On The Level examines one small part of a larger game.
Final Fantasy IV (1991)—Sealed Cave
By now, cut scenes are an integral part of Final Fantasy. The series tells most of its stories through extended sequences of dialogue and action that require nothing from the player beyond occasionally buttoning through to the next box of text. Whether you see this as a necessary compromise for narrative complexity or a lazy way to build mythology and character relationships is a matter of personal preference, but the series wasn’t always like this. In its early days, Final Fantasy had to communicate more through the act of playing them to ensure player investment and ground its fantastical settings and convoluted narratives. It’s a technique that’s expertly distilled in the Sealed Cave from Final Fantasy IV, a level that uses your limited resources and its brutal difficulty to set the stage for failure and loss.
Players find the Cave roughly three-quarters of the way through the game. By this point, the story has gotten complicated enough to resist simple summary, but here’s the gist: Cecil and his team, including his best friend Kain, are in the Underworld trying to track down the last of the Dark Crystals in order to prevent the villain, Golbez, from using it to power his ship to the moon. The rhythm of play has been firmly established: outside of towns and castles, every area leaves you vulnerable to random encounters with hostile monsters, with isolated dungeon areas bringing in the most dangerous opponents.
The Sealed Cave doesn’t alter this rhythm, exactly. Visually, the cave isn’t much different than earlier dungeon levels. The art style—cartoonish characters mixed with evocative, eerie landscapes—never really changes, even when the settings do. Your journey through the cave is the same as every combat-heavy area in the game. Walk a step, hope an enemy doesn’t hit you. Walk another step, hope an enemy doesn’t hit you. Walk another—oh damn, the screen just pixelated and the music got bass heavy, time to break some faces.
The big difference here is the doors. Each floor of the cave (there are five) has multiple doors in it, and each one of those doors leads to a fight against the same breed of enemy: the Trap Door, a monster who can target one of your party members and instantly kill them with a powerful spell. The stairs that lead deeper into the cave are unblocked, but if you want to explore, you have to fight the doors—and you’ll want to explore, because behind some of those doors is treasure, as well as save points where you can save your game and restore your health.
This, then, is the central conflict of every dungeon in the game put in the starkest possible terms. You can go to each door and hope there’s a chest behind it, but if you do, you know with absolute certainty that you’ll face a fight that will leave at least one of your party member dead. Sure, you can resurrect that party member if you remembered to bring the right potions (or if your white mage has Life), but each resurrection means expending a valuable resource, and each combat drains you a little more on your way to the main boss of the level, the aptly named Evil Wall, who can wipe out your entire party if you don’t kill it fast enough. And did I mention there are still random encounters with lesser foes to deal with?
Veteran players might shake their heads—there are easier ways to deal with Trap Doors, preparation can ease the pain of dwindling magic reserves, and you don’t have to fight every random encounter you come across. But the difficulty isn’t just in defeating the foes that get in your way. There’s an unavoidably hostile atmosphere in the Sealed Cave, a constant, pressing feeling that you don’t belong there, you aren’t welcome, and if you make the wrong choices, you will die. It’s like the section of the fantasy novel where the heroes face overwhelming odds and survive only to face even more overwhelming odds. There’s an exhaustion to it, a punishment that goes right up to the edge of being a chore but manages to avoid going over. The ridiculous story helps. It’s hard to get too beaten down when you know you’re trying to stop a monster from flying to the moon.
But even that story betrays you in the Sealed Cave. After risking everything, beating the Evil Wall, and fighting your way back to the entrance, Golbez makes contact with your party, takes over Kain’s mind, and that Crystal you just spent so much time and energy retrieving is taken away. Your efforts actually made it easier for the villain to succeed. It’s a pay-off that’s entirely in keeping with the unpleasant, grueling effort that proceeds it, to the point where it’s hard to even feel much of the sting of betrayal. That the ordeal is over is relief enough.
Yet there’s a satisfaction to the resolution as well, an appropriateness that helps to justify the tedium and frustration. RPGs like Final Fantasy IV are hard to go back to (if nothing else, the “oh come on, another fucking fight?” feeling from random battles is enough to drive anyone insane), but there’s a real value in the way they entwine simple expressions of narrative and atmosphere into their rudimentary designs. The Sealed Cave strips everything down to its most direct form. It uses the player’s knowledge of their situation to stoke dread and offers little to no mercy in a way that makes the story’s point even before you get to the end. You fight, you struggle, you die, you push on, you win—and then you lose.