SPOILER ALERT for the entire Final Fantasy series ahead, beware.
There is a conflict at the heart of the design of every role-playing video game: story vs. gameplay. This is particularly evident in Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy. Since its beginning, this series has been looking to tell tales full of unique characters and complex storylines. However, the story elements exist largely independent of player input. These games have to juggle long story-free segments of dungeon crawling with often equally long story segments that are largely free of player interaction. Holding back either gameplay or story sections can cost the game a sense of pace.
One of the places where Final Fantasy’s conflict between game demand and story demands is most at odds is with character death. If you’re looking to tell a compelling story with emotional turns, an effective way to raise the stakes is to kill off a character. Killing off NPCs is easy, that has no effect on gameplay. But losing minor side characters can never have the same emotional weight as eliminating a character the player has been using in battle and bonding with for hours and hours. But there’s a gameplay cost to killing party members. The player loses key elements of their gameplay strategy. Nobody wants to see their MVP eliminated and their gameplan crippled. That would feel unfair to the player.
Of course, Final Fantasy does kill off party members. We’re all immediately thinking of a certain brunette in a red dress right now, aren’t we? But eliminating party members requires planning on the part of the game designers. Over the years, Final Fantasy has attempted several methods to safely remove characters to expand their story options while keeping the game fun. Some of the games have even used the loss players feel in gameplay options to affect the player and actualize the story in an interactive way.
“Revolving Door” Parties
Ms. Gainsborough might be the most notorious party member to die in Final Fantasy, but she is hardly the first. Party member elimination actually begins just when the series began to write actual plotlines for its adventure with named characters in Final Fantasy II. Even as a title on the 8-bit Famicom, Final Fantasy II is a downright vicious game when it comes to character death. Much of the cast is eliminated, including most of the playable characters, and large segments of the world map are destroyed by the main villain with a huge tornado after he conquers Hell. Despite its basic graphics, Final Fantasy II is oddly similar to Final Fantasy Type-0’s tale of desperation, war, and cataclysm.
The way Final Fantasy II kills off player characters is by keeping a core trio of three permanent members and one “guest” slot. That fourth slot is basically like the drummer from Spinal Tap: if anybody is going to suffer an unfortunate accident, it will be them. Some guest party members get to simply walk away, but many do not. Final Fantasy II rarely requires a party of three to be used, and usually a new fourth member will join as soon as the last occupant of the cursed fourth seat is lost. They are balanced to be close to the player’s level and often do not last long enough for the player to customize their stats. This way the game can have dramatic moments like Joseph, Ricard, and Minwu sacrificing themselves to save the party, but without costing the player too dearly.
Final Fantasy IV employs a similar method. In the first half of the game the player has a core party of mainly just the hero Cecil, with the rest of the crew filling in around him. Character deaths are major moments like in Final Fantasy II, but their purpose is geared more towards gameplay. The “death” of Porom and Palom is a tough moment, but it was created to clear out space in the party for other members.
Final Fantasy IV makes the party composition itself a major challenge. You must adapt to the new characters that come in and create new strategies to overcome the next dungeon. Players are saddled with weaker mages like Tellah or defensive characters like Cid, but can find useful tasks for them to beat enemies. It is only in the last act of Final Fantasy IV that the final party of five is assembled. It may be because the character deaths were added for gameplay reasons that Final Fantasy IV’s story rarely allows the deaths to last. Pretty much everybody is brought back to life in the end.
Accomplishing a character death without punishing the player is tricky, but never more so in Job System games. The player in Final Fantasy V is given a small team of four which master a host of abilities and skills from dozens of Classes. To lose any one of the four characters in terms of game structure would mean tens of hours of work lost and countless Ability Points wasted. Final Fantasy III avoided the issue by keeping everybody alive aside from temporary NPC support characters. But for Final Fantasy V Square wanted a dark moment at the mid-point of the game. Final Fantasy V up until that is comparatively more upbeat and lighter than the more story-driven games before and after. Yet halfway through the game the character Galuf fights the evil Exdeath one-on-one and does not survive the encounter.
To keep the player’s party and progress intact, Galuf is replaced by his granddaughter, Krile. Krile inherits all of Galuf’s Jobs, Abilities, and even the stat boosts he obtained while using certain Classes. In terms of raw gameplay functionality, Final Fantasy V actually does not have a character death. For all intents and purposes one sprite is merely replaced by another. The player can continue the game as they had before.
Final Fantasy VII has no character who directly takes Aerith’s place. But the game’s battle system is built from the ground up to accommodate this one famous story moment. Actual character stats and levels are clearly secondary in importance to the Materia System. Materia are key to Final Fantasy VII‘s combat, they imbue abilities, teach spells, and boost stats. While characters gain stats themselves, the more important leveling actually occurs in the magical orbs they carry. Aerith’s death is still a loss gameplay-wise, as her unique Limit Breaks are irreplaceable. But virtually any character can be given her Materia load-out and take her place for the player’s strategy. Materia cannot unshed those tears, though.
Anyone Can Die
Permanent character death does not necessarily have to be scripted. Final Fantasy Tactics flips the entire design: no playable characters are written to die during the course of gameplay, but any character (other than the main character, Ramza) can die at any time. Where in other Final Fantasy games dropping to 0 HP comes with no lasting cost, Final Fantasy Tactics uses the strategy RPG model. As in games like Fire Emblem, if a character is killed in a battle in Final Fantasy Tactics they are gone forever. They will take with them all equipment, abilities, and Jobs they might have mastered. Depending on the game and the character, this can be a brutal blow to a player, almost forcing a reset to try again.
Other Final Fantasy games cannot possibly handle the unintended loss of any party member or else their story would be ruined. Imagine a Final Fantasy X where Yuna dies on Besaid Island; there just would be no game after that. Final Fantasy Tactics, therefore, has to write its story with the assumption that the player could lose every single character they acquire. Characters have story functions before they join your party, but afterwards will only take part very rarely. Agrias Oaks, for example, has a lot to do with the plot before she joins your team. She is a knight of great holy power that serves the royal family and wants to save the Princess Ovelia from the civil war spreading across Ivalice. But once she’s in the party she could potentially die in the very next battle. Her role in the plot is marginalized almost entirely. The actual key characters in the War of the Lions are people like Delita, Alma, Ovelia, and Weigraf, who either are never party members or only appear as temporary CPU characters that cannot die.
For a JRPG series, Final Fantasy is actually rather willing to eliminate playable characters. This never occurs in Dragon Quest, could never ever happen in Pokémon, and only happens once in Persona. Those games that do kill off playable characters usually follow one of these three methods, or leave the survival of a party member up to player choice (like Shadow in Final Fantasy VI).
The single-player Final Fantasy games since Final Fantasy VIII onward have largely not featured major character deaths during their stories. Casts have steadily become smaller and smaller, with no game past Final Fantasy X having more than six playable characters. There is just no room to eliminate anybody during the course of the story. They leave the major player character deaths for the ending. Auron and Tidus pass away at the end of Final Fantasy X, Fang and Vanille die to save the world at the end of Final Fantasy XIII, almost the entire cast dies in Type-0. But that is only after the final boss has been defeated and no damage can be done to the player’s team.
Final Fantasy XV only has a single playable character in Noctis. In all likelihood, Noctis will be safe to survive to the end of the game, but his friends traveling with him in the car are merely support allies. Gameplay-wise they are easily expendable. Fans might need to prepare themselves for some tragedy come this September. And with the Final Fantasy VII Remake on the horizon, we can all be certain that Aerith will not survive. Just how the new version will design itself to work around her death is yet to be seen.