Every time I would tell people I hadn't played Final Fantasy VI — a claim which is no longer true, thank god — they'd respond with particular forcefulness because of how much I love music. Not only does FFVI have a famous soundtrack, it features a major musical setpiece: The Opera House.
Last week, Kotaku news editor and towel aficionado Jason Schreier visited me in Portland. While he was here, we played some Final Fantasy VI. A lot, actually — our first streaming session ran just under six hours, and the subsequent session went another three. It was enough time to get me through the entire Opera House section of the game. I finally got to see what everyone had been talking about.
Final Fantasy VI's Opera House sequence is similar to a lot of the game — it's awkward but charming about it, relies on the player's imagination, and makes up in ambition for what it lacks in "ability to actually represent what is happening on screen."
You can watch me and Jason play through the Opera House section here (sorry about the occasional hiccups in the video; I'm still working out some kinks):
(Bonus: Near the end, Jason reads Bungie's weekly update about how they're overhauling the weekly strikes in Destiny, then leaves me on my own (DURING THE HARDEST PART) so that he can write this article. I made it to the boss in time, he published the story, and everyone went home happy. That's how we lay it down here at Kotaku.)
The setup to the Opera House sequence is far-fetched. Your team needs an airship to get where they're going. Turns out, your party member Celes is the spitting image of an opera diva named Maria. A well-known airship owner named Setzer is planning to kidnap (I think?) Maria after a coming performance at the nearby Opera House. The plan is that Celes will go undercover as Maria, Setzer will make off with her at the end of the performance, and the rest of the team will sneak aboard his airship and explain to him why they need a ride. (Hey, no one ever said it was the most efficient plan.)
The moment that really sells the whole thing happens just as the show begins. The orchestra begins playing, the screen fades to black. You've got the usual soundtrack kinda thing going, and Uematsu's lush but simplified Super Nintendo Sounds(TM) are coming out of your TV speakers. It's nothing you haven't heard before. Then this dude comes out on stage and starts… singing.
He's singing in one of those ridiculous MIDI fake-voices like the ones on that Casio Rapman your parents bought you when you were 12. (The patch name was probably "Male Vox" or something.) He sounds like the shopkeeper in Crypt of the Necrodancer — itself a seemingly clear homage to FFVI — and my immediate reaction was to crack up laughing.
It's unclear whether the game's creators were going for "cute/silly" or "grandiose/moving" with most of the Opera House, though as with a lot of Final Fantasy VI, the answer is probably a little bit of both. The needle slides more toward grandiose in the second scene: Celes sings her solo, hopefully gets the words right, performs an awkward dance routine with the male lead who then transforms into a bouquet of flowers (!), then throws the flowers off of a balcony, symbolically (literally?) parting from her love.
That flower-throw was a moment that, like many great classic video game moments, felt immediately iconic despite the fact that I'd never seen it before.
My first exposure to the music from the FFVI Opera House was actually this version by Jake 'Virt' Kaufman and Tommy Pedrini from OCRemix's Final Fantasy VI compilation:
Listening to that (killer) performance out of context, I could hear how it might be a rearrangement of the game's original soundtrack. After listening to and learning Virt and Pedrini's version, it was cool to hear the original melodies and seeing those lyrics in their original form. The newer, higher-fidelity version of the music offered a glimpse of the "truth" of the performances that the original low-res, synth-vocal version left up to your imagination.
Older JRPGs live on abstraction. When you see the heroes' sprites emoting with their huge blinking eyes and tiny waggling fingers, your imagination is left to fill in the blanks. Is this character in pain? Is she angry? Is he sad? The singing in the Opera House is similar. We trust that Celes looks graceful and sings wonderfully when she dons a costume and takes to the stage, even though what we actually see is a blocky little SNES sprite haltingly throwing a triangular bouquet of roses.
Compare the Opera House with two Big Video Game Musical Moments from the last 12 months. First, the "O Maker" musical number from Dragon Age: Inquisition:
And second, Priscilla's poetry reading from The Witcher 3:
Those musical sequences made it into my mega-comparison between Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3, and I called it a draw between the two. Both scenes are lovely in their own awkward way. Both illustrate how difficult musical sequences in games can be — never is the uncanny valley more apparent than when a video game character is having sex or performing music. To fully enjoy both, we have to let go and just go with it.
The deeper level of abstraction of Final Fantasy VI's Opera House pushes things well outside of the uncanny valley, which makes it easier to just sit back and go with things, despite the fact that we're not even listening to human beings sing. As I watched Celes and her male lead sing to one another, I was never distracted by whether or not this was believable, or whether or not the vocal performances were convincing . It was clear I was playing a game, but when Celes walked to the edge of the tower and threw the flowers off the edge, I can't pretend I didn't feel something.
After Celes's song, things get action-packed. The rest of your party must sprint through this tricky timed section, dodging weird mice in the rafters above the stage in order to stop the evil octopus Ultros, magnificent dipshit that he is, from dropping a huge weight on Celes's head. That timed section is a sour grand finale for the whole affair, given that it's easy to fuck up and failure will throw you a million years back to the last save point. I made it through on my first try — barely! — so I guess I'm fine with it.
With Ultros defeated and Locke's quick improvisations saving the show, the gang's ruse is successful. They follow Celes onto Setzer's airship and with the help of a trick two-headed coin, manage to convince him to aid in their cause. (In the process, you learn that Edgar used the same trick coin to allow Sabin to live a life of freedom; it's a neat character note that you only see if you visited the right places ahead of time.)
Setzer accepts in the best possible way:
A line that great and a lift on an airship? Good deal.