If you’ve been following my work on MobileSyrup over the past four years, you’ll know that Final Fantasy is my favourite video game series of all time.
While I love the series for its compelling stories and characters, strong gameplay mechanics and grand sense of adventure, it’s Nobuo Uematsu’s music that’s truly captivated me. As the sole composer of the first nine Final Fantasy games, as well as a contributor to several others, Uematsu’s work has come to define the long-running series since its inception.
His work has gone on to be celebrated in the industry and featured in many concerts around the world, including the ‘Distant Worlds’ shows.
But of all of his prolific works, perhaps his most iconic is Final Fantasy VI, the 1994 SNES JRPG that’s widely regarded to be one of the greatest games of all time. With that in mind, writer and musician Sebastian Deken has teamed up with Boss Fight Books, the publisher of wonderful documentary-style non-fiction books about video games, to analyze Uematsu’s work on FFVI.
Right from the start, Deken exhibits a strong writer’s voice that is at once sophisticated but also welcoming. This means that even if you’re someone like me who greatly appreciates the music of Uematsu but knows little about actual music criticism, you can still follow along with Deken quite well. He gets into some technical breakdowns of specific chord charts, but it never feels overwhelming.
Making this even better, the benefit of this book coming out in 2021 (versus, say, closer to 1994) is that FFVI‘s score is now available on all kinds of digital platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube. Because of that, Deken invites you to listen along each time he refers to a given piece, and it makes for an especially engrossing reading experience.
— Boss Fight Books (@BossFightBooks) June 28, 2021
The book also adopts a smart structure, with the early sections serving as a history lesson on music in gaming and how it started off as brief little “ditties” — purely serviceable, Deken notes, but not exactly memorable. Even as time went on and the likes of Koji Kondo (Mario and The Legend of Zelda) and Koichi Sugiyama (Dragon Quest) brought true musicality to the medium, the games themselves were decidedly basic in their stories and characters.
Uematsu, meanwhile, helped elevate music in gaming through powerful compositions that went hand-in-hand with the more sophisticated storytelling of Final Fantasy to elicit truly profound emotional responses, especially in VI. Deken explores how particularly impressive this was given the technical limitations Uematsu faced on the SNES. It’s easy to hear renditions of Uematsu’s music in modern games like Final Fantasy XIV or massive orchestrated concerts like Distant Worlds and forget their humble roots.
“Through his passionate analyses, I myself have found even more appreciation for Uematsu, my favourite musician of all time, and FFVI, one of my all-time favourite games.”
Naturally, the book examines this through individual dissections of each character’s themes, whether it’s the solemn-but-hopeful “Terra’s Theme,” the Ennio Morricone Western-inspired “Shadow’s Theme,” the honourable-yet-tragic “Cyan’s Theme,” the heroic “Locke’s Theme,” and, of course, the outstanding majesty and build-up of Kefka’s seventeen-minute-long “Dancing Mad” battle theme.
To further illustrate the brilliance of these themes, Deken notes that Uematsu actually composed them without specific characters in mind and then assigned them to each one. Despite that, each one sounds pitch-perfect to who each character is. Moreover, Deken unpacks how Uematsu used leitmotif — at the time, to unprecedented effect — to thematically tie characters and story elements together, like “Forever Rachel” being a more melancholy version of “Locke’s Theme” to further depict his tragic love story.
Deken wisely dedicates an entire section of the book to where this is perhaps most evident: FFVI‘s iconic opera house section. Despite the simplistic visuals, lack of voice acting and minimal audio options, the weight of the scene — the former Imperial general Celes pouring out her heart on stage — is beautifully conveyed through “Aria di Mezzo Carattere.” He even goes into how scenes like the opera house — achingly sentimental and introspective as they are — go against the “tough guy” masculine-centric marketing employed by Square Soft (now Square Enix) in 1994, which was new and interesting context even to me.
The book is also remarkably well-researched; Deken frequently cites interviews going back as far as 20 years with Uematsu and other key Final Fantasy developers like series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi to dive into the influences behind the work. Adding further insight is new commentary from Uematsu himself, as provided via email exchanges with Deken. These all help portray Uematsu, the man, in all of his genius and humility.
Ultimately, as someone with next to zero knowledge on the actual art of creating music, I learned a lot reading Deken’s take on Final Fantasy VI. Through his passionate analyses, I myself have found even more appreciation for Uematsu, my favourite musician of all time, and FFVI, one of my all-time favourite games. But even if you’re a more casual fan of Final Fantasy or games in general, Deken’s Final Fantasy VI makes for an illuminating read on both a gaming classic and the evolution of music in the medium.
Deken’s Final Fantasy VI book can be purchased digitally now on Boss Fight Books’ website. A paperback copy will release on July 13th.
If you want to play (or replay) Final Fantasy VI, it’s worth noting that it — as well as the preceding five games in the series — are getting enhanced ‘Pixel Remaster’ versions later this year. These will also feature arrangements of the original music overseen by Uematsu.
Image credit: Square Enix