Spoilers for Final Fantasy VI, IX, and Tactics below. (ugh who are you people? just kidding kidding)
The other day, a professor of mine was wondering about Shakespeare adaptions and how successful they can be divorced from their original language and prose. Is the language what makes it so beloved and lasting…or is that just what English teachers want to think? I'm pretty sure it's what English teachers want to think, sorry Shakespearean prose. The draw of Shakespeare, to me at least, is the universal themes and stories that are easy to tap into emotionally. Everything is overdramatic in the right way that pulls at us. You might be thinking that you hate Shakespeare. That's fine, but you probably like something that was adapted from a Shakespeare work, even if you don't know that it was. Many other works of fiction, if not Shakespeare adaptions, are Shakespearean in spirit. One of these is a little game series you may know called Final Fantasy.
In the 90s, what many people consider the golden age of jrpgs, Squaresoft really dabbled in Shakespearean melodrama. Chronologically, the first game I can call Shakespearean is Final Fantasy VI. This is fitting, because I've always said that VI is the game I would foist on someone who said games couldn't have the same narrative power as books or plays. It's not in the core plot that I find hints of the bard, or even in the opera. The opera, while it would probably make a great completed work if some composer actually went and did that (are you there god? It's me, Morie), doesn't have that S factor. The Shakespearean hero of Final Fantasy VI is actually Shadow. This comparison was something I first read in an excellent article in a series called "The Rise and Fall of Final Fantasy." Shadow, a mysterious and shrouded ninja assassin, plays with our expectations of character arcs in a jrpg. Throughout the game he shows precious hints that we're going to learn his story, and we mostly do. We know that Shadow's past caused him to abandon his family, including a daughter, who just so happens to be in your party – how convenient! What we don't get is a resolution we want. This emotional gap that's left is something very common in Shakespearean tragedy. To quote Pitchfork, author of the aforementioned article:
But then you get to Shadow and Relm. You know he abandoned her after her mother died, and that the kid still has some issues about it. You know that when he's hanging out on the airship, his estranged daughter stands just up the stairs from him. There they are, but you're powerless to get Shadow to come clean. It's a little like being an audience member during the scene where Othello's approaching the sleeping Desdemona, his mind made up to kill her — taking it slow, giving you all the time in the world to stew in your seat thinking YOU FUCKING MORON SHE'S INNOCENT DON'T DO IT. YOU NINJA BASTARD, ACT LIKE A HUMAN BEING AND COME CLEAN WITH THE DAUGHTER YOU DITCHED. But it's no good. Othello's always gonna kill Desdemona for no good reason, Shadow's always gonna die one way or another, Relm's never gonna know her father, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Tragic omissions like these are, I truly believe, part of the popularity of stories like Othello or Romeo and Juliet. There is some irrational part of our minds that keeps reading them and watching them because we want it to turn out differently this time. It's pretty special that a video game could pull off that successful build up and let down, even in multiple playthroughs. Shadow is the most obvious Shakespearean element in Final Fantasy VI, but I do think the game had an almost Shakespeare moment with Cyan. Cyan tragically loses his wife and son early in the game. In your travels you come across an injured solider in one town and his girlfriend in another. Cyan agrees to deliver letters between the couple. In the second half of the game, you find Cyan still writing to the girl, but posing as the solider who has actually passed away. His last letter to her explains the farce and urges her to move forward with her life. If he hadn't have sent that, the ruse and emotional closure it was impeding would have been Shakespearean indeed.
A game that followed closely after VI has what is probably the most Shakespearean ending in the series (are you sick of the word Shakespearean? I am). Sephiroth: the Hamlet of the video game world. Just kidding! I'm talking about Final Fantasy Tactics. Tactics, unlike its predecessors in the main Final Fantasy series, has a very complex and politically driven story. The tl;dr of it is that you topple the power of a corrupt church, who is actually pulling the government strings. The most Shakespearean character that Square ever wrote is not in your party, but he is all over the plot, and his influence is everywhere in the story. Delita Hyral is the childhood friend of protagonist Ramza and the real anti-hero of the story. He rises from poor circumstances to manipulate his way through the game, courting favor when he needs to and betraying when he needs to. There's almost a love story when he kidnaps princess Ovelia, who like many characters in the game is being used a political pawn. He helps rescue her only to use her later to become king through marriage. After all that scheming and the big bad defeated, everyone can settle down for a peaceful ending, right? The princess realizes that Delita used her like he used others, and stabs him…as he's bringing her flowers. He kills her in defense. The game doesn't tell us for sure whether he lives. Official records say he does, but it's somewhat ambiguous. Delita is something between a tragic Shakespearean protagonist and a villain, like if Hamlet or Othello and Iago were somehow one person. He has that sympathetic quality, and even his own "everybody dies" ending, with enough ambiguity to keep us guessing.
Final Fantasy IX, which was supposed to be a last hoorah of old style Final Fantasy, is also the last big example of Shakespearean influence in the series. I also think it's the most conscious use of it yet. Much of the dialogue in the game is purposefully complicated to give off that faux Elizabethan vibe. Like in Hamlet, we also get a "play within a play" that entertains as well as foreshadows the main plot. The writers made up an entire story, "I Want to Be Your Canary," for the in-game theater troupe to perform. The story itself is an obvious reference to Romeo and Juliet: a tragic tale of a princess and her lover who both die in the name of forbidden love. The king in the play, King Leo, seems to be a reference to King Lear. In the original Japanese version the character was actually named King Lear. The play's part in the game's story serves a larger scheme to kidnap a princess (that again) who herself wants to be kidnapped. So it's basically a Shakespearean tragedy serving the purpose of a Shakespearean comedy. The King Lear reference also foreshadows that the real monarch in the game, Queen Brahne, will go mad and betray her family.
This play within a play eventually helps serve to bring the two main characters together, but it isn't the first time the game uses bard tactics for a love story. A misrouted love letter that never reaches the character it was supposed to forms the basis of another relationship in a comedy of of errors. That part of the game serves as a hilarious diversion from the increasingly dark plot twists.
There may be more examples that I'm missing, as I haven't played every Final Fantasy. Now all of this isn't to accuse the writers of these games of laziness. I actually find the way these stories are done commendable and clever. It shows that it's very wrong to think of video games as an art form separate from the more "legitimate" art forms, because the same big narrative influences found in countless novels or films are also found in games. Games still adhere to our universal concepts of what makes a good story. Even if you don't remember any of your high school Shakespeare, if you've played one of the games I discussed, you can take pride in the fact you enjoyed an equally moving and compelling story.