Shifting World

Final Fantasy VI is the first game in the series to leave fantasyland. This isn't to say it stops being fantasy; rather, it truly begins. What is fantasyland, one may ask?

Typically it will display - often by means of a prefatory map - a selection, sometimes very full, from a more or less fixed list of landscape ingredients.
- The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1994)

These include some continents, islands, deserts, forests, and other norther elements, derived mainly from J.R.R. Tolkien's Arda. Stories set here do not impact their landscape.

While FFVI is clearly set in a similar place (and its no crime for a video game to be set in a game world!) there are two notable differences. This is a world of "high technology," and a world destroyed half way through the game. These elements bring FFVI slightly closer to true fantasy than many of its fellow RPGs, because it challenges one's expectations.

This technology has not developed on a course parallel to our world. Nothing from the 20th century is seen, and the lives of the average people are still rather medieval. But the Industrial Revolution has begun, as there are coal mines, factories, and billows of smoke covering the towns. From the prologue we know "iron, gunpowder, and steam engines" abound. This is the age of steam.

Ironically, it's also a new age of magic. The MagiTek armor owes much to "mechs" of the anime tradition, but hints most at another subgenre the game creators drew from: steampunk. This is the future as seen through the eyes of Victorians, and touchstones include William Gibson and Bruce Stirling's 1991 novel The Difference Engine and Disney's 1954 adaptation of 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea. The original FFVI release is vaguely steampunk, but the FMVs released in 1999 definitely embrace the genre, with their glorification of the steam and clomping, magic-powered machines. Airships are another staple of the subgenre, and Setzer's Falcon is right on cue in the Opera cutscene.

But this dash of tech would - in itself - not be enough to make FFVI a significant fantasy, escaping its roots. The landscape also changes. The characters' actions - mainly Kefka's! - radically alter their surroundings, and the denizens (NPCs) have an understandably emotional reaction to the devastation wrought on their world. The destruction has a profound impact on the playable characters, further fleshing out their back stories and personalities. Each character subverts a fantasy archetype. The king, the thief, the ninja, the knight, the mage, the feral child, and others are not at all who we expect them to be.

FFVI was a tough act to follow in many ways, and later games either pushed the techno-fantasy aesthetic further (FFVII and FFVIII), or retreated to an insular fantasyland. (FFIX) From FFX onward, the graphics remain stunning, but also resemble the washed-out art nouveau locales of Massive Multiplayer Online games. (FFXI Online is an MMO.) FFVI greatly benefitted from being a transition point, since its world has grit, and undergoes dynamic transformation. It's the most fantasy of any Final Fantasy.