the opera play out (and playing the actual game during the opera), it’s fair to say that most players feel something. The tension of pulling off a bait and switch. The surprise and rush when a rival, albeit a goofy rival, appears to cause trouble. The drama of forbidden romance. It’s not all happenstance. In fact, it’s actually quite meta for how it ties into the the current and future events of Final Fantasy VI and opera in real life. I was blissfully ignorant to all of this. Now I am aware of context and structure that makes me long to see this all again with fresh eyes and ears. I didn’t appreciate what was going on. I felt something in my heart, but missed why because I was flipping walkthrough pages to see what I needed to do next. Maybe most kids in the 90s did the same thing: Not Deken though. I am thankful that scene stuck with him, so much that he’d end up studying music and opera. 

Deken’s writing style is, frankly, what I aspire to have. His analogies, word usage, and candor struck a chord with me. I was soaking up this book beyond musical analysis. I was taking notes to become a better writer. Not just here on my blog, but in my professional work as a technical writer as well. Deken’s ability to distill complicated and/or foreign music theories and structures to a guy that can only play the opening notes of The Imperial March (thanks piano lessons), enraptured me. Just look at the opening paragraphs of the first chapter. Thirty or so years of  history of video games through two paragraphs describing sound — Absolutely delightful.

It started in the late 50s, with the buzz of an oscilloscope, the breath of a cooling fan, the clicking of relays. Then came the beeps: simple and spare in the 60s, more common and complicated as the 70s marched on. Usually tuneless and shapeless, usually only indications of what happens on screen: a blip when the dot representing a ping pong ball hits the line representing the paddle, a staticky crash when your triangular spaceship blows up. Rarely would a familiar melody glint from the deep.

Unless you’re a John Cage-type, you probably wouldn’t consider this music—just stimulus and response. But isn’t music noise organized intentionally? That’s what those early arcade sounds were, however scant. Not artful, not great, but technically qualified. A Jamaican bobsled team of sound.

But by the early 80s, video game sound—music or static—had begun to glimmer enough to be recognized as art.

There was one more lesson I walked away with. This book really captures the spirit of Boss Fight Books. These aren’t really run-of-the-mill game history or analysis books. They are unique perspectives that enrich their subject matter, no matter how far from their initial release. They are insightful and human. I can’t speak to every single book under their umbrella (only Silent Hill 2 and Shovel Knight), but I do feel confident in speaking for their mission. Boss Fight Books connect their readers to video games in insightful, surprising, and delightful ways through authors that bring truly unique perspectives.

Bravo Boss Fight Books and Sebastian Deken. Bravo.