Shadow and Relm, by way of Leitmotif

I don’t mention it much, but I used to be pretty good at music. In middle and high school, I took piano lessons, and sang both in the school choir and in the county-wide Solo and Ensemble competitions.

Despite growing up in the time of grunge and garage bands, I never really got all that interested in popular music. What I was interested in was video game music, and at the time that was weird and strange. It was not really a type of music worthy of serious discussion. So it’s pleased me a lot, over the last decade, to see game music being treated with more respect. It’s especially pleased me that I feel vindicated in once seeing (or I guess, hearing) more to this music than people around me seemed to see.

When I was a kid I learned to play piano mostly by sounding out the songs from Megaman. Piano lessons, to learn some other types of music, happened too. But to their credit, I had several music teachers that recognized the reason for my interest, and didn’t dismiss the video game music for just being video game music. One day I was gushing to my high school choir director (she is retired now, but she was truly the best) about the music in my then-favorite game. “It’s neat,” I said, “because each character has their own theme song, and it’s recognizable. And then sometimes in the game they’ll play the song differently but it’s still the same song.” “That’s got a name. It’s called a leitmotif.” And then I was thrilled to realize that maybe there was something to this video game music thing, after all. The game was Final Fantasy VI (then, III).

I am reminded of this because I came across this post on Gamers With Jobs about the leitmotif in Final Fantasy XIII. I registered just to make a comment, not because I disagree about Final Fantasy XIII (I haven’t played it, and I thought the analysis was fascinating) but because, obviously, I was affected by the memorable use of leitmotif in Final Fantasy VI. This piece, on Reverse Design, explains with some deeper music theory how the different songs are all used to support characters and story. I think Final Fantasy VI is Uematsu’s best soundtrack. I have arrived now in the 21st century to see people discussing this in a serious way, some in agreement. It’s like a little slice of Heaven, or, at least some vindication of a strangely lonely obsession of my childhood.

I wish I had the musical theory language to discuss this in greater depth, but I want to share something. I played through the first half of FF6 twice before finishing the second half. This is because I made a mistake the first time through, on the Floating Continent. Maybe you made this mistake too; it’s a pretty easy one to make. At the end of the level there is a timer, implying a countdown until everyone dies. If you reach the airship before the timer ticks all the way down, it’s pretty tempting to just jump off. But if you do this, Shadow, the ninja character, doesn’t survive. You have to wait until the last minute, so that he’ll follow you off and be safe for the second half.

The first time, I jumped. When I learned later, from the internet (at the time, it was bbs systems) that I had made a fatal error, I actually couldn’t bear it. I started completely over.

Combine that with the fact that I was taking extensive, extensive notes, and you might be able to see why it took me a while to entirely finish Final Fantasy VI. Things were different, then, though. I didn’t feel rushed and it was easy to obsess over one game for as long as I wanted.

I ordered the game’s soundtrack (along with the Secret of Mana soundtrack, and, I still have both) from Square’s catalog. The third disk of the FF6 soundtrack contains mostly music from the second half of the game. I tried to hold off listening to it until I had completed the game. But I couldn’t resist. So, before actually finishing off Kefka, I heard the music that would play during the game’s ending.

I’m going to embed that song here. There’s so much to love. But I want to draw your attention to a particular segment, starting at around 8:20 in this recording and ending about 10:40.

There is so much information in this little slice of music.

The first movement here is Relm’s theme: the little girl and artist character. It’s cheerful, if a little quiet.

The second movement here takes a very dark turn. This is an arrangement of Shadow’s theme.

The third part of this segment is Strago’s theme. That’s Relm’s grandfather, and the music is suddenly happy again, with a nice beat and a little bounce.

Arranged this way, in this order and with this digital instrumentation, this said to me, the following:

1. Yes, what I suspected from Shadow’s dream sequences is true. He’s Relm’s father. The juxtaposition of putting his music in between the characters who are already stated to be related makes that relationship more clear.

2. It doesn’t end well for Shadow, no matter how hard I tried.

When Shadow’s theme is played during the ending segment, it’s arranged slightly differently than normal. It’s usually played in the context of the ninja character joining your party. When played normally, it’s a little more of a “lone cowboy” song with whistle and guitar. It has mystery to it, but it’s not especially grim.

But the ending version of his theme has (correct me if I’m wrong, music theorists, as my music theory is rusty here) a different time signature. Before, what had some on-the-road energy in the form of a 3/4, now lingers on certain notes, drawing them out in 4/4. It’s also using strings instead of the higher pitched whistle. In addition, two notes are different in the penultimate phrase (around 9:40 in the first video above). In the original arrangement, the phrase dips down a little lower before resolving. In the end-theme arrangement, the descending note pattern sounds more desperate. Something here is a little off.

So, when I heard it, I just started to cry.

In fact, I tear up a little now, almost twenty years later, just thinking about it. That is an absolutely perfect musical queue.

The Reverse Game Design analysis mentions this in Shadow’s segment: “Kudos to the design team for not over-selling the fact that he’s Relm’s father. I think the game would have suffered if he’d had a tear-filled admission.”

Damn straight. I can’t even imagine how this kind of thing would’ve been handled in a modern game, even (or especially) a modern Final Fantasy game. I bet we would’ve had to labor through all the sad details. There would’ve been some bad voice acting involved. Instead, we get a couple dream sequences that imply things, which you have to make actual effort to see. A weird little hint with the dog. And one perfect musical segment that ends in an implied suicide

I still get chills thinking about it.

2 thoughts on “Shadow and Relm, by way of Leitmotif”

  1. Final fantasy 6 is easily one of my favorite games ever, yet clearly I’ve overlooked so much while playing it. I have the urge to go back and play it right now. (Yes I didn’t wait for Shadow either.)

  2. I’ve recently been focusing on To The Moon which uses a ton of the same emphasis on subtle 16-bit storytelling and musical composition (the creator’s primary craft). I was turned onto the game by a guy I’m hoping to drag to the dec HBG game dev meetup. He writes for Original Sound Version and is perpetually trying to get everybody he knows into game music, including his kids (who he tries to teach every FF’s sheet music).

    I’m not as into game music at large. But with how powerful it is and creating the experience, I’d be a fool to pay any less attention than it deserves.

    I love the trend where developers incentivize their downloadable games by including the soundtracks.

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