by Daniel Bullard-Bates
Fair warning: this post on sacrifice contains fairly major spoilers for Final Fantasy IV.
Final Fantasy IV contains a moment of self-sacrifice that completely shocked me. It was dramatic, emotional, and inspiring, but mostly it impressed because it was such a departure from the typical story of self-sacrifice. Since before the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s death for the sins of the world, personal sacrifice for the sake of others has been a source of fascination and praise for humanity. In modern entertainment, these moments typically take one of two forms:
1. The character is unproven, cowardly, or has caused some harm to befall the other characters previously in the story. By sacrificing themselves to delay the oncoming horde/blow up the reactor/offer their lives to a supernatural force, they redeem themselves in the eyes of the other characters in the story forever.The latter of these two conditions has greater potential for emotional impact, since the character performing the sacrifice has a presumably deeper connection to the other characters. What both conditions have in common, however, is that after the death of the characters, it is possible to look at their lives and their choices and see how far they’ve come, how they’ve changed as people and what brought them to such a decision. By sacrificing themselves these characters purchase relevance to the story and a morally clean slate with their lives.
2. The character is a close friend or ally who lives primarily to see the mission succeed or to protect another character. By giving their lives in service of the mission/friend/lover, they forever show their dedication to that cause/friendship/love.
Self sacrifice is such an overused theme in entertainment that it has become easy, as a viewer, to accept it when a character throws their life away for the sake of others. We may be sad to see a favorite character go, but we can reconcile ourselves to the idea. In less well-written stories, we may barely be affected at all by such a dramatic moment. I doubt it would surprise many gamers if, in Gears of War 3, Dom has a dramatic moment of self-sacrifice in which he dies to save Marcus Fenix or the world. It’s almost what big, gruff secondary characters are designed to do.
There is a moment in Final Fantasy IV, however, which affected me in a way that I was not prepared for at all. Allow me to set the scene:
When I first met Palom and Porom, I had been washed ashore after a shipwreck. I quickly realized that the nearest town was the same one that I had previously robbed and sacked, and the members of the town did nothing but torment me for my past actions. Attempting to reform my ways, I sought the guidance of a town elder who sent me up a nearby mountain to redeem myself and become a paladin. He sent two young children, twins, both aspiring wizards of considerable talent, to go with me and keep an eye on me.
Palom was a sweet girl, very polite and helpful. She specialized in magic that protects and heals. Porom was impetuous and rude, and loved to brag about his magical skill. Typical for his age, which I estimated at about ten. Together, they helped me through the trials ahead, and even decided to join me on my quest, leaving their hometown behind them.
We were fleeing a castle, and the room we were in was completely sealed. The walls were closing in. And these two impossible children, these young children with their whole lives ahead of them, consciously chose to turn themselves to stone, forever, to hold the walls at bay and allow us to escape. We tried to bring them back, but we couldn’t.
As we fled, we vowed that their sacrifice was not in vain, but I knew that it was my fault. If I’d never stolen from that town in the first place, if I’d never returned, they would still be living their lives in that peaceful little village. Maybe it wouldn’t have been peaceful for long. Maybe if they hadn’t been there to stop those walls, we all would have died and hope for the world would have died with us. Still, it was hard to come to terms with the loss of children so young. Did they really understand the sacrifice they were making? Children understand more than we give them credit for, but could they really grasp how much they were giving up?
Not knowing what was to come, I marched onward to confront the evil responsible, inspired by the bravery and selflessness of two ten-year-old children. Their sacrifice meant something. It was unexpected, and it was dramatic, and it made me think differently about them, about the evil we faced, about my resolve to destroy it, and most of all, about the emotional power that video games have held for years. Final Fantasy IV was first released in 1991. In 2010, playing it for the first time on a little handheld device on a long car ride, it showed me a more dramatic moment of personal sacrifice than most movies and books have ever done. It just goes to show that sometimes all it takes is a little twist on an old cliché to give a story a more profound emotional hook.