I've been playing FFVI recently and the story of the game is compelling in many ways, but what strikes me the most is its use of mechanical storytelling during boss fights.
Video game boss fights are sort of like pop quizzes to test your progress. They are the place where you make sure your player knows the proper mechanics, and offer them a particularly gruelling test of their skills. They are also big, set-piece moments for your story and it makes sense to use them to convey narrative. However, what FFVI does is a little more involved.
Your average game will preface a boss battle with a cutscene. You’ll get the story behind the boss, and then fight the boss, and then maybe get a bit more story afterwards as your character(s) recover from the battle. FFVI keeps the story going throughout, often using in-battle graphics to convey a pseudo-cutscene moment before rendered cutscenes were practical in games. There are many moments where you’ll be in the middle of a fight, and suddenly espers will fly across the field of battle to begin wreaking havoc, and the camera might cut to the world map for a moment to show the chaos. This is a bit ham-fisted, but the game also takes several more subtle tones. The Ghost Train fight is perhaps the most iconic in the game, it’s the one I see referenced most frequently out of context for the game. Sometimes it’s for humor based on Sabin’s suplex ability, but a fondness for the fight must exist for a humorous meme to be born.
The fondness stems from this fight being such an emotional moment in the story. The whole forest sequence is a protracted metaphor for Cyan’s emotional recovery from losing his family. We leave the camp where Kefka is committing war crimes, and we descend into darkness, isolated from the world around us. The environment is completely new and unique, far darker than we’ve seen before. The background even changes and we see one of the most distinctive uses of parallax in the entire game. The pathways are winding, and it’s easy to get lost and appear back where you started. The game designers went out of their way to make this segment feel different from the rest of the game so far. In the midst of it all you find the ghost train. The train that carries the souls of the dead onward into the next life. You fight against the inevitability of death, but even once you defeat the boss, the train continues onward. In the end you see your family one last time before they board the train and begin their next journey.
The use of unique level design mechanics (teleporting back to the start if you take the wrong path), unique visual elements (the parallaxing background), and the boss that doesn’t actually die after losing to you in a fight are all excellent bits of mechanical storytelling that help make this sequence stand out in a game filled with stand-out moments.
This got me thinking: do we see this sort of storytelling in other games? Ocarina’s forest temple comes to mind as a similar narrative moment, fighting the literal spectre of gannondorf while Link is wrestling with the loss of childhood, and the destruction real gannondorf has wrought.
But what else? I’d love to get your thoughts in the comments below!
Thanks for reading!