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Old 10-18-2012, 03:53 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Mysterious Fathers of Final Fantasy: Shadow

Video game characters are more than our avatars in a digital world. In many games, particularly role-playing games, the cast is as capable of manipulating our emotions as characters in a book, a movie, or a television series. That's because our digital brethren can sometimes come off as remarkably human, even if they have spiky rainbow hair ('It's natural!') or are covered in skin that looks like a tire off the back of an 18-wheeler.

There are many ways to make an observer nod sympathetically in the direction of a protagonist, and the oldest, most popular device is one that we can all relate to, for better or worse: Relations, family, and the various pieces of baggage that go with said family.

It's amazing how invested we can get in the lineage of characters that only exist in the confines of or TVs, monitors, or handhelds—and game developers are only too happy to string us along. Consider the Final Fantasy series. It may have some subtlety issues, but it's also marked with occasions where Square-Enix is expertly coy about who begat whom.

Final Fantasy VI is a game that emphasizes family ties. When Terra spontaneously transforms into a flying, screaming Barbie doll, we quickly learn that her Esper genes are the reason for her loss of control. It's a surprising revelation, but there's no mystery behind it. We even see Terra's mother and father consummate their relationship with super-deformed sprite coitus, a cinematic that surely made some Nintendo of America censor throw up his or her hands and declare, 'Whatever. I'm out.'

But things get particularly interesting when the party visits the isolated town of Thamasa to hunt for Espers. By that point in the game, the world is already teetering between Balance and Ruin (spoiler: Ruin wins). Beneath the urgency, however, there's a seedy, crawling secret that involves a great train robbery, a lost love, a runaway father, and a ninja named Shadow who probably hisses 'Oh, crap' with every step that takes him closer to the hamlet.

Unraveling Shadow's past in Final Fantasy VI involves a lot of 'probably' and 'maybe' because Square-Enix/Squaresoft gives us little in the way of confirmation. It's up to you to piece together what you can about the party's least talkative character through a few vague words, motions, and dreams.

Shadow's Dreams (yes, they deserve capitalization) are more than just a mere sidequest, though. Squaresoft shoves the first dream under your nose then backs away and gasps, 'Oh my goodness! What was that? Very peculiar!' It's an outright dare for you to try and hit the bottom of the rabbit hole.

Imagine it's 1995. Imagine Final Fantasy III for the SNES is your pride, your gem. Imagine playing the game by yourself in the wee hours of a dark winter night. It's late, and you decide it's time for bed. You visit an Inn before saving because you want your party to be in tip-top shape next time you turn the game on. You check in and wait for the cheery 'wake up' chime to let you know that this safe, predictable RPG process has come to an agreeable end.

Now imagine this pops up instead.

Suddenly, sleep is the furthest thing from your mind.

Most of Shadow's Dreams can be revealed by sleeping at any Inn, and even though the remaining visions are a bit more solid than the first injection of nightmare fuel, they're still vague, creepy, and dark. When woven together, you get a hazy image of Shadow's past as a train robber named Clyde. At some point, Clyde pulled off a big heist, lost his partner, and also lost his spine when said partner, Baram, asked him for a quick death. Badly injured himself, Clyde stumbled into Thamasa and into the care of an unnamed woman.

Even if you cut off your analysis of Shadow after viewing his fourth dream, you're left with an intriguing, if cliché, look into the ninja's biggest secrets. However, Shadow's Dreams have a purpose: they connect with other in-game clues to suggest that Shadow—Clyde—is the father of the party's youngest female: Relm.

Collecting the aforementioned in-game clues is a bit like going on a digital scavenger hunt, and if you're really obsessive, you can find some very telling scraps of information. Most of us already know, for instance, that only Shadow and Relm can equip the 'Memento Ring' relic, which protects against instant death attacks with the aid of a 'departed mom's love.' We know that Shadow's dog, Interceptor, loves Relm even though the Doberman has a thing for biting off strangers' faces. We know that Shadow was lying through his teeth when he claimed he rescued the party (including Relm) from a burning building because he 'just wanted [his] dog back.'

But you need to keep your eyes peeled if you want to spot the particularly damning stuff, starting with Shadow's fifth dream. The fifth 'dream' is more of a vision, and it can't be obtained by sleeping in an Inn. Instead, it plays back automatically when you rescue Shadow from the Vedlt cave after the Apocalypse (you waited for him, right? Right?). In the dream, Clyde walks away from Strago's house and cryptically tells Interceptor that he 'and the girl' deserve to live in a peaceful world.

What some people don't know is that if you let Shadow die after the Apocalypse and rescue Relm in the Vedlt cave instead, she has a dream that links directly to Shadow's. In it, she asks Strago if her father is going to come back, and if you watch Interceptor during the sequence, he runs out the door—almost certainly to make his vain attempt to drag Clyde back home.

Incidentally, Final Fantasy VI Advance's re-translation patches in some gaps, but doesn't give anything away. It's worth a look.

Still not convinced? Let's rewind a bit. After Shadow rescues the party from the burning building in Thamasa, he stands apart from the group while Relm and Strago run their mouths off about Espers and the history of the village. If you look carefully, you'll notice that Shadow lowers his head and appears to detach himself from the discussion.

16-bit characters have very limited means with which to express their emotions, and a lowered head usually indicates that a character is sad, deep in thought, or lamenting a whack of wrong choices that began with train robbery and ended with the conception of Final Fantasy VI's answer to Punky Brewster. Moreover, if you go back and check the spot where Shadow was brooding, you'll find the game's second Memento Ring. Is the Memento Ring actually a wedding ring that Shadow finally discards at that precise moment in hopes that his daughter will find it?

Finally, take a look at Relm's last name: Arrowny. Strago's last name is Magus. There might be a lot of reasons why Relm's last name doesn't match up with her grandfather's, but the most intriguing reasons probably have something to do with the fact that Strago is not Relm's biological grandfather—or so a gossipy Thamasa citizen will happily reveal to you. And is it just coincidence that Final Fantasy VI's Clyde looks and acts like the infamous robber Clyde Barrow(ny)?

So what specifically happened to Clyde? Why did he leave Thamasa and Relm? What happened to the woman he presumably loved, the woman who probably became Relm's mother? We really don't know, and Square-Enix seems happy enough to leave those black gaps in Shadow's past. In fact, according to a 1995 issue of the Japanese gaming magazine V Jump, Final Fantasy VI's developers had initially planned for Shadow to secretly reveal himself as Clyde at the request of Strago.

The interlude was ultimately dumped, possibly because it said too much. After all, Shadow is supposed to be mysterious and insular, and such characters are rarely built on the foundation of a happy past.

Next time, we'll look at Final Fantasy VIII and the mysterious connections between a very happy man and the very unhappy boy he somehow managed to sire.
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