You had a bad day once, am I right?
-Batman: The Killing Joke
Ever play a game and think “Hey! I’ve seen this before. Pretty sure I read that in a book once.” Yeah, me too! That’s because of the nature of inspiration: life imitates art but so too does art imitate art. More properly, when not direct plagiarism, artworks are inspired by others that have come before. Why should it be any different with video games? Thusly, I present to you the start of a series of video games and their inspirations: Stories That Inspired.
Sometimes you finish a game and are left wanting more. Short of DLC or a sequel, or exploring similar games, there’s another option to get more. Consider diving into the thematic inspirations for your favorite games by consulting the literature that influenced them. You can think of the stories in this series as complementary reads to your favorite video games.
What I’ve found is there are many great articles out there that list direct adaptations of literature to game, but that’s not what this series is about. You’re not going to find Metro 2033 or The Witcher here. Pretty sure you know about those already… Instead, I’ve decided to look less at direct or even loose adaptations and more at books that potentially sowed the seeds of thought that went into these games, their stories, and their characters.
If you’re a book lover, this one’s for you, especially if you need something new (or old) to read. Be forewarned, I’m talking spoilers for these three works of art. Although… I’m not sure how concerned you may be about spoilers for an allegory from the 1300s.
These are the stories that inspired Final Fantasy VI.
Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (1320)
Batman: The Killing Joke, Alan Moore (1988)
Final Fantasy VI, Square (1994)
Painting by Domenico di Michelino, 1465
An Italian philosopher, a self-proclaimed wizard, and a deified clown walk into a bar… It sounds like the lead into a bad joke but hear me out.
Dante’s Divina Commedia is comprised of three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. It’s called a comedy but there’s very little funny about it. The classification comes from the ancient world where such works fell under Tragedy or Comedy. The Divine Comedy ends happily, a comedy, not a tragedy. Note, theology may either interest you or make your skin crawl, but some of the best games ever are positively infused with ideas and themes theological in origin.
Case in point: the Final Fantasy frequently cited as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) by many fans. I touched on this briefly on the Final Fantasy VI episode of MAGE CAST podcast, but one need ruminate no further than the final battle of FFVI against an apotheosized jester to put the pieces together.
It is Dante, not Franz, that’s most appropriate here in addressing Kefka Palazzo. The divine trilogy is almost literally visualized by Kefka’s ultimate form in Final Fantasy VI. Players who know their 14th-century Italian poetry and reached that climactic fight may recognize the bottom of the Statue of the Gods. It resembles Dante’s vision of the Devil frozen from the waist down in a lake of ice at the ninth circle of Hell.
Further up, vaguely religious imagery resembling Pieta’s sculpture of Jesus and Mary (actually Maria in the Japanese version) await until the various forms of even cruciform suffering and repose give way to a cruel satire of Deity that instead of representing to an inquiring Dante the meaning of life, represents instead the randomness, the chaos, and the blind hatred of ultimate meaninglessness.
Concept art by Tetsuya Nomura
This confrontation is a parody of Dante, though Kefka resembles a fallen seraph or archangel with his one bat wing more than the circles of Godhood the Italian poet imagined. This climax of FFVI is theology twisted and turned on its head but the game can even be broadly interpreted along the Comedy’s three-part format, as well.
VI’s characters experience intense suffering, persevering through it, and discovering meaning in the face of hostile meaninglessness. Most of its characters endure great personal loss or are introduced having already been broken, and like Celes painstakingly running down to a beach to save a dying man by granting him sustenance one fish at a time, the game is about persistence.
Simultaneously, it acknowledges that even the strongest warriors have a breaking point. Those who played FFVI remember Celes’s leap. It’s one of the bleakest moments in a fairly bleak game. Suicide is a heavy subject for a video game of its age to tackle. When I first played it, I didn’t even recognize it for what it was. Now that I’m an adult, I appreciate its solitary focus on a single character all alone.
It’s Kefka’s grinning visage and motivation which put one in mind of Moore’s psychological and vicious Killing Joke, though. In one of the best-known DC Comics stories, the Joker seemingly acts with extreme purpose, shooting Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, Barbara, and kidnapping her, then inflicting upon the father images of her suffering in an attempt to destroy his mind. It’s the testing of Gordon’s breaking point, as with Celes.
We’re treated to (possibly non-canon) flashbacks of the Joker as a struggling comedian who suffers greatly but instead of aiming at great deeds through great suffering as the Plutarchian saying goes, the comedian embraces meaninglessness and insanity, becoming the most iconic supervillain the comic book world has ever known. Moore’s Joker forgoes the guffawing buffoonery of bygone renditions of the evildoer for a fairly sadistic and downright uncomfortable dive into what makes the mind of a madman tick. At least, one version of him, that is.
Art by Brian Bolland and coloring by John Higgins
The Joker’s actions are his monument to non-existence, a thesis of violence attempting to undermine the order and justice that Batman and Gordon represent by submitting a (seemingly) random act of brutality inherently has no justice, just as Kefka’s tyranny over a World of Ruin has no other purpose than to kill hope and gloat while doing it. Both the Joker and Kefka aren’t merely committing atrocities for the kicks in these tales, although that’s admittedly the icing on their murder cakes, but they’re trying to prove a point, and really through that point, justify themselves.
The great distinction is Moore’s failed comedian fled to insanity as a refuge against suffering, unable to reconcile any sense of order or meaning with his painful experiences, whereas Kefka is the primary cause of suffering, at least in terms of the World of Ruin. We aren’t given much about his backstory, although we are told he was an early science project gone wrong. We’re meant, perhaps, to understand the Joker’s perspective and still reject it. I’m not sure we’re ever meant to empathize with Kefka Palazzo. Moore’s Joker is humanized, in a delicately put sense, whereas Kefka is a glorified monster.
This all seems like it’s overly focused on clowns, but in many ways, these are common forces we all must face at some point in our lives, whenever we’re faced with suffering, tragedy, and random pain. We, like the heroines and heroes of Final Fantasy VI, or like Batman and Gordon before them, are simply faced with what to choose: a tragedy or a comedy.
Art by Brian Bolland and coloring by John Higgins
I wanted to give a special mention here at the end of this entry of Stories That Inspired to author M.J. Gallagher, who I interviewed last year about his book Norse Myths That Inspired Final Fantasy VII. Not only is he a master writer on the subject but he also personally encouraged me to get some of my thoughts along these lines down in writing.
Red formerly ran The Well-Red Mage and now serves The Pixels as founder, writer, editor, and podcaster. He has undertaken a seemingly endless crusade to talk about the games themselves in the midst of a culture obsessed with the latest controversy, scandal, and news cycle about harassment, toxicity, and negativity. Pick out his feathered cap on Twitter @thewellredmage or Mage Cast. Please support my work on Patreon!