Final Fantasy VI is a masterpiece, and so is its soundtrack. That’s not a coincidence; the soundtrack plays an active part in elevating the game to another level of quality, much like its narrative does. However, despite my gushing, I could not care less about “the opera scene,” and my understanding of music theory and composition is tenuous at best. As a result, I was particularly curious to see what my experience would be like reviewing the new Boss Fight Books entry on Final Fantasy VI, written by Sebastian Deken, who chose to approach the game from the perspective of its music. Suffice to say, the book is not for everyone, but hardcore fanatics and music lovers will find elements to appreciate.
Boss Fight Books is a unique publisher in that it doesn’t just strive to provide a factoid dump on various video games, but to illuminate games by placing them in their historical context and critically scrutinizing them on a foundational level. No two books from the publisher will feel the same, which is part of the charm.
In this case, Sebastian Deken’s Final Fantasy VI for Boss Fight Books aims to do several things, such as (1) explain in explicit terms how the game’s soundtrack so intimately enhances the experience, (2) draw meaningful parallels between the work of game composer Nobuo Uematsu and assorted classical composers, and (3) elucidate why certain sounds in the music cause us to react in certain ways. A few sparse insights from Uematsu himself, newly translated from an email interview, are also featured.
The good news is Deken succeeds at all of these aims. The bad news is that some disorganization and long-windedness in the writing put a damper on the whole experience.
Despite the title of the book, Final Fantasy VI doesn’t become the focus until page 38 out of roughly 190. Prior to that, the discussion mostly centers on tangential hardware limitations of NES (not SNES) and the potential musical influence of the original Dragon Quest games on Final Fantasy. The music insights in this early section are interesting for their own sake, and musical notation is included throughout the book when it meaningfully contributes to the discussion. However, the other details are likely to be things the hardcore nerd readership of this book already knows or, in the case of Nintendo hardware sound limitations, has been discussed in greater depth elsewhere.
In general, the first 60 pages of Boss Fight Books’ Final Fantasy VI feel haphazardly organized. The author discusses all topics presented with enthusiasm and earnestness, which is appreciated, but the downside to this is that the discussion constantly veers into new, unpredictable tangents. Deken’s writing style is that of a dolphin leaping in and out of the water excitedly, and the result is that the first third of the book feels lacking in any compelling takeaways.
Fortunately, the middle chapters of the book finally settle down into a focused conversation, delivering compelling insights on the music grounded in the context of the game’s events. It explains (for those who don’t already know) basic music terminology like leitmotifs and how Uematsu artfully weaves recurring ideas into different parts of the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack. It also makes convincing arguments for how Uematsu’s soundtrack effectively steers the narrative at times rather than the other way around. Various comments Uematsu has made over the years about his career are peppered into the discussion as well.
And of course, an entire chapter is dedicated to the opera scene — why it works, why it may not have worked if SNES were capable of high-fidelity audio, how it stacks up beside some of history’s notable operas, how the audio coalesces for certain intended effects, etc. It’s a quality dissection for sure, even if it often reminded me how much I don’t know or understand about music composition. An unavoidable reality of reading the book is that there will be small parts that non-musicians will just not understand, and I can’t fault it for that.
A larger issue with Boss Fight Books’ Final Fantasy VI is that the writing tends to drag on in places, reiterating an idea one too many times or chasing too many of the aforementioned tangents. This issue is at its worst in the final chapter. Despite being less than 30 pages long, the final chapter is still egregiously prolonged to the point that I felt relieved when the book ended rather than deeply satisfied with what I had just consumed.
Likewise, in this chapter the author credits Nobuo Uematsu with “almost single-handedly” popularizing video game music in America and increasing its stature in society, and while that may be true, he provides little evidence in the text to support that conclusion. Other video game composers are seldom even mentioned, save for Koichi Sugiyama, Koji Kondo, and Yasunori Mitsuda, and I can’t recall any mention of Western game composers. We are largely expected to accept the author’s narrative of Uematsu’s significance in the West at face value, which particularly rubs me the wrong way considering the chapter already squanders so many of its pages.
So ultimately, Boss Fight Books’ Final Fantasy VI is a flawed work, but it still succeeds at its core aims. Hardcore Final Fantasy VI fanatics and musicians will appreciate this intricate discussion of how Nobuo Uematsu so exquisitely crafted music that fit the characters and the mood. Meanwhile, anyone who doesn’t already have a deep fondness for the soundtrack of Final Fantasy VI or music composition will have little incentive to pick this up. Then again, an eBook copy only costs five bucks, so how much do you really have to lose?
Final Fantasy VI is available now as an eBook and will release in paperback on July 13, 2021. A review copy of Final Fantasy VI was provided by Boss Fight Books.
Also, if you prefer a more traditional examination of Final Fantasy, definitely read Chris Kohler’s Final Fantasy V.